I would probably have walked out the front door at the bottom of the stairs, around the couple still in the same position, if I’d had my shoes and jacket. It was either wander the streets barefoot and bare armed or go back through the charmingly repulsive kitchen and into the yard. The sound, the laughter and music felt like an assault as I stood on the steps with my stomach churning.
I’d come so far, only to fail.
This time the Hybrid musician, Matthew, stayed on the stage where he performed, not seeming to see me as he lost himself in his music. I had no idea where my jacket or shoes were. I wandered through people, trying not to look as sick and abandoned as I felt, searching the crowd for Camilla. She would have known that this was my brother’s wedding party. I couldn’t decide if I were more angry or grateful at her for bringing me there to face Saturn.
Eventually, I found myself edging away from the crowd until I stood beneath the cover of the oak tree. No shoes, no discarded branches, there was nothing but the bark against my back as I slid down the trunk to sit with my feet tucked under me, watching the musicians in the distance.
The Hybrid, Matthew, stood in the front, staring down at his guitar while his fingers flew over the frets. The intro wasn’t really my thing, too current and slightly pretentious, but when he began to sing with a voice that was more compelling than before, I felt a tug in my chest as the emotion he expressed touched a chord in me. People turned to the stage as he sang a song I’d never heard before. The laughter, the loud talking fading away as the Hybrid caught their attention and held it. It wasn’t a sad song, not exactly, but it was certainly bittersweet, about holding on and letting go, not enough, and too late, not my kind of thing, but then again, why did I want to leave my place beneath the tree and stand with the others staring up at him at the edge of the scaffolding? Maybe if I was lucky he’d grace me with a drop of sweat. I smiled, mockingly at myself for being as easily drawn in as everyone else. That explained everything I’d felt. It was humiliating to think that I was vulnerable to the machinations of a Hybrid, but apparently I needed more exposure to that kind of thing.
“I’d like to apologize,” a Wild with brown hair and brown eyes said, startling me as he dropped onto his heels beside me. “I’m Odin.” He held a hand out to me which I looked at without taking. He dropped his hand looking unoffended. “Camilla told me you were here. She didn’t say why she brought you, but my cousin isn’t exactly the clearest Wild to read.”
“Cousin? So, this is your house.” It amazed me that Camilla had been forthcoming about something.
He shrugged. “I’m the landlord but I rent it out to Hunters. I don’t actually live here. My place is much finer, under the jurisdiction of Carve, but of course this place is neutral. Hunters are, you know.”
I nodded slightly.
“Do you want me to get you a chair?” he asked politely.
“I’m comfortable, thank-you.” I stared at him, as pointedly as I could, hoping that he’d take the hint like a good Wild and leave me alone. He didn’t go though.
“Are you really Matthew’s date?”
I fought the urge to grind my teeth. Either I confess that I fainted, or allow him to think that I would stoop to dating an unaffiliated Hybrid when I could have my pick of nice Wild boys.
“If I were, would that be a problem?” Technically I had agreed to date him. Everyone had seen us dancing together, also him dancing rather obscenely with the tree that looked like me.
“No,” he said slowly. “But when he told me that you were, I could hardly believe it. Daughter’s of Houses don’t usually mingle with Hunters, particularly ones who are not known for their social graces. It’s almost as surprising to see him making himself agreeable to any woman as it is to see you enduring such attentions. Perhaps he’s finally exhibiting dangerous characteristics of his Hybrid nature. If it happens here there will be enough people to stop him before he does damage.” His tone was condescendingly confidential.
My headache grew the longer he talked until I turned, focusing on the stage and Matthew where he sang with so much energy and emotion in his voice. His fingers flew, rhythmically as he stroked his guitar, crooning to it as though it were his long lost love, reminding me of how he’d looked dancing with the branch dressed in my image.
“Does he never sing like that either?” I asked, nodding at the stage.
