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Living between worlds has never been comfortable, but it’s where I’ve always fit: between human and fey, illness and health, magic and reality.
I’ve spent the last six years looking for a cure for the nameless sickness eating me up. If I believed there was one out there, I would keep searching. But there isn’t, so I’ve come back home, where my past and present tangle. Come home to live . . . and to die.
But my father insists I meet Kin. He’s a healer, and determined to help, even though I’m not so hopeful anymore. But Kin isn’t what I expected, in any way. He sees me, not my illness. He reminds me of what it’s like to be alive. And I can’t help falling for him, even though I know it isn’t fair to either of us.
Kin thinks he has the cure I’ve been looking for, but it’s a cure that will change everything: me, my life, my heart. If I refuse, I could lose Kin. But if I take it, I might lose myself.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Sometimes, when the weather was just turning from autumn to winter, and the last of the late fruit was clinging to the trees, we partied in the apple orchard. The stories always talk about fey partying, and mostly those stories are true. The fey love a good revelry. They love the music and the fire and the food and the complete abandon of it all. And the apple orchard was as good a place as any to do it. It belonged to my father, and I’d laid the glamour on it myself. It was hidden, tucked away, the perfect place to get lost, let go.
Most nights when I went to the fey parties, I enjoyed myself. Everyone pretended a bit at those gatherings. I could be someone else there. Or no one. I got a few sideways glances, and most of the fey still kept their distance. But I could be lesser there. Or more. The fey let me pretend for a while that I was a whole thing, not a creature living in two worlds. That I wasn’t my father’s son. I loved being able to disappear into the fey, become invisible. There was a freedom in it I found almost nowhere else.
But sometimes, I hated them. Sometimes even the sneakiest glances were like weights, levered against me. Sometimes I didn’t want to be anywhere near the fey, didn’t want to spend my midnight hours in the middle of a cold, damp apple orchard, no matter how beautiful the music was. No matter how much I liked the way the bonfire turned the trees’ branches red and gold. Sometimes I just wanted to be home, curled in my bed, warm and alone and safe. But some of the fey found it easier to deliver messages to me here, make requests, and it was my job to listen.
I stood at the edge of the lit area, close enough that I could see the fire in the middle of the little clearing, but deep enough into the dark between the trees that no one tried to pull me forward to dance. I switched from resting on one foot to the other. The ground was frosted over, the weather far colder than it should have been for this time of year, for this place. Even my leather boots couldn’t keep the chill from seeping in, not when I was standing still like this, away from the warmth of the fire and the fey, my back against the old tree’s gnarled trunk.
A tiny woman appeared at my elbow. Her head barely came up to the middle of my chest, and I was not a tall man. Her hair was a wild puff of blond curls, frizzy and disarrayed but downy. The way it fell over her shoulders, soft and flyaway, made me want to touch it. She wore a thick sweater, holes here and there in the weave of it letting the cold air in. Her feet were bare.
“You should dance,” she said, her voice high and breathy. She ran a hand down my arm, her fingers stretching like claws over the leather of my jacket, catching on it the same way the bark at my back did.
I shook my head. “What do you need?”
She turned her face away and watched the dancers. For a long time, she said nothing, but I didn’t need to remind myself to be patient. I was used to the way the fey got distracted, lost track of conversations. I waited, letting my body go still so she wouldn’t think I was restless.
“Saben wants you,” she said at last, her voice rising and falling in strange places. “And I need two copper pocketknives.”
I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “What for?”
The woman turned her head and smiled at me, her eyes just a tiny bit unfocused. “For coring apples.”
I didn’t get any more out of her after that. Her mind was caught in the music, in the flutes and fiddles and the pulsing beat of the drums. I glanced around for Saben, but either her messenger had mixed up her times, or Saben hadn’t bothered to wait for me, because she wasn’t there. I admit I didn’t search too hard. I wanted to leave.
I didn’t go straight home, though. I had to drive through the center of the city to get back to my house, tucked out of the way and far from my father like it was. It was the weekend, and the streets were packed, people walking to and from clubs and bars and restaurants, arms around each other, faces lit up, maybe a bit rosy-cheeked from drinks. It all seemed so far away from me. I was still wrapped up in the fey, their music stuck in my mind, calling to me, just like it’d called to Saben’s messenger.
