Michael can read diner menus, roadmaps, and the signs that tell him where the closest rest stop is. He can also read runes in six dead languages but only the incantations and curses; once upon a time, deep in the Ozarks, Michael's father told him he should learn the vernacular of ancient beings, but Michael finds when one is dealing with creatures that are old enough to remember humanity's infancy, a hunter only needs to know the incantations and curses. Despite what he supposes is a hexalingual talent, Michael cannot read anything longer than a page; when words compound into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into passages, he becomes confused, and he never admitted he becomes confused, and it wasn't important for anyone to know. It isn't important for anyone to know.
Sigge speaks Danish, and he can read and write at the level of a proficient high school graduate— that is, in Danish. He can speak accented English with grammatical quirks, but his spelling is almost as abysmal as Michael's, and he cannot read a novel (or certain lexiconically gifted vacation brochures) without the help of a Danish-to-English dictionary. Because that is a lot of trouble, Sigge will not read a novel, and it's not like that's important.
Xander, who turned nineteen this last weekend, dropped out of high school after his sophomore year. During his sophomore year, he still lived in Arizona and had a family to care about his education, but he lost all that and decided it wasn't his place to continue. Xander can read and write and speak well, but he chooses to do none of those things. He says he's more of a math guy, and by math he means money. He tells Sigge and Michael what to buy, when to buy it, and how much their bill plus tax will be while they rack up tabs at local bars. That's important, but the thing about traveling is those tabs don't get paid very often, so most of the time it isn't important.
On a dim April morning, they run from another tab while the sun casts gray, cold light through an overcast and then refracts clumsily through the bug-stained windshield. Xander sleeps on the backseat, having taken the form of a white cat. Shapeshifters, Michael had read in a book his father kept, one with simple words and lots of pictures, tend to pick a favorite shape as they near maturity, and that shape is rarely human. He thinks shapeshifters are wise and wishes he could have that choice about what he is, but he does not, so he is the designated driver, not-quite-human-but-human-enough, and in love with wanderlust.
He wonders if Sigge would change who he is but stops wondering so loudly when Xander stirs. Michael? Go back to sleep, it's early. Why're we out so early, then? Did you put me here? We fell asleep in the car, dunce. C'mere. I don't blame him. Everything awful lives in the south. Except the food. I like the food. We'll stop and get something when he's up.
Go back to sleep, it's early.
Why're we out so early, then? Did you put me here?Xander stretches, purrs, and he has spoken at length about his spine— how it remembers all its flexibility and lack thereof, how more than any part of him its slow to adjust to an unfamiliar shift. Michael listens to it pop. How did you get Sigge out here?
We fell asleep in the car, dunce. C'mere.Xander leaps onto his lap, and Michael scratches him absently. He'll be up soon. We're going to be in Oklahoma and y'know how he feels about the south.
I don't blame him. Everything awful lives in the south. Except the food. I like the food.
We'll stop and get something when he's up.Michael wishes he could ease into the same lazy nap as Xander, sprawled over his lap, tail flicking contentedly. He wishes he could be in the passenger's seat, completely-human-with-no-exceptions, and in love with a quiet house.
The sun rises from the clouds.
"If you two don't stop talking in your fucking heads, I am eating outside." Sigge chews like his country-fried steak has done him injustice and stabs a biscuit soaked in white gravy. "I'm right fucking here. This is rude or some shit."
"We're not talking about you," Michael promises. "We're talking about what Xander's doing today."
"Staying in the fucking car. After that shit he pulled—" Sigge swats the back of Xander's head before he can speak. "No, shut up. After that shit you pulled in Kansas City, you're not going fucking anywhere. You're staying in the hotel room."
"I was only—"
"Endangering yourself. In front of other fucking hunters. You're an idiot, and you're staying in the fucking hotel room until you're not an idiot." Sigge chokes down a mouthful with the help of coffee, pale as the gravy and sweetened. "You don't know how they would have reacted. Hunters are unhinged. You've been around us for how fucking long, and you take that risk, shifting in front of goddamn strangers?"
