Shoes and socks would take too long, so I wound up barefoot and undergarment-less when I made my reappearance in front of Bryn.
“That was quick,” she said, surveying my wardrobe change as she slid a steaming plate of food, glorious food, on the breakfast bar.
I pounced into that chair so fast you would have thought it was my first, last, and only chance to spend the night with Emma. And I mean that in a mostly clothed, tapering off before hitting third-base kind of way. Maybe.
I sawed off a piece of meat, smearing it through the mountain of potatoes before burying it into my mouth.
“Oh my god,” I moaned, chewing through my words.
“Pretty good?” Bryn smiled, setting a bottle of my favorite brand of root beer in front of me.
I resisted the urge to pick up the slab of meat and eat it like a slice of pizza. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are pretty good,” I said, cutting off a manly sized piece of steak. “There are no words for this.”
By the end of the next bite, my foot was thumping the ground like a dog who’d found his sweet spot.
“I take it from that expression you’re going to want seconds?” She was already piling up another plate.
“Just keep it coming,” I said around a mouthful of potatoes. They were fluffy like Abby’s, but buttery like Cora’s. They were a superhero hybrid of the two, positively the best mashed potatoes I’d tasted in my two hundred years.
“Where’s the ruler of the universe?” I asked, checking over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t going to pull a sneak attack.
She shifted, two bites into gnawing her lip when she answered. “Asleep.” The poor woman couldn’t have sounded less casual if she’d tried.
“Asleep?” I said, pausing my knife mid-slice. “The last time I remember William sleeping was…” My face scrunched in concentration. “Never. I don’t remember the last time he slept. In fact, I’m not even sure William Hayward is capable of sleep.” Chosen One duties have a way of eating into a man’s personal time.
To complement the lip biting, Bryn flushed crimson.
“Bryn, Bryn, Bryn.” I clucked my tongue, taking immense pleasure in her discomfort. “What have you been doing to my big brother that he would require nothing short of the recuperative qualities of sleep to restore himself?”
She rushed to the sink, distracting herself with washing a spotless faucet head. She was either pretending she hadn’t heard my question or was ignoring it.
“You fox, you,” I said, whistling through my teeth.
“Grow up, Patrick,” she said, flicking a few droplets of water at my face.
“I tried it once. Wasn’t really my thing.”
“Then why don’t you keep that large mouth of yours clamped shut?” she said, sliding the second plate behind the one I was two bites away from clearing.
“I didn’t even need to try that to know keeping my mouth clamped shut wasn’t my thing.” She sighed. I received a lot of sighs throughout the course of a day. “You are exasperating.” I met her eyes. “Ditto that, Mrs. Hayward.”
That had her squirming again. Not because she wanted me or I wanted her anymore, but because we had history. Well, for my part, we had history. Histories have a way of tainting your present, no matter how fully you heal from them.
“How’s jail?” she asked, smiling devilishly. “Meet any nice single guys in the shower room?” I nearly choked on my food. “Is it just me, or have you become an exceptional smartass since joining this family?” I asked, pointing my fork at where she stood smirking at me.
“What can I say? I learned from the best,” she said, tying her hair into a high ponytail. “My former strength instructor wasn’t only a master of martial arts, but a master in the art of smartass.”
“Now that sounds like a fine specimen of a man,” I said, digging into the second plate and taking no hostages.
Bryn made a sound of acknowledgement, but not one of agreement. Would it kill her to admit I was a pretty decent guy? I was no William, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I wasn’t some derelict tube sock.
“Who’s been training the newbies while I’ve been busy fraternizing with the Mortals?” I used to cringe over that phrase, but that was before “fraternizing with the Mortals” included talking, touching, embracing, kissing, and every other “ing” with Emma Scarlett.
“Some guy based out of north Idaho,” she answered, lifting a shoulder. “I haven’t met him.”
“Well, even if he lacked the badass strength instructor, I’ll-rip-your-arms-off-and-beat-you-with-the-bloody-stumps aura, him being from north Idaho should be enough to intimidate any newbie.”
“Ready for thirds?” she asked, a clean plate and a scoop of potatoes at the ready.
“Is there dessert?”
“Then, nah. I’m good,” I said, demolishing the last chunk of steak. “So, did you get your cap and gown for graduating from talent training? Things were a wee bit accelerated with you and things since have been a little hectic. Plus,” I said with a lazy shrug, “I doubt anyone wants to piss you off given you could kill them with one touch.”
Bryn was a Taker, as in a taker of life. Practically unheard of amongst our kind and the strength of her gift was unparalleled. I was probably the only instructor who was brave, or dumb some might argue, enough to take her on as my pupil. But where a gift of her substance was involved, I preferred that she was with me rather than against me.
