Chapter Eleven

"Parle vous Français?" he asked.

I blinked, not sure if I was seeing straight. Was this real? Because in real life only people like Andrei look like this—and even Andrei is partly surreal. But this kid…

He was so… real.

For a second I watched him run his tongue over his full violet lips, wetting the soft skin. His skin was so brown that if one turned off the lights he would disappear, but there was an area around his right eye that was discolored. Bruised. And his mouth seemed swollen, a cut on the left corner. He was shirtless, and I was envious of his lack in breasts so that he could be shirtless in this hundred-and-twenty degree weather. His fit body looked as if it had been sculpted from Greek marble, and then dipped in dark chocolate. An unattractive bend was in his nose, as if it had been broken once or twice. His jeans were expensive and fit him well, but for a tear over the right knee. The skin beneath the rip was visibly scraped and bleeding.

"Um," I said, blinking again. Recovering. "A little…"

"You must be Lyca," said the boy, reverting to modern English. I couldn't help shivering at the timbre of his changed voice, the way the Cajun accent rolled of his tongue like a river tumbling gracefully over a bed of round, sparkly pebbles. "J'em a'ppelle Henri Devereux." On-ree Dever-roo. I memorized the careful pronunciation without realizing what I was doing. Henri offered me his hand, which was twice the size of mine.

I didn't take it. If I did, he would see the scars… not that my face wasn't already speckled in them. But the scars were worst on my hands, where I had used them to pat out the blanket of flame I awoke wrapped up in, and then curled into fists and punched through the window—breaking many joints, some of which hadn't healed quite right.

"How do you know me?"

He smiled wider as he withdrew the gesture. Smiling that wide split the cut at the corner of his lips, but Henri didn't appear to notice.

"I'm friends with your cousin, Jary," he said.

Oh. Him.

Suddenly I realized I was still blocking the doorway, and this kid was supposedly a friend of the family. Southern hospitality ordained that I move aside, tell him to come in while I fetch Jary. Maybe even put on some tea.

Instead I stood my ground. I said, "Jary went with Dante and his friends to town. I didn't ask when they'd be back. Was Jary expecting you?"

Henri's smile shrank and he shrugged, maybe a little dejectedly. "Well, no," he said. "I just…" He looked at the ground, and then back at my face. Henri smiled. The cuts on his face and leg were fresh, the bruise new, only just beginning to swell. "Tell him I stopped by, wouldn't you?"

"Sure."

He shifted as if to turn and go away, and most of me wanted him to do just that. Yet I found myself reaching out, setting a hand on his arm. Stopping him. My mouth said, "Wait," before my brain could catch up. The boy looked at me as if he was surprised, too. Feeling heat rise to my face, I quickly dropped my hand. But I said, "At least come in and put some ice on all that."

"What do you know?" said Henri with that sweet smile. "There's a bit of Dixie to you yet."

Dixie Land

I wondered if Henri would marry me.

I lead Henri into the old-fashioned house, and watched over my shoulder as he politely shut the door after himself. He shot me a grin when he caught me looking, and knowing I was blushing I quickly diverted my attention back ahead, listening to his light footfalls following after me. My heart was beating a little too fast; I could hear my bird-like pulse reverberating through my ears, filling my head with the quick-paced Cajun rhythm. It was all I could think about—that and the spicy Cajun boy following me into Uncle Alain's home's kitchen.

In the kitchen, Henri took a seat at the dining table (that had not once been used since Grandma Lu and I arrived), while I went to the freezer and extracted a bag of frozen vegetables. I hadn't really known what else was in the freezer, but upon coming face-to-bleeding red meat with some type of dead animal, I grabbed the first bag of frozen things I saw besides the meat; it was only a lucky chance that I came away with vegetables. Heading over to a drawer, I took out some Ziploc baggies and split the frozen vegetables into each, and then brought these over to Henri and set one on his knee. The other I lifted to his face, but stopped myself from actually setting it there when I noticed Henri watching me closely. Our gazes caught and held. Whereas I had thought his eyes were simply black before, I realized now were a depthless shade of gray. Looking into those eyes was like staring into an endless tunnel. Oddly, I thought of Wile E. Coyote and the train tunnels he used to chase the Roadrunner into, just in time to be struck by a train that the Roadrunner just happened to be conducting. I hadn't watched the cartoon since Dad was alive to sit with me on Saturday mornings with our twin bowls of Cap'N Crunch in front of us; nor remembered those times until this very moment.

