or check out Skyla's books!
"Mmm," Gen said with a smile. She rolled over to face Janine Marlin-Garcia and wrapped her arms around her girlfriend. "Can we maybe not get up today?"
"I seem to recall your dad stipulated that you can only stay over on a school night if you actually go to school the next day. However..." Her fingers trailed down Gen's back. Gen opened her eyes to see Janine give a suggestive smile. "There's nothing that says we can't be a little late."
"You are infinitely wicked...but yeah, we should probably get up."
Janine sighed and slid across her bed. "I'm hopping in the shower. Wanna join?"
"You're still aiming to make us late, aren't you?" Gen said with a grin. "Nah, I'm good." She watched Janine slip on a nightshirt and head out of her room for the bathroom.
Gen rolled onto her back and stared up at the slanted ceiling. She loved Janine's house—loved staying over. Her parents had split up years earlier, and she and her siblings lived with her mom and step dad. With three younger kids in the house, Janine was more or less left alone, and the upper attic room of the house was a sanctuary to her and her guests... Guests which frequently included Genevieve now.
They'd been dating since the night at On the Map in April, and Gen had never known anyone like her new girlfriend. Everything with Peyton had been secretive and often awkward, but with Janine, their relationship had been natural and open from the start.
After slipping out of bed, she dragged her overnight bag to her feet and rifled through in search of a change of clothes. As she moved a shirt aside, her gaze fell on a small spell book tucked at the bottom of the bag. Another reason to go to school was that she had two spares after lunch and both of them were supposed to be spent with Merri and Sage at the facility their new mentor rented for them all. The "facility" was the basement of a corner store Cade managed in downtown Newhaven. Not as nice as Michael's had been, but Gen preferred the company.
She dug out a long denim skirt, fresh underclothes, and a tank top, and changed for school. Slipping a bright yellow cardigan overtop, she brushed her long straight hair into a pair of braids and finished packing her bag just as Janine returned wrapped in a towel.
"Bathroom's yours if you want to get cleaned up," she said. As Gen walked by, she stopped her in the doorway and took her arm, leaned forward, and kissed her.
Gen pulled back with a giggle, covering her mouth with her hand. "I've got morning breath," she mumbled.
"Then you owe me one later," Janine whispered, kissing her cheek instead.
Gen smiled in return—she did look forward to making it up.
Easily the worst revelation on Genevieve’s semester schedule when she started twelfth grade a few days earlier had been seeing Ms. Florence Kern’s name next to her first class. Gen had tried her damndest to switch to another Advanced English course, but doing so would have required her to drop a Fine Arts class, which she refused to do. So once again she sat before Ms. Kern, pretending to listen to whatever the evil woman was talking about.
God, I’m tired, she thought, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. No matter what she promised her dad about being good and getting to class on time after staying at her girlfriend’s place, she never did get much sleep. Gen yawned.
“Bored, Miss Weist?”
She blinked a few times and sat up straight to see Kern looking at her, along with just about everyone else.
Gen sighed. “Kinda.”
“You have a problem with Wuthering Heights?”
“If by ‘problem’ you mean I find it boring, then yes, I have a problem with Wuthering Heights.”
Kern’s beady eyes narrowed. “Perhaps you might find it more interesting in detention.”
Perhaps, Gen thought, but she said nothing as she flipped open her book and pretended to read.
Kern went back to the chalkboard to continue writing.
Glaring at the back of her teacher’s head, Gen felt annoyance rise in her. Half the class yawned during her boring lectures. Why single Gen out? Of course, it was because she didn’t like her. It was one thing to get pissy about students not paying attention—it was another thing entirely to play favourites. Stupid bitch.
When Kern asked the class to take some notes, Genevieve picked up her pen and flipped open her notebook. But as the ball-point tip hit the paper, a smile came over her lips as she began to write. Forget Bronte—she had something better in mind. The scratches took on the look of symbols, indecipherable to anyone but her. She blocked out the noise and distractions around her until her mind focused only on the sketches. Your will shall bend to my command.
She let out a deep breath as her mind grew heavy for a moment. Her hazy gaze moved up to Kern, still at the chalkboard.
A few minutes passed, and the looks of disinterest on the other student’s faces began to disappear. Some kids snickered. Whispers started.
Genevieve smiled darkly as she waited.
