Exactly eighteen minutes later, I was just considering officially calling Alistair vampire food, when he reappeared, driving an inconspicuous white Ford Mondeo. It was an ugly, four-door car, looked like it hadn't been washed in a year, one of the wing mirrors was crooked, but it would do for our purposes. And Alistair, sitting behind the wheel, looked a little smug as we all stumbled out onto the street and lingered by the car as he pulled up to the curb.
"Am I awesome or what?!" he called through the open window, slapping his hands on the steering wheel. I rolled my eyes.
"Or what," I replied as I pulled open the car door to allow Poppy to slip into the back seat. Leo climbed into the front passenger seat, so I slid in next to Poppy. The car was clean enough, but it smelled of dust and lemon polish and oil. I wondered where Alistair had gotten it.
He glanced at me over his shoulder, frowning. "What?"
I grinned. "You said, am I awesome or what. I was answering your question." He scowled at me for a moment, trying to work out what I meant, and then it clicked and he glared at me, shooting me the finger. I laughed.
"It was rhetorical, mate. Shut up," he muttered, changing gear and pressing the accelerator, and then we were off, gliding easily and inconspicuously down the road behind a ratty red Volkswagen. I relaxed after ten minutes without any signs of police cars or choppers floating overhead like fat bees to film a car chase. Alistair had been very sneaky stealing this car at least. That was good…sort of.
Eventually, exhausted after all the Wiring and panicking about being turned into vamp food, I fell asleep in the lumpy back seat of a nicked car, with my Goth best friend driving, a tired-looking warlock in the passenger seat, and my vampire girlfriend curled sleepily against my side.
When I woke up, I thought for one simply blissful moment that I was in my bed at home. And then someone prodded me gently and I started in surprise, blinking my heavy lids open.
"Wake up Anson. We're here," a soft voice whispered. For a second the world blurred and spun, and then my eyes focused on the grey fuzz of the back of a car seat in front of me. Frowning, I turned my head, wincing at the twinge in my neck from falling asleep awkwardly against the car door, and found Poppy's big blue eyes staring into mine, startlingly close. I blinked twice, puzzled but not unhappy, before I regained my wits and remembered what was going on. Oh, bugger, was my first coherent thought upon waking, and then the slam of another car door made me jerk and I let out a slow, uneasy breath.
"Hey, Sleeping Beauty's awake!" a rough voice called from somewhere beyond the car, and someone chapped on the glass of the window behind my head with their knuckles. I turned carefully, moving my shoulders and not my neck, and saw Alistair peering at me through dust streaks on the glass. His spikey black hair looked like a porcupine had perched on top of his head, and there were purple smudges under his shadowy grey eyes. His silver earring glimmered in his ear.
Beyond him, bright sunlight was starting to fade behind thick, smoky clouds that were rolling in over the horizon. We were parked in a gravel lot with two other cars, and at the far end of the lot there was a low, stone building with an ivory-lettered sign over inviting double wooden doors that read: Karlie's Roadside Hostel. There were windows on either side of the doors, through which I could only see the reflection of the greying sky. But there was a little red sign in the corner of one remarking that there were still spaces in the hostel for more road-weary drivers. It looked like a nice enough place, and Leo was standing by the doors – well, actually, he was slumped against the wall, looking more worn out than he had earlier. He looked almost grey, his eyes closed and even the shine of his hair was dulled.
I turned back to Poppy as I grabbed the door handle and popped open the car door, moving slowly in case of more painful bodily twinges. "We're staying here I take it?" It wasn't really a question, and my voice came out thick and slow from sleep, the words clumsy on my heavy tongue. I wondered what time it was and how long I'd slept. It had been about one in the afternoon the last time I'd checked the glowing digital clock on the car's dash before falling asleep. I hoped I hadn't snored.
Poppy climbed out of the car after me and slammed the door shut. Alistair was already walking away toward the hostel, his shoulders hunched. He raised a hand to scratch at the back of his head, ruffling his messy hair further. I guessed he and Leo had switched out on the driving at some point and Alistair had taken a nap – it would explain his hair being such a wreck. Although since I assumed Leo couldn't actually drive, he'd probably used a little magic to keep the car on the road. Useful little talent that.
