“I’m worried about you, Hyrum.” Valerie took the dish he’d rinsed off and put it in the dishwasher. It didn’t matter how many times he tried to tell her Aubrey preferred dishes done by hand. That was nonsense, there was a perfectly good dishwasher, and they were going to use it. He grunted a few times and tried to explain how it wasted water, but caved in. Aubrey, he reasoned, wouldn’t mind just this once if it kept the peace. “Do you know why?”
“Are you? You’ve changed. You’re…cavorting…with people you know better.”
“I don’t know what that means but I don’t think so.”
“People who aren’t good for your eternity,” she whispered, as if she were uttering a four-letter bomb ripped right off the top of Aubrey’s bad word list. “People who might influence you and keep you from the celestial—.”
He scrunched his nose. “My friends are nice.”
She waved it off. “Nice isn’t the issue.”
“Besides, I mostly go to work or play with the babies. I talk to lots of people, though.”
“You’re getting too close to people who might pull you way from the Lord.”
“Nuh.” He shook his head. “I say my prayers every day and I read my bible stories. I even teach the stories to the babies on account of Aubrey says it’s good for them and Will and Aisha say it will help Rhys and Alex and Charlie be better people.”
That, she claimed, was good, and she was proud of him for being willing to bring faith to atheists. But there was more to it, and she feared for what would happen to him in the next life. She wasn’t comfortable with the way life was in Pacifica, the way people mixed faith and things better left to stand alone.
He had no idea what she was hinting at. Valerie spoke in hushed tones, trying to keep those in the living room from overhearing her plunge into a swampish pool of bigotry. “We taught you, Hyrum. When we reach the celestial—”
“Everyone will be made white and pure,” he sighed, reciting lessons taught in the Church of Florida’s Sunday school. “But that’s not true. I read some old church history that Red gave me. It says we get to stay the way we were when we were alive, but if we lost arms and legs and stuff, we’d get them back. Good people don’t turn white in heaven.”
She leaned in close. “Good people are already white here, Hyrum. I don’t want you risking your eternity—”
Abruptly, Hyrum said, “You need to talk to Red.”
“And you need to listen to me. If our family is going to be whole, you need to toe the line here. You know that.”
He slapped the water off. “We’re not going to be together in heaven even if that is true. You know Daddy won’t be there. David won’t be there on account of he’ll die in jail here and wake up in jail there. And if I have to say Aisha and Sophia and Jay and the babies aren’t good people, then I won’t be there on account of it’s not true.”
“They’re good people for here,” she said. “That won’t get them there. They’ll be stuck on the lowest level—”
“Jesus isn’t like that,” he argued. “Red said—”
“You should be more concerned with what the Lord says.”
“Red is the prophet. He talks for God. What Red says is the truth, even if we don’t like it, and Red says skin doesn’t matter. People matter, and I can love anyone I feel like. And I love Aisha and Sophia, and their babies, and Jay, too.” He leaned toward her, just a bit. “Red even said I could love a boy, if I wanted.”
Her hand shot up, but she stopped short of slapping him. “Don’t you dare.”
Do I need to get help? I can go get Will or Drew.
Really, I can.
“It’s okay, Wick. Me and Drew have to work tomorrow. I should go to bed. Drew wants me to drive so he can read some papers on the way.”
Drew wants you to drive because Drew is still afraid of driving.
“I’ll pray for you tonight, Mom. I think you need it.”
He left Valerie in the kitchen, alone, with several dishes still waiting to be loaded into the rarely used dishwasher. She slowly lowered her hand and then stared at it, as if she wondered why she hadn’t been able to hit him.
He’s not a little boy and you know it. You can’t bully him anymore.
I just wished Hyrum was as certain of that.
Hyrum rolled out of bed at four-thirty to spend time with Jax; he shuffled down the hall in shorts and a t-shirt, making sure the door to the guest room was still closed. He turned the coffee maker on and sat at the table, half asleep, one wary eye on the hallway. He didn’t want to start his morning arguing with his mother; he didn’t want to spend any part of his day arguing with her. Before going to bed he slipped into Oz and Drew’s room, and when he came out, he was visibly relieved.
Drew needed him at work; there was no getting out of it and he refused to give Hyrum the day off. Valerie could get as upset as she wanted, but they were too close to the finish of the space suit design, and there were things Drew wanted Hyrum to look at.
“Tell her to blame me,” he told Hyrum. “You can’t have a day off, not until we’re done with the suit.”
