By 8 am it was already so hot that Dmitri felt sweat sliding down his back even on the short walk down to the barn. He fed the animals quickly, filled their various water dishes and troughs up to the brim, sprayed Mojo’s pale nose with sunscreen, and escaped back up to the cooler shelter of the house. With Jesse and the dragons still asleep, and Juliet not yet home, he had a few quiet hours to himself, which he spent reading up on the care and housing of chickens. At noon he threw some bacon and sausages into a pan, sliced up some tomato pieces and added a few eggs, and grinned when Jesse stumbled down the stairs 20 minutes later, sniffing at the air.
“No work today,” Dmitri said, flipping the bacon over. “We’ll just get heatstroke. You heading out today?”
“Um, probably not.” Jesse slouched into one of the kitchen chairs and rubbed at his eyes. Some of the tension he had been carrying the past few days seemed to have left him, but he still looked pale and preoccupied. “When’s Jules due back?”
“Soon, I hope.” Dmitri fished his phone out of his pocket and sent a quick one-handed text. “You want tomato? It’s a fresh one, guaranteed free of dragon drool.”
“Just meat.” Jesse accepted the plate Dmitri handed him, yawning hugely. There were dark shadows under his eyes, dark enough that Dmitri stroked his hair instead of just messing it up even more.
His phone rang before he could ask Jesse to tell him what was wrong, and he grinned when he answered it to Juliet’s voice. He was glad to hear she was on her way home, though from her tone he guessed she was feeling a little frazzled. He saw Jesse watching him as he spoke, green eyes just like his sister’s despite the tiredness evident in their depths. When Dmitri hung up, Jesse went back to eating, or at least to cutting his sausages into smaller and smaller chunks.
“What’s up, kiddo?” Dmitri asked, settling back in his chair again. “You look like hell. I know I’m not your dad or your brother, but I’m here if you want to talk. And I’ll keep it private, even from Jules.”
“I don’t look that bad, do I?” Jesse offered him half a smile. “It’s nothing. Just... trouble sleeping in this heat.”
“You could camp out in the basement. It’s a lot cooler down there.”
“Yeah, maybe I will.” Jesse dropped his eyes back to his plate.
“Maybe you can practice your poker face while you’re down there.” Dmitri watched the flush spread across Jesse’s cheeks, under his summer tan. “At the risk of sounding like A Very Special Episode, is it drugs, booze, or boys?”
“You’re right.” Jesse shoved his chair back, drawing a hiss from Porthos at the sudden movement. “You’re not my dad or my brother, and it’s none of your goddamn business.”
“That could have gone better,” Dmitri said to the dragons after Jesse had stomped back upstairs. Athos and Aramis gave him opaque golden stares in return, while Porthos investigated their food dish for any lingering scrap of meat. Sighing, Dmitri scraped Jesse’s leftovers into the dish and went to wash up.
Juliet called again a few hours later to fume about road construction that had sent her an hour out of her way. As soon as he’d finished soothing her into agreeing not to blow up the next bulldozer she saw and hung up, the phone rang again. The woman on the other end sounded like she’d been crying and it took him a moment to place her: Addy Barkwell, who lived at the sheep farm down the road with her husband, Craig, and their baby daughter. She was speaking so fast he could barely understand her.
“Slow down,” he said gently. “Take a deep breath, Addy.”
“The sheep,” she managed. “T-torn apart. Craig’s in Ireland on a business trip and I don’t—I don’t know what to do. I have Dana to look after.”
“Give me five minutes and I’ll be over. Okay, Addy?”
She sounded a little calmer, though he could hear the baby crying in the background. “Okay. Don’t take too long, okay, Dmitri?”
“Five minutes.” He hung up the phone and called up the stairs, “Jess! I need your help!”
Jesse leaned over the railing to look down at him. “What?”