“I guess so,” she answered, cutting a deep dish apple pie in half. “Your dad’s actually been working with me lately.”
Bryn was a solid bluffer, about a hundred times better than Emma, but about a million times worse than I was. She might be trying with all her might to keep the apprehension from her voice and face, but she wasn’t fooling me for one sly second.
“Chancellor Charles Hayward has been filling talent instructor shoes? Giving private lessons?” It didn’t add up to me, but I knew father had already solved the equation. He was meticulous with his time and where he expended his efforts—Bryn had become of some value to him, outside of being a daughter-in-law.
The realization should have been less concerning than it was.
“I suppose that’s what you could say,” she said, focusing her attention on balancing half the pie on a spatula as she flopped it on the plate. “Although there are no guidebooks we’re consulting for our lessons.
It’s more of a speculate as we go and test our theories by trial and error.” She slid the slab of pie in front of me, continuing to look everywhere but in my general direction.
This act might have worked on William, but it didn’t stand a chance against my BS detector.
“Vagueness doesn’t become you, Mrs. Hayward,” I said, shifting in my seat until I caught her line of sight. She was seven shades of disturbed.
“Yeah, and letting a girl brush something under the rug might become you if you gave it a chance once an eternity.” Her eyes flicked northwards.
“I doubt it,” I said, diving into the pie as Bryn scooped half a gallon of French vanilla ice cream on it. “I’m one of those people who like the truth.”
“Good for you,” she grumbled, retrieving her cup of coffee and leaning across the counter from me.
“So,” I said, arching a brow, “what has the good Chancellor been trial and erroring with the most gifted Taker in known existence?”
“Stop being so dramatic,” she said, taking a slow sip of her coffee.
“Start telling the truth.”
She sighed, the exasperated kind. “I’m assuming you’ve heard of the Reversal Project?” That was a truth of Immortal history I’d been happy to keep swept under the rug.
“If you’re talking about a certain low point in Immortal history where a bunch of nut-jobs thought they could transition an Immortal back into a Mortal, then yeah, I’ve heard of it,” I said, scowling into my pie. “But I’d prefer not to take a stroll down that memory lane and I sure as hell don’t want to talk about it.”
“Good,” Bryn said all matter-of-fact, “neither do I, so…moving on to the next topic?” If I wasn’t already convinced, women were infuriating creatures.
“How the hell does the Reversal Project have anything to do with what my father and you are doing?” I said, for the first time in a long time losing my appetite. “Because it better have nothing to do with it. The RP was like the dark ages of our kind and I’m not about to revisit that.”
“Down, boy,” she said, leaning away from me like my outburst had surprised her. “Just take a few calming breaths and keep the beast caged, all right?” She paused, giving me the opportunity to breathe, argue, or punch a hole through the wall, I didn’t know. “We’ve done nothing more dangerous than talking.”
My eyes narrowed. “Genocides start by talking.”
“Again with the drama,” she mumbled into her cup.
“Dozens of Immortal lives lost warrants drama if anything does,” I argued back, not sure why I was taking my anger out on Bryn. Maybe because I knew she could take it and return the favor, or maybe because I’d done everything a man could to repress this memory into the cobwebbed corner of my memory attic.
It’d started with a question, a hundred and some odd years back. What if we could phase an Immortal into a Mortal as we could a Mortal to an Immortal? I don’t recall there being a reason for wanting to try, other than our egos and general worldview that we were capable of anything. The same teams that were skilled in the art of Immortal creation were called together, and the experiments commenced. There were more than enough volunteers at the start. Men and women eternity weary from the centuries-long fight, those outsiders that never took to Immortality for one reason or another, good friends who saw it as the ultimate adventure…
And ended up paying with their lives. All of them. Every last one.
“Stop looking at me like that, Patrick,” Bryn scolded in a small voice.
“How’s that?” I asked, shoving the pie aside and staring at her. “Like you’re a potential mass murderer?”
Her face flashed red, but not the embarrassed kind, the I’m-so-pissed-I’m-going-to-kill-you-with-my-words kind.
“Don’t you ever say that to me again,” she said, her jaw clenched. “I’ve had more than enough opportunities to make myself a mass murderer and have restrained myself, even when I knew restraining my gift would mean Guardians would lose their lives.” Her eyes flashed with reminders, not that I needed them to. “Nothing your father, the Council, or the whole damn Immortal world could say, do, or bribe me with could turn me into a merciless killer, you got that?” She stood taller, glaring down at me in my seat.
You would have guessed I was sitting on a stool of stinging scorpions from the way I wanted to squirm.
“Although I might make a special exception for you if you continue to point the killer finger in my direction.”