Not pissed. Sad. Mourning, even.
It turned out my father could still, after generations, surprise me.
“I think we all know, whether I was Immortal or Mortal, you would have one day lost me,” I said as Joseph, in all his battered glory, sauntered up to me, grinning like the fool he was. “At least on this side of the finite, my perception of my invincibility will taper down a few notches, so I might actually live to die of natural causes.”
Looping an arm around my neck, Joseph pulled me to him carefully. It was the first time ever Joseph was stronger than me.
“Come here,” he said, patting me on the back, his embrace so careful you would think he was handling a house of cards.
“Yeah,” I said, thumping his back. It was hard and unforgiving as steel. Man, is that what I’d been like? “Me too, little brother,” I said, filling in the silent blanks.
“You’re madder than a hatter, but I love you, too,” he replied, his eyes glassy when he pulled back.
After Joseph, William pulled me tight, being less careful because he knew. He got it. Just because I was the resident weakling now didn’t mean I wanted to be treated like it. From there, I lost track of who and how long each of my family members pulled me to them, whispering and weeping words I wasn’t able or ready to process yet.
I still hadn’t gotten used to the idea I couldn’t see more than fifty feet before things started to blur.
“So,” Father turned to Bryn after letting me go, his face lining, “you were able to manage a successful reversal on the first try. Putting aside the fact that your guinea pig was my son, I’m going to admit that is exceptionally impressive.”
“I wasn’t a guinea—” I started, but Bryn flashed her hand in front of me.
“Yes. I nailed it on the first try,” she said, meeting Father’s gaze. Bryn was never exactly the pinnacle of self-confidence, so to see her now, putting on her big confident girl panties, had me feeling like a proud guinea pig. “I single handedly undertook the first successful reversal in the history of Immortality. And, for the books,”—she glanced my way, tilting her chin in acknowledgment—”it is also the last. I will never do that again. So no one had better ask.” William’s face was as blank with shock as mine was, as Father’s was. Well, as everyone’s was.
Bryn “No Nonsense” Hayward.
Father nodded, looking one part disappointed to two parts proud. “Understood.” Who knows what else, if anything else, was said because, despite being unable to hear her running towards me from a half a mile away, or catch the scent of her on the air, or see her coming through that blackest of black tunnels, I could sense her.
In that place that we always took with us, both in Mortality and Immortality. That place that could feel her no matter if I was blind and deaf and toeing the line of death.
Spinning around, I weaved through my family, jogging towards the tunnel.
“What?” Nathanial shouted, throwing his hands up in the air. “You all have been down here having a family powwow while we sat on our asses the better part of an hour waiting for you fools? Last time I do a favor for you, brother,” he shouted as I ran past him.
“Patrick’s a Mortal, you insensitive ass!” Cora shouted behind me. “We were kind of indisposed.
Sorry we couldn’t attend to you like the baby you are.”
Nathanial froze in place, gaping at me.
I flashed him a grin and a wink before closing the last few feet between Emma and myself. I didn’t have to worry about being careful with her anymore. I threw myself against her, pulling her into my arms and swinging her around until I was certain I was going to keel over from being dizzy.
“What’s this about you being Mortal?” she whispered into my ear.
“Yeah. Sorry about that,” I said, not letting her go. “I’m going to get old. Ugly, possibly. Hairy, pasty, and saggy. But when we’re ancient and you’re trying not to gag into your fiber when you look at me across the table, just remember I did it all for you, baby. Well, and remember what a fine piece of ass I used to be.”
She laughed softly, tucking her face into my neck.
“For you,” I replied. “Obviously.”
“I’m not sure whether to kiss you or slap you.”
I was sure.
“Then why don’t you just go with the whole kissing me thing then?” The tip of her nose skimmed across my cheek until her mouth was just above mine. Enough stalling.
Not enough kissing.
I crushed my mouth into hers, not able to control what I was doing. There was urgency and there was passion, but there was also patience and restraint. As her hands weaved through my hair, kissing me back so hard I was certain I was thirty seconds away from passing out due to oxygen deprivation, I knew this wasn’t only the best kiss I’d ever experienced, but a first kiss. The handful of girls I’d kissed my first go at Mortality, and the countless slew of girls I’d kissed my way through Immortality, faded away—carried off by the wind. It was freeing in a way I couldn’t have imagined.
Only because I knew the black and white static trickling into my peripheral vision was the first stage of fainting, I broke away from the kiss of my life.
“Are you okay?” we said in unison after I set her back down, both of us as breathless as the other.
I didn’t answer, waiting for hers.
