“Jess. Hey, Jess. Wake up.”
Jesse unwillingly cracked one eye open and gave Dmitri a bleary look. “Mmm?”
“Can you go into town to pick up some supplies? I’ve got a million things to do here and it would really help me out.”
Jesse spent a moment wondering if Juliet had stayed with Dmitri for so long simply for his smile, then shut that line of thought down and cracked the other eye. “Mmkay. Gimme a list. And money. And your keys.”
“Thanks, Jess, I owe you. I’ll leave everything on the kitchen table. No rush.” Dmitri ruffled his hair, an indignity that Jesse would never have allowed from anyone else including his sister, and left the room. A moment later Jesse heard the thump of heavy workboots going down the stairs.
Meaning to go back to sleep—Dmitri had said it was no rush and a quick look at the bedside alarm clock showed it was only just past 11—Jesse rolled over and immediately recoiled when something nipped his bare toes. He peeked under the sheets and saw Porthos curled up by his feet, her nose just a little too close to his ankles for comfort. With a sigh, he carefully removed himself from the bed, glad that at least he hadn’t had to try and maneuver around all three dragons.
He found Aramis in the bathroom sink, curled up along the length of the porcelain and occasionally taking bites out of the bar of soap someone had left on the counter. Jesse slid a hand past her to get his toothbrush and toothpaste, and went downstairs to brush his teeth and empty his bladder in the little bathroom off the dining room, which was thankfully free of dragons.
The fridge wasn’t; he opened it to find something to eat for breakfast and found Athos sprawled across the top shelf, using half a tomato as a pillow. She allowed him to pull her out and draped herself along his shoulders, her tail wrapped loosely around his neck, while he shoved some bread in the toaster. The fridge and the cupboards were surprisingly bare, which he expected from Juliet; but Dmitri usually kept the kitchen well-stocked.
“I guess he did say he needed supplies,” Jesse told Athos, offering her the last chunk from a bar of mozzarella. She took it politely from his fingers and didn’t complain when he then put her down on the floor.
Still hungry after the toast, he decided to just pick up a burger or something in town and wandered back upstairs to pull on the first pair of jeans he pulled out of his hockey bag and the faded T-shirt he’d worn for gym class all through high school. It had gotten a little small for him after another growth spurt the previous year had put him at a shade under six feet—even though he’d purposely bought it big to grow into—but it was still comfortable and thin enough for the heat he could feel trying to bake through the windows. When he stepped outside, Dmitri’s keys in one hand and both list and money safely in his wallet, he felt like he’d walked out into an oven. He squinted up at the sun, a molten disc in the intense blue of the sky, and hurried to start the truck, helping the A/C along with a touch of magic.
He leaned on the horn to let Dmitri know he was leaving and reversed out of the parking spot, swinging the truck around to gun it down the driveway to the road. It took him barely 5 minutes to make it into town, especially when he pushed the truck up to 130 down the dusty highway. He parked on the sleepy main street that ran through the center of town and got out of the truck, rubbing absently at the back of his neck when all the hairs there stood on end in response to something he couldn’t name. At this time of day there weren’t many people out, but most of the ones he did see looked a little dazed, though in the suffocating heat he didn’t really blame them.
Somewhere a car backfired and he jumped, then rolled his eyes at himself and went into the nearby convenience store to find something to eat. The teenage girl behind the counter gave him a distracted smile and returned her attention to watching the images on the store’s overhead security camera, sighing heavily.
Shaking his head, Jesse made his way through the closely packed aisles to the freezers at the back of the store to grab a popsicle, picking up a pack of beef jerky and a family-sized bag of barbecue chips on the way back. Distracted by juggling his items and trying to decide if he wanted some candy as well, he didn’t see the woman coming around the corner until he bumped into her and knocked the milk jug out of her hand.
“Shit, sorry!” He tucked the bag of chips under his arm and crouched down to pick up the jug. “It’s a little dented, sorry. Want me to grab you a new one?”
