The Enchantment Emporium Chapter Thirteen


The grass across the top of the hill burned first, a circle of black spreading behind a ring of gold. Then the trees ignited with a roar, towers of flame enclosing the summit. The world burned too fast after that for Allie to see the individual pyres. Cars exploded, the slam of sound devolving to gentle popping as the fire spread.

Here and there, amidst the crackle of cooking fat, she saw faces.

Charlie. Graham. Kenny in the coffee shop. Her mother. Her father. Roland's daughter Lyla. Dr. Yan. The aunties burned last, but even they burned, falling out of the sky trailing tails of black smoke like particularly dirty comets.

Then, when enough of the world had been remade, Jack's mother rose from the center of the circle where the flames had died to glowing embers. Thunder boomed when she spread gleaming white wings and two of her brothers, tiny against her bulk, tumbled broken from the sky. Scimitar claws extended, she gouged great gashes in the blackened, pitted rock, and roared.

And roared.

And roared.

Left hand groping for something to hold and finding only an empty bed, Allie stared up into the darkness and listened to the sound of her family moving out in the next room, to the sound of the city waking beyond the walls of the apartment, to the sound of claws on rock coming closer.

And closer.

Heat lingered in the hollows next to her so Graham couldn't have been gone long. Clock said 6:47, so she hoped he hadn't been gone long. If he was that much of a morning person, there were going to have to be significant adjustments made.

If they...

Although she was fairly certain at this point it wasn't so much if as when. Not that it mattered, she wasn't going to scare him away, not again. He could choose when he was good and ready to choose and not a moment before. Here and now, it was enough to know he was...

Wasn't.

She could feel her connection to Michael. To Charlie. But it was like Graham had suddenly ceased to exist.

’’I sent him for shortening, Allie, that's all.’’ Auntie Kay reached out a comforting hand, reconsidered, and tucked it back in her apron pocket. ’’He just went down to the store. He'll be back any minute.’’

’’No.’’ Clutching Graham's jacket closed, Allie shook her head. ’’I can't feel him. I can barely feel the city and I can't feel him. One minute, everything was fine, the next I'm holding the end of a broken rope!’’

’’He ran once before.’’

Pivoting on one bare heel, she whipped around toward Roland, but Michael slid into her line of sight, hands raised, voice gentle. ’’Rol's right, Allie-cat. He did run once before, and you know the aunties can be a bit much for people. Even people who know them. No offense,’’ he added hurriedly in Auntie Kay's direction.

’’None taken, dear.’’

’’You don't understand!’’ She cast herself out again. David. The aunties. Even the Dragon Lords circling high overhead. No Graham. ’’If he left the apartment around six twenty, he couldn't have gone far enough for me not to be able to feel him.’’

’’Could you feel him the last time he ran?’’

’’Could I what?’’ Allie stared at Michael in astonishment. ’’No, of course not! I didn't try! What does that have to do with him now?’’

’’Maybe when he's with the sorcerer, you can't feel him. He might have run back to him this morning, Allie. I mean, he's been with this guy half his life. Hell, between the protecting and the paper, the guy is Graham's life. Maybe Graham woke up this morning, heat of the moment long past, and realized he couldn't just walk away.’’

’’He had walked away.’’ She was not going to cry.

’’And you know this because?’’ Michael sighed and cupped one hand under her chin and lifted her head. ’’I hate to say this, but we both know you don't love exactly rationally.’’

’’Who does!’’

His thumb stroked her cheek. ’’You're a little further off the bubble than most.’’

’’I'm a little...’’ She'd known him most of his life. He'd been the first boy she'd ever kissed. Thought he was the only boy she'd ever love. And she could see all those years together on his face. ’’I thought you didn't know.’’

’’I'm not an idiot, Allie-cat.’’

If he'd known, and never said... ’’So you've been laughing?’’

The fox eyes, widened. ’’Allie, I would never...’’

’’Patronizing me, then!’’ The force of the blow, although she didn't raise a hand against him-had never, would never-sent him flying over the closer of the sofa beds and slamming into the closed bathroom door.

’’Yeah, so much for the not an idiot part,’’ Charlie murmured, taking Allie's arm. ’’If Graham's with the ex-boss, he didn't go willingly. Come on. Into the bedroom, we'll put on some clothes, and we'll set up the search and rescue. Rol...’’

’’I'm calling.’’

’’Michael...’’

’’Michael's fine. Joe'll pick him up, Auntie Kay'll slap a little arnica on the impact points, and he likely won't even bruise.

’’I didn't mean to...’’

’’Yeah, you did.’’ Charlie's grip moved her back into the bedroom. Twisting and trying to get to Michael only gained her a sore arm. ’’Oh, no. Until you've actually got your brain booted up and working, you're staying away from the noncombatants. Also, next time I tell you to handcuff your boy to the bed, you should listen to me.’’

’’You didn't tell me to handcuff him to the bed.’’

’’I didn't? Damn, I meant to.’’

’’He asked if we were Human,’’ Allie said softly as she sank down onto the end of the mattress. ’’He's been taught to hate everything that isn't Human. If it's not Human, it's nothing. It's...’’ She made the shape of gun with her right hand and pulled the trigger.

Charlie stopped rummaging in her drawers, turned to face her. ’’So you're half afraid he did f*k off?’’

Allie nodded.

’’Well, he didn't.’’ A pair of clean underwear smacked Allie in the face. ’’And if you weren't bent on acting like a bad romance heroine, you'd know the thing between you is real and there's no f*king way he'd walk.’’

’’Eaten!’’

’’By underwear?’’

Which was when Allie realized she was staring at a burgundy cotton string bikini. ’’I forgot about the Dragon Lords! They could have eaten him.’’

Charlie sighed and crossed the room to crouch at Allie's feet. ’’Okay, one, they didn't eat him before when the aunties were just a threat, so they're sure as shit not going to eat him now when we're overrun with aunties available for immediate retribution. Two, remember how Aunt Judy reacted when Uncle Roger died?’’

’’I remember.’’ The pain had drawn Allie home from Toronto and other members of the family home from farther still. The second circle had disappeared into Aunt Judy's house for five days. First and third had baked a lot of pie.

’’You'd know if Graham was dead and eaten, well, that's pretty f*king dead. Now...’’ Charlie straightened. ’’Get dressed. Actually, answer your phone first.’’ She scooped Allie's messenger bag off the chair and threw it at her.

’’It's probably Auntie Jane,’’ Allie muttered, digging through accumulated junk for her phone. Charlie had made her feel both better and worse. Better because it was hard to doubt Charlie's certainty and worse because she should have been just as certain. When she thought of tomorrow, Graham was there. When she thought of thirty years down the road, Graham was there, too. It was just today she was having a little trouble with. ’’I'm not sure I'm up to Auntie Jane right... oh, it's David.’’

’’So, how is my nephew?’’ Adam wore a burgundy suit Allie was pretty sure she'd last seen Timothy Hutton wear playing Archie Goodwin for A&E. And, nothing against Timothy Hutton who she thought was getting even more attractive as he got older, but, on Adam, the suit was smoking.

Literally.

Allie stopped a careful distance away, one hand resting on Graham's truck. He wouldn't have left without his truck. Not willingly. The contact helped her ignore the remaining doubt. ’’Jack's fine.’’

The dark eyes glittered as his gaze dipped off her face for a moment. ’’In the bosom of his family, is he?’’

She had just a little too much on her plate this morning to react to a hyperse*ual, shape-shifting lizard looking at her breasts. ’’You knew?’’

