I hit the polished stone floor and roll neatly into a somersault that turns into a triple, landing on all fours with my claws drawn, seraphs glowing. My muscles give a vague shout of protest, trying to get a message across to me about how much I've been pushing them today, but I ignore it.
I turn around. "Like you could do better."
"As a matter of fact, I could." A tortoiseshell she-cat saunters towards me, her enhanced claws clacking on the smooth floor. A strip of leather is lashed across her face, hiding all but her crackling gray eyes, like thunderstorms are being held captive in her irises.
"We're parabatai, Britt," I counter. "You can only do as well as me in anything."
"Psh. We both know that's not true." She yanks off her mask. She lifts a paw, and the seraphs, the special sheaths all Shadowhunters wear over their claws, blaze to life. The white light dances off her face. "The sun's set, Jem."
I frown at her and look at the wall of the training room. "No windows," I comment. "I lost track of time." I'm breathing hard, my words punctuated by gasps as I suck in oxygen.
Britt's shoulder bumps mine, gentle, but firmly enough so that I have an excuse to lean against her. I give a grateful purr as my muzzle grazes her forehead. "That much is obvious. You don't have to train forever, you know. Your family might want to see you once every year or two."
I groan as I realize. "The kits must be throwing fits. Laurie and Sienna--"
"--are fine. I fed them supper and sent them to their room. They're waiting for a bedtime story."
I deactivate my seraphs. "You're the best. And the twins?"
"Fish is following Church around, listing reasons he would make a better Head of the Institute than him. Liv is being her sweet, angelic self, cleaning up the Hall. I told her not to work too hard, and to go to bed on time tonight."
"She will; she always does. What about Fish?"
"You know Kingfisher won't listen to me," she says ruefully. "He'll sleep when he wants."
We fall into step as we leave the training room. She gives me a wry smile, licking the side of my cheek. "Your fur is all messed up," she explains.
I yawn. "I couldn't care less at this point. I just want to sleep."
Sympathy softens her face. "I know. But we've got to make rounds."
Making rounds comes in two parts. First, we have to fulfill our duty to the Institute: as Shadowhunters, we guard and protect whatever and whoever we come into contact with. It's who we are. Church is a fantastic Head, but he's a little old for all the constant patrolling, so he leaves that to us.
Britt and I walk through the Hall and out into the evening air. "Wow. You weren't kidding," I say, looking at the sun, which is just a thin strip of orange at the edge of the earth; the rest of the sky is a dusky shade of purple-black.
"Yeah. You were down there all day. You're going to be so sore tomorrow."
I can't help laughing at that. "This is what we've done all our lives, Britt."
She shrugs. "Regardless. You can only push yourself so far."
Inside, our sheaths are loud and metallic sounding on the ground, but outside, they are completely silent. We move like ghosts, side by side, like we've been doing this since we were kits--because we have. The dying sunlight curls itself into the whorls and Markings in Britt's fur, making them glow faintly. To the untrained eye, they look like scars, but I know what they really are: the aftermath of runes. The everlasting imprint of the Shadowhunter's life: Marks for agility, strength, healing, stealth--many of which I drew on Britt myself.
Our sheaths aren't just comprised of seraphs. At the tip of one claw is a pale, glittering stele, the instrument we use to draw runes.
Of course, runes aren't to be used lightly; we only need them for real combat. Now, just making a trip around the perimeter, Britt and I are alert but relaxed. We talk in soft voices as we complete a lap of the Institute. The building we've grown up in casts long shadows over us, and I have to crane my neck to see the top of the rocky spires that cap it.
Inside, it is a maze of rooms: the main room, which we call the Hall, the training room, the Office, where Church resides, and countless chambers. Laurie and Sienna, my baby sisters, share a room, and so do the older twins, Liv and Fish. For now, anyway. I keep waiting for Fish to ask to get a separate room from his twin sister--he's become so independent, almost to the point of hostility, lately--but he remains loyal to Liv; I think he knows she'd be hurt if he chose another room.
Britt says that the five of us--I and my siblings--are as different as can be and yet all the same. I definitely understand the 'different' part. We range all over a spectrum when it comes to personality. There's Liv, gentle and gracious, with her impeccable manners and winning smile. Then there's her twin, Kingfisher, affectionately (or unaffectionately) known as Fish--who, though his gray pelt and blue eyes are identical to hers, is her polar opposite, sullen and moody and a bit antisocial--not to mention a know-it-all. He prefers objects to living, breathing cats, and he understands them better too.