Someone near the back of the room burst out laughing. Kern snapped to attention and turned around.
“And what is so funny?” she asked.
More students started laughing.
Confusion passed before Kern’s eyes. She followed their gazes to the chalkboard behind her to read the words, “All this talk of bad old literature is making me horny, so I’m glad I brought my vibe today...”
Ms. Kern’s face went a shade of red that Gen wasn’t sure she’d seen before as she picked up the chalk brush and began madly wiping away the words.
After closing her notebook again, Genevieve sat back with a smile on her face.
"I'm supposed to start my co-op placement this time next week," Sage said. "He'd better not expect me to duck out of that every afternoon as well."
"You would have if Michael asked you to," Gen pointed out as she steered the car out of the school parking lot.
"Probably, but that's because he's my sensei. Cade isn't."
"He is according to Natalya."
Right, Natalya. They hadn't seen or heard from the Immortal since her brief appearance in April. Now September, she still hadn't made any contact with them and Sage failed to see why they were listening to her to begin with.
"You're just bitter 'cause you're not teacher's pet anymore," Gen continued.
"And I'm not looking to be. I just don't like Cade. Michael...understood us."
"By 'us' you mean 'you,' I presume."
Gen rolled her eyes. "Yeah, about himself. Look, I'm not exactly president of the Cade McMahon fan club here, but don't make Michael out to be some kind of saint."
Sage didn't want to argue with her anymore, so she held her tongue. True, she didn't think Michael was a saint, but he did seem to genuinely care...in his own way.
And from his perspective, this sudden change must have been hell to accept. He'd lost everyone and everything in his life—his brother died, his wife had been murdered, he lost his child—and he'd always believed it was for this greater purpose. That it was to help her, Gen, and Merri. And then along came Natalya to tell him he was wrong.
Sage didn't envy him having to face that. If someone had told her that about Hayden—that his death meant nothing after she had spend years coming to accept it was somehow necessary for the greater good—she probably would have killed them.
She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Noon. Merri would be leaving Michael's soon to head to Cade's. They shouldn't stay away too long—shouldn't leave Michael alone all evening. She'd somehow convince them to leave Cade's early or something, maybe stop at Michael and Merri's briefly to check on him... Sage wouldn't dare voice any of her concerns to the others, but the truth was that she worried. He never spoke about Natalya firing him, never asked about Cade during the times she saw him, but...but something was changed about him. That final night in April, when they'd faced and destroyed the siren, he almost seemed happy, almost seemed to be joking with them. But now, what was he supposed to do with his life? Sage felt for him in a way she was certain the other two girls didn't...and never could.
Sage darted a hand out to catch the dashboard and steady herself as Gen turned the car sharply onto the side of the road.
"You're sure you got your license?" Sage asked, sending a wary glance Gen's way.
"Yes. Barely. Shut up." She nodded to the sidewalk and Sage followed her gaze to see Meredith walking toward them. "Jesus, she'd rather walk than just ask me to pick her up."
"Uh, maybe she's afraid of your driving?"
"Don't be silly—she's infinitely safer inside the car than in the path of it."
Merri hopped in the backseat. "Interesting that you just happened to be driving by."
"It was out of our way," Gen said with a grin. "But since Sage doesn't care about being on time anymore, I figured the odd detour would be cool. Anyone wanna stop for lunch? Cade won't mind."
Cade minded. He minded very much, from Sage's point of view.
He berated Gen for the first ten minutes after they finally arrived. She responded by rolling her eyes and draining her plastic cup of pop. Only ice really remained, however, so she kept the straw pressed between her lips and would suck the remaining liquid quite loudly whenever he began to speak. She'd give him a wide-eyed, innocent look now and then, as if she couldn't figure out why he was so upset.
Sage figured Gen didn't like Cade any more than she liked Michael, but she wasn't afraid of him in the least bit, so she got away with more and therefore preferred him as a mentor.
While Michael had generally focused his attention on Sage after giving Merri and Gen instructions to follow on their own, Cade spent time with each of the girls equally. The only benefit Sage could see was that she only had to endure his company for short periods of time.
She couldn't say there was anything particularly bad about him. He was patient. Encouraging. Kind. Pretty much everything that Michael wasn't.
Still, Sage didn't like him. By four in the afternoon she was ready to leave.