The shrug was equal parts sinuous and unconcerned. ’’The scent of the blood is unmistakable.’’

’’So the family business you didn't want us involved in turns out to be my family's business as well.’’

’’I never said it wasn't.’’ His tone dared her to challenge him on that, but she honestly didn't care enough to bother. ’’You must admit, it would have been much simpler for all concerned had you not become involved.’’

’’Simpler for everyone but Jack.’’

’’Death is not particularly complex, Alysha Gale.’’

Her thumbnail cutting through the dirt, she sketched a charm on the truck. ’’Why are you here, Adam?’’

He glanced around the alley. ’’The store was not open;we needed to talk.’’

’’Why?’’

’’I saw the man who wears your mark, taken.’’

Adam's smile let her know he'd heard her heart speed up. ’’Taken?’’

’’I saw him walking back to you. I saw him stop walking. I saw him disappear into a nothing in the road.’’

’’A nothing?’’ The hand not on the truck held her phone, her thumb on the speed dial that would connect her with her brother. If Adam was messing with her, she was going to give David a way to work out more of the energy he still held with a little head butting. ’’What's a nothing?’’

’’A lack of something, Gale girl. There he was.’’ Adam spread long-fingered hands. ’’There he wasn't.’’

’’Did he go willingly?’’

’’Away from you? How could he?’’ His smile was heated but when Allie narrowed her eyes, it cooled. ’’In all honesty, I saw no coercion, but there are bonds even I cannot see.’’

A nothing in the road.

’’The sorcerer.’’

’’So I suspected.’’

’’He's in his car. He's hidden it, the way he hid the office from you. It's a secondary bolt-hole-a way for him to escape, except he won't run while Jack can lead your sister to him.’’

’’He couldn't go far enough unless he left this world entirely. For some world other than mine, of course,’’ the Dragon Lord amended. ’’As that would certainly not solve his problem.’’

His problem. Allie appreciated the understatement. ’’He's grabbed Graham because Graham's still his best bet to take out Jack...’’ Lifting her hand off the truck, she closed her fingers around the bullet in the breast pocket of Graham's jacket. ’’... except we're not likely to put Jack anywhere he can get to him unless he thinks we'll just let Graham back in, which we would, because Gran's wards would strip a geis, so...’’

’’Gale girl!’’ His tone snapped her out of reflection. ’’As fascinating as time spent in your company is, if you cannot tell me how to find this nothing, I will return to the sky.’’

’’I can't. But if the aunties can,’’ she added hurriedly, ’’how do I contact you?’’

’’If you cannot contact me, Gale girl, I doubt you have anything to say I need to hear.’’ He stepped back, and Allie knew the fire was a heartbeat away.

’’Adam!’’ When he didn't begin to burn, she took a deep breath. ’’Just whose side are you on?’’

Sulfur overwhelmed the alley's scent of old garbage, cat piss, and car exhaust as he sighed, the heat dialed back to a level she thought she could endure. ’’If my sister comes to this world,’’ he said wearily, ’’we are bound to protect her. To serve her. I am fond of this place and there are many parts of it I do not wish to see destroyed.’’ He twitched a nonexistent wrinkle from his suit jacket. ’’But mostly, I am fond of it because it has been a refuge. Here, I am not in my sister's service. I am on my side, Gale girl.’’ His smile held multiple points. ’’But I suspect you knew that.’’

’’You're probably right about the car,’’ Auntie Jane said thoughtfully. ’’He'd want a way to run.’’

’’Except if he thought he was going to be running instead of hanging about the city, he may need to keep moving to stay undetectable,’’ Auntie Bea added.

Auntie Christie set a shallow bowl of water on one end of the dining room table. ’’He'll have to stop for gas, and when he does, I'll find him.’’

’’In that?’’ Auntie Meredith snorted, staring into the screen of her phone.

Allie thought Auntie Christie's smile looked a bit like Adam's. ’’At least I don't have to scry through incoming calls.’’

She moved closer to Auntie Jane as the other two continued bickering. ’’Graham didn't go willingly.’’

’’Of course he didn't. Stupid boy probably participated in blood magic at some point over the last thirteen years. That sort of nonsense creates ties that aren't easy to break and Jonathon Samuel is powerful enough to use them.’’

Allie held out the bullet. ’’His blood's part of this.’’

’’So is Jonathon Samuel's.’’ Auntie Jane snickered as she rolled it across her palm. ’’He's not going to be pleased he didn't get this back,’’ she said returning it. ’’But it proves my point.Young men are idiots.’’

’’He didn't know any better.’’

’’Then you'll have a lot to teach him, won't you?’’

’’If...’’

’’When, Alysha Catherine.’’ Strong fingers pinched her chin. ’’When.’’

’’Allie, why do I have to be up?’’ Yawning and scratching, Jack slouched across the room and glared at her. ’’It's still stupid o'clock in the morning.’’

’’If you can sleep through this...’’ she waved a hand at the baking and the scrying and whatever the hell Katie was doing to Charlie's hair. ’’... go back to bed.’’

’’Thanks, Al.You totally don't suck.’’

’’What?’’ she asked as Auntie Jane snorted disapprovingly. ’’It still is stupid o'clock in the morning.’’

Kalynchuk took a long swallow of coffee and gunned the SUV through a yellow light. ’’I am living in my car,’’ he snarled, tossing the empty cup into the backseat. ’’Me. In my car. Like a transient. Like a mere mortal. Like I am not the only man of power to master the Dragon Queen!’’

’’Hiding from a group of old women who can destroy you with a word,’’ Graham reminded him. His shoulder ached from where he'd been slamming it against the door.

’’Please, they're the least of my concerns.’’

’’You never told me you were a Gale.’’

’’There's a great many things I never told you.’’ He took his eyes off the road long enough to sneer in Graham's direction. ’’We were not friends.’’

’’No shit.’’ Major fail on emotional pain if that had been the intent. ’’Did you kill my family?’’

’’Did I what?’’ That drew his attention off the road so completely the car wandered off with it.

’’Simple question.’’ Graham reached over and jerked the wheel to the left to avoid impact with a parked car. Given the whole invisible thing, Kalynchuk had taken them onto quiet, empty, residential roads, but that didn't mean there weren't dangers. He realized too late impact could have given him a chance to get away.

From his smug expression as he regained control of the vehicle, Kalynchuk realized it, too. ’’Your family died years ago. Why do you care?’’

’’Why do I care?’’ Fingernails dug half moons into his palms as he stopped himself from taking another futile swing at the son-of-a-bitch. ’’For f*ksake, they were my family!’’

’’It's been thirteen years, and you never asked me.You don't think that's interesting? You made a living asking questions, and you never asked me that. It's like you knew that if they'd lived you'd still be stuck in that back-woods pitiful excuse of a life. I saved you, and you know it.’’

’’I'd always thought it.’’ Although, here and now, he didn't know how he could have. He'd worked for Kalynchuk for half his life, had started out overwhelmed and honored to think an orphaned boy from Blanc-Sablon would be trusted to guard so important a man, had ended up thinking his life had a greater meaning than some office drone with no idea of how much larger the world actually was. Start to finish, he'd been an idiot. ’’The whole se* with a dragon thing? That proves your mastery of fire pretty definitively. Your enthusiasm for killing your son proves you're a heartless f*k.’’

’’My son,’’ the sorcerer snorted. ’’I was willing to have you kill him, which is, I admit, merely a difference of degree.You don't seem to understand that the creature is more dangerous to me than those old women are.’’

’’And you've lost your chance.’’