Dropping the bag of frozen vegetables, I went quickly to the kitchen sink, found a clean rag in the cabinet beneath it, and ran it under cold water. Behind me I heard Henri picking up the discarded bag, heard the frozen things inside it shifting as he lifted it to the mouse around his right eye.

"Sorry," he said while I hovered by the faucet. "I didn't mean to frighten you."

"You didn't," I said, turning off the water and wringing out the excess water from the rag. I walked over and set it over the ice pack on his knee. In a very business-like manner, I thought, I continued, "There's a wet rag on your knee. You'll have to clean yourself up—I'm not gentle enough to be cleaning out injuries." What I wouldn't admit was that I couldn't stand the sight of blood up close. Even on that day I caused Blake to hurt himself so terribly, I couldn't even stick around long enough to watch the aftermath. Blood made me nauseous, especially if I had to touch it in any way, shape, or form—it brought back too many nauseating memories. "While you do that, I'll go get the first-aide kit from the bathroom."

Henri nodded, his eyes closed as he tilted his head back and held the ice pack to his right eye. I noticed the tear in his lip, felt my stomach shift uncomfortably at the sight of the blood. "And I'll get you another washcloth for that cut on your lip," I said. And with that I charged out of the room.

My eldest cousin Robert was in the hallway that I charged into. I ran right into him. Robert said, "Whoa there, girl," as he caught me before I fell over. As soon as I had my balance he released my shoulders, maybe because of the vicious glare I sent him for touching me at all in the first place. He smiled, his creamy coffee-colored skin creasing with it. Robert was twenty-two years old; exactly two years, eight months, and seven days older than his brother Francis. Jary was their youngest brother. "You okay?" he asked me. "Looked like you'd been scared witless for a minute there, Lyca-girl."

I frowned up at my cousin before I could control the change of expressions. "I'm fine," I said. "Thank you for asking…" After a few second's hesitation, "Jary went into town with Dante and their friends, but there's a boy named Henri in the kitchen… wondering when Jary will be back. Do you know when he'll be back?"

Robert shook his head, leaning forward a little to catch a glimpse around the corner of the doorway of who might be in the kitchen. "Henri Devereux?" he seemed to ask himself, so I didn't bother answering. "Haven't seen that boy around for ages…" He looked back down at me as if just remembering I was there. I had backed up a step when he leaned forward. My elder cousin straightened up and rubbed his chin absentmindedly, his blue eyes still surveying me coolly. "Don't quite know when Jary will be back. S'pose they'll head on over to the new place after their runabout in town, since it's along the way and that's where everybody else appears to be. Could be another coupla hours. You okay entertaining Henri for a while yet by yourself?"

"New place?"

"Aw come on now," said Robert, sending me a grin as wry and charming as my uncle Alain's (Robert's father). "You know just what new place I'm talking about." And he winked at me. Winked at me, as if I was a conspiring confidante. When I only continued watching him bemusedly, Robert lost his smile and said, "Grandma Lu didn't tell you yet?"

"Tell me what?" I asked.

Suddenly Robert looked nervous. "Oh," he said. "Well, I, um… I don't think I'm really the one to tell you. Aw, I have somewhere to be, Lyca-coz. Why don't you just ask Grandma Lu when she gets back? Shouldn't be too long now."

And with that he weaved around me and practically jogged off down the hall.

Confused afresh, I continued on my way to the bathroom. I had known that all the aunts and uncles, along with Grandma Lu would be out somewhere all day. Grandma Lu said they were going to check out the old sights, see what hadn't changed in the several years she'd been gone. She had said nothing about a 'new place.' For once she also hadn't threatened to take me along, but I had been too grateful at the time to remind her. I still wasn't used to the constant Louisiana heat; when I could avoid it, I did, opting rather to stay indoors where the air conditioning was my best friend.

