Kith felt Jules’s return as a shiver up his spine and a tightness inside his chest that had nothing to do with the building storm electricity in the air. Morwen, sleeping with her head in his lap and her feet across Corvin’s, beside Kith, came awake suddenly, her eyes wide and white-rimmed. Corvin himself jumped like he’d been shocked, dropping the magazine he’d been idly flipping through. They exchanged glances, then Kith pushed Morwen to sit up and got up off the couch, going to the window to look outside. The clouds above them were black and ominous, and even as he watched sheet lightning flickered through their depths.
“What do we do?” Corvin asked.
“Wait,” Kith said after a few moments, counting heartbeats until the rumble of thunder.
“We could attack,” Morwen said. “There are more of us than of her.”
“It wouldn’t be six against one. It would be six against two. Jesse may be sympathetic, but I doubt he would take our side against his sister in a fight. And it would only be against two if we managed to kill them both before they called in reinforcements, and I have... little interest in that.”
“Of course you don’t,” Morwen muttered. “Whatever you say, Kith, I will defend myself.”
Kith snorted. “I would be disappointed in you if you didn’t. But for now, we wait.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “You said you met the boyfriend, Corvin?”
“His name is Dmitri.” Corvin shrugged one shoulder. “He says he’s human, but there’s something there.”
“Can we use it?”
Corvin shook his head. “To be honest, I think it’s best he remains a bystander. To both sides.”
Kith saw Morwen roll her eyes, but she said nothing, picking absently at a loose thread on the couch with her long fingers. Suddenly restless, Kith left them there and went through the enclosed porch to the path in front of the house. He could smell lightning and rain in the air, and the growing wind refreshed him, relaxing tense muscles. He rolled his shoulders and stretched, unknotting the muscles in his back, and considered taking the red mare out into the storm. He knew Celina and Cato would probably join him if he did.
He took a step towards the barn and then stopped dead when he felt the rising power in the distance. He recognized Jesse’s right away, then his sister’s in response, rooted in the fact that she was back in her own rightful territory. In terms of pure strength he could tell that Jesse was stronger; but his sister knew and held her place, and experience made her more dangerous. For a moment he wondered if they would fight each other and take the problem out of his hands, but a few minutes later the sense of Jesse’s power disappeared and was soon followed by his sister’s.
The rain came only seconds later, preceded by a roar of thunder that made him flinch at the impact on sensitive ears. It rained so hard that he was soaked even in the short amount of time it took him to get back to the porch, plastering his hair against his skull and his shirt to his chest. He got under shelter and swiped wet hair out of his eyes before turning to look out at the storm. Brilliant lightning flared across the dark sky, flickering with barely a break between flashes, and the thunder that followed each strike only seemed to get louder each time.
He watched the storm rage, hiding the setting sun so that night seemed to have come early, for nearly twenty minutes before movement down the driveway caught his attention. As the rain started to ease, he realized it was a person, slogging through the steadily deepening puddles, arms wrapped around themselves, head hanging. Another flicker of lightning lit the driveway up enough for him to recognize Jesse. Startled, Kith moved without thinking, pushing through the porch door and out into the rain.
“Hey.” He caught Jesse’s shoulders when Jesse stumbled and pulled him up the steps into the porch. “What are you doing here?”
“Jules told me to get out,” Jesse managed between chattering teeth. “So I did. I just... didn’t know where else to go.” He looked up at Kith from under soaking wet hair, eyes desperate. “Please don’t kick me out.”
Kith hesitated slightly, thoughts racing, then pulled Jesse towards the main door. “Come on. You can at least have a shower and change into some dry clothes.”
He saw Corvin and Morwen watching them from the doorway into the living room as they passed, but ignored both their presence and Morwen’s tense posture. Taking Jesse up the stairs to the second floor, he showed him to the bathroom and went to dry himself off and change into dry clothes. He sat on the bed to dry his hair with a towel and listened to the sound of the shower running down the hall, trying to decide what to do. With Jesse here they had more leverage against his sister and she was unlikely to attack; but she was also likely to be furious when she found out where he had gone. Kith wasn’t sure whether that would be more dangerous for them or for Jesse.
