THE WEIGHT OF A BURDEN
Nireas took the invasion of his apartment fairly well. Hunter, Jude, and Ronan arrived at the theater just as I returned upstairs, freshly dressed and mulling over my conversation with Mr. Reddy. I'd grabbed them impulsively, dragging them after me.
"Are we having an orgy?" Ronan asked as we headed up the stairs.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm intrigued, but I haven't slept in ages and I wouldn't mind being alone with our girl for the first proper time," Jude muttered from the back of the line.
"A conversation," I said crisply.
"Not as much fun," Ronan said, then paused and asked, "A conversation about the orgy?"
I heard a smack and Ronan's hissing laughter, and I figured it was Hunter who'd thumped him for his remarks. I would thank him later.
And I would apologize to Nireas later for bursting through the door while he was still sleeping, with three men in tow. He glared at us, face still pressed to his pillow, and then groaned and rolled over onto his back, sheet barely covering his hips. I stared at him in the hazy morning light, the shifting colors of his skin softer and paler, his hair rumpled, a bite mark I'd left on his chest clearly visible.
He'd denied me this for eight years? I was angry all over again.
"Put on pants," I snapped.
His eyebrows rose, and I regretted my order as he sat up slowly, muscles flexing and skin shimmering. As if one pair of strong arms wasn't distracting enough. I paced to the window before he stood from the bed.
"I don't mind, exactly, but I'm not sure my bed is big enough for all of you," Nireas said, and Ronan laughed.
It was Jude who followed me to the window, who rested a hand on my back and waited for me to look up to meet his gaze. It was one thing to tell Mr. Reddy that I was going to let them know. He already knew the truth about me. Jude knew. Even Constantine knew. But I'd never actually had to confess the words to someone who might be surprised by them.
Jude's smile was soft, his pale eyes skimming over my face.
"Hazel?" Hunter called. "What's wrong, little one?"
Jude knew why I'd brought them here. He nodded at me. "You won't regret it," he whispered.
I swallowed hard and turned to face them. Nireas was buttoning up his pants, Ronan had already helped himself to the chair at the round table in the center of the room, and Hunter was still standing by the door, waiting for some explanation of my sudden demand for an audience.
I swallowed again. It was a simple thing to say. Just a handful of words, but they seemed to cling to my teeth like they were trying to fight their way back down my throat. I spat them out in a clumsy rush.
"My mother was a wood nymph."
Jude's hand stroked my back, trying to soothe me through the way I coiled up with tension, my eyes bouncing between the three other men. They wore similar expressions of empty shock. Not horror, or anger, or anything so illuminating that it might give me some idea of what they were thinking or how they were feeling. Just flat, open surprise.
"My father was never very forthcoming with the details. But he had a farm near a forest, and he met her there, and…I suppose she seduced him, or vice versa, and then…then she left me at his door," I said.
"You just found out?" Ronan asked, the question painfully sincere.
My cheeks were hot and my mouth opened and closed on nothing, his eyebrows rising in understanding.
"Hazelnut…why?" he asked, leaning forward.
"It was always a secret!" I cried, shaking myself and trying to gather back my calm. Jude's hand squeezed on my shoulder. "Obviously, living with my father, I had to pretend to be human. He thought he could hide me here in the city. But after he died and I came here, Reddy said not to say—"
"Bastard," Ronan growled.
"That monsters wanted humans, and I was so used to just…hiding it. Lying. And then I suddenly realized how much I hated that, and how miserable I was becoming because of it, and…" I hiccuped and blinked. My face was wet. How embarrassing.
I rubbed the tears off my face and squared my shoulders, catching my breath and shaking my head. "I never told anyone who didn't already know. It's been just buried inside of me for almost forty years."
"Forty," Nireas gasped. He stumbled back, sitting roughly onto his bed, and I winced.
"Oh. Yes. Thirty-eight to be precise, although that's been a secret too," I said softly.
Hunter's gaze was warm on me, studying, impossible to decipher. Ronan looked bowled over once again, and Nireas was shockingly pale as the obvious sank in. I wasn't aging like a human woman. I wouldn't age like one.
I pressed Jude's hand on my shoulder and then left him at the window, crossing and kneeling in front of Nireas.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know," I whispered to him. My aging would've almost certainly been a fear for him after losing his last lover, and the glassy cast of his gaze confirmed as much.
"I'm twice the fool now," he answered numbly, blinking at me. "I should've realized. You haven't changed. I thought I was being romantic, but… Fuck. Hazel."
Six arms snapped around my back, drawing me into Nireas's grasp, his face pressed between my breasts. I stroked over his head, down to the tops of his arms and back again as he shuddered.
"This is why Reddy gives you all the roughest guest acts. The hardest jobs," Ronan bit out.
"Better me than the other girls," I recited gently, and Nireas's arms tightened.
"Bullshit," Ronan snapped. "That's his excuse. Don't make it yours."
I flinched at Ronan's tone, and Hunter let out a low growl. "There's no need to be angry."
"I'm not angry! No." Ronan cleared his throat and huffed. "I'm not angry with you, nut."
Nireas loosened his hold, his face rising and lips brushing over my cheek. I turned, and he settled me on his lap, facing the others. My hands twisted in my skirt. Nireas was relieved. That was one good thing. The others…
Ronan pushed himself out of the chair and crossed to me with his wings rustling in agitation. "I'm an idiot for not thinking of it sooner," he said, sighing. He bent, hands around the crown of my head, and kissed my hair.
"You don't mind?" I whispered, that ancient comment of Mr. Reddy's squirming in the back of my thoughts.
"Mind?" Ronan barked.