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Happy birthday, George. You made me better than I could ever have been without you, and you hurt me worse than I could ever have been hurt by anybody else. I love you. I miss you. And I’m starting to get the feeling that I’ll see you pretty soon, because I’m starting to feel like, maybe, things are coming to an end.

God, I miss you.

—From Adaptive Immunities, the blog of Shaun Mason, June 20, 2041

Anybody who messes with Shaun is messing with me. And of the two of us, I swear, I am the one you do not want to mess with. He’ll kill you. But I will make you sorry, and I will make you pay.

Trust me. I’m a journalist.

—From Postcards from the Wall, the unpublished files of Georgia Mason, originally posted June 20, 2041

Eighteen

Alaric, what’s your twenty?” Silence answer

ed me. I bit back a snarl and tried again: “Alaric, where are you?” Getting mad at him for not knowing the weird mix of military and ham radio pidgin used by the Irwin community was pointless. That didn’t stop me from doing it.

This time he answered, his voice coming clear and easy through the phone: “I’m finishing up my edits while Becks does some final recon for her report.”

“Not an answer.” I raked a hand through my hair, watching Maggie try to guide Kelly through the steps required to mix pancake batter. Either Kelly was the worst cook in the world or Maggie was really shitty at giving instructions. It could have gone either way. “Where are you, exactly?”

“Down near Mount Shasta.” My silence must have told Alaric he needed to give me more information, because he added, “About an hour out. Why? Do you need us to stop at the store or something on our way back in?”

Back when Buffy was alive, we could trust our network against anyone on the planet, including the CIA. Our security isn’t that stellar anymore, but thanks to upgrades cobbled from Maggie’s house system, Becks’s jury-rigging skills, and Alaric’s computer know-how, we’re pretty stable. Stable enough for what I was about to say, anyway: “Mahir’s here.”

It was Alaric’s turn to go briefly silent. Finally, he said, “Mahir sent in a report?”

“No, dumb-ass, Mahir’s here. Mahir is asleep upstairs in the guest room I’ve been using. He showed up with pretty much the clothes on his back and a suitcase full of research, and he looks like hammered shit.”

Maggie looked over. “Is that Alaric? Tell him to stop by the House of Curries on his way home. I’m going to send in an order.”

“Got it. Alaric, Maggie says—”

“I heard her,” he said, managing to sound annoyed and astonished at the same time. “You’re serious, aren’t you? Mahir is actually here.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been saying.” Alaric began swearing. I listened, impressed. I hadn’t realized he knew that much Cantonese. I let him go for a few minutes, then interjected, “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

Play nice with my Newsies, or I swear I’m going to make you sorry, said George flatly.

“I am being nice.”

Luckily, Alaric was still swearing, finishing off an elaborate phrase that started in Cantonese and switched to English as he said, almost wonderingly, “—son of a chicken-fucking soy farmer and a diseased convention-center security guard. How did he get here? Is he all right? Are we going to need to move again?”

“I’d rather wait and explain everything to you and Becks at the same time. Right now, he’s exhausted but I’m pretty sure nobody’s been shooting at him—yet, anyway—and that’s something else I’d like us all talk about at once. So when can you be here?”

There was a clattering sound as Alaric shoved his keyboard away, knocking something to the van floor in the process. “Give me ten minutes to get Becks back here, and I’ll break a couple of dozen speed limits getting over to you.”

“Don’t forget to pick up dinner,” called Maggie.

“Maggie says—”

“I heard her. Do you need anything else?”

“Just drive safely, don’t get pulled over, and don’t crash into anything. If we’re going to die horribly, we’re all going to do it together.”

“Great pep talk, boss. Very touching. I’ll always remember the day when you told me not to drive into a tree on the way home.” Alaric said something caustic sounding in Cantonese—what little I remembered from my course on field communications made me think he’d just called me a goat f**ker—and hung up.

Smirking, I pulled off my ear cuff and dropped it into my shirt pocket, twisting to face Maggie and Kelly. “They’re on their way, and yes, Maggie, Alaric’s going to pick up dinner. He said they’d be about an hour. Why are we ordering dinner if you’re making pancakes?”

“It gives me something to do with my hands, and Mahir’s got to be hungry after becoming an international fugitive from justice.” Maggie handed Kelly another egg. “I’ll tell the house to transmit our normal order, plus three.”

“Fair enough.” I got up and crossed to the fridge, pulling out a can of Coke. “Make me a couple of pancakes, will you?”

“Already planning to.” Maggie took the bowl from Kelly. She looked inside, sighed, and started picking bits of eggshell out of the batter. “I’m assuming things are pretty bad for him to have come to us this way.”

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