I stared at Vincent, trying to figure out what he was talking about. My mind wasn’t into studying, and it was obvious. Like a giant zit on a tiny nose.
Not that it was my fault. My entire first week at the Dragon had been a disaster. I’d started out by insulting Fir’s wife, Midge, without meaning to. I’m pretty sure she’d spit on my danish after. Tuesday I’d almost stepped on Fir’s kitchen help, brownies so tiny they were the size of cats. Tonight—Friday—wasn’t looking much better. The way things were going, I’d probably slip up and call someone a monster again instead of the PC ‘supernatural’ and start a race war.
Vincent had chewed me out big time over the ‘monster’ thing. It’s what I’d called Midge, a leprechaun with hair like fire.
“The brownies. They’re in a union.”
I chewed the end of my pen, taking that weird little fact in. Fir’s line cooks were so cute and so ugly at the same time, with their squished faces and pokey, crazy-clumped hair, that I was never sure if I should pet them or plop bags over their heads. “Why do they need a union?”
“People kept trying to pay them.”
I blinked. “That’s a bad thing?”
Vincent tapped his fingers on the Encyclopædia Supernaturalis, the real name for the monster manual Fir had given me. It was stuffed with more obscure, random information than my Physics text. “We went over this five minutes ago. They get insulted if you try to pay them. It’s a major faux pas.”
I dropped my head down on my arms. I’d studied so much that my eyes were one fact away from bleeding. And we were only on the B’s.
I’d fallen into a Harry Potter novel.
“So… they just work for free? Not even for food or anything?”
“I’m not sure about food. The books mention bowls of cream, but that’s always seemed a little iffy to me. Why don’t you ask them?”
I lifted my head off my arms and squinted at him. “Right. Because me going in the kitchen goes over well.” That had been Wednesday’s disaster. I’d gone to see the kitchen’s other resident, a talking bird called a kekeko with a thing for quoting Nineteenth Century poets. Barnabus, the bird, had been happy enough to see me, but the brownies hadn’t. I’d been chased out by twenty tiny furballs wielding spatulas and knives. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around needing a union to make sure they don’t get paid. Why? I mean, why work at all if you get nothing out of it?”
“Not everyone is a capitalist,” a too-familiar voice said from behind me. “Mother Teresa didn’t get paid for helping the poor.”
“Mother Teresa was a nun and a hell of a good person.” I ignored the way my pulse ticked up as Damian squeezed into the booth next to me. He smelled like rain, soap, and, as always, cherry pie. “Are you telling me there’s an entire race of beings so altruistic, they unionized to prevent being rewarded for their work?”
Damian snorted. “Altruistic, my butt. They just love to rub everyone’s nose in the fact that they’re so holy.” He leaned in and gave me a kiss on the cheek. A tickle of warmth went through me. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“What are you doing here, Damian?” Vincent’s voice was low and quiet. I dragged my eyes away from the dhampir, only to note that Vincent looked like he’d swallowed a rotten egg.
Damian leaned back and slipped his arm onto the seat behind me. “I figured after a week with you, she’d need rescuing.”
Vincent glared a hole into Damian’s face. “I told you to stay away from her.”
Damian’s fingers rubbed against my back, dangerously close to where my t-shirt met my jeans. Instead of playing piano, he was playing my spine. “No, you told me I wasn’t welcome at your meeting. Last I checked, the owner of this place actually liked me showing up.”
I scooted away an inch so I wouldn’t feel so much like an instrument. An appreciated, well-played instrument. “Actually, you told me to stay away from him. Not the other way around.”
Vincent turned the rotten egg look on me. “That’s semantics. He knows damn well you’re off limits.”
Damian rolled his eyes. “As if I listen to anyone.”
“Look, could you guys have your pissing contest where I won’t get hit with the spray? I’m trying to study here.”
Vincent raised an eyebrow. “You could’ve fooled me.”
Damian stood up, as graceful as a cat. “No worries, Tizzy. I’ll leave. Saint Vincent here is annoyed, and the last thing anyone wants is him annoyed.” He shot Vincent a smile as thin as a razor blade. “Bad things happen when you’re mad. Right?”
Vincent muttered something I couldn’t quite hear, other than the words “brat” and “winter court.”
I cleared my throat as Damian disappeared into a back room. I’d read enough fairy tales to know Winter Court was where the Unseelie fairies hung out. It was probably better I didn’t know the context. “So, brownies. Unionized. May like cream.”
Vincent reached across the table and shut the encyclopedia with a bang. “Forget it. I’m calling it a day.”
“Because you can’t be bothered to do your homework. That’s why.” He got up and stuffed his arms into his coat. “Memorize bunyips, and go over brownies again. You obviously didn’t put too much effort into it.”
My cheeks burned, a condition I was way too familiar with thanks to this crowd. “I have real homework for real grades, too, you know.” I was pretty sure his receding back didn’t hear me, so I shouted, “I’m trying, okay? Give me a break.” He didn’t pause as he slammed through the door.
Scott slid into the booth, taking Vincent’s recently vacated spot. “That looked fun. What did the D-man say to rile Vincent up?”
“Not a lot. It was pretty much ugly from the start.”
“Vincent? Of what?”
“Of Damian, dummy. On an unrelated note, did you know you go bright red every time the prince of darkness is within five feet of you?”
“I go bright red every time I open my mouth. It’s the crowd I’m hanging with.”
“Not like this.” He waggled his eyebrows and then took another fry. “How’s that staying away from him going for you, anyway?”
“Shut up, Flea Bath. It’s not my fault he’s here.” I pilfered a fry. It was cold and soggy and not made of sugar, but I ate it anyway. “Can I beg transportation when you get off? Vincent was my ride and I do not want to deal with the bus.”
“As long as you don’t call me Flea Bath again. I prefer ‘Milkbone’.” He slid out of the booth, taking the cold fries with him. “Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know, all right? Maybe don’t talk to anyone you do know, either.” He sent a glance down the hall and raised his eyebrows as he said it.
I made a face at him, but he had a point. With Vincent gone, the other monsters—supernaturals—were staring. Not like they wanted to eat me, but like I was an animal at the zoo.
I ducked my head, sighing, and dug into my backpack. Short of the Ardat-Lili in the corner, I hadn’t studied up on any of them, and I wasn’t supposed to talk to anything Vincent hadn’t quizzed me on. But who wanted to hang out with a disease demon? One wrong word and I’d end up with a hellacious case of chicken pox. Which left homework. Real homework. And even as lame as I was, I knew studying Calc was a crappy way to spend a Friday night.
“Don’t break my heart and tell me you’re reaching for that math book.” Damian leaned on the back of the booth, smiling like an angel.
“I was going to. But I’d rather give myself a lung transplant.”
“Really?” His eyes glittered, and he leaned close enough to feel his breath on my cheek. “Where’s your bodyguard?”
“He ditched me.”
“Then tell me you’re in need of some fun.”
I thought about it for all of two seconds. I’d said no to a date, but it had been a bad week. And it was really hard to resist that devilish spark in his eyes. It promised…well. Something that wasn’t Calc. “I am in desperate need of some fun.”
His grin got wider, and I felt like Little Red Riding Hood when the wolf was after her. “Then dump the books and follow me. I’ve got something to show you that you’re going to love.”