I wanted to get it out of my head, the lot of it. I found a place to park, not far from a few of the clubs. I picked one at random and ducked inside. The room opened onto a bar and a few tables. There was another door off to the side, a bouncer standing in front of it. I paid him the cover, and he opened the door so I could walk down a steep set of stairs, narrow slats that caught at my boots. I stopped halfway down, squashing myself to one side so I wouldn’t block anyone, and glanced around the room.
It was darker down there, of course, and warmer. The shadows were highlighted with bright flashes of pink and purple and blue, sparks of light that came and went. They illuminated just enough that I could make out the mass of people, all tangled together on the dance floor. The music was something thumpy and deep and electronic. It pushed at me, made my heart beat faster, but in a way that was totally different from the fey music. This sound, this place, wasn’t forcing me into anything. I was being asked.
I wasn’t sure that I had the energy to join the crowd, but I wanted to be near them, near all that humanity. I made my way down the rest of the stairs and around the edge of the dancers, dodging people who were too lost in themselves to watch where they were dancing. I found an empty spot against one wall, and I tucked myself into it, pressing my back against the concrete. Blending in so I could watch. So I could lose myself in a completely different way than I usually did with the fey.
I let my gaze drift around the room, stopping whenever I saw someone who caught my attention. There were fey here too. I’d expected it—they loved to party, no matter where the party was taking place, and there were more than a few who had no problem interacting with the human world. No humans would notice if they weren’t searching for something out of the ordinary. The fey glamours were good. But my eyes snagged on hair that was too feathery, glittery skin, the soft flutter of wings, all of which could have been a costume or my imagination, but weren’t. I ignored them. They didn’t really matter anyway. They weren’t there to see me, and I wasn’t there to see them. And this place, for once, was more my world than theirs.
I swayed back and forth with the music and the flickering lights. The crowd moved in a lazy way, and I watched them in a lazy sort of way. I wasn’t looking for anyone in particular, didn’t even expect to stay long. I just wanted to be part, even a fringe part, of something different, for a few minutes.
My eyes snagged on a bright-blue shimmer. I turned my head, searching for whatever it was I’d seen, that deep-aqua light. It sparkled again, and I saw the boy, the man, it had come from. He was maybe a bit taller than me, his skin lightly tanned, his hair long and black and straight, loose over his shoulders. The sparkle had come from the flecks of glittery color at the corners of his eyes, across one cheekbone, down the side of his neck. He raised his hands over his head, and I saw splashes of green, shining and catching the lights of the club.
If I hadn’t known, if I wasn’t always so aware of things that were different, I would have thought the shimmer was makeup or some elaborate jewelry. But I’d spotted the other fey in the crowd, and I knew this man was one too. I wanted to turn away. I’d come to get away from all things otherworldly, not to latch on to it, even in this indirect way. But I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was sleek and graceful and beautiful.
He didn’t act like the other fey. Fey don’t seem self-conscious, to the outside observer, but they are. They always want to be noticed, want someone to be staring at them, watching them, falling in love with them. Most of the fey I’d spotted in the club were either clustered together, doing their damnedest to attract attention, or they were wooing some poor unsuspecting human. Or both. But this man was solitary. He was dancing with his head thrown back, his eyes closed, his arms lifted. He didn’t focus on anyone, and he danced by himself. He was in the middle of the crowd, and it was as if he was absorbing the energy of the music and the people around him through his skin, pulling it in, but he wasn’t trying to move closer to anyone.
While I watched, a girl bumped into him. He opened his eyes and looked down at her, laughing and waving away her apology. She smiled back at him, and gestured to the gaggle of young men and women around her. An invitation if I’d ever seen one. But the man with the glitter on his skin smiled again, a little gentler, and shook his head. The girl shrugged and drifted back into the crowd. The man twisted his body, a sinuous flick of movement that pushed him in the opposite direction. While he drifted away, he glanced up, and his eyes met mine.
He didn’t smile at me like he’d smiled at the girl. His shoulders went a little straighter, though, and he held my eyes. He was still swaying to the music. He should have had to break our stare sooner. But we watched each other for long seconds. I took him in, the black hair falling in his eyes, the slender line of his throat, the splashes of color across his skin. Scales, I thought. Like fish scales or snake scales, chips of blue and green and purple. He was as beautiful as I’d thought, lithe and elegant. I wondered if he’d keep staring at me. I wondered if he’d come over. Or if I’d go to him. I almost wanted to, wanted to press myself against him, feel the way he moved while he danced. My heart beat harder in my chest, hard enough that I could feel its rhythm over the thump of the music.