Odin followed my glance then frowned slightly as a particularly voluble Hotblood girl called out Matthew’s name. “No, when he performs it’s always like this. It was the dancing and the smiling that was unusual. I think there were wagers about whether or not he knew how to dance.”
“Did you lose?”
I saw a brief flicker of a scowl before he stood up. “That’s beside the point. It’s a pleasure to have you here, Miss Slide. If there’s anything you need, please let me know.”
It was a relief to see him leave. I tried not to collapse against the tree as my head pounded. When I glanced towards the house, the deck, I saw Saturn embracing the Hotblood girl, Cami, careless of who saw them devour each other. I should have looked away. I meant to, but seeing my brother like that, with his hands gripped on her hair and dress, molding her body to his while his mouth pressed against hers in a kiss that went on forever, transfixed me. He held onto her so desperately, as though she were his air, his life, his House. I dug my fingers in the dirt while an unbidden wind rustled the leaves above me. I couldn’t let these emotions control me, make me weak. I wasn’t going to think about my failure, about my former brother.
I focused on the stage, felt Matthew’s eyes on me, although how he could see me across the yard where I was in the shadows, I wasn’t sure. The look wasn’t anything leering or come-hither and neither was the nod. It was an, ‘I’ve got your jacket and shoes so wait there for me,” kind of nod. I nodded back, the slightest tilt of my chin to show that I would wait, but I wouldn’t like it.
When the song ended and women were howling for more, remarkably animalistic howls, I watched him climb down from the scaffolding all loose joints and long limbs. A girl reached out and touched him then fell over in a faint. The other girls pulled back, just out of reach except for one other whose hand grazed his jaw right before she collapsed.
I stared at him, feeling my heart pound. Was he the reason I’d felt so nauseous and dizzy? Had he made me faint? Was there something about him that was so overwhelming that his very presence could make you physically sick? If so, did he do that to me intentionally?
He didn’t come straight towards me, instead disappearing into the shadows. After only a few moments, his voice came out of the darkness behind me. “You’re still here,” he said in compelling voice. “Let’s get your jacket,” he added.
“I’m not sure if I can handle being in your presence without fainting,” I murmured. “Maybe I’m better off getting a new jacket.” How could I not have realized that he was as manipulative as a Wild?
“Fainting?” He sounded confused. I turned around and enjoyed seeing his eyebrows furrowed together in a scowl as he that was really quite impressive. “Not fainting. That,” he said nodding towards a girl who’d been thrown over another girl’s shoulder, “Is paralysis.”
I studied the limbs where they stuck out. “That explains why she looks so stiff.” Satan had mentioned paralyzing, not fainting. So why did I still feel so sick? “I suppose I’m lucky you didn’t do that to me.”
He sighed loud enough that I turned to look at him. “So that’s where we are? And here I thought you trusted me.” His voice had a cutting edge while his gray eyes mocked me. “I’m a touchy Hybrid. What else do you expect? I wouldn’t paralyze someone I asked to dance. That would be rude.”
His Hybrid features didn’t seem as out of place anymore, even knowing that was what had bothered me at first glance. I’d apparently become accustomed to it. A wave of dizziness made me glad that I could lean against the tree, taking deep breaths until everything came back into focus.
“I see. Well, one can’t be a rude and touchy Hybrid, can one? I’m wondering what other behaviors you’d find unforgivably rude. I had no idea there was so much to know about Hybrids. I suppose I should thank you for getting my brother’s attention. He found it impossible to leave after he saw us dancing, since he had to ‘save’ me from you. Why did you do that? You’ll probably pay dearly for intruding on Slide business.”
“It’s not Slide business, because he’s no longer Son.”
I gasped as the quiet words cracked through my mind. I opened my mouth to deny it, but he was right. Saturn was no longer Son. He had abandoned his House, his duty, me. I was the next in line as Daughter of the House. I was the one who would take the burden of duty that Saturn had carried. When my father retired or died the House would be mine to maintain. I would be left with the impossible choices of which lives to spare, and which to end for the good of the House. My mind reeled while the night became too close, not enough air to breathe. I couldn’t do anything but stare at the Hybrid while my world fell apart.