"And you're going where?" he asked as she gathered her knapsack and slipped on her shoes.
Sage slipped the strap of her bag over her shoulder and glanced at him sharply. "My one sister has dance class, so I have to babysit the other."
His gaze narrowed, but all he gave her was a short nod. Relieved, she jogged up the steps, out of the poorly lit basement and to the upper store. A "be back in ten minutes" sign hung on the door, and had ever since about one o'clock. She wondered how much business Cade lost while they were all working, and whether or not he even cared.
The long walk to Michael’s passed quickly enough and soon she was at his front door. His convertible sat in the driveway, giving her some comfort to know he was around. Gen seemed to think he’d up and move one of these days after Natalya had rendered him useless, but Merri doubted he’d leave her with nowhere to live. For now, at least, it seemed he was still there.
Sage knocked. No one answered. She tried the knob and it opened easily.
She didn’t see any lights on inside, and most of the curtains were drawn over the huge windows. Michael was far more likely to jog up and down the stairs to the loft than take a walk around the block, so she figured he had to be there somewhere. But she didn’t call out. No, she didn’t imagine he’d answer, and if he did, it would be to yell at her to leave.
Leaving her shoes, coat, and backpack at the door, she stepped into the main room and glanced around. No one in the kitchen. No one in the living room. The only side room where she was permitted entry was Merri’s room, and she doubted he’d be in there; from what she understood from her friend, he valued Merri’s privacy as much as his own.
She definitely wasn’t permitted in the loft without an invitation, but then if she got in trouble, she could just claim a desire to work out on the roof.
Sage crept up the flight of stairs in the dark, wondering if she should have flipped on a light. The only time she was ever envious of Gen was when she used her light spell. That thing was infinitely handy.
A floor lamp stood next to the top of the stairs. She reached over and yanked on the chain. Light illuminated the immediate space, and far to the left she saw a body laying face down in bed. An amber bottle of bourbon, emptied of its contents, sat on the nightstand and glinted in the light. Sage sighed. He’d die of alcohol poisoning one of these days.
“Michael,” she called as she walked to him. He didn’t stir. Hopefully today isn’t the day… “Michael!”
He muttered something under his breath but didn’t move.
Sage stopped next to the bed and glared down at him. “Michael, get up.”
He turned his head and cracked an eyelid open. “What?” he mumbled, words obscured in part from his lips pressed against the pillow.
“I’m here for my training session.”
Michael groaned and rolled over onto his back. “We decided last week we weren’t going to bother anymore.”
“No, you decided. I didn’t agree to anything.”
“Then I’m deciding for you—get the fuck out of here.”
“You can’t lie in bed all day.”
Michael glanced at the bedside clock. “I think I did, actually.”
“We have work to do. Get up.” She waited, but he didn’t move. “Sensei—”
“I’m not your damn sensei anymore. Besides, I told you to leave.”
“Well, if you’re not my sensei anymore, I don’t have to listen to you.”
He glared at her. “You spend too much time with Genevieve.”
“And I’d be spending even more time with her if I didn’t come here for training sessions. I’ll be waiting downstairs.” Without waiting for an answer, she jogged down the steps and went for the kitchen.
After slipping on a fresh T-shirt, Michael forced one foot after the other, down the stairs to the main part of the house. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and yawned. A shower would have been nice, but coffee would be best to start. And if he dragged out the time it took him to get ready, Sage might get fed up and leave.
He found her in the kitchen, leaning over the kitchen sink. While he put on a pot of coffee, he got a good look at what she was doing.
“I can buy more, you know,” he said as he watched her pour a bottle of whiskey down the drain.
“I’ll take your car keys too,” she said as she set the empty bottle on the counter.
“There’s a place in town that delivers.” And at least she didn’t find the mini-fridge in the loft.
She scowled up at him. “Does Merri really put up with you drinking all day?”
“I don’t drink all day.”
“No. I sleep. I go out—”
“To see the Satanist skank?”
Michael rolled his eyes. “How many fucking times do I have to repeat myself; she is not a Satanist.”
“But she is a skank.”
“This isn’t healthy.”
“Since when have I done anything healthy?”
“I know how you feel,” she said carefully. “I know that—”
“I highly doubt that,” he muttered as he poured a cup of black coffee.