A group of people danced between us, blocking him from my view. I looked down, and when I looked back up, he was gone. I could have searched for him, waited until I caught sight of his colors again. But I didn’t let myself. I shook my head and inched my way back around the crowd. I was tired and achy, and I’d seen something better than I’d planned. It was time to go.
* * *
My sister, Saben, was staying in an apartment near the outskirts of the city, where there was less iron in the air. It was still more iron than she could handle, and she didn’t belong there, but she pretended it didn’t matter. I didn’t know why she was doing it. Maybe so she could prove something to me, or to our father, or to herself in her mind. It was all a guess to me, and it didn’t matter much, anyway. She wasn’t really any of my business.
When I got to her apartment, the door was ajar, and I pushed it open the rest of the way, letting myself in. Saben was standing in the kitchen. She spun toward me, no surprise on her face, like she’d already known it was me before she even saw me. Her arm lifted.
“What’s this?” she asked, holding an object out to me.
I squinted at it. “A kettle.” I couldn’t blame her for not knowing. It was one of those artsy, modern types, with more angles than any kettle really needed. And the fey didn’t really deal in kettles anyway.
She set it back down on the stove and watched me while I took in her apartment. It was small, just a tiny living room and kitchen, and a bedroom I couldn’t see. I knew her rooms at our father’s house weren’t much bigger, but they felt bigger, more opulent and airy, the curtains always thrown open to catch a breeze, the puffed pillows pleasantly chilly when you lay down against them, the carpets thick and stark white. This place was cramped and dingy, gray, and a bit too warm with the afternoon sun coming in through the window. But Saben didn’t seem to notice. She considered it with me, and although she didn’t smile, her face lit up a little as if she actually liked what she saw.
“Where are the apples?” I asked. She squinted her eyes at me. I shook my head, dismissing the question. “I have the knives for your errand girl,” I said, and pulled them from my pocket to put them on the counter.
“She said you wouldn’t dance.”
I flicked my eyebrows up. “I wouldn’t.”
“Saben. What do you want?”
She narrowed her eyes, her mouth clamping into a tight line, and I looked away. I remembered when she was small. I remembered when she was milk thistle fuzz I could hold in my hands. She had been soft and agreeable and I’d loved her.
“What?” I repeated.
She straightened her spine, stretching every vertebra, even though, as inadequate as my own height was, she would never quite reach it. The fact of my height didn’t stop her from pretending we were eye to eye, though. “Father wants you to do something.”
I didn’t even need to listen to what it was. “Get one of your girls to do it,” I answered right away. “Or one of your boys.”
“You have to do it.”
“It’s not a job.” Her voice was flat.
“What is it, then?” It hadn’t always been this way between us. I hadn’t always been forced to pry information out of her like I was pressing water from stone.
“He wants you to see someone. A witch.” She frowned. “Or maybe not a witch. A healer. A person who fixes things.”
I just kept myself from laughing. “A doctor?”
She shrugged, a short, sharp rise and fall of her shoulders. Her hand snuck out, and she touched the handle of one of the knives I’d laid on the counter. “No. Yokai.”
“Fey. From Japan. Father thinks he knows things our healers don’t. He wants you to go.”
I should have guessed. “Why didn’t he tell me himself?”
Saben shrugged again, apparently uninterested in the question or the answer. “Busy.”
Sometimes when we talked, when we were together, I thought she would act like a human. Normal. Sometimes I thought she’d take down her walls and smile at me, or touch my hand like she’d done as a child, or complete a sentence in a way that didn’t drip with how high-class fey she was, with how different from me she was. But she never gave me an inch. She hadn’t for a long time.
I turned my head to the side and coughed into my palm, and from the corner of my eye, I almost, almost thought I saw her face flicker out of its stillness. Her hand folded into her dress and twisted the soft fabric into a knot.
It was bad timing on my part, to cough right then. It meant I couldn’t argue. Not when it was obvious that a person who fixed things was exactly what I needed.