As we walked across the lot, the clouds descending on us like an unwelcome omen, Poppy slipped her hand into mine and a little sparkle of chill ran up my arm. I clasped my fingers around hers tightly and knew she was smiling without even looking at her. Leo pushed himself off the wall as we stalked up to him. He wobbled for a moment, and then fumbled for the brass handle on one of the attractive wooden doors that gave entrance to the hostel. Up close, he looked positively exhausted, liable to collapse at any moment.
Alistair moved forward and clasped the handle, turning it smoothly, and held the door open for Leo, who gave him a slight thankful smile. Then Poppy and I followed him in and Alistair closed the door behind us, and abruptly let out a low whistle of appreciation at the décor of the inside of the hostel. I could fully agree. It was a lot nicer than I'd expected a roadside hostel to be. Lush rose carpeting melded nicely with dark wood-panelled walls and rose-patterned wallpaper. A handful of cushy pink and brown seats were placed against the wall to the left of the door, and straight ahead of us there was a large, shiny wooden reception desk, complete with a tiny golden bell and neat log-in book. The whole place was brightly lit by dome-shaped lights along the walls and a small chandelier over the reception desk. To the right of the desk, there was a carpeted staircase that rose up toward the higher floors, and next to it there was an elevator.
Nobody was at the front desk, so Poppy strode up and tapped on the little bell. It gave a loud, tinny ping that made Leo flinch. I frowned and shifted over to him where he was swaying on his feet. "Hey, you okay?" I asked, though he obviously wasn't okay.
Leo blinked and turned his bright eyes on me, looking a little confused. It took a moment before he seemed to realise I'd asked him something, and then he blinked. "I'm fine. It's just…all the Wiring kind of took it out of me. And keeping our magical traces off the map is a constant drain. But I'll be okay as soon as I can sit down and eat something." He smiled a little to reassure me, but I wasn't reassured. I slung an arm around his waist, and he made a surprised sound of protest, but I ignored him. I shuffled him over to the puffy pink and brown seats and dropped him down in the one in the corner so he'd be propped up on both sides – otherwise, I thought, he might fall off the seat.
"There. You're sitting. We'll work on the food thing once we've got our room. I'll even carry you up to the room if you want. I am at your service, sir." I bowed comically low and felt much better when I saw Leo crack a real smile. He didn't bother replying to my nonsense and just leaned back into the corner, half-closing his eyes. I left him to rest.
When I returned to the desk and Poppy's side, she was talking to a grey-haired woman with friendly, pale eyes, wearing a floral-print dress. Poppy's voice was soft and sweet, like the tinkle of a child's laugh, and the woman looked completely awed by the adorable, innocent teenage girl who was trying to book in with three teenage boys. I imagined how that must have looked to the kindly old woman behind the desk, but it was like she didn't even see us boys. She was smiling fondly at little Poppy.
"Yes, yes, of course, dear. Just sign the wee book, and you and your friends can take whichever rooms you like," The old woman said in a soft voice. Poppy smiled at her, that beguilingly beautiful smile that made anyone seeing it hear heaven's bells.
"Of course. Thank so much," Poppy said, and then she turned to me, still with that angelic smile. I blinked, because as I stared at her – yes, I stared. Unashamedly – her smile transformed, taking on a sharp edge almost like a smirk but not quite. I glanced at the woman, but she didn't notice it; she was busy rooting out a pen for us to sign the log-in book with. And by the time she found it and lifted her head to us again, Poppy's angel face was back in place, perfect and innocent as ever. The woman smiled automatically back at her as she handed over a pen. Poppy took it in her slim fingers and scribbled a name down in the log book that wasn't her own. Then she passed the pen to me and felt a corner of my mouth curl as I wrote a name under her fake one:
I wrote down names for Alistair and Leo, too, knowing how petty it was but unable to help myself. Well, Poppy started it by putting Lacy's name. I was just following her example; that was my pitiful excuse. That was why Mark Lansford and Kevin Roberts joined Lacy and Jake on the log-in book for this strange and impromptu trip to a hostel in…wherever we were. I had no idea. And I didn't really care to know either. I just knew it had to be way, way away from home considering we'd been in that car for hours; I knew because there was a clock hanging on the wall behind the desk that told me it was after five o'clock now.
