It turned out that Celinwel called the owner after she was released, and quit. So much for saving her to make my life easier. The night wasn’t that bad, though, since I forgot to account for Thea. She was efficient, quirky, though decidedly chatty about anime. I mean, I wasn’t sure how she was getting internet out in the Middle of Nowhere, Creepy Ass Woods, U.S.A., but it was probably highly illegal and I didn’t want to know.
As a weird speck of normalcy in the weirdest week of my life, I went to my nephew’s birthday party. They were lucky I showed up at all. Between sleepless days, working nights, and trying to solve a goblin murder to keep my brother’s tail out of the fire, I was dragging ass like a pug across a carpet. My only saving grace was that Saturday was my day off, and I’d managed some decent sleep before the party on Sunday. Slies had been conspicuously absent, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth and start to question it. I really didn’t want to wade through a pack of screaming children, but I needed to talk with my brother about a fair few things, which may or may not end with me yelling at him.
What kind of brother keeps the existence of the supernatural from his sister, and as a result she ends up beholden to a goblin leader to keep him from whatever terrible fate said goblin could concoct? A lame one, that’s who.
“Holly!” Candy’s voice cut across my nerves like the steel on steel squeal of a car collision.
If there was one word to describe Candy, it was ‘bombshell’. She was curvy, blond, stylish, and her eyes were a deep blue that almost seemed to flash indigo at times. Honestly, she was so perfect it was unreal. If she hadn’t had four kids with my brother, (and how unfair was it that she still looked that good after four kids?), I’d have guessed she was a robot.
She wore what I called ‘rich mom chic’, with a flowing, gauzy navy-blue shirt, black slacks you couldn’t call slacks because it was supposed to be ‘casual’, and silvery high heels. Her perfectly curly hair was swept into an up-do with a few artfully placed loose strands, and her various pieces of jewelry that could feed me for at least six months flashed in the low light of the entryway. The fact was, I was jealous, no two ways about it. She exuded grace like she was born to it, and the best I could manage on a good day was, ‘at least I’m not wearing sweat pants’.
“Hey, Candy,” I choked out without sounding too incredulous. I was getting better with time. It’d only taken me how many years to manage that? Still, point to me.
When I gave her a little wave her eyes widened at the soft cast on my hand.
“What happened to your hand?” she asked, some of the shininess in her voice wearing off. I should punch goblins more often.
“I, uh, lost my temper,” I said lamely.
She raised an eyebrow in expectation of more, but I simply smiled my most guileless smile, letting her know that was all I was going to say on the matter. I couldn’t very well tell her that a goblin healer had wrapped my hand, stating it was all he could do because goblin flesh was far too different from human for him to use his abilities. He said it was just fractured, but that I should still go to the hospital. I respectfully declined. I could barely pay for food let alone a medical bill.
“You wouldn’t happen to know where my dear brother is hiding, would you?” I asked, going for innocence, but probably not managing it very well.
“Aunt Holly!” The unholy screech was my only warning before I was attacked by a pack of beasts, also known as my nieces and nephews. In total there were four of them: two boys and two girls, and they were all elementary and pre-school age.
At the moment I was only being accosted by three of them: Brielle, 7, Owen, 5, and Evelyn Rose, 3. Jason, the birthday boy, was turning 9 and likely commanding his birthday guest minions in some game of mischief or another. The child could wage a full-scale war from his tree house against the best military strategists out there, and I’d still bet on my nephew. If I hadn’t seen the birth certificate I would have sworn ‘Devious’ was his middle name.
“Hey, you three! Not causing too much trouble, are you?” I asked and hugged them close. Their behavior and my opinion of their mother’s name notwithstanding, I did love my nieces and nephews.
“Nope, just the right amount,” Brielle said, giving me a smirk to match her cheek.
I laughed, and turned at the insistent tugging of Evelyn Rose. She held her arms out to me in the universal toddler gesture of up, and I melted in the face of her forget-me-not blue eyes. Her hair was the white blond of small children, fine, and softly curling. It sat loose to her shoulders, because if anyone got near her with hair ties she threw unholy fits of rage.
I handed Candy the gift for Jason, and she tried to protest on my behalf since my arm was injured, but I waved her off with my good hand. I picked Evelyn up with one arm and she cuddled close to me, tucking her head beneath my jaw and resting on my shoulder. She took in a deep breath, and then stilled. Her sudden lack of movement made me freeze in response. Toddlers were naturally squirmy things, and any behavior outside the norm with them was cause for concern.