I sighed and tried to figure out what to say to get myself out of this. “I told him I wasn’t going to do this anymore. That when I came home, I was done.” I’d been gone for years, had traveled pretty far, searching for healers, for answers. I hadn’t spent all of that time searching, that was true. A lot of it had been spent living, because there wouldn’t always be much time for me to do that. I’d spent those years getting lost, pretending I was someone else, someone whole in all the ways I was half. But I’d searched too. It was why I’d gone, and I had wanted an answer.
I hadn’t made it to Japan. But I doubted that mattered. I’d come home because there wasn’t anyone who could do what I needed. It didn’t matter where they were from or what kind of healing they did. And there wasn’t anywhere on the planet that could make me someone else, either. So I’d come back.
Saben’s lips flattened into a thin line, and she glared at me, but I was used to that too.
“He wants you to go.”
She raised her eyes, too fast. I stared at her, waiting, but she didn’t say anything. Didn’t shrug or nod or shake her head. She just stared back at me.
“You want me to go,” I said, slowly, “so you can tell him you did as he wanted and made me.” Her eyes flickered away from mine at that, and I nodded. “You said it wasn’t a job. But it is. It’s a job for me. Right?”
She didn’t answer, but it didn’t matter. I would go, because she’d delivered me a message, and my job was to follow those messages, whatever they were. I wasn’t her brother. I was her errand boy. I found her pocket knives to core apples with. I touched iron when her people couldn’t. I told her about kettles. I did as she told me.
Saben didn’t know much about the healer at all, except that he was here in the city, that he’d come up from a short ways south, apparently because there was more for him to do here. That he was a yokai and a man. That my father had heard about him through whatever fey grapevine he was tapped into and decided I needed to go. She didn’t know where this healer slept, where he lived, who he was aligned with in the fey world. She had set up a meeting through some of her people, the string of young fey who trailed around after her, so she’d never even spoken to him.
I was supposed to meet him in a park. It was a big park, with lots of tucked-away spots to get lost in, and it was neutral territory. Clever, but most fey were interested in taking care of themselves above all else, so it wasn’t really surprising. Saben told me to go in the afternoon, didn’t even give me a definitive time. That was more annoying than trucking it down to the park to see a fey I didn’t even really want to meet, because I knew how fey worked, how they thought of time as this malleable thing they could play with. I knew there was every chance I’d show up, and the yokai wouldn’t, and my day would be shot.
But on the other hand, it wasn’t as if I had much else to do, either.
Saben had told me to walk to one end of the park, to a tiny pond with an even tinier waterfall. The spot was hidden behind a copse of trees, and it was chilly enough in the early evening that there weren’t too many other people around. The pond had a small clearing around it, a flat stretch of grass between the trees and the water. I stood on the edge of the tree line, a glamour pulled around me to hide myself, and looked for the man I was supposed to meet.
I didn’t see anything at first, and I figured I’d been right that he would be flighty, like all the other fey I knew, that he’d forget he was supposed to meet me, distracted by something more interesting. But then there was a short splash, a spray of water from the pond, and I realized a man was swimming to shore. He rose a little way out of the water, the sun sparkling off the droplets beading on his skin. His hair was black and slicked back, showing off the long planes of his face. He shook his head, brushed his hands down his arms. Then he stepped to the bank of the pond, out of the water. He stooped and picked up a long piece of cloth and draped it around his waist. It was almost like a skirt, but not quite.
I watched him for a second. There was something familiar about him, about the graceful way he moved. He bent forward again, picking up something else off the ground, and I saw a thick line of blue-green scales running down his back. I’d seen those same scales before—not on his back, but on his face and his wrists. In the club, with the lights bouncing off them and making them shine, while he tipped his head back and gave himself over to the music.
I didn’t step out or call to him. I just dropped the minimal glamour I’d been holding, and the minute I did, he turned to where I was standing against the tree. I took a step forward.
Now that I was here, I wasn’t sure what should happen next. I’d been planning to brush him off, to do whatever it’d take to make my father believe I’d completed his task, and leave. But now this man was staring at me, and I knew that he recognized me too, remembered me from that brief, sharp stare we’d shared the night before. He didn’t make a move toward me, though. Didn’t speak. He just stood there, his back straight, his chest bare, water dripping off the ends of his hair, wetting his cheeks and his jaw and the line of his shoulders. He was so regal, so strong and lovely, as lovely as when I first saw him.
I thought of Saben and my father, the icy, excruciatingly polite high-court fey that they were. Sidhe, same as I was. They used formality and manners as weapons, always had them to fall back on, and I could do the same here. I rested my hand, tucked into a fist, against my chest and bowed.
