CHAPTER THREE - THE PRETTY LIES
"Gifted?" Nate shook his head. His vision blurred for a moment. "I'm ... not. I ..."
Emrys framed Nate's face. "You stopped the storm. You saved those people."
"That was a coincidence. That had to be a --"
"No," Emrys said. His voice was certain. It brooked no argument. "Nathaniel, you did this."
Nate stared into those topaz eyes. So many questions swirled through his mind. A ton of denials as well. But he found himself asking, "Did you -- did you start the storm?"
"If you believe I started it then you must believe that you stopped it," Emrys responded softly.
It wasn't a real answer and Nate was dissatisfied with it. He closed his eyes. The world was spinning nauseatingly. "This can't be real. Things like this aren't real." He shook his head again, but suddenly the rest of his body was shaking, too. A sickening wave rolled over him. His knees gave out and he collapsed against Emrys. "H--help."
"I've got you." Emrys held Nate up.
"W--hat's h--appening to m--e? Nate was trembling so badly that he could hardly speak. His wet clothes clung to him like a second skin and were turning ice cold.
"You're in shock and drained from mastering the storm. It will be all right, Nathaniel. I promise." Emrys lifted Nate up into his arms like the boy weighed nothing and carried him towards the house.
Nate noticed that Emrys' turtleneck was now dry as was his hair even though both had been soaked with water not moments ago. He curled tight against the other man's powerful body, needing his warmth. Emrys held him close.
"S--so cold," Nate said.
"I know. We're going to get you warm." Emrys moved swiftly as if he wasn't carrying a near six-foot boy in his arms.
Nate's head lolled back. He stared upwards as the clouds parted and a wash of stars appeared. It was so beautiful that it made him forget the cold for a moment. He could feel the stars. They called to him, plucked at his soul. He felt small and insignificant and hugely important at the same time. He gasped as a half-dozen shooting stars spun overhead.
"Do you see that?" Nate felt a surprising lump form in his throat.
"I did," Emrys said as he took the stairs two at a time up to the first tiered garden. "Everything's connected, Nathaniel. What you feel is true. Hold on to your wonder."
As the light from the pavilion washed over them and blocked out the sky Nate realized his predicament. He couldn't let Emrys bring him into the party like this. He was a mess. He needed to get a new shirt and start working. His fevered mind focused on those pedestrian ideas. They were more manageable than the vast and indifferent sky overhead that seemed to want him to become a part of it.
"I've got to w--work." His lips trembled again. He was freezing once more. Whatever reprieve the starry night had given him was over.
"You're done for tonight. You saved lives. That's far more important than busing tables and refreshing drinks," Emrys remarked gently. He carried Nate towards the French doors into the mansion.
"The boat ... those people are going to be okay ... god, what's wrong with me? I can't think!" Nate fussed even as he clung to Emrys' broad shoulders. His mind veered again to what he should have been doing. "Angela needs me to --"
"She'll understand," Emrys quieted him.
"I have to tell her I'm leaving. I need Daniel --"
"Daniel?" There was a lilt of something like jealousy for a moment in Emrys' voice.
Nate took a second to process the fact that Emrys might be jealous, let alone jealous of Daniel. That was almost funny, but he bit down on the inappropriate laughter that wanted to spill out. "Daniel's my best friend. He drove me here. I don't have a car."
Emrys' arms tightened around him. "Foolish boy. I'm going to take you home."
"Oh," Nate said. He knew he sounded like a dork, but he couldn't think of anything else to say. Pumping his fist in the air seemed wrong. At the same time his mind kept fluctuating between what he had done with the storm, which was unbelievable and then the unreality of being in Emrys' arms.
"Almost there, Nathaniel. Just hold on," Emrys said.
Nate's eyelids were getting heavy as Emrys pushed open the French doors with his shoulder and brought them into the warmth of the house. Nate hissed as the heat hit him. He shook again. His body had gone numb. Now it was tingling painfully.
"I know. I know. It's all right." Emrys set him down on a divan that was on the side of the hall.
