"I'm not sure that I'm best qualified to help you with this particular problem." Kate Daniels, diplomat.
Barabas gave me an exasperated look. "Of course you're not." Well. At least he wasn't concerned about hurting my feelings. "But you and Curran managed to get together without either of you killing yourself or each other, and you asked me what was bothering me, so."
So he'd told me and this was all my own fault. Gotcha. "I don't think you and Christopher are much like me and Curran." For starters, Christopher was one of the kindest persons I knew. I'd once asked him how he felt about Barabas and he'd told me, I love him.
Anyone'd asked me how I felt about Curran at any time before we got together, that answer wouldn't even have made it into the top 100.
Barabas, for his part, was intelligent. Smart. A great lawyer, and very handy to have around in case of snakes - real or otherwise. He also hadn't had the best luck in boyfriends, which he mostly blamed on himself, at least until he'd met Christopher.
First time they met, Christopher mistook him for an angel, even though Barabas didn't have wings.
Turned out Christopher did. In fact, Christopher had been a Legatus and an extraordinarily talented Master of the Dead before my father got the bright idea of wanting him to cooperate in a little experiment. Christopher said no, my father went ahead anyway, and now Christopher had wings and could terrorize people simply by screaming at them.
None of these things had changed the way Barabas felt about him - or the way Christopher felt about Barabas, I was pretty sure. They were in love. They shared a house together, right next to the house belonging to me and Curran. They protected one another, they cooked for one another, and they watched sappy romantic movies together.
"So you don't want my help and I should just butt out?" I'd be happy to do so. In fact, I'd be thrilled to do so. Giving people relationship advice definitely wasn't in my wheelhouse.
"I'd love your help," Barabas said. "I'm slightly less keen on you making an even worse mess of things."
Nope. No hurt feelings whatsoever. "When have I ever done that?"
Barabas managed a weak chuckle.
"As I understand it, shapeshifter courtship involves sneaking into the other person's territory and maybe leaving a gift?" Curran had just watched me sleep. He claimed it had been to make sure I was still alive and more or less all right. Out loud, I maintained that it had been creepy.
Barabas made a frustrated gesture. "What territory? We live in the same house, Kate. There's no his and mine. There's just ours."
"You uh don't share a bedroom, do you?" Kate Daniels, prude.
"No, we don't share a bedroom, Kate." Barabas was using his 'I'm a lawyer, and I'm going to talk slowly to make sure you understand' voice. "We don't share a bed, either. We don't have sex."
"But you really want to, and you can't figure out a way of asking Christopher if he wants to, too."
"I would say that is an accurate summary of the current situation," Barabas said.
"He does." I love him, Christopher had said. That sounded pretty clear to me.
Barabas's expression was pained. "I know that."
Oh. "Then what's the problem?"
"Um." Kate Daniels, genius.
"I want to do this properly, Kate. He deserves the best."
"But you're hoping he'll settle for you?" Note to self: get better at judging the appropriate time to try and relieve some tension via banter. "That was a joke, sorry. You're a great guy, Barabas. I'm sure the two of you will work this out." There. Who said I couldn't do supportive?
"Thanks, Kate. That's very useful advice." He managed to sound only a little bit sarcastic.
Probably, I should have let the matter end there. It wasn't as if I didn't have other things to worry about, like my father laying waste to all of Atlanta and slaughtering everyone I'd ever cared about, but never let it be said that I didn't have my priorities straight. Besides, there was such a thing as multi-tasking.
On reflection though, perhaps mixing business with personal business had been a mistake.
"Ghastek?" If I'd given him a heart-attack, I would never forgive myself. I didn't hear any cries of alarm though, as surely there would have been if Ghastek had suddenly keeled over dead.
Then again, he might have taken my call in his office, with only a couple of arts and crafts vampires around, busy providing the People with new scarves and fancy table-cloths and the like.
"Kate." Hallelujah. "Is this a joke?"
I really had to start working on my sense of humor. "No. I was just curious."