When I rose from it, the man stepped toward me. He faced me, his shoulders back, his hands loose at his sides. He was slender, maybe small by some standards, but standing there, he was like cut glass, like copper wire. It seemed as if he’d draw blood if I touched him. Scales shimmered unevenly over his skin—along his left cheekbone, down the right side of his neck, tapering to nothing over the first two knuckles of his right hand.
He made a small bow, not as deep as mine, in my direction. I waited.
“Did you come from the sidhe court?” His English was so flawless it had to be his first language.
“You’re not Japanese.” I’d expected him to have a foreign accent, to be from somewhere that wasn’t here, but it didn’t sound like he’d come from farther than the next county over.
He shook his head once and clicked his tongue. “You’re not fey.”
“Not completely.” There was a part of me that wanted to jerk my chin up, to face him squarely, to beat him back with what I was. But I couldn’t make myself do it. He was right. I hesitated, then nodded. “I came from the court of the sidhe. My father sent me to see you. He thought . . .” I studied him, this man, tilted my head and ran my eyes from head to toe. He looked like a warrior. Not a healer. But he stayed still and let me stare, let me judge him, and it made me feel . . . better. Safer. “He thought you could help me.”
“But you don’t,” he said, and there wasn’t a question behind the words. It was just a statement.
I shook my head. “I’ve looked. I’ve been looking a long time.”
He nodded again. “Your court told me something about you. Not much.”
“Then you know,” I said, and right then, with perfect timing again, my breath caught and I coughed.
It wasn’t a little cough that I could contain, like it had been at Saben’s apartment. It was a thing that tightened and twisted and grew inside me, so that the more I coughed, the worse it was, until I thought I might expel something important. Like a lung. It hurt, deep in my chest, but the pain was a distant thing, because I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get any air in, and the panic over that blocked out every other thing in my mind. I clapped a hand over my mouth, trying to stop myself, to get control, but then I had to double over. I reached out with my other hand, blind, searching for the tree I’d been leaning against, for anything I could use to keep myself upright.
A hand cupped my elbow, and an arm wrapped around my waist, steadying me.
“Breathe through your nose.” His voice was so deep, so even, right by my ear. He was holding me up, his hands strong on me, and knowing I wasn’t about to go down let me calm myself enough that I could try to do as he said.
“Breathe,” he repeated. “In. Count.” He started counting, then breathed in with me when I did. I coughed again, but he was patient, waited, and then started counting and breathing with me again. His palm skated over my back, soothing. His touch made me want to shiver, made me want to lean into it, but I couldn’t think about it, do anything about it, while I was coughing.
It took me a few long minutes, but the coughing subsided. It always did. I knew it would. It was just frightening while it happened. I straightened, and he stepped away from me.
I pulled my hand from my mouth and wiped it on my jeans. My fingers left a rust-red streak on the fabric. I covered the spot with my palm.
“What was that?” he asked, waving his hand as if trying to encompass the coughing fit and the spot I was covering.
His jaw clenched. “I can see that.”
But I hadn’t meant it quite so literally. I meant that the coughing and the illness and the tiny streak of red under my hand were a product of my blood, my DNA. It was a product of who I was. “It’s the fey blood. The glamour, the longevity, the magic, whatever you want to call it. I don’t even really know. My fey half. It eats at my human half.”
He sighed, and I didn’t like how resigned it sounded. “It’s poisoning you.”
I raised my eyebrows and shrugged. “They didn’t tell you much about me, did they?” I was surprised, a bit. My father’s court knew about me, the oddity, the half creature that shouldn’t exist, and they liked to gossip about me amongst themselves. Maybe not so much with outsiders, though.
“No.” He raised a hand and pushed his hair back. It had started to dry, the shorter pieces in front falling into his face. “Just that you were sick.” He ran his gaze over my face, and I knew what he was trying to find. The markers, the things that would tell him what I was. The way my hair was a strange reddish-orange—fey. The lavender gray of my eyes—fey. The too-sharp points of my features, my relatively short stature, my pale freckles—all human. “They didn’t tell me you were half.”
