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The pupil in denial; I can’t take my eyes off of you
“I smell bones!” Shazam exploded, whiskers bristling with excitement. “Bones everywhere. Thousands and thousands of them! You take me to all the best places, Yi-yi!” He slanted me an adoring look before launching himself at the earth and digging, sending tufts of grass and dirt flying.
“Stop digging,” I exclaimed. “You can’t eat those bones.”
“Can, too. Watch,” came the muffled voice.
“No, I mean, you’re not allowed to eat them,” I clarified.
He ignored me. Dirt continued to fly, mounding rapidly behind him.
“Shazam, I mean it. You promised to obey my rules. My expects,” I reminded, using his often-stilted manner of speaking, “bars on your cage.”
Head buried in the dirt, he said in a muffled voice, “That was then. This is now. Then, I didn’t have a home.”
“Shazam,” I said in the warning tone I knew he hated. But heeded.
Pudgy body wedged halfway into his hole, my Hel-Cat stiffened and inched out—exceedingly slowly and begrudgingly—and glared at me. Dirt dusted his broad nose, his silver whiskers, and clung to his long, silver-smoke ruff. He sneezed violently, licked his nose then scrubbed it with a furious paw. “But they’re bones, tiny red. They’re already dead. I’m not killing them. You said I couldn’t kill anything. You didn’t say I couldn’t eat things that were dead.” His eyes narrowed to violet slits. “You bofflescate your expects. You bofflescate my head. Who even does that?”
Bofflescate wasn’t a word I knew—he had many of those—but I intuited the meaning. “These bones are different. They matter to humans. We bury them in certain places for a reason.”
He spoke slowly and carefully, as if addressing a complete idiot. “Me, too. So they’re easy to find when I’m hungry.”
I shook my head, a smile tugging at my lips. “No. These are the bones of people we care about.” I gestured at the dark silhouettes of gravestones that stretched for acres around us. “We don’t eat them, we bury them so—”
“But nobody’s doing things with them and they’re rotting!” he wailed. Slumping on his haunches, he splayed his front paws around his pudgy white belly. “You give bones. I find bones. Same thing. One good reason why I can’t eat them,” he demanded.
I debated trying to explain human burial rituals to him, but many of our traditions defied his comprehension. A bone was a bone was a bone. Convincing him that graveyard bones carried an emotional and spiritual attachment to humans, unlike the cow or pig bones I sometimes brought him, could take all night, and leave him just as bewildered as he’d begun. And me exhausted.
I gave him the only answer that worked at a time like this. The answer I’d hated as a kid. “Because I said so.”
He rose to his full height, arched his back and hissed at me, baring sharp fangs and a long black-tipped tongue.
I returned his snarl. With Shazam, I didn’t dare yield or say “just one bone, just this time” because in his mind if a rule could be violated once, it was no longer a rule and never would be again. Unless, of course, it worked in his favor.
His eyes turned flinty.
Mine cooled to emerald ice.
He cut me a look of scathing rebuke.
I switched tactics and flayed him with an expression of reproach and disappointment.
His violet eyes widened as if I’d struck him. He shuddered dramatically, toppled over, collapsed on his back, and began to weep with great, hiccupping sobs, clutching his paws to his eyes.
I sighed. This was my best friend—the last remaining Hel-Cat in existence. Powerful, often brilliant beyond comprehension, most of the time he was a wildly emotional hot mess. I adored him. Sometimes, when he flashed like wildfire between feral and neurotic, feeling every facet of his life so intensely, I saw myself as a kid—too much to handle.
I’d been kept in a cage for most of my childhood.
I didn’t own a cage and never would.
I moved across the damp grass, sank down beside the sobbing, shaggy-pelted chimera with traits of an Iberian lynx and the supple lazy posture of a koala bear, and tugged the fifty-pound beast toward me. The moment I touched him, he howled bloody murder and began to growl, then made himself stiff, unwieldy, and mysteriously heavier. With all four legs sticking straight up in the air, sharp black claws extended, spine rigid, hoisting a hostile hyena onto my lap might have been easier.
He stopped growling long enough to snap, “Don’t touch me. Find your own dimension. You’re cramping my space.” Then he collapsed across my legs and his head lolled back. “Comb my neck, it’s tangled again,” he wailed.
