Author's Notes: I'M BACK! Welcome to The Arsonist, the sequel to Playing with Matches. New readers, you might want to check out Matches first, because starting this story now will be very confusing. Old readers, HI! I missed you guys! I know I said I'd get to this in January, but NaNo sort of died about seventy-five pages in, so I decided I would bite the bullet and return to the world of Gemma and Faolin and company. This is good for you guys (I presume, anyway, if you're reading it that you enjoyed it) because you get updates sooner than I anticipated. But it's bad for you guys because, well… Matches was at its third draft when I posted it, but I haven't finished The Arsonist, so here it is in all its first-draft sloppiness. I'm going to edit it grammatically, so that shouldn't be a problem, but there are a couple of points in the story so far where, rereading it, I've told myself, "Wow, that needs fixing in draft two." So please bear with me. Also, again, I'm not finished with it yet, so I'll be trying as hard as I can to keep the updates weekly, but I'm only about halfway through chapter ten, so if I run out of pre-written story, updates might slow down. I'm really going to try to avoid that, but please don't hate me if I can't. That being said, welcome to The Arsonist and please don't forget to review.
Chapter One: Fixing Jaden
United States, March 2009
If you're reading this, I'm either dead or about to die. Sorry about that. Not that it'll matter to you.
It's not my fault that Greg is in a coma. I pulled him out of our burning house and was almost killed doing it, but if I hadn't, he would have died. I know you love him, but making it out to be my fault didn't bring him out of his condition. You guys really screwed up. I loved you, but you screwed everything up.
Everyone thinks I tried to kill him. Between you guys, school, and just existing in general, I've gone through so much hell because people think it's my fault he is the way he is. You two didn't do anything about it. You didn't try to make me feel better. You didn't do anything at all. I couldn't even talk to you without hating you. And Greg hasn't shown any signs of waking up.
So what's the point of living anymore? My brother is as good as dead, my parents hate me, school is miserable, I'm crazy, I'm hideous now, and nothing makes me happy. Why bother?
So I'm not bothering. By the time you realize I'm not actually home, I may have been dead for days. As soon as I'm finished writing this, I am going to drown myself. For all you know, I might do it in the Pacific Ocean. I might do it in the Dead Sea. I might do it in the Long Island Sound. Hell, I might do it in the neighbor's pool. But you'll never know. Because even though I'm doing this to you, I guess I still have some humanity. I won't say where, because I don't want you to have to see my body.
But I'm going to ask you to do a few things. Tell Kat not to worry about me, first of all. Everyone else can do what they want. Tell Greg I'm sorry and I love him; please, please, please tell him that I love him. And if you give my dog up for adoption or let him run away or anything like that, I will come back from the dead and haunt the shit out of y
"No, no, we're taking him with us," Faolin interrupted. I turned around, glancing over my reading glasses. His skin was still a rather ugly shade of pink, left over from his days of exposure to the sun.
"Why would I take Romulus with me if I were going to drown myself?"
"Say that you're taking him and setting him free, miles away. Say it's out of spite."
"Fine." I flexed my fingers. "Writing like this is getting so annoying."
I crumpled up the notebook paper and crammed it in my pocket along with the other four I'd started, and started to scribble with shaking hand, the way I wrote when under stress. I wrote out the entire note again.
And please don't bother looking for Romulus. You know he prefers me over either of you, and I can't stand the thought of him staying in that house. I'm taking him with me, maybe halfway, maybe more, maybe less, and letting him go. He'll be far away by the time you find this. And out of respect for the dead, if not love for me, don't look for him or for my body.
So, thanks for nothing. I did love you guys. I'm even kind of sorry about this. But I doubt you will be.
I didn't sign it.
"That's cold, Gemma," Faolin reprimanded me gently. I shrugged, pulling my glasses off.
"Yeah, well. They were cold to me. And they have to believe I'm really killing myself. Might as well make them think it's their fault. Because it would be."
"I suppose," he relented.
Ignoring his obvious disapproval, I headed up the stairs. Tail thumping, eyes bright, Romulus followed me, with Faolin close behind him, buttoning his silly trench coat and fixing his even sillier wide-brimmed hat. He looked like an old-timey detective. I pulled a piece of tape from the roll on the kitchen counter and plastered my fake suicide note on the fridge, vaguely wondering how long it would take for my parents to notice it. "Are we ready?"
