The jolt of strong protection wards hits Charlie like an iron fist to the gut as soon as he steps on the walkway in front of the nondescript single-story brick house. The tingle that races up and down his spine is familiar. Comforting, in an odd sort of way.
He always knows Skye's magic.
He knocks on the heavy front door. Wood with a steel core, judging by the sound of the knock. No one opens the door. There's a silver luxury minivan in the driveway so he knows that someone is home.
Just when he's ready to pound his fist against the door, he hears the snick of a crossbow being cocked. He automatically steps back. "Who is it?" a pleasant female voice calls out.
"It's Charlie," he says, wishing she'd just hurry up. He hunches his shoulders, peers back at the street. He's spent too long hunting at night. He feels uncomfortable in the daylight. In khakis and a soft green Henley and only four weapons secreted on his body. He doesn't like using his real name out in the open.
The things he does for Skye.
The door opens. A pretty blonde woman a few years his senior has a crossbow propped on her hip. With her perfect blonde bob, understated makeup, pale linen trousers, and silk blouse she looks like she should be holding a tray of martinis and crab puffs instead of a finely tuned weapon. He knows that telling her so is the best way to get a bolt to the balls.
"Charlie," she greets, head cocked and eyebrows pulled in. "What's going on?"
"Can I come inside, Annie?"
Annabeth Proctor, Skye's older half-sister, hesitates only a moment before stepping back to admit him. Her eyes, almost the same shade of blue as Skye's but without the odd black swirls, narrow. "Why are you here by yourself?"
He hesitates just a second too long.
Panic streaks across her pretty face. She sets the crossbow on a decorative table and clutches Charlie's biceps. Her fingers are like claws in his arms. "Where's my sister?"
"Harkamont. At least she was. She's likely on her way here, now. Given that one of the guys is driving, it'll probably be sooner than expected."
"Is she…?" Annabeth can't even voice the question.
Charlie doesn't even want to contemplate it. "No. She's…," he doesn't want to lie to Annabeth on the off-chance she sees her sister. He can't get the picture of Skye, bruised and emaciated and with no spark to her, out of his head. "She's safe."
"But she's not okay."
He winces. "She went through a rough patch, but she's getting better." He honestly believes that she will. Val and Rage and Lightning will hound her until she loses the walking skeleton look. They'll keep her from committing suicide by demon. They're the only ones he trusts to watch her until he can join them and take over Skye-duty. Though, it's less of a duty and more of a habit. Labor of love.
Annabeth's grip on his arms tightens. She yanks him closer with surprising strength. "Rough patch? You mean she closed in on herself? Got in the middle of every fight? Stopping caring about anything except the hunt?" Her pale pink lips pull back in a snarl. "What did you do to her?"
It's a valid question. There are only a handful of people close enough to Skye to put her in one of her funks. Most of them live in Parker Heights. One lives in another dimension.
"That's between Skye and me," he says, yanking free of her manicured talons. "That's not why I'm here."
"She's in trouble." Annabeth glares at him as she leads the way to the living room. She picks up discarded plush toys as they make their way to the couch.
"Not really." He doesn't like the way she says trouble. He was there for the last falling out between the sisters, but it's his opinion that Annabeth placed too much of the blame on her sister's shoulders. Then again, he's biased. And Skye's always been good about piling on the guilt.
"Then why are you here without her? Why is she on her way?"
"She's investigating a series of murders. It appears that the murderer's next stop is Parker Heights." He forces a grin. "You know how Skye gets about anything happening in P.H. I'm the scout."
The patter of small feet on the hardwood floor disrupts the tense moment. A slim blonde cherub, the spitting image of her mother and aunt, races into the room. "Uncle Chuck!"
He groans. It took over a year for Skye and her sister to get back on speaking terms. It took considerably less time for Skye to re-corrupt her young niece. "Hey, Ellie."
Elspeth Proctor wraps her arms around his waist. She tilts her head back to frown at him. "Where's Auntie Skye?" Her frown deepens. "Working? She's always working."
Ellie knows only the basics about her aunt's chosen profession. Annabeth had tried to keep the world of demons and hunting separate from her neat little family, but it had proved impossible. Especially considering her husband Brian is from a family of hunters. Brian and Annabeth aren't active hunters, though, and they're not training Ellie for a life of fights and bloodbaths.
"Yeah, kiddo, she's working."
"Oh. Okay." Ellie heaves a dramatic sigh and unlatches her arms from his waist. She slumps on the couch, pink sneakers propped on the coffee table.