“After what you’ve been through? Your family dying, then the amount of time you’ve spent with me and the others, trying to guide us…Michael, your book collection alone tells me you’ve spent every waking hour on helping us for quite awhile. Natalya just firing you like that, acting like it was nothing…”
He pressed the rim of the mug to his lips and took a sip of coffee while glancing at the clock. She’d better finish soon—he’d like to get in a shower before nightfall.
“You can’t just give up,” she continued her supposed pep talk. “Anne wouldn’t want—”
“You have no idea what Anne would want,” he cut in.
“I know she wouldn’t want you to give up.”
“This isn’t giving up.” He drained the mug and slammed it back down on the counter. “This is freedom. I should probably thank Natalya for it.”
“You don’t mean that.”
No, he didn’t, but stubbornly wouldn’t admit it to her. “You think this has been fun for me? Worrying about the safety of three idiot teenage girls?”
“Fun? No. But I think you wanted it. I think you liked having a purpose.”
Well, it beat the hell out of not having one. “And now I don’t. End of story.”
“Why? Because Natalya said so? What the hell does she know? She doesn’t know us—she hasn’t spent the last year helping us. You did.”
Jesus Christ, when did she become so fucking persistent?
Ignoring Sage, he moved past her and went for the fridge. The cupboard above it would have been impossible for her to reach without standing on something first, so Michael wasn’t surprised to see that a flask of vodka still sat up there. Not his favourite drink, but it would do.
Her disapproving gaze followed him as he filled a glass with ice and poured the clear liquid over top. When he went to the living room and slumped down on the couch, she went after him.
Sage walked past him toward the windows and drew the curtains back, letting far too much light into the space. It did nothing for the hangover Michael was sporting except strengthen it, and he shut his green eyes to the light. He heard her footfalls on the hardwood as she approached him and sensed her kneeling by the couch.
“You’ve done more for us than Natalya or Cade will ever understand,” she said softly. “If you were really done with us, you wouldn’t let Merri still live here—”
“Good point,” he said. “I’ll tell her to leave tonight.”
“We’d be dead if it wasn’t for you. And we still need you. Me, Merri, Gen—”
He looked at her and raised a brow skeptically.
“Oh, trust me, Gen needs you. I think she needs someone to be scared of—Cade doesn’t intimidate her, so she just does whatever the hell she wants. Honestly, it’s not just her driving skills that worry me. She’s getting really, really strong.”
And that was bound to happen, wasn’t it? Michael had done his damndest to ensure she remained responsible with magic. Sure, that meant keeping her in the dark as much as possible about what she was capable of, but there was nothing else he could do. She was like a time bomb waiting to go off. Right now, she had no cause to hurt anyone, but what if something else happened to her, like the night she was nearly raped?
Not my problem anymore, he reminded himself. It was Cade and Natalya’s problem. No reason why he should trouble himself with it.
Still, worry nagged his brain and it had little to do with Sage bringing up the subject. He’d thought of little else for months.
His cell phone, on vibrate, buzzed from its spot on the coffee table. Sage picked it up and handed it to him, so he felt obliged to answer. He recognized the phone number and grudgingly pressed the phone to his ear.
“Busy?” Krysta said. He recognized that tone of voice.
“Yes.” He hung up and turned the phone off.
“Krysta?” Sage guessed as he tossed the phone on the coffee table.
Christ, maybe he should have gone to her apartment after all if he’d have to sit there and fucking talk about her.
“How long ago did Anne die?” she asked.
“A few years?”
“Why the fuck does it matter?”
Her gaze dropped at his sudden bark. “I just wondered how you moved on.”
Who says I did? “You’re looking to move on?”
“It’s been a year.”
“Eleven and a half months.”
“Again, not unheard of.”
“There are just things I miss sometimes.”
Her face flushed and she avoided his eyes. “Just little things. I miss…”
“The touch of another human being.”
“I miss him specifically, of course. But God, it would be nice to just be…hugged once in awhile.”
“I’m not going to hug you.”
Sage rolled her eyes. She seemed to pick that habit up from Genevieve as well. “I wasn’t asking you to. I just…sometimes I just want…something. When I think that I’ll never have that again…”
“If you’re looking for me to talk you into dating again, you’d be better off confiding in Merri or Genevieve.”
“I just wondered when you decided not to be alone anymore. When you decided to date other people.”
