"Get your butt in here!"
"You've got to be kidding me," I muttered.
Slowly, like they'd rehearsed it beforehand, the other students all turned to look at me. My face burned with embarrassment. I tried to think of something clever to say that would distract them from whatever judgmental little thoughts they were thinking, but my brain refused to focus on anything except for how badly I wanted to curl up and die.
"Amber," one of my classmates said, pointing at the sign, "are you and Mr. Ragg, like..."
Without thinking, I put my hand over her mouth. "Shush, please. Thank you."
"You can get in serious crap for that," said another. He was already backing away from me like I had the plague. I turned on him, resisting the urge to growl.
"I am not..." I sputtered. "We're not... doing..."
I could tell by the faces they were making that they didn't believe me. Part of me wanted to act nonchalant, flip my hair, and ignore these losers. What did they know about me? What did I care what they thought?
... Yeah, no, that's bullcrap.
"I- I missed more than a month of school!" I exclaimed without thinking. I paused. I had just spat out the first thing that came into my head, which is usually a recipe for disaster. This time, though, I wanted to pull my brain out of my skull and kiss it, because that was perfect!
"I didn't get any homework done while I was gone," I went on, sticking to my guns. "My grades are, you know, in the toilet right now. Mr. Ragg said he'd give me some extra tutoring." I scratched my head. "So... yay for learning?"
To my relief, the other students seemed actually to buy my alibi. One by one, they turned and made their way down the hall toward the computer lab, until only I and a couple others were left.
"I don't think Mr. Ragg wrote that," one of them said, leaning in closer to the door, as if that would reveal any clues. "Why would our history teacher say that history is stupid?"
"Maybe 'cuz it is," the other one said. He was tall and broad shouldered, probably on the school football team. He grabbed his friend by the shoulder and hauled him away, but just before he went around the corner he turned back, winked, and gave me a thumbs up.
"Have fun!" he said, and then he was gone.
My face burned again, and I swore then and there that if I found out there were rumors going around about me and Mr. Ragg, I was going to hunt that meatheaded jock down and... I paused, trying to think of a proper punishment.
Castration sounded good.
Unfortunately, I thought, turning back around to look at the classroom door, I had something way worse than history class waiting for me in there. Taking a deep breath, I steeled myself for whatever was going to come next, and opened the door
I was immediately struck by the scent of cooking meat.
"You'd better get in here," a familiar voice called to me. "I'd hate to give you a tardy slip."
The view that greeted me wasn't what I'd been expecting. Instead of a room full of chairs, desks, and the smell of dry erase markers, I found myself staring into what looked like somebody's apartment.
"Okay," I said, stepping inside and closing the door before anyone could wander by and see, "I'm here. What do you want this time, Dex?"
"For you to wipe your feet on the mat before you come any further in," he answered from somewhere further inside. "I just vacuumed."
"My feet are fine," I muttered, looking around. Yeah, this was definitely an apartment. It was a humble little place with fading paint on the walls and sand colored carpet on the floor. The door led straight into the apartment's living room, where a dusty flat screen tv perched on top of an old barstool. It was flanked by a couple game consoles, both sitting on the carpet with their cords dangling haphazardly from the television.
"Just so you know," I called, "I'm totally going to kill you for embarrassing me like that just now."
I heard a clatter, and went in a little farther. Around the corner, the living room turned into a kitchen, where I found Dex. He wasn't wearing his normal suit and tie. Instead, now he was dressed in a pair of worn out sweatpants, an old wife beater, and...
"Is the apron supposed to make me laugh?" I asked, pointing at the pink, frilly thing tied around his middle. There was even a heart printed on the chest.
The shaggy blonde wizard flashed me a grin, but then went back to his cooking. He was toiling over something on the stove, and I caught the sound of sizzling meat. That, plus the smell, which had only gotten stronger since I'd come in, was enough to make my stomach growl. With his back turned, I couldn't see what he was cooking.
"That was the idea, yeah," he said. "I knew you'd probably be pissed if I did this, so I thought I'd try to lighten the mood a little."
"Well, I'm still—"
"If you hit me, you don't get any bacon."
"—going to sit down and glare at you as hard as I can."
Dex chuckled as I pulled out one of the chairs from the table, spun it around so I could look at him, and took a seat.
"Is this your apartment?" I asked, looking around. There were no decorations on the wall, just that ugly paint.
"Oh, hell no," he said without looking at me. "I just broke in, raided their fridge, and set up the link between the front door and your school."
Instantly, I was back on my feet. "Are you serious? What if they come home when we're here? I don't want to go to..."
My voice trailed off when I saw Dex's head bobbing with silent laughter.
