"Yeah. Just a short jog."
"Maybe you should go for another one."
He left without saying a word. I woke Crest. "Time to go."
He rubbed his face with his palms. "Did I oversleep?"
"It's six thirty."
"Time enough to get home and change clothes. When will I see you again?"
I thought of the Coca-Cola logo half-buried in rubble and a two-hundred-year-old vampire. Maybe never.
"How about on Friday? Gives us a couple of days to cool off."
"It's Friday then."
He left. He didn't kiss me again.
I PRIED OPEN THE PAPER CONTAINER OF GENERAL Tso's chicken and touched a piece with my finger. It was room temperature. The thought of dumping it into a pan and warming it to an edible temperature crossed my mind, but heating it on the stove would make the vegetables mushy and I hated overcooked vegetables. My father, a great believer in the nutritional properties of boiled vegetables and meat broth, had cooked hearty, hot soups. The memory of him watching in distress as I gagged on soft cabbage and half-dissolved onion flashed before my eyes. I smiled at the carton and extracted a fork from the kitchen drawer. Hot food was overrated anyway.
I speared a piece of chicken with my fork, carefully avoiding the lump of green pepper. Suddenly I was ravenous.
I paused, the chicken halfway to my mouth, and glared at the door. The knocking persisted. It wasn't Derek. His knock would be careful, almost apologetic. This bastard knocked like he was doing me a favor.
I looked at the chicken, glanced to the door, stuffed a whole piece into my mouth, and went to see who dared to make demands on my time.
The door swung open, revealing Curran. He wore old jeans and a green sweatshirt and carried a brown paper sack. He raised his face and sucked air in through his nostrils in the manner of shapechangers. "Tso's, seafood delight, and fried rice," he said. "You're going to share?"
I leaned against the wall. The door was open but the ward still blocked his entrance, affording me a bit of leisure. "Oh, it's you." I dug in the container with my fork. "I thought it was somebody important."
Curran stepped forward, brushing against the ward. A flash of carmine rippled through the magic barrier and the lord of shapechangers withdrew.
"A ward," he said.
"A good one."
He put his palm against the ward and pushed. Red pulsed from his fingers, spreading through the ward like waves from a pebble tossed into a quiet pond.
"I can break it," Curran said.
I raised an eyebrow at him. "Be my guest."
Shapechangers had a natural resistance to wards, so his promise had some substance. Still, I had reinforced all of Greg's wards. If Curran did break it, the resonance from the collapse would give me one hell of a migraine, but I doubted he could. It was a good ward.
He considered it. I could see it in his eyes, and for a moment I thought he would try it. Then he shrugged. "I could break it, or we can be civil and you can let me in."
Getting tired of power demonstrations, are we, Your Majesty? I unlocked the ward. A wave of silver rolled from the top of the doorframe to dissipate on the floor. "Come on in."
He strode toward the kitchen and stopped halfway, his face a snarl. "What the hell do you have in your pantry, a dead vampire?"
"No. Only the head of one." I had double-bagged the head, sealing it in plastic, and still he smelled it.
I perched on the edge of the table and nodded toward the gathering of white cartons. "Help yourself. There's fried rice in there somewhere."
He put his paper bag on the floor, picked a carton indistinguishable from any other, took the spoon I offered him, and popped the carton open. "Peas," he said with disgust. "Why the hell do they always put peas in it?"
"So what brought you here so bright and early?"
He used his spoon to pick out the peas with great care, depositing them into the trash. "Heard that you got something."
"Boy wonder snitched on me?"
"When? This morning?"
Curran nodded. "It's the blood oath. For example, if he were to get his leg ripped to shreds, it's his duty to warn us that he can no longer guard you to the best of his ability. Someone had to come and assess the situation."
"Since when is 'someone' you? Don't you have plenty of flunkies to run your errands?"
He shrugged. "Just checking on the kid."
"Last night his leg looked like it went through a shredder. He won't let me look at it, but I think the bone is intact." A shapechanger's body healed the flesh wounds within a couple of days. Mending bones took much longer.
Curran swallowed a mouthful of rice. "Figures. He's young. It's important to be stoic when you're a young guy. You didn't fuss over him, did you?"
"No. He should be limping in pretty soon."
"You're going to show me what screwed up his leg?"
"After I'm done eating."
"No. It's a pain in the ass to wrap it back up."
A careful, measured knock interrupted us. I went to open the door and let Derek inside. He saw Curran and stopped. He wasn't exactly at attention, but he came close.
Curran waved him in, and Derek took a chair out of the way. I looked at Curran. "Any more rice in there?"
He chose another container and gave it to me. I opened it and pushed it toward Derek. "Eat."
He had to be ravenous. The amount of calories his body burned to repair itself ensured that the mere hint of food filled his mouth with drool.
"Derek, eat," I said.
He smiled and sat still.
Something was wrong here. I glanced at Curran and put two and two together.
"This is my house."
They both looked at me with the patient expression Japanese traditionalists adopt when silly gajin ask them why they go through all that trouble just to drink a cup of tea.
"He doesn't eat until I tell him or until I'm done," Curran said. "Doesn't matter whose house it is."
I set my chicken on the table and crossed my arms. I could argue the point with them until I turned purple in the face and neither would relent. The low-ranking wolves didn't feed before their Pack King. It was the way of the Code. They lived by its rules or they lost their humanity.
Curran put another spoonful into his mouth. Time stretched as he chewed the food. Derek sat still. The urge to slap Curran was almost too much for me.
The Beast Lord scraped the bottom of his container, licked the spoon, reached over the table and took away Derek's rice, replacing it with the brown paper sack he had brought. Derek glanced into the sack and retrieved a bundle of waxed paper tied with a cord. He snapped the cord and unwrapped the bundle. A five-pound shoulder roast looked back at him.