Erin arrived back at the inn just as the sun was starting to set. Shadows nearly hid the back door, and she almost fell off of her bike when it hit a hole in the yard.
Kota opened the kitchen door in time to see Erin kick the bike in the middle of a pile of spilled grocery bags.
“Need some help?” he asked, glancing up at the sky before stepping out.
“What do you think?” Erin snapped, kicking the bike again for good measure. The sight of Kota scurrying around her, dusting off apples and picking up bags while trying so hard not to get in the way, only annoyed her more. “Did Elzwig finally leave?”
“Hours ago, I think,” Kota said. He straightened up, his chin on top of a heap of bags to keep them from sliding out of his arms, and led the way back into the kitchen. There Miles sat at one of the chairs around the kitchen table, facing the door with his arms crossed.
“About time you got back,” he said.
“What?” Erin looked over her shoulder to be sure and said, “What’s that supposed to mean? The sun is still out, you two couldn’t have left any earlier.”
“Kota told me what happened yesterday, with the wayfarers,” Miles said. He glanced at Kota as he walked around the kitchen, apparently absorbed in putting away the groceries and washing off everything that had hit the ground. “Or at least, as much as he tells me anything.”
“So not much,” Erin said and Miles nodded. She threw a handful of keys down on the table and said, “Well, I think they’re gone, for now at least.”
She told them about someone in town finding the keys while searching for Kota and Miles visibly stiffened.
“So they saw him change?”
Erin looked at Kota and wondered how much he had left out. “They saw enough to know something was going on, and now Peter from the farm is going around telling everyone he can about the trail of prints the mercenary found, the day he killed the cannishift.”
“Pawprints turning into footprints,” Miles said, and this time it was Erin’s turn to nod. “Well, Kota, looks like it won’t be long before everyone knows your little secret.”
They both turned at the pattering sound of now severely bruised apples hitting the ground.
“Sorry,” Kota murmured as he bent down to pick them up and wash them again.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to just tell people,” Erin said. “Let them know before someone hurts Kota thinking he’s some kind of monster. I mean, one look at him and anyone could tell he’s not dangerous.”
Kota’s shoulders hunched at the sense of their stares on him, and he said nothing.
Miles looked back at Erin and said, “And do you really believe they won’t do anything to him then?”
Erin could not answer, but she knew Miles was thinking the same thing. No matter how people reacted, Kota would run as soon as they learned of his curse.
“The mercenary,” Miles said suddenly, thumping his hand on the table. “That’s how Elzwig found out!”
“Elzwig knows?” Erin said, turning a shade paler. “So when she asked Kota to come work for her?”
Miles shrugged. “She has something on everyone who works for her, so it might have been a legitimate offer. She’s also not above using people for leverage or whatever other scheme she has going on right now, so it’s hard to tell.”
Erin kept looking back at Kota, worried by his continued silence. At the moment he was still running the apples under the water, staring at them with a quiet intensity that suggested he was thinking about something else entirely.
“Kota?” she said.
He turned off the water and put the apples off to the side where they could dry. “I think that I’m going to—”
“Nope,” Miles declared. He stood up and clamped a hand on Kota’s shoulder, smiling at his surprise. “Whatever you think you’re going to do, you’re wrong. You and I are going to go to town tonight.”
“What?” Kota and Erin said simultaneously, and Erin continued, “You’re really going to go, after everything that’s happened?”
“Of course,” Miles said. “Like you said, one look at Kota and anyone would think he’s harmless. What better way to deflect suspicion than to let people get to know him?”
“This is a bad idea,” Kota said. He tried to pull the vampire’s hand off of his shoulder and failed. “Tell him, Erin.”
“Oh, she already gave me permission to take you,” Miles said. He not too gently led Kota to the door and pushed him out of it when he tried to brace himself on the door frame.
“And neither of you thought to ask me how I felt about this?” Kota said, but Erin shrugged as Miles dragged him across the yard to the road into town. He started to struggle and pushed the vampire away. “Let go of me already!”
“Don’t make me get the leash,” Miles said, and Kota scowled at him. Miles rolled his eyes and said, “Scary. Look, this is for your own good. The longer you stay cooped up in that inn, the more people around here will begin to think there’s something wrong with you.”
“There is something wrong with me.”
“Yes, but they don’t need to know that,” Miles answered. He threw an arm around Kota’s shoulders, the friendly gesture covering how he practically had to pull the young man into town. “Lighten up, it’s not going to kill you to talk to other people. Do you still have that money Erin gave you?”
“Yes,” Kota said, grudgingly. He looked at the houses they passed, each with their windows alight and the sound of people laughing, talking, scolding, and everything else they did with family and friends coming out muffled but still identifiable.
Miles frowned as he had to put more effort into dragging Kota along. “Then I know our first stop.”