Home > This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress #5)(6)

This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress #5)(6)
Author: Jeaniene Frost

"Everyone, take ten," Dave called out. The dozens of team members stopped whatever grueling activity they'd been involved in to file out of the room - taking the door opposite the one I was closest to, I noticed.

In minutes, the training room was empty of everyone but Cooper, Dave, Tate, Bones, Juan, and my mother, who was the only one aside from Bones who didn't have a shamefaced expression.

"Catherine, stop overreacting," she said in a chiding way as she walked over to me.

"After all, I'm not doing anything you haven't done for over a decade."

"And I've almost gotten killed more times than I can count," I shot back, resisting the urge to shake her.

Her blue stare hardened. "I did get killed," she replied flatly. "Hiding from the evil in this world did nothing to protect me. Not then and not the other times before it, either." Guilt stabbed through me at her words, taking the edge off my anger. Aside from the night she met my father, every other time she'd been abused by vampires or ghouls had been because of me. Monsters didn't fight fair, and when they came after me, they'd also come after those closest to me. The last vampire I'd tangled with thought forcibly changing my mother over would be just the thing to teach me a lesson. I was only sorry I couldn't kill him more than once.

"Quite a difference between hiding from danger and dashing headlong into its arms," Bones noted in a more reasonable tone than I'd used. "Can't undo the wrong that was done to you by getting in over your head, Justina."

"You're right, I'm beyond fixing," she said, bleakness flashing across features that looked like she was in her thirties instead of forty-six. "But other people aren't," she went on. "I can't change what I am, but killing that vampire months ago showed me I can at least use it to make sure others don't end up this way."

It's like listening to me when I was younger, I thought in disbelief. For so long, I'd hated what I was and took out my ignorance and loathing on other vampires, thinking it would balance the scales against my father. If not for Bones showing me that evil was a decision, not a species, I might still be trapped in that vicious cycle of self-destruction.

And this was twice in one day that I'd been on the receiving end of the same stubborn arguments I'd once used myself. I cast a quick, pleading glance upward. Any time you want to lay off the paybacks, God, that'd be great.

"You could kill hundreds of rogue vampires and ghouls, but it still won't make the pain go away," I finally said, my sense of deja vu growing as I repeated some of the same things Bones told me back then. "Believe me, I know. Only accepting yourself will make the hurt diminish, and that means accepting even the parts you don't like or didn't choose." My mother looked away, blinking back a sudden pink shine in her eyes. "Really? Rodney accepted me. Look where that got him."

"Rodney didn't just accept you, he loved you," Bones said quietly. "Else he wouldn't have died trying to save you."

She whirled until her back was to us, but even though her spine was straight, I saw her shoulders tremble. I wanted to hug her, but I knew sympathy would only be salt in the wound. A hug wouldn't bring back the only man she'd had a real relationship with.

"I'm going after every filthy bloodsucker I can," she said after a long moment, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she'd insulted herself by the "filthy bloodsucker" comment. When she turned around, her gaze was devoid of pink and lit up with vampiric green instead. "You have no control over that. The only thing you can control is whether I do it with the support of your old team, if I make it through their version of basic training, or on my own."

"Even with their support, you'll still probably get killed. You don't know how dangerous it is." I let out a sigh of sheer frustration. "Please, don't do this." Her jaw tightened until it creaked. "I'm doing it."

"God, you're just as stubborn as Don!" I said, fed up.

"Just as stubborn as someone else I know, too," Tate muttered under his breath.

"Stuff it, Tate," I snapped.

"Kitten." Bones placed a hand on my arm. Waves of calm seemed to wash over my subconscious, soothing my twisted emotions like salve applied to a burn. "Some things can't be taught, only learned. But there is a matter we can change; stopping these ghoul radicals. If their numbers grow, every vampire will be in danger, including your mum." Right. That problem wouldn't wait for me to try to talk sense into my senselessly obstinate family. I had to focus on priorities. First: Stop the lethal, fascist propaganda in the ghoul community that had already left a trail of Masterless vampire bodies. Then I could move on to trying to talk my mother and uncle out of their newfound death wishes.

