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the kindness of strangers

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Vanquishing a vamp on your first day at a new job would be a mistake, right? Maia is pretty certain that that wouldn’t go over well on her resumé: Hunter’s Moon, bartender, October 14, 2013 — October 14, 2013. Reason for leaving? Killed the clientele.

But sometimes the clientele really deserves it.

“I should expect this much incompetence from a wolf, but forgive me for having high standards,” snarls the vampire on the other side of the bar. “I suppose I should count it as a win that my drink doesn’t have any slobber on it.”

His cohorts, all pale skin and dark suits, chortle.

“I apologized,” Maia says tightly. It was hard enough to remember regular drinks, let alone the wave of Downworlder specialties that had just crashed into her life. She’s only been in the city for three weeks, sleeping on pack members’ couches and counting out each crisp bill she’d managed to save before she bailed on Ocean City. She can’t afford to make mistakes right now. She can’t afford to get drink orders wrong and piss off customers and stake vamps through the heart and get fired. “I would be happy to remake —”

“Bartol, I’m not sure what it is you’re complaining about,” comes a new voice several stools down. It’s a man in a gold brocade suit, his hair an inky crest of sculpted swoops. A red stone dangles from one earlobe, a gold cuff in the shape of a dragon curling around his ear. “I distinctly heard you order a Blood Russian.”

“Yeah, and this wolf —”

The disgust in his voice, god.

“It looks fine to me,” the man says patiently. “Why don’t you try it again.”

The vampire, Bartol, rolls his eyes at his compatriots and lifts the heavy tumbler, but he’s barely tipped it to his lips before it suddenly slips from his fingers and drenches the entire front of his suit in a murky mix of blood and coffee liqueur. He jumps back off his stool, a curse on his lips.

“Oh no,” Maia says with mocking apology. “Looks like that’s going to stain.”

The man in the gold suit smothers a laugh, hand at his mouth, and Maia doesn’t think she’s imagining the waft of blue smoke around his fingertips. Bartol is gone in a grumbling stumble, swabbing fruitlessly at the front of his shirt with a hastily-grabbed handful of napkins. The other vamps follow. As he goes, he bites out two words that Maia definitely saw coming: “No tip!”

“Don’t tell anyone I said this, but vampires are notoriously stingy. It’s one way to hold onto your wealth, I suppose.” Gold Suit shifts several seats down so he’s nearer to Maia, and he cleans up the spill with a snap of his fingers. She raises her eyebrows. She’s never actually seen a warlock do magic before. “I’m Magnus Bane, by the way.”

He holds out a hand decked out in rings — big showy stones and insignias, the letter M announcing itself on his middle finger.

“I like that,” she says, tapping the ring as they shake. “Bet it looks good when you flip someone off.”

He laughs.

She adds, “I’m Maia.”

“An auspicious initial, I’ve always thought,” he says. “I haven’t seen you around here before, Ms. Maia.”

“I think the line is haven’t I seen you around here before,” she quips. She tops up his drink. “Refill’s on me. You know, for the favor.” She mimics the little swirl of his fingers she’d caught in her peripheral vision.

He appraises her approvingly, eyes lined in smudgy black with a wash of complementary gold at the inner corners. “Then let me cover his drink.” He tilts his head slightly. “I thought I knew every bartender at the Hunter’s Moon.”

“All but one, looks like.” She gives him half a smile. “I’m new.”

“New in town, or new to the Downworld?”

“Yes,” Maia says succinctly, and he laughs again.

“Then there’s a celebration in order. I insist.” An elegant twist of his hand calls down two champagne flutes from their shelf, buoyed on little blue clouds. “If your boss gives you any trouble, blame it on me.”

Maia presses her lips together with amusement, and dutifully retrieves a bottle of champagne. She’s not sure why she goes along with it — maybe it’s that air of money he’s got that convinces her it really won’t be a problem. But no. As another tricky little gesture pops the cork for them, Maia decides it’s something else. “You know, I haven’t met anybody else who thought this was cause for celebration.”

She certainly hadn’t been in the mood to pop bottles when she’d woken up in the hospital with her neck stiffly wrapped and an IV in her arm. Every Downworlder she’s met so far has a story like that. Not everyone has a broken heart to blame it on, but everyone has their share of broken bones, broken promises, broken futures.

“I have a unique outlook on life,” Magnus says brightly. He hands her one of the glasses. “When you’ve lived as long as I have, you have to develop one.”

“Oh yeah? How long’s it been?” From what Maia’s heard, werewolves have a raw deal in the Downworlder department; they’re the only ones without the eternal lifespan. All the mundane drudgery with added public nudity and literal bone-crunching.

“Mm.” Magnus savors a sip of champagne, eyes twinkling. “I had a stay at Versailles when it was just a hunting lodge.”

The mental image that conjures — powdered skin, white wigs, brocade coats — startles a laugh out of her. “Pics or it didn’t happen.”

He chuckles. “There might be a portrait or two, if you look hard enough.”

“I’ll be sure to give it a Google when I get a minute.”

He does an exaggerated shimmy of disgust and horror at the thought, then smiles at her. “Can I offer a word of advice? From one old-timer to some new blood?”

Champagne buzzes pleasantly down the back of Maia’s throat. “Mhm. Advise away.”

“Celebrate when you can,” Magnus Bane says. “You deserve to. We all do.”

He covers the vampire’s ruined drink and the bottle of champagne, though he leaves the rest of it for Maia to finish at her leisure. Before he goes, he tucks a crisp hundred dollar bill into the tip jar. He gives her a wink at the door and tips an imaginary hat before he vanishes, stepping over the threshold and into a sudden glowing patch of purple.

Maia pours herself a second glass, sips it slowly with her hip against the bar, looking over the crowd and thinking —

Yeah. She does deserve it.