Then there's Sienna and Laurie, the babies of the family. Though they still toddle when they walk, their characters are already shaping up strongly. Laurie is the bolder of the two, forever asking questions and poking her nose into things. Sienna is just as curious, but she prefers to learn through observation, and is stunningly good at it. I caught her drawing almost perfect runes in the dirt with a stick the other day.
They'll be phenomenal when they grow up, all of them. But for now, they're all my little siblings, and I have to be everything--parent, guardian, protector, teacher, mentor--to them.
Even if I fail at it sometimes.
"Thanks for taking care of the kits, again."
"What, you act like I haven't known them since they were born." Britt scoffs, offended by my gratitude, like I knew she would be; it's not something she expects to be thanked for. Britt and I are, in every sense of the word, parabatai. Bound by the powerful rune we share, we took up the mantel at a young age, sure we wanted to be fighting partners all our lives. We are extensions of each other, picking up where the other leaves off, fixing each other's mistakes. If I go down in a fight with a demon, Britt is standing over me like a guardian angel, seraphs flashing so quickly they look like a lightning storm. If she stumbles, I pick her up quicker than I would be able to pick myself off the floor.
The bond of parabatai is rare and precious, respected and preserved by the Shadowhunter community. Your parabatai is the other half of your soul; you are like siblings, family, best friends, all of it at once. The only relationship forbidden by the Clave is a romantic one; there has never been a clear reason presented for this, but I imagine it's a very grave one. The Clave doesn't make laws just to annoy us. Actually, Britt thinks they do, but that's another debate.
We finish securing the perimeter and head back inside, this time to the upper level where the chambers are. Time for the second part of making rounds: checking up on my extensive and dysfunctional family.
I can hear Fish shouting before I approach the kits' room. "What is he doing in there?" I grumble.
The twins are standing in the middle of the room. Laurie and Sienna are watching from their nest, eyes wide. Fish is ranting at the top of his lungs: "--and most of all, I'm sick of Jem! He thinks he's our father, but he's not!"
"Fish, don't!" Liv sounds beside herself. "You know why he grounded you. You deserved it, you know what you did. Jem tries his best, but he's not perfect."
I clear my throat loudly.
All four of my siblings swivel to face me. Fish's face tightens into an impassive knot, though his pointed chin trembles. Liv bursts into tears. Sienna crawls over to her and buries her face into her sister's leg, while Laurie squeaks indignantly at Fish, "Look what you did!"
"Having a little discussion about me, are we?" I ask, trying to keep calm.
"James," warns Britt softly. We only call each other by our real names when we're desperate to get each other's attention--or when we're seriously mad at each other.
She can see I'm hurt. Normally, I'm the one reminding her to curb her tongue, but I have a weakness the size of Fish's ego when it comes to the cats I love. I can feel the rational part of my thought being overcome by emotion. Reeling myself back, I say, "What's wrong, Fish?"
"You're what's wrong, Jem," he retaliates, his tone sharp enough to cut demon hide.
"What did I do this time?"
His blue eyes are flagrant. "Don't take that patronizing tone. I'm tired of you pretending I'm dumb. I'm incapable of making a single mistake without you acting like I've set fire to the world."
"No one thinks you're dumb, Fish. You're smarter than any of us, and you know it, you smug creep. But what you did was unacceptable and heinous and--" I step on Britt's paw before she can go any further. One of the drawbacks of Britt being like family to mine is that she treats the kids like she would her own younger siblings, and Britt isn't exactly an angel (no matter what they say about the origin of Shadowhunters).
"Then why can't I do anything? Jem keeps us holed up in here all day while he galavants about the countryside. Comes back with grand stories of killing demons, Jenna hanging off his leg like a burr in his fur."
I flush with anger. "Don't bring Jenna into this--"
"Our brother, the hero!" Fish is livid, getting really worked up now. "Our brother, defender of the helpless! Do you see me, Jem? Have you ever seen me? Me the way I am, not me growing up to be a miniature version of you like you want. I'm not Laurie and Sienna's age anymore. I'm practically grown up. I may have screwed up once, but that's all. I'm not helpless, and I don't need you."