“I haven’t dated anyone else.”
Her cheeks darkened again with another blush. “Fine. When you decided to sleep with other people.”
He sighed. Christ, he was sick of these conversations. “A couple of years after Anne died.”
“How? Not graphic details, but…what changed?”
“I got really, really drunk.”
“Who was she?”
“Pretty sure she was a hooker.”
Sage’s jaw dropped open. “Oh my god, you—”
“Don’t exactly remember a lot,” he said, and for once he meant it. “So I don’t know. But I woke up and it turned out not to be the end of the world.”
“And you’ve never found anyone you loved?”
“Haven’t been looking.”
“You don’t feel like you’re betraying her?”
Every day. Every breath without her felt like a betrayal. He could replay it, rationalize it all he wanted, but it shouldn’t have happened. She should have lived. She shouldn’t have paid for his mistakes. It wasn’t her fault…
But that was, of course, the best way of punishing him. The best way of trapping him—cursing him. Kill Anne. Kill their son. Change him—make him into this monster he’d become.
Every day I betray her. But he wouldn’t say that aloud—not ever. Instead, he shrugged and took another sip of his drink.
“Doesn’t matter.” He drained the vodka from the glass. “Do you have someone in mind?”
“God, no. I don’t…want to love anyone else. I don’t want to move on. But I don’t like feeling like this either.”
He couldn’t figure out exactly why they were still having this conversation. “So you find someone, you fuck them, then you go back to your life. End of story.”
“Do you frequently counsel seventeen year old girls to sleep with random strangers?”
“If it’ll stop you from whining, yeah.”
“I don’t even know what I’m complaining about—it’s not like we were…like…a lot.”
Jesus, the kid was trying to discuss sex without even using the damn word. “I take that back—if you can’t say it, you shouldn’t be having it with anyone.”
“We’d only been doing it for a couple of months. And neither of us had any other experience, so we probably weren’t doing it right or whatever. But it was nice. I miss him. Don’t you miss being with Anne?”
If she said his wife’s name one more time, he was cracking himself over the head with that empty whiskey bottle. If I can force myself to get up, he thought, staring at the bottle far away on the kitchen counter. Maybe that’s why he was still talking to her—he lacked the will to move.
“Of course I do.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m just trying to do the math. You must have been young when you met her.”
He sighed, not answering her.
She furrowed her brows, trying to read him, perhaps. Thank god she wasn’t as good at that as Merri.
“If you waited two or three years after she was murdered, you must have taken it hard…was she the first person you were ever with?”
“No.” But she should have been. “I’d rather not continue this conversation.”
Sure you are.
“Can we get started working yet?”
Michael set the empty glass on the coffee table and stood. “Fine.” When Cade first showed up in April, the only one of the three he’d seen was Merri, but then one day Sage showed up at his doorstep after finding an excuse to leave Cade’s training session. From then on, she’d shown up two to three times a week throughout the summer. September—and school—came, and he expected that would be it, but no, she still insisted on coming by whenever possible. Every week, he said that would be it. The next week, she always came back.
He left her to change in Merri’s room and went to the bathroom himself to get cleaned up. A few days of stubble had settled on his face, so he lathered up and dragged a razor over the hair. He looked like hell—Michael was the first to admit it. Felt like hell, too. Shower would wait until after his session with Sage, however. Then maybe it would be time for another call to the liquor delivery place.
Sage had changed into a tracksuit and was in the process of lacing up the boxing gloves when he returned to the main room.
“Forget about that.”
She glanced up. “What?”
He nodded at the gloves. “I think you can box with the best of them now.”
Her movements were abrupt and frustrated as she tore the gloves off. “Still can’t beat you,” she muttered.
Yet, he thought. Most of the time, he was pretty sure she didn’t realize how close she came to kicking his ass. But she wouldn’t outperform him—not yet, anyway. He once thought she just lacked the ability to take the killing blow, but then she’d willingly killed the siren a few months ago, and he realized it wasn’t about the kill. No, it was about a willingness to play dirty. That was what she lacked. No matter the style she used, the advantages she had, she always went for the highroad. She’d never kick a man while he was down. Never even contemplate that someone would do it to her.
She hadn’t yet figured out that to win, she’d have to do whatever it took. No rules, no integrity, no fairness. Just the win.