I bit my lip to keep from laughing; Shazam got his feelings hurt easily in this state. Using my nails, I groomed the thick pelt of his chin, his shaggy neck, and around behind his ears until I heard a deep, contented rumble in his chest.
We sprawled in the grass in the graveyard behind Arlington Abbey, beneath a cobalt sky glittering with rose-gold stars and a full amber moon, enjoying the moment. It was the middle of March but fat-blossomed velvety poppies bobbed in nearby urns, and exotic, trellised roses adorned graves, scenting the night air with indefinable Fae fragrances. A night symphony of crickets and frogs filled the air.
Dublin’s climate had been uncharacteristically mild since the queen of the Fae used the Song of Making to heal our world last November. We’d had no winter; a long, fertile spring had morphed seamlessly into an extraordinary summer, splashed with brilliant Fae colors and new species of plants.
There’d been little peace in my life. I tended to find myself embroiled in one melodrama after the next but, aside from a broken heart that wasn’t healing on the timetable I would have preferred, life was good. I had Shazam, I had friends, I would heal and there was endless potential for new adventures once I did.
Eventually the Hel-Cat squinted a lavender eye open and peered up at me. I caught my breath. There was nothing feral or neurotic in his gaze now, only an ancient wisdom wed to remote, timeless-as-the-stars patience. I’d learned to listen carefully when he looked at me like this.
“Remains of the one who danced you into love are in the ground, Yi-yi. That’s why you don’t want me to eat the bones. Do what you came for. I will hunt only the tasty night moths.” Smirking, he added, “And I will kill as you do—with love.” He surged from my lap in a suspiciously graceful leap, given the heft of his body, and bounded into the darkness beyond the graves.
I rolled my eyes as he vanished. I’d been trained to kill at the age of nine. Before then I’d killed without training. Shortly after I rescued Shazam from Planet X, he asked how my killing was different from the killing I’d forbidden him to do, aside from me wasting food by not eating my prey. I told him that when I killed, it wasn’t with the hatred that once blazed in my heart, but with love for the world I was trying to protect. I did it only when necessary, as quickly and mercifully as possible. Killing with violence in your heart, or worse, a complete dearth of emotion, made you a killer, plain and simple. Killing because it had to be done, because there was no other way and it was the right thing to do, made you a necessary weapon.
Do what you came here for. I wasn’t sure what that was. Nothing of Dancer remained in this macabre memorial to the dead behind Arlington Abbey. I found that a terrible thought—that his essence might be trapped in a box buried beneath the dirt. When I die, cremate me and cast me to the stars.
Still, I pushed to my feet, skirted a bank of low hedges and wide planters, and moved to stand at the foot of his grave.
Time slid away; it was four months ago and I was kissing Dancer’s cold lips and closing the lid of his casket.
God, I missed him.
We’d played with the innocence and impunity of kids who believed themselves immortal (at least I had), conquering video games, watching movies, dreaming together about what our futures might hold, gorging on ice cream and candy and sodas, racing out into the night in search of adventure.
I smiled faintly. We’d found plenty. We’d plunged into life with similar enthusiasm and devil-may-care bravado. Caring, thoughtful, and brilliant, he’d been one of only two people I’ve ever met that I thought was as smart, possibly smarter, than me.
We’d grown up, become lovers.
Dancer Elias Garrick, never the sidekick, always the hero.
I shoved my hands into my pockets and stared down. I’m not a woman who often looks back. I measure actions by results, and peering into the past rarely yields any. Reflecting on something that hurts you only prolongs your pain, and when death is involved, the pain is often compounded by a relentless sense of guilt that attacks the moment you start to heal, as if duration of grief somehow proves the depth of your love for the person you lost.
If that were true, I’d have to grieve Dancer forever.
Born with a flawed heart, he’d lived fearlessly. The unfairly penalized muscle in his chest had given out on him before he’d turned eighteen, while I was sleeping next to him in bed. I’d woken after a night of lovemaking to find him forever gone.
I’d melted down. It got ugly. My friends got me through it.