"Let's get Leo into a room and then we can grab the stuff from the car," I said to Poppy, and she nodded, staring worriedly past me at Leo slumped in the corner as the woman behind the desk walked away into a room off to the side of her desk.
We walked over to Leo, and Alistair and I slung our arms around him to help him – mostly carry him – to the elevator, while Poppy rolled her eyes with mild amusement. "You know," she said, "I'm probably stronger than the both of you." She had a good point.
I glanced over my shoulder at her and scowled. "Thanks for reminding us. It makes us feel so manly to know a tiny girl could kick both our arses." Poppy laughed.
"Actually," Alistair put in, "Stung manly pride aside, it's kind of a turn on." Poppy stopped laughing and I bit down on a grin as we levered Leo into the elevator.
Poppy thought it would be better if we were all close together, so we separated into two adjoining rooms – Leo with Poppy, and Alistair with me, despite Poppy's protests; she wanted me to room with her, but I knew that was a bad idea on about six different levels, so I forced myself to swallow my own wants and dump my stuff in the room next to hers.
The rooms were nice, with separate single beds piled with fluffy white pillows. The walls were pasted in pale golden wallpaper with rose accenting, and matched the curtains over the single window set in the wall opposite the door. The carpeting was the same rose colour as the lobby, and the furnishings were minimal – wardrobe, nightstands, beds, and an en-suite bathroom. It was kind of cosy, perfectly clean and tidy, and might have been a lovely place for a short stay if you were on the road a lot.
But that wasn't why we were here; we were hiding from powerful vampires who wanted to Turn me into a vamp, and punish Poppy. That kind of dimmed the pleasantness of the rooms. Also, the fact that Leo had picked the rooms so they were close to the fire exit "for quick escape if we need it" sort of chilled me a little. But other than that, it was perfectly nice.
Beyond the window, the sky had gotten dark, a blanket of cobalt blue descending to a line of grey on the horizon. Here and there, puffs of charcoal clouds like smoke drifted across the sky, and the moonlight pouring down from a moon I couldn't see did little to alleviate the darkness of night. Black fields rolled out like a carpet all around the building, hugging the hostel parking lot and the thick ribbon of oily blackness that was the road. Once again, we were in the middle of nowhere, but I didn't mind that – in fact, I kind of liked it. I'd always disliked living in a city.
"Hey," Alistair said abruptly from behind me, startling me. "You going to stare out that window all night?" I glanced at his reflection in the window glass and saw him sitting, hunched over, on the bed he'd claimed dibs on, nearest the door. He'd draped his black coat on the end of the bed and was leaning against the wall, watching me with an obvious lack of enthusiasm. Normally, I thought, he'd be out partying right about now. But I couldn't feel too bad for dragging him into this because, well, I hadn't. He'd chosen to come, against my initial advice. Boredom was just something he'd have to learn to live with for as long as we were here. I still didn't know how long that would be. I wasn't worried though. I had my pens and my notepad. I could write poetry and do sketches to pass the time. Plus, I had Poppy. It was hard to focus on being bored when I knew she was in the room right next door, and I wished – not for the first time – that I wasn't such a gentleman, that I'd agreed to share a room with her…but that would have been very, very wrong of me to accept. So wrong. Or that's what I was telling myself anyway.
I was about to answer Alistair's question with a smart remark when there was a knock on the door, distracting me from what I'd been about to say – which may have been just as well. Last thing I needed to do was go irritating the guy I had to share a room with for the next god knew how long. Knowing Alistair, he'd probably find a way to make me very sorry for annoying him.
So instead of risking his wrath, I called to the person on the other side of the door, "If you're a vampire coming to eat me, please be kind enough to leave. It would be an awful shame to get bloodstains on this nice wallpaper." The door handle turned and the door clicked open, and I leaned back against the windowsill, grinning as Poppy and Leo came in.
"What about vampires who are coming to kiss you? No bloodstains involved. Are they allowed in?" Poppy grinned back, pausing in the doorway. I made a show of looking thoughtful and heard Alistair make a scoffing noise. He rolled his eyes. Over Poppy's shoulder, Leo did the same. He was looking much better than earlier, less grey, but still kind of tired.