Xander folds into himself; he is a slim youth with long black hair and dark eyes and skin that must writhe at a cellular level, invisible to the naked eye, but explanative of his constant grimace. He dislikes being human, and he dislikes using his voice, hoarse and unsure as it is, but they don't let dogs dine, even at a hole in the wall like this. "I thought it was okay. We'd been traveling with them for a week, and you were in trouble, and—"
"You should have let Michael handle it. Do you know what fucktards like that do to shapeshifters?"
Xander shakes his head.
"Do you want to know?"
"He said probably not. Leave him alone, Sigge. He'll stay in the room today." Michael agrees with Sigge but not the way he makes Xander quiver. He reminds Xander he cares and says to clear the air, "So, how are we going to get this bitch?"
"Having someone in your head isn't that weird," Michael says to Sigge, taking a drag from their shared menthol cigarette. It was the last in the pack. "You hardly notice when thoughts aren't yours, which I guess sounds weird, but you get so used to it. It's weirder when I can't hear him."
The afternoon is bright, bouncing off the white sidewalks and glass storefronts and sleek cars. There are people going to work and coming from work or just browsing the shops in the little downtown area, but they come and go in flushes. Sigge notices them not noticing him and Michael, walking slowly and smoking. "It's just annoying when you sit there and have a whole conversation without me. I get the whole fae, shapeshifter bond thing, but you're basically human."
"Fifty percent means I'm basically either," Michael corrects and points to a sign advertising an antique sale. "Alright, this is where the bitch is hanging out. Ready?"
"No." Sigge stubs out their cigarette and flicks the butt down a narrow alley between a boutique and a cafe. "You're not basically either. You're basically human."
"Don't get hung up on this now. Yeah, I'm basically human, okay. Xander's starting to fret, and it's getting to my nerves, let's just get this over with." Michael yawns and narrows his eyes, the bright caught on his blond eyelashes like its caught on a sequined dress in some gaudy display. "I want to get back and have a drink."
"Yeah, same." Sigge pats his coat pocket, and they walk into the antique store with the hand-carved sign: The Past's Treasures.
Two years ago, Xander met Michael and was unsure of him. Shapeshifters have a heightened sense of smell no matter their shape, and Michael didn't smell right. He told him so. "You smell weird. Like, sweet."
Everyone laughed. Sigge drank whatever expensive liquor Viggo had dragged up from Lucas's cellar, and Lucas roughly gripped Michael's shoulder, grinning. "Sweet. Aw, that's cute. Fucking fairy."
"Fuck you." Michael shrugged his brother off and sat next to Xander. They were in Chicago, then, at Lucas's big nice house sitting on his big nice furniture drinking from big nice mugs and bottles and whatever other big nice things he had lying around. They were having a big nice celebration because they'd traversed through some especially fierce demonic dealings, the sort that got Angels riled, and Angels were never gentle enough with the human populace while trying to enact "good."
Xander had only known about Angels and demons for a month; he had only known there were other shapeshifters for a month; he'd only known there were creatures defined as legend that walked in real flesh for a month; and he'd known everyone there for a month, when they found him shivering beneath Michael's truck in a kitten shape and later found him stealing their money in a human shape. He was told it was a kindness they hadn't gutted him, but he learned they all talked big. "I'm serious. You smell off. I've noticed it before, just—"
"Been tact enough to keep it to yourself?" Michael drank but not as much as everyone else. Sigge wobbled, and Lucas and Viggo were making eyes to go to bed. "You really want to know?"
"Yeah." Xander curled up against the arm of the couch and folded his legs beneath him. The living room was dim, dimmer when Viggo flicked off the hallway light. He had Lucas in tow, and Xander remembered he was supposed to be happy for them. "What is it?"
"I'm not human, either." Michael watched Sigge and made sure he collapsed on the couch rather than the floor. "There needs to be an AA just for assholes like us."