"Yes. Jaden's at my house, waiting. Um…" Faolin looked somewhat embarrassed now. "We rented that car, but I don't really know—"
"How to drive it?" I grinned. "You can only drive a motorcycle?"
"And a boat, thank you," he retaliated, looking slightly indignant. "But yeah. I never took a driving course for cars, specifically."
"Well, I did. But it's illegal for me to drive without a licensed driver over the age of twenty-one in the passenger seat."
"Did you just recite that from your driver's education teacher?"
"So what if I did?"
He smiled. "I do have a driver's license that says I'm twenty-one, you know."
"You just told me-"
"I never said I earned it. Just that I have it." Faolin slipped his arm around my waist and, leaning against his shoulder, I gazed around the kitchen.
"I'm kind of going to miss this," I admitted. Never in my short months of living here had I mustered up the strength to call this house home – it was all too clean, too organized, too inhuman. The sheer spotlessness of all of it just made me feel dead inside - reminded me of my mom's unwillingness to face anything. She cleaned instead of loving her remaining child, who was only sixteen, who needed her, who still loved her. It had been obvious, in our old house, that people lived there. Papers had littered the counters, Greg had always left his shoes in the living room, and the stairs always had junk all over them from when Mom or Dad saw something of mine or Greg's where it didn't belong and yelled at us to bring it up to our rooms. That had been home, right until it went up in flames and burned to the ground, taking any shred of innocence that I had with it. This was, by no stretch of the imagination, a home to me. And yet I found myself choked up over leaving it. Maybe because I did still love my parents, and I knew it. And part of me wanted to stay. But leaning against Faolin's slim and solid frame and feeling the comforting, shaggy weight of Romulus' bulk pressing against my leg, I felt like an intruder in this spotless kitchen. I wasn't wanted here. I never had been.
I shut off the lights on my way out and straightened Faolin's hat as we stepped out the door, beneath the cloud-choked sky. The last time my eyes would see it from this porch, I thought. The words didn't cross my mind, but I was right - with human eyes, anyway.
Surprisingly, Jaden was awake and blearily looking around once we returned to Faolin's house and opened the door to his bedroom. Romulus tried to jump up on the bed next to him; I grabbed his collar and held.
"Down, you idiot, no disturbing the patient. He weighs as much as your tail. Hey, Jade," I greeted him as cheerfully as I could, restraining my dog. Faolin was bustling around, checking to make sure that absolutely no sunlight had filtered into the room through the overcast sky and his blackout curtains. "How are you feeling?"
Three full days had elapsed since they'd fled the hospital. Jaden had only spent about five cumulative hours of those seventy-two actually awake. I'd been worrying myself stupid, despite the fact that Faolin must have told me at least fifty times that this was perfectly normal for someone who had just been transformed. Jade just looked so fragile, as if he clung to the edge of his life with all his weak, delicate might. I'd sat with him for hours at a time, watching his sleeping face, fighting the idea that my parents did this very same thing with my comatose baby brother every single day. I knew I could just reach out and wake him if I chose, but the very notion frightened me. He looked like he'd expire right there before me if I so much as touched him.
But his eyes were open.
"I'm okay," he mumbled, trailing a sleepy hand across his eyes. Except for the black ridge of stitches slashed down his left temple and cheek, Faolin had removed the dressings on every wound Jaden's little body had received from the car that had nearly killed us both. My best friend's heroic tackle had saved me from its path. I just wished it had been Jaden instead. "My ribs hurt."
"That means they're finally healing," Faolin said, smiling as he removed his dark sunglasses and hat. "May I see?"
Jaden silently pushed down Faolin's comforter, lying in the exact spot where I had lain the day before I first met Faolin's best friend, Cyrene, after he and I had fallen asleep together. That had been a traumatic night: Faolin had just laid eyes on Kat, the very friend who had saved me from the car, and recognized her as an incarnation of the vampire slayer who had murdered Cadence, his first love. This was quite more traumatic.