“I’m a secret.” He was still staring at me, and there was something in his eyes that I thought was fear. I might have thought he was afraid of me, if my ego was large enough. But my ego wasn’t, and even though I didn’t know him, it was obvious by the power in his body and the way he held himself that he didn’t have anything to fear from me. And I wondered if maybe the fear had lodged in his face when I’d started coughing. If, even though he’d been so calm, I’d scared him by being so breakable.
“You’re not really supposed to know. You’re not supposed to know that a flawed thing like me was created. That my father made such a huge mistake as to fall in love with a human. No one talks about it. Or they shouldn’t.” I shrugged, very carefully. Just one small lift of my shoulder so I wouldn’t set myself coughing again. I wasn’t a very well-kept secret, but I was a secret nonetheless.
He pulled at the top of his skirt thing, and the fabric spread and unfolded, into an attached jacket he could shrug on—a kimono. He stuffed his hands through the arms and tightened the belt around his waist.
“Is it just your lungs?” He reached behind him while he asked, gathering his hair into a ponytail at the base of his neck. He dug into a pocket and came out with a tie to secure it.
I moved my head in something between a nod and a shake. That was a bigger and smaller question than he knew.
He opened his mouth and turned square to face me, like he was getting ready to coerce me into telling him, but then he paused. “What’s your name?” he asked instead.
I was surprised, because most fey don’t ask and don’t offer. A name can be useful, powerful, and it’s not something to give away lightly. But I’d grown up in the human world, for the most part, and I liked that he wanted to know. “Luca,” I told him.
I shrugged. “My mother picked it.”
He nodded. “And your mother is . . .?”
“Human,” I finished for him, the word clipped. I wanted to take in a deep breath, steady myself, but I was afraid that would start the coughing all over again. “Was.”
His face softened a little. “I’m sorry.”
I shrugged, brushing it off. “And your name?”
“Kin,” I repeated. I wrapped my arms around myself. The sun was starting to sink, and it seemed like it was getting colder by the second. “I’d like to sit down. In my car. Where it’s warm.” I probably sounded too abrupt, rude, but the coughing spell had drained me, and I couldn’t make myself be more polite. “So if you could . . .” I shrugged, because I wasn’t sure what I wanted from him.
The thing is, I’d been to dozens of doctors and healers and witch workers and shamans, human and fey. At first it had just been about trying to figure out what was happening. Then, as my sickness had gotten worse, it’d been about searching for a cure. My parents had been desperate when I was a child, and I hadn’t even been that sick yet. After I graduated high school and my mother died, my father sent me away. He couldn’t leave the city and his court. But he’d wanted me to keep searching. And for a long time, I’d wanted to keep searching too. I’d kept thinking that there must be someone out there who’d seen what it was I had, who knew someone like me. Who had an answer. Or even just something that would make me feel better. That would mean I didn’t have to be sick all the time.
It takes a long time for hope to dissolve. Long after I thought I couldn’t feel it anymore, it kept popping up. And every time it did, it made the disappointment that followed worse. I couldn’t quite get rid of the hope, though. Even now, even though Kin was standing in front of me, doing his best not to seem shocked at what I was and what that was doing to me, a little bubble swelled inside me that wanted to believe that maybe he’d be the one. That maybe this time, there would be an answer. So I didn’t know what I wanted from him. If I wanted him to try. Or if I wanted him to stomp out that bubble before it could grow into something that would shatter me.
He pulled in a deep breath. “Come back with me. I can . . . I can see what I can do.”
I should have refused him, stopped him right there. But he didn’t sound sure that he really could do anything, and that made me want to go with him. It made me want to trust him, because at least he was being honest with me. And I remembered how solid he’d been, when he’d held me up and stopped me coughing. I remembered how ethereal and lovely and wild he’d been in the club.
Kin said he could ride in my car. I didn’t really believe him. I’d never met a fey who would willingly get in a car. There was too much iron, and they’d be trapped in it. The iron wouldn’t kill them, but it made them sick when they got too close, spent too much time around it. Saben and I had tried it when she was younger—she’d wanted to celebrate with me after I’d gotten my license. It hadn’t gone well. She’d passed out, and I hadn’t been able to get her to wake up for the longest time. I’d been so afraid that I’d slapped her. When she’d come to, I’d sworn I would never take her in a car anywhere again.
I’d met fey with different tolerances to iron. Most of the brownies I knew acted like it wasn’t there, but even they stayed away from it when it was right in front of them. On the other hand, I’d seen water horses actually shy away from it, like it would attack them.