"Yeah, okay," I said, "Kissing vampires can come in. Warlocks too I suppose, so long as they don't try to kiss me. Not really into that. Sorry, mate." I winked at Leo and he pulled a face before breaking into a smile and stepping into the room. He closed the door behind him and slid down against it until he was sitting on the floor with one elbow leaning on a raised knee.
"It's okay. I'm not much into humans either," Leo said. I made to reply, but it was kind of hard to talk around Poppy's mouth, which was rather suddenly on mine. I started, surprised, and then let my arms go around her, far too aware we were in company. But then, as her fingers curled into my shoulders, even that minor detail didn't seem to matter. I kissed her back willingly, feeling my skin prickle with lovely little chills that feel like sparks. Her mouth was soft and sweet, and then it was gone. She stepped back as abruptly as she'd started the kiss, and I slumped. I opened my eyes and saw she was blushing, chewing her lip like she hadn't really meant to kiss me quite so thoroughly. I grinned. I liked that; her loss of control. It made me feel powerful and very, very cocky that I could make her act like that without even doing anything.
Leo cleared his throat and deliberately started on at a new topic, completely unrelated to what he'd just witnessed. "So, anyway, I was thinking that maybe we should discuss what to do next. You know, come up with back up plans, just in case Plan A doesn't work. Like Plan B, and maybe C, and quite possibly all the way through to Q at least, just to be safe."
I snorted. "Good to know you're confident in our current plan, Leo. That's really reassuring," I said dryly. He just spread his hands and shrugged a little in an unapologetic kind of gesture. Yup, definitely reassuring. So far, my summer was going just swimmingly. Maybe next summer I'd get hunted by Werewolves – oh wait, that was already happening, too. I'd wanted to go abseiling sometime, but now I wasn't sure it could live up to the thrill of running for my life from supernatural creatures I hadn't known existed until a few days ago. It was all very exciting…in a dear god I've lost my mind and I'm possibly going to die kind of way. I was dealing with it, though. Sort of…
Sitting down on the bed near the window, the one that was going to be mine for as long as we were here, I reached for my duffle and unzipped it, digging inside for my notepad, which I knew Alistair had put in it because I'd asked him as soon as I'd had the chance. Now, my fingers itched to draw or write something, though I wouldn't be sure what until the lines started swirling on the page from the tip of my pencil…and I needed to find the damn paper first.
While I dug, Poppy sat down on the floor by the end of my bed and started talking to Leo about escape plans and such. Alistair appeared to be listening intently to them, or maybe he was just very focused on something inside his own head. It was sometimes hard to tell with Alistair. I had a theory that his guy-liner helped mask his more subtle expressions.
Finally, I found my notepad and yanked it out. One corner was a little bent but that was okay. I listened dimly to their conversation while I rooted for my pencils next, and frowned when my fingers came across something cool and smooth and small that I couldn't identify. It felt like a pebble. How had a pebble gotten into my bag? I curled my fingers around it and found it was attached to something. Curiously, I pulled out the strange pebble and saw with some surprise that it wasn't really a pebble; it was the necklace my dad had given me before he left. The little red stone almost glowed, bright against the dark leather strap it was on, and the safety pins lined up on either side of it gleamed silver in the light. I wondered if I'd left it in my duffle at some point, instead of in the memory-shoebox I kept hidden.
I stared at the necklace for a long moment, chewing my lip uncertainly. I kind of wanted to put it on. But I hadn't worn it since my dad left. Would it be wrong to wear it now, like a sign that I'd forgiven him for cheating on Mum and walking away from us? I wasn't sure. I hadn't forgiven him, not really, but I didn't hate him either. It had been a long time ago, and Mum and Aaron and I did just fine without him, but it still stung to think of him sometimes. Then again, it was just a necklace, and it was really kind of funky, so maybe it'd be okay if I–
"Anson," Leo's voice, uncharacteristically sharp, snapped me from my thoughts and I blinked, transferring my gaze from the shiny red pendant to the rest of the room. Everyone was staring at me and I blushed. Poppy and Alistair were looking at me with bemusement on their faces, but it was Leo's expression that surprised me; he looked downright horrified. I frowned, confused.