“Aunt Holly?” she said, her childish voice questioning and with an edge of confusion.
“Yes, Evy?” I asked, trying to keep my voice relaxed.
“You smell funny,” she said, and sat up enough for me to meet her eyes.
My breath caught in my throat at the sight: no longer blue, her eyes were the shade of mulberries, and the sensation of falling forward despite not moving threw my brain into full-out panic mode.
We’re falling! Primal Brain choked out, half in fear for us and half with instinctual fear for the potential to hurt Evelyn. Or maybe because of Evelyn.
We are not, but it’s unsettling, Rational Brain noted queasily.
“Evelyn Rose Bell—you will control yourself this instant, or you will be sent to your room!” Candy’s words rang out in the front hall, louder than they should have been but not in the sense of sound, and the reverberations made my bones ache.
Evelyn let loose her famous pout face, and I made to protest on her behalf, but Candy pulled her from my arms.
“Young lady, you know better. Now, go up to Nanny until your father and I are done speaking with Aunt Holly. Brielle, take her up. Owen, head out to play with your brother,” Candy said, issuing commands to each of the children in clipped tones I’d never expected from the perky woman.
As I shook what felt like fog from between my ears, I watched my nieces and nephews move quickly to do as their mother said. Apparently, this is what they meant by whipping out the ‘Mom Voice’.
When they were all gone Candy turned to look at me, and her eyes weren’t flashing indigo this time: they stayed that color. She stepped into my personal space and inhaled deeply right in front of my face, closing her eyes slowly as her lungs filled.
“Oh, Holly,” she said sadly, and opened eyes full of sorrow. “Come on, Joel is in his office. I think we all need to have a chat,” she finished, her voice soft.
When she turned and headed deeper into the house, I stumbled along behind her, my mind clearing more with each step. The newfound panic I’d discovered this week along with the existence of the supernatural was screaming and raking claws along my nerves, making me jumpy. I’d thought I’d already tumbled over my line of tolerance and found an equilibrium with co-workers, but this was family. Whatever was going on here was pushing me toward an edge in my mind, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb back over. Even I had my limits.
Candy knocked softly, but didn’t wait for a reply before opening the door.
“Dear, I said I’d be down in time for the cake and presents. I’m alm—”
“Joel,” Candy said, her voice still soft.
I stepped into the room in time to see my brother’s head snap up and his brows furrow with concern at his wife’s tone. Then his eyes turned to me, and his head tilted in question. My brother and I shared the brown sugar colored hair, hazel eyes, and need for glasses, but in everything else we differed. He was tall like everyone else in the family, while I was short, and I took more after our mother in looks and he our father. Typical genetics. My brother was clean cut, no facial hair, and if he hadn’t hated the thought of traveling he might have followed in our father’s military footsteps. He cut a nice figure in his business suits when he was working, but here at home he was dressed in the same artful casual as Candy.
Candy closed the door behind me, and remained standing a little back and to my left.
“Hey, Buttface,” I said, trying to defuse the tension with my affectionately dubbed nickname for my brother, and waved my injured hand at him.
He snorted, and gestured to my hand. “Getting into trouble still, Stumblebum?”
I harrumphed and tried to cross my arms without jostling my hand. “Technically, this trouble found me.” Then I scowled at him. “In fact, I’m holding you partially responsible for this.”
He raised a single eyebrow, leaned forward on his desk with his elbows, and steepled his hands in front of him. “Oh, really? Do tell.”
“Well, it might have something to do with someone named Gozuk,” I spat acidly at him, yearning for a reaction.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Joel jumped to his feet, his eyes flashing with anger as he strode around the desk. When he started toward me I did my best not to take a step back in surprise or fear, I wasn’t sure which, and then his hands were tightly gripping my shoulders.
“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” he asked, his voice hoarse and low with fury and concern.
My eyes burned with the start of tears, but I knew if I started I might not stop, and I didn’t want to be a blubbering mess at my nephew’s birthday party. The fact was, though, that my brother and I might pick on each other to the point where we didn’t speak for months, but no one was allowed to lay a finger or level an unkind word in our directions. Making each other miserable was our prerogative and no one else’s.
“Not directly, no, but he put me in a situation, or a few, to be injured,” I said, my voice going soft like Candy’s. Then I turned my face up to search his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me about…them?” I asked, hesitating on the last word.
Joel sighed and loosened his grip. He shoulders slumped and he looked anywhere but at me when he spoke. “We’re not allowed to. There are rules and governing bodies in the various supernatural factions that prohibit it. I wasn’t even allowed to say anything when I was questioned about having you as a manager at that fast food place. They thought since I was…tolerable, for a human, that you might be as well. If you had reacted poorly they would have simply wiped your memory and sent you on your way.”