He moved to the weapons cabinet and opened it. Selecting a pair of katanas from within, he lifted them out and handed one to her.
She stared down at the sword for a moment, and then looked back up at him, eyes wide. “A live blade?”
He shrugged. “Why not try?”
“Cade won’t let me touch an actual weapon.”
“He’s doing weapons training?” She hadn’t told him that yet.
Michael was curious—he’d fully admit it. But he’d never ask. If Sage wanted to volunteer information, that was fine.
But he’d never ask.
They worked without speaking for an hour, and Michael was glad of it—he had no desire for any more conversation. And he needed the concentration without distraction, too. He was off his game that night—and the past few ones. It was all he could do to keep up with her, but thankfully she didn’t remark on his strained movements or lack of coordination.
The front door opened suddenly. It seemed a little early for Merri, perhaps, but then she didn’t go out with Thad every night. Michael didn’t bother turning to greet her.
“Thought I might find you here,” said a familiar voice that didn’t belong to Merri.
Sage paused what she was doing and looked over Michael’s shoulder. He did the same to see Genevieve grinning as she followed Merri into the kitchen. The Witch hopped on a barstool and slipped a tootsie pop into her mouth.
“Get out of my fucking house,” he said as he turned back to Sage. Unfortunately, he found the Warrior putting her sword away and taking a bottle of water over to the couch. Muttering under his breath, he returned his katana to the cabinet, and then headed toward the kitchen. Time for a pot of strong coffee.
“You can’t kick me out,” Gen said as he approached. “I’m Merri’s guest. Right Mer?”
“Nuh-uh, keep me out of this,” Merri said. She dropped her backpack on the counter, unzipped the top, and started pulling out items—food, by the look of it. “I’m making dinner for everyone, okay?”
Though Michael couldn’t recall the last time he ate real food, he was pretty sure there were still some groceries in the house. If not, he’d pay her for what she bought later—she couldn’t afford to be buying everything. Rethinking the coffee idea, he turned instead toward the fridge for a beer. Sure enough, he found at least the staples of a meal inside.
“You don’t need to be buying stuff,” he said. “I’ll pick up things tomorrow.”
Merri looked up at him and grinned. “Didn’t.”
Gen pulled the sucker out of her mouth with a pop before she spoke. “We stole it.”
“You robbed a goddamn grocery store?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Took it from Cade’s.”
“You two are so bad,” Sage said.
Merri’s eyes widened. “Don’t look at me!” She thrust her finger in Gen’s direction. “All her.”
“He got this new instant pizza dough,” Gen said. “So while he was with some customers when we were leaving, I got the idea to pick up a few things. Look, we’ve got like four types of cheese, sauce, pineapple, sun-dried tomatoes... And Janine’s busy tonight, so I had some free time, and managed to convince Mer to make us pizza. Oh, and we got supplies for sundaes too.”
Michael glanced over the items. They had at least fifty dollars worth there, and that was at grocery store prices—god knows how much it went for at a corner shop. “And he lets you take things?”
“Oh, god no,” Gen said. “That’s why we stuffed them in Mer’s backpack.” She reached into the pocket of her bright yellow cardigan and withdrew a handful of candy, including more tootsie pops. She slipped the sucker back in her mouth at the same time, and her next words came out jumbled. “Woon one?”
“You’ve developed quite the oral fixation.”
She pulled the sucker out of her mouth again and stuck her purple tongue out at him. “Don’t start that Chasing Amy B.S. about how all lezes are secretly just waiting for the right man. I can turn your insides out now. I’m that awesome.”
“Would never suggest such a thing,” he said dryly. “I think the world is better off without the potential of you procreating.”
“C’mon,” Merri said to him with a wink. “Haven’t you missed this?”
Fuck, no. “Is there any answer I can possibly give that will make everyone leave?”
Gen pretended to think about it. “Nope. Looks like you can’t escape us.”
“Lucky me.” He was tempted to take off, but he couldn’t remember the last time he ate an actual meal. Might be nice for once, even if it meant tolerating company for a couple of hours. He took a seat at the end of the breakfast bar to drink his beer and wait.
“So do you have a job yet?” Gen asked.
He sent a sideways glance her way to see her watching him with fake innocence, grin barely contained.
“I don’t suppose you can collect unemployment,” she continued when he didn’t say anything.
