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Between Meals

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Zero glanced down at the dossier and then back again to the book of Behind-kind sigils. The smell of burning had begun to dissipate but smoke still hung thinly in motes of light. It had been three hours of cross-referencing but still no patterns appeared. Official police photographs had clearly shown an arm tattoo on the corpse found hanging across from Pet’s window—they’d been able to get excellent photographs because of the contrast of the dark ink on mottled blue-white skin. It briefly crossed his mind to wonder if it had it even been worth bringing this much of his library if he could find no answers. He took a deep, slow breath—determined not to cough—and replaced the book on the shelf. 

“Nothing?” said Athelas, entering through the door—not via the doorknob but with a shimmering haze of shifting matter from Between. Through the door.

“Not yet. Perhaps I brought the wrong books this time.” 

“Perhaps.” The fae placed a white plastic bag on the coffee table. Smells of ginger, garlic, and fried noodles began to replace the bitterest smoky tang that still lingered in the room. “This particular collection has proved useful, though.”

At least that was one thing he and Athelas held in natural and unequivocal agreement: the more books the better. Zero was aware of a cautious feeling of comfort in the presence of his companion and wondered distantly if the emotion really were more than weakness of character on his part. In the space of ten minutes he had compartmentalized this feeling into loyalty and long-term familiarity. Phrases like “alignment of purpose” drifted through his mind. Another part of him struggled against the logical constructs he had learned so well as a child but this train of thought ended, as usual, with quick deflection and definite procrastination. Best not to think about it.

“I stopped by very briefly to assess their progress and I must confess I saw some improvement. At first they were much less orderly but they seem to have been developing some coordinated attack formations. I hesitate to say I was impressed because their efforts are depressingly rudimentary and lycanthropes have little finesse to their strategy, but it is certainly… improvement.”

“Yes. Improvement. Formations.” Zero stared at the chopsticks he had inadvertently broken. Athelas wordlessly handed him a fork. “Have they seriously injured or maimed each other yet?”

“I believe one of them at least considers the other to be a pack member, so injuries thus far seem to have been minimal.” 

Exasperating. Completely unbelievable. He suppressed the urge to ask for specifics about attack formations. During the war, the old team had developed some very clever maneuvers. There was a pause before Zero asked about neighborhood audio surveillance, which garnered a brief reply from Athelas. A similar exchange was held about nocturnal patrols. Then one about gaining access to the building permissions office for floor plans of a certain house. 

Zero began a vague sentence with lots of convoluted pronouns but trailed off as the overpowering smell of body spray wafted in from outside and Jin Yeong stepped through from Between with a grimace and a stream of disgusted sentences in Korean. Athelas looked aloof and bemused. 

“Isn’t this Korean? It’s not even authentic Chinese?! Oh, I really couldn’t tell. Maybe if you had made more of effort instead of filling the house with smoke… No, that college student you convinced to cook your meal—though willing—was inherently unable to understand the metric system. I don’t suppose you could work a glamor on a local appliance repairman instead?”

Jin Yeong marched upstairs, still shouting rebuttals. Athelas was undeterred.

“It is possible to go to college and not understand the metric system, especially in the less civilized parts of the planet—New York, for instance…” From the crumpled heap in the corner of the living room came a soft snore. The NYU logo was just visible on what might have been a hooded sweatshirt.

The vampire came back downstairs with a rucksack and another wave of scent. Athelas was smug as he gestured to Jin Yeong’s place on the couch but the vampire remained standing by the door. He spoke in clipped sentences.

“What do you mean by ‘everything’ being ‘fine’? asked Zero. Jin Yeong shrugged, unperturbed, and repeated himself.

“He wants to know if the pet is showing improvements in her weapons training and whether she is having any disturbances in her sleep—nightmares, specifically.” On seeing his master’s face, Athelas quickly rose and went into the kitchen. The click of the kettle could be heard.

Jin Yeong was unfazed but he seemed impatient. There was a moment when the room seemed to shift sideways as Jin Yeong prepared to step Between, and Athelas called out from the kitchen.

“Stop being sarcastic! You can’t expect to ‘just ask her’. We have blood in the cold storage so you don’t have to be late for… whatever you are going to be late for.“

The vampire gave a frustrated sigh and explained in several rapid sentences about Pet’s promise to make him kimchi and show him a trick Daniel had taught her but only if he arrived for dinner on time, then disappeared. 

Athelas made his own tea in the kitchen, quietly, so as to tactfully not see the look on Zero’s face which clearly expressed, as Pet so often said, flamin’ heck!