Nate let out a moan and reached for the other man. His hands were so cold they looked more like claws. "Where are you going?"
"My coat. My keys are in it and it'll help keep you warm. One moment, Nathaniel, and we will have you in my car," Emrys promised then he moved down the hallway to where the coats were being kept in a room near the front doors.
Nate drew his knees up against chest. He had a feeling his shoes were probably leaving mud on the silk upholstery, but he couldn't seem to care at that moment. He wrapped his arms around his legs and just held on as he shook. Angela's voice rose up from around the corner as she ordered someone to pick up the dirty glasses and take them to the kitchen. Nate's his head lifted off his knees as Angela stepped into the hall. She was staring down at her tablet, but as if she sensed his presence, her head turned towards him. Just then Emrys appeared with his long black dress coat in his arms. She started as she took in Nate's appearance. But as always, she recovered quickly and clicked over to them on her high heels.
"My God, Nathaniel! Are you all right? Mr. Frost, what happened?" she asked. Her hands fluttered over Nate's body as if she wanted to assure herself he wasn't physically injured.
"He was trying to save your tablecloths out back and got caught in the storm," Emrys lied. "I think he's coming down with something and it simply became too much."
Too much? Yeah, stopping a storm. Saving some lives. It was definitely too much, Nate thought weakly. He wanted to laugh, but that would sound as crazy as what he was thinking.
"He has been acting strangely today. He looked a bit peaked earlier." Angela pressed a hand against his forehead. Her lips pressed tightly together for a moment. "He's burning up."
"I'm going to drive him home. Some aspirin, a warm bath and a good night's sleep will do wonders," Emrys assured her. He sat down beside Nate as he wrapped his coat around the boy's shoulders after fishing his car keys out of the coat's pocket.
Nate's flush at the thought of Emrys giving him a warm bath was hidden by the fact that his face was already red from the sudden fever. He felt oddly docile. He rested his cheek on the teacher's broad shoulder. He didn't think how it would look to Angela. He curled his arm around Emrys' back. He wanted to just sleep suddenly. Sleep would stop him from having to think or feel.
"Nate?" Daniel's voice rose as he stepped into the house from the patio. "Holy shit --"
"Language!" Angela interrupted with a roll of her eyes. She had been trying to break Daniel from his swearing habit all summer.
The other boy scuffed his foot. "Sorry, Angela. Just what happened?"
Nate got out a mumbled 'okay' before another round of shivering hit him. Emrys stood to urge Nate to his feet, but Angela stepped in front of him and urged the teacher away for a moment. Emrys frowned but walked with her.
"Really, Mr. Frost, you're so kind to offer to take Nathaniel home, but Daniel will do it. You can stay and enjoy the party. You're the guest of honor after all," Angela was saying as she unconsciously blocked Emrys' path to Nate.
Nate frowned. He wanted Emrys to take him home. It was almost a childish need. It reminded him of how he felt when he was sick and only his grandmother's hovering was acceptable. He smiled wanly at imagining stomping a foot and demanding Emrys' presence. So not happening.
"I assure you that it is no trouble. I'm done with the party as it is," Emrys told her.
"Oh, but ..." Angela's voice faded off from Nate's hearing as he had another sickening bout of vertigo.
Daniel took his chance to slide over to Nate's side. His gaze flickered to Nate's still wet hair. "Tell me you weren't phasing out by the cliff again?"
Nate grimaced and turned his head away. "It's not like you think."
It really wasn't. He didn't know how to tell Daniel what it really was all about though. It was still unbelievable to his own mind. How was he going to explain it to anyone else and expect them to believe it?
"Really? Because you look like you either jumped in a pool or stood outside in the rain for twenty minutes. What the hell is going on, Nate?" Daniel asked. His eyes were large with worry.
Nate opened his mouth to confess part of what had happened when Emrys gently pushed past Angela and swooped down upon him. His sculpted mouth was thinned as he pressed his lips together. It was almost as if he didn't want Nate to say anything to Daniel.