“No.” I jabbed a finger into his chest, shocked when the feeling of his muscle and tissue beneath my finger felt warmer than before and damp with sweat. I pulled away, clenching my fists while I tried to breathe normally. “Why would you dance with me if not to interfere with Slide?”
“Is that why you’re here, Slide business? I find it hard to believe that Slide would send you here without an entourage, without giving you specific instructions on how to find him and what to do with him when you did. That isn’t the way Houses operate. Satan made his choice, the House responded by cutting him off, that’s it. There are no last ditch efforts to persuade him to change his mind. Wilds don’t change their minds, do they?”
“What do you know about Wild Houses?”
“A lot more than you know about Hybrids.” He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. What would the hair of a Wild/Cool Hybrid feel like against my fingers? Why would an idiotic thought like that creep in when I was still trying to get my breathing under control.
“My brother,” I said with my voice like ice, “Will always be related to me even if I have to put a dagger through his right eye. I don’t care if that’s Wild or not.”
He stared down at me in silence, just looking at me until he raised an eyebrow. “You are chilly. Your jacket is right this way.” He turned and walked deeper into the shadows.
“Maybe I’ll wait for you to bring it back,” I said even as I followed him, stumbling over my own feet.
“You’re listening to your brother’s warnings? Probably a good idea.”
“He said that you can slip into my thoughts and make me do anything you wanted. Is that true?”
He laughed, a dry brittle sound. “No. He’s bitter because I wouldn’t let him die when I met him a few years ago. I encouraged the side of his nature that wanted to stay alive. I never created something new in him. I can’t do that. He doesn’t like to admit that he was indecisive about his self-destruction. Your brother is remarkably indecisive.”
He’d saved my brother? I felt a rush of confused gratitude. When had Saturn been suicidal? I shoved away the idea of owing this Hybrid for my brother’s life, particularly when he drawled mockingly every time he said, ‘your brother’. “But you could encourage the part of me that wants to touch you until that’s all I think about?”
He stopped, turning to look at me. I couldn’t see much of his face in the shadows, but I felt his eyes on me. “The part of you that wants to touch me…” His voice was suggestive and I remembered the feel of his arms around me as I blushed.
I ignored the goose-bumps his voice sent down my spine, reminding myself that it had nothing to do with me personally. He voice enticed everyone. “I’m a female, and apparently you cause that reaction. You hadn’t noticed the girls who risked paralysis to touch you? Why is it that you cause such female havoc when every other Cool I’ve met does the opposite?” I could almost breathe naturally when I thought about him, about his strange Hybrid abilities instead of my brother.
He turned away from me with a careless shrug. “Maybe it’s the Wild in me, my physical side.”
“You might want to learn to control it.”
“Men always want women to find them irresistible.”
“Not Cool ones.”
“I thought you were waiting for me to bring your jacket to you.”
“Apparently I can’t resist following you. Maybe I’ll get lucky and you’ll paralyze me.”
He shook his head as he said, “I would never paralyze a friend of Camilla’s.”
Was that tugging in my stomach jealousy? What did I care what he thought or didn’t think about Camilla? “Why not? Do you fear or admire her?” I sounded jealous but maybe that was natural. Maybe every woman who heard his voice, heard him sing, had his Cool hands touching their skin and making every nerve respond would feel jealous.
He stopped at a gate in the fence that I hadn’t noticed. He unlocked it with a quick twist of his key before swinging it open and gesturing me through. “Neither. It’s simply that Camilla has so few female friends, you’re as rare, in your own way, as I am.” He followed me into an alley that was suddenly quiet and much darker than the shadows of the yard had been. He walked past me, kicking a tin can over the bricks. “You have a lot of questions.”
“You keep answering them. It’s surprisingly addictive.”