He heard the shower shut off with a clunk and got up from the bed to find some dry clothes for Jesse to change into, taking a T-shirt and a pair of pyjama pants down the hall and knocking on the bathroom door. Jesse opened it wearing a towel wrapped around his waist, looking a little better with more colour in his face, took the clothes, and shut the door again. Still feeling restless and out of sorts, Kith paced the hallway until Jesse came back out, dry and dressed, his hair already starting to curl again.
“Better?” Kith asked.
“Warmer.” Jesse gave him a wan smile and half a shrug. “Thanks for letting me come in.”
“I find it’s in my best interests to be nice to you.”
Jesse stared at him for a moment then snorted. “Don’t ever change, Kith. I did try to tell Jules that you’re not here to make a mess, but she didn’t listen.” His eyebrows drew down and a muscle in his jaw twitched. “She never listens. It’s always her way or the highway.”
“I have yet to meet a mage who didn’t think that way.” Kith took his arm and drew him down the hallway to his bedroom. “You look tired. Maybe you should sleep.”
“I’m okay.” Jesse dropped down on the end of the bed, rubbing absently at the back of his neck. “I kind of used magic to get most of the way here, so I just need to... recharge.”
“Tell me exactly what happened then.”
“Um... Well, we left here after talking to Corvin about the dead sheep.” Jesse chewed on his bottom lip. “You didn’t kill the sheep, right?”
“No,” Kith said, thinking of the gryphon. “Why would we?”
Jesse shrugged. “Dmitri thought you did. Anyway, we went back home and Jules called Dmitri to pick her up because her car broke down, so he did, then they came home and boom, big fight. She’s so...” He raised both hands in frustration then ran his fingers back through his hair. “She’s ten years older than me, right? So she’s always been the overbearing big sister. She’s a steamroller and she doesn’t care who gets in her way. I mean, I love her, of course I do, she’s my sister.”
“But she annoys you,” Kith said when Jesse trailed off into silence. He offered half a smile when Jesse looked up again and nodded. “If it makes you feel better, my cousin has outright said she wanted to kill me as a baby, and other cousins have tried.”
Jesse laughed a little. “Okay, at least Jules hasn’t tried to kill me. Though she still might. I... when I lost my temper, I pulled power on her. It’s not like I would’ve really tried to hurt her, but I mean, it’s like pulling a gun on someone. Asshole behaviour at best.” The corners of his mouth turned down again. “Not that she even hesitated to pull power back.”
“You did threaten her.”
“Thanks for taking my side.” Jesse stuck his tongue out.
“I let you in here, didn’t I?” Kith shrugged. “You’re welcome to stay, though I’ll warn you that it won’t be a popular decision.”
“Story of my life.” Jesse looked up at him for a long moment, then suddenly shoved himself to his feet and grabbed the front of Kith’s shirt, kissing him hard enough to knock their teeth together. They both recoiled and Jesse turned bright red, scrubbing at his cheek with the palm of one hand. “Shit, I’m sorry. That was, uh, dumb. I’m gonna—”
Kith slid a hand around the curve of Jesse’s jaw, preventing him from bolting, and kissed him gently, coaxing him into a response. Jesse wrapped both arms around his neck, pressing up against him with a desperation Kith would have found amusing if he hadn’t been otherwise distracted. It took only a little pressure to get Jesse down on the bed, where Kith could straddle his hips and slide his hands under the borrowed T-shirt, pushing it up without releasing Jesse’s mouth. The skin under his palms was warm and he felt the jump of muscle and the hitch in Jesse’s breath when he ran both hands up Jesse’s sides.
He pulled back just enough to pull the T-shirt over Jesse’s head, half-aware that outside the rain had started again. Lightning flickered fitfully, temporarily banishing the shadows that had crept through the room with the approach of night. Tossing the shirt aside, Kith kissed under the line of Jesse’s jaw, amused by the way Jesse arched against him. He moved his hands down, taking his time to stroke bare skin, until he could start loosening the ties on Jesse’s pants. Jesse tensed, then abruptly put both hands against Kith’s chest and shoved him back.