’’I didn't lose it!’’ The force of the words sprayed saliva over the windshield as he turned down another empty suburban street. ’’You took it from me.’’

’’Damned right.’’ Graham didn't bother hiding his triumph. ’’They'll never let you near him. And they won't let me near him if there's a chance I'm under your control.’’

’’Fortunately, I don't care what they want or they intend. However, in case we can't remove him, his mother will be at least as disoriented upon arrival as he was-perhaps more, given that she has no connection to this world except through him-that's when the old women will do whatever it is they plan to do. They'll fail-they have no idea of how strong she is-but that failure should further distract her. I controlled her once, I can do it again. If I can get her into skin, you can kill her with Blessed rounds. A lot of them, admittedly, but it can be done.’’

’’Should have thought of that before you grabbed me.’’ He spread his hands. ’’No weapon.’’

’’Not your favorite, perhaps, but I stopped by your condo and picked up your other M24.’’

The thought of Kalynchuk knowing how to find his very well hidden weapons cache made his skin crawl. ’’I won't use it.’’

’’Stop being so stupidly squeamish. She's not Human.’’

’’Are you Human?’’

’’That doesn't matter.’’ Maybe he said it to Allie. Maybe to Kalynchuk, he wasn't sure.

’’You'd like to think so, wouldn't you?’’

’’If she's not Human,’’ Graham growled. ’’Neither are you.’’

’’She's a Dragon Queen, you... Oh.’’ The near side of Kalynchuk's mouth curved up into a derisive smile. ’’You're talking about Alysha. What did the little bitch tell you? That we're descended from some magical mating between a woman and the Horned God? Could be true. Could be total bullshit. What you need to remember here and now is that the creature's mother will kill you when she kills me.’’Years of questioning unreliable witnesses slid Graham past the sudden change of topic. ’’Kill you, me, half of the city, most likely. She's not exactly precise when she's in a temper. And then she'll hunt, because she'll have worked up an appetite, and more people will die. The Gale girl. The old women.’’

’’Or they'll win.’’

’’Unlikely.’’

’’I'll take that chance.’’

’’No,’’ Kalynchuk sighed, turning on the windshield wipers as it started to rain, ’’you won't because in the end you will do what I tell you to do. Just like you always have.’’

’’F*k you.’’

’’Touch your nose with your right thumb.’’

Graham fought the impulse, but his right arm rose like a puppeteer held the string. He could feel a trickle of sweat run down his side, but he could also feel his thumb against his nose. Then his body was his own again and he threw himself across the seats only to be slammed back, his head impacting with the window. The pain was strangely cleansing.

’’Do your seat belt up.You may obey me now for more easy-to-understand reasons than you did,’’ he continued as Graham did as he was told, ’’in that now you have no choice-but you will continue to obey. Don't worry, after it's over, I'll skip out on watching the old women swatted out of the sky by the Dragon Lords, and for all I care, you can return to your one true love. Have they told you the men choose? Also bullshit. Choose the decoration of your cage. Choose the length of your leash.’’ His knuckles whitened as the steering wheel creaked under his grip. ’’Choose whose hands hold the end of that leash, but never for a moment think you can choose to be free.’’

’’They say you chose to kill eight members of your family.’’ Freedom being just another word for mass slaughter. ’’Is that true?’’

’’It was them, or me. All power corrupts.’’ The laugh lifted the hair off the back of Graham's neck. ’’Hypocritical f*king cows.’’

’’Jack's bored.’’

Glancing up at Charlie leaning against the end of the counter, Allie sighed. ’’I thought you were teaching him to play World of Warcraft?’’

’’He's a little aggressive, where a little means he went completely f*king nuts. Although, to be fair, the flamethrower was a bad idea. What are you doing?’’

Allie waved the dimpled metal cap covering the tip of her baby finger. ’’Entering this basket of thimbles into the database.’’

’’Each individual thimble?’’

’’They're for sale separately, so, yeah.’’

Charlie slid one on, and then another, and then another until all eight fingertips were armored. ’’Give a thimble for luck, use a thimble to predict a death, we beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble, the dodo said solemnly.’’ She rattled them off back into the basket. ’’And no, anal retentive does not have a hyphen.’’

’’Cataloging helps me not think.’’

’’Didn't cataloging used to be your job? I mean, I'm all in favor of a job that requires no thought but you ever think that might be why you were let go?’’

’’Bite me.’’ Allie pulled a pale blue Wedgwood thimble, slightly chipped, out of the basket as Charlie sprawled over the counter. ’’It helps me not think of anything but cataloging, okay? When I think about her, I can feel the fire.’’

’’That'd suck,’’ Charlie allowed. ’’Let me give you something new to think about, then. Where's Joe?’’

’’In the bathroom.’’ She frowned at a Thimble Collector's International twentieth anniversary thimble. Definitely commemorative, but was it collectible to anyone outside the club? ’’Does this look like actual silver to you?’’

’’Don't know, don't care. What do you figure Joe's doing?’’

’’Charlie!’’

’’Got you, it's a trick question. I should have asked, who do you figure Joe's doing?’’

Allie turned slowly to face the back of the store. ’’Please tell me it's Katie.’’

’’Nope. Now, where do you think Auntie Gwen is?’’

’’With the rest of the circle at the spa?’’

Charlie's brows went up.

’’Oh, no...’’ Allie moved out from behind the counter but before she could get any further, Charlie grabbed her arm.

’’He's Fey. He'll be fine. He only looks like a kid.’’

That was true as far as it went. Joe'd told her the Call commanding his return to the UnderRealm had probably been a result of the Human half of the changeling bond dying of old age. That was also completely irrelevant as far as Allie was concerned. ’’He's my responsibility.’’

’’Why? You're not banging him.’’

There was that.

’’Not banging who?’’ Michael asked.

They turned together.

Charlie released Allie's arm and stepped away. ’’I'll just go over here,’’ she said, walking to one of the center tables, ’’and poke through this box of... Okay, don't care about power cables. Have plenty.’’ Both hands in the air, she continued backing down the aisle. ’’Maybe I'll look at the books.’’

Allie looked up at Michael, who brushed his hair back off his face, blush rising under his tan. ’’I could have really hurt you.’’

He shrugged. ’’You didn't.’’

’’I could have.’’ And then she realized he couldn't possibly hear her since he was also talking.

Apologies spilled out simultaneously, tangling in each other until he held up both hands and managed to slide ’’Me first’’ into a pause.

She owed him that much. ’’Okay.’’

Taking a deep breath, he dried his palms on the thighs of his jeans. ’’Allie, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that.’’

She waited but, bottom line, Michael was still a guy, and that was it. ’’Or maybe you should have said it years ago.’’

He shrugged. ’’How could you think I didn't know?’’

’’I was that obvious?’’

’’To the people who love you, yeah.’’

When he opened his arms, she hesitated a moment before moving into them. ’’Things are changing.’’

’’Not us.’’

Maybe they wouldn't. Maybe they already had. Maybe it didn't matter because she knew Michael would stand there, with his arms open, waiting for her to find him again. Barely aware of moving, she tucked herself up against the broad shelter of his chest, resting her head against his heart. ’’No matter what happens between me and Graham, I will always love you.’’

She felt his lips against the top of her head. ’’I know.’’

’’How can you know?’’

’’Because no matter what happened with me and Brian...’’

’’And Peter and Joey and Steve and...’’

’’Shut up.’’ He tightened his grip. ’’Because no matter what happened with me and Brian, I always loved you.’’

