“Oh man, if that’s the plan we’re going with, I hope you’ve got some clothes you don’t mind losing.”
It was the next day, and I was out on the grounds with Sean. We were both drinking ice water while we played with Vulcan. The boy was shaking his head at me while he continued. “Cuz I’ve smelled that stuff, and it ain’t gonna come out without some help.” He raised his glass to me before taking sip as ice cubes clinged together.
“And getting help from the staff would mean admitting I was there,” I confirmed. “Don’t worry, Sands made that part really clear. Unfortunately, she also said it’s the best idea she’s got, and I don’t have a better one.” Shrugging, I added, “Besides, if it gets us real information about Tangle, it’ll be worth it.”
The boy glanced to me before his head bobbed. “Yeah, point. Not like we’ve got a lot of other leads.” Shrugging, he added, “But hey, at least there’s not—“ He stopped himself. “Actually, never mind.”
“Smart man,” I commended with a little smile. “Keep any ‘at least there’s not’ comments to yourself.”
With the sound of clanging metal and gears, Vulcan came galloping back across the grass with a thick rubber ball in his mouth. Depositing it at my feet, he proceeded to dance around me excitedly, his metal tongue hanging out of his mouth. He was even wagging his hindquarters and bouncing as he waited.
Obligingly, I leaned down and grabbed the ball off the grass. “Oooh, thank you. I’ll keep it forever and ever and love it and not let it out of my sight,” I teased while the mechanical canine made a weak little whining noise, his eyes fixated on the ball. How the metal dog designed for battle that could turn into a minigun managed to look forlorn was beyond me, but somehow he accomplished the feat. I couldn’t hope to hold out against those puppy dog eyes. “Aww, okay, okay. Just teasing. Here, go get it, boy!”
Rearing back, I threw the ball as hard as I could. As it arced up and away from us, Vulcan gave a quick, excited bark before taking off like a shot. He chased that ball, a silver blur racing across the grass.
Watching him go, I took a sip from my water before speaking. “You know, I’ve been wondering something.”
“How could a guy as brilliant as I am end up looking this damn good?” Sean grinned. “Hard work.”
Outwardly, I rolled my eyes. But he had a point about the looking good part. The boy was wearing this dark red muscle shirt that clung to his chest rather well, with just enough sweat from playing with his canine partner to make him look like some kind of fitness model in a commercial. It was… distracting.
Still, there was no sense letting his head swell even further. So rather than engage him, I just coughed and moved on. “Actually, I was thinking that you’ve taken this whole…” Trailing off, I glanced around slightly before lowering my voice. “Strangers not being completely evil monsters thing pretty well.”
“You mean for someone raised in the Knowledge,” he clarified while stooping to take the ball from the returned Vulcan. “You’re wondering why this whole thing isn’t messing me up a bit, like Sands.”
I nodded while the boy took his turn to throw the ball, sending the mechanical dog bounding after it once more. “She’s been doing a lot better, but, yeah. You just seem to roll with the whole thing a lot better. I don’t know if it’s because you really don’t mind as much, or you think you shouldn’t react. If it’s the latter, I want you to know that you can talk about any problems you have. You don’t have to hide your reaction or anything.” It felt awkward to put that way, but I still had to say it, just in case.
Sean just shook his head. “I’m not exactly the type to hide when I’ve got a problem with something, Flickster. Trust me, if the time comes that you say something I disagree with, you’ll know about it.”
Turning to face the boy fully, I spread my arms out in a gesture of confusion. “So why are you taking this so easily? Like you said, you grew up in this society like Sands did. But you’ve barely reacted.”
He didn’t react at first, seeming to be taking the time to collect his thoughts. Meanwhile, Vulcan returned, this time depositing his ball back at my feet. I smiled, taking it back up again and teasing the dog with it a little before giving the thing another hard chuck. With an excited woof, he was gone.
Eventually, Sean spoke. “You remember what I said about Uncle Sebastian, the one from Colombia.”
“Sure,” I confirmed without needing to think about it. I remembered our conversation during that first hunt. “He’s the one that settled down and retired. You said he was one of the Heretics that didn’t want to go out hunting anymore, but he’d protect that specific area if anything happened to cause trouble.”