Xander laughed. "Are Viggo and Lucas really just gonna stay here, then? I mean, shit's done, I guess. That was like... I dunno if apocalypse is a strong word, but you saved a lot of people."
"Yeah, it's strong word. But you know, Sigge and I are going to just... take smaller hunts, I guess. There's no point in sitting and waiting for the nasties to come get you. Especially when you smell like me." He tipped his head back and smiled at the ceiling. "You can come with us. I know you don't want to stay here."
"Thank you." Xander watched Michael and knew there was something he wasn't saying. He didn't bother him about it and shifted into a cat so he could crawl onto his lap, purring.
"You're a good kid." Michael placed a warm hand on him. "You're a really good kid, and I'm sorry you're here, but I wouldn't feel safe leaving you somewhere. Something or someone will end up killing you. It's how it works. So you're my responsibility or some shit."
I don't mind.
Michael looked down at him but was too weathered to question the bizarre. He just smiled less wryly and gave his tail a playful tug. You'll learn to.
Sigge goes inside first and is assaulted by dust. The ceiling fan whirs clouds of it, and the carpet is chocked full of it, and every step makes his eyes water. The dusty curios are precariously stacked on shelves and each other, and the pathway is narrow and labyrinthian. Slots of sunlight become sickly, thicker and thicker with motes as they make their way toward the counter. There's no one attending the register, and Michael looks at the bell meant to beckon the shopkeeper.
He refrains. "I can't breathe. Someone really needs to clean this place."
"Yeah, fuck." Sigge picks up an old jewelry box, a wooden egg that looks like it might have been beautiful in its prime. He chips at the chipped painted. "How's Xander holding up?"
"Okay. He went to sleep. It makes it easier to ignore him."
"Good, focus." Sigge sets aside the egg and stretches. "I don't think anyone's home. We might as well come back another time. I hate it when demons can't be fucking consistent. Think she's moved on?"
"Maybe." Michael perches on the counter and stares at the centuries of junk. "Maybe she's just afraid. I heard she's from the upper rungs of Hell, so she's pretty much a perverted ghost. This is just a suicide mission."
"Poor cunt." Sigge slides his coat off his shoulders and grins when the curtains rustle. Dust swarms like locusts. "Poor fucking cunt."
Sigge doesn't remember if he kissed Michael first or if Michael kissed him first. He remembers that they went to bed soon after making acquaintance, and they went to bed more often after Viggo and Lucas became intimate. Viggo and Lucas were in love, those idealistic fools, and they are in love, relaxing in some upscale neighborhood on the northside of Chicago. Sigge remembers laughing about them over drinks.
They were in a rundown joint called The Foxtrot Tavern, and Michael was making his way through their mixed drinks menu. "I don't understand why these are called girly drinks. They get you fucked up way faster than beer."
"You've been talking to Viggo." Sigge drank the cheapest beer on tap. "You know, I'm glad they're done or whatever, but shit's going to go wrong."
"You think?" Michael sipped something noxiously blue. "I think they might be all right, you know? Neither of them wanted this shit."
"It's not like I asked for it."
"But you're here, aren't you?" He knocked his lime wedge beneath the bed of ice, sipped then guzzled. His tongue was blue. "This shit is good. It tastes like Koolaid."
"It looks fucking awful, but Michael. Mick." Sigge tapped his wrist with two fingers, and Michael looked at him. His eyes were unearthly, catlike. "Your glamor's fucked up."
"Oh. Sorry, drunk." Michael blinked, and his eyes were a believable hazel. "And Xander's sleeping, s'not here to keep me in check or... what the fuck ever. Maybe we should head back."
"Yeah. Do you really think they'll be happy?" Sigge stood and waited for Michael to follow. In the parking lot, they leaned up against his truck to smoke a cigarette.
Michael spied through the window to make sure Xander was still asleep. "I dunno. I know they're going to try to be. None of my business and none of yours." He took a drag and sighed; humidity held onto the smoke. "You happy? I mean, doing this?"