He picked up my injured hand in his and ran a finger over the rough material of the cast. “Now I wish I had just told them you wouldn’t be able to do it.” Guilt was rolling off him in waves, and I sighed, exasperated.
“It’s fine, Joel. You didn’t know Stribs was going to get murdered and that Gozuk was going to drag me into it,” I said, and did something rare and unexpected: I hugged my brother. It was awkward, but we both needed it.
Candy cleared her throat, and when the two of us parted we both looked at her. Her eyes darted between us and then she broke out into a genuine smile.
“You two are more alike than you let on,” she said with a little laugh. It died almost as quickly as our hug, though, and her mouth turned down in a frown. “Joel…” she said, nervously, biting her lip. Her eyes darted to me, and the panic from earlier was back.
Joel sighed again. “Holly—”
“I’m not sure I want to know,” I said, interrupting him. My eyes were wide and panicked.
No, no, no, no, no, Primal Brain said in a sing-song voice, covering their figurative ears.
It would be better to know, Rational Brain said, not unsympathetic.
“It’s not about you wanting to know. It’s about needing to, to keep you as safe as we can. I expected at your job you’d stay in the shallower end, given the, uh, rabble that works there, but you’ve been thrown into the deep end, and we both know you’ve never been a great swimmer,” he said, his voice firm. He scanned my face, but whatever he saw there didn’t reassure him.
“How about you tell us what’s been going on, and then we’ll move on to more personal matters?” Candy suggested.
I didn’t know why, but her words calmed me. I wasn’t sure recounting my week would help me with whatever bomb they were going to drop on me, but it couldn’t hurt. We made our way over to the pair of couches that faced each other in front of a fireplace. His office was large, the walls covered with bookshelves filled to the brim with law books and accolades. Honestly, the whole room was probably as big as my small apartment.
After we settled, I told them about my very busy week. Joel’s eyes narrowed in parts, in particular when I mentioned Knight and Thea. The former I could understand, he was law enforcement and my brother was a lawyer. Not to mention Knight was a grade-A asshole. Thea, however, was a surprise.
“Please don’t drive her home again,” Joel requested, the words holding an edge of pleading to them that set the hairs on the back of my neck to attention.
I gave him a hesitant nod. I wanted to know why, of course, but I had a funny feeling I was going to get more information than I wanted in short order. I didn’t need to overload on it.
When I finished, Joel leaned back against the couch, his eyes narrowed in thought.
“I might be able to give you some directions to go in, or suggest some people that could help, but I’ll need some time to make some calls. Your, uh, association with certain people will make getting you help difficult. But I’ll try to get you something before you leave from the birthday.”
My brows furrowed at his words. “What associations? The people I work with?” I paused. “You called them rabble earlier. That’s rather rude, Joel,” I scolded.
Candy cleared her throat, and Joel deferred to her with a tilt of his head, which was the most shocking thing so far today. There was more to my supposedly airheaded sister-in-law than I thought, and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at the realization. I hadn’t treated her like someone who had two brain cells to rub together, and based off current evidence I’d been somewhat uncharitable in doing so.
Still can’t get over her name, Rational Brain noted, with a sniff.
I silently agreed.
“The Owner of the Infamous Chicken isn’t only known for his talent with food; he also tends to collect outcasts. No one that would cause anything overt as a war with a faction, but those who were no longer welcome with their particular group.” At my frown, Candy continued, “Like Odella. She killed her Master, and though she was within her right to do so based on Code Sanguis, or vampiric law, no one willingly associates or invites vampires that kill their Masters to be around them, or join their Clan. It would be like inviting someone who assassinated the President to live with the newest President, or another world leader. They are seen as pariahs. Hence why The Owner took her in.”
I wasn’t sure I was comfortable hearing about Odella’s life, or rather undeath, from anyone but Odella herself, but Candy was simply trying to give me an example. I couldn’t fault her for that.
“So, you’re saying that everyone I work with, in some way, is an outcast?”
“Yes, and you working with them gives you an unofficial outcast status, too. It limits how much I’ll be able to help, given my position,” my brother said, his lips pressed into a thin line.
I sighed. I was never very good at politics—that was always Joel’s deal—but it sounded like I had indeed ended up in some deep garbage just by trying to be gainfully employed. Fate was having a laugh at me, She had to be.