’’Medic!’’ The plaid of Michael's shirt might be all Allie could see, but Charlie, for all her ability to project over a crowd, was definitely a lot closer than the bookshelves at the far end of the store. ’’My pancreas just shut down from the sugar overload. On the bright side, I've got two verses and a chorus finished. A couple more verses, a dead dog, and a banjo, and this is going to make 'em cry.’’

’’I thought banjos did that all on their own,’’ Allie snorted backing out of Michael's embrace. ’’I should really get back to...’’

Burning!

Raging!

She didn't remember hitting the floor, but both knees were telling her she'd dropped like a brick. The hardwood smoked slightly against her palms. It felt as though her blood was on fire.

Under Michael's panicked reaction, she could hear boots on the stairs.

’’Hey, Al! My mother's...’’ The boots skidded to a stop just inside her somewhat limited field of vision. ’’Oh, you heard.’’

’’At least with the rain, there won't be too many people in the park.’’ Allie came out of the bedroom buckling her belt. Clothes suitable for thimbles didn't cut it for a potential apocalypse. Too flammable, for starters. ’’Auntie Gwen...’’ She slid right past the reason Auntie Gwen had a purpling bite mark just under the edge of her jaw. ’’... you're driving the bus because Michael and Joe are staying here. I don't want noncombatants anywhere near this. Pick up the others at the hotel, and we'll meet you there.’’

’’Don't forget to remind them about the police helicopters,’’ David growled from his place by the door. Allie was just barely coping with having him that far inside the room. With only Auntie Gwen about, and her distracted, David's presence just added to the heat in her blood. ’’They've got to make sure the weather's bad enough to ground them.’’

’’Good thing it's already raining,’’ Auntie Gwen muttered. She glanced between Allie and her brother, gestured Katie and Roland into the space between them, kissed Joe-who to his credit kissed her back in spite of the audience-grabbed the keys off Michael's palm, and ran.

Joe flushed under the scrutiny, and while his hands were shoved deep into his pockets, his shoulders were square and his chin was up.

If it worked for him, it worked for Allie.

She shrugged back into Graham's jacket, wanting as much of him near her as possible. ’’This also stays here,’’ she added, fishing the bullet from the front pocket. ’’Just to be on the safe side.’’ The bullet rolled along the table until Katie put out a finger just before it rolled out of reach and stopped it. ’’And safer yet;Charlie, can you get Jack into the Wood?’’

Charlie nodded. ’’Don't see why not. I got Ryan in.You don't want her to be able to use him as a focus?’’

Not with Graham standing beside him. ’’I want her confused, at least for a minute or two.’’

’’If my mother dies here...’’

Allie looked down at Jack's thin fingers clutching her arm, and braced herself.

’’... I get to help eat her.’’

Okay, that needed different bracing. She opened her mouth. Closed it again. Figured what the hell. ’’Sure.’’

’’Awesome.’’ Looking pleased, Jack gave her arm a little squeeze before he let it go. Allie could smell the fabric scorching.

’’All right, the aunties may know what they're doing, but we're going to be making this up as we go along.’’ She paused halfway to the door. Speaking of the aunties... ’’David?’’

He nodded once, horn not quite visible but still very present. ’’Do what you have to, Allie, I'm stronger than you think. So are you.’’

Hands outstretched, their fingertips just barely touched, sending a frisson of want up her arm. She thought of Charlie wearing the thimbles, wondered if it would help. Without Graham right there to ground her, she didn't dare risk hugging him although she very much wanted to.

Eyes dark, Roland stepped between them. David would anchor the first circle, but Roland would anchor her. Today and, if they survived, every ritual where he was the only second circle male. Her father, not a Gale, had never been a part of ritual. Allie thought of explaining all that to Graham. Oh, fun.

Roland read the thought off her face. Or maybe from deeper in, all things considered. ’’Perhaps it's for the best Graham isn't here right now.’’

’’Yeah.’’ Her voice shook only a little. Little enough to ignore. ’’I was just thinking much the same thing.’’

’’All right, kid...’’ Charlie led the way down the stairs. ’’... experience with your uncle suggests we're going to need to take a run at this, so we'll start at the back door. I'll begin to play, you put your hand on my shoulder, and with luck we'll be moving fast enough when we hit the shrubbery to get through.’’

’’I don't know what you're talking about.’’

’’Doesn't matter. Just keep up and we'll be fine.’’ Pulling the back door open, she sighed. ’’F*king rain.’’

Jack pushed past her, stretching out a hand so that fat drops of water sizzled against his palm. ’’I shouldn't be so hot. It's probably because my mother's so close.’’

’’Your mother gets you hot? Wait.’’ She held up a hand before he could answer. ’’Forget I asked. That was wrong on so many levels.’’

’’It's too much power in one place,’’ Jack explained, head back, catching the rain in his mouth.

’’Yeah, that's where I was going,’’ Charlie sighed. She pried a cheap plastic poncho out of its pouch and stuffed her head through an opening clearly designed for the skulls of three year olds, stretching the neck out and ripping the hood entirely off. Since the point of the exercise was to protect her guitar, her head didn't actually much matter. ’’You need to be behind me, kid. One hand on my shoulder,’’ she added as he dripped his way back into the house, flipping wet bangs back out of his eyes. A Dragon Prince with emo hair and daddy issues. Her life had become Manga. ’’Skin contact will help, so move that one finger over until you're touching my neck and... God f*king damn it, that hurts!’’ Jerking away she rubbed at the rising blister. ’’You think you can keep it down to a slight scorching?’’

Jack frowned at his hands as though he were still getting used to them. Probably was, when it came to it. ’’I can try.’’

’’Thank you.’’

It wasn't hard to find his song, not with him standing right there radiating, but when she attempted to walk them over into the Wood, it was like dragging the Saddledome behind her. Ryan had been heavy, but Jack...

’’You can't be that much bigger than Ryan,’’ she gasped after the third unsuccessful attempt, trying to push one of the flattened bushes vertical with the side of her shoe.

’’Well, yeah, I can. Size is all about power and I'm the heir. And a sorcerer.’’ Just to prove it, it stopped raining on him. ’’So I'm lots bigger than Uncle Ryan.’’

’’Yeah, well, size matters here too, kid. Don't let anyone tell you differently. Come on.’’ Giving up on the bush, she headed back inside. ’’We're going to need a lot more space.’’ The poncho came off as the door closed behind them. Leaning up the stairs, she yelled for Michael and Joe. ’’I need more room,’’ she told them when they appeared. ’’We're heading down the road to the park.’’

’’In what?’’ Michael demanded. ’’Both cars are gone.’’

’’Graham's truck.’’

’’Do you have the keys?’’

Charlie snorted. ’’Please. How long have you known me?’’ Passing the mirror she flicked a finger against the frame. The reflection showed Jack, a large gold dragon and a relatively small green dragon against a shimmering white background. ’’Thanks. A little perspective would've been more helpful about twenty minutes ago.’’

’’That music is really lame,’’ Jack muttered, slouched down in the seat as far as the belt allowed, feet up on the dash.

’’Hey!’’ Charlie smacked his shoulder. ’’Do not be dissing Emerson Drive.’’

’’I want to listen to something good!’’ He reached for the radio, but she was faster.

’’Two things,’’ she said smacking his hand back. ’’One, if I'm behind the wheel we go by Winchester rules: driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his cakehole. And two...’’ The truck rocked up on two wheels as she took a sharp turn into the Fort Calgary parking lot. ’’... we're here.’’

Jack's nose twitched as he got out of the truck. ’’This is where the Fey gate was, right?’’