Something cynical in me wondered if the ghoul zealots might turn out to be easier.

I stared at my former team members. "You guys are so on my shit list, both for hiding this and for concealing Don's condition from me, but we've got bigger problems. Come with me so I can bring you up to speed. Mom." I shook my head. "We'll talk later." She redid her dark hair into a tighter ponytail as she walked away. "Much later. I have training for the next several hours."

Chapter Six

Don sat on the bed, an oxygen masklying on the table next to him. From the faint lines around his face, he'd had it on before we came in. I would've told him to keep using it, but of course, that logic would only fall on deaf ears. I shut the door behind the six of us and then proceeded to outline the situation with the ghouls as we knew it.

"As I told Cat, we need a person on the inside," Don stated once I was finished. "It's important enough that I'm asking you, Dave, to take an extended leave from the team to infiltrate these zealots. Our country has enough problems as it is with human terrorists. We can't afford to let undead ones grow in power. The results could be catastrophic." Dave ran a hand through his hair. "Fuckin' right. I'll do it." I knew that would be his answer. Dave had never backed down from a dangerous assignment. Not even after he'd been killed on one.

Satisfaction flitted across my subconscious for an instant before it was gone. I cast a glance at Bones just in time to catch his faint smile before it, too, disappeared. Then realization hit me.

He'd intended this all along. Bones knew what Don would do if we told him about the ghouls, and he also knew I'd have balked if he'd been the one to suggest that Dave be the undercover operative. Hell, I already didn't like using Scratch and Ed as bait, and we'd just met them.

No wonder he'd been so keen on coming here when I broached the subject of dropping in on my uncle. I'd wanted to wait until tomorrow, but Bones said we should go at once. I'd just thought it was because he wanted to be back in Ohio quickly if Scratch and Ed happened to run into those ghouls tonight, but he'd had another plan altogether.

"You and I are having a talk later," I told him in a low, measured voice.

A dark brow arched, but Bones didn't pretend ignorance as to what the topic would be.

"Why are you the focal point of this ghoul's rhetoric again, Cat?" Tate asked, his indigo gaze flicking between me and Bones. "I thought Apollyon's paranoia with you ended when you became a full vampire."

I shifted, uncomfortable. This was a subject I'd hoped to avoid, but if Dave was risking his life and my old team was handicapped by losing one of its members on an extended assignment, they deserved to know.

"Okay, so I have kind of an eating disorder . . ." I began before laying out the details of my unusual diet and its subsequent side effects.

Silence descended on the room. My uncle looked too shocked to even cough while the rest of the guys stared at me with varying degrees of astonishment.

"You eat vampires and absorb their powers?" Juan blurted. "Madre de Dios! "

"And I thought you won the freak award as a half-breed, Commander," Cooper murmured. Then he shot a look at Bones. "Though I guess he keeps you well fed." Dave slowly shook his head. "You always had to do things different, Cat. Guess this shouldn't be the exception."

Tate still hadn't spoken, but his gaze raked me. "Looks like we're not the only ones who kept secrets," he said at last.

"That's not even the same," I replied sharply.

"Of course not," he said in a tone that screamed bullshit.

"We've been keeping what causes my abilities under wraps because we didn't want to give Apollyon another tool to incite paranoia with," I said in exasperation. "Under normal circumstances, I don't think anyone would care that I feed from undead blood versus human, but clearly some ghouls aren't thinking normally now. Why add fuel to that fire?" Silence met this question, but it was more rhetorical than anything I expected an answer on.

"Now that we all know the plan, Bones and I are heading out," I went on. "We need to get back in case our vampire spies call, not to mention I left my cat in a cave with only a ghost to watch over him."

"We can't leave yet," Bones stated.