“The milk inside isn’t dented. I think we’ll live.” She had an accent he couldn’t quite place and when she smiled at him, he felt himself blush, momentarily struck dumb. He’d seen pretty girls before but none of them had been quite so beautiful that he could only manage something inarticulate as he offered the jug back to her. She took it carefully, not letting her slender fingers touch his, and he wondered if it was contacts that made her large eyes look so purple under the fluorescents.
She smiled again and turned to go up to the counter with her milk, the hem of her blue sundress swirling around her thighs. He trailed behind her like a lost puppy, no longer even thinking of candy, but hoping he didn’t look quite so dumbstruck as the girl behind the counter. The thought shook him out of his haze and he was suddenly glad Juliet was in another city; she would have never let him live it down if she’d been nearby to see him mooning over some woman in a convenience store. He managed to return the woman’s smile when she glanced back over her shoulder at him, paid for his own purchases when she was done, and made himself take a minute to put the change in his wallet so he wouldn’t look like a creep eager to follow her out of the store.
Straightening his shoulders, he pushed the door open and stepped outside, then stopped so suddenly that the closing door smacked into his heels and drove him forward a step. The woman with the purple eyes turned from the curb, raising one dark eyebrow, but he barely noticed her this time. Her companion looked up from fiddling with the handles of his motorcycle and blinked at Jesse, then grinned and crooked a finger. Jesse couldn’t keep himself from approaching them, like there was an invisible line pulling him in.
“Hi.” The man leaned his arms on the motorcycle’s handlebars, not even bothering to hide the way he was looking Jesse over. Jesse had thought he was older by the door, but up close he looked barely into his twenties, his golden skin smooth and unlined. He spoke with the same accent as the woman. “If you don’t close your mouth, something’s going to fly into it.”
Jesse snapped his mouth shut, his blush only worsening when he heard the woman giggle. “I’m sorry. That’s, uh, that’s a cool bike.”
“Is that what you were staring at?” The man laughed. “It’s an Iron 883, Harley Davidson. Want to go for a ride?”
“Kith.” The woman didn’t sound exactly disapproving, but there was a slight edge to her voice. “Not a good idea.”
“I see it, Morwen.” He smiled at Jesse again. “What’s your name?”
“Jesse Morgan.” He dragged his eyes away from Kith’s—still not sure if they were actually golden or just an unusual shade of brown—and concentrated on the motorcycle instead. “You see what?”
Kith ignored the question. “Just passing through or do you live around here?”
“I’m visiting my sister for the summer. She lives here.” Jesse looked up at Kith’s face again, unable to stop himself, acutely aware that there was a hole in the knee of his jeans and his shirt had been washed so many times it was almost as thin as tissue paper. “Not here-here, like in town. Out there.” He waved vaguely towards the road out of town and fought the urge to make sure his fly was still zipped.
“Us too. You should come visit sometime.” Kith straightened up and held a hand out to the woman, helping her up onto the bike behind him. “We’re on the fourth road from town. The big white house with the black barn, just past the first hill.”
“Okay.” Jesse forced himself to step back as the motorcycle’s engine roared into life and lifted a hand in a wave as Kith pulled smoothly out from the curb.
He was still waving when they turned out of sight, then realized what he was doing and hastily dropped his hand. Some of the light seemed to have gone out of the day and he shivered as a sudden breeze brought goosebumps up on the damp skin of his back. He ran his fingers through his hair and hurried to the truck, trying to convince himself that he hadn’t just acted like the biggest dork in the world in front of a guy who could have stepped right out of the movies.
A storm was blowing in when he stepped out of the grocery store, pushing a shopping cart piled high with all the things on Dmitri’s list and a few extras. The sky was still blue towards the east but a line of dark thunderheads had built up towards the west and he saw lightning flicker in their depths. The wind gusted hard enough to stagger him as he pushed the cart to the truck and he packed the grocery bags in as fast as he could, keeping one eye on the weather. As he threw himself into the driver’s seat, the first big drops splattered down on the windshield, cutting through the layer of dust.