“Seriously, I need your help. The neighbour down the road says something attacked her sheep. Put some jeans on and come with me.” Dmitri waited until Jesse had nodded and disappeared to put some pants on, then grabbed his keys and jogged out to the truck. Jesse joined him a few moments later, still pulling on a T-shirt, climbing into the passenger seat even as Dmitri put the truck into gear.
Addy came out onto her front porch, holding her daughter tightly, as they pulled into her neat little farmyard. Her face was pale and her eyes were red with crying, but she seemed more composed than she had on the phone. Dmitri went to make sure both she and the baby were okay, giving her shoulder a squeeze when she looked up at him with her bottom lip trembling. He remembered Craig sharing, one night over a beer after a pleasant afternoon barbeque, that Addy was a little sensitive over the animals, and hoped that she’d just had a shock and exaggerated.
“In the pen.” She pointed around the corner of the house and gave him a desperate look. “I’m not going back there again.”
“That’s okay. I’ll go take a look.” He gestured Jesse up onto the porch. “Addy, this is Juliet’s brother, Jesse. He’ll keep you company. Jess?”
“Yeah, no problem.” Jesse offered Addy a smile.
Dmitri left them there and walked cautiously around to the sheep pen, following a trail of spilled grain. The smell of blood hit his nose first and he coughed, then gagged when he got to the fence and saw the sheep splayed in the trampled grass, already covered in a shifting carpet of flies. In the heat the stench seemed to fill his nose and he pulled the collar of his shirt up over his nose, reluctantly climbing the fence and waving the cloud of flies away. Something had neatly torn the sheep’s belly open and a quick glance told him it was missing most of its organs. A few feet away another sheep lay in the same way, and the rest of the flock was huddled under the roof of their shelter in the corner of the pen.
He climbed back over the fence and went back to the front porch, pulling Jesse aside to tell him what he’d found. Jesse blanched but agreed to stay with Addy while Dmitri went back to fetch his tractor. The sky was beginning to cloud over by the time Dmitri got back with the tractor, and the first few drops fell just as he and Jesse were filling in the big hole where they’d buried the dead sheep. Dmitri got the tractor under cover in the garage attached to the barn, then he and Jesse made a run for the house through steadily increasing rain and wind powerful enough to stagger Jesse as he jumped up onto the porch.
Addy made them tea while the rain poured down outside, looking a little brighter, though still worn around her eyes. With Jesse entertaining the baby, Dmitri was able to quietly discuss the burial of the sheep and Addy’s fear that whatever had done it would come back. He assured her that he would come right over again if she needed him and promised to come back at sunset to help get the sheep under cover for the night.
The rainstorm eased and moved past them, and the heat rushed back in to fill the slight space the rain had left. After making sure Addy would be all right, Dmitri sent Jesse to drive the truck home and fetched his tractor, keeping an eye on the still-cloudy sky as he drove home. He put the tractor away and checked on his own animals before going back up to the house.
“I, um, need to tell you something,” Jesse said when Dmitri walked in through the back door.
“Okay.” Dmitri gestured him to the kitchen table and took a chair, waiting patiently while Jesse sat and fidgeted with his hands for a few moments.
“The people I met in town...” Jesse ran a hand back through his hair and let out a breath, shoulders slumping. “They’re elves. They came through, like, over a week ago and I didn’t know at first, but I found out a couple days ago. I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone until I could talk to Jules about it. But I know they hunt and... I’m kind of afraid they’re the ones who killed the sheep.”
Dmitri watched him without saying anything for a few moments, trying to organize his thoughts. A big part of him wished Juliet would get home soon; she was qualified to deal with the creatures that came up from the lower worlds. “All right. Then let’s go ask them.”
Jesse gave him a wide-eyed look. “Just... ask them?”
“Yeah. They’re your friends, right?” Dmitri checked his phone when it buzzed. “And Jules just got delayed again, which I’m going to guess is their fault. So let’s go straight to the source and have a chat with them.”
