“Do not.”

“Do too.”

“God, you’re annoying. Here I am, handing you a slice of beefcake on a silver platter, and you’re arguing with me.”

“I told you before,” Ava growled, “but I’ll tell you again. I don’t want him.”

Noelle nodded, as if her point had just been made. “Like I said. Annoying.”

Yes, she was, McKell silently agreed, claws digging into the rock.

“Yeah, well, you’re a pesky little fly,” Ava said conversationally. “And if you aren’t careful, I’m going to swat you away. With my knife.”

Noelle opened her mouth to reply, but McKell held up one hand. “Not another word from you, pesky little fly.” He didn’t like the way she argued with Ava, treating her as something beneath her.

A deadly stillness fell over Ava. “What did you call her?”

His brow furrowed. “A pesky little fly. Just as you called her.” Had he pronounced one of the words wrong? But that couldn’t be the case. He knew the human language as well as his own.

“What did you call her?” she asked again, whispering this time. A dark whisper, rage in the undertone.

“A … pesky little fly?” Seriously, what had he done wrong?

“Oh, are you gonna get it,” Noelle sang happily.

Before he could blink, Ava was on him, a catapult of pummeling fists, kicking legs, and snapping teeth. He was so stunned, he could only sit there, enduring the abuse. By the time his protective instincts switched on, it was too late.

She’d already withdrawn a blade. Had already sunk that blade into his side. Then she pulled away from him, standing, panting, glaring down at him, his blood dripping from the blade. Noelle had stood, as well, he noticed, and had watched the entire “fight” with a grin.

“You stabbed me,” he said, his shock as dark as her rage had been. Scowling, he clutched his stinging side. “You really stabbed me.”

“How kind of you to notice, you bastard!”

“How could I not notice? That hurt!” he snarled, though he didn’t freeze her. Or retaliate. Still too shocked, he thought. Not disappointed. Not confused. Not upset that she hadn’t spared him pain as he had done for her.

“Don’t ever call my friend a name like that again.” Fury sparkled in her eyes.

“But she isn’t your friend.” He pressed against the wound, grimaced. He would heal, but as deep as she’d twisted that tip, and twist and twist she had, he would suffer for hours. “Not really.”

“She’s my best friend.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Noelle added with a nod.

So Ava could call the girl names, but no one else could do so? That made no sense.

He pushed to his feet. The girls didn’t back down or even step out of striking distance. Should have been a mistake. A fatal mistake. He should have attacked. But he stood there, breathing in and out, his nostrils flaring with the force he used. “If I were you, I would leave this camp. Now.” Before he lost his grip on whatever emotion was keeping him in place.

“Fine. You ruined everything, anyway.” Ava raised her nose in the air, as if she had every reason to be angry with him, grabbed her friend by the forearm, and tugged her into the woods, moving farther and farther away from him.

Five

After Ava turned in the bloody blade for testing, and endured an eternity of Mia looking at the weapon, then Ava, then the weapon, then Ava again, silent all the while, shock thickening the air, pride and regret battling inside her, she had Noelle drop her off at her apartment for a little “decompression” time.

The one-bedroom efficiency was small but clean, plain but calming. Her furnishings were threadbare but lovingly patched up. For too many years, she’d lived in filth, her mother too wasted to care about the state of their trailer, God bless her, the strangers parading in and out, or her only daughter’s wellbeing. Then Ava had met Noelle and started crashing at her place; the luxury had amazed her.

But then she’d begun to feel guilty, as if she were taking advantage of her best friend. Hadn’t helped when people started saying she was only using Noelle for her money. And it really hadn’t helped when Noelle started beating the shit out of everyone who said it, getting herself expelled and causing friction with her family. So right after high school, Ava had moved out of there, too, and gotten this apartment. That’s when she discovered a pride she hadn’t known she could feel. Pride that she had earned this on her own. Pride that she could take care of herself.

The apartment wasn’t luxurious by any means, but it hers.

Yawning, she stripped and showered in her dry enzyme stall. A standard issue, with no extras, but she was lucky to have it. A lot of people had to use public stalls. A walk-in, feed-a-few-dollars-into-the-slot, wash-with-your-clothes-on, walk-out operation. What she’d had to use most of her childhood, with money she’d stolen from the people standing in line with her. Nothing wrong with that method, minus the thief, of course, but she preferred to use heated spray rather than room temp, linger for as long as she liked, and not talk to strangers.

The warm mist seeped into her skin, cleaning her inside and out. After watching McKell’s blood slowly fade from her hands, and battling a fierce urge to cry about its loss, blaming fatigue all the while, she closed her eyes and let her mind drift—away from McKell, back to McKell, away again, then curse that bastard, back again. Damn vampire! He shouldn’t have badmouthed Noelle. Only Ava had that right. Everyone else suffered, as McKell could now attest.

When others even looked at Noelle the wrong way, rage consumed Ava. Rage she couldn’t control. Always. Maybe because a threat to her friend was a threat to her happiness. Maybe because, even though Noelle was rich, she’d had as emotionally whacked out a childhood as Ava had had. Her parents had been cold, distant, and unconcerned about their daughter until she embarrassed them. Which she had. A lot. And maybe, in the beginning, that was why Noelle had wanted to hang out with Ava. But the more time they’d spent together, the more they’d realized how much they actually needed each other. They loved and they accepted without judgment or conditions.

They also relied on each other for bail.

McKell had probably thought, as so many others before him, that she and Noelle were adversaries. Which was an easy mistake to make, she supposed. They argued and called each other names, but underneath each of their clashes was affection and purpose.

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