Oh, little brother. You are not grown up at all; the mere fact that you want to be proves that. Can't he see how badly I want to protect him? The world we live in is not a kind one. And I do love Fish, as he is... it's just that he is hard to love. He pushes me away and turns on me whenever he gets upset, as if he's afraid that he can avoid disappointing me by making me hate him instead. So fierce and independent and intelligent, yet so vulnerable and afraid of what others--his family in particular--think.
"He means," says Liv in a small voice, "he doesn't need you in that way. He still needs you. We all do."
For the first time, Fish loses his temper with his beloved sister. "FOR THE ANGEL'S SAKE, SHUT UP, LIV!"
She reels back like he hit her, so shocked that she stops crying. She's simply frozen, in horror and disbelief. Britt walks over to her and draws her close, looking at Fish like he's hellspawn.
"Kingfisher, if you can't treat us with more respect--"
"Go spit on your own head, Jem. I'm done with this family," growls Fish. "Useless." I'm not sure if he's talking about how he feels or how he feels about us. He stalks out of the room. I hear him stomp away and then hear the sound of stones creaking; he's gone to the Office, where he'll no doubt hide out with Church till we've all gone to sleep.
"Let him be. He needs to calm down," says Britt, stroking Liv's back with her tail.
Liv draws away. "I'm going to bed," she says in a strangled voice, and leaves the room.
Gazing after her, Britt says, "Why are toms such--"
"Britt," I say in a warning tone, casting my eyes towards the kits.
She wrinkles her nose. "Liv and Fish need each other. They're more than twins--they balance each other out."
"Like us?" I suggest.
"Well, we can still fight. Argue. We do."
"That's true, but in my defense, there isn't a cat alive who could be around you and not fight with you."
"Ha-ha, you're so funny," Britt says dryly. "But you know what I mean. Fish is all but cruel to everyone else, but have you ever seen him snap at her like that?"
"No. Something's wrong," I agree. "But the Angel himself is more likely to stop by for evening-meal than Fish is to confide in me. We used to be close. Now I think he hates me."
"He resents you. He's envious of you. He's angry at himself for what he did to get grounded. But he doesn't hate you. He could never. Sometimes we push away the cats we love most. Jealousy, longing we push down: it's like rock turned to lava. And we become volcanoes. You know what they do."
"Longing for what? Fighting demons isn't all it's cranked up to be."
"Sure it is," she says, eyeing her sheath with delight. Nothing ignites Britt like the thought of killing things.
"Whatever. I hope he gets out of this phase quickly. He's a bad influence."
She frowns. "He's also your brother. Don't pretend he's any less."
"Britt, I can't deal with--"
"I know. I know how stressed out you are, all the time. I see it, Jem. Your eyes, your face--you're always so exhausted, so drawn."
I raise my eyebrows. "Are you saying I'm ugly?"
Ignoring this, she says, "But somehow, you've got to hang onto it all. Each one of them, they all have to be as special and loved as they've ever been. You have to be it all."
I swallow. "Me. Just me."
Britt shakes her head. "Never. It's never just you. We are parabatai."
I will never understand how someone can be the most beautiful cat you know and simultaneously the most annoying.
Jenna's voice usually lightens my mood considerably, but today I haven't heard a single word she's said. She finally realizes it and stops walking, turning to face me with a cold look in her eyes. "If you didn't want to, you didn't have to come on a walk with me."
I try to make myself focus on her face. "What? No, it isn't that."
"What's wrong, Jem? I've asked you four times already and you've evaded me each time."
She's right. Even now I can feel the urge to pull my eyes away from her sharp amber gaze, to hide.
I care about Jenna. I really do. She's been my girlfriend for about four moons, and they've been wonderful. She has too many admirable qualities to list: intelligence, wit, humor, and of course, beauty. She has pale fur the color of sand, with whitish shapes furrowed through, the ghosts of runes, and eyes the color of amber inlay. There's something fierce and alluring about her, a certain indescribable quality shining from her eyes. She reminds me of Britt sometimes. Sort of. I don't know why: maybe because they're both extremely scary and skilled she-cats who mean a lot to me, my girlfriend and my best friend.
