Burning. I remembered the burning. And the face-spots.
“Is he dead?” Penny’s voice woke me. I didn’t have to see her face to know it was her. If it were Mina or Bianca, her voice would’ve been a lot louder.
Undead. Ha ha ha…
“He’s an idiot, is what he is.” Saul’s. “Got some emergency salve somewhere, but I sure as hell ain’t rubbing it all over him. All that cold, clammy skin…not for all the couches in San Myshuno.”
“I’ll take on the responsibility,” another voice said. Not Penny’s voice. Lysander’s?
Crushing disappointment…though I wouldn’t have minded feeling Saul’s manly hands on me. He had a really firm handshake—a man’s handshake. I wasn’t sure about the status of Lysander’s handshake.
I lay there, unmoving, on a surface too soft and too smelly to be my coffin.
Footsteps, a door closing, then a long stretch of silence interrupted by low whispers, then finally a door opening and more footsteps. “Enjoy. Brought some burgers back for when you stop throwing up in your mouth and can get something down.”
“Is it really that bad?” Penny asked.
Say no, I willed Lysander.
“It is my duty,” Lysander said—very dutifully.
I felt a warm hand on me, and then another. On a scale of manly hands, they were probably a six to Saul’s eleven—too gentle. The pain of my burns slowly disappeared as those medium-manly hands worked their way across my skin.
“Huh,” Penny said. “You sure are…thorough, I guess.”
“I am a Lyons butler,” Lysander said. “I’m thorough in my every duty. Watch and learn, Penny—and then aspire to greatness in all things.”
“Mmf,” I said.
“A little to the left?” I said groggily. “It itches.”
“Of course, Master Byron.”
I think I’d bump his hands up to a seven. Maybe seven and a half.
“Hey, these burgers are getting colder than the kid’s clammy skin,” Saul called from the direction of the kitchen.
“I feel better now,” I said, sitting up and swinging my legs over the side of the bed with as much manly energy as possible.
“Avert your eyes, Penny.”
“I’ve failed you once again, Penny…my sincerest apologies.”
She laughed. “You’ve got plenty of time to make it up to me. Again.”
I stretched. My skin felt so much better now—and I could barely smell the char. Someone had wrapped a nice, soft towel around me. No wonder humans liked to go to the beach. I tried not to think about how close Penny and Lysander looked and sounded…it was like I wasn’t even there.
I looked down at the floor.
“I have that human footwear too!” I said eagerly to Lysander. It must really be classy, if someone like Lysander wore it.
“Ah—I’m afraid these belong to you,” he said with a guilty look. “They’d fallen off during your…ill-fated excursion, and as I found myself barefoot in the middle of the city…I took a certain liberty.”
“I don’t mind!” I said. “They look good on you, Lysander.” Maybe Bianca was right, and everything looked good on Lysander. “You can keep them, if you want—I have dozens of them.”
“Dozens of pairs of flip-flops,” said Penny.
“Do you like flip-flops too?”
“If I said yes, how many pairs would you try to dump on me?”
“Nah, not a fan.”
“Still not a fan.”
“I missed you,” I blurted—then hurt my neck trying to look at Lysander really fast. “Lysander. I missed you, Lysander. You’re my favorite butler in the whole world.”
“I missed you as well, Master Byron,” he said, smiling slightly. I was smooth. “I wasn’t certain if I’d ever see you again—or your sister.” He paused. “How has Miss Blackwell fared in my absence…?”
“Not bad, I think. She found a replacement that she seems to like—at least, she doesn’t complain about him when she calls me, unlike some of the others she tried out. She says he’s very, you know, distinguished. That’s good, yeah?”
His expression changed instantly—but it was always hard to read Lysander’s face. He really was a lot like Daya. “She…she managed to replace me so quickly? I see. But I’ve only been away from Forgotten Hollow for two or three days.”
I gave him a funny look. Maybe being in love made you lose track of time—I’d have to look it up online later. “You were gone for over a month, remember? But it only took her a week or so to find someone she didn’t want to turn into a new bone chair, I think, after we stopped staying with Graham. I try not to answer the phone if I know it’s her, so I’m kind of fuzzy on the details.”
“Over a month…? And a week. Only a week…”
“She’d be lost without a butler, you know?”