Kin laughed when I hesitated at the car, though. He swung the passenger-side door open and shook his head. “I’m not like you. Not like the sidhe.”
I blinked, but then I nodded, because that was obvious. He didn’t act, didn’t behave, like any fey I’d ever met. He seemed more human than anything, and if he hadn’t had those scales, I’d have thought he was. Maybe.
“Ningyo.” He pointed at himself.
I’d gone around to the driver’s side, but I leaned over the roof to look at him. “That’s what you are?”
He nodded. “Water fey. Except, not fey. I’m yokai. So the iron . . .” He shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me.”
“So you can ride in my car, no problem,” I said, letting a little bit of disbelief leach into my words.
He grinned at me and opened the door. “No problem.”
He had me drive to his house. It was an actual house—or maybe a condo, since it was small and smooshed up against the houses on either side—with a lock on the front door, not some abandoned, glamoured, hidden place like most of the fey used. I mean, it seemed like he was probably actually paying rent on the place, and that surprised me. Two in one day—first Saben, then Kin. It was weird for me to see these fey acting like humans. Fey pretended all the time, made out like they wanted to live the way humans did, but they never quite got there, because when it came down to it, humans and fey were different. Different species with different ideas and different ways of living. But Saben was going at it like she meant to really make it work. And here was Kin, actually living like a human, from what I could see.
The house seemed normal on the inside too. Regular furniture, a few potted plants clustered near the door and hanging in the kitchen. I’d been expecting, again, something more fey—a kitchen with all the appliances ripped out, doors and windows thrown open so the wilderness could come crawling in, leaves on the floor, holes in the ceiling. Disrepair and magic marching hand in hand, because that was what you usually got when you went where the fey lived. But this was nothing like that. Beige carpeting, boring but clean. A red couch, and a blue easy chair that didn’t match but didn’t look too bad, either. There wasn’t any art on the walls, not a lot of personal touches at all, except the plants, but the place was homey, like a work in progress. It was warm inside, and it smelled just slightly dusty. Sunlight was pouring through the windows, lighting the place up, making it airy and softening all the edges.
“I just moved in,” Kin explained, throwing his keys on the kitchen counter. He glanced back at me. He must have seen the way I was looking around, trying to find something, anything, that would tell me this was a yokai’s house and not a human’s. He smiled at me, slow and gentle and kind of knowing. “I was raised by a human—my mother, the one who wasn’t ningyo.” He turned and headed down the hall. “I’m not what you think,” he called over his shoulder.
I heard a door click shut. I waited there, in the space between his living room and his kitchen, not really sure what to do with myself. I didn’t know if I should sit or if I should give up this whole weird endeavor and sneak away while he was out of the room. But he was only gone for a minute, and before I’d decided what to do with myself, he came back down the hallway.
He’d changed out of his kimono into a pair of tight gray jeans, and he was tugging a black long-sleeved T-shirt over his head while he walked. I caught a glimpse of his flat stomach, the sleek, tan skin of his chest, before he pulled the fabric down over himself. He looked up, and I know he saw me staring, because he smiled that wry little grin again, just the corner of his mouth lifting. Something sparkled in his eyes—amusement or pleasure—and I realized all over again how lovely he was. This magical being. He was, somehow, more and less human now, dressed almost like I was, dressed like any man our age might be, but too long and lean, too beautiful, too perfect.
He watched me watch him, until whatever was building between us got too thick, too heavy, and I cleared my throat. His smile slipped away, and he gestured with a flick of his hand, asking me to follow him. He walked into the kitchen, motioning at the stools lined up at the counter. I pulled one out and sat, a little confused, while he went to the cabinet and brought down two glasses.
“Aren’t you going to . . .” I shrugged. “Examine me or something?” Healers might be different in their techniques, but they all wanted to get their hands on you, poke and prod at you, one way or another.
Kin nodded without looking around. He turned on the tap and held one glass under it, filling it. He glanced over his shoulder. “I have tea in the fridge, if you’d rather. Or . . .”
I shook my head. “Water’s fine.”
He filled the second glass, then set it in front of me. He put his glass down too, across from me, and leaned on the counter. “I can examine you. I’d like to listen to your lungs and your heart. But I’d rather you just tell me what’s happening, first. What you think. You know your body. And I’m not a doctor.” He smiled at me, gentle, maybe a little sad. “I don’t work miracles, Luca. I think your father hopes I will. But I can’t promise that.”