“You can’t just go and ‘have a chat’ with them.”
“Watch me.” Dmitri got up and snagged his keys again. “You coming so we can go straight there, or do I need to canvass the whole area?”
“I’m coming. Only because you’re out of your mind and Jules would murder me if I let you go alone.” He followed Dmitri out to the truck. “Even though she’s probably going to murder me anyway.”
“I won’t let your sister murder you.” Dmitri pulled out and drove down to the road, following Jesse’s directions to the big farm on 4th Line.
The man who came out of the house to meet them had hair the colour of fire and an easy smile, though it slipped slightly when he saw Jesse hadn’t come alone. Dmitri met his pale grey eyes and told himself to see what was really there, instead of just a man with the good looks of a model and an air of appealing power. The human glamour fell away and the elf’s eyes went hard and cold, though the smile remained.
“Dmitri,” Dmitri said before anyone else could speak, offering the elf a hand. “I’m the sister’s boyfriend.”
“Forgive the rudeness,” the elf said, “but you’re human?”
“All the way through, I promise.” Dmitri kept his hand out and a moment later the elf took it, palm smooth and warm against Dmitri’s.
“Usually people are a little more... star-struck to meet us.” The elf nodded to Jesse, who went bright red and glared back at him. “Even the little mage.”
Dmitri shrugged. “Guess you just don’t have anything to tempt me with.”
“That’s a shame.” The elf studied him for a moment, then sighed. When he did, some of the sharpness seemed to leave his features, making him look a little more human even without the glamour. “My name is Corvin. What can I do you for?”
Dmitri heard the slight innuendo and ignored it. “You’re the leader here?”
“We don’t have leaders, at least not the way you mean.”
“Okay.” Dmitri smiled, wondering if the elf was purposely trying to annoy him. If so, it wasn’t working; he’d always been patient and hard to offend, and seven years with Jules had given him a thick enough skin to withstand just about anything. “Look, my neighbour had a couple of sheep killed on her farm, and I just want to know if you did it. They were cut open and their insides were taken, but the bodies were left behind.”
Corvin blinked, looking honestly taken aback. “No. We have no need or desire to hunt sheep, and even if we did, we wouldn’t leave the body and only take the entrails. That is more the cruelty of humans.”
“Yeah, because glamouring people into slaves makes you so much better,” Jesse muttered.
“We just accepted what they wanted to give.” The smile Corvin turned on Jesse was a little nasty. “Speaking of giving, I assume you did keep that hockey stick?”
“Enough,” Dmitri said, cutting Jesse off before he could speak by squeezing his shoulder. The muscles under his hand felt tense and he could feel Jesse leaning slightly towards Corvin, as though pulled to him even when he didn’t want to be. “We’re not here to discuss whether humans or elves are better. Jules will sort it out. I just came to ask you to stop, if you are hunting sheep around here.”
“Is there a following threat to that?” Corvin asked, tone mildly curious. “Or is it only bluster?”
“It’s just a request. The neighbour’s a friend and she was pretty upset. So please, if you know anything about it, make sure it doesn’t happen again?”
Corvin snorted, but his smile slowly faded into thoughtfulness as Dmitri caught his gaze and held it. “All right,” he said finally. “I will see what I can do.”
“Thanks.” Dmitri nodded to him and kept a hand on Jesse’s shoulder to walk him back to the truck, aware that Corvin was watching them the entire way.
“You saw right through him, didn’t you?” Jesse asked when they were back in the safety of the truck. He gave Dmitri a puzzled, almost wounded look. “Why didn’t I?”
“I had prior warning,” Dmitri said, reversing out of the driveway. “I’m also almost ten years older than you, and I’ve been dating your sister for seven years.” He offered Jesse a smile but Jesse didn’t return it, eyes wary. “Plus I live with three cat-sized dragons who get into anything and everything, sometimes through locked doors. You stop finding the supernatural and paranormal impressive after about the second time you have to clean up dragon poop.”