Jaden was shirtless, wearing a pair of plaid pajama pants with hems that lay inches beyond his feet, and where it had previously been beaten purple and black by the car's bumper, his chest looked whole and unbroken, save for the tiny white scars all over: remnants from Blake's predatory teeth. I had noticed the odd-looking marks of disguised bites on Jaden the very first time we'd met, but Blake hadn't bothered to turn the tiny punctures on his victim's chest into slits the way he had done with those on his hands and neck.
"Will these go away?" he asked quietly, making a vague sweeping gesture at his torso. Faolin sat beside him.
"Sorry, little one," my boyfriend replied gently. "Vampire bites always scar." I wondered if he had any; I'd never looked for them.
He placed his fingertips on Jaden's stomach and worked them slowly up, like a doctor giving him a physical. During this same procedure the precious day, Jaden had actually gasped and whimpered in pain. Now, he was just making faces, shifting with discomfort.
"Does this hurt?"
"No. It feels weird."
"Good – much better. Can you try to stand?"
"Sure…" Unsteadily, he tottered to his feet, sucking in a quick, harsh breath. "Ow-"
"Stay there, stay there." Faolin bent to examine Jaden's legs. He'd been fussing over his patient like this for days now, checking and re-checking wounds and adjusting bedding and plumping pillows. One side of me, the real Gemma, thought it was adorable. But there was some new, monstrous Gemma fighting chains in the basement where I'd shut her months and months ago. New, evil Gemma. She thought it was annoying. I shuddered.
"Are we good to travel, you think?" I asked, scratching Romulus' ear. The second part of my question - "Can Jaden handle it?" - went unvoiced.
"We have to be," Faolin replied, putting his arm around Jade's shoulders to keep him on his feet. "Our tickets are for today. Your legs look all right, little one – I think you're just a little unsteady."
"Why hasn't Blake come for me yet?" Jaden asked softly. He had slumped against Faolin's side, energy spent, looking tiny and weak. My heart broke for him, not for the first time, not for the last.
"Decius made him think you're with him." Faolin sat him back on the bed. "I called him and asked him to leave Blake a hint of some kind. He doesn't mind. He owes me."
"Aren't you worried?" I asked, because I sure as hell was. I liked Decius, despite – or maybe because of – his unpredictable personality and ability to handle any situation rationally, expelling emotion from the picture if he had to. I liked him a lot, in fact. When Faolin first explained in his letter that Decius had essentially held him prisoner for the last five years of his human life, I had found myself almost hating him. But the more I thought of it, the more I reasoned that eccentric, sometimes cold Decius must have believed he was somehow doing the right thing. He was many things, but evil wasn't among them, and I was nervous for him as he led Blake off our trail. He could take care of himself, of course, but that didn't stop me from worrying, because Blake was nothing short of insane. He had broken Faolin's neck on a whim, for god's sake, and anyone with basic cognitive abilities could have figured out that his plans that night at the Raging Rebellion concert had included my violent and gruesome death. So of course the idea of him after one of my friends freaked me out a little. Faolin had almost died that night, and if he hadn't been there, I certainly would have died.
But then again, I reminded myself, it had not been Faolin who had driven him off. That would be me, all ninety-nine pounds of me, armed with nothing but a cross half the size of my pinky finger. Although I doubted that said anything about my vampire slaying prowess; it just showed how very weak vampires were against them. The next time I had to face him, I was positive, I'd need more than a cross. Probably a miracle.
"No," said Faolin in reply. "He'll be fine. Blake thinks he's in Yokohama, but he's actually somewhere in the Czech Republic. He won't tell me exactly where."
"Oh. Good plan." My phone buzzed in my pocket, making me leap into the air. Jaden gave a tiny, hesitant giggle, to which I stuck out my tongue, earning another little laugh as I raised it to my ear. "Yo?"
"Where the fuck are you?" snarled Niccolo's voice, coming at me with all the speed of a freight train over miles and miles of wireless connectivity. And all the shock.
"Uh – uh –" I tried to robotify my voice, "the number you have dialed is currently-"
"Don't be a bitch, Gemma! Cyrene won't tell me what's going on, all I know is that Faolin turned that kid into a vampire and now the same guy from that concert is after your ass-"
"Nicko, shut up!" I yelled over his mounting freakout. "I'm fine. Faolin and Jaden are fine. Everyone's fine."