’’Yeah.’’ Charlie nodded along the path, dragging the misshapen poncho back on over her head. ’’Right at the entrance to the... F*k. Hang on.’’ She pulled her phone from her belt pouch and frowned at the call display. Unknown numbers were not something that showed up on family phones. Raising a hand to hold Jack in place, she moved away from the truck. ’’Yeah?’’

’’You have Jack with you. I want to see him. I want to see my son.’’

Hadn't been expecting that. She smiled, and knew he could feel exactly how she meant it. ’’F*k you.’’

’’Do you think you can control him, Charlotte? Keep him from his destiny? No, you can't. He should be here, with me, embracing all that he is.’’

’’Embracing a dirt nap if he gets close to you.’’

’’Don't be ridiculous. We'll face his mother together, he and I.’’

’’Yeah, like that's a convincing argument for...’’

The roar of the truck engine cut her off. Charlie stood, free hand under the poncho resting on the upper curve of her guitar, and watched Jack peel backward out of the parking lot, wheel around through miraculously empty spots in traffic, and grind gears heading north.

On the other end of the phone, the sorcerer snickered. ’’I didn't have to convince you, Gale girl. His kind have remarkable hearing.’’

’’And they learn fast,’’ Charlie muttered snapping the phone closed. In retrospect, showing Jack how the truck worked had been a bad idea. ’’And more importantly,’’ she growled, heading for the nearest trees, ’’how did that S.O.B. get my number?’’

’’I'm a little surprised that worked, actually, but I suppose it's time something went right for me.’’ Kalynchuk unwrapped the red hair from around his phone and dropped it back into Graham's lap. ’’How fortunate I spotted this protruding over your waistband.’’

’’Keep your f*king eyes on the road,’’ Graham snarled. He stuffed Charlie's hair into his pocket. That's what he got for grabbing yesterday's boxers off the floor. When this was over, if he survived, he was definitely doing laundry.

’’The freezer's ringing.’’ Joe cocked his head and frowned. ’’I think it's the theme from Boston Legal.’’

Michael crossed the room in six strides, redirecting his pacing into the kitchen. ’’It's Roland's phone. He left it for us.’’

’’In the freezer?’’

’’I guess he forgot to take it out of the peas.’’

Joe raised a hand. ’’Don't want to know.’’

’’They haven't been gone long enough for something to go wrong.’’ One hand digging into the frozen vegetables, he paused and shot Joe a worried glance. ’’Have they?’’

’’I have no idea.’’

’’But you're...’’

’’Here with you, aren't I?’’ Joe approved of that, actually. He figured that behind Catherine Gale's wards was currently the safest place in the city. ’’Just answer the damned phone.’’

’’It's me.’’

’’What?’’

’’It's my phone calling. It's Brian. It has to be.’’ Michael looked down at the phone, dwarfed by the size of his hand. ’’What does he want?’’

’’There's only one way to find that out, isn't there?’’

’’Yeah?’’

Joe was starting to understand Allie's fondness for hitting people on the back of the head. ’’Answer. The. Damned. Phone.’’

Bottom lip between his teeth, Michael snapped it open and raised it to his ear. ’’Hello?’’

It was Brian. From what he'd heard, Joe doubted anyone else could put that look on Michael's face.

’’Where am I?’’

Joe wondered if the next question was going to be What are you wearing? And if he should go downstairs to the store.

’’Who said to meet you at the park?’’

That didn't sound good. Joe watched the color drain out of Michael's face.

’’What park did she tell you to meet me at?’’

She?

’’Brian! What park?’’

Joe didn't actually need to hear the answer to that one.

’’Okay, listen to me, please. Get in a cab and... Brian? Brian! Goddamn it!’’ He threw the phone across the room. Bounced it off the wall pretty damned close to where Allie'd bounced him. ’’Lost the signal. These phones don't lose their f*king signal!’’

’’Twelve Dragon Lords, two sorcerers, and an emerging apocalypse might be messing with reception,’’ Joe pointed out. ’’And he's right at ground zero.’’

’’Thanks for that. I've got to get to him.’’

’’Allie wants you to stay here. She'll take care of him.’’

’’Yeah, because she'll have so much free time.’’ He was shoving his feet into shoes as he spoke and Joe knew there wasn't a hope of keeping him in the apartment.

’’How are you going to get there? It's halfway across the city.’’

’’It's Calgary, not the middle of the tundra,’’ Michael snapped, yanking open the door. ’’I'll flag a cab!’’

Joe listened to him pound down the stairs, across the store, and out the front door. He sighed, followed him down, and turned the lock. Michael was nowhere in sight, so he must've grabbed a cab pretty much immediately. Seemed like he'd been around the Gales long enough for that kind of thing to rub off.

Eyes away from the shadows at the far end of the store, he rolled a yoyo along the countertop, putting out a finger to stop it just before it rolled out of reach. Allie'd told him to stay and that seemed like a good idea to him.

Besides, there was nothing he could do.

Was there?

Roland pulled the Beetle into the southeast parking lot right behind the bus, David behind them. Allie hadn't had much choice about who was driving, her blood still burned and the constant roar was nearly deafening. She had to keep reminding herself not to yell over a noise only she could hear.

None of the aunties wore rain gear, but only the aunties who didn't mind were getting wet.

’’This isn't enough,’’ she heard David say gesturing at the sky.

’’We'll take care of it when we're airborne,’’ Auntie Jane told him.

’’Do we have to?’’ Auntie Meredith sighed. ’’I haven't taken down a chopper since 1968.’’

’’Glory days,’’ Roland muttered in her ear and Allie snickered as they ran toward the path to the summit.

’’I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be doing here,’’ Katie called out following close behind them. ’’This isn't a third circle thing.’’

’’You could always cross over,’’ Roland threw back.

’’Bite me.’’

’’You're here to pick up the pieces when it's over,’’ Allie shouted, barely able to hear herself over the scream of rage bouncing off the inside of her skull. ’’Even if this works...’’

’’Oh, joy, se* in the rain. And if it doesn't work, you're talking literally pieces!’’

’’So call Charlie. Jack can help. And don't let him eat the aunties. I actually like the kid.’’

’’Very funny.’’

Whistling in the dark, banter in the dark-It all meant the same thing, Allie knew, as they jogged out to a stop on the top of the hill and she had to clutch at Roland's arm to keep from falling. If she had this to do over, she'd...

Oh, who was she kidding. She'd probably do exactly the same things, and they'd still be standing in wet grass waiting for the world to end. The whole thing, from the moment she'd read Gran's will, had had a certain inevitability about it.

Up above the cloud cover, something screamed.

Well, not exactly something, Allie admitted silently, gouging a charm in the wet ground with the heel of her shoe. The Dragon Lords were waiting.

And they weren't going to be waiting long.

’’I can't stop her from breaking free!’’ Stepping into the center of the charm felt like stepping into the fire. Or quicksand. Or burning quicksand. Becoming as much a part of the hill as Jack's mother. ’’She's too big, and she has too much momentum.’’

’’You knew that.’’

’’I'd hoped once we were right on top of her...’’ Allie let her voice trail off as twelve figures rose out of the woods ringing the top of the hill. They swooped once over the summit, dangling feet an advertisement for sensible shoes-although Auntie Gwen's Chucks appeared to have skulls painted on them-and then began to fly the circle widdershins. Once. Twice. Three times.

The clouds pushed back, piled higher over the city, thunder boomed and lightning cracked and the rain turned to a deluge. Over the hill, in a perfect circle, the sky all but gleamed, clear and blue.