"I've just got a lot on my mind," I mumble.
"Britt mentioned that while I was waiting for you in the Hall," Jenna admits. "She didn't say what was wrong, though."
I shrug. Bad idea. Jenna's eyebrows hit the sky. "So she knows."
It's amazing how she can make three words sound like a death sentence. I wince. "We live in the Institute together. We train side-by-side all day. She's my parabatai, for the Angel's sake. Of course she knows."
Jenna remains angry for a moment longer, her lips drawn into a tight line. Then she says, "I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Jen."
"No, it's not. I should take your mind off the stress, not make it worse." She touches her nose to my ear. "Forgive me?"
"You know I do," I say, giving her a smile. "Let's not be so serious. How about a hunt? Come on, I'll race you to the oak grove."
Britt wakes me in the middle of the night.
After quite literally spending our entire lives together, her touch is the most familiar thing in the world. And my Shadowhunter training has ensured that I will always be a light sleeper. My eyes fly open immediately, and I roll silently out of my nest. "What's up?"
She has her leather mask on, and her seraphs are alight, as if she's trapped a star in her claws. "Demon."
I groan. "Why do demons wake up at midnight? I'm trying to sleep."
"Poor baby. Didn't you spend the entire day on a date with Jenna?"
"Yeah," I admit, clumsily pulling on my mask using my teeth.
She smirks pitilessly. "You must be exhausted."
"I am, for your information," I say in as dignified a tone as I can manage. My seraphs activate, filling the hall with witchlight. "What kind of demon?"
I swear loudly.
Britt gives me a crooked smile. Her eyes gleam with readiness. "It's a small one."
"It's a Behemoth, Britt. They come in large, jumbo, and giant."
"Well, it's only large, then."
She bolts for the door, but I call her back. "Do you want to get yourself killed? Slow down. Rune up."
"Fine, fine. You first." I feel the prick of her stele at my shoulder, a burning sensation accompanied by the feeling of strength rushing into me.
When she's done, we switch off. She sits in front of me, arching her back so I can draw properly, meticulously carving designs for strength and courage into her pelt. Her soft dappled fur parts for my stele like a curtain of water. Bent over her, my nose nearly grazing the back of her neck, her scent clouding warm and familiar all around me, her breath curling softly against my ears, I feel a rush of some intimate feeling I can't quite name. "Britt," I mumble, almost without realizing I'm saying her name. Something unnamed hovers at the tip of my tongue, unspoken.
She turns to look at me, and for a second her expression mirrors that intangible ache in my own heart. Then the look is gone, so quickly I doubt it was there in the first place. The fervor of battle shines in her like a fire. Her gray eyes are like those of a war goddess's.
We bound out of the Sea Institute.
Church stands outside, up on one of the pillars of stone that ring the building. "You'll take care of it?"
"I told you we would. I just needed to get Jem," says Britt easily.
Church nods. "Nothing the pair of you can't do."
"You know it." She grins ear-to-ear. A beautiful grin, but too fiery to meet head on. I think this is what a demon feels like when it looks at an angel.
The night welcomes us with open arms, glowing seraphs and all. The forest is much louder than we are; we are truly shadows as we flit through the trees, clearing bushes in bounds and swerving around boulders and fallen trunks.
The foul stink of the demon hits me before anything else, rotten and decaying. I slow my pace. Britt doesn't.
"Hey," I hiss. "We've got to see where it--"
Something loud crashes into a tree up ahead. I hear the death-scream of a small, hapless animal.
"Found it," Britt says smugly. She charges.
I mutter a horrible word or two about her and go after her.
The number one thing you need to know about Behemoths is they're ugly. Really ugly. Monstrous. Semi-corporeal, they are boneless and sluggish, able to disappear and rematerialize up to several yards away. Unfortunately, this makes them seriously hard to kill.
Britt is like a phantom of death as she launches herself through the air. She lands seraphs first, gouging an enormous hole in the Behemoth's side. Blue-black blood bubbles up like wet tar, filling the air with an even worse stench.
"Fake-out!" I call to Britt. She nods to show she's heard me, and dances out in front of the demon. Though it's wound is already closing up, it can't resist revenge. It lunges towards her, it's gaping slit of a mouth falling open to show its endless rows of serrated teeth. Britt stands her ground as I leap behind the demon and dig my seraphs deep into its form.
