Vico found Lejan already waiting for him in the common room when he came down from the Mediations office, but before they could head out, Jayen came storming in the doors in a fury. “Is it true?” he demanded, without a care for the interest sparking in the other bonded that were gathered throughout the room. Vico crossed his arms and gave a deep, resigned sigh. “Were you even going to say anything to me, you deceitful, manipulative little—”
“Hey there, boss,” Lejan said, interposing himself between them as Jayen advanced. “Maybe take a deep breath there, calm down before you say something you regret.”
“Back off, Jacinth, this is none of your damn business.”
“I’m just saying.” Lejan’s smile was benign, but he didn’t move.
Vico took him by the arm. “It’s fine, Lejan. I appreciate the offer of a ride, but I think this is going to take a while, so just go on without me.”
“If you’re sure,” Lejan said, glancing between them uncertainly. Jayen stared at him, affronted.
“Really, Lejan, it’s fine, I can handle him. We were going to have to talk anyway, and I’d rather get it over with sooner rather than later.” Vico directed gently him toward the door, and he left, though not without a worried glance back.
“What the hell is his problem?” Jayen growled.
Vico shot him an exasperated look. “You know he was a Watcher back in Malacha,” he said. “They’re trained to keep the peace.”
“Well, he’s not in Malacha now, so he has no damn reason to insert himself into our business!”
“You did come stomping in here looking like you wanted to strangle me,” Vico pointed out.
Jayen stepped back, stung. “Maybe I did, but it’s not like I actually would!”
“Maybe you should think about how it looks when you do things like that. You’ve always been a punch first, ask questions later sort of person. And we do have a history of blasting the crap out of each other as kids,” Vico said, very much aware that they were the center of attention in the common room. He could see Tor smirking from where he was sitting across the room with his feet propped up on the table.
“Don’t lecture me about my attitude when you straight up lied to me this morning! You don’t think I have a right to know Seya’s back?”
“Why don’t you ask Micah why he didn’t tell you last night,” Vico said, raising his voice as Micah came into the common room. “Or your father.”
Jayen turned to Micah, betrayed.
Micah shot Vico a dirty look and threw his hands in the air. “Your dad’s orders, Jayen. I just do what I’m told.”
“What, am I the last to know?”
“I think you might be, Young Master,” Tor said, his voice carrying across the room as he ambled over. “She’s at Halcyon, or was when I saw her. You know, if you want to go give her a nice brotherly welcome.” He smirked, and flipped something glassy up in the air. He caught it, held it up between two fingers. The magic inside sparked brilliant, poisonous green—an acid charm.
“If she’s still on her feet, that is,” Tor went on, with a sly glance at Vico. “She was always kind of sensitive to curses and all.”
“What did you do?” Vico snarled, stepping toward him with mounting fury.
Jayen grabbed him by the back of his shirt to stop him, alarm sparking in his aura. “Hey, you’ll get revoked.”
Vico ground his teeth in an effort to control himself. He’d signed an agreement before joining the clan that said he would stay away from Tor, and the penalties for breaking it had teeth. Getting revoked was the least of them. He wasn’t in any hurry to get himself challenged by the McKellen matriarch, who was still holding a grudge from the last time he and Tor had fought. “If she’s not okay when I get to Halcyon, don’t think for one second I won’t fuck you up, McKellen, revocation or no,” he bit out, shoving past both him and Jayen to get outside.
He’d hoped to catch Lejan before he left, but the man was nowhere in sight. Jayen, however, had come after him. “Where are you going?” he demanded.
“To Halcyon, obviously.”
“I’m not done with you yet! Why the hell didn’t you tell me about this!”
“I don’t know, maybe because I knew you’d react like this, and I didn’t want you chasing her away when she’s only just come back!” Avoiding Jayen’s attempt to catch him, he set off toward the garage. Jayen followed him, fuming with silent frustration. Vico just ignored him.
Erik Camis was manning the garage, a Malthusius-born, and an old friend of Jayen’s from the little clique he and Seya had spent half their childhood fighting and dueling. Vico had gotten along with him well enough after joining the clan, but like most of Jayen’s friends, he’d been a hassle to deal with since last summer. “I need to requisition a car,” Vico said, resigned to having to argue over it.
“No you don’t, I’ll drive you,” Jayen said.
“Absolutely not,” Vico said. “And don’t you dare follow me! If I see you anywhere near Halcyon I’ll strangle you myself. Erik. Car. Please and thanks.”
Erik looked him over, glanced at Jayen. “Nope.”
“Now,” Vico said. “I do not have time for this bullshit today.”