Nodding, Sean glanced to me. “Yeah, well, one thing I left out was that he didn’t exactly pick that spot to retire on a whim. He’s got this friend that lives there. When I was growing up, I just called him Uncle Mateo. No relation, but he was around Uncle Sebastian’s so often he might as well have been part of the family. In hindsight, I’m sure they’re more than just friends. Not that I noticed at the time.
“Anyway,” he went on, “I think it was about five years ago when I was visiting over the summer. Some of the Bystander kids from Uncle Seb’s neighborhood and me were playing football while he was out at work. Just passing the time, getting my ass handed to me by kids that live and breathe that shit. It was ahh, not my finest hour.” He shuddered, though his smile remained. “I got out of there and came home early. I don’t even remember why… think it had something to do with this girl that lived next door.”
Shaking his head with a heavy sigh, Sean smiled. “Seriously, you should’ve seen the way her whole–”
“Sean,” I interrupted while flushing a little. “Your uncle and his more-than-just-a friend, remember?”
Looking completely unapologetic, he winked at me. “Right, you wouldn’t be interested in hearing about that, would you?” After holding that silent pause just long enough to make me blush, the boy finally continued. “The point is, I came home early. It was a couple hours before Uncle Seb was supposed to be back from work. Except when I got there, the door into his apartment was standing wide open.”
“Mateo?” I guessed while watching Vulcan race back with the ball. That time, the dog went running all the way around us a few times before dropping his toy. He danced from side to side, panting happily.
“That’s what I thought at the time,” Sean agreed while stooping to grab the ball. He turned, throwing it the other direction that time to let Vulcan run somewhere else. “I figured he’d just come over early. He did that sometimes, especially when he was gonna make dinner. Seriously, the man’s a culinary god. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced one of Mateo’s Carimañolas, with Torta de nata for dessert.”
“Sorry,” I admitted, “my culinary experience isn’t nearly varied enough to know what any of that is.”
Making an exaggerated face of horror, Sean slowly shook his head in dismay. “Don’t you worry, poor little forgotten Flick’s tummy and sense of taste, we’ll save you from that bland old American food. What did you grow up on?” he added with a suspicious squint, “Cheeseburgers and fish sticks?”
“Of course not,” I sniffed pointedly. “You forgot macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, and pancakes.”
Heaving a long, heavily put-upon sigh at that, Sean stared at me. “We are definitely expanding your tastes.” Shaking his head then, he finally continued. “Anyway, Mateo wasn’t the one in the apartment.”
Taking my turn to throw the ball, I winced. “I don’t suppose it was another of your uncle’s friends?”
The boy snorted. “If only. No, it was these guys from one of the gangs around there. They broke in looking for some kind of stash for some guy that thought he could steal from them. Turns out they had the wrong apartment, not that they knew that at the time. So when I got there, they thought I was the… you know, brother of the guy that ripped them off. It, uh, it wasn’t pretty.” He grimaced in spite of the obvious attempt to keep the details as light as possible. “Long story short, they were gonna carve me up to send a message to the guy they thought was my brother. I tried to tell them I didn’t know who they were talking about. Hell, I’m not too manly to admit there was a certain amount of tears involved. But it didn’t matter. They were dead set on turning me into some kind of example. Sadistic fucks.”
His expression twisted a little before the boy crouched to rub at the waiting Vulcan’s metal body absently. He picked up the ball, turned it over in his free hand, and then threw it. “A couple of the guys held me down. I was trying to scream, but they shoved this slipper thing that Uncle Seb had lying around in my mouth. Then the leader, he had this curved knife, and he was talking about…” He trailed off, frowning before glancing toward me. “You don’t need details. It was bad, and he was gonna have fun doing it. That guy, he was my first real indication that humans can be just as evil as Strangers.”
Part of me felt like I should say something, but I knew it was a bad idea. Not only did it feel wrong to interrupt, but Dad had drilled it into my head over and over that you’d get more information out of someone just by letting them keep talking than by asking all the questions in the world. Just be patient.