"Oh, man, I've missed being around you, Sugarsnout," he said, finally turning around. "You're always so much fun."
Fuming, I sat back down and crossed my arms, making Dex laugh again. The urge to punch him in his stupid face came back, but I pushed it away because... well, bacon.
"The answer is yes," he said a minute later. "This is my apartment. Home sweet home!"
"I would've thought you'd be able to afford something better than this, working for a place like Majestic."
"Trust me, babe, that job pays peanuts." He went back to the stove, and when he turned around again he was carrying two plates heaped high with bacon, eggs, and hashbrowns.
"That's more than just bacon," I said, my brain taking a few seconds to catch up to my eyes.
"I didn't say I was just making bacon," Dex replied, setting one down in front of me. "All I said was I wouldn't give you any bacon if you hit me."
"Would you still have given me eggs and hashbrowns?"
"Come on, Amber. I'm not a monster!"
He sat down opposite me and immediately dug into his breakfast. I looked down at the food. It looked amazing, almost unrealistically so. Like when you're looking at the pictures in a restaurant's menu, all spruced up by the photographer, and probably made of plastic too, and you know whatever you order isn't going to look anything like that. It smelled unreal, too. I managed to hold back a whole five seconds before picking up my fork and spoon and shoveling it into my mouth.
"This is... wow," I said with my mouth full. I swallowed. "I didn't know you could cook!"
"Actually, I love to cook," he admitted, pausing for a second to salt his eggs. "I just don't get much chance to do it, working for Majestic."
"Why aren't you working today?"
"It's my day off. I called in sick."
I pointed my fork at him. "Which is it? Is it your day off, or did you call in sick?"
"You act like they're mutually exclusive, Sugarsnout." He winked at me and went back to eating.
I chewed on a piece of bacon for a few seconds. "I'm surprised you keep working for those idiots if they only pay you enough to live someplace like this."
Dex shrugged. "Eh, it's not that bad. Besides, I don't..." he paused and cleared his throat. "I don't really work for them for the money, remember?"
Before I could reply, his watch started beeping.
"Speaking of which," he said, turning it off and rising from his seat. He went into the next room, and came back out carrying a vial of yellow liquid.
I gasped, and sat up straighter. That yellow stuff...
Dex uncorked it and drained the whole thing with one quick gulp. He pulled a face as soon as it touched his tongue, shook his head a little, and then swallowed.
"Good friggin' night!" he said, along with a few other curses. "I hate that stuff!"
He tossed the empty vial into the trash, and my eyes followed it like a cat watching a laser pointer. I couldn't breathe. That potion he'd just drank was...
"Anyway," he said, sitting back down, "yeah, I don't think anyone's ever told Vaazkima about minimum wage laws, but as long as he keeps giving me those then I guess I'm good."
I barely heard him. I was still staring at the trash can. The last time I'd seen him take one of those potions had been the night he, Ed, Victor, and Mr. Wrogan had caught the original Silverblood. The Silverblood had bitten him, but instead of freaking out like a rational person would, he'd just calmly taken one of those potions. Unless I was greatly mistaken, he'd never become a werewolf. I'd asked him about it, and he'd refused to answer me, but that didn't matter. I knew what those potions were.
They were a cure for lycanthropy.
No! my wolf side protested, rising up from inside me with surprising force. I threw myself against it, and barely managed to push it back down again.
"You okay?" Dex asked, and I snapped my head around to look at him. He pointed with his fork at my plate. "Don't tell me you're not hungry."
"No, I'm starved," I lied. In truth, my appetite had vanished as soon as I'd seen him drink that potion. I made myself eat anyway, mechanically shoveling food into my mouth without tasting it. I had to act normally, or Dex would get suspicious. In fact, he probably already was. He knew how I felt about his cure, and how badly I wanted one.
NO! the wolf howled from inside me until I quieted it again.
"So," I said slowly, "why am I here, exactly?"
"What, a free breakfast isn't enough?" Dex smirked. I scowled at him, all my good humors gone, and he sighed. "Okay, fine. I have something I wanted to tell you."
"You were just at my house last night," I pointed out. "You couldn't have told me then?"
Dex snorted. "Are you kidding? Right in front of my boss? If you haven't noticed, he's kinda pissed at you right now."
"And your apartment is better because...?"
"Because they haven't bugged the place." He hesitated. "Yet."
I sat back in my chair and folded my arms. "Fair enough. So what do you have to tell me that you didn't want Vaazkima to hear?"
"That I love you and want to have your babies?"
I narrowed my eyes, and Dex laughed.
"Okay, okay," he held up his hands in surrender, "fine! I just... all right, look don't panic. We don't know anything for sure yet, but I didn't figure Vaazkima was going to give you a warning this time, so..."