He laughed, a sound that was nothing like I expected. He was Cool and the voice, the singing were all incredibly enticing, but the laugh was an awkward and normal sound, so why did it make me want to laugh with him? “All right,” he said as he fumbled in the dark until he turned on the headlight of a motorbike. “I have a question for you. Would you like some tea?” The light reflected off a pale wall giving him light as he rummaged through the pack on the back of the bike. He handed me my jacket and shoes which I held for a moment before I put them on.
“I’m half Wild, half Cool. Unfortunately that means I’m always cold, so I keep a thermos handy.” He smiled at me as he held up the silver themos he’d pulled from the pack then opened it while he leaned against the seat of the bike.
“Isn’t it? Maybe I should find an obsessed Wild who can make me, the Hybrid, the object of their study.”
“We could start analyzing exactly why you’d bother saving the life of my brother, a random Wild, move on to why you would ask me to dance then finish with why you feel justified in paralyzing random fans.”
He sniffed the contents that I could already smell from where I was standing. Peppermint and lemon wafted through the air. “I can feel your brother’s pain. I had a mother once.” He took a deep breath then exhaled. “You wouldn’t believe how tedious it gets being assaulted by Hotbloods. I’m sure they mean well, at least some of them, but if you’re not interested it’s better for everyone if you make sure they understand up front. Well, would you like some?” He poured the tea into the attached cup then handed it to me, as though he took my silence for assent.
I took it and shivered as the warmth seeped through my fingertips. Even if I didn’t drink it, smelling and feeling was enough. It should have been safe since the ingredients that would immobilize me were neutralized in anything too hot. That was one of the reasons tea was so popular with Wilds.
“You didn’t tell me why you asked me to dance with you, or why you asked me to be your date. Obviously you don’t have a hard time finding girls who are interested.”
“Obviously. What sort of answer do you want? I’m a Hybrid and my reasons for acting aren’t always clear, even to me. Camilla brought you here and abandoned you to the lions. Maybe I felt it was my responsibility to intervene on your behalf, then again, maybe I thought it would be interesting to meet a White Daughter. Maybe I wanted to dance with you.”
I rested my lips on the rim of the cup as I inhaled. Every time he said Camilla’s name I wanted to snarl. Who knew jealousy would be so visceral.
“Why would you want to dance with me?”
He sighed exasperatedly. “You’re beautiful. That would be enough reason for most men.”
“You already confessed that you find skin deep beauty unappealing.”
He smiled at me with a glint in his eye. “You’re attributing depth to my character? I’m flattered.”
I rolled my eyes more irritated with myself than anything. Had I actually expected a direct approach to work? “Is it true that you have no moral compunctions about doing anything you like to anyone you meet?” I asked then took a sip of tea.
When I looked up he was studying me with a look of deep concentration. “Maybe, but lucky for you, I don’t like very many things. Your brother is throwing away his position as Son of Slide. It makes me doubt that our definitions about morality or compunctions would be remotely similar.”
“You don’t think he’s doing the right thing? But he loves her.” I couldn’t help the scorn that came out in my voice. Love passed, but duty was eternal.
He shrugged. “If you’re looking for a reason to lose your heritage, passion makes a charming distraction. The right thing? I’m a Hybrid, love. He’s sentencing his children to the life of an outcast like me. How could love that bore such fruits be anything other than divine? I’m wired, programmed to need the structure of a House. Being outside of that is constant torment. Your brother, however, enjoys self-inflicted torment, so why wouldn’t his children, as well?”
I was speechless as my heart pounded in my chest. I could feel his pain. It filled the air between us like a whip that singed my soul. I felt sick, lightheaded as I thought of my brother, of the end to the path he’d chosen.
It couldn’t be like that, not for my brother. I shook my head while I gripped the cup hard enough that I felt the metal begin to bow in. I took another sip of tea, glad to focus on the heat. I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted to pretend that he’d be fine, that he’d escape the consequences of the choice he’d made that I could do nothing about.