Charlie can't help but feel a pang of something. Ellie is so much like what Skye could be if she wasn't forced to carry so much baggage. The image of a little girl with his dark hair, pale blue eyes, and Skye's pointed ears flashes through his mind. He recognizes the pang: longing.
Annabeth and Ellie trail behind him while he checks every window and door in the house. Bunny, their golden retriever, joins in the parade when he does his perimeter check. He tests the wards, though he trusts Skye's work. They are as strong as the day they were set up.
While Ellie plays fetch with Bunny, Charlie reluctantly accepts a glass of iced sweet tea. He likes Annabeth's backyard. It's spacious and perfectly manicured, just like its owner. It also makes a hell of a battlefield when necessary. He sits in one cushioned porch chair and watches Ellie chase her dog. He wonders, just for a moment, what it would be like to live such a life.
He'd probably be bored out of his skull.
"So," Annabeth starts, dragging her chair closer to his. She props her elbows on the glass-topped table and leans forward. Her gaze is direct, stern. A little like his father's. "I didn't see your car in the driveway."
"Motorcycle. It's in the alley."
"Nice to see that you came knocking and didn't just sneak on up to the treehouse. I appreciate that."
"The wards would have alerted you." He knows she knows that. He doesn't like playing games. He wishes she'd just come right out and ask her questions.
"Plan on staying for long?"
"I'll check on Sam's place, and then spend a night or two in the treehouse." He shrugs with a nonchalance he doesn't feel. "It depends on how long Skye's investigation takes."
"I want to see her."
And there it is. It isn't the first time he's been stuck playing mediator between the woman he loves and her suffocating, but well-meaning (mostly) relatives. He doubts it'll be the last. Actually, given Skye's attitude at the bunker, he prays it's not the last.
"You know she won't come by, Annie. Not when she's on a hunt." Charlie sips his tea. It's too cold, too sweet. He smiles anyway. "She won't bring the ugliness anywhere near Ellie."
Annabeth taps hers fingers against her cheek. "After the hunt."
"It may not end here, Annie."
"I just want a few minutes. It's been months since she's been in Parker."
"I'll talk to her."
Annabeth's eyes bore into him, bust through his shields. She tilts her head. Her magic licks at his skin like a warm breeze. "You don't think she'll listen to you. How bad was your fight?"
"Bad. Worse than anything before."
Annabeth's advice is simple. "Fix it."
He snorts. "As if things are ever that easy with Skye."
He rides his bike across Parker Heights, making sure to stick to the side streets Skye taught him. He drives out to Sam Billis's house first. It's better to work while the older man's at work. Sam kicked the demons out of his life. He pretends that his baby sister is normal, and that she travels the country doing freelance security work.
Sam doesn't deal well with reminders of his past. Since the only reason Charlie met Skye and the rest of the Billis family is because of demons, there's no way to whitewash Charlie's presence. Charlie doesn't have the patience for pretence, anyway.
He checks the house. It's warded. The wards are strong. Refreshed only a few months prior. They are Skye's. He figures Sam's home is as protected as possible.
The wards around his office building are weaker, older. They're Annabeth's. He has very little magic so he can't do anything about the wards. He sends a text to Valeria, half-afraid that anything he sends to Skye will be automatically deleted, to advise her about the wards.
He only makes it a block from Sam's office when his phone buzzes. It's not Valeria or even his father. It's Skye. He's so surprised he nearly falls off his motorcycle.
'Pull over, asshole.'
He complies. She jogs up to him before he can unbuckle his helmet. Her fist slams into his gut, much like her wards had earlier. He doubles over, braces his hands on his knees as he tries to fill his lungs with precious oxygen.
"This is my town," she seethes, eyes nearly completely black and magic swirling all around her.
"I was doing what you couldn't." Because a part of him, mostly his gut, hurts, he can't help himself. "What you wouldn't."
The magic around her dissipates so quickly the vacuum leaves him cold. She shoves her hands in the pockets of her leather jacket. No wait, that's actually his leather jacket. The little thief.
"Yeah. Thanks for that." She shuffles her feet, so obviously unsettled that he just wants to wrap his arms around her and never let go. "How are Annie and Ellie?"
"Fine. The wards are good. I'll stay in the treehouse while we're in P.H."