She nodded. “I’m good. Great, now,” she said, lifting her hand and running it down my cheek. Her touch, the simple skimming of a hand down my flesh, confirmed just how right the decision I’d made was.
“Em,” I said, folding my hand over hers, “I’ve never been better.” The skin between her brows creased as she studied me, investigating my face and body for the signs of damage that were there earlier. “I thought I’d lost you,” she said finally, swallowing hard.
“You couldn’t lose me if you wanted to,” I replied, stepping closer. I didn’t care that my family was an audience to this; I hardly even realized they were there.
“No,” she said, smiling, “I doubt I could.”
“Your eyes,” she said, fanning her finger through my eyelashes. “They’re green. Kind of like mine.” I’d forgotten the color of the eyes I’d been born with. Green like the grass of Ireland my mother had referenced when she spoke of all her children’s eyes.
“Yeah. Kind of like yours.”
Her smile curved higher. “So, bad guys are taken care of. You’re out of prison—for now,” she said, nipping the corner of her lip. “What’s next?”
Just the segue I needed.
“Marriage,” I said immediately. “And babies. Lots and lots of babies.” Her face went a shade lighter, but other than that, there were no other signs of shock or doubt on her face. “Is that all?” she said, quirking a brow.
“Not exactly,” I said, tilting my mouth into her ear, “but I’d be happy to go over the rest of what I’ve got in mind with you later. When we’re alone.” I kissed the skin just below her ear before leaning back.
She was giving me the sexiest combination of a smirk and a smile. “Was that your way of asking me to marry you?”
“Damn straight it was,” I replied.
She shook her head, smiling at the ground. “Of course it was.”
“Was that your way of saying yes?”
She stilled, pausing. I had one moment of panic before she lifted her eyes into mine. The eyes that were alive again.
“Damn straight it was.”
When you can count the number of decades you have left on your hands, one goes by fast. Too fast.
When you realize that one day you’ll have to leave the ones you love most behind, you love them with precision and intention.
When eternity is no longer a reality, life is that much more beautiful.
“Hey, old man!” the youngest Hayward brother called out. “You going to rub some ointment into your aching bones or are you going to play?”
I popped up from the porch swing, keeping my preferred reply to myself as I knew young ears were close by.
“I just wanted to give you all a chance to warm up before I came out and made you suffer,” I called back, hopping down the front porch stairs. Dodging an obstacle course of lawn toys, a precariously positioned pair of tiny roller skates, and one tricycle laying on its side, I loped over to the patch of lawn where my brothers had erected a volleyball net.
“Patrick!” Joseph hollered from the other side of the net. “Think fast!” I snatched the volleyball flying at my head out of the air. Popping my face to the side of it, I arched a brow at Joseph.
“The cat-like reflexes are strong with this one,” he said, making a face.
“That’s because daddy is like a magical fairy prince,” the white haired girl with Emma’s unnaturally large eyes said from atop her Uncle William’s shoulders.
All three of my brothers laughed. “Magical fairy indeed, Julia,” Uncle Nathanial said in between his laughter.
I smiled at my second born, blowing her a kiss and flapping my arms the rest of the way into the court.
“What do you think, Gray?” I said, ruffling my son’s hair. My first born, who was almost six years old, on the outside looked like his mama, but his insides were all his daddy. “You think we can take them all?
Gray studied the court on the other side of the net, his brows drawn together, before the exact smile that was on my face formed. “We can take them.”
“Your son’s lack of confidence is just sad,” Joseph said, winking at Gray. “Your ball, buddy.” I held my hand out for him to high five as he passed by, walking ceremoniously back to the service line.
“Yay, Gray!” Julia cheered from across the net, clapping her tiny hands before adjusting the crown of wildflowers she’d made with Aunt Bryn earlier. “Go, Gray!”
“Ready?” he asked, in position as he looked over at me.
I tried not to smile my amusement. My little man, acting like this impromptu game of yard volleyball was the game of the year. “Show ‘em what you got, son.”
Inhaling, he lowered his shoulders before launching the ball over the net.
I hooted over his serve as my three brothers put on a good show on the other side of the net, tripping, fumbling, and bumping the ball back and forth. Finally, Nathanial “missed” the ball and the point was ours.
“The boy’s a volleyball prodigy,” Nathanial said, grinning across the net at Gray, whose face was shining from his smile.
“Hey, volleyball players!” Julia, the original, purple boot wearing one, called out, “Time to refuel.
Dinner’s on and I’ve been instructed to warn you if you’re not at the table in two minutes, there might not be anything left. Four hungry Scarlett brothers are circling the table like a flock of vultures as we speak.”
“Thanks, Jules!” I replied, grabbing Gray and tossing him over my shoulder.