“What’s she like?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Cami?” He took a sip of tea. “You’ve seen her. She’s loyal, fierce, never complains, and of course is madly in love with your brother.” I hated how sarcastic he sounded when he talked about their love.
“Do you know how they met?” I leaned on the motorcycle beside him careful to keep my distance. I felt more exhausted with every second that passed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a full night’s sleep, not since Saturn had disappeared at least. Finding him, seeing that my effort was a waste was more exhausting than a round of runes. The tea seemed to help with the nausea, but it made me more tired.
“Your brother was supposed to escort a lovely Daughter meant to be his Intended, to get to know her and offer her his blade, but Cami was along for the ride being transported to another Girl’s Home where she could learn to burn a little more safely. The Daughter wasn’t as interesting to him as Cami. Somehow she talked your brother into helping her escape to the wilderness, taking her to Jayden to hunt demons.” He shrugged then tilted the thermos to fill my cup back up. “That was a long time ago. She’s been angling for him ever since. If your brother didn’t keep the Code they could have had a brief affair and he could have gotten her out of his system then returned to his duties.”
I gasped. You didn’t talk about breaking the Code as though it were a whimsical ideal instead of a necessary protection from demonic taint. “The Code probably kept her alive. You mean that my brother was dragging around an unstable Hotblood killing demons?” I shivered as I clenched fingers around the cup. “There’s a reason they lock people up while they’re learning to burn steady.”
He laughed, a low sound that was still shockingly normal. “There’s always a reason to lock people up, don’t you think, beautiful? Enough of their incredibly romantic tale of forbidden love. Do you want a sandwich, darling?”
He held a cellophane wrapped package out to me which I took reluctantly. When I bit in, the tastes and textures were complicated and not quite complimentary, but apparently I hadn’t eaten enough in the past weeks because I consumed it like a Hotblood. He dug around in his bag with one hand while I eyed the sandwich in his other. I didn’t like him calling me love, beautiful, or darling. It reminded me of Camilla. Maybe he was a male version of her, burning every girl he met with seduction as sport.
“I’m sorry,” I said at the same time he pulled another one out. “I’m not used to being fed by complete strangers, my sweet.” I took it anyway, eating it distractedly as I thought about a girl who thought it would be fun to run around after demons. I could see how my brother would find that interesting, irresistible actually. There was nothing he liked better than blowing stuff up. I’d had many lessons about explosives my father never knew about when I’d go to the summer home with my brothers, learning to fight and the importance of stealth during covert operations. It had all been games though. I’d never actually fought demons or anything else besides the trainers brought in to teach me everything I might need to know.
“Don’t worry about it, you’re a natural. Look,” he said standing and stashing the thermos back in his bag before he turned to face me, moving close before he brushed my face with his fingers. The tips were callused, rough, but the texture fascinated instead of repulsed me. “You’re tired and you don’t want to find a hotel. You’d really like to take my room here, the one I never use and get a good night’s sleep before you get on a plane in the morning to go back home where you belong.”
He pressed a key in my hand that I took, as I stared at him, still feeling the lingering touch on my face. I opened my mouth to protest, but the only thing that came out was a yawn.
“You need to rest, to forget about everything you’ve ever worried about and enjoy the Egyptian cotton sheets. Rest well, my ecstasy,” he said, nudging me towards the gate.
I glanced back at him even as my feet carried me away. I wanted to protest being called ecstasy, but I couldn’t see much expression on his face in the dark, even with the reflected light. I was so tired and dizzy that I could barely cross the back yard, through the kitchen and past the couple on the stairs who were maybe automated statues because they hadn’t moved the entire time I’d been there, to the third door on the second floor, where my key clicked in the lock, opening into a cocoon of white bedding and glossy green plants.
I locked the door behind me, slithered out of my clothes and into the bed, noticing that the sheets were incredibly delicious before I passed into slumber.