Michael glanced at him, told him he was dumb, kissed him hard, and climbed into the truck. They went to bed that night.
"You're transparent. Stop trying to goad me." The demon appears from the dust, having fashioned a makeshift slip for her incorporeal lust. She stretches languidly but her voice is sharp. She knocks a teaset to the floor to hear it shatter. "It is flattering to be tracked by such famous company... Michael and Sigge."
"Mariah." Michael nods to her. "You know, I think you could have picked a sexier skin. This is pretty disgusting."
She scowls, the dust compacting tighter. She leaves microscopic pieces of herself in the carpet, in the old persian rugs, and Sigge breathes her when she steps too close. "Like you care about my skin, you filthy half-breed. Do you want some foil, pretty fae? Perhaps I can spill some sugar and you can count the grains."
"Half-breed advantage. I don't like counting." Michael winks. "You might want to stay put, princess." He hops off the counter and kicks up the corner of the rug, revealing a rune spell drawn in his own blood. "I suppose you didn't see Xander come through earlier."
She stills, figure shifting in the stiff air. The reek of mildew is in her fibers, and there are mold spores in her cheeks and thighs. "I didn't but you should know you can't kill me with your juvenile tricks."
"Oh, I can't?" Michael walks to the edge of the circle and looks back at Sigge. "I guess we can test that theory."
Her laughter is choked by spider eggs and wood shavings.
Micael woke when the morning was still night. Shadows crept the walls, following the tempo of cars passing the window, and he listened to their rushing and mopped sweat from his brow. The sheets were dappled by blue-grey apparitions that took more benign visages as he wiped sleep from his eyes. His heart realized the solace, and he lifted his hands toward the ceiling, steadying his wrists and fingers. A final deep breath soothed his lungs, and he whispered, "Sigge?"
He received a grunt and a thick pale arm anchoring his waist like a vice. Michael counted his freckles and traced the curve of his bicep until Sigge murmured, muffled into the hotel pillow, "Go the fuck to sleep, what the fuck."
Sigge peeled open one eye; his hair was an orange mess, curls stuck to his face and the comforter and his pillow and the sheets. Michael was sure there were strands stuck to his body. Sigge's lips were cracked and reluctant. "Why're you up?"
"I couldn't sleep."
"Well, fucking sleep. You look like shit. I know your internal clock's fucked, but you're still a human. You're going to put yourself into fucking..." He mumbled in Danish and squeezed Michael against him, half-crushing him into the cheap mattress. "Go to sleep."
Weighted, he slept.
Xander paces the room. He jumps on the bed and off the bed and takes the shape of a pigeon to fly the length of the room. His wings tire, and he falls to the bed in the body of a sturdy German shepherd. He closes his eyes and sees through Michael's eyes, the colors disturbing his animal mind. Reds are more vibrancy than he can comprehend, and he shifts into a human, tucking himself between the bleached sheets. Michael.
He receives no answer. Michael. She's deceiving you. Pay attention. This is why I wanted to be there. Pay attention. You're being cocky. Pay attention. Shut up, Xander. I heard you. Jesus.
Shut up, Xander. I heard you. Jesus.
Laughing, Xander pulls the quilt up to his waist and flicks on the television. Well, then listen to me. And stop telling Sigge I'm asleep. Stop talking if I need to focus. Okay.
Stop talking if I need to focus.
Okay.Xander finds something mindless to watch, staring through the screen.
"Let's say..." Lucas was drunk. He spoke too close to Michael's face, clumsy with his whiskey-laden tongue. "Let's just say, like, rhetorically, that you weren't. Born to our family. Like, neither of us were. But you're still y'know... what you are."
"Just say it. Changeling." Michael held Lucas's wrists and guided him to sit. Viggo slept in the truck, and Sigge slept a few feet away on a blanket spread over a flattened thicket. "I don't understand what you're getting at."