"I don't believe you."
"Does that mean you're not going to answer the question? I can say 'please' if you want me to."
Ghastek coughed a little. "That will not be necessary."
I waited. I reminded myself that I had all the time in the world, as long as you defined 'all the time in the world' as 'five minutes - ten, if I let Julie drive'.
"Flowers," Ghastek said, at last. "Gifts. The usual. Or so I would assume. We're human, Kate."
Opinions on the People's level of humanity varied, but now was not the time to get into that. "All right. Thanks."
Ghastek said nothing for a long while. I let him ruminate in silence for a while. "Is everything all right between you and Curran?" he asked at last.
Where did that come from, I wondered. "Sure. We're all hunky-dory. Why wouldn't we be? Have you heard something to suggest otherwise?"
"Not at all. I was just curious," he said.
All right then. "Enjoy the rest of your day."
"Yes. Good day."
My discrete inquiries into the courting rituals of Masters of the Dead being a bit of a bust, I decided I deserved a break. A tea break, to be precise, which meant cake. Cake was good.
"You're trying to match-make Barabas and Christopher?" Andrea arched an eyebrow.
Cake was good; having a best friend who understood me might be even better. "Yes."
Andrea licked some cream off of her fingers. "Why?"
"Because they're my friends and I want them to be happy."
Andrea nodded slowly. "As your friend, I have to tell you that maybe you getting involved is going to be the opposite of helpful. Romance isn't exactly your strong suit, Kate."
From the way she talked, you'd never have guessed she and Raphael had come this close to breaking up due to both of them being too stubborn to pick up the phone and communicate like adults. Admittedly, they'd gotten there in the end, but it had required divine intervention to get them to admit their feelings. At least, gods had been involved.
I was kind of hoping Christopher and Barabas might get together without either of them almost ending up permanently possessed by a deity. Given that Christopher already was, I liked my odds.
"So how does a mongoose say 'please have sex with me'?"
"I don't know. In English? Assuming we're talking weremongoose and they live around here."
Har, har. "How about food? Food's a universal thing, right?"
"They already cook together. Plus, Christopher works in a bakery. They usually let him take home some goodies. Trust me, the food angle's been thoroughly covered."
I hadn't known Christopher had gotten a job. "Which bakery?"
She gave me a long look. "This one. Their popularity's more or less doubled overnight since he started working here. Why did you think I picked this place to meet?"
"Because they serve great cakes?"
"Because they serve great cakes," Andrea agreed. "So here's a wild idea. You walk into the kitchen and have a talk with Christopher, see where he stands. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?"
"I screw things up so thoroughly that neither he nor Barabas ever talks to me again?"
"I like your optimism." Andrea gave me a thumbs up. "Good luck."
The kitchen was less hectic than I'd expected, which made sense when I thought about it. A bakery wasn't a restaurant, after all. Most of the work had probably been done already, much earlier on the day.
Christopher was by himself, working on decorating a cake with some pink frosting. He looked up as I approached, surprised at first, then alarmed.
Why did so many people seem to think I only called on them when something was wrong? "Nothing's wrong."
Christopher failed to look reassured. "What happened?"
"Nothing happened, either." Rather than continuing to play Twenty Questions, I might just come out and get straight to the point. "What's going on with you and Barabas?"
"You told me you loved him."
"I did. I do. That's why it's complicated."
When in doubt, bluff. "I don't understand." Or just tell the truth, though results may vary on that one.
"It's not your problem," he said.
"I want to help."
Christopher hesitated. If he was going to give me the 'your help tends to lead to things blowing up' speech, I might hit someone. Probably Curran. He could handle it. "You and Curran - you're lucky."
If only he knew. "We weren't always the way we are now."
"I can't be who I was when we met. I wouldn't be able to protect him like that."
A-ha. "I don't think he wants you to go back to being that person. In fact, I'm quite sure he likes you just fine the way you are now."
