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“I’m going to choose to play the blissfully ignorant person right now and answer yes, I would believe you,” she replied and this time when another tear escaped from the corner of her eye, she didn’t wipe it away.

“Thank you,” I said, lifting my arm and grabbing one of her hands she still held in front of her eyes. I wove my fingers through hers and gave it a squeeze. I actually had to exert force to squeeze them. Bryn’s hand no longer felt like soft flesh to my touch—it was hard, unforgiving, like I was squeezing heated metal.

“Thanks for not dying,” she replied, her voice evening out as one more tear ran down the other cheek.

“Ehhh,” I said, waving my hand. “I knew I wasn’t going to die.” She smirked down at me, always able to see through my BS. “Why’s that? Because you know the stuff you’re made of?”

I lifted myself up and twisted to face her. My body ached, one leg felt all tingly with numbness, and I was pretty sure at least one of my fingers was broken from Bryn’s hulk strength fingers gripping mine. But damn if I’d never felt better in my life.

“Nah,” I said, running my fingers through my hair. At least that had retained all its prior glory. “It’s because I know the stuff you’re made of.”

“I see Mortality hasn’t affected your bloated charm,” she said.

“Only enhanced it,” I replied, winking.

Without warning, Bryn started sobbing, curling into herself and choking on sob after sob that released itself. Bryn disdained showing weakness almost as much as I did. In fact, I couldn’t recall ever seeing her this distraught.

“Come here,” I said, pulling her to me. Her body rocked against mine, each sob vibrating over me, each tear dampening my shirt.

“I thought I was going to kill you,” she choked out, shaking her head against me.

“Yeah, you were pretty close,” I replied, running my hands through her hair, trying to calm her. “But you didn’t. That was some pretty impressive stuff for someone who’s only trained in theory.” She sniffled into my shirt. “Good thing for you I’m a quick learner.”

“Good thing for you,” I replied, patting her back as her crying dimmed. “Because if you had, you’d miss out on all this greatness. A girl might be able to go without food for ten days, but she can’t make it even one without looking upon this kind of exquisiteness.”

She laughed into my shirt. “Instead of firing back what I’m biting back, I’ll just agree and admit it’s nice to still have you here in all your lack of self-confidence.”

“We’re making progress, Mrs. Hayward,” I said as she leaned away from me. She was a blotchy, red-faced mess. “Are you okay? All done sobbing the alphabet?” She nodded, wiping at her face, which only made it redder.

“Good. Because you are a really ugly crier,” I teased. “We’re talking world record setting here.” She swatted at me, rolling her eyes. That swat that wouldn’t have registered on the sensation scale two minutes ago knocked me over.

“Ooo, sorry,” Bryn said, grabbing my arm and pulling me back up. “That’s going to take some getting used to.”

I grunted, dusting myself off. “You’re telling me.”

Laughing, she wiped something off my face. Thankfully, with restraint. “What are you going to tell everyone?”

“The truth.”

“Which is?” she asked, appraising me like she wasn’t sure I was the same Patrick Hayward I’d been minutes ago.

I was.

And I wasn’t.

I grinned at the floor. “You tried to kill me.” I looked up, flashing my grin at her. “And failed.” She shoved me again, but she didn’t send me flying this time. “You shouldn’t mess with someone that could break you like that,” she said, snapping her fingers.

“Even before I was a man in all my Mortal splendor,” I said, shaking my hair into place, “you could have broken me any day of the week, Bryn.”

“Good point,” she said, glancing back at the tunnel behind us.

“Excellent point,” I clarified, following her gaze. I couldn’t hear a thing—I couldn’t hear the flap of a bat’s wings half a mile down that tunnel any more—but what I’d gained was worth what I lost.

“Your father’s going to be furious,” she said, popping up and positioning herself in front of me. It was a protective stance. I wasn’t used to being the one who needed protection. “And William’s going to be—”

“And William’s going to be smitten,” I interrupted, hoisting myself up beside her. I wasn’t going to sit on my ass and let a girl stand guard. “Like he always is. He could run in here and find us making out like a couple sexpots and he’d forgive you.”

“I doubt that.”

“I don’t,” I said, sliding my hands on my hips. My thumb skimmed raised skin just beneath my shirt.

An old scar. The bullet hole that had killed me. Scars, bruises, cuts, and scrapes: they were realities of my world now.

“Are you serious?” she said, glancing at me as I pulled my shirt free of my pants so I could, for the first time, see the scar of the wound that had ended my Mortality. Her eyes landed on the scar that was positioned right over the lower half of my abs, just above my belt line. Her cheeks flushed just barely.

“No, I’m not serious,” I said, turning to face her full on to see how much redder I could get that face of hers. “But I can see you are. Unfortunately for you, I’m no longer on the market. No longer at your beck and making out call. Sorry, Bryn. You should have picked the other brother when you had your chance.” Her eyes narrowed and this time, when she shoved me, I stumbled halfway across the room.