The blue took Allie a bit by surprise;she kept forgetting it wasn't the middle of the night.

David stood across from her, grounding the lines from the twelve in the sky, the last of the rain glistening on bare skin. Roland's arms went around her, hands splayed over her belly, protecting her from the pull. Allie grabbed his wrists and reached for power as the ground erupted.

Jack's blood had pulled him into Human shape as he emerged.

Jack's mother had no such incentive.

Shimmering white, she rose and rose and rose. Ten meters. Twenty. Thirty.

As Allie fed power up to the aunties and they wrapped it around her, using the moment of not my world to help snap her back home, the Dragon Lords came out of the clouds.

She could hear the aunties cackling and then she had no attention to spare.

’’Father?’’

Tucked just inside the edge of the wood, Graham dragged his gaze off the dogfight going on overhead to see Jack pushing his way to the edge of the summit through the underbrush, looking wet, bedraggled, and more than a little pissed off. ’’Kid, get out of here!’’

’’Stop calling me kid!’’ Apparently, the enormous white dragon in the center of the hill held no interest for him. No reason why she should;he'd known her his whole life. He pushed past Graham, shoved his hair back out of his eyes, and stared at Kalynchuk, raking a disdainful golden gaze from head to toe and back again. ’’You're my father?’’

Kalynchuk smiled. ’’Graham, punch him in the nose.’’

Trapped in his own flesh once again, Graham let the M24 drop on the strap so it rested against his back. Shifting his weight, he grabbed Jack's shoulder, spun him around, and swung. He felt the bone crack and then warmth against his knuckles just before something slammed into his chest and he flew about three meters, landing hard. He dragged the sniper rifle around and flopped over on his back, gasping for breath.

Jack peered at him over the top of the hand cupping his nose, his upper lip red. ’’That hurt!’’

’’Life is pain,’’ Kalynchuk muttered holding a hand down to Graham.

Without thinking, a little too winded to think, Graham reached up only to have the sorcerer wipe the blood off his knuckles and onto the silver letter opener he pulled from his jacket.

’’Jack, come here.’’ He gestured with the blade. ’’Stand beside me.’’

Graham recognized the look on Jack's face as the kid began to move-he'd felt it on his own.

’’It's minimal control and it won't last long,’’ Kalynchuk admitted as Graham got to his feet, ’’but now, unless I'm forced to kill you myself, I may be able to bargain with your mother.’’

Charlie came out of the Wood at full speed, aiming for Jack, hoping that the amount of power the family had started flinging around would be enough to get his enormous teenage ass moving. She didn't catch all of what the sorcerer had to say but it didn't sound good, and there, beside him, stood Graham with a gun. With a split-second to make a decision, she shifted slightly left and wrapped an arm around Graham's waist. Momentum pushed him stumbling back-one step, two-and they were gone.

Allie had never been so far open and it wasn't enough. Any farther and Roland wouldn't be able to hold her. Any farther and they wouldn't be controlling the power;it would control them. Sweep them away. Destroy them. But if she couldn't find a way to go farther...

The Dragon Queen shrieked in triumph and began to twist free.

Then Allie sank into a touch she remembered from the bar. Felt Roland yanked aside and Graham's arms wrap around her.

Heard a whiskey-rough voice by her ear.

’’Charlie says let go!’’

But Graham wasn't family. How could he hold?

’’She says I've got you!’’

With no time to question whether she trusted Charlie or not, Allie let go.

If not for Graham's arms, the rush of power would have lifted her off her feet. She was the hill, the park and every living thing that made it up. Grinding back against him, she poured the power up toward the aunties, felt them shape it.

The Dragon Queen shrieked again, held in place.

It was more power than Allie had ever felt, even in a full working, even with the entire family around and it still... ... wasn't... ... going... ... to be... ... enough.

She could feel the rush of air as the Dragon Queen filled her lungs.

And a familiar voice yelled, ’’What the hell is going on here?’’

And then a still more familiar voice, twisted with fear. ’’Brian!’’

What were they doing here? Allie fought for focus, saw Michael racing across the hill toward Brian, oblivious to the Dragon Queen pointing her muzzle toward him and opening her mouth.

Time stopped.

Or she stopped it, Allie wasn't entirely sure.

’’Allie?’’

Graham. Wherever she was, he was there with her.

She turned in his arms.

Graham had barely registered Charlie charging out of nowhere when her arm hooked around his waist, he'd stumbled back two steps-maybe three-and suddenly found himself in an ancient wood.

’’What the...?’’

’’No time!’’ Charlie cut him off. She adjusted her grip but kept them moving.

None of the three Gale girls he'd met were exactly delicate, but if he'd wanted to break Charlie's hold, he should have been able to do it without even breaking a sweat. Not a chance in hell.

’’This,’’ she said, flashing him a grin that had depths so hidden they scared the piss out of him, ’’is where you need to know what you want to say.’’

And then they were on the hill again and in a complicated move he missed at least half of, Charlie spun Roland away from Allie's back and slammed Graham into his place.

’’Tell her it's okay, that you've got her.’’ A encouraging squeeze on one bare shoulder and it might as well have been just him and Allie on the hilltop.

He had no idea when he'd lost his shirt.

Okay, him, Allie, and one f*k of a big white dragon. Dragoness? Dragon Queen.

’’Charlie says, let go!’’

Allie didn't seem to be buying it.

’’She says, I've got you!’’

Then it was the feeling from outside the bar only ramped up so high it burned that memory away. If, at the bar, Allie'd wrapped herself around what it was to be Graham Buchanan, this time she didn't go around so much as through. He could feel every cell of his body attempting to spin away from the overstimulation and his spine bowed as he fought to hold them both together, his heart slamming up against his ribs so violently he could feel it bruising. His face buried in her hair, he breathed her in, every sense filled with her.

So when she stopped for a moment, he stopped with her.

’’Allie?’’

She turned in his arms, her eyes a dark and stormy gray.

This, he realized, with a clarity that pushed the air from his lungs, this was the choice the Gale men made. To throw themselves into the storm and trust to love to bring them safely out the other side.

’’This is where you need to know what you want to say.’’

Turned out, it was easier than he'd thought it would be.

’’Yes,’’ he said. And let go.

Allie could feel it all. Every blade of grass. Every drop of water. Every grain of sand. And everywhere she went, Graham, her anchor to the world.

Although, right now, the world was just a little more than she needed.

She pulled back until she touched the edges of the seven hundred and twenty-one square kilometers that made up the city of Calgary. Until she touched the one million, forty-two thousand, eight hundred and ninety-two souls. No, ninety-three as Jamal Badawi took her first breath. This was enough. This would be home.

She gathered it all, held it cupped in her hands, and...

One of the aunties fell.

The circle broke.

As fire began to blossom between the serrated rows of the Dragon Queen's teeth, Allie wrapped the power around her and whispered, ’’There isn't room for you here. Go home.’’

Then she opened a gate.

The sky over the park lit up. Even before the afterimages faded, Jack's mother was gone. As one of the Dragon Lords screamed, Allie reached out again, gathered up the rest of the family, and sent them home after her. She could sort them out on the other side. Twelve smaller stars crashed to earth.

When both sky and hill were empty, the power grounded out through the only safe path.

’’What scares the old fools most about David, is that they have no idea of his limits.’’

Allie knew. Here and now, she knew with painful clarity exactly what his limits were.

But all she could see was the blue of Graham's eyes and all she could feel was the warmth of his mouth on hers and all she could hear was an auntie shrieking, ’’Look out!’’

