The sharpest edge: Chapter One

 

Chapter 1

Her eyes are liquid gold in the sunlight. She looks at me sideways, mouth open with excitement. Our shoulders touch. She leans closer, there is a laugh shimmering in her mind. Her smell is honey and moonlight and young moist leaves. I touch her face with my fingertips and the breath catches in my throat and there is a tightness in my chest, and her eyes widen and there is a different excitement in the air.

We will be mates when we are older. We have always known this but now, at this moment, in the tightness in my chest and throat, I know what that means.

She feels it too.

She puts her face close to mine, I let my hand slide through her hair and it is soft and thick and my heart pounds. Her lips touch my hair and my heart gives a lurch and she pulls back, mischief in her smell, amber eyes teasing.

She dances away, and I follow her, as I must, as she wants me to do. We don’t break silence but we are laughing as she leads me away from the others.

We are not allowed to be here. And never in daylight.

We are young.

She will never grow old.

Mike’s voice drifted into silence. I swallowed. His eyes had darkened to almost black, something I’d learned to associate with extreme distress. When he told me about a specific memory, it was like he was seeing it . . . no, like he was reliving it, right in front of me. Even the way he spoke changed, as if it wasn’t him —.

No! I turned my mind from that thought. I’d seen Mike become someone else, and that wasn’t anything I wanted to see again.

I wondered what to say — what I could possibly say, after that. Callous to remind him his Pack-sister had died tens of thousands of years ago; it was real to him. Here-and-now real.

I thought about all those hundreds of generations remembering the rape and torture of that long-dead girl. Reliving it, renewing their hatred and undying enmity against humans, who had done this terrible thing, who had taken First Brother’s lover from him. I imagined waking to it, when the Change came upon them. At least it wouldn’t have been as bad for them as it had been for Mike. They would have come to it knowing what they were, that the visions they had were memories of their ancestors, impressed into their genes.

Not like Mike.

I wondered if he had truly forgiven his father for that ignorance, but dismissed the thought almost as soon as it was born. The relationship between Mike and his father, who was his brother, his clone — as all of them were, all the generations of Pack-brothers back to First Brother — was probably even more complicated than the relationship between me and my father, and I was a long way from understanding that one.

Heck, I was a long way from understanding my relationship with Mike.

But I knew what he wanted from me, or thought I did. Sometimes I let myself hope I was wrong.

Damn it, why does it have to be this? I owed him everything. I really wanted to be able to give him what he wanted.

This was so damn hard.

I’d been silent too long. Mike turned his head to look at me. His eyes had lightened to a dark gray, the pupils — slightly more elongated than human ones — were becoming faintly visible. I breathed in carefully, pushing my slumped shoulders back against the wall behind me, trying to blank my emotions.

Something tightened in Mike’s face. It was weird, because I’d known Mike all my life, but since he’d Changed, his face had become harder to read. I hadn’t pinned down exactly what it was yet.

His voice was easier to interpret. It was almost a growl. “Don’t do that.”

I looked down, at my crossed legs, the hand of my unbroken arm resting loosely on my lap. I’d been sitting like this on Mike’s bed for the best part of two days, ever since —. No, wasn’t going to go there.

I said cautiously, “What am I doing?”

His eyes were still dark. Outside of this room he wore dark glasses most of the time — the Pack was nocturnal, and his eyes didn’t like bright light. But when we were alone, I’d learned to use the color of his eyes as a sign of his feelings. His voice was still gravel-deep as he said, “I’m not one of your animals. Don’t lie to me about what you’re feeling.”

I tried to ignore the sinking in my gut. “It really bugs you, doesn’t it?”

“Smell’s important to us. More important than sight or sound.” He paused. His voice dropped to a barely audible subterranean rumble that vibrated along my nerves. “And you’re my brother. A brother can’t lie to me about what he’s feeling. But you can. Please don’t.”

My gut was fluttering now. I trusted Mike — heck, he was the only damn person on the planet I fully trusted — but . . . I hated feeling so exposed.

He twitched the hand closest to me, as if he wanted to touch me. A slight movement, it wouldn’t have been noticeable if the rest of him hadn’t been lying so still, as he had been for two days. The panic feeling grew in me. I had to do something. I breathed slowly, trying to calm myself. Mike flinched.

“I know it’s not reasonable.” I could tell he was trying to sound calm, but I could hear the tension in his voice. “It’s not that I need to know what you’re feeling all the time, it’s just . . . hell, I don’t know how to explain it. I mean there’s a million ways you’re not like a Pack-brother, you’re not even the right frigging species. I don’t know why this bothers me so much.”