Sean stayed quiet for a minute, clearly lost in his own memories before finally going on. “They would’ve done it. But just before the guy, uh, started his fun, something hit the apartment door so hard the thing went off its hinges. The guys fought back, but there was this… guy, or I thought it was a guy, tearing them apart. I was… confused for a long time, because it was Mateo, but he was just so… savage. They kept shooting, but it wasn’t doing anything. They kept missing every shot, even in those close quarters. It was so… fucking loud. I was screaming and crying and one of the guys hit me in the face so hard that I passed out for awhile. When I came to, Uncle Seb was there. He was talking to me, telling me everything was gonna be all right, that the cops came and they’d take care of everything.”
Kicking at the grass a little, he squinted thoughtfully. “We didn’t really talk a lot about it, but it didn’t make sense for a long time. Mateo wasn’t a Heretic, he was just a guy. I mean, I thought he was.
“Then I had my Edge vision. It was of my uncle, that day. He came back while I was unconscious and helped Mateo deal with the last of those malparidos. Except Mateo wasn’t human, he was this… big… furry thing.” Looking toward me, he clarified. “He was a werewolf. Mateo was a werewolf. That’s how he took those guys out. He was a giant fuck-off werewolf that just ripped those fuckers apart.”
My chin lifted as the realization came. “That’s why you were so quiet the first night, why you didn’t say much. It’s because you were dealing with that vision, with finding out that your uncle’s boyfriend is a werewolf. You’d just realized that the man who saved your life is a Stranger.”
Sean coughed while reaching down absently to play with Vulcan’s head. “Yeah. For awhile I was trying to figure out how that could fit. I thought maybe it was just a one-off. You know, that one in a million, Stranger with a soul sort of thing. I dunno.” Shrugging, the boy bit his lip before meeting my gaze. “The point is, you coming out with that whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ thing just filled in a lot of blanks. It answered a lot of questions. That’s why I didn’t get all freaked about it. I figure if my uncle’s boyfriend can save my life and be a Stranger, why not others? So you see, for me, it helped more than it hurt.”
“Are you gonna talk to your uncle about it?” I asked, lifting my chin curiously. “I mean, maybe he had this leaning toward accepting Mateo because he… I mean maybe there was something that he…”
“You mean maybe he used to run around with your mom,” Sean finished for me. “And maybe he knows something still, even with that spell they used. Maybe he can tell us something.”
“Yeah,” I nodded while taking another sip of water. “All of those maybes. Which is a lot, but if there’s a chance…”
He took Vulcan’s ball, tossing it up and down a couple times. “I’ll ask him over Thanksgiving break. Which isn’t really a thing in Colombia, but you know… he and Mateo go nuts on my behalf.”
“What about your parents?” I asked then, realizing that he hadn’t really mentioned them much.
His response was a dismissive shrug. “They’re around, but they don’t really have much to do with me. Papa’s always exploring other worlds, and mi madre’s usually busy running her company. They don’t spend much time around each other, let alone their kid. I was raised between a bunch of servants during the school year and my uncle in the summer and over holidays.”
“You were raised by servants?” I laughed, faking a bow. “Sorry, Senor Gerardo, clearly we have offended your sense of entitlement. No wonder you’ve got such an ego.”
He gave an exaggerated sniff at that. “Well. As long as you understand how I should be treated in the future, I suppose I shall have to forgive you.”
“Oh, trust me, I know exactly how you should be treated from now on,” I confirmed while surreptitiously slipping my hand into my glass to find an ice cube. Faking a yawn and stretch, I quickly side-stepped and deposited the ice down the back of the boy’s shirt.
“But I’m pretty sure I’m gonna need a lot more ice.”
“This is so unfair,” Koren complained later that evening. Those were the first words out of her mouth after our project group had all met up in the library. “Hasn’t Dare ever heard of team unity or whatever? Isn’t doing this kind of project with our own teams kind of the point of having one? Shoving us all together like this is just… dumb.”