"I think we'd better get you home, Nathaniel." Emrys picked Nate up without seeking assent.
Daniel stumbled back. "Whoa! I can take Nate --"
"No." It was Emrys who spoke. His voice was chill and the look he gave Daniel had the other boy cringing. "Go back to the party. Both of you. I have this."
"Don't worry, Daniel. I'm fine. Everything's fine." Nate just wished he felt that were actually true. He gave both Daniel and Angela a tentative smile. They stared back at him with unbelieving expressions.
Emrys didn't wait for them to respond. He whisked Nate out the front doors. The valet jumped to his feet, but the teacher waved him off. "I know where you parked it."
Emrys confidently strode to the second row of cars. A sleek silver Mercedes let out a discrete chirp as the teacher pressed a button on his keychain. He opened the passenger door and gently placed Nate on the seat. He tucked the coat fully around him then shut the door firmly. Nate huddled down and rested the back of his head against the headrest. The car smelled of good leather and spicy aftershave. He took in deep breaths of it even as he shivered. Emrys slid inside and pressed a button for the car to start. He immediately turned up the heat controls for Nate's seat to the highest setting and adjusted the car's internal temperature.
"It will warm up quickly," Emrys said as he reached and clipped Nate's seatbelt on for him.
"I'm sorry I'm useless." Nate heard a slight slur in his voice that worried him. Surely when he got warm he'd be all right again.
"I pushed you too hard. But the moment seemed too perfect not to." Emrys shook his head disgustedly as he pulled out of the Abberley Estate's drive and onto the tree-shrouded road that led towards the outskirts of town. Nate didn't live in the center of Winter Haven or the Hill as it was called. That was for the super rich and his grandmother and him were nowhere near even semi-rich.
"It's s'okay," Nate answered tiredly. The seat was already pleasantly warm beneath him and the whisper of hot air from the vents felt heavenly.
"It's the pretty lies we tell ourselves that are the most dangerous, Nathaniel," Emrys whispered.
"Pretty lies?" he roused himself slightly.
"Yes, the ones that sound so very pretty. So very nice and comforting. Life isn't pretty. Just the lies are," Emrys answered. There was only the hint of a bitter smile on his lips.
They drove in silence for a few minutes. Nate looked at Emrys' profile through hooded eyes. The other man had classically beautiful features. A strong jaw. Full lips. A slight cleft in his chin. A straight nose. High cheekbones. Even his hair fell in rich, thick waves. He was beautiful and Nate had never let himself think that about anybody. But with Emrys it was something he couldn't deny. He didn't want to. He suddenly hoped that the changes to his own body were even a fraction as pleasing to Emrys' gaze. The teacher's eyes slid over to him and he smiled slowly.
"Penny for your thoughts?" Emrys asked.
Nate blushed. No way was he telling Emrys what he was really thinking about! "How did you know I could do that with the storm?"
"Accepting that you did indeed do something?" Emrys asked.
"I -- I guess. Yeah. It -- it happened," Nate stammered out.
"I knew ..." Emrys shifted in his seat. His lush mouth settled into a slight frown. "I've already pushed enough tonight. This is not the time for more revelations."
Nate surprised himself by reaching over and grasping Emrys' nearest forearm. "But it is. I have to know. I'll keep thinking and thinking about it if you don't tell me."
Emrys nodded after a moment. Nate knew he should take his hand away, but he relished the play of muscles underneath his palm and let his hand linger too long. Emrys' eyes dropped to that hand and Nate quickly drew it back. He tucked it under the coat and dug his fingernails into his palm. He felt absurdly like his limb had acted of its own accord and betrayed him.
"The reason I guessed about your gift is because it runs in your family," Emrys said.
A cold pit opened in Nate's stomach. Any talk of heredity had him thinking of his father and burning and madness. "Oh?"
"Such a leaden 'oh'. I can see this conversation is not an easy one for you. Understandably so." Emrys sighed.