“Cover up and stop being an ass,” she said, turning away from me. “They’re almost here.” Just barely glancing over her shoulder, she added, “And you better have one hell of an explanation for them because I’m no longer on your side on this one.”

Once I’d gotten control of myself, I strolled back over to her. “Becoming Mortal didn’t make me stupid”—her eyes flashed my way—”-er. Stupider,” I clarified. “I can still tell when you’re lying because, let’s be honest, an amoeba could call BS on your lies.” Her glare grew more pronounced, but she didn’t dispute it.

“Come on. You and I are always on the same side. That’s the only way the universe works,” I continued, nudging her. I dodged the elbow she returned. “I’m the black sheep of the family and you’re the grim reaper. By default, we’re always on the same side.”

“Well, black sheep, here comes the rest of your herd.” Stepping forward, Bryn angled herself in front of me again.

I was over the whole girl protecting the boy thing. Besides, what in the hell was she protecting me from? A power noogie from Joseph? It didn’t matter how much of a weakling Mortal I’d become, I could still take that grinning idiot.

“Mind telling me what you’re trying to guard me from?” I asked, shouldering up beside her, watching as each member of my family trickled back into the room. They were all accounted for, save for Nathanial, who had surely made it topside with Emma by now. None looked wounded or even slightly injured. In fact, no one had a tear in their clothing or a clump of hair out of place to give away they were just in some small grade Immortal battle.

“Want to know what I’m protecting you from?” Bryn asked, stiffening as they all ran towards us.

“The boogie man?”

She let out a short sigh before she thrust herself in front of me. “This!” she shouted, blocking me as Joseph hauled ass in my direction. Throwing her hands into his chest, she stilled him in his tracks. The unexpected transaction stopped everyone else as well.

“Have you gone mad, Bryn?” Joseph said, his face dropping into confusion as he backed away from her. He was still shirtless and banged up, but his body was making quick work of healing his wounds.

William loped up beside her, looking just as confused, but as predicted, smitten.

“Listen, I know you’re excited to see your brother. Alive,” she added, smirking back at me. “But he’s in something of a fragile state right now, so bear hugs, rough housing, or anything else of a physical nature you knuckle heads participate in at every chance needs to be sidelined.”

“Patrick. Fragile?” Joseph said, looking at me, his forehead creasing. “How bad? How long?” Bryn cleared her throat, glancing up at William.

“I’ll speak up here and confess I will be in something of a somewhat fragile state for a while since I’m a…” I rubbed the back of my neck, not sure how to lay this out there. Sugar coating was never my thing and wasn’t ever going to be; I laid it all out there.

Lifting a shoulder, I looked each member of my family in the eyes. “Since I’m a Mortal.” Joseph laughed, William following right behind.

When I didn’t join in, they both stopped mid-note.

The silence that ensued made me come close to squirming for the first time.

“You’re Mortal.” Father was the first one to speak, as expected, and neither his voice nor his face gave away any emotion. He could be epically pissed or totally copacetic with the whole thing.

“So they tell me,” I said, lifting my arms and doing a spin for everyone.

“Why?” Another emotionless question from Chancellor Hayward.

Wait, I wasn’t Immortal any more. He didn’t have anything to be Chancellor of over me. I could have danced a jig if everyone wasn’t still staring at me like I was a leper.

“I saw the opportunity and I took it,” I answered, leaving Emma out of it. For now. My guess is my family already knew why, but I didn’t want five sets of eyes to turn in accusation on her the moment they saw her. They had to know this was my decision. My own.

“How?” Father asked, crossing his arms and studying the ground. Okay, he was pissed. He was actually having to work to stay composed.

I didn’t want to rat Bryn out, but really, the answer should be glaringly obvious. I was dying. Almost gonezo. Everyone left. Bryn stayed behind. I was Mortal when they came back.

A should lead to B should lead to Bryn.

Scratching the back of my head, I studied the ceiling. “A miracle?” Weak, Hayward.

“I did it,” Bryn said, her voice soft as she shouldered closer to me. “I changed him.” The heads that were trained on me snapped a foot to the right, landing on her. She didn’t even squirm as we met another round of silence.

“You performed an unauthorized reversal on a member of my Alliance?” Father’s eyes lifted, narrowing in on Bryn.

Now she squirmed.

William came forward, dropping an arm around her waist and lining up with the two of us.

One down, five more to go.

“Yeah. That member of your Alliance also happens to be your son,” I said, not disguising my sarcasm. “And that member of your Alliance would have died had Bryn not agreed after copious amounts of pleading, begging, and sobbing to reverse me.” I crossed my arms, looking at her from the side. She was already stronger with William beside her. “So take out whatever anger you have on me.” Father’s eyes closed as he rubbed a hand over his eyes. “Son,” he began, “I’m not angry with anyone. I’m sad.” He paused, his jaw tightening. “I’m mourning the son I will one day lose. Forgive me for needing more than a few minutes to get past this.”

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