"Is that what he told you?" Christopher asked. "That he likes me 'just fine'?"
"He loves you." It wasn't a lie. It wasn't literally what Barabas had told me, but if Christopher chose to interpret it that way, that wasn't my fault. "You love him. How is that complicated?"
"In more ways than I can count, starting with who I really am."
"You're Christopher. Chris, for short." I'd heard Barabas call him that, though now that I thought about it, never after Christopher sprouting wings and terrorizing the neighborhood by screaming. "Whoever you used to be before, you're one of the good guys now."
"It's not that simple."
"It is to me." Maybe I'd feel different if I'd met Christopher while he'd still been serving my father. If, say, Hugh were to show up, all repentant and eager to help me bring down my father, would I be as quick to let bygones be bygones? Probably not. "And it is to Barabas."
"I don't want to lose him," Christopher said. "I couldn't bear it. If we got together and he found out some of the things I'd done - but if I tell him now, he might kick me out anyway."
"My father's coming. We beat him off once, but as long as he's alive, he's not going to give up. And while I have no intention of losing, the truth is that we might all be dead this time next year." If my career as an investigator didn't work out, perhaps I should try my luck as a motivational speaker.
Christopher closed his eyes. "I would die to keep him safe."
"He'd probably prefer it if you lived. Look, all I'm saying is, if you don't do something because you're scared you're going to screw it up, you might regret it later. You're better off trying and failing, than never trying at all and later wondering if maybe you could have pulled it off."
Christopher sighed. "I'll think about it."
"Your cakes are delicious, by the way. You should ask your boss for a raise."
"I'm the owner."
Nobody ever tells me anything.
" - and then I told Andrea that I was terrible at match-making people, and she said that shouldn't come as a surprise."
"Uh-huh," Curran said.
"What do you think she meant by that?"
"I'm sure I don't know, baby."
"Kate!" Barabas looked more surprised than happy to see me, which was fine. Some mornings when I looked in the mirror, I felt the same way. "Uh. Is everything all right?"
My human nose picked up the scent of coffee. He and Christopher had probably been at breakfast. Maybe they'd even been about to have a good talk about all the things they needed to talk about.
"Look," I said, "you want someone to kill monsters or solve a murder or track down some magical doohickey, I'm your girl. Those things, I can do."
Barabas nodded slowly. "Okay. I'll keep that in mind."
"I'm not a relationship therapist, though. If you want someone to give you tips on being romantic and courtship and stuff like that, don't ask me."
"If you recall, I didn't," Barabas said.
He might have a point, but it still seemed petty of him to bring that up. "So I want you to know that I quit. I give up. You and Christopher are on your own. All I can do is wish you well."
Barabas looked at me as if I'd grown a second head and he was considering whether or not to try and bite it off. It was a very peculiar expression. "Um. Thanks, Kate. I appreciate the thought."
"Good." No need to make this awkward. "That's all I wanted to say."
"Who is it, Barry?" Whoops. I guess nobody'd bothered to send that memo about not making this awkward to Christopher, given that he was only wearing a pair of sweatpants.
Then again, 'awkward' wasn't the first word that sprang to mind at the sight of his bare chest.
Barabas bared his teeth at me.
I mouthed 'Barry?' at him and grimaced.
He rolled his eyes and shrugged.
"Want some breakfast? I cooked," asked Christopher, either oblivious to our little exchange or wisely choosing to ignore it. Now that I looked a bit more closely, I noticed a few bitemarks on his shoulder.
"No, thanks. I already ate."
"In fact, Kate was just leaving," Barabas added. "Weren't you, Kate?"
"Right. Have a nice day, Christopher. Barry."
Barabas smiled at me and closed the door, though not before I heard Christopher ask, "I thought you said only your boyfriends were allowed to call you that."
"That was quick," Curran commented as I slunk in, firmly put back in my place by the universe.
"You know, there's just no helping some people."
"Ah." Curran was a smart guy. He knew when to let something go. "Want some coffee?"