They hit the ground together, rolled, and came up onto their knees like they'd rehearsed the move. All around them, she could hear the soft thuds and mild profanity of the aunties landing.

’’Don't even try it!’’ About ninety degrees around the hill, Jonathon Samuel Gale came out of the trees holding a fistful of Jack's hair and a gleaming knife at the boy's throat. ’’Everyone just backs off, or he dies.’’

’’Well, that's not much of a thre...’’ Auntie Jane began.

Allie absently reached out and shut her up.

’’I could make the shot,’’ Graham muttered.

’’Would this help?’’ Joe asked, fading in beside them. He held out the marked bullet.

’’Clever, love,’’ Auntie Gwen murmured and the tips of Joe's ears flushed scarlet.

Graham rolled the bullet between thumb and forefinger. ’’I don't know where...’’

’’This went?’’

Allie took the rifle from Charlie and handed it to him. Her city. Her decision. ’’Do it,’’ she said.

Graham's blood to help the bullet fly true.

Jonathon Samuel Gale's blood to kill a sorcerer.

The shot wasn't as loud as Allie'd thought it would be.

They saw the sorcerer fall. Then Jack stepped back, wiping the blood from his face and roared.

’’You were right.’’ Allie laced her fingers through Graham's. ’’It was his father blocking the dragon shape.’’

’’He's very... hungry,’’ Charlie observed as the gold dragon ripped another bite from his lunch.

Allie shrugged, moved closer to Graham, and smoothed out the disturbance in the center of the hill before moving her attention out and around the family.

Auntie Bea had a broken leg, easy enough to heal.

Auntie Ellen and Auntie Christie had been burned. Not as easy to heal but doable.

Auntie Meredith was waving a length of... tail. Not her problem.

Tucked up in the completely inadequate shelter of a rock outcropping, Michael had his hands wrapped around Brian's face, their mouths locked together, their bodies so close it left no room for questions between them.

David was gone.

’’What took you so long?’’

Brian blushed, throwing the scattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks into sharp relief. ’’I was... I mean, because I'd... I don't know why I did it, Allie, you have to believe me. I didn't mean to do it. I didn't even want to, but...’’

’’You did.’’

’’Yeah. I did. I hung onto the phone and I kept hoping Michael would call and we could talk. I couldn't go running after him. I didn't know what to say.’’

’’I'm sorry?’’

’’How could that be enough?’’

Allie glanced over at Michael, but he seemed willing to let Brian do the talking. The bruised look had left his eyes, and he watched Brian as though he was the most amazing, impossible thing he'd ever seen. She wondered what had been said. Or, if in the heat of the moment, words had been unnecessary. Didn't matter. Like she'd told the aunties, it was none of her business. It was between Brian and Michael. ’’If you hadn't been there, if Michael hadn't been in danger, I would never have...’’ She waved a hand because she wasn't entirely certain language was up to what she'd done. What she and Graham had done. ’’But the question still remains, why were you there?’’

Fingers laced through Michael's, Brian shrugged. ’’I got a call from one of your aunties. She said Michael needed me. That I had to meet him at the summit of Nose Hill Park.’’ He chewed a little on his lower lip, as though trying to decide how much to add. ’’She didn't mention anything about dragons,’’ he said at last.

’’Yeah, well, they tend to edit.’’ Allie rubbed her hand along Graham's thigh until he caught her fingers and gave them a warning squeeze. Even six hours later, the aftereffects were still wearing off, and it didn't take much for need to take over. From the way both Michael and Brian were shifting, they seem to have gotten caught up in it, too. Or maybe that was just a normal result of their reunion. She didn't want to speculate. Much. ’’You guys were set up.’’

’’On the hill?’’

’’On the hill,’’ Allie agreed, ’’because if Michael hadn't been in danger, I might not have pushed that little bit further. But before that. In Vancouver. When Brian...’’

Michael's free hand rose and cut her off. ’’You're saying the aunties arranged that?’’ His voice had dropped about half an octave into what Charlie had once labeled the danger zone.

’’One of them, yeah.’’

’’Allie...’’

’’I'll deal with it.’’

’’He looks like you, you know.’’

Allie lifted herself up on one elbow and stared down at Graham. The darkness in the room was no longer able to put a barrier between them. Walls were barely a barrier. ’’Who?’’

’’Brian. Blond hair, gray eyes, little sprinkle of freckles.’’

’’pen**.’’

Graham grinned. ’’I'm not saying there aren't differences.’’

’’He's a what?’’

’’A seventh son of a seventh son,’’ Auntie Jane told her, watching her with the same wariness all the aunties had exhibited for the last twenty-four hours. Allie figured it'd get old eventually, but for now she was definitely enjoying it. ’’You didn't wonder about the strength of the attraction?’’

Gale girls were attracted to power.

She squirmed around in Graham's arms until she could look up at him. ’’Is this true?’’

Graham looked a little confused. ’’Well, yeah, I guess.’’

’’You guess?’’

’’I spent the last thirteen years not thinking about my family, Allie. But yeah, I had six older brothers...’’ He shoved a hand into his pocket and Allie knew he was rolling the bullet. Jack had returned it, after he'd finished eating. ’’... and so did my father. But...’’

’’But nothing,’’ Auntie Christie snorted. ’’The mere fact you're a seventh son of a seventh son is the only reason that stunt worked.’’

Auntie Muriel's knitting needles clicked an agreement. ’’Who ever heard of a non-Gale anchoring a ritual?’’

Charlie had to have known, Allie realized. Charlie'd pushed them together on the hill. When Charlie got back from wherever Charlie had wandered off to, Charlie was going to have some explaining to do!

’’Still...’’ Auntie Meredith took a thoughtful sip of coffee. ’’Just think what a seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son who is a Gale might be capable of.’’

Gale girls had mostly daughters. Allie did the math. ’’No.’’

’’Does the mother matter?’’ Auntie Grace wondered. ’’Charlotte could always help.’’

’’I think it's time you all went home,’’ Allie said more-or-less pleasantly.

Allie set the pile of folded clothes down on a rock, just inside the tree line and backed away as the stag pushed through the underbrush. He was enormous. Beautiful. Heartbreaking.

The air shimmered and David pulled on the jeans but left the rest. They looked wrong on him but Allie was grateful for the faked semblance of normalcy. He had a welt across one shoulder. Even in skin, his eyes were black rim to rim. His antlers had barely diminished with the change.

His skin was damp and hot where Allie touched it, his heartbeat slow and strong under the press of her fingers.

He closed his hand around hers, new callus already forming. ’’Feels strange,’’ he said, carefully forming each word. ’’But more control in time.’’

’’I know.’’ The aunties had explained that when Granddad was young, he'd spent as much or more time at the farm as in the wood.

’’Let him get used to it, Alysha. He'll come back. It's not like he ever had a steady job and he can still act as a consultant with the local police. It'll work out. It always does.’’

’’So, Graham's going to keep the paper going.’’ She was a little surprised at how matter-of-fact she managed to sound. ’’Kalynchuk-Jonathon Samuel-had everything set up legitimately, so he figures he might as well. Katie's talking about going to work for him, and Rayne and Lucy are moving west with Lyla. Roland's thrilled.’’ Roland wasn't quite as tied as David, but he was still the only second circle male in the city and he wouldn't ever be moving far. ’’He'll be taking over Graham's condo and there's room there for the girls, for a while at least. Graham says Jonathon Samuel had this enormous house out in Upper Mount Royal, so Roland's going to have a look at the paperwork. I expect we'll be able to fill it easily enough. There's a number of cousins thinking of joining us.’’