"Thanks for letting me know!" he snapped back. "I've been bugging out! I'm worried about you, damn it, you're my friend! Why won't Cyrene tell me anything?"
"Because not knowing anything is extremely preferable at this time," I replied wearily. "Trust me. Everything sucks."
"Not knowing sucks, Gem – you could've at least told me you were frigging alive!"
"Chill out! I'm sorry, okay? I-"
"May I have the phone, please?" asked Faolin, stretching out his hand. I handed it over. "Yes, Niccolo? Hello, it's Faolin. Tell Cyrene that I said for her to tell you everything. No, not right now. I would, but I'm busy at the moment. Nursing Jaden back to health and getting ready for our flight." I sat beside Jaden on the bed and grinned at him. "He's fine – yes, of course. We wouldn't want to lose contact with you, not at all. Could you tell her to call me later, actually? Thank you. Goodbye, Niccolo."
"He doesn't have to think I'm dead, right?" I asked tentatively, taking my phone back.
"If he did, we'd be out of luck. But no," said Faolin. "He doesn't have to think you're dead." He ran his fingers through his hair, looking around the room absently. "Are we all packed?"
"Yup. Thank my poor spine." I placed a hand on the small of my back and hunched over in mock agony. During the day, I'd gone on a small shopping spree, packed everything we needed, and then loaded it into the small car. None of us had many possessions, other than the few outfits I'd bought for myself and Jaden; it would be suspicious if I packed an overnight bag to go kill myself, Jaden refused to go back to the house he'd shared with Blake, and Faolin had his own room at his French friends' house, complete with all the clothes he needed. "I may never recover."
He grinned. "I'm sure you'll be fine."
"If I'm not, you're paying for my back brace."
"You better. I'll also sue you."
"That's okay. I have the best lawyer in America."
"We're going to France, babe."
"He's the best one there, too. Decius went to law school a few decades ago."
I snorted. "Decius? College?"
"Yes," replied Faolin, laughing slightly at the memory. "He enrolled as a joke. I didn't think he'd last a semester, but he graduated at the top of his class. It was pretty hilarious."
"Sounds it." When we met again, I'd need him to tell me all about that one. "So, what time does our flight leave? We should be at the airport way before then."
"I tried to time it so that it would still be dark out when we arrived, but it didn't go so well. We're going to be stopping in Iceland first. The sun will probably be out when we get there, but it'll be very weak. We should be able to get to the hotel before the sun really hits."
"Okay. Good." I brushed my fingers across his pink cheek, noticing him wince as I did. "We don't need you to get burned worse."
"Or Jaden. I'm more worried about him," he admitted. "I can't really tell if he's at the point where sunlight doesn't really affect him, or the point where his skin is hypersensitive to the sun."
"Are those two stages really so close together?"
"You'd be surprised." Faolin turned to Jaden, who seemed to be drifting on the edge of consciousness now. "The full transformation takes a few days. We'll know he's completely a vampire when he gets thirsty, but until then, it's up to him. There's a shift in the process when the one who's changing goes from mostly human to mostly vampire, and when that happens, it's dangerous for him to be outside even right after the sun has set."
"So, what if once we're in Iceland, we get stuck in traffic or something?" I pushed Jaden's hair away from his stitches. I hated the way the black thread looked on his otherwise-flawless little face, a grotesque disfigurement that made me want to grab a pair of scissors and remove the stitches myself.
"Then we put a thick blanket over him and hope for the best," Faolin replied grimly. "We won't let anything happen to him, Gemma. Trust me."
"I do." I grinned at him. "We should get going."
"I agree. Jaden, wake up." He placed his hand on Jaden's unmarred cheek. "We're leaving now."
Jaden's eyelids creased. "I'm too tired…"
"Yes, yes, I know, you're exhausted. We still have to go, little one. Come on, stand up." Faolin helped him out of the bed, supporting him heavily, as his small feet dragged on the floor to try and get weight on them.
"Where are the keys to the rental car?" I asked. Faolin tossed them to me. "Grab Romulus. Let's go."