“No! Just...” He took a deep breath. “Wait.”
Kith blinked but let go of the ties, raising both hands to show Jesse his open palms. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t want to. I... It’s a bad idea.” The look Jesse gave him was half-defiant and half-ashamed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Kith moved off him and sat crosslegged on the bed, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly until he felt himself relax. “Too much?”
“I’m not into guys.”
Kith snorted a laugh and only laughed harder at the glare Jesse shot him. “Somebody’s lying and it’s not me. Who cares? Honestly, who really cares who or what you’re ‘into’?” He made the quotation marks in the air.
“Yeah, it’s easy for you. You just walk in somewhere and people fall all over themselves for you. It’s not so easy for us lowly mortals.” Jesse rolled over and snagged his shirt from the floor, pulling it on with short, sharp motions.
“You’re the only one who puts restrictions on you,” Kith said. “I’m also not a ‘guy’. I’m an elf.”
“Hilarious. And I’m pretty sure you fall under the guy category, unless that really is a banana in your pocket.”
“I’m just saying it doesn’t matter, at least to us. Why should it matter to you?”
“Because it does. Because I went through high school dating girls and then whoops, got a little too tipsy at a graduation party, made out with some guy from another school, and now I don’t even know who I am anymore.” Jesse flinched as a particularly loud crash of thunder punctuated his words and crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t know what to do.”
Kith bit his bottom lip against an urge to start laughing again. “Did you enjoy it?”
“Oh, fuck off.” Jesse pushed himself up and paced in front of the bed. “You can afford to laugh at me. You do whatever you want, whenever you want.”
“All right, fine.” Kith held up both hands in surrender. “I’m not going to push you into anything.” He flashed a grin. “Probably for the best. If I did deflower you, the unicorns would be very upset.”
Jesse stopped and stared at him, and for an alarming moment Kith thought he was on the verge of tears. Then he snorted, which turned into laughter that made Jesse double over, clutching at his stomach and wheezing for breath. When he managed to straighten up, he said, “You’re such an asshole.”
“Come sit.” Kith patted the bed beside him and rolled his eyes when Jesse hesitated. “What do you think I’m going to do to you?”
“Nothing, I guess.” Jesse sat down, drawing his knees up and wrapping his arms around them. “That you haven’t already, anyway.”
“I’ve got nothing to do with your issues.” Kith shifted his weight and reached out to place his hands gently on Jesse’s shoulders, digging his thumbs into the tight muscles there. “Relax. I have had plenty of chances to do you harm, and I have yet to do so.”
“Because you have to be nice to me, remember?”
“Mmm.” Kith moved his hands down the length of Jesse’s shoulderblades, working the muscles until they unknotted. Outside the storm continued and after a moment he flicked one hand at the bedside lamp, turning it on to banish some of the shadows. “I am... grateful though. I’m glad to have an ally.”
“Aww, Kith. You can say thank you, you know.” Jesse squirmed, laughing, when Kith pinched him. “You’re welcome. I just hope it hasn’t all been a waste of time. Jules’ll still come after you.”
“Maybe you should call her, so she doesn’t worry.” Kith continued moving down Jesse’s back, listening to his breathing deepen. “To show her we haven’t just stolen you away.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Jesse leaned forward, his head dropping. “I’m tired.”
“You can sleep after you let her know.”
“Who made you my dad,” Jesse muttered, but he fished his phone out of his pocket and sent a text. “Happy now?”
“You’re a brat.” Kith reached around him and took the phone out of his hand, setting it on the bedside table, then pushed him to lie down. “Sleep.” He stroked Jesse’s hair until Jesse closed his eyes, then got carefully to his feet, picking up the phone again when it dinged. The message came under Dmitri’s name and only told Jesse to be safe, and after reading it Kith went through the phone until he found the contact information for Jesse’s sister. He smiled a little when he saw her full name, then put the phone down and left Jesse to sleep.