“Yes,” Lysander said, his voice strange. I think I’ll refer to it as Butler Voice. “I know.”
“So,” I said, “I guess that kind of means you’re not our butler anymore? Unless you want to be mine, but I’m a ONE HUNDRED PERCENT INDEPENDENT VAMP—MAN.”
“Why’re you yelling?” Penny said. “And you know I know you’re a vampire now, right?”
“I’m not yelling,” I said. “I’m saying some words slightly louder—for emphasis. And I said man, not vampire.”
She shrugged. “I’m hungry.”
“I…I’m not certain what would be best for me”—he looked at Penny—“for us at this time, Master Byron. Please eat, Penny.” To my surprise, he sat down in the only free seat at the kitchen table, right next to Saul and his massive plate of burgers. But that was fine, because Penny was standing too, and I could stand with her as she…talked to Saul?
I was too distracted watching her eat to really pay much attention to what they said, though—since Saul was involved, it was probably a very manly topic.
Sometimes her eyes got all funny when she opened her mouth, like when that human on the internet was about to take a bite out of that bar of soap. The look really brought out her face-spots.
“I need to make a call,” Lysander said suddenly, standing up from the table. “Immediately. Do you have a phone, Master Byron…?”
“Use mine,” Saul said. “I still got my work cell—and last time I checked, the kid spilled coffee on his.”
“A great sacrifice for the city of San Myshuno,” I said, trying to make it sound extra important. It had happened at work, after all. “And it might be dry by now. Maybe. Otherwise, it died in the line of duty.”
“Thank you,” Lysander said to Saul, before heading into the bathroom and closing the door behind him. Hey, that was Saul’s special alone-time place too! Maybe that was just something that manly men instinctively knew, which is funny because I’d never really thought of Lysander as manly until he stole Penny right out from under me.
“Listen, I need to head to work,” Saul said to me. “Your friend—”
“Ex-butler,” I said. “But he’s like a friend almost. Or a brother, maybe. And aren’t I coming with you?” I glanced at Penny. “I have a job! A real one. A manly one.”
Penny kept eating.
Saul sighed. “Your ex-butler can leave my other phone with you when he’s done. And you’re not coming with me, kid, not today. Regenerate your corpse-crust, or whatever is you undead types do.” He looked at Penny. “Keep an eye on the kid, will you?” Saul was worried for Penny’s safety in my presence! Detective Strider was on the side of the law, and it was against the law for one man to run off with another man’s girl. I think. He thought I manly enough to try to steal Lysander’s woman!
“Sure,” Lysander’s woman said with a shrug, her plate completely clean now. “No promises about keeping him in one piece, though.” Penny wasn’t afraid to attack me if I overstepped my bounds! That meant she recognized my potential manly threat.
Saul grunted and left.
“Wanna see my new room?” I said to Penny, once I was the only man present. Lysander still hadn’t come out of the bathroom with Saul’s phone. I hoped he didn’t drop it in the toilet like I did once. Or twice.
I led her into my room, which was even cooler than my old room, because now it wasn’t in a house with my big sister.
“How do you know Saul?” I asked. “Detective Strider. He’s my best friend for all eternity and my co-worker and my neighbor except he sleeps over here all the time and is also my man friend supreme, if you know what a man friend supreme is.”
She gave me a long look that went up and down my body, clearly assessing my rapidly increasing level of manliness. “That…answers a lot of questions, I guess.”
“Doesn’t it?” I said eagerly.
“And he arrested me a few times. Almost, anyway. He always just let me off with a warning. Petty theft, if you care.” I cared, but I cared more about the way she was smiling as she talked. “He should’ve arrested me, honestly. He’s a big softie, as cranky as he acts all the time—but I guess you already know that.”
“I know almost everything about him!” I agreed. “One of the many benefits of being man friend supremes.” I couldn’t stop grinning. She could finally, finally witness my manliness up close! I knew it was lucky I’d met Saul completely by chance almost immediately after I moved to this giant human city. What were the odds?
“I’m glad he has someone like you,” she said quietly. “Someone nice and–kind of weird, honestly. I used to think it was easier to just have nobody at all, but…” She shrugged. “I changed my mind, I guess.”
“Because you found Lysander?”