The rain started in earnest just as he turned onto the highway, a sudden silver-grey sheet of water that forced him to drop down to just over 40. A moment later the rain turned to hail big enough to make him jump when it bounced off the roof of the cab. He debated pulling over to wait out the worst of the storm, then reminded himself it wasn’t like he had far to go. He hunched over the steering wheel, squinting out at the road through the hail and the fast flicking of his windshield wipers, and kept going.
Something huge and white leaped out in front of him just as he passed 4th Line, there and gone so fast he didn’t know if he’d actually seen it even as he slammed on the brakes. The truck fishtailed and the rear swung dangerously close to the ditch before he managed to bring it to a stop. For a few long moments he just sat there, eyes wide, gripping the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles lost all colour, until his heart dropped back down from his throat. The hail eased and began to turn back into rain, letting him see the opposite side of the road. On a whim, he turned on the truck’s flashers and got out, shielding his eyes from the rain and hurrying across the road after a quick check to make sure he wasn’t about to get run over.
The rain was already washing them away, but he saw the glimmer out of the corner of his eyes. He crouched down in the wet gravel and held his hands over the mud by the side of the road, comparing the size of them to the cloven footprints leading into the hay field. His hands weren’t small but the prints easily outsized them, even accounting for the soft mud and the rain pounding them into oblivion.
He straightened up and looked warily around before returning to the truck and climbing in. The rain had almost stopped by the time he got back to the farm, but thunder still rumbled ominously in the distance and he saw a bolt of brilliant blue-white lightning as he was carrying the groceries into the kitchen. A sudden crack of thunder loud enough to rattle the windows made him cringe and nearly drop the glass jar of tomato sauce he was putting into the pantry, and a moment later all the lights went out.
“Fuck.” He searched through the drawers until he found a flashlight, just in case the power stayed out when it got dark, and put it on the kitchen table. When he turned back to the bag he’d left on the counter, Aramis was sitting there, her red scales dulled by the grey light. He reached out to rub her head and recoiled when she hissed at him, coiling her serpentine neck and half-spreading her wings.
“The fuck is your problem?” he asked, not sure if he should be hurt or insulted. “Hi, it’s me, I’ve existed longer than you have, so a little respect, huh?”
She eyed him suspiciously, then spread her wings and glided down off the counter, stalking away into the living room. He rolled his eyes and finished putting the groceries away, then threw on a coat and went outside to see if Dmitri needed any help with the barn. Brilliant lightning split the sky as he was hurrying past the pool in the backyard, and a moment later thunder exploded like artillery. Jesse clapped his hands over his ears and ducked into the barn, unable to stop an embarrassing squeak when he nearly collided with Dmitri.
“Hey, kiddo, you okay?” Dmitri caught him by both arms. “Hell of a crash, huh?”
“Yeah.” Jesse tossed wet hair off his forehead. “Just startled me. Need any help?”
“Toss the horses some hay then we’re done until evening.
Jesse started towards the horse stalls, then turned back. “Hey, this’ll sound weird, but um, you know of anything around here that’s big, white, and has cloven hooves?”
“Not unless the neighbour’s been really overfeeding his sheep.” Dmitri grinned. “Or we’ve got a unicorn outbreak.”
“God, I hope not.” Jesse rolled his eyes. “At least not until Jules gets home. All this creepy-crawly, oogie-boogie shit is her department, not mine.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for any stories about white horses with horns. See you up at the house, Jess.” Dmitri squinted out the window at the pouring rain then ducked outside.
Jesse watched him run up to the house, smiling a bit, then went to toss hay to Mojo and Geneva in their stalls. He spent a few minutes feeding them carrots and rubbing their noses, then got Geneva to lift up a front foot, comparing it to his hand. He knew there was some draft in the mare but even her hoof wasn’t larger than his hand. He let her foot down, gave her a pat on her thick neck, and left the barn again, trying not to think how big an animal had to be to leave tracks of that size on the side of the road.