He spent a largely sleepless night wandering the house, ignoring Morwen’s invitation to join her and Corvin, and went outside once the storm had ended to walk down to the unicorn paddock. The ground was so wet that he soon pulled his shoes off and left them by the side of the path, continuing on his way barefoot. He climbed the fence when he reached the paddock and sat on the top, not letting the dampness of the wood touch him, waiting until the unicorns noticed him and came over to get their noses rubbed. He wondered if it was his imagination that they were beginning to look a little less like creatures of magic and moonlight, and more like mortal horses.
“Is that it?” he asked the red mare, scratching around the base of her horn. “Are we becoming too human here?”
She didn’t answer, and after a while he went back to the house, picking up his shoes on the way by. He slept for a few hours on the couch in the living room and woke at dawn feeling like he hadn’t slept at all, and as though at any minute, something would attack him. He caught himself looking over his shoulder when he went into the kitchen to make coffee and jumped so badly when the morning cook knocked on the door that he nearly dropped the coffee mug in his hand. Irritated, and aware of Jesse still sleeping upstairs, he sent the cook away, then realized he had no idea how to actually make something for breakfast.
San saved him by coming into the kitchen, snorting at him, and putting together scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. “Crones do not cook for themselves,” she said, setting a plate down in front of him at the kitchen table. “Apprentices cook for them. You’re up early.” She gave him a critical look. “Did you even sleep? I know you had the mage in your bed.”
“Yes, but I wasn’t there.” He tried the eggs and found, to his surprise, that they were good. “I’m waiting for the sister.”
“Have you thought about trying to placate her by offering to register with the Magia?”
“Somehow I don’t think she’ll be agreeable.”
“You never know.” San shrugged. “I do think you should know that the gate opened again last night. I’m not sure if something came through or not.”
Kith grunted. “Wonderful. With our luck, this time it will be a dragon or something.” He looked up at the sound of footsteps on the stairs and nodded to Jesse, gesturing for him to help himself to the food San had left on the counter. “Sleep well?”
“Yeah.” Jesse gave San a shy smile and piled a plate high with food before coming to sit at the table. “Dmitri texted me back, which probably means he’s running interference again. Jules must still be mad.”
Kith glanced at San. “If she does come here, I’ll offer to get registered.”
When they were finished eating, Kith took Jesse outside, unable to resist the urge to move. They walked for a while in silence, following the trail side by side but not quite close enough to touch. Caught up in his own thoughts, still wondering what had come through the gate the night before, Kith didn’t mind the lack of conversation. Instead of the usual trail that looped back around to the house and barn, he took Jesse along a more overgrown path that wandered out past the woods and into an area of thickly overgrown hills and low bushes. Above them the sun had finished burning through the last hazy layer of clouds and beat down on them, making the day so hot that Jesse soon stripped his shirt off.
He heard the rush of wings and looked up, half-blinding himself with the glare from the sun, to see the gryphon dropping towards him, talons outstretched. Jesse yelped in alarm and Kith had a moment to wonder if the gryphon would attack him too before something hit him hard in the side, sending him sprawling in the undergrowth. He heard the gryphon screech and only realized it hadn’t disemboweled him when he shakily sat up to find himself unharmed. He looked down the trail and saw Jesse sprawled across the path, already trying to pick himself up, and the gryphon standing over him, wings half-spread.
“Stay down!” he yelled at Jesse, trying not to flinch when the gryphon swung its head towards him, lion’s tail lashing angrily. He started calling on power to cast a spell, bracing himself for the gryphon to attack.
“It’s okay.” Jesse pushed himself up onto his knees and the gryphon swung back towards him, making Kith clench a fist at how close its half-open beak was to Jesse’s head. “It’s hurt. It’s got an arrow in its shoulder.” He gave Kith an accusing look.
“It attacked us first,” Kith pointed out, not sure why he felt so defensive.
Jesse ignored him, looking up at the gryphon, which tilted its head to fix him with one glaring golden eye. Before Kith could tell him not to, and to back away, Jesse reached up towards the gryphon’s beak, as though it couldn’t take his hand off with one sideways snap. Kith scrambled to his feet but stopped when the gryphon turned to glare at him, before it settled down on its haunches and leaned its heavy head against Jesse’s bare chest.