"Thank you," she says, no trace of sarcasm in her tone. Her eyes are soft. Her stance relaxed. He stays on alert. He's seen her gone from half-asleep to beheading a demon in the blink of an eye. Sure enough, the other shoe drops. "Maybe you should stay in the treehouse until we catch the murderer. No matter how long it takes."
The treehouse is starting to sound a lot like the doghouse.
"They're my team, Skye."
"I'm just borrowing them."
"Same way you borrowed that jacket?"
She doesn't even blush. "I promise to give the team back."
He can't stop the smile spreading across his face. Bantering with Skye is one of his favorite pastimes. He's not forgiven, he knows that, but he's missed her so damn much.
"I'd rather have the jacket."
She grins, all shiny lips and sharp teeth and promises of retribution. "I'll make sure to pass that little gem on to Val."
He groans, scrubs a hand across his face. "She'll kill me."
"Yeah. I know."
As soon as it appears, the grin slides off her wan face. She leans against the side of a brick building and crosses her ankles. He joins her, stands so close that their shoulders brush. It's the closest he's been to Skye in far too long. It's too much and not enough and, it's odd, but all of his senses are heightened whenever she's near.
She leans toward him. She doesn't rest her head on his shoulder but tendrils of hair brush his cheek. A shiver races down his spine. It takes every bit of self control he has to keep his hands at his side.
"I don't know how to do this," she says, spitting out every word as if someone is pulling teeth along with syllables. "I don't know how to investigate something like this. I can't just scan for magic. A guy like this doesn't make waves in the underground. It would be impossible to protect everyone in the city sixty-percent hybrid. Especially since we don't know for sure that this psycho is headed here."
Charlie can count on one hand the number of times Skye has asked for his help. He tilts his head back and tries to ignore the tingling along his side. He has to think. Much as it pains him to admit, he'll never be Skye's equal in terms of raw power or demon killing. He does better than most, but his true talent is for investigating. For following the most obscure clue to a criminal's doorstep.
"Sixty percent's a pretty high concentration. Too high to hide out in the burbs, even in a place like P.H. You could take the three most popular hybrid neighborhoods and do some digging there." He shrugs. "People like that are targets for everyday hate crime. They pay more attention to strangers lurking in alleys."
"Yeah. Yeah." She nods, graces him with a ghost of a smile. "Rage hacked the database and downloaded the list of registered hybrids in the area. We can narrow down the areas of town based on that list."
"Have you thought of why it's sixty percent?"
"I'm guessing it has something to do with the killer. His mother or father, maybe. His own percentage. Maybe he was a target like you said. Though it would make more sense for him to attack full humans. Then again, for all we know it's coincidence."
"He's hitting up places you've lived. Could be he's using them as substitutes for you."
"Then he would be guessing that I'm sixty percent. I erased my name from the registry." She ignores his scoff. His father is a big proponent of the registry after all. "And if he did know me, know something about me, then he knows I'm not sixty percent."
"Neither are Annie or Sam."
"Nope." She pushes away from the wall. "Our mother was seventy-five, which makes me wonder about the correlation between her murder and the recent one in Little Rock. Their father was fully human. Squeaky clean genes."
He's known, as well as he can without looking her up in registry archives or testing her, that she's closer to full demon than anyone he's ever met. It's the first time she's practically admitted as much. They're in uncharted territory.
"Skye," he says, threading his fingers through hers. She doesn't pull away. "I really am sorry for…." He shakes his head, exhales. "For everything. I've been working with Val on anger management and stress relief. I started seeing someone."
She flinches. He mentally kicks himself. Why does his foot-in-mouth disease only flare up whenever he's talking to her? "A therapist. A former hunter. Not regularly, but I have him on speed dial for when things get rough."
"Good." She squeezes his hand before pulling hers free. "What you were doing wasn't healthy. Stress'll kill you."
"I'm sorry, Skye. I hurt you and that's the last thing I ever want to do."
"NightWalker," she starts.
He cuts her off. He never thought he'd see the day he missed hearing her call him Chuck or, god forbid, N-dub. "I don't deserve forgiveness. I don't deserve friendship. I don't deserve -."
"Chuck!" she snaps, slugging his shoulder. "You need to get back to the treehouse to watch Annie and Ellie."
He rubs the back of his neck. He's blown any chance he ever had to turn their friendship into more. He doubts there's any shot of them even having a friendship. "Yeah, yeah, I know."
"No, you blockhead, I don't think you do." This time her smile is gentle. Genuine. His heart flips. "I am counting on you to protect my sister and my niece."
And that means more than any "I forgive you" ever could.