Jesse did smile at that, a quick flash, though his eyes still looked dark and bruised. “So it was impressive the first time?”
“Yeah, impressively gross.” Dmitri relaxed a little when Jesse laughed. “Don’t beat yourself up over not knowing instantly, Jess. Even I know enough about elves to know they’re really good at hiding what they are.”
“I’m a mage.”
“Yeah, and even mages make mistakes. Even Jules.” Dmitri pulled up in front of the farmhouse and cut the engine. “Whether you want my advice or not, here it is. Don’t let it eat away at you. And if it’s really bugging you that much, maybe you should get some Magia training. Guelph’s asked about you before, so they’d be willing to take you on.”
Jesse made a face. “I’d rather jump off a bridge.” He slid out of the truck and headed for the house in less of a walk than a long-limbed slouch.
Dmitri’s phone went off in his pocket when he was halfway down to the barn to check on the animals. He answered it with one hand and wiped sweat off his forehead with the other, hoping the heat wave would break soon. “Hey, Jules. Delayed again?”
“Hey, a psychic boyfriend,” she growled. “This can’t just be coincidence. What’s going on there, Dmitri? What the hell is keeping me out, and why?”
“Elves,” Dmitri said after a moment. “They’ve been here a while, I think.”
She was silent for so long that he thought he’d lost her, until she cleared her throat and said, “I’m going to kill them. I need you to come pick me up. The car won’t start, and I bet it’s not going to any time soon. Where’s Jesse? Safe?”
“Up in the house.” Dmitri hesitated again, then decided she needed to know sooner rather than later. “He’s involved with them, but I’m not sure how much.”
“Of course he is. Come get me. Highway 89, near Mount Forest.” She hung up.
He stopped at the house long enough to let Jesse know where he was going and to ask him to keep an eye on the farm, then grabbed a bottle of water and got back into the truck. Dark clouds were massing on the horizon as he headed west towards Highway 89, promising the type of storm that made him want to be safely under shelter. He turned on the radio to distract himself and called Jules again when he got close to Mount Forest, to find out where exactly she was.
She was sitting on the trunk of the car when he pulled onto the gravel shoulder behind her, her shoulders hunched and tense. When he got out of the truck, she almost launched herself at him, wrapping both arms around his neck and kissing him soundly. He put his hands under her thighs and picked her up, leaning back a little to brace himself against the truck as she hooked her legs around his hips.
“I missed you,” she murmured against his mouth, then pulled back a bit to raise an eyebrow at him. “What do you mean, we have elves?”
“They’re living at the Henderson farm, apparently.”
“What happened to the Hendersons?”
“Montreal, remember.” Dmitri let her back down onto her feet and filled her in on what he knew, watching her expression get flatter the angrier she got. “So they’re probably expecting you.”
“Good. Let’s go.” She went back to the car to grab her pack, what looked like a sword in a sheath, and a carved wooden box, and tossed them into the cab of the truck, following them in and slamming the door behind her.
They didn’t talk on the way back, but Juliet reached over and took the hand Dmitri wasn’t driving with, lacing their fingers together and resting their joined hands on her thigh. Out of the corner of his eye Dmitri watched her watching the scenery they were passing, wondering if he could convince her to lie down for a nap before she went charging in to confront the elves. She looked tired and drawn, her face pale, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail.
The clouds hung dark and heavy over the farm when Dmitri pulled into the driveway, and when he got out in front of the house, the wind tugged at him like fretful hands. He grabbed Juliet’s pack and followed her into the house, where Jesse was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a sandwich. The look in his eyes was wary when he looked up at them, but he still offered a smile.
“Hey, Jules. Good trip?”
“No.” Juliet dropped the wooden box and the sheath on the table with a bang. “Spill it. All of it.”
Jesse looked quickly at Dmitri and swallowed hard. “I didn’t know, okay? Just... met a couple people in town and they seemed nice.”
Juliet raised an eyebrow. “Nice.”
“Yeah, nice. So I started hanging out with them, but when I realized things were weird...” Jesse shrugged. “I figured it out, but he said people wanted to kill him and they just wanted a place to live. I told him to stop fucking with people, Jules, honest. And I said I’d talk to you.”
“They’re elves. You know better than that, Jesse. Give me their names. I’m going over there and kicking their asses back where they belong.”
Jesse’s mouth thinned into a line. “You never listen, do you? It’s always all about what you want, you getting your own way. You won’t even talk to them. It’s not like they’re monsters wandering around destroying things. You could at least hear their side of the story.”
“I don’t care about their side of the story. Elves destroy things just by hanging around, and they don’t belong here. If they were really serious, they would’ve contacted someone in Guelph to get registered.”
“Yeah, because Magia are so understanding,” Jesse said, rolling his eyes.
“Better than being a fool and falling for the most cliché sob story in the world.” Juliet slapped a hand down on the table, leaning over her brother. “I’ve just spent nearly two weeks being dragged all over Ottawa working my ass off, and then coincidentally things kept coming up to keep me from getting back home. I’ve been nearly killed half a dozen times, and I hit some poor kid with my car on the way back here. Your elves caused all that.”
“Not on purpose.” Jesse had leaned away from her but he sat up straight again, meeting her glare with one of his own. “It’s not like they sat down and thought about how they could screw with you best. And you can make stupid decisions all on your own, so don’t blame it all on them.”
“All right, that’s it.” Juliet turned her glare on Dmitri. “You know where they are? Good.” She looked back at Jesse. “As for you, you’re going right back home to Alberta, whether Mom and Dad like it or not. You can sit around on your ass there all summer.”
“No!” Jesse shoved himself out of his chair and for all that he was nearly four inches taller than his sister, he still couldn’t quite seem to manage to tower over her. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You are if I say you are.”
“Maybe we should take a moment to cool off.” Dmitri put a hand on Juliet’s shoulder, gently kneading the tense muscles there. “Jules, a fight won’t help anything.”
He felt her start to relax a little, then Jesse rolled his eyes again and snorted in derision. Juliet’s chin came up and she stepped away from Dmitri, dropping her hands down by her sides. Outside thunder boomed, so suddenly that Dmitri jumped, but neither Juliet nor Jesse moved, glaring at each other. Dmitri felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end and realized one or both of them were calling on power, and he wasn’t sure which one had done it first. The air seemed to shimmer slightly around both of them, hardly visible unless he turned slightly and looked out of the corner of his eye, and the air in the kitchen felt more charged than the air outside.
“Don’t you dare,” Juliet said softly. “You’re calling power on me, Jesse?”
Jesse’s eyes flicked to Dmitri and Dmitri read fear under the anger and stubbornness there before Jesse looked back at his sister. “You can’t just order me around. I’m 18 now. I’m not a child.”
“I can order you out of my house. Out of my territory. This is my place.”
Thunder cracked again and Dmitri moved quickly between them, taking Juliet by the shoulders and doing his best to block Jesse from her view. She looked up at him, her eyes almost glowing green, the pupils down to little more than pinpricks. There was rage in her eyes, but he could still see recognition there, even if her skin was so warm under his hands that it was almost on the edge of painful.
“Then I’m gone,” Jesse snapped behind him, and a moment later the back door opened and slammed shut, the sound almost lost in another roar of thunder. The skies opened and rain pounded down on the roof and windows, driven sideways by the force of the wind.
Juliet’s eyes widened and the anger faded into horror. She pulled away from Dmitri and ran out onto the back porch, calling Jesse’s name. Dmitri followed on her heels, shielding his eyes against the sting of the rain to try and see Jesse in the downpour. The backyard and the barn were both empty, and when he got in his truck to go down the driveway, he came back alone.