"So, you're normal. Like. Normal family. No... no fucking crazy shit." Lucas went for another swig, and Michael distracted him by tapping his cheek and moving the bottle. He blinked and continued, "So, you're like. You. So like Xander. Normal family, but you're still like you. Would you end up here?"
"You're trashed. Time for bed." Michael stood and wrestled Lucas to his feet. He was two years younger but six inches taller, heavy and uncoordinated. "You don't make any sense."
"No, listen. Listen." He pressed his face in Michael's hair. He was broad like their father and smelled like him, gorged with alcohol, sweating bile. "Listen. Would you? I mean, do you think it's like... that Angel said?"
"Angels don't really mince words, Luke. Seriously... okay, okay. C'mon." They waddled their way to the truck, and Michael helped him into the bed, propping him on his side. "There we go, big guy. Bedtime."
"Destiny," Lucas slurred. "Tha's what I'm asking. D'you think it's real?"
"Jesus, you're the one who went to college," Michael reminded him and threw a blanket over him. "Don't puke on yourself asshat."
Michael pat his knee and shrugged. "We're here now. What-ifs are really fucking stupid."
In the grass, listening to crickets, Sigge heard it all and decided if he was going to be irrational, Michael wasn't a bad person to be irrational for. He turned onto his side and watched Michael climb into the truck to sleep on the passenger's side with the seat reclined. Later, he invited him to the blanket, and they slept beside each other for the first time.
Michael can name the six ways to kill a vampire and make up a seventh that would work best. He used to keep a tally of the creatures he killed, but he filled up three notebooks and realized he hadn't spelled any of the names correctly. He knows how to shoot any gun he's handed and can take his truck apart and put it back together again. He can sew because it's a convenient skill, and his fingers are handy. He's the charisma and talks his way into locked records and police station files and is a local hero in a dozen small towns without credible sources.
Sigge has killed just as many things but half of them died at his bare hands. He knows Nordic lore and homespun remedies for mountain curses, which has come in handy more often than Michael would have thought. He can outdrink someone who weighs twice as much of him, though one would be hard-pressed to find someone who weighs twice as much as him. He's stilled the hearts of frantic demons, but he's softer than Michael when it comes to the harmless supernaturals.
Xander's a decent shot but hates the noise. He's virtually useless in the field unless he takes on the form of something useful; most corporeal beings are not immune to being mauled by a bear. He spends most of his time stealing entire lists of groceries, and he's manufactured countless ways to take fastfood and scam gas stations. He isn't as likable as Michael, but he's a smooth talker with a shy smile, and he's always on edge— details never escape him.
Standing before the dust, Sigge raises both brows and reaches into his coat. "Michael, don't."
"What?" He doesn't take his eyes off Mariah. That's an amateur mistake. "Are you taking this one? Know what she is? Xander says she ain't a demon."
"Yeah. Close your eyes."
Michael does as he's told but that does not save him from the sick burst and shrill scream that shakes the foundation. The smaller mirrors shatter, and the glass clocks are left in ruin, and Michael covers his ears, knees locked and stomach lurching, inhaling the dry rush of what she once was. "Definitely not a demon!"
"No, not a fucking demon. Open your eyes." Sigge is standing, blood dripping down his neck, wild-eyed and breathing heavily. He wipes the gold-plated knife—slick with black ooze—on his jeans and drops it to tend to his ears. "I think I'm deaf in this ear. I fucking hate... goddamn country spirits... fucking with shit... What the fuck was she doing here? There has to be more. There's never just one of those assholes."
Michael wipes the blood from Sigge's neck with his sleeve. "I dunno. But we should get back to the hotel, see if Xander's done any reading. And see if you're actually deaf."
"M'fine." Sigge takes his hand and drops it back at his side, and they leave the store, crunching through glass and wiping the dust from their clothing and hair.
The sun is at its highest, and Michael says they should stop at the liquor store. Sigge agrees and looks at him. He says nothing but they share a thought for one irrational moment, fueled by the too hot afternoon and their parched throats.
Don't get yourself killed.