“Sorry, Rhaimes, all out.”
There were nine of the fleet cars cars in the garage. Vico started past him, but Erik shut the door almost on his fingers. “Boss, there’s a guy trying to steal a car, might want to do something about that.”
“I’m on it,” Jayen said, taking Vico’s arm and steering him toward his own car, which was parked outside under the reserved carport not far away.
Vico threw him a sour look. “Who’s the manipulative bastard now?”
“Learned from the best, didn’t I.”
“Fine,” Vico said. “Fine. Out with it. Shout or whatever, I don’t care, let’s just go.” He got in the car, irritation piling on top of his worry. Jayen had a cavalier attitude toward speed limits, so at least they would get there fast. Jayen climbed into the driver’s side and threw something at him. “Would you please stop doing that!” Vico said, catching it reflexively. It was warm in his hand, and when he opened his fingers he saw it was his fire charm. He’d checked the waste basket first thing when he got in to the office, but finding it gone, he’d assumed one of his coworkers or someone from the maintenance staff had seen it in there and taken it. He put it in his pocket instead of back on his earring and stared out the window until he had composed his face. “Seat belt, Jayen,” he muttered, when Jayen started the car and pulled out of the carport without fastening his. Jayen gave a huff and stopped to put it on.
“Shouldn’t you be picking up one of your crew first?” Vico asked as they got to the gate.
“You worked security long enough to suffice. Or are you taking back what you said this morning?”
“I’m thinking very seriously about it right now.”
Jayen drove in silence for several blocks, glaring venomously out the windshield.
“How’s your mother?” Vico asked. “I haven’t seen her around.” It was a deliberate avoidance on his part. Lessandra Zendos was the least maternal mother he knew, but she was still angry enough to threaten to challenge him when she did catch him around town.
Jayen just shot him an angry look.
“I heard she and her proteges swept the Giannet Tournament last week. All the golds, half the silvers.” Lessandra was a professional duelist, her career sponsored by Malthusius as part of her bargain to bear Corin’s heir.
“I don’t want to make small talk,” Jayen said.
“So get on with it then. I thought you were angry.”
“I fucking pissed,” Jayen snapped. “But it does no good to shout at you. You just make smart comments and tune me out.”
“Because you shout about everything, it’s exhausting. It’s no good trying to talk to you seriously. You don’t even know how to listen to people.”
There was another tense silence. Jayen was the first to break it. “What did she say?”
“About everything! Where has she been? Why did it take her this long to show back up? She better have a gods damned good reason for what she did to you, or I’m going to strangle her with my bare hands!”
“You are not. Don’t even talk to her. And don’t try to act like you’re upset on my behalf after all this time. You’re just worried about what your father is going to do now that she’s back.”
Jayen swore under his breath at that, but he didn’t deny it. Vico settled back in his seat and stared out the window until they reached Halcyon.
Seya was coming down the front walk toward the gate when they pulled up at at the gate. Vico bolted out of the car almost before it had stopped, relieved to see that she didn’t seem hurt, but he stopped short of intruding on the school grounds. He hadn’t set foot in the place since getting himself emancipated at age seventeen, wouldn’t even walk past if he could help it. It held too many memories, good and bad, for him to deal with.
“What are you doing here?” Seya asked, her eyes flashing as she watched Jayen get out of the car. He was glowering at them both. “With him.”
Hearing that, Jayen started around the car. There was a great deal of anger swirling around in his aura, and he was radiating a blend of jealousy, insecurity and resentment that Vico recognized and probably should have expected—apparently some things never changed. Jayen’s weak spiritual magic meant that he was worse than average at keeping his feelings contained, and at the moment he wasn’t even trying.
“Sorry, it was faster to let him drive me than to get permission to take one of the work cars,” Vico said, shooting Jayen a warning look. “Tor came around talking shit about you, and I got worried.” He stepped back from the gate in surprise as the magic in the wards shifted without warning and then shut in front of him. Behind Seya he saw Master Montreides coming down the walk, and he did not look happy.
“Is there a problem out here?” he asked, the words clipped sharp with warning.
“Is there a problem?” Vico asked, glancing from him to Seya.
“There is, actually,” Seya said, “someone just locked me in while I was trying to leave.” She shot Montreides a flinty-eyed look before turning back to Vico. “And you! You seriously came running across town because of something that idiot Tor said? What is wrong with you? If someone hadn’t stopped me he’d still be out here picking bits of himself out of the street.”
“Excuse me for worrying after hearing the guy who once almost killed you brag about scoring one on you in front of everyone and their gods!”