After retrieving the first aide kid from the cabinets below the sink in the downstairs bathroom (I was learning my way around Uncle Alain's house quite well these past two and a half weeks), I returned to the kitchen where Henri hadn't moved from his prior position.

Upon my first step into the kitchen, Henri said, "Was that Robert Bleu I heard passing a moment ago?"

"Er, yeah," I said. Then I added stupidly, "That's some good hearing… you've… got…" I trailed off, realizing my idiocy.

Henri Devereux only chuckled under his breath. "I would hope so," he replied. "Spent most of my childhood listening for footsteps. Anyway," he changed the subject as if he had always meant to, not letting onto the sudden tension I noticed bunching his shoulders as he comprehended what he had said, "I hear you come from Minnesota. What was it like, growing up there?"

For some reason, the question didn't bother me. It actually relaxed me some. "Have you ever seen snow?" I said as I brought the first-aide kit to Henri's side, set it on the table beside him. I stood for a moment waiting for his answer, wondering in the meantime what to do with myself. I didn't want to be near the blood, though most of it was covered from my sight now; but there was no one else in the house after Robert and a few of the younger cousins. The younger cousins kept to themselves upstairs, afraid of me. Robert had probably gone outside, knowing I wouldn't dare follow him out into the inferno.

"No," said Henri, removing the thawing vegetables from his eye and glancing at the first-aide kit on the table to his left. The bruised right eye had closed a little, as if swelling shut. "I grew up here, two blocks from this very house." The depthless gray eyes slid up at me, watching my face carefully; trying not to concentrate on the visible scars there. "Would you sit, or will you be going?" he asked me.

Against my better judgment, I sat in the chair directly in front of him, which was actually to his right but he had positioned his chair so that he was facing me anyway. He smiled at me and, feeling the heat in my face, I made a point of looking at the first-aide box. "In the winter," I said, softly, "mostly around January, there's lots of snow. At least two feet in the cities. In December there's just ice and slush—the snow melts during the day because the temperature can go allover the place, depending which way the wind is blowing. Some days it'll be somewhere above thirty degrees, almost forty, because the wind is coming up from the southeast, and then the next day it could be below zero because a cold-front is moving in from Canada." As I started talking about my home, I built the pictures up in my mind. Walking to school in the snow; having snowball fights with Andrei. I was vaguely aware that Henri had started cleaning himself up, using the supplies in the first-aide kit. "But in January, there's a pretty steady flow of snow. Up north there's tons of snow, like five feet of it in some places—I went up there only a few times with my dad when he was alive. I think we used to own a cabin up there a while ago… I dunno, I was pretty young—I don't really remember much about those times. But I remember hot cocoa, and him reading to me by the fireplace, and roasting marshmallows."

"Sounds like you had some good times with your father," Henri commented, dabbing at the cut on his knee with a cotton swab soaked in hydrogen peroxide. I avoided watching him, distracting myself with studying the graphic-design wallpaper put up all around the kitchen. "You must miss him very much. He was your grandmother Lucille's son?"

Grandmother Lucille, I thought, entertained by the name. I had only ever heard my grandmother called Grandma Lu, even by Andrei, unless she was upset with him, and then Andrei called her Mrs. Bleu, which just upset her more, but Andrei got a kick out of it.

"Middle-born," I said. "He came after Uncle Lionel and Uncle Alain." I didn't know why I was suddenly so comfortable talking to this total stranger about my familial history, and my home up in Minnesota. How had he even known that much? As far as I knew, Jary didn't even talk about me, unless it was to tell nasty ghost-stories about my insanity. Maybe this kid was a psycho stalker? I changed the subject, suddenly uncomfortable. "So," I started, sliding an eye toward Henri. He was watching me even as he applied the bandage to a scrape on his knee, and smiled when he caught my glance.

"You're going to ask how I got all banged-up?" he interrupted.

"No," I said. Because then he would ask about my scars, and I wasn't about to talk about them to this weirdo. "I was going to ask how old you are, and how you became friends with Jary."