It wasn’t a lie; Drew hadn’t stretched the truth. He needed that suit to be in the manufacturing phase within two weeks. He always had Hyrum look at new product before finalizing the design, because Hyrum truly did see things others didn’t. He was a lot like Drew in that respect, but his brain wasn’t cluttered with all the science fiction Drew had absorbed as a child, and he had no preconceived ideas about how things should look or how they should work.
“You’re here early, Wick,” he said to me when I jumped up to the breakfast bar.
Will didn’t need me last night.
In fact, I’m sure he didn’t want me there. I kept an eye on you instead.
“Did you sit on my head last night? Or did I dream that?”
I was on your pillow, peeking at your dreams. You probably felt my paw on your forehead.
“You were in a dream. We were riding my bike and when we stopped to have lunch you said you would bite my mom’s finger off if she poked it at me again.”
Awesome. You can totally understand me when I sneak into your dreams. Next time I’ll tell you to talk to Will when you wake up. He can explain what I’m doing.
“I don’t think your teeth are strong enough to bite a finger off all the way. I don’t even think I could do that.”
You’d be surprised.
“I bet fingers taste bad, anyway.”
You’re not wrong. I’ve bitten a few over the years. It’s not pleasant.
Jax came out of the bedroom at five, wearing a dress shirt and tie. Hyrum mused that he wasn’t running with Will this morning and told him to sit down and he would make breakfast for him. Jax knew better than to argue; unless he had a breakfast meeting, Hyrum wasn’t letting him head for work without eating. I lounged on the breakfast bar while he cooked—Jax had finally given up trying to get me to stay off it—and jumped to a chair when bacon was offered.
I stayed there and peeked over the edge of the table while they ate and was still there when Jax kissed the top of Hyrum’s head before he left for work and I waited there while Hyrum headed off to shower. I was still there when Aubrey came out—she was surprised by the pile of bacon Hyrum had left for everyone—and when Valerie came out at six-thirty.
The house was waking up. Eli was crying—the infant, not the old King—and Drew was in the shower, singing about feeling like a natural woman. Oz cooed to her baby, trying to soothe him, probably from the horror of his father singing about being a natural woman. And from upstairs came the sound of tiny feet thundering down the hall, which would be followed, I presumed, by squealing and at least one adult yelling at Charlie to get down from whatever he was climbing, and to put some pants on.
Baby gates no longer held them. Will had considered building one across the stairs, but Charlie could scramble, and if he made it to the top, the fall would be horrific. The door was often closed and locked, but no one trusted that they couldn’t figure it out. Vicat suggested a guard be posted near the stairs, outside the apartment door. It was either that or secure their front door with the same biometric lock that had been put on the balcony door, opened only by handprint and too high up for a toddler to reach.
Aisha declared that idea to be a pain in the ass; if she had a kid on each hip and stuff in her hands, unlocking the door would become work.
There was now a rotation of younger guards at night and during part of the day. The kids learned their names and often took cookies and drinks to them—something that never happened when Oz and Zed were children—and they’d become fond of the men and women who sat in a chair outside their door.
When it was time to come downstairs to stay with their Aunt Aubrey, the guard would follow, and wait in a chair near the balcony.
Valerie was unhappy that the family apartment had no door, and she glanced up the stairs before coming to the table. “You can’t even walk around in your robe,” she complained to Aubrey. “There’s always someone looking.”
“I can and I do,” Aubrey said, laughing. “You get used to it.”
“I could never.”
“The guards are respectful. Unless there’s a good reason, they don’t even peek into the apartment on their way down. If they need something, they knock on the wall first.”
“But if you and Jax just want private time, sitting on the sofa watching TV—”
“Mom, the kids are all over this building. We have an open-door policy. If we want to sit and watch the news, we do it and yell when they get too loud. If we want privacy?” She pointed down the hall to the bedroom. “We’ve been known to go in and close the door, just to talk.”
Valerie couldn’t imagine sitting down to have a simple conversation with her husband. “I don’t think the man ever asked my opinion on anything. Yet I’ve heard Jax take your advice a dozen times.”
“He wasn’t raised to think men were superior beings,” she reminded Valerie.
“How did he deal with the things Levi did to you?” Valerie asked, her voice hushed. “Did you tell him before you married?”
“I told him very early on. And he was extremely patient with me. He spoke with my therapist—”
“You saw one of those doctors?”
“Of course, I did. I think I was sixteen when I found one that I was sure I could trust.”
“Because prayer wasn’t enough,” Aubrey said bluntly. “I saw girls my age with boys and realized I wanted a social life. I would never have that if I didn’t learn to trust them. Therapy helped me get to the place where holding someone’s hand wouldn’t leave me a sobbing mess.”
