Seb and I remained seated on opposite sides of the cavern from each other, watching as the others bustled throughout the cave, rounding up the smugglers and trying to salvage anything usable left from their supplies.
Brother Barnes stuck to Genevieve like glue throughout the entire process. Somewhere along the way, he’d managed to retrieve his hat, now looking every bit the grizzled old Westerner in his classic cowboy duds. He reminded me of Marisol’s uncle, who’d owned a ranch in Mexico I’d never seen, and no more so than when he smiled fondly at Genevieve while she whipped the prisoners into shape.
After a brief argument between Eva and Tayo, it was decided that the adlet and her feline companion would be allowed to accompany us back to the preserve unbound as long as they helped keep the others from their group in line.
I was skeptical at first when Genevieve volunteered to take the thunderbird back up through the pit Eva and I had entered through, and then shocked when she snapped her fingers and the giant predatory bird waddled happily toward her on command.
Seb gave no input throughout the entirety of the decision-making process, and wordlessly accepted Tayo’s help when the taller man came over to help him limp out of the cave along with the rest of us.
The hike back to the first truck was grueling, as none of us had managed to emerge unscathed from our scuffle underground. It was snowing heavily when we finally reached the surface. Tayo, Seb, and Cece all piled into the truck with captives huddled low in the back, leaving just Eva, Barnes, and myself to stand out in the cold waiting for Genevieve to bring the other vehicle around.
When she finally pulled into the clearing, it was a sight to behold. The thunderbird stood proudly in the truck bed, looking like an excited puppy on its first car ride. Barnes chuckled loudly next to me at the sight.
“That’s my girl,” he said with a smile, and I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Genevieve or Charlie.
The drive back to the preserve took at least twice as long with Charlie rattling around in the back. Even I could feel from where I was sitting in the cab that she was weighing the truck down, and Genevieve had the gas practically cemented to the floorboards just to keep us moving at a steady pace.
Squeezed in between Genevieve and Eva for the ride back, I wished I could have ridden in the bed with Brother Barnes and Charlie. I would have rather endured the giant bird and the biting wind over the uneasy atmosphere that hung thickly in the air between us as we drove back to the lodge.
The others were nowhere to be found when we pulled up to the thunderbird paddock. There was a cacophony of excited shrieks and caws from both the birds already inside as well as Charlie as Genevieve and Barnes fought to get her back into her pen.
I watched from the car, still thoroughly ignoring Eva’s presence at my side.
There was a lot of waiting after that.
The compound was a flurry of activity with the smugglers now officially in Barnes’s care, which meant that everyone was wrapped up in talking with each other about what had happened and what was going to happen next, to the exclusion of, well, just me.
I spent a considerable amount of time holed up in the empty mess hall, absently texting Joel or playing around on my phone while everyone else bustled around the lodge on “business”. I wondered if a single person would stop at any point to clue me in.
Eva gave me a start when she finally appeared next to me at the main table, sliding onto the bench with an inquisitive look on her face. It wasn’t the company I’d been hoping for.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Just tired,” I said.
“You’ve just seemed…off, I guess, after we….”
Of course that’s what this was about. I stared harder at my phone, wishing she would take the hint and we could just skip this conversation entirely.
“Have you…was that your first kiss?”
I gave her a quizzical look. “No?”
“I meant with another woman,” she explained in a quieter tone.
“I’ve literally never kissed a guy in my entire life.”
“Oh.” Eva looked surprised. I wanted to tell her that if she’d really thought she’d been my first kiss, that was probably reason enough for us not to get involved. I thought if I did it would hurt her feelings though, so I kept my mouth shut. But she couldn’t leave it alone, asking me, “Well what was the problem then? I thought you were just worried about the whole monogamy thing.”
I could feel my insides shriveling up with every word. “It’s not just that,” I said slowly. “There’s—” I felt sick admitting to this, even if Eva couldn’t know what I really meant. “There’s someone else, I guess.” I knew she’d assume I meant that there was another girl I liked, not that sleeping with my best friend had ruined all hopes of having a functional relationship in the future. “I’m not over her,” I admitted. “And it wouldn’t be fair to you to deal with my baggage.”
Eva was quiet for a while after that. “You could have been honest with me from the beginning,” she said quietly.
“Yeah,” I said lamely. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“Right,” she said after another lengthy silence. “I guess that’s it then.”
I didn’t reply, and I didn’t look up at her as she got up off the bench and walked out of the mess hall, the double doors slamming shut behind her with an air of finality.
