Seth’s mother stared at him, her eyes narrow. Seth, willing to stare down anybody, fought the urge to look away. He tried to avoid fighting with his mother, but it didn’t really matter anymore. Did it? Valeria’s mouth tightened, and Seth got that tickle at the back of his neck that he always got on the precipice of an attack.
“Kaylee, Logan, come here. Spend some time with your brother.” Valeria herded the two younger children into Seth’s room, then firmly closed the door.
Seth stared at the door, then slowly transferred his gaze to the kids, dread tugging his habitual smile away. He’d always thought he inherited his infamous lack of responsibility from his father, but now he wondered if it was his mother.
“What happened?” demanded Logan. “Dad won’t really say.”
“Where’s Natalie?” added Kaylee. She made as if to charge Seth, then paused. “You’re hurt a lot.”
Oh God. “I don’t know.” Seth put his hand over his face. He hadn’t hated his mother like this since he was a little older than Logan and she wouldn’t let him follow Natalie to school.
He’d eventually won that fight. He wasn’t sure he was going to win here. Bringing the kids in was probably a violation of some kind of international treaty.
“How did you get hurt?” Kaylee asked, because she never, ever knew when to let a topic drop.
Seth backed away from Kaylee. “Hatherly beat me up.”
Logan’s eyes narrowed just like their mother’s, but Kaylee instantly said, “Why?”
“Because he’s bad. Look, can’t you kids go away?”
Logan said flatly, “Mom told us to stay in here.”
Seth ran a hand through his hair. “I’m really not in the mood to play.”
Kaylee looked around his room and said doubtfully, “Looks like you’ve been playing a lot.”
Logan said, “Maybe, but Mom’s pissed.”
“Hey, watch your language, kid.”
Logan looked hard at Seth. “As if. Is Natalie really gone?”
Seth squeezed his eyes shut. A moment later, Kaylee wrapped herself around his leg. Without really thinking, he put his hand on her soft hair. “I don’t know,” he lied. He opened his eyes again.
Logan took a deep breath. “Okay. Right.” And his look said, Kaylee is still little, so I’ll pretend I believe you. “Mom is really worried about you.”
“No, she isn’t. She’s pissed at me. You just said.”
Kaylee released his leg and punched him in the thigh. “We can be both! Why are you being so mean?” It hurt more than a six year old’s punch might normally, because Kaylee also had an unerring instinct for punching open wounds. He gritted his teeth and pushed her away. She stomped over to Logan and grabbed his arm.
Seth looked at the two of them together and wondered if his Echthros self, or his cambion, would hurt them. The thought tore something inside, just like threatening Jehane had. But he couldn’t threaten them, couldn’t hurt them. The worst he could do was abandon them, and how bad could that be? They still had each other, after all.
Logan shook Kaylee off and put his hands on his hips. It was a Natalie movement and it hurt to see. “So why are you sulking?”
“I’m not sulking. Why are you being a brat?”
Logan looked around the trashed room pointedly, then pointed at Seth. “You’re bleeding. You have cuts all over. And you won’t let anybody help.”
“They don’t matter.” Seth knew he sounded sullen but he wasn’t going to be lectured by an eight year old with an overdeveloped sense of his own maturity. He lowered his gaze to the carpet. Logan could grow up to be a lot like Natalie, and Kaylee could grow up to be, okay, Kaylee, and they’d be fine. And he wouldn’t have to deal with the stabbing in his soul every time he saw Natalie in Valeria’s face, or Logan’s posture.
His voice odd and subdued, Logan asked. “Are you going away soon, too?”
Seth shrugged. “Could be,” he said, and wondered why the words hurt so much.
“I hate you,” Logan snapped. He slammed the bedroom door open and ran out. Seth watched him go in mild astonishment. So much for that sense of his own maturity.
He dropped his gaze to Kaylee, standing beside the open door. “You’d best go, too.” Then he sat back on his bed and covered his face with both his hands.
A moment later, Kaylee kicked him in the shin. Then she kicked him again. When he dropped his hands and looked at her, she was staring at him with a furious expression on her face. “Why are you still here?”
“Because you’re being a jerk. So I’m being a jerk, too.” She kicked him a third time. Seth stood up and caught a punch he would have regretted letting land, then picked her up and slung her over her shoulder. This triggered a full-scale meltdown, kicking and punching and screaming at the top of her lungs. As he carried her to his bedroom door, she grabbed at his hair and bit him. His breath hissed between his teeth as he dragged her off him and tossed her onto the couch in the living room. She collapsed into a sobbing heap and he tugged on his own hair in frustration. “Just… stay away.