I looked down, away from that intense, disturbing stare. Taking a last deep breath, I managed to say, “I’m not doing it to lie to you, Mike.” True for right now, but not always true, and the implicit lie caught in my throat. “Sometimes I need to control what I feel. You know?” I lifted my head and forced myself to meet his eyes.

He frowned. Not something the Pack had much experience of, I guessed. Quickly I said, “I’ll try. Okay?” Did that count as a lie? ‘Try’ was an ishy word; hard to define or prove. I didn’t know how hard I could try, whether I could muster anything he’d count as trying.

And then I thought, surely I could, because he smiled. The approving smile, not the one that looked as if he wanted to tear out your jugular. “Great. Thank you.”

It was ridiculous, and pathetic, how that made my panic recede. And then he said, “Dave?” And just that, my name, the way he spoke it, what I thought he was going to say, hurled me into full-blown panic.

 

*         *         *

 

That was Sunday night. Monday, we went to school as usual. Just as if the world hadn’t changed.

Mike’s mom fussed over him at breakfast. I could understand that. He was still paler than normal, and I didn’t think he was moving with his usual speed. But his dad didn’t say anything, and neither did I. I was used to hiding injuries, to pretending to be fine when I wasn’t. I guess it didn’t seem a big deal to me. But that wasn’t why I was silent.

Mike bore with her patiently. Guilt maybe. It was Mr Jaeger who called a halt to it eventually.

“He’ll be fine, Maggie. We’re very tough.” It wasn’t his usual gentle tone, but I guess none of us were ‘usual’ right now. Not after what Mike had done. To Mike he said, “Better not do much writing. I’ll put your left hand in a sling. We can say you’ve sprained it. I’ll write a note.” Mike made a noise. I don’t know what it meant. His dad drew in a deep breath, and then paused, and tipped sideways, brushing his head against Mike’s. That surprised me. I knew he hated Mike not talking in words, and I understood that, after what he’d gone through with his father. But . . . I guess we were all changing, or trying to change.

Becky’s wide blue eyes watched her brother and father curiously. She’d been subdued since Friday night — well, that was hardly surprising. We’d all been subdued, and it was a terrible thing for a ten year old to see. What her fourteen-year-old sister thought was another thing. Kathryn had been quiet too, but her silence was a world away from her little sister’s. I wondered if Mike’s desperate action had made any impression on her at all.

Now Kathryn got up from the table abruptly, carrying her toast. Her mom opened her mouth to say something, then shut it. Wisely, I thought. I couldn’t handle an argument. So what’s new?

Mrs J glanced at me, and I looked down hurriedly. She hadn’t said anything about my dad yet, probably because we were all so shattered, and maybe also because I hadn’t been out of Mike’s company since . . . since it happened. But I could see it in her eyes when she looked at me, or thought I could.

We got through the morning somehow. I’d been faking it all my life, I don’t know why it was suddenly so hard.

At lunchtime, we got our lunches from our lockers, though I doubted either of us felt like eating, then hesitated. We always met Linny and Sue for lunch.

Mike said, “She’s not going to want to see me.”

It was stupid, but I didn’t think about what he’d said, right off. I just enjoyed the fact that he’d spoken. Something about his voice, the depth of it . . . Stupid. I realized then that I hadn’t heard him speak since first thing that morning. I shook my head and thought about what he’d said, rather than how.

After a moment, I said hesitantly, “You’ve been friends a long time.”

He pushed a hand through his hair, sighed. “Yeah. But —” He looked at me sideways, then around at the other kids. Not many, slow as we were being, but any was too many. I started walking toward the side door.

Once we were outside, away from listening ears, I said, “I know what you did to her, but you didn’t ring her yesterday. Whatever . . . happened . . . between you, she’s going to be worried, after what I said.” I felt the heat rise in my face, embarrassed all over again, as I was whenever I thought about that phone call.

“Yeah.” He gave another sigh. Then he leaned toward me and bumped his head against mine. “It wasn’t your fault, little brother. Paul shouldn’t have asked you to do it. He wasn’t thinking clearly.” He snorted softly. “None of us were thinking clearly.”

I should have had more control.

The girls were sitting in our usual place under the tree. We came up to them, and stood there, looking down, not sure of our welcome.

Sue said, “What’re you doing?” She tilted her head up, squinting against the sun. I saw her notice Mike’s sling. “What is it with you guys? You got to always be a matched set?” She said it like it was a joke, but there was an edge to her voice that I knew was directed at Mike. I tried to find a joke of my own, but for the first time, I couldn’t think of anything to say. I just wanted to disappear. Be alone with Mike, not needing to pretend. I was sick of pretending.