"Look, just tell me, okay?" Nate hated the testiness that crept into his voice. He didn't want to be treated like he was made of glass even if he felt a bit like that at the minute.
"I am trying. But I want you to know that nothing I say will be comforting. It will be the truth," Emrys answered. His eyes slanted over the Nate again.
"No more pretty lies?" Nate asked bitterly.
"No, not about this," Emrys said. When he saw that Nate wasn't going to object anymore, he continued, "You took the name Whitney. That's your mother's name."
It was Nate's turn to shift uncomfortably. "Yeah."
His grandmother had been disappointed when he'd told her that he wanted to go by his mother's maiden name instead of by her son's, his father's. But she had understood that it was his way of connecting with a woman he only knew through photographs. His grandmother and him never talked about his father, Shane Collumb. She went to visit Shane at the institution about once a month, but she never asked if Nate wanted to go and Nate pretended not to see her leaving in the car those days. It felt like a betrayal. Even though Shane was her son. But Shane was also his mother's murderer.
"I can understand why intellectually. Though it was a more auspicious choice than you know," Emrys said.
"Auspicious to not want to be identified with a murderer? Hardly rocket science." Nate crossed his arms over his chest. He didn't want to talk about his father or his mother or any of it.
But I asked him to tell me the truth and this is clearly part of it.
"You think your mother is merely the victim and your father the villain?" Emrys asked softly.
Those words had Nate rocketed forward in his seat. It felt like a match had been lit beneath him. "Are you trying to suggest she asked for it or something?
"Not what you--"
Nate was shaking with anger and he cut Emrys off, "Maybe you don't know. Maybe you haven't heard. Or didn't read it in the papers. But I would say someone is definitely a victim when they're knocked over the head with a hammer twenty times then poured gasoline is poured over them."
"Gruesome definitely. Overkill assuredly. Sounds like a man who was afraid that she would come back," Emrys murmured.
Nate's outrage clogged in his throat for a moment. "Do you think he was afraid of a little baby in his crib, too? Because he left me to burn with her. So yeah. She's the victim. He's the villain. Nothing more to be said about that."
"But there is."
Emrys pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road and put it into park. He twisted around to face Nate. Nate was breathing hard. He could feel his cheeks burning up and surprised, anguished tears on his face. His hands were balled into fists underneath the coat. Emrys reached and grasped his hands through the material. His hold was almost painful. Those topaz eyes gleamed.
"You want me to apologize for saying that. You want me to say 'forgive me, Nathaniel,'. You want --"
"Yes! Of course! Normal people would!" Nate shouted. "Normal people would never bring it up!"
"I'm not normal. You're not normal. So let's put what normal people would do out in the rain where it belongs. Because it doesn't apply here," Emrys answered fiercely.
"I'm normal," Nate said mulishly.
Emrys shook his head. "Not denial again, Nathaniel. It is too late for that."
"I'm normal!" Nate repeated.
Emrys let a hiss of air escape his mouth. "I wish I could tell you pretty lies, Nathaniel. Though it pains me to hurt you, I must tell you the truth. You need the ugly truth. It will hurt at first. There is nothing I can do about that." Emrys breathed deeply. "You've been told so many pretty lies, Nathaniel. Or you've been told nothing at all. I would say it could wait. But I don't know if it can. More than just your request moves me to tell you this now rather than tomorrow or the day after next."
Nate shuddered. He felt the weight of unasked questions pressing down on him. He'd never asked why his father had killed his mother. Never tried to really push his grandmother on the subject. He'd only read a few newspaper articles then stopped looking a few years ago. He should want to know what drove his father, supposedly a good man, a man that had never been in trouble in his life, never hurt anyone, to do such terrible things to his wife and son. But he didn't want to know. What if there was a reason? What would that mean?
"How could you know anything about it?" Nate asked. His voice cracked and sounded ragged to his own ears.