Valerie’s hand went to her mouth. “You didn’t—”
Aubrey raised an eyebrow. “Jax is the only man I’ve slept with, if that’s what you’re getting at. But no, we did not wait for marriage.”
“Mom, the virginity ship sailed when I was still a little girl. I wouldn’t have married Jax without knowing that I could be with him. That wouldn’t have been fair to him.”
Valerie swallowed her argument. “You should talk to Red, just in case—”
“Red knows, Mom. You don’t think I would have had him back in my life and not asked him for a blessing, do you? My big brother is the Prophet. He knows my worst secrets, and he’s blessed me despite them. Red is very good at offering comfort, you know.”
“All those years with your father when he was Prophet, and I still have trouble remembering that Red heads the General Authority now. He still feels like my—” She stopped when Hyrum came to the table. His neatly combed hair was still wet from his shower, and he’d trimmed his beard. He was dressed in new jeans, his first pair made by Mrs. Kovlov, and his bright pink t-shirt was tucked in. “Hyrum Munson, you march back into your room and change into something presentable.”
He glanced down, unsure what the problem was. “I’m allowed to wear jeans to work. Sometimes we get dirty, and—”
“You are not a little girl. Go change that shirt.”
“Mom,” Aubrey sighed. “Take a breath. Hy, did you eat with Jax this morning?”
He nodded. “I made him eggs. I can make you eggs, too, if you want.”
He didn’t wait for an answer and practically hopped into the kitchen. Whether they wanted eggs or not, they were getting a heap of scrambled eggs with cream cheese melted into them. I knew what he was doing; he was very careful to melt the cheese slowly, which took time. Time he wouldn’t spend being criticized.
“What’s on your work schedule today?” Aubrey asked, even though she already knew.
“We gotta make sure the new suit fits Drew super snug, but also gives him room to turn on the tights if he needs it.”
The tights were tightly woven with nanobots; they activated with a single thought from his upgraded transponder—he’d gotten a second one, not willing to risk losing his ability to understand me—and would protect him if the outer suit tore or was hit by something. He would be the first person to test the nano-suit in space; others had tested prototypes in the lab, but his trip would be the first active trial.
“Hyrum,” Aubrey told Valerie, “has been studying quite a bit of science and history lately. I think it’s fair to say that he knows more about nanobots than I ever will.”
Valerie had no idea what they were.
“Tiny, tiny robots,” Hyrum said. “So tiny you can’t really seem them unless there are loads of them together or you look with a special microscope.” He considered it for a moment and added, “That’s like a sciencey magnifying glass.”
“You’re still teaching him? Valerie asked. “I thought he was done. He has his diploma.”
“On his days off from work, we cover the things he’s most interested in. Will helps him with science and Aisha has taken over math. When he tells us he’s done, then we’ll stop.”
“Drew says people should never be done learning,” Hyrum said. “That’s why he’s still going to school even though he’s already got an important job. He’s gonna be a doctor, but not the kind that gives you shots.”
“What’s left for you to teach him?” Valerie asked. “He can already read.”
“There are lots of big words I don’t know,” Hyrum said.
“We’ve been delving into history,” Aubrey said.
“I wanted to learn that because Jax was a history teacher and now we can talk about stuff like that.”
“Hyrum has also been tackling bigger books, things he can read to the children. And he’s developed a love of poetry.”
“I like to read them and figure out what the stories are,” Hyrum said as he scooped the eggs out onto plates. “That’s kinda hard sometimes. Poems say one thing but mean something else. I need help figuring it out.”
“Metaphors,” Aubrey said. “Plenty of people have difficulty with them, Hyrum.”
“Hm.” He set the plates down and then sat in the chair next to me. “One time I read a poem and it said the sky was on fire. That didn’t make any sense on account of you can’t set fire to the sky. Eli said it was talking about the sunset. Sometimes the sky turns red when the sun sets. It’s really pretty when it’s foggy and the sun sets. Maybe I’ll write a poem about that.”
“You write poetry now?” Valerie asked.
He nodded enthusiastically. “Aubrey said it would help me understand them better. I wrote one last week, but it needs a little work.”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Valerie said.
“Do we get to hear it?” Aubrey asked.
Hyrum closed his eyes, biting his bottom lip as he tried to remember it.
“Sandberg says Karl comes on little cat feet.
But I see Karl and you can bet
That cats don’t like him
On account of he gets you wet
But I like Karl because he kisses my chin
And he has cold arms that tickle my skin
I ride my bike with Karl up hills and down
And he makes me smile but never frown
Karl comes and then he goes
He hugs the bridges, he touches my nose
When he goes away, I am not sad
He’ll come back tomorrow
And that makes me glad.”