I liked how blunt he was. I liked how he didn’t try to coddle me or tell me everything would be okay, that he would fix everything, when we’d both have known he was lying.
“Where do I start?” I asked him.
He considered. “You said it’s the fey bits eating at the human in you.”
I lifted a shoulder, let it drop. It wasn’t a medically or scientifically sound answer. But it was the best I’d ever come up with. It was what made sense to me. Human doctors thought I had some undefined genetic disease. Fey healers had seen people like me, but few and far between. And always half. Half human and half other.
“Would you believe that?” I asked.
He pursed his lips and tilted his head to the side. “I’ve seen a lot of things. Haven’t seen many half fey, half humans, though. There must be a reason for that.”
Because they didn’t live long enough. Because they were dirty secrets. Because they weren’t supposed to exist, and there was a handy malady that made sure they didn’t for long. So convenient.
“Did you grow up with your father?” Kin asked, surprising me. I raised my face, met his eyes. He shrugged. “Your people made it seem . . . You make it seem like you’re doing this, seeing me, for him. Not for yourself.”
I sighed. When he’d said he wanted me to tell him things, I hadn’t thought it would be this kind of thing. I didn’t talk about my family. It was a practice I’d had to start as a child, when kids wanted to know where my dad was and I couldn’t tell them the truth. Or when the fey taunted me about my mother. I thought about refusing to answer. Just shaking my head, because what did it matter, in the long run, if this man knew who had raised me? But he leaned back a little, as if he’d just realized himself that he’d asked something too personal. He tightened his hands on the tile and opened his mouth, like he was getting ready to say something, to apologize or take the question back.
“Yes,” I said, stopping him. “I mostly lived with my mother. But my father took me in the summers. I was . . .” I trailed off, trying to figure out how to say this clearly, simply. “I’m an open secret. He shouldn’t have wanted anything to do with me, should have abandoned me. But he never did.” Not completely. He hadn’t lived with us, he and my mother hadn’t been a couple, and he hadn’t always been there for me as much as I’d wanted. As much as I’d needed. But he’d been there some. In the summers, I’d gone to live with him in his large, white, wild house in the woods, not that far away, really, but separate from everything I knew. I’d lived with the fey for those months, with my father and Saben, and it had been my home. They had been my home.
Kin nodded. He didn’t say anything else, just turned around and pulled a tin from somewhere. He opened it, laid it between us, and gestured at it. Cookies were piled inside, and I took one. The cookie was good, sweet and buttery and spicy. It tasted like some of the cakes I got from the brownies, when they were in the mood to feed me.
“Is this a payment from a fey? For your services?” I asked him.
He laughed and nodded. “You got fey feeding you too?”
I nibbled at the cookie. “I run errands for them.” Sometimes they fed me, cakes and pies and preserves. Sometimes they gave me a basket of peaches or a necklace that I could never wear, or a handful of iron keys I could turn in for scrap. Sometimes I got nothing. Sometimes they spilled pennies into my hands, thousands of them, and were pleased that they’d managed to pay me in human currency. It was enough, most days. I had my mother’s house, and the food the fey gave me, and their payments left me enough money that I could buy things, now and then, pay the electricity and the water bill. It was more than I’d had for a lot of my life while I was roaming, always moving, living hand to mouth. I was content enough.
We ate in silence for a few seconds, and then Kin wiped his hands on a dishcloth. “Tell me,” he said.
So I did. I told him about the coughing and the blood that had started coming up. I told him about the muscle aches, so bad some days that it took effort to get out of bed. The bruising, horrific black and purple splotches that happened when I did the stupidest things, like bumping into a table. The dizzy spells, the occasional fainting. The idea I had, sometimes, that there was something inside me, inside my chest, growing and gnawing away at me, a monster trying to eat its way out. I told him about the iron tablets I swallowed, how, when I was lucky, they seemed to subdue it, subdue the fey inside me, enough that I could get through the day without hurting as much. I tried to be quick while I told him, lay it all out like it was just a string of facts. Like it was something that was happening to someone else.
Lang uses language beautifully, evoking the deepest emotions from the simplest of phrases, and the romantic relationship is wrenching, redemptive and totally believable.
[T]here’s a simmering sensuality that’s only enhanced by their almost childlike wonder and innocence.