“It was more like he found me, maybe. Or we found each other. I dunno. It’s weird, and kind of uncomfortable sometimes, but…it’s not bad.” She snorted. “And it was all because I went to that weird party of yours.”
It was suddenly harder to keep smiling. “So I guess it was like I brought you two together, yeah?”
“Yeah. I never even would’ve met him if it weren’t for you. Probably.” She smiled again. “So thanks for that.”
“You—you’re welcome,” I managed. Maybe I’d have to up my level of manliness to get her to stop thinking about Lysander. “Want to gaze outside my manly window at all of the dangerous wild animals that Saul–Detective Strider–says are constantly lurking around every corner? Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.”
“Do you see any really big raccoons?” I asked from behind. “Those are the most dangerous, but my manly wrestling skills will protect you from babies. Rabies.” Why did I say babies…?
“I like your hair,” I said, sniffing it discreetly from a distance. “It reminds me of the crispy melted cheese on the secret pizza that Lysander eats in our bathroom sometimes. Used to eat, I mean, when he was our butler and hiding from my sister.”
“The scary pale lady,” she said.
“Yeah! Her.” I stepped a little bit closer. And sniffed a little bit deeper.
“Are you smelling my hair?”
“I don’t think so?”
“It probably smells pretty bad after all that crap we did together.” Man-woman relations with Lysander? “I’m hacking it all off again as soon as I can, anyway. No wonder Isla always made me keep it short.”
I didn’t know who Isla was, but I knew Penny’s hair was pretty. “But I like it,” I said. “I really, really like it. It means there’s even more of you since the last time I saw you.”
“A hell of a lot more,” Penny said. “What, are you gonna brush and wash all of it every single day?”
My mouth opened almost as wide as my eyes. “Can I?!”
“Oh.” This was bad. I was accidentally making a move on Lysander’s woman. Wasn’t I? I almost couldn’t stop myself from complimenting her face-spots and talking about how they matched her hair perfectly, and then Saul would probably have no choice but to arrest me immediately. “I better go check on Lysander,” I said urgently. “To, you know, make sure he didn’t drop Saul’s phone in the toilet.” I mimed the phone-dropping motion and the ensuing grief.
“Okay.” She smiled, just a little. “Thanks for showing me your room. Byron. It’s nice.” She said my name…
I ran so fast I almost dropped my towel. It really was comfortable–so comfortable I’d forgotten I’d been wearing it the whole time instead of my Cool City Man clothes. Luckily the bathroom door was unlocked, because I was able to burst right in.
“Lysander,” I said breathlessly. “Penny’s safe. I swear on my great-aunt Letitia’s empty urn.”
He was holding Saul’s phone, but at his side rather than to his ear. “Master Byron?”
“She’s safe,” I said again. “You don’t have to worry about her anymore.”
He smiled. “Thank you, Master Byron. I take it you’re now aware of the full extent of our relationship?”
“Yeah!” I said with a smile that hurt my cheeks almost as much as my heart. “It’s really obvious, you know? Just by looking at you two.”
His smile finally reached his eyes. “I’m glad to hear you say that. I never thought…I never thought I would find her.”
“She says it was because of me.”
“Then I must thank you as well. I can never thank you enough, Master Byron. If there’s any way I might repay you—”
“Stay with me,” I blurted. “You and Penny. But not to repay me, I mean. Just to…be my roommates.”
Lysander looked at me, considering. “You’d be doing me yet another favor, Master Byron—Penny and I both. Her…dwelling“–he sniffed in disgust–“is no more, and mine…well, I’m no longer needed by your sister, am I? My services are entirely obsolete, my room and board forfeit.”
“Right,” I said.
“It’s time for me to start thinking of Penny first,” Lysander said. “Very well—if she agrees, we’ll stay with you for the foreseeable future. I need to take responsibility for her as best I can, especially until we can see our father again.” Take responsibility for her? Their father? Was she “in the family way,” as one of Bianca’s novels would put it? And could she and Lysander be secretly married already? Maybe that’s what he meant about the “full extent” of their relationship, but if I asked now…
Maybe Saul was right about my “really shitty decision-making skills.” But right then, thinking about Penny being my roommate—even if she was carrying her secret husband Lysander’s baby—I was happier than I’d ever been in all my three hundred years.