Dark brows drew in. ’’Why?’’

’’Besides the aunties encouraging your entire list to move west?’’ Allie shrugged. ’’Things are happening here. Jack's going to stay with me and Graham in the apartment.’’

’’Wedding?’’

’’It's not really necessary. But whatever we do, it won't be until you can...’’ She nodded toward David's rack and he smiled.

’’Good. Want to see that.’’

’’Auntie Gwen stayed.’’

’’I know.’’

David would know where all this new branch of the family were. It was part of what he was. ’’She'll take care of Gran's sideline in potions and charms. She's set up housekeeping in the loft with Joe. He offered to age up a bit-first I knew he could do that-but she wouldn't let him.’’

’’Bragging.’’

’’Definitely.’’ They're saying an asteroid broke up over the park. The lights were visible even through the storm. The place will probably be crawling with people looking for pieces. Be careful.’’

’’Protected.’’

’’Be careful anyway.’’

She kept her hand over his heart until he stepped beyond her reach, then she kept reaching, brushing tears off her cheeks with the other palm. ’’David, I'm sorry. You didn't want this. Even once you can leave the park, you can't ever leave the city!’’ He had become the family's tie to this new place. The living symbol of their claim.

To her surprise, he smiled again.

’’Never asked what I wanted, Allie.’’ His brows went up and just for a moment, he was her big brother, nothing more. Then he snorted, and the snort wasn't entirely Human. He only just got out of the jeans in time, one rear hoof tearing the denim.

She watched him race across the summit, heard the surprised and delighted yell of a couple of kids on BMX bikes, felt his joy in the movement, in the wind, in the sun on his back, and wished with all her heart there had been another way.

The mirror showed her reflection doing yoyo tricks. Allie didn't know what they were called, but the one that spun the hunk of enameled wood around over her head looked dangerous. As soon as things stopped whizzing about, she thrust her arm in past the surface of the glass, caught the end of the yoyo, and yanked. Hard.

Second circle made connections.

Still holding the yoyo, she stepped back as an elderly woman spilled out of the mirror into the hall, the string looped over one finger, multilayered skirt swirling, half a dozen strands of beads swinging around her neck, and a lime-green shawl slipping off one arm.

Allie released her, waited until she got her balance, then pinned her with a word.

’’Gran.’’

Dark eyes gleamed as Catherine Gale tried to move and found herself held. ’’Those old fools always worried about David,’’ she snorted, tossing a long gray braid back behind her shoulder, setting hoop earrings swaying. ’’They worried he had all the power that should've gone to half a dozen Gale girls. It didn't go to David, though, did it? It all went to you just like it was supposed to.You just had to find it. And speaking of finding things, how did you...?’’ She waved the hand with the string attached.

’’There were thirteen crows in the mirror and twelve aunties upstairs.’’

’’Clever girl.’’

’’You saw this, didn't you?’’

’’Saw what, Allie-cat? That you would rise to the challenge?’’

’’No. Well, yes, but...’’ Her grandmother had always been able to direct the conversation. Not this time. ’’You saw all of this. Everything that happened. The challenge, if you will.’’ Steel-gray brows rose at the emphasis. Allie ignored them. ’’You knew about Jonathon Samuel and the Dragon Lords and Jack-probably through Adam. He's been here before and he as much as told me he's been interacting with a Gale. You kept the museum from getting that grant so I'd be fired and have no reason not to come west. You made sure the cousins I called for help were busy to keep the number of variables down. You kept Charlie from getting here to make sure that Graham and I would connect with no distractions. The rest of them knew about the seventh son thing as soon as we touched. Charlie worked it out from what happened at the bar, so you must have spotted it the moment you met him.You knew I wouldn't call the aunties in if I thought they'd take him out with his boss, and you knew that David would come running if he thought I was in over my head.You set this whole thing up.’’

’’Did I?’’

It took Allie a minute to unclench her teeth. ’’Don't bullshit me, Gran.’’

’’All right, then, I did. I saw the Dragon Queen rising, and I put the pieces in play to save the world.’’ She rolled her eyes and adjusted her shawl. ’’How dreadful of me.’’

’’You let me think you were dead.’’

’’I'm sure that didn't last very long, Kitten.’’

’’Not the point,’’ Allie growled. ’’And not the worst of it either. Michael was one of your pieces.’’

Catherine Gale spread her hands, bracelets chiming. ’’You needed the extra push there at the end.’’

’’I don't care about the rest.’’

’’About saving the city, and probably half the world if Jack's mother had managed to get into the sky? Very cold, Kitten.’’

’’I don't care that you manipulated the rest,’’ Allie amended. ’’But you used Brian to break Michael's heart and then you used him to put Michael in danger, and that I cannot and will not forgive. Michael isn't family, and there are things you can do for the sake of family that you do not do to those outside the blood.’’

’’Alysha.’’

She shook her head. ’’Take the car. Or go through the Wood if you prefer, but get out. This city is closed to you.’’

She'd never actually seen her grandmother look quite so astounded. Or astounded at all. ’’You can't...’’

’’Yes. I can. Don't make me prove it, Gran. It won't be pleasant for either of us.’’

They stared at each other for a long moment until Allie forced the older woman's gaze to the floor.

After a long moment, she sighed and looked up, her expression carefully neutral. ’’I'll take the car.’’

’’I thought you might.’’ Allie took a step back and released the yoyo. ’’I packed up your clothes and some personal things. They're in the trunk.’’

’’Personal things?’’ Her grandmother frowned thoughtfully as she rolled the string onto the spool, then she snickered. ’’Oh, I see. And the rest?’’

’’You left it to me.’’

’’So I did.’’ Suddenly finding herself able to move, she started toward the store, then changed direction as Allie made a cautioning noise. ’’The garage. Of course.’’ Back door open, she paused. ’’Take care of things, Allie-cat.’’

Allie didn't much like the smile that accompanied the words. ’’I will.’’

’’Call me if you need me. And don't say you won't,’’ her grandmother cautioned, raising her hand. Allie wondered when she'd lost the tip of her second finger. It looked like it had been bitten off just below the nail. ’’Charlie's not as much of a wild card as she thinks she is. Not yet.’’

’’We'll be fine.’’

’’Still, the offer's open.’’ The bushes perked up as she approached, slumped a little as she passed.

They'd get over it.

Allie waited until she heard the distinctive sound of the Beetle pulling away, waited until she could feel Gran turning onto Deerwood, then she went into the store. She'd know when Gran passed the family's boundary. Or if she didn't.

’’How'd you know she'd take the car?’’ Joe asked.

’’She left the registration in her name.’’

’’Oh.’’ He pulled a jar of small seashells out of the latest box he'd brought up from the cellar. ’’If she saw everything else that happened, do you think she saw you telling her to go?’’

Maybe. Probably. ’’It doesn't change what she did.’’ One of the shells gleamed unnaturally in the light. Allie sighed and made a mental note to pour them out onto the counter and check. Later. ’’If you're good here, I'll go next door and grab us some coffee.’’

’’I'm good here.’’

Allie grinned at the way the points of his ears had turned scarlet, yet again, and noted that her charm had been definitely overwritten.

Kenny had both cups of coffee ready when she reached the counter. That sort of thing had been happening a lot lately, the city and everyone in it anticipating her needs. Rough life, she supposed, but someone had to live it.

Back in the store, Joe looked up and smiled.

’’I sold a yoyo while you were gone.’’

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