Montreides’ eyes went wide. He turned to Seya “I beg your pardon, I did not realize you meant your earlier statement literally,” he said. “Should I call the guard so you can file a report?”
Vico had been thinking of doing the same thing, but Seya went pale. “No!” she said, the word coming out a little too vehemently. She took a deep breath and went on in a more composed tone, “No, just open the wards. Please.”
Zan hesitated, glancing at the two Malthusius on the other side. Seya narrowed her eyes at him. “You know that nice thing you just said about welcoming all Halcyon’s students? Well, there’s another one of us, right there.” She pointed at Vico. “Or does the fact that he’s Malthusius now count too much against him for all those high minded ideals of yours?”
Montreides started back as though she’d slapped him. “Ah—no, of course not.” He waved the wards open to let her out, his eyes flicking over Vico, a slight, bemused tilt to his brow. Vico gave him a perfunctory smile and took Seya by the arm. She shook him off irritably.
Jayen scoffed. “Looks like she’s just fine, how nice, get in the damn car. I’ve got better things to do than hang out here while you two get reacquainted.”
“It’s nice to see you haven’t changed at all, Jayen,” she said. “I was so afraid you might have grown up and become a proper member of society while I was gone, but you’ve certainly settled my fears on that account.”
He responded with a vulgar gesture. Vico sighed. “Let’s go, all right? Get some lunch. Talk.”
“Like hell I’m riding anywhere with him,” she said. She dug his key and his money out of her pocket and flung them at him. “I don’t need your charity either.”
“Damn it, Seya, it’s not charity! We’re family!” He gave an exasperated groan and turned to Jayen. “Look, Jayen, thanks for the ride, all right? I’m going to take lunch, but I can wait while you ping someone to meet you—”
“Whatever,” Jayen snarled, slamming the car door and charging the engine much more than necessary. The energy of it reverberated up and down the street as he sped away.
Seya glared after Jayen’s car until it had disappeared around a corner with a squeal of tires. Vico rubbed his face. “Gods, tell me what have I done to be surrounded by so many difficult people?”
“Sorry for being difficult,” she snapped.
They glared at each other for a long moment. Out of the corner of her eye, Seya saw Zan pause, eyeing them with concern. Then Vico gave a rueful laugh. “Wow. Just like old times, isn’t it?” he said, and held out a hand to her, the awkward tension that had been lingering between them easing. Seya relaxed a little and let herself be pulled into his embrace. There might have been a decade and a broken bond between them, but he was still her Vico after all. For a moment, she felt more like herself than she had in years.
Vico draped his arm over her shoulder and gave her a mock punch to the jaw. “I forgive you. Just for being difficult, though. You’ll have to work for the rest.”
She leaned into him. It was still a little weird without the bond to buffer his feelings, but she smiled anyway. “There you go, love.” Vico linked his arm through hers, propelling her up the street with a glance back over his shoulder at Zan. “What’s his deal?” he asked, raising an eyebrow at her.
“Tor cursed me right outside the gate. He, uh. Patched me up.”
Vico’s eyebrows went up. “Ah. You didn’t catch him, did you? Is that still a thing?”
Seya looked over her shoulder and saw Zan was heading back inside. “I don’t think he’s the susceptible type? He’s just…nice.”
“Hmm,” Vico said with a slight but palpable trace of doubt, though he declined to pursue the subject. “So, now that we’ve had a bit of a shout at each other, why don’t you tell me where the hell you’ve been all this time?”
She made a bitter face. “At this point it’d be easier to list the places I haven’t been.”
“Are you hungry? Let’s go get some lunch. You can list them out. Or were you just going to abandon me again after all?” He said it like a joke but she could feel the edge behind the words.
“You’re still a manipulative bastard,” Seya said. “Is everyone I see today going to attack me or try to save me from myself?”
“Of course. It’s you we’re talking about,” Vico said.
“Is there a reason Tor’s out harassing people in the middle of the day or is that just a Malthusius perk?”
He didn’t say anything, but she could feel the tension in his aura as he considered the problem. They walked in silence for a while. Finally he said, “Corin wants to see you. He probably had people sent to keep an eye out for you.”
“Are you one of them?”
“Hell no. The last thing I want is to chase you off.”
It was true. She could feel the sincerity radiating off of him. She cleared the tightness from her throat and asked, “What did you tell him?”
“He asked if I had seen you. I said I had. That’s it.”
“You can tell him I said he can go to hell.”