"What is it?" I prodded him.
Slowly, the smile fell from Dex's face. "We've gotten reports of a man in a black coat wandering around town over the past couple of days.
I pulled my lip back. "You mean Hendricks? Yeah, I totally hadn't noticed."
Dex shook his head. "Nope, not Hendricks."
He let the silence stretch out between us. Not Hendricks? Who else wore a black coat that he thought I would...
"They're back?" I asked, my eyes growing wider. "Those guys who yanked my tooth out. Th- They're back?"
Dex shook his head. "We don't know for sure yet. I think it's probably a false alarm. They don't come around here very much. But I figured I'd give you a heads up. Better safe than sorry, right?"
I slumped back in my seat again. "Should I tell Stark?"
"If you want. Just don't tell him you heard it from me, or else my butt is fired."
I stopped and thought for a minute. The last time Stark had found out those black coated guys... what had he called them? The Slayers? The last time he'd heard they were in town, he'd put the house on lockdown.
"So, you think it's just a false alarm?" I finally asked.
Dex shrugged and swallowed a mouthful of bacon. "Probably, but you don't want to take chances with these guys, Amber. Trust me on that."
"You don't have to tell me that," I said, shaking my head. "I've already gotten mixed up with them once, remember?"
"Yeah, that's right." Dex paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. "And you survived. That might be enough reason for them to come back."
I sat up straighter. "What? Why?"
"They kill people like you, Amber. That's just what they do. Leaving survivors isn't their style."
A shiver ran down my spine. I could almost see the red bearded guy standing right in front of me...
"So, they came back to finish what they started," I muttered under my breath.
"If they came back at all."
I gripped the side of my chair, my hands clammy and somehow desperate for something solid to hold onto.
"If they come after me, they'll find Kimberly and my mom, too," I said, feeling like I was out of breath.
Dex set his fork down. "Hey, I told you not to freak out. Look, it's probably nothing, okay? Just forget I told you anything."
"How can I do that?" I demanded. "You just told me I might be in danger. And if I'm in danger, then my family's in danger, and..."
If you really loved them, you would do anything it took to protect them, anything at all.
"And it's because of me again," I whispered.
"Don't give yourself so much credit, Sugarsnout. The world was messed up way before you came along."
My gut stirred with guilt. "But it is my fault other people keep getting mixed up in my crap."
Dex leaned back in his chair, folding his arms behind his head.
"So, what're you gonna do?" he asked, his voice sounding suspiciously like a challenge.
I smirked a little. "Tell you to either shave your pits or put on a shirt with sleeves."
Dex immediately sat up straight again, putting his hands in his lap. The look of stunned embarrassment on his face almost made up for all the bad news he was giving me.
He took a deep breath. "Touche, mon capitan."
We sat in silence for a little bit, both of us staring at our empty plates.
Finally, I sighed. "Sometimes I think they'd be better off if I just wasn't there."
"Have you thought about running away?"
I looked up, expecting to see Dex's sarcastic smile on his face, but instead I found him looking at me with an expression that spoke of complete seriousness.
"Ha ha," I replied in a deadpan voice. "You're funny."
"I know," he flashed me a smile, "but right then I was being serious."
I frowned. "You actually want me to run away? Like, just pack my bags and leave my family and everybody I know behind?"
"I'm not telling you to do anything. Just throwing out suggestions."
I huffed in my throat. "Some suggestion."
If you really loved them, you would do anything.
My breath caught in my throat.
Do you love your mother, Amber?
"I think," I said slowly, trying to ignore those dark thoughts, "I'll keep this to myself for now. If you find out more, will you let me know?"
"If I can. It wasn't exactly easy setting this up, you know?"
I nodded. "Okay, then. Thanks for letting me know." I looked down at my empty plate. "First period's going to end soon. I should get ready for my next class."
Dex got up and retrieved my plate, dumping both mine and his unceremoniously into the sink.
"Just go through the door and you'll be back at your school," he told me, leaning against the refrigerator.
I nodded. "Thanks for breakfast. And the warning too."
"Anything for you, Sugarsnout!"
I turned to head for the door, but then paused. Was I forgetting something?
No, my wolf said. Not forgetting!
I sucked in a breath. Right. The cure.
"Do you mind if I use your bathroom before I go?" I asked, turning around to face him again.
Dex raised his eyebrows. "Don't tell me your school doesn't have restrooms. I knew school sucked but I never thought—"
"Oh, we've got them," I interrupted him, "but they're all nasty. You mind if I use yours?"
Dex hesitated, but then nodded in the direction he'd gone to get his potions. "Well, I can't promise that mine's gonna be any better, but go ahead. It's the door on the right."