I hadn’t seen Seb once since he’d left in the first truck with Tayo, and it wasn’t much of a conversation when I finally got up the nerves to go to his room. He was laid out in his cot, on bedrest per Cece’s orders despite the fact that he’d told everyone how “fine” he really was. He certainly didn’t look happy to be there.
“So are we going back to Las Vegas?” I asked, lounging against the wall as far from his cot as I could get without standing outside the room.
He tapped the screen of his phone violently and shook his head without looking up at me. “No. I have things to take care of elsewhere and it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to cause another spectacle at HQ.”
I frowned, irritated that I was still being blamed for a bunch of nutcases deciding to kidnap me and my brother because of a stupid necklace that wasn’t even really mine.
“Okay, so what then?”
“Back to Fairbanks,” he said unhelpfully. “Then we get on another plane. I don’t see why you need to know every last detail.”
I stared at him, waiting for clarification, anything, but it was like I wasn’t even there.
Unable to come up with a witty quip to illustrate how done I was with this whole situation, I wordlessly stormed out of Seb’s room.
I was annoyed. Annoyed enough to finally cast away what little scraps remained of my dignity and complain to the one person who would at least listen: Joel.
He very patiently kept his opinions to himself for a few minutes, before finally interrupting with: “So I was right, then.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes even though he couldn’t see me. “Yeah, you were right. I was wrong. He’s actually a huge tool with no redeemable qualities whatsoever. Want a cookie?” I leaned back carefully against the wall of the hallway closet, trying not to knock over any of the cleaning supplies that had been haphazardly stuffed inside. It was pretty much the only place one could effectively have a moment of privacy without risking interruption, especially now that Genevieve had practically locked herself in the room we shared the second we’d gotten back to the lodge.
Joel laughed. “I’m sorry you’re having such a bad time,” he said, not sounding sorry in the slightest, “but it was kind of obvious from the start how little he gives a shit about you.”
“Thanks for the reminder,” I said bitterly.
“I just meant that he doesn’t give a shit about anything, so why would he make an exception for you?”
“You’re not helping,” I informed him.
“Sorry,” Joel said again, the humor leaching out of his voice. “You know I’d buy you a plane ticket home right now, but….”
“But what?” I asked, feeling panic beginning to bubble in my gut.
“Muri says we shouldn’t stick around here for too much longer,” he told me. “I’m putting in a long-term leave request at the hospital.”
“Isn’t that going to set you back?”
“I should be okay as long as we can wrap things up in the next couple of months. But it might.”
I felt instantly horrible for involving Joel in any of this. “I’m really sorry,” I said in a low tone. “Really.”
“Things will go back to normal eventually, Pem. Don’t worry so much.”
Joel had to go shortly after that, so we hurried through our goodbyes and then hung up, leaving me standing alone in the middle of a closet feeling not only angry, but now guilty as well.
I squeezed back out through the door as discreetly as possible, and resumed walking casually down the hallway, headed for the bathroom. I made it about ten feet before hearing the voices.
I pressed myself up against the wall and peered around the corner, trying to avoid being seen by whoever was arguing.
It was Seb and Genevieve, both of whom were at the top of the list for people I least wanted to run into. Well, Genevieve was tied with Eva now, but that was beside the point, since my desire to avoid them doubled whenever they occupied the same space.
From the corner I was standing behind, I could clearly make out what they were saying if I concentrated hard enough. The compound had already quieted down for the night, and the only other noise was the hum of the heating unit, perpetually pumping warm air throughout the lodge.
“You don’t get to blame me,” Seb was saying.
Genevieve looked infuriated by the statement. “Then who?” she asked, crossing her arms and adopting an aggressive stance. “You’re the one who—”
“I warned you,” he hissed, cutting her off before she could finish her sentence. “Everyone warned you about me. You didn’t listen.”
“That’s not fair,” she shot back.
With a heavily-inked hand, Seb grabbed her shoulder roughly and shoved her back against the wall. He was only half a foot taller than her, but in this moment he felt like a force of nature, something imposing and dark, and I felt sick to my stomach watching their encounter.
“I came to terms with who I am a long time ago,” he told her in a harsh voice. “Get over it. It’ll be like it never even happened a few weeks from now. I’m not obligated to sit around and hold your hand until that happens.”He released her and she took a wide step to the side, rubbing the spot where his hand had just been.