“I don’t suppose you can shut the fuck up.”
“I’m sorry, but there’re just all these things I’ve been wondering about. Like did you ever get to claim any damages incurred—while you had a job working with us—as expenses?”
“Let me guess,” Sage said. “You’re in accounting this semester?”
Gen nodded. “Yeah, I’m aiming for art school next year, but I figure I should know the business side of stuff. So anyway, Michael, I got thinking about you ‘cause I’m pretty sure you can write off mileage, some of your bills, and other things. You could file as a small business if you bent a few rules. Well, at least you could have, if you still had a job.”
Michael looked at Merri. “If you let her in here again, I’m kicking you out and changing the locks.”
“I know spells to open locks, don’t forget,” Gen said. “So why do you still live here?”
“Uh, Gen, I have to live here too,” Merri said. “Please don’t give him any ideas.”
“It’s just a question,” Gen said. “I know that if I had been fired, rendered completely useless, and forbidden resuming my duty as a burden on the chicks with superpowers, I’d definitely skip town—”
Fuck the pizza. Michael stood abruptly, beer in hand, and crossed the house toward the loft. He didn’t feel drunk, but god knows his blood alcohol level was probably still high—he decided not to chance a drive through town to a pub. Might as well go back to the dreamless sleep that had been interrupted a few hours earlier.
Sleep didn’t come easily, however. He crashed on the bed, pulled a pillow over his head to drown out the noise of the girls in the kitchen, and tried to rest.
Why hadn’t he left town yet? It was a good question. And how pathetic was it that he didn’t have anywhere to go? No plan, no direction. Nothing beyond those three girls for so long, and now he didn’t know what to do with himself. He could move, sure, but where would that leave Merri? He could also afford to keep the place in Newhaven for her temporarily while he went somewhere else, but still, he didn’t feel like leaving yet. Didn’t feel comfortable leaving them there alone yet.
So he stayed there, feeling—as Genevieve so succinctly put—useless.
He had no idea how long he’d been laying there when he heard a noise muffled through the pillow—louder this time. Michael lifted the pillow and looked back toward the stairs.
“I’ve been calling you,” Gen said as she approached.
“It didn’t occur to you I might be sleeping?”
“It occurred, I just didn’t care.”
“Jesus, would you fuck off already?” He rested his head again and closed his eyes, but ignoring her wouldn’t make her go away; he heard her footsteps advance toward him. Moments later something was dragged across the floor and the lamp next to the bed clicked on. He rolled onto his side and opened his eyes.
“I brought your pizza up.” She thrust a plate into his face.
“Great.” He took the plate and set it somewhere on the middle of the bed. “Not hungry. Go away.”
“Nah.” Gen sat on the mission rocking chair she’d dragged over. “Sage and Merri are down there debating using Neapolitan ice cream for their sundaes. Sage doesn’t like strawberry, but Merri said—”
“I don’t care!” he snapped.
Gen lifted her pizza and chewed it, not caring about his outburst. Jesus, when did he stop being scary to these people?
With a sigh, he sat up and dragged the plate closer. The pizza was still hot, admittedly good, and was welcome substance to his alcohol laced stomach.
Her slice of pizza finished, she took a sip from the bottle of water she’d brought with her. “I’m sorry, by the way. About teasing you earlier.”
Fuck, now he was so pitiful that he involuntarily solicited apologies. If he could drag his ass to the roof, he’d throw himself off later.
“As Sage reminds me daily, I’m a brat and should shut the hell up.”
Good for Sage. “I don’t fucking care.”
“But I don’t get to annoy you anymore, which really sucks,” she said, mischief sparkling in her eyes. “I mean, I try to annoy Cade, but he must be under orders or something not to fight with me. It’s really boring. He almost never threatens to kill me.”
“Woe is you.”
“Exactly. So...” She widened her eyes, affecting the look of a puppy. “Did I really, really annoy you today? Aren’t you just dying to kill me?”
“Good. I haven’t lost my touch, then.” She was absolutely beaming at him.
Strange, looking at her now after so many months. He’d seen her occasionally with Merri before, but not for any length of time. In the spring, she’d been a wreck. Still reeling from his friend nearly assaulting her, still scared of the magic, still struggling with the burden of the secrets she carried. She seemed well enough now, though; confident, if not outright arrogant.