Aubrey opened her mouth to offer praise—he’d worked on that poem for nearly a week and it was the first time she’d heard it—but Valerie sucked in a tight, horrified breath and nearly growled when she looked at Aubrey. “That’s the perversion you’re teaching him?”
Aubrey didn’t have a chance to answer. Valerie turned on Hyrum and kept right on going. “You cannot write about another man like that. It’s not normal. It’s not natural. I don’t care what Red has told you. I won’t have it. And look at you, dressing like a little girl, and you’re writing love poems to men.”
“For God’s sake, Mom,” Aubrey sighed.
“No. Enough is enough. I won’t have him—”
Drew threw the bedroom door open and hissed at Valerie to keep it down. The baby was just falling asleep again, and he’d had a hard night. Her jaw dropped; not because Drew had snapped at her, but because he was wearing a neon pink dress shirt and an even pinker tie.
“This is what I’m talking about. The example—”
Drew didn’t care. “What the hell?”
“Hyrum wrote a poem about Karl,” Aubrey explained. “She took offense.”
Drew’s ire faded. “Karl? Sweet. Hyrum, can I hear it?”
“Stop encouraging his perversion!”
Hyrum stood up, tears in his eyes, and he ran past Drew, slapping his half-closed bedroom door open.
“How the hell is poem about fog perverted?” Drew asked. “That’s what you scared my son over? Fog?”
Breakfast was over, whether Valerie was done eating or not. Aubrey grabbed the plates and put them, none too gently, into the sink. “It could have been a poem about a friend. Why would you think it was anything more?”
“Karl,” Valerie started.
“Locals named the fog Karl centuries ago. He was so happy when he learned about it. It led to a discussion with Will and Jax about life here in the twentieth century and made him understand there’s a link between literature and history.” She stopped when Hyrum stomped out of his room, paper in hand, tears streaming down his face.
He thrust it toward Aubrey. “What’s wrong with it?”
Aubrey kissed his forehead gently. “Nothing. It’s a wonderful poem, sweetheart.”
Drew took the paper from her and read it. “Hy, this is amazing. You totally got it, how everyone who lives here thinks of the fog as a treasured friend. I’m proud of you. This took a lot of work.”
“I don’t write about bad things,” Hyrum said to his mother. “Even if I wrote about another boy, that’s not bad. You should know that by now. I’m not bad. I’m not.”
There were careful footsteps on the stairs, and I looked past Drew. Eli slipped into the living room and sat on the far end of the sofa, lost in shadows. He saw that I’d noted him and held a finger to his lips.
Valerie jabbed her pointy finger at Hyrum. “Enough is enough is enough. You’re going home with me.”
“What?” Hyrum looked to Aubrey.
“Don’t look at her,” Valerie ordered. “I’m your mother, Hyrum. She’s your sister.”
Hyrum’s hands went to his chest, fingers knotted together. He wound and unwound them, repeatedly, choking on tears until he managed, “Are you really? My mother?”
Valerie flinched. “Of course I am. What are you thinking?”
“I see other mothers, how they are with their babies. How Aisha is. Even how Oz is with baby Eli. And Aubrey with Oz and Zed even though they’re grownups now.”
“Moms protect their babies no matter how old they are. You never protected me. You didn’t even want me until you had to move out of Spencer’s back yard.”
“Hyrum,” she repeated, angrily.
“Daddy hurt me. He hurt me all the time. You never stopped him, and you could have. You could have stopped him from hurting Aubrey, too.”
Valerie got to her feet. “Stop the nonsense, Hyrum. You’re leaving with me. Period.”
“You knew what he was doing to Aubrey before I was even born and you could have stopped him. You never did anything. You could have told your daddy and he would have stopped it, but you didn’t. When he started punishing me, you didn’t do anything.”
“I couldn’t have.”
“You changed the sheets on the bed under the stairs,” he wailed. “You kept that little room clean. You helped him. Why didn’t you stop him?”
“I was terrified of Levi,” she said, still angry. “I wanted to stop him.”
Hyrum placed his hands on the table. “Tell Aubrey how you could have stopped him. The very first time you knew Daddy touched her, you could have. Tell her!”
“Sweetie,” Aubrey said, gently.
“No. You didn’t have to get punished. Neither did I. And it hurt.” Hyrum was sobbing hard now. “It hurt so much.”
“I know.” Aubrey’s voice was soft, and only for him. “Mom couldn’t have stopped him. Daddy was the head of the family. He was the head of everything in Florida, and there was no one for her to turn to. No one else would have listened to her.”