"What's wrong, Leo?" I asked, but he wasn't looking at me, not really. He was looking at the pendant I was holding. His mouth was pressed into a funny shape and his startling eyes were wide, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. "Leo?" I murmured again, becoming worried that Leo had lost a little of his mind with exhaustion. When he didn't reply, I glanced helplessly at Poppy, who shrugged and shook her head. She had no idea what was wrong with Leo either.
In a raspy kind of voice, Leo finally spoke again, and his question was totally unexpected. "Anson, where did you get that necklace?" he asked quietly, his eyes flicking to my face and away quickly, as if he couldn't stand to look at me suddenly. Um, ouch? I thought mildly.
I answered carefully, "My dad gave it to me when I was eight."
"Leo, what's–" Poppy started, leaning forward like she was going to crawl over to him, but he got abruptly to his feet and strode over to me, ignoring her. He reached out and, very lightly, touched the red stone swinging from my hand. His face creased.
Poppy rose up from the side of the bed and stared at us, a line forming between her brows. Then her eyes fixed on the pendant and she tilted her head thoughtfully, the line fading. "Hey, that looks a lot like Leo's necklace," she said, flicking the stone and watching it swing with a faintly amused expression. I stared at her. Maybe we were all a little loopy from exhaustion.
"Leo's necklace?" I inquired, returning my focus to the green-eyed boy who was currently staring at me with an intensity like a laser, like he was trying to x-ray my DNA or something. He looked terribly thoughtful, and maybe a little hurt, maybe a little angry. I don't know. I just wanted him to stop glaring at me like he was using the Force to try to choke me to death. For a moment, I wondered if he could actually do that. Could warlocks do the Darth Vader thing? That was a scary thought actually.
After a moment, Leo stepped back and reached into the collar of his shirt, then pulled out a red stone on a black cord, exactly like my necklace but without the safety pins. I stared at it with my head tilted. Alistair scowled. "Funky. So you both have the same kind of necklace. It's hardly earthshattering news, guys," he commented, and I had to agree. But Leo's face told me there was more to it than simple coincidence. It made me uneasy. I glanced at Poppy for reassurance, but she was watching Leo's face too with an expression that mirrored his. It made me doubly uneasy.
"Uh, someone want to explain to me what the deal is? You're kind of freaking me out here, Leo," I said, laying my necklace down on the bed. I didn't want to touch it anymore, definitely didn't want to put it on. Not with Leo staring at it like it was poisoned.
Poppy looked at me, opened her mouth to – I assumed – explain what was going on that I wasn't getting, but Leo spoke first, his voice low and flat. "It isn't the same kind of necklace," he said quietly, "It is the same necklace. The stones are two halves of a whole. Look." He reached out and picked up my necklace, lifted it to his own, and I saw it; the two uneven chunks of shiny red stone fit together like puzzle pieces. They formed a single pretty pebble that had been cracked in half and strung on two separate necklaces. That was…weird.
I opened my mouth to say as much, but Leo shook his head. "You don't get it yet, do you?" He didn't say it harshly, but with a thin humourless smile. "They're the same, Anson. Right down to the chemical traces. I can feel it. The essences on the stones are exactly the same. As in, the same person who gave you yours…gave me mine."
It took a full two seconds for his words to click inside my mind, to form some sort of reasonable meaning, and then I understood what he was saying. A cold shiver ran down my spine. "And who…who gave you yours?" I asked, my voice coming out as a dry rasp. I was almost afraid to hear his answer though I thought I already knew what he was going to say. It made sense. It did. All along I'd had the suspicion of where my half-magic came from, and now I knew why I sometimes thought Leo looked familiar. I'd seen bits of his features in the mirror, in my own reflection.
With his strangely bright green eyes fixed on my strangely dark blue ones, he said what I already knew. "I got mine from my father…right before he was killed by Werewolves."
Now I knew. I got my magic from my father. From Leo's father. We were brothers. Half-brothers anyway. Because it took two magical parents to make a warlock, so Leo must've had a witch for a mother. My mother was human. Now I knew why my father had left – he'd had a second life with another woman and another child. Maybe he'd been living it all along, a double life, or maybe the other woman had tracked him down again after eight years and my mother had found out about her, kicked my dad out. It didn't matter how it happened, it just mattered that it had happened. My dad was a cheating bastard and a magical one at that, and I had a half-brother.