My heart leaped as I followed his directions. There were two doors, one leading to his bathroom, the other to his bedroom. Which one had he gone through to get his potion? I hadn't been paying attention...
"You lost?" Dex asked, chuckling.
"Nah, I just had to check my map," I said, and stepped into the bathroom, shutting the door behind me. I couldn't very well waltz right into Dex's bedroom, so I had to hope that he kept them in the bathroom.
Once I'd locked the door, I turned the lights on and looked around. There were some cupboards under the sink, some more up on the wall over the toilet, and a small closet set into the wall beside the shower. Moving slowly, I knelt down and opened the cupboards beneath the sink. Mom always kept her medicine box under the sink, so it made sense that someone would choose to store magical werewolf-curing potions there too, right?
Apparently not, because all I found under there a bunch of cleaning supplies that didn't look like they'd been touched in years. Shutting the doors, I stood up again and turned toward the closet. That would be the next place I'd—
I gasped and flinched, spinning around to look at the bathroom door. My heart was hammering in my chest so hard it took me a few seconds to realize all I'd heard was one of my knees popping after crouching down like I had. There was no way Dex had heard that. Even I probably wouldn't have been able to, and definitely not from a different room. Still, it took me a few more seconds to convince myself that Dex wasn't going to kick down the door and come in wand-a-blazing.
Why am I so freaking nervous? I thought, finally reaching the closet. I mean, yeah, he probably had his scepter somewhere and could fry me if he wanted to, but why would he want to? This was Dex! Even if he found out what I was looking for, he'd probably just laugh about it.
Not need it, my wolf said, rolling around inside me like a cranky child being told it had to take a bath. No cure! Not need!
"Shut up!" I growled back at it, trying to keep my voice low. "I don't care what you think. I don't care if it kills you. This is all your fault, and I want you—"
You are me.
I froze, my hand on the closet doorknob. Had my wolf just admitted to being me? That was something it had never done before. To it, I was just the prey that lived in its head. The weak, squishy pink thing that kept it from doing whatever it wanted. For it to finally come out and accept that we were the same... it was either incredibly desperate, or I'd done something that to earn its respect.
No cure! Not need cure!
Slowly, my hand turned the knob.
NOT NEED! NOT NEED! it screamed into my brain.
If you really loved them, you'd do anything, Stark's voice argued with it.
"I'm... I'm sorry," I whispered, pulling the closet door open. "But I have to protect—"
The sudden rapping at the door was almost enough to make me jump out of my skin. Clutching at my chest, I turned away from the closet.
"W- What?" I asked, trying to summon up a little indignity. Even if I was going through his stuff, you don't just interrupt a lady when she's in the bathroom!!
"Just checking," he said.
My face turned hot. "Checking on what, exactly?"
"It's been ten minutes. Thought I ought to make sure you didn't fall in and drown."
I stood up rigid. Ten minutes? How long had I spent arguing with myself? I swept my eyes over the closet, frantically searching for anything golden, but didn't find anything except a bunch of wadded up towels and washcloths. I bit my lip, holding in my growl of disappointment. Inside me, half my spirits sank, while the other half soared.
"Sorry," I finally said, shutting the door. "Guess your cooking didn't agree with me."
Dex was silent for a few seconds, but then I heard him say, "Ouch, Amber. Geez."
I almost felt bad for him, but Dex's sympathy was utterly crushed by my self-pity. After closing the door as quietly as I could, I raised the toilet seat a little with my foot and then set it back down, just in case he was still listening, and then flushed it. I washed my hands, opting to dry my hands on my pants rather than use the crusty towel that hung from a peg in the wall. I could have smelled that thing even if I wasn't a werewolf. Finally, trying to swallow the rest of my disappointment, I unlocked the door and stepped into the hall.
"Door's that way," Dex said, pointing, when I came to the kitchen. He was busy scrubbing the pots and pans he'd been cooking with and didn't even look up at me. I tried to tell myself that was just him being his usual inattentive self, but the way his back was hunched over the sink made me think my comment about the food might have bitten deeper than I'd intended.
"Thanks for breakfast," I said, slowly heading for the exit.
"Think about what I said," he called after me.
"Whichever part you think is most important, Amber. Goodbye."
Looking back one more time, I sighed and opened the door. On one side was a shabby but homely apartment, filled with the scents of good food. On the other side was school. Stark. Responsibilities. Hendricks. Suddenly, I felt the urge to shut the door, sit down on Dex's couch, and...
"Uh, bye," I said before I could think on that too much, and then stepped into the school hallway and shut the door behind me.
NEXT TIME: As if Amber needed anything else to worry about, now the Slayers might be back in town too. At least it was nice to see Dex for a little bit. Maybe a little too nice…