Ignoring her, Mike said, “Can I talk to you?”, his eyes fixed on Linny.

She said, “I didn’t think you’d be here today.” I’d never heard Lin sound like that. Sue glanced at her, obviously surprised. Lin hadn’t said anything then.

Mike said, “Yeah, well, here we are.” He shrugged.

“Your dad said you’d ring. I waited all day for you to ring.”

Sue watched avidly. I could tell she was thrilled by the thought that Linny and Mike had had a bust-up. If she knew . . . Well, she doesn’t. And I don’t think anyone’s going to tell her. I was pretty sure I knew what her advice to Lin would be. And that would be fatal for all of us.

Mike said, “I’m sorry, Lin. I’m sorry you were worried, and I’m sorry,” he flicked a glance toward Sue, “about Friday night.” He grimaced. “I know that means nothing, but . . .” He glanced at Sue again.

Lin said, “I want to know what happened.” Then she blushed suddenly, and her voice lost its uncharacteristic firmness. “I mean . . .” She nodded at his sling.

“An accident.”

Her jaw hardened again. “Dave was hysterical because you had some accident? I thought you’d be in intensive care, at least, the way he was carrying on.”

Sue looked at me, eyes wide. Surprise, but not only surprise. I could tell she was enjoying this. I felt sick.

Lin was still talking. I heard my name, and then she said, “Go on, tell me it was all some stupid joke.” She glanced at me. “I can tell from Dave’s face that it was a joke.”

I wanted to go. I wanted to sleep. Just disappear from all this. Not deal with it. With anything.

Mike stood there, quite still, not looking as if he was on the verge of panic, which was how I felt. Then he said, and it did absolutely nothing to still my panic, “Lin, I’ll tell you whatever you want to know, but,” he tipped his head sideways, “can we walk?”

She hesitated, then nodded and rose to her feet. Sue started to get up too, but Mike gave her a look, really flat, like she wasn’t even part of his universe and . . . I don’t know . . . it was just really chilling. I wasn’t surprised Sue settled back and turned her attention to me, as if that was what she had intended all along. As the other two walked away, I tried to put them out of my mind. It hadn’t occurred to me till then, till Mike said those words I’ll tell you whatever you want to know, that Mike would no more lie to Lin than he would to me. I wondered how she’d react.

“So, what gives with the arm? I can’t remember Mike ever hurting himself before. He’s not a klutz like you.” Sue was smiling, but her eyes followed Mike and there was no admiration I could see, though I imagined the ease and power in the way he moved would be quite a turn-on for some girls.

And intimidating for a lot of guys.

I made myself grin. “Some of us have just never mastered that whole bipedal thing. Should never have lost those tails.” I dropped down on the ground; I wasn’t going to be able to leave till the others came back, might as well look as if I wanted to be there, though I was so not in the mood for our usual repartee. “Problem is pants.”

Sue turned her eyes to me, frowning. “You what?”

My grin broadened. Sue was usually a lot quicker on the uptake than that; she must be as distracted as me. Which was . . . okay, not good from one point of view, but good from the perspective of me trying to fake my usual happy-go-lucky shtick.

“Pants,” I said brightly. “If we still had tails, we’d need a whole different fashion thing. Maybe we’d all wear skirts?” I waited a moment for that mental picture to cross Sue’s mind, then screwed up my face and gestured with both hands, imitating a skirt flying up. “Maybe not.” My guts were twisting and it was taking major self-control not to turn and look at Mike and Lin, try to work out how she was taking this. How much was he going to tell her?

Any damn thing she wants to know. I couldn’t imagine the guilt he must be feeling over Friday night.

Okay, I could. Too much damn imagination, that was half my trouble. And he really does care about her. Even in my head, I shied away from using the L-word.

“Don’t give me any of that,” Sue said impatiently. “Your buddy’s always been weird, but he’s gone way beyond weird lately. There’s the whole disappearing for weeks thing, and don’t think I bought that bullshit story about his grandfather for one moment! And there’s the rumors around school . . . and I've seen the way Marshall and his friends look at him. And you know, when he looks at me like that, I sure in hell know why. Don’t you think I’ve got a right to know?” She turned and looked after them again. They were halfway down the field by now, but even from here I could see the tension. Or maybe that was my imagination again.

“She’s my best friend, Dave. I want to know how worried I should be.”

“He’d never hurt her.” Absolute, utterly convincing, conviction in my voice. Hey, lying — to anyone but Mike — is one of my best things. Anyway, it wasn’t really a lie. I was sure Mike would never hurt her as long as he was in his right mind. Trouble was, that wasn’t the reassurance it would have been once.

 

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