Emrys was so close. Nate could see veins of green in those gold eyes. Like copper that had oxidized. It was beautiful and alien at the same time. Emrys smelled of mint and wine. He must have had a drink at the party though Nate had not seen him with a glass in his hand. The pores in his skin were small, making his flesh look frighteningly flawless in the low light of the car. Why he was noticing these things when he should be angry beyond all measure was beyond him. But the air felt charged in a way he had never experienced before. Heat licked at his insides. He wanted Emrys closer at the same moment he wanted to shove him away.
"I know all about it, because the Frosts and the Whitneys have a long history that stretched up through your mother and my parents' time. I know because of the things that have bound our families throughout the centuries," Emrys whispered.
"No Frosts have been in Winter Haven in a long time," Nate repeated what he'd heard at the party. It felt like a defense. The Frosts hadn't been here so they couldn't have known his mother. None of what Emrys said or might say would be true then. He hugged that thought to himself even as he felt like he was standing on a precipice, the wind howling at his feet, while he stared ahead, not seeing it and, therefore, pretending it did not exist.
"No, they haven't. Mostly because they are in mental institutions, prisons or -- or graves," Emrys said with a soft, scalded laugh.
Nate drew back. An image of Emrys in a white coat, locked in a padded room, his black hair sticking up on end, screaming flashed before Nate's mind's eye. "Where were you? Before you came here?"
A flicker of something dark and hurt went through Emrys' topaz eyes. "You want to pretend I'm crazy so that you don't have to listen to what I have to say? So you can discount it? Fine. I should have known ... too fast. Too soon. Too much. You're afraid. It's understandable, but still ... I am disappointed."
Emrys withdrew. It wasn't just that he physically pulled away, but Nate felt his mental presence, scintillating and sparking, completely leave as well. It felt like the car was suddenly a vacuum. Nate couldn't breathe. Emrys slammed the car into drive and stomped on the gas. The Mercedes rocketed away from the shoulder. Gravel spit out behind its back tires. The woods on either side of the road soon became a blur.
"Mr. Frost -- Emrys ... please ... slow down," Nate said.
"Why? Don't you want to get home? Away from the crazy man?" Emrys asked. "So you can go back to pretending you can't control storms?"
"No -- I ..." Nate saw out of the corner of his eye the nearest stoplight looming ahead of them. The light was yellow. It was going to go red in a second. It would be red before they entered the intersection. "Look -- talking about my family is --"
"Painful. Hideous. I know. I warned you." Emrys took his eyes completely off the road, his hands off the steering wheel and turned towards Nate.
"What are you doing? Emrys!"
"Didn't you see this movie?" A catlike tilt of Emrys' head had Nate suddenly much more afraid. "Only this will be so much better. Trust me. Controlling storms is just the tip of the iceberg."
Emrys pressed on the gas.
"No! Stop! You'll kill us!" Nate reached for the steering wheel, but Emrys caught his hands. Nate gaped in horror as he saw approaching headlights coming down the side street. His heart jumped in his chest. They were going to crash. He strained for the wheel, but Emrys' strength kept him in place. All he could do was scream, "NO!"
"Don't worry, Nathaniel," Emrys said with a calm smile. "Everything will be fine."
Time seemed to slow. Nate watched as somehow the Mercedes and the Lexus hurtled past one another. The Lexus was turning unhurriedly left onto the road they were on. The nose of the vehicle was inches away from the Mercedes' driver's side door. Nate could see the driver of the other vehicle. He was an old man in his seventies. He had bushy eyebrows that stuck out far from his wizened face. He didn't see them. Nate could tell that the old man had no idea how close he'd come to plowing into another car. And it wasn't because it happened so fast. It was as if they weren't even in the same place. For the other driver, the Mercedes had never been there. Nate turned to Emrys. He was shaking again, but this time not from cold or rage.
"How ..." But Nate swallowed the question. He already knew how even if he didn't completely understand it. It was the same way he had controlled the storm. So it wasn't really "how" that he wanted answered. There was another question. A bigger question. "What are you?"
Emrys smiled. "I'm what you are, Nathaniel. I'm a witch."