They came to a little cafe, a small, privately owned, and more importantly, unaffiliated place, which meant there would be no Malthusius or any other clan bonded to interfere. Vico practically dragged her inside. She chose a seat in the back, facing the door, and Vico sat across from her, elbows on the table, a frown on his face. His eyes kept dropping to her gloved hand, but he didn’t say anything, even after he noticed that she had seen him looking. “So what were you really doing at the school?”
She told him a carefully edited version of the incident in the market with the pickpocket, not wanting him to know how she needed to avoid the attention of the guard. His frown deepened as he mulled over the story, and his concern only grew as she told him about the dissonant undercurrents she had been looking at all morning.
“That’s become a common occurrence around here, unfortunately,” he told her.
“There must be someone doing something to cause it then.”
“Probably so, but I haven’t really gotten out much lately. I’m working Mediations, and there’s an imminent factory opening that’s been taking up all my time. Affiliation with a Talese farming co-op. If I was still working security—” He shrugged. “Can you show me what the kid looked like? I’ll keep an eye out for her.”
Seya glanced around the cafe. It was a slow day, only a couple other patrons, none of whom were paying them any attention. She held her hands out and summoned up a visual memory of the girl for him.
Vico studied it intently. “She doesn’t look familiar, but I can ask Jayen, I guess.” He didn’t sound terribly enthusiastic about the idea.
“You said you weren’t together anymore, but he’s okay driving you around looking for me?”
“It was more like he wanted an opportunity to shout at me for not telling him you were back. I should probably ping Micah to check on him. He’s not supposed to be out by himself. Someone tried to kill him a couple of weeks ago.”
“Only once?” she snorted.
He gave her a look of faint reproach, then laughed and shook his head. “Yeah, he can be just as much of an ass as ever, I’ll give you that.”
“What did you even see in him?”
She didn’t miss the undercurrent of sadness in his aura even though he tried to hide it behind a cheeky smirk. “Well, he’s a pretty hot ass…”
“Ugh, stop. You’re practically my brother, I do not want that image in my head.” For some reason that made her think about Zan’s hands on her. She shook the idea away, slightly unnerved—she’d never let herself get close enough to anyone to entertain those kinds of fantasies, but she couldn’t forget the feel of his magic, or the warmth of his touch. She sat up and frowned at Vico.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said. For a second it had felt like he was reflecting at her—loneliness, frustration—but that was impossible. They didn’t have a bond anymore. Did they? Something felt different now that the initial awkwardness was gone, but she was afraid to examine it too deeply. Though not looking made her just as anxious.
Their food arrived then, a welcome distraction, and they ate, settling into a companionable silence so easily that it only fueled the tension building in her. She had been running around refusing to trust people for so long it felt wrong, like he would turn around and lash out at any moment. She almost wished he would. She’d expected to be rejected and tossed out, or informed on to Corin, or to the guard; to be welcomed back with kindness and concern was too much.
She pushed aside her half-eaten food and put her face in her hands.
Of course he sounded concerned. “Stop it,” she said. “Just stop! Be angry, or throw me to the wolves, or whatever. I know what I did was horrible. This is hard enough already.”
“What’s hard? Leaving again? That’s not much incentive to be a jerk, you know,” he said, poking the top of her head.
“Don’t pretend you aren’t mad!” She sat up and glared at him.
He leaned back and threw his arm over the back of the booth. “If I’m being scrupulously honest—and I’d only do that for you, you know—yeah, I’m mad. I mean, you were the only family I’d had for years, and you abandoned me without a single word. Severed me.” He shut his eyes against the memory of pain strong enough to show in his aura. “Gods, Seya, do you know how much that hurt?”
“Yes,” she said, her eyes dropping to the table top. She knew very well.
“I was pissed about that beyond all reason for years. But I worried about you all the time, too. Because we are family, and damn blood and bonds that might say otherwise. I can’t promise not to unload the angry part on you at some point, but right now, I’m just really, really glad you’re alive. I love you, you idiot. You’re the other half of my heart. That’s never going to change.”
She couldn’t say anything to that. A faint spark of their old bond flickered up between them, warm and familiar and overflowing with humbling sincerity that completely undid her. Vico handed her a napkin and studied the poster on the wall over their table until she had stopped crying. “So. No more talk about leaving?” he said, reaching tentatively to the fragile connection.
“No promises,” she whispered. It took all her willpower not to embrace what he was offering. It wasn’t something to be accepted lightly, and she wasn’t staying. She couldn’t do that to him again. His disappointment was evident even without the bond, but he just cleared his throat and changed the subject back to recounting the reminisces he’d begun that morning.