She wanted to reach for him, to soothe him, but his hands and arms were turning red and little wisps of smoke curled around his fingers.
“Tell her, Mom. Tell her how you coulda done it. Tell her!”
Drew risked the burn and pulled Hyrum’s hands off the table, ignoring the quarter inch deep mark burned into the one-hundred-year-old wood. “It’s all right, Hy. Aubrey is right.”
Still red, Hyrum’s hand shot forward and he grabbed his mother’s wrist. “If you won’t tell her, then show her.”
When he let go, Valerie’s wrist was bright red, with tiny blisters covering where he’d held onto her. Aubrey lunged for her mother, trying to drag her to the sink, ordering her to get cold water on the burn, but Hyrum barked, “No. She can fix it by herself.”
“Hyrum, no,” Drew whispered.
Valerie covered the burn with her other hand. “It’s all right. It’s not half as bad as it looks.”
“Fix it,” Hyrum growled.
“I’m not hurt.”
“You’re burned and I did it on purpose,” Hyrum said. “I’ll do it again, until you show them.”
She jabbed her finger at him again. “Living here has turned you rude and disrespectful.”
“Aubrey,” Drew whispered. “Look at her wrist.”
“All you had to do was put your hand on his chest when he was sleeping,” Hyrum said. “You could have frozen his heart. That’s how you do the thing. Your thing. You have a thing just like me.”
She tried to deny it. While Aubrey inspected her wrist for blisters and found none, Valerie claimed Hyrum had been reading too many books and was only using his imagination. He hadn’t hurt her.
“Nuh. I remember. When Lazybones was old and sick and Daddy wouldn’t let you take him to the vet on account of he was going to die anyway, you put him on the table and told him he was a good boy and you loved him. Then you put your hand on his chest, and he died. I picked him up to take him so Red could bury him, and he was so cold. His chest was frozen. And I saw you lots of times fix yourself when you burned your fingers cooking, but I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want Daddy to throw you away and he would have.”
“Mom?” Aubrey choked.
“You coulda stopped his heart the same way you did Lazybones’ the first time he touched Aubrey, but you didn’t. You knew he did it and you didn’t do anything.”
“You wouldn’t have been born—”
“I don’t care! Daddy hurt us. It hurt more than anything else, even when I broke my arm. You helped him!”
“I hated that man,” Valerie seethed. “I hated him and wanted him dead. But the Lord—”
“Jesus woulda understood. He loves us. I know you hated Daddy but you coulda stopped him. You really hated him, so I don’t know why you want me to live with you again on account of you don’t much like me, either.”
“Hyrum, I love you.”
“But you don’t like me. You see him when you look at me. You think God did this to me to punish you for all the things Daddy was doing that you didn’t stop. And you want me to be a little boy so you can tell me what to do, and I’d never have any fun and I’d never get to have a job, on account of keeping me stupid feels like hurting Daddy.”
Valerie slapped at the table, her hand landing on the burn marks. “You’re leaving. That’s it. I am your mother—”
“Aubrey is more my mom than you,” he said.
Spittle shot from Valerie’s lips as she shouted, “Go to your room and get your things!”
Hyrum stood up straighter. “No.”
He saw her hand shoot up and stepped out of the way, refusing to be hit.
“Hyrum Charles Munson.”
“Nuh. I’m a Blackshear now.”
“Goddammit, Hyrum, do what I say. I’ve had enough of this nonsense and you’re going home.”
“This is my home.”
Aubrey tried to say something, but she was crying and nothing came out. I heard the sofa creak, and Eli went to her, kissing her temple, whispering that it was all right.
“Eli,” Valerie started.
I’d seen Eli stare like that before, at a meeting with the Russian president. He silently willed the man to push his agenda just a little harder, to get one toe over the line that led to war. Instead, he took a step back, because Eli meant it; he would rip Russia to shreds if he had to.
Valerie took a step back, as well, unsure that he wasn’t about to let go of Aubrey and come after her.
He let her stand there, fear percolating, with no one to comfort her.
“Valerie,” he finally said. “You are no longer welcome in this home. I want you gone by noon.”
His voice cut through the fear. “I’ll leave when Hyrum has gathered a few things,” she scoffed.
“I don’t think so. He’s given you his choice, and his choice is to remain here.”
“He’s ward of the King,” Drew added. “Only Jax gets to say where he goes.”
Eli shook his head. “Hyrum is a ward of the King, but he’s free to go at his choosing.” He glared at Valerie. “However, by the rules of your own culture, I have the final word.”
“Jax,” she sputtered.
“Jax is King and rules over the United Kingdom, but I am the eldest male Blackshear. I find your traditions repulsive and archaic, but I will use them as I damn well please, and Hyrum is a member of this family. He stays.”
“Ask Red,” Hyrum started.
“Oh, to hell with that useless, pretentious prophet. Hyrum Charles Munson—”
Eli cut her off again. “No. Son, you are not obligated to your father’s name.”
“I don’t know what that means,” he admitted.
Eli said he was tired of the nonsense and it hurt him every time Hyrum was upset by the burden of his mother’s whims and his father’s legacy. “You are a Blackshear in everything but name, and I would like to change that.” Hyrum blinked, trying to understand. “If there are no legal roadblocks, I want to adopt you. Give you my name, officially.”
Will’s voice drifted from the entryway. “If he cannot, I will.”
“Or I will,” Drew said. “There’s nothing to stop me if Jax thinks either of them can’t.”
Hyrum ignored Valerie’s strangled cry. “You mean you would adopt me like you did Will?” he asked Eli. “Can I keep my mom even though you would be my new daddy? Could Red still be my brother? And Spencer and Joe?”
“My parents are still my parents,” Will reminded Hyrum.
“I want you to have my name,” Eli told him. “And with that, both the title I would have given you at birth, and all the protections that come with being a member of the House of Blackshear. Your siblings are still your family.”
“This is ridiculous,” Valerie said. “He’s an adult.”
“Then damn well start treating him like it!” Aubrey shouted. “And shut up. Just…shut up.”
“Would I have to move downstairs with you?” Hyrum asked.
“You would break my heart if you did,” Aubrey said. “Nothing has to change, sweetheart.”
“Could I still go visit mom?”
“Of course,” Eli said.
“I love you, Mom,” Hyrum said. “But I really want Eli to be my dad. I never had a daddy that loved me before and Eli loves me.”
“Always,” Eli said.
Tears spilled over her lashes, but she nodded. There was no victory, no remote chance that Hyrum would ever leave Pacifica with her, and she felt the weight of that press her into a chair at the table.
“Show Aubrey your thing,” Hyrum said. “You don’t gotta be afraid of it anymore. I’m not afraid of mine.”
She was at a loss about how she could demonstrate her gift. Hyrum plucked an orange from the fruit basket and handed it to her. She wrapped frail fingers around it and squeezed, and within seconds it was withered and frozen solid.
She handed the orange to Aubrey. “I could have killed him while he slept. I was terrified. They would have found out, and my father— I swore to him I would never tell anyone.”
Aubrey turned it over in her hand, squeezing, the peel not yielding to pressure. She blinked, finally understanding what Hyrum meant, then set the orange on the table and pushed past everyone, disappearing into the guest room. A minute later, she was on her way out, shoving things into the bag Valerie had brought with her. She handed it to Will, not looking at her mother.
“Take her home. Just—deposit her into her living room and come right back. Don’t give her the courtesy of listening to any more explanations.”
Without a word, Will reached for Valerie’s arm, tapped at his jump bracelet, and they vanished.
Hyrum stood by the table, staring at the marks he’d made, eyes filling with tears. He didn’t hear the tiny feet on the stairs, nor did he turn when Rhys ran into the apartment, looking for Will. Rhys felt the tension, though, and he ran to Hyrum, climbing on the chair to get his attention. When Hyrum still didn’t look at him, Rhys climbed on the table and stood where he couldn’t be ignored.
“Let me kiss your head,” Rhys whispered. With a sniff, Hyrum looked up, and Rhys placed a slow, gentle kiss in the center of his forehead. “It’s okay. Your mommy loves you. She’s just…sick.”
“She was okay,” Hyrum murmured.
“No, she’s a different kind of sick. She’s got herself in a hole. Inside herself. And she’s stuck.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Hyrum whispered.
“Rhys is describing depression, I think,” Eli explained. “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she’s bipolar.”
“Yeah, but she’s also a bitch,” Rhys said sincerely. “Joe said so. Joe doesn’t lie.”
That made Aubrey snicker. She lifted Rhys from the table and kissed him, then kissed Hyrum on the cheek. “You were very brave today. I know how hard it was for you to stand up to her.”
“She coulda stopped Daddy,” he said, still whispering.
Aubrey admitted that she’d often wondered why their mother had never done anything in their defense. Her father would have killed Levi where he stood and not cared about the consequences, but now, knowing Valerie’s gift, she was angry. “I’m not sure I can see her again.”
“She’s still our mom,” Hyrum said. “We don’t have to like her, but Jesus wants us to be nice to her and give her a chance to say sorry.”
“You,” she said, kissing him again, “are a good man, Hyrum Munson.”
“You are and you know it.”
“Blackshear. I’m never gonna be a Munson again. I’m glad you ran away when you were fourteen, Aubrey. You woulda tried to stop him from punishing me, and he woulda killed you.”
“I would have taken that chance if I’d known he would turn on you.” Her voice trembled, barely above a whisper. “And I would have stayed and taken his abuse as long as it took. I wouldn’t trade you for anything, Hyrum.”
She had to run, he argued. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have married Jax, and Jax is the one who finally stopped their father from ever hurting anyone again. “I know he hurt Oz, too. But…”
“Oz would take it every time, too,” Drew said. “He didn’t hurt her as badly as he did you. He didn’t…punish her. Not like that.”
Rhys sighed dramatically. “Stop being sad. I can’t kiss everyone, you know.”
“You can if you try hard enough,” Drew teased him. He was about to grab Rhys into a giant hug, but Will popped back into the living room and Rhys lost interest in everyone else.
“Daddy! Where did you go? Was it fun?”
“I gave Hyrum’s mother a ride home,” he said, looking at Aubrey. “She had things to do today.”
“Okay. Are you sad, too? Do I need to kiss you?”
Will bent over to look at his son. “I’m fine. In fact, I’m happy.”
“Why? Did you get cookies? It’s not Sunday, but you can have a cookie if you want.”
“It’s not cookies.”
“Then why are you happy? Cookies always make me happy.”
“I’m happy because before I took Valerie home, Grandpa Eli had some good news. How would you like it if Hyrum became your uncle?”
“For real. Eli is going to adopt him, the way he adopted me, and that makes us brothers.”
Hyrum brightened considerably. “Really? We’ll be real brothers?”
“Real brothers,” Will said. “You might even be my favorite, but don’t tell Jax.”
“Hell, might be my favorite, too,” Eli snorted.
“I like that,” Hyrum said. “You would be my brother and Jax would be my brother. You can’t have too many brothers unless they’re like David.”
“David’s a dick,” Rhys said solemnly.
Hyrum still had tears in his eyes. Drew stepped over and whispered to him, “We have time before we need to be at work. Do you need to do something to calm down? We can cuddle on the sofa for a while.”
He wanted to. He twitched in that direction, and a week ago if he’d been this upset, he would have. A week ago, he had cuddled up on the sofa in Oz’s bedroom with Drew because he was tired and anxious and didn’t know what else to do. This day, however, he pulled his shoulders back and sniffed one more time.
“We got important things to do at work. If we don’t get it right, Oz is gonna kill you.”
“Only if I die,” Drew said.
Will nodded toward the door. “Go on. I’ll be there later. I imagine Eli has things for me to do this morning.”
Hyrum reached for Drew’s hand, and as they descended the stairs, I heard him ask, “Can we cuddle later? I think tonight I’ll want to.”
Drew promised they would cuddle in front of the TV, with baby Eli sleeping in his bassinette, even if they had to kick Oz out of the room. Aubrey allowed herself a bit of a smile and then dropped into her chair in the living room, struggling to not cry again.
“Valerie’s terror was not misplaced,” Eli said. “If she’d tried to kill Levi and failed, he would have publicly executed her.”
“Eli, I would have risked that a thousand times over for my children,” she said. “She had the means. She had a gift she could have used, and she didn’t. I’m not sure I can forgive her for this.”
“No one would blame you,” Will said.
“I hear a ‘but’ in there.”
Will ruffled Rhys’s hair. “Go upstairs, cowboy. Jay will be there soon and he’s bringing finger paints. You don’t want to miss that.”
He took off, clearly not wanting to miss that.
“Your time to make peace with her is limited,” Will said when he was sure Rhys was upstairs.
“How long?” she repeated sternly. “I’ve had a bitch of a day and it’s not even eight in the morning, William. Goddammit, I need to know if I have time to wade through the absolute shit pile my mother just dumped here.”
Eli barked out a laugh, which made Aubrey sigh.
“Presuming the timeline holds?” Will said. “A little over three months. In my history, Valerie Munson died from cardiac arrest in her sleep, while living in Kansas. Levi moved her from Florida a week before the bomb that ended the war was delivered. Your mother, this Valerie, never escaped Florida. We have no way of knowing if anything changed.”
“Surely her heart didn’t,” Aubrey said. “Should we warn her?”
Will’s hands went into his pockets, but he didn’t say anything.
“You already told her, didn’t you?”
He thought it was fair. He let her know her days were limited, and sincere amends would need to be made soon. “She knows that her death in my history is not a guarantee of her death in this timeline, but she was quite accepting of the notion and thinks she’s lived long enough.”
“She surely knows you can change this for her,” Eli said.
Will nodded. “I offered to take her forward. She refused, citing religious objections.”
With a sigh, Aubrey got back up. “Get the ball rolling, Will,” she told him. “I don’t care if it’s Eli, you, or Drew, but I want that adoption sewn up as soon as possible. If Jax thinks there’s a legal block to Eli, move down the line until Hyrum is legally a Blackshear. I don’t care if you invent a damned family member, but I want it done.”
Aisha came in just in time to hear Aubrey issue Will an order. She had Alex on one hip, Charlie by the hand, and Rhys trailed behind her. “All right, you apparently have other things to do today. Jay had to back out. Navi called. God knows why, but she wants to talk.”
Aubrey held her arms out to Charlie. “I can watch them.”
Aisha set Alex down. “Oh, I’m not working. I was just planning on fobbing the kids off on Will to grab a couple hours.”
“Good,” Eli said. “Then they’re mine today.” He bent over to speak to Rhys. “What would you rather do today? Stay at home with Mommy, or go to the zoo with me?”
“Can we?” He looked up at Aisha. “I like the zoo.”
“Take one, take all three,” Aisha teased.
“Perfect. While we send Will to do our bidding, I’ll grab Finn and we’ll have fun with the munchkins and you two” —he pointed to both Aubrey and Aisha— “go do something. Anything. Jump forward and play with old man Finn. Or just go spend his money. He has more than anyone needs and won’t even miss it.”
“Two hundred years,” Aisha said. “We can go get loud and sloppy drunk and not make the news.”
“Booze,” Aubrey sighed. “Absolutely. I need a drink.”
Ten minutes later, the apartment was quiet. Will headed off to speak with Jax, and then the lawyer. Eli grabbed the diaper bag, called Finn, and then ushered the three kids into the elevator. Aubrey and Aisha went upstairs to the portal and headed for Will’s birth When, laughing about shameful head-sized drinks and the possibility of running into someone who needed their tits tied together.
I stepped into the entryway and listened.
Oz must have already left with the baby.
Jay wasn’t downstairs.
I didn’t hear Zed or Sophia or any of their kids.
Other than guards, I was alone in the building.
I didn’t like it, not one bit.
I could go upstairs and get my hover cart, then chase some of the guards around. Or I could curl up on someone’s bed and sleep the rest of the morning away. I could even, if I made sure no one was looking, sneak out the cat flap near the front door and wander around Union Square.
None of it sounded fun.
I could go get Lux, and either spend the day there or bring him here to surprise everyone.
I’d promised to not sneak into the simulator, so that was out.
Maybe it was time to ask Will for a kitten that I could name Bob.
But that sounded like work.
I was about to go into Oz’s room to take a nap on the window seat. At least I’d be able to watch people down on the Square if I wanted, until sleep overtook me. But then the elevator pinged, and Will stuck his head out.
“Come on, Wick. I just realized you’d been left all alone. You can help me sort out the paperwork and put your official paw stamp on Hyrum’s adoption papers.”
I scrambled in before he could change his mind and climbed his leg to get to his shoulder.
Are we having lunch out today?
“We can. Is there something you would like?”
Not really. But I’d like to spend some of my allowance if you don’t mind going into the paper store before we eat.
“I don’t mind. What sort of paper do you need?”
Not for me. For Hyrum. There’s a tablet cover I want to get for him. I can have his name put on it. Hyrum Charles Blackshear, Esquire.
Important people have titles, Will.
“Esquire implies he’s training for knighthood. Perhaps use ‘Prince’ instead.”
Prince Hyrum Charles Blackshear, Esquire.
“Drop the esquire, Wick.”
I can’t even pick him up, Will. I’m kind of small, if you hadn’t noticed.
“You’re a smartass, you know.”
So you admit it, I’m smart.
It’s about time, Will.
I’ve only waited four hundred years to hear that.
I flicked my tail around his neck and tickled his ear. Onward, noble steed. We have a prince to adopt, and we need to get it done before the old King gets home. And then we’ll have a party, because that’s what you do when you adopt someone. Oh, and we need to stop and get some cinnamon whiskey, so we can toast Hyrum and then get him toasted. Because that’s what you do when you adopt a grown man.
Will sighed, steadied me with his hand, and sped up.
By the end of the day, Hyrum would be ours.