I gave him a cagey look. What else did he have up his sleeve? "Why?" His mouth curled. "Because you're still hungry, Kitten." Oh, right. In the midst of everything that had happened the past couple hours, I'd forgotten about that. I cleared my throat, awkwardness setting in. What was the proper etiquette for asking a friend if I could drink his blood?

"Um, Juan, would you be willing to - "

"Drink from me," Tate cut me off. Emerald pinpointed in his gaze. "That's what you were about to ask him, wasn't it?"

"Not you," I said even as Bones stiffened like a rattler poised to strike. "I told you before, I'm all out of patience with you."

Something like a snort escaped him. "I'm not offering for personal reasons. After I watched you leave with the Prince of Darkness instead of me when you thought Bones cheated on you, I finally got it. You don't want me and you never will. Not even if Bones was out of the picture."

My eyes widened even as Bones muttered, "Thought you'd never bloody learn." Cooper and Juan pretended to suddenly go deaf, but my uncle cast a thoughtful look at Tate.

"Then why do you want Cat to take your blood?" Don asked.

Tate squared his shoulders. "Because I'm the leader of this team, so if anyone's blood is getting spilled, it's mine."

The strangest form of nostalgia washed over me. This was the Tate who'd cracked my cold standoffishness when I first joined the team several years ago. A strong individual who never hesitated putting himself on the front lines, either for his friends or for his unit. Not the pigheaded, caustic person who'd repeatedly tried to drive a wedge between me and Bones. The friendship I'd just vowed was dead between us gave a small gasp of life.

"I'm not biting you. A needle and a bag, that's how we'll do it," I settled on saying.

Tate shrugged. "Suit yourself."

Don pressed a button. "Anne, can you bring in a syringe, catheter, and an empty bag?" The nurse replied with an affirmative and had the items procured within two minutes flat.

Tate stuck himself, waving Anne off, and soon the plastic bag began to fill with crimson liquid.

My stomach let out a rumble that I was sure every person in the room could hear, to my embarrassment.

"Gonna tell us why you're not drinking from him?" Tate asked, jerking his head toward Bones.

"He's too strong. I'm picking up more abilities than I can handle," I replied, trying not to stare in a fixated way at the bag that was now half full.

"And someone like me is nice and weak." Tate let out a snort.

Even though Tate deserved to be taken down several notches for all the shit he'd pulled the past couple years, I couldn't bring myself to rub salt in the wound. "You're not weak; you're just a young vampire. If you were Bones's age, I'm sure you'd be way too strong for me to drink from."

Bones's amusement flitted across my subconscious even as Tate muttered, "FYI, pity makes it worse, so next time, don't try to cheer me up." I threw up my hands. Men. They were impossible to reason with.

"How were you intending for Dave to make contact while he's undercover?" Bones asked Don, changing the subject.

My uncle frowned. "The usual way. Calling in whenever he can safely manage."

"Too risky, that," Bones stated. "His mobile could be monitored, texts and e-mails copied

. . . you need a communications method the ghouls won't suspect whilst he's still gaining their trust."

"And what method is that?" Don asked, skepticism heavy in his voice.

Bones's smile was sly. "Ghostly courier."

"Of course!" I exclaimed, all of a sudden feeling better about Dave's chances. "The other ghouls, if they notice Fabian at all, will just ignore him. Plus, Ohio's full of ley lines, so he can travel fast if there's trouble and Dave needs to be extracted." Don look intrigued. "Will the ghost be agreeable to this?"

"We'll ask, but I bet he says yes." My spirits lifted the more I considered this. "Fabian told me that above everything else, he misses feeling useful. Being noncorporeal limits a lot of things he can participate in, you know?"

Fabian had also missed companionship, which is how he'd ended up with me and Bones.

Loneliness wasn't limited to the living, after all.

"Why can't we just have Fabian spy on the ghouls and report back, instead of sending Dave in as a plant with Fabian as the relay?" Cooper asked.

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