Guilt had definitely led me here, but not spawned by lack of grief. A sheer abundance of it made me do something stupid last night.
I tried to erase my pain in another man’s bed. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
It hadn’t worked. The first man I’d had sex with taught me how beautiful it was.
The second man had shown me how ugly it could be.
“I miss you,” I whispered to his grave, and waited.
Shortly after he died, he spoke to me twice. I’d felt his presence, as if he was standing right there behind me, sunshine on my shoulders, reaching through the slipstream to comfort and counsel me.
A few weeks ago, however, I’d become aware that intangible warmth was gone—vanished while I slept—and I knew in my gut he’d moved on. Somehow he’d managed to linger in the ether to make sure I was all right and when he was satisfied, he’d raced off for the next grand adventure.
As he should have.
As we all should when it’s our time.
That thought didn’t make me feel any better. Thoughts rarely do. The heart has its own mind, measures its own time, and if it consults with the brain, doesn’t always heed the advice. My brain was screaming—stop hurting already. To a deaf audience.
I’d never fully grasped the meaning of the word “forever” before. I’d lost my mom long before she died. It wasn’t the same. I’d grieved her while she’d still been living.
But the idea that I would never see Dancer again was more than I could stand. All I had left of him were memories and we’d not had time to make nearly enough.
My gaze drifted to the headstone east of his marker. jo brennan. We’d laid another of my friends to rest beside him. I smiled faintly, remembering her breaking into my dungeon cell to save me. We hadn’t always gotten along but she’d been a genuine, good constant in my life and didn’t deserve to die the way she did.
alina mckenna lane. Mac’s sister was buried beside her. There’d been so much death in my life.
“All the more reason to live,” came the deep, exotically accented growl from behind me. I could hear traces of many languages in it, a consensus of none.
I bristled. Not many people can sneak up on me without my preternatural senses kicking into high alert. Ryodan defies the odds in countless, irritating ways. “Stay out of my head.”
“I wasn’t in it. Didn’t need to be. When humans stand at graves, they brood.” He was beside me then, in that sudden, silent, eerie way of his.
Humans, he’d said. Whatever Ryodan was, he wasn’t one of those and he’d stopped making any effort to conceal it from me. Whether urbane, sophisticated man or black-skinned, fanged beast, he was all the supers I was, plus an awe-inspiring, aggravating assortment of others. When I was young, I’d felt like Sarah from the movie Labyrinth, dashing around Dublin having grand adventures. Ryodan was Jareth, my Goblin King. I’d defied him at every turn, defining myself in opposition to him. I’d studied him, incorporating his ideologies and tactics into my own. Silverside I’d functioned by the code: WWRD? I’d never tell him that.
I turned and scowled up at him. Beautiful, cool, aloof man. Two things always happen to me whenever he shows up. I get an instant jolt of happiness, as if every cell in my body wakes up and is glad to see him. It pisses me off because my brain rarely agrees. Ryodan and I are enthusiastic foes, wary friends. I tell him things I don’t tell anyone else, and that offends me, too.
The second thing baffles me. I often feel like crying. I’ve wept on his flawless, crisp shirts more times than I care to remember.
“Because I understand,” he murmured, staring down at me with those glittering silver eyes. “And I can take it. I wasn’t sure about the happiness, though. Nice of you to clear that up.”
“What part of ‘stay out of my head’ didn’t you understand?”
“Your face, Dani. Everything you feel is on it. I rarely need to delve deeper.”
He’d glimpsed such raw emotion in me recently that I’d been avoiding him. As Jada, I was respected, feared. As Dani, I sometimes felt like I vied with Shazam for Hot Mess Poster Child of the Month.
I could only hope what happened last night was nowhere to be seen on my face. I’d never before experienced what an average woman with average strength contended with on a daily basis: physical vulnerability to the opposite sex. It had been humbling and horrifying and awakened a fierce compassion in me, making me even more protective of my city, especially women and children.
In bed with a stranger, my heart felt like it was going to explode. I’d tried to leave the man and that empty thing I was doing but the intensity of my emotions shorted out my sidhe-seer strength, leaving me a frighteningly normal five-foot-ten woman who weighed in at 142, in a locked room with a six-foot-four, 240-pound man.