“You can hate me if it makes you feel better,” he said, finally turning away from her. “It’s always worked for me.” And then he tucked both hands into his front pockets and strolled back down the hall like nothing had happened.
I watched until he’d disappeared behind the opposite corner before emerging from my hiding spot. Genevieve didn’t see me as she walked into the bathroom. I sprinted over to the door, still swinging closed, and followed her inside before it had a chance to click shut.
She glared at me without saying a word, but when I didn’t budge, she gestured to the sole toilet in the corner of the tiny bathroom. “One occupant only,” she said pointedly.
“I heard what just happened,” I told her.
Genevieve ignored me. She faced the mirror and turned on the water in the sink, as if hoping the sound would drown out what I had to say.
“Did he do something to you?” I asked.
“Fuck off,” Genevieve said quietly, not meeting my eyes as she furiously scrubbed at her hands in the sink. When I still didn’t move, she stopped what she was doing and looked up to meet my gaze with a glare. “Fuck. Off,” she said again, louder this time. “It doesn’t concern you.”
“I’m just trying to help,” I told her. “I know Seb; if he said or did something, I could talk to him—”
She laughed, a shrill hysterical sound that stopped me mid-sentence. “You don’t know him,” she spat out incredulously. “You don’t know the first thing about him.”
Genevieve shoved past me to get to the door, letting it slam behind her with a loud bang. My ears started ringing.
Without thinking about the potential consequences, I pulled out my phone and shot off a text to Joel, guessing that he hadn’t yet left for work. Less than a minute later I got his reply, a simple “okay” with Muri’s number attached.
I waited with bated breath for the call to connect.
When Muri rasped out a curt “Hello?” on the other end of the line, I exhaled a sigh of relief.
“I really need to talk to you,” I told her.
“I guessed as much,” she pointed out. “What is it?”
I started with the news about Letuch’s connection to the smugglers, and she paused for a long time before responding.
“It’s not encouraging news,” she replied cryptically.
“Seb said he thought they were going to use Charlie and another one of the thunderbirds for breeding,” I said. “If that’s what they were doing with the mermaids, don’t you think they could be connected? I mean, how do we know Letuch wasn’t involved with that too?”
She gave a resigned sigh. “Look, Pemberly, I agree that it’s pretty…suspicious, at the very least, but promise me you won’t go spouting off those kinds of theories around Seb. Or anyone, really.”
“Just don’t,” she said with a touch of frustration. “Is that all you wanted to talk about? I’ve got a conference call in fifteen minutes.”
Her brusqueness didn’t offend me as much as when Seb gave me the brush-off, something I attributed to Muri’s consistency about it. It was just her personality. Seb intended for it to hurt.
“It’s Seb,” I admitted.
“Let me guess: he was hot and now he’s cold.”
“You could say that.”
Muri sighed again.
“I don’t need another ‘I told you so’,” I said quickly, forestalling a repeat of the conversation I’d just had with Joel.
“Fine,” she replied. “Then I’ll just tell you why I told you so.” Her words were even more emotionless than usual, as if she was exerting additional effort to suppress anything in her voice that might make her seem the slightest bit vulnerable. “Seb is charming. It’s just the way he’s always been. It’s not a front, or a persona, or anything like that. But he has a lot of issues, and when the shit hits the fan and you need him to be there for you, he can’t handle it. You could back Seb a thousand times, and the one time you need him to return the favor in any capacity, he’ll leave you to deal with it all on your own because he’s too focused on his own problems to even notice anyone else’s.”
“Is that what happened with you?” I asked, not even sure Muri would answer. I half-expected her to just hang up on me instead.
“More or less,” she confessed. “The details aren’t important anymore. Have you told him anything about Letuch’s connection to the smugglers?”
“No. I wasn’t sure how he’d react.”
“Good,” Muri said. “I wouldn’t trust him with information that sensitive. He might work for NIMA now, but he’s never been fully on their side.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means you’re new to this,” she said. “And you don’t understand the complexities between humans and inhumans yet. If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to. So for now, just do what he wants you to do, and keep your mouth shut. If you know something he doesn’t, you have the upper hand. Remember that.”
Standing over the sink with Muri’s voice in my ear, I wondered how I’d gotten to this point. I was hundreds of miles from home, keeping dangerous secrets trapped behind my teeth on the advice of a near-stranger, afraid to trust the one person who held my future in his hands. I’d survived zombies, mermaids, and thunderbirds, but I felt like my luck was already starting to run out.