“Okay,” I said, and took a deep breath. “While I don’t understand all of it, I’ll appreciate whatever help you can give me. They were so sure it was Celinwel, but that theory is trash now.”
Joel nodded, and tapped a finger to his chin as he thought. The silence between us stretched to the point of uncomfortable, and I squirmed a bit.
Just bite the bullet and get it over with, Rational Brain prompted.
I took a shaky breath and met both of their gazes with a pointed look. “Tell me.” The words had tumbled from me before I could think anymore on it.
Candy licked her lips and Joel grimaced.
“Do you remember how Candy and I met?” Joel asked tentatively, as though feeling out my mood.
Wow, apparently, we were going way back. I shook my head and pursed my lips. “At some work party, or something, right?”
Joel gave a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, that was the story we told. The truth is that Candy was…kind of…a reward for something I did for some…thing,” he said.
With each long pause between his words my eyebrows climbed higher and higher.
“Are you telling me someone gave you a person as a reward?” I spat, disgust thick on my voice, and I looked at Candy. I was expecting her support in my revulsion, but I was shocked to find a soft smile on her face as she looked at my brother.
“It wasn’t the best of circumstances, at least not in the eyes of humans, but our world doesn’t work the same as yours. Even the beings who ape humans closely, or were humans before, have very alien customs in the eyes of humans. It’s why we tend to avoid them. That, and the fact that humans tend to destroy what they fear,” Candy chided.
It was still a struggle for me to reconcile what I was seeing with their words. If what they said was true, she was basically a slave and she had no choice in the matter.
“So, he didn’t—” I made a waving gesture with my hand between the two of them.
Her eyes softened at my display of concern. “No, he was very gentlemanly. Despite what he was told about me and my disposition, he refused to do anything until we’d courted properly.” Then she laughed, the sound happy and warm. “It was the first time in my very long life anyone had treated me like a person instead of an object. I would do anything for Joel and the children,” she said, and took his hands in hers.
Watching them, I had to let go of my misgivings. It didn’t sit well with me how it had happened, but at the end of the day it was none of my business. And if they were truly happy, who was I to try and kick over their jubilant little sandcastle of love?
I took a deep breath, and let it out slow. “Okay. I can’t say I’m completely okay with this, but obviously my hang-ups are my own thing, and I’ll get over them. Or, I won’t, but I’ll keep it to myself.”
Candy’s eyes filled with tears, and Joel pulled her into a hug, whispering soothing words to her as he rubbed her back.
At my expression, Joel pulled back from Candy as she pulled an honest-to-goodness handkerchief from up her sleeve to dab at her eyes.
“She’s been fretting how you would react. Though I treat her as she should be treated: with respect and care, not everyone believes she deserves that. Your reaction means a lot, Holly. Ever since you took the job, we’ve been discussing how we were going to tell you everything.”
Something relaxed in my chest that I didn’t know had been tense. “You were going to tell me at some point, then?”
Joel and Candy nodded. “We decided on today, after Jason’s birthday, but then everything with the goblins happened and we were going to postpone,” Candy said. “But then…”
“But then Evelyn’s eyes changed and she said I smelled funny,” I prompted her to continue.
She nodded, but my brother laughed at the face I made when I stated what Evelyn said.
“Don’t worry, she says that about me whenever I come home from meetings with anyone except…her kind. Children, of any sort, are not known for their tact,” Joel said wryly.
My heart was in my throat and I tried to swallow around it. “You have to stop beating around the bush. I’ve already been lectured on asking a certain question,” I said, remembering Lia’s words with a blush of embarrassment, “so please, just tell me.”
Joel and Candy’s expressions were pained. “We just don’t want it to change how you act around the children,” Candy said, fear written plain in the way she held herself still, as though with one move she might break.
“Well, I already call them little hellions, what could be wo—” I couldn’t finish the sentence. When I’d said the word ‘hellions’, Candy flinched and lowered her gaze.
I clenched my hands, my breaths were coming out in quick, shallow pants, and chest was tight. It had been years since I’d had an honest to goodness panic attack, and though this week had pushed me pretty close, this had done me in.
“You-you’re demons?” I asked. The final word came out much harsher than I’d intended, but I’d had to push it out, or I wouldn’t have been able to say it at all.
Candy nodded, still not looking at me, and Joel gave me pleading eyes. Begging me to understand.
I stood up suddenly. “I-” I snapped my mouth shut against whatever was about to fall gracelessly from my mouth, and looked at the door. “I need a moment.”
Then I rushed from the room like a coward, and pretended I didn’t hear a soft sob right before I closed the office door behind me.