Henri's slightly broad shoulders shrugged nonchalantly as he straightened up in the chair, forgetting about his injuries for the moment. "I think I'm fifteen," he said. I let an eyebrow quirk with the question I wouldn't voice. He smiled. "My parents aren't really the type to keep track," he explained. "And since you can walk virtually everywhere in New Orleans, especially around the French Quarter, I figure I don't need to drive, so what's the point in finding out my true age?" Reasonable enough, if you were a moron, which this boy clearly was. "As for becoming friends with Jary…" The smile lost some of its warmth. "Well, maybe I shouldn't go so far as to call us amis—ah, friends, that is. We only get along one-third of the time we're ever together, and we tend to avoid each other fairly often."

I had to admit that I liked the way this Henri Devereux talked. Fairly often. Teenagers just didn't talk like that anymore. Only Grandma Lu did. I wondered where Henri had picked up that way of speaking.

"But you come to my cousin in your time of need?" I asked, letting my gaze flicker over his obviously recent injuries.

The smile shrank a little more, lost more of its warmth. "I s'pose you could say I don't make friends easily," he said. "And the friends I make aren't all that nice… most of the time. It's just the type of people I attract, I guess. But Jary… Jary was there for me in a time of great need, and it created a somewhat unbreakable bond between us."

Andrei, I thought, watching this boy. Henri was so parallel to Andrei, and yet living such an opposite life.

"I have a friend like that, sort of," I said. A bit of warmth returned to the smile, perhaps giving me a second chance. "He saved my life a couple years back. Before that he was just another boy in the neighborhood that I grew up in—always a friend, but we kind of kept our distance. He moved around a lot, but his parents kept a place in the old neighborhood and eventually they came back to stay; and then I didn't come to live permanently in the neighborhood until I was eight or nine, which was about six or seven years back. Now he's my best friend; we haven't been apart for this long in a long time. But Andrei's really friendly—I'm the unpleasant one."

"You're not unpleasant. Just guarded. I know plenty of people that are the same way."

I shrugged. Whatever. I felt compelled to say, "I wasn't fishing for a compliment. I'm really not nice."

Startling me, Henri laughed. His laugh was very unlike Andrei's, whose laughs were always short but loud. This laugh was long, but soft; as if afraid to be heard by an authority figure that would shout at him to shut up. Sort of like a nervous giggle, but even quieter than that. His broad shoulders shook with mirth, and I could hear his breath coming out in short huffs, but there was no actual sound the verified it as a laugh. He grinned at me when the whispery mirth had passed, his right eye completely shutting with the effort, the scabbed over cut on his lip reopening. I pointed it out to him, feeling my hand move to touch my own lips before I knew what I was doing.

"You've got a cut…" I said, trailing off. Henri watched the hand touching a corner of my mouth intently, and as I realized why I dropped the hand, tucked it into my sagging jeans' pocket. I scowled at Henri but instead of snarling at him, I merely sealed my lips together into a single thin line and looked at him coldly.

Henri averted his eyes, murmuring, "Forgive me. I didn't mean to stare."

"Yeah," I spat, and sealed my lips again.

After a moment, Henri returned attention to the first-aide kit. Some time passed during which Henri got another cotton swab, soaked it in hydrogen peroxide, and then touched it to his tightly closed lips, careful not to breathe any in; and I wondered why I hadn't gotten up and simply left him yet. Perhaps it was the fact that this was a stranger in my uncle's house, and I couldn't just leave him in a room by himself, to wander the house alone while I went and shut myself up somewhere. What if he was a psycho serial killer and went after my younger cousins? I might not like my younger cousins very much, and they definitely didn't like me, but that still didn't give me any good reason to let the psycho serial killer have at them.

"You're still here," Henri commented after some minutes, without looking at me.

"Yes," I agreed expressionlessly. "I am."

"Thanks."

I didn't know what to say to that, so remained quiet.

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A/N: Maybe some review-responses next chapter. Hoped you liked this. :) More to come. Andrei might show up, coming up. Oh, and "Parle vous Francais" translates to "Do you speak French?" (PS--to all of you rooting for a Andrei/Lyca pairing: CUE MANIACAL LAUGHTER). haha, ;)