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Tam took a moment to just lean on Lithway, taking a few deep breaths until the world became something reasonable again.
I can do this, he told himself.
Lithway was waiting, patient; Tam had feared briefly that they might be annoyed with his uncertainty, but they didn’t seem to be. But then, they hosted amateur performers at the Theatre of Dreams all the time. They must be very used to stage fright.
“Right,” Tam said firmly, more to convince himself of his own confidence than anything else. “Can you transform into someone with… authority? Someone she’s likely to pay attention to. And can you play that role if she comes and answers the door?”
“I certainly can,” Lithway said. “I made it a point in my younger years to become experienced with the head of the Council of Twilight—a witches’ organization,” they clarified, at Tam’s blank look. “Whether or not Istem’s officially a member, I think Auriano’s got reason to talk to her, given the bad reputation she’s giving witches, and Istem will not want that pressure brought to bear. If we’re lucky, she might even still believe it’s real later.”
“Great,” Tam said. He thought of the squishy cinnamon rolls in his bag. “Can you eat at all? I’ve got an anti-ward spell, but it’s food.”
Lithway shrugged. “Once transformed, I can eat the same as anyone. Otherwise, it’s a little different.”
“I’ll save it for just a minute, then,” Tam said. “I think we can use your skills over here first.”
Tam headed around the side of the building, trying to keep out of sight of any external windows. As Sahil’s intel had indicated, there was a ground-floor window there. It was latched shut from the inside, to keep the frame from sliding.
“Before, when you entered your room, you just sort of…dissolved into the lock to open it,” Tam murmured softly. “Can you do that here?”
“Certainly.” Lithway did so, obliging. “If she doesn’t come to the front door, shall I come back around and join you?”
“Please do,” Tam said. He ducked down, searching in the bushes until he saw a patch of light fur. “Okay, both of you, if we end up having to run, let’s meet up at…” He considered, then named a spot about three blocks from Rainier’s hideaway. It would be far enough away to be safe while they debriefed, without causing problems by having Sahil there, but close enough for him to take Ash to Rainier’s right after.
At least, he hoped so.
The patch of fur bobbed, and Lithway too nodded, so Tam rose with an exhalation and the two of them headed back to the front—then around the other side so Lithway could transform without being seen by Sahil or any passersby.
Once again, Lithway’s smoke bled into color and insubstantiality into the firmness of flesh, shuddering as the new form settled around them. The person they changed into appeared to be a rather neurotic older man in a loose-fitting suit covered in stars and jewels.
Tam raised his brows. “Ostentatious.”
“Quite,” Lithway said, in a gravelly, severe tone. They adjusted their bow-tie. “Well. Shall we begin?”
Tam leaned up and stole a kiss—feeling a little strange about doing so while Lithway was in this form, but wanting the comfort—then handed them a cinnamon roll.
Both of them ate rather quickly, without a chance to savor it. Tam could tell it was delicious, but couldn’t enjoy it anyway, not with his nerves. It sat heavily in his stomach.
“All right,” Tam said. “Let’s do this.”
He went back around to the other side of the house, where Lithway had unlatched the window for him earlier. He waited until he heard the doorbell, then waited longer, stomach tight, vibrating with tension.
“Ah. Miss Istem,” Lithway said in that gravelly voice. Tam could just barely hear it from around the corner. “There you are.”
That meant it was go time.
Tam pulled the bathroom window open as carefully as he could, sliding his body through and lowering himself to stand on the closed toilet seat. He could hear distant voices from here, though not the words being said, and he carefully sneaked out the open bathroom door to move away from where the voices were.
The first door he opened was an empty master bedroom, nothing in it but a fish tank, a bed, and a small, apparently portable altar. He refused to lose heart, moving on at once to a room at the end of the hall and opening that door too.
Ashton Lynes looked up from his laptop, alarmed—but his expression transformed a moment later to delight. “Tam…!” He looked exhausted, like he hadn’t slept for days, had barely ate, was completely wrung out.
Tam shushed him at once, straining his ears; he could still just barely hear the voices from the front hall. “C’mon,” Tam whispered. “I’m going to get you out of here.”
“I wasn’t sure you could,” Ash murmured back. His eyes flicked rapidly between his laptop and Tam, almost worried. “Just give me a second—”
“We don’t have time!” Tam managed to keep his voice down despite the urgency. He scurried over. “I’ve got a place for us to hide out while she loses interest. The bathroom door’s unlocked, you need to eat this cinnamon bun, hurry…”
“Just a second,” Ash insisted, though he took the bun and started cramming it in his mouth, not asking questions. Either he was too distracted by what he was doing, or he trusted Tam to know what he was about. “I’m about to—shit, shit, shit! The laptop battery’s going to go before it’s done—”
Tam took another look over his setup, and saw that Ash’s laptop was connected via USB to some sort of enormous crystal. It looked a lot like one of those new-agey Himalayan salt lamps. “Just take it with you!”
“I can’t,” Ash said, “obviously!”
There was no way it was obvious, but all Tam could assume is that Ash knew something about its magical properties that Tam himself didn’t. “We don’t have time,” Tam said. “C’mon, or this is all for nothing!” He began to head over to the bed.
Ash hissed a breath out through his teeth. “C’mon, just one more minute,” he said. “If this finishes before my computer dies, she’s fucked, Tam! It’ll be perfect!”
He heard a high pitched bark outside. Sahil. “Shit,” Tam said. “We don’t have time, Ash! She’s coming back!”
Tam grabbed onto Ash’s arm, fingers finding those moles, perfectly spaced for his fingertips. A jolt ran through him, and he froze, not understanding what he was feeling, or why.
And Bella Istem appeared in the bedroom doorway. She’d run back in a hurry, and her hair was flying out of its bun. She looked—
Normal. That was the weird part, Tam thought as he froze in shock. He wouldn’t have looked at her twice on the street, in a grocery store, anywhere. She was in her mid-sixties, wearing high-waisted jeans and a button-down shirt, with her hair gray streaked with brown. She was scowling at them, but it seemed out of place on a rosy pink face full of laugh lines.
“What are you doing here?” She began scolding at once, hands on her hips. “Hey, leave him alone, he wants to stay, all right?”
A con artist’s face, he reminded himself. He drew himself up. “Bella Istem, he’s not yours! You withdrew your protection on my family and kept my brother anyway! The contract is invalid!”
Something… reacted. The contract, he assumed; he felt it snap, and felt her react to it, her scowl deepening, eyes widening. She tensed, and Ash knew from his brief training with Antoine that she’d decided to attack.
Behind her, he saw a shadow approaching, shorter than before: presumably Lithway, neither in their own form, nor in the one they’d been wearing at the front door. Tam couldn’t make out the details, not with the dim hallway lighting and Istem between them, but it was somehow a very familiar silhouette.
He spared half a second to glance at Ash. Ash still wasn’t moving; Tam saw he’d darkened his screen to try to squeeze out the last bit of power, but the battery icon was showing empty regardless, about to shut down.
He could make Ash move when it did—but would that be too late?
[Please suggest an action in the Comments.
This will be the final turn in. Comment by 9 PM PST Oct 31.
You’re also welcome to say anything you (or he) WANT to happen
(example: I really want x to happen to Istem).
I can’t guarantee it occurring, but I want to hear!]
[Completed Parts: Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Day 26 | Day 27 | Day 28 | Day 29 | Day 30 | Epilogue | Author’s Notes]