“So, how long has Sage been coming here?” she asked.
“Why don’t you ask Sage?”
“I did—she told me it was none of my business.”
“I’d say she’s right.”
“If I can be serious for a moment, though...” Her smiled faded and she did, in fact, look serious. “Why are you still here? No teasing this time, I swear. But why haven’t you moved?”
“Good fucking question.”
“I’m asking ‘cause I’m thinking of Sage and Mer. They both rely on you a lot. I’m worried you’re going to up and leave sometime without telling them. Merri wouldn’t have anywhere to go and Sage would be devastated.”
Christ, she was actually attempting to have an adult conversation with him. Hell must be freezing over—it was indeed the end of the world.
“And you can be a total asshole sometimes,” she continued. “So part of me wouldn’t put it past you to just take off and screw them over, but I also know you have moments of humanity and I don’t want to think you’d let them down like that.”
“And it would probably be better if I did,” he said. “Your new ‘mentor’—”
“Oh, fuck Cade! Only not literally, obviously. But the guy’s a goddamn doormat. Nat must have him under strict orders to be nice to us or something.”
“She hasn’t been back?” Sage hadn’t mentioned Natalya over the past few months and neither had Merri, but he suspected—worried even—that it was perhaps due to their misplaced desire to keep his feelings in mind. Thankfully, Gen had no such sensibility.
“Nope,” she said. “Can you believe that? What a goddamn joke. She shows up here, doesn’t tell us anything, fires you, then takes off again and leaves us with her lackey. Shaw speaks highly of her, but what could she possibly have to do that’s more important than us? She’s immortal, for Christ’s sake. She can’t just TiVo her favourite shows and watch them in a century or two?” She set the plate on the floor, pulled her legs up and crossed them on her seat, and leaned back in the rocking chair. “So anyway, I don’t see why it would be so wrong for you to stay and keeping working with Sage. Secretly, of course. Mer doesn’t really need his help either, and then I’ve got Raji to work with.”
“Thad’s friend,” she reminded him. “The boy witch. Jeez, pay attention.”
“Careful how? I don’t swing that way—I’m not sleeping with him.”
“Oh. Right. ‘Course. Duh.”
“Your monosyllabic responses are not exactly inspiring confidence in me.”
“He knows, kinda, who we are—Thad probably explained the abridged version. But he doesn’t seem to care. So it’s cool. And we practice lots of spells and stuff. Oh-mi-god, like today, I’ve got Kern again for English...”
More teenage prattle. Some things never changed. He half tuned her out as she continued.
“She’s making us read Wuthering Heights. It’s awful.”
“So you don’t just have a problem with decent art,” Michael said. “But classical literature as well?”
“I have a problem with that book classified as romance. Heathcliff is a total ass. And so is Cathy, actually. They deserved to be miserable.”
“Does this tirade have a point?”
“Oh, hush. So Kern is all yelling and scary like usual. She tried to give me detention just ‘cause I don’t like that stupid book. So she’s writing notes, but I made her write all this other stuff about her vibrator and that. Everyone’s laughing and...” Her voice trailed off as she caught his eye. “What?”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing and it took him a few moments to form words. “You did what?” His voice came out low and angry, and Gen was visibly taken aback.
“It was just for fun—”
“You can’t just fuck with people like that.”
“The bitch deserved it—”
“It doesn’t matter. Your irresponsibility can get people hurt.”
She rolled her eyes. “And would that be so bad?”
“Jesus, I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”
“She makes everyone else miserable—”
“Who are you to—”
“And I can do something about it.”
Christ, it was like she suddenly dropped a few IQ points. “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should—”
She stood abruptly and grabbed his empty plate. “Yeah, yeah,” she muttered as she stalked toward the stairs. “Great power, responsibility, blah blah. Thanks Uncle Ben, but I saw that movie.”
He watched her go, a tangle of emotions building into a knot in his chest. Horror and...God... fascination. And he didn’t feel the smug self-satisfaction at being right in his prediction—in knowing that the stronger she got, the more arrogant she’d become. No, this was the one thing he hoped he’d be wrong about.
Downstairs, he heard Gen tell Merri she was leaving, and then the front door slammed shut.
Michael lay back down in bed, but knew it would be a long time before sleep came again, if at all.