It undulates beneath me, wriggling viciously. Flecks of sticky spit splatter my pelt, stinging my skin like acid. I don't let go, knowing that if I do it will transport itself elsewhere to escape. Britt whirls on it, her seraphs a blur of hot white light. They clash like metal, ringing through the air, and then she slices through the blubberous form.
The demon is staggering, but it's far from down. Even the worst of its wounds are beginning to close. I snarl and roll off as it shakes me loose. It disappears.
"There!" Britt points; somewhere to our left, I hear something heavy thump the ground.
We race towards the noise. The Behemoth is there, almost as good as new. "Hey Ugly! We got better things to do with our nights than hanging with you!" shouts Britt.
The demon swings its eyeless head towards her as if it understands her. Britt speaks the universal language of Piss-Off-Everyone. I gulp and prepare myself to save her. I dart in front of her and raise my claws, sinking them deep into the wriggling mass of demon flesh. "Yech," I mutter as hot liquid sprays my face.
"Yo, he didn't ask for a demon blood facial!" says Britt angrily, shoving me aside as she unleashes her anger.
"Can we save the trash talk?"
"Trash!" Her eyes light up. "Yes, you are trash, you Behemoth mammoth piece of crow-food!" Splurk. Her seraphs are stuck in the demon.
I groan as the Behemoth rears back in pain, pulling Britt along with it. "Hang on!"
"Oh, great advice, Jem! I thought it might be a good idea to let go and be squashed into a demon-acid-digested pancake."
I swear, if Britt ever did die, her corpse would still be spewing sarcasm.
Using my teeth, I unclasp my sheath and slide it off my paw. The seraph tips are still glowing. I reel back, coiling all my muscles, and fling it as hard as I can.
It sinks into the Behemoth's head--or where a normal creature's head would be--and slices it off. My sheath falls, drenched in black blood. The demon falls, too, headless and fountaining blood like a volcano. It explodes into a heavy cloud of dust as its vanquished form returns to its home dimension, wherever that might be. Britt is left lying in the dirt.
I run towards her as she begins to stir. Blood runs down the side of her head, and she fell the wrong way on a rock that carved away a slice of her skin on her shoulder. I mutter a half-hearted reprimand as I begin carving an iratze, the rune for healing, into her skin.
Her eyelids flutter shut in relief. She exhales softly as the runic magic takes effect. "Thanks."
"Save it. Still mad at you for how reckless you are."
"At least I have you."
"How's Jenna?" Her tone is meaningful.
"What?" I turn and follow her eyes.
My girlfriend steps out from the shadow of a large oak tree. Her amber eyes are huge with concern. "Jem?"
"Jenna? What are you doing out here?"
"Taking a walk. I couldn't sleep." Her voice trembles. "Are you okay? What happened?"
"The ugly ones. Well, actually, all demons are ugly, but the super ugly ones," explains Britt.
Jenna ignores her. They never really warmed up to each other much. "I'm glad you're all right."
"He's not. He's bleeding."
"I am?" I ask, puzzled.
Rolling her eyes, Britt raises her stele. "That was a dumb move. Throwing your sheath. Left you unprotected."
"You're welcome. I saved your sorry tail."
She snorts in derision, but her paws are gentle and warm on my skin as she draws my iratze. I let out a breath of gratitude as the pain from a wound I didn't even take note of fades. "Thanks."
Jenna approaches me, moving between Britt and I. She licks my shoulder. "I'll come back with you to the Institute, if you want," she offers.
Suddenly, undone at her soft voice, I forget any trace of annoyance. I push down my unwanted thoughts, the urge to take Britt and shake her and scream at her for putting herself in danger, the equally strong urge to draw her close and make sure she's completely safe. I focus on Jenna, my girlfriend, touchable and close and shining in the moonlight. She's what I have, what I can have. I look at her and see a possible forever, asking her to be mates and raising kits and making a home.
"Sure." I press my nose to hers. "Come on. We can have some prey, relax. Britt?"
Britt's voice is carefully casual. "Of course." She gives Jenna a tentative smile, which my girlfriend returns.
The three of us turn and head back towards the massive Institute, gleaming like a heart of rock against the glittering midnight sky.