Vanessa was just sitting at the opposite end of the table, engrossed in reading one of the many books that surrounded her (I was pretty sure she’d deliberately built up a miniature wall out of them), but Rudolph actually spoke up. “If they only have you work with your team, you’ll never figure out how to work with people that aren’t in your team. Which is kind of a bad thing when you get out in the real world. It’s not like the teams last forever.”
“What he said,” I agreed with a gesture. “Besides, Koren, don’t you think it’d be nice to get to know new people? People you don’t always interact with.”
She looked at me for a few seconds, eyes squinting thoughtfully before she finally nodded. “You’re right, Chambers. We should get to know other people.”
The girl held my gaze briefly, then turned directly toward Vanessa. “So, nerd-girl…”
“Koren…” Rudolph started with a sigh, clearly about to stick up for his own teammate. I hadn’t really had much interaction with the boy, but from what I could tell he was kind of like a lazy bear. He didn’t really tend to act out that much, and usually looked for ways to avoid work or conflict. But when it came to people he cared about, he could get downright vicious if he needed to.
She blinked back at him, seeing both of our expressions. “What? I meant it as a compliment.” Rolling her eyes at us, the girl turned back the other way. “Fine. Vanessa, why do you spend all your time in here? Don’t you have any friends, or, you know, a life?”
“Ooookay then,” I announced while grabbing my chair. I moved it over, interceding myself between the two of them. “Koren, has it occurred to you that you can be a little… uh, what’s the word I’m looking for? Indecorous comes to mind.”
“It’s okay,” Vanessa interrupted. “It’s um, it’s not a big deal.” Leaning around to see Koren, she added, “But I don’t spend all my time here. Erin makes me go out and do other things.”
“Why does she have to make you, though?” Koren demanded. “Why do you like this place so much?”
In response, Vanessa shrugged. “The books are all about magic and monsters. Only they’re real stories, real history. Why isn’t it everyone else’s favorite place?”
I thought there seemed to be something else behind what Vanessa was saying, something she was leaving out. But I figured it was probably just paranoia talking. Or the fact that I always had ulterior motives for coming here, mostly in trying to dig up something about my psychotic younger brother or the bastard that had my mother.
Speaking of relatives, I looked back to Koren. “Where do you like to spend your time if it’s not here?”
She blinked at me, looking like she was trying to figure out if she should take the question seriously or not. When I just sat and waited, she finally shrugged. “The ocean. Or the jungle. I didn’t used to like hiking, but it’s amazing around here.”
Okay, that wasn’t so bad… I pushed on. “You mean you actually walk into the jungle?”
“No, Chambers,” she shot back mockingly. “Hiking means I put on one of those little propeller hats and fly over the jungle.”
Snorting at that in spite of myself, I asked, “Okay, fine. I just didn’t know we were allowed to go in there without company.”
“You’re not,” she confirmed. “You have to have a third year escort. But you can sign up for them.”
“Oh.” I considered that. This wasn’t so bad. A little conversation and I was learning. “But what made you start going out there? You said you didn’t like hiking before.”
Koren started to answer reflexively before stopping herself. “It was just something I saw in–” She went silent, lips pursed for a moment before turning back to Vanessa. “Don’t we have a project to do? What ‘special event’ are we going to look at, anyway?”
“One of the big wars?” Rudolph suggested. “Those are easy to make interesting, and there’s always Heretical stuff behind the scenes.”
“You mean like Pearl Harbor or the battle of Stalingrad?” I asked. “Those could work.”
“Maybe the first world war.” That was Koren. “There were already three different groups asking about things in the second one yesterday. We need something new.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “Something new. How about we go further back? Like the Crusades or the American expansion into the west, the gold rush or… I dunno, something like that.”
“The Black Death?” Vanessa suggested.
We all looked at each other. Koren’s head tilted. “You think that’s something Heretics could answer?”
Rudolph, the only Heretic-born among us, shrugged. “I think so?”
“It’s definitely world changing,” I added thoughtfully. “Anyone have a problem with that one?”
There were no objections. So that was it, we were going to research the Black Death and try to find out just what it had meant for Heretical society and whether they knew things that the regular world didn’t about what had really happened to cause the deaths of about half of Europe’s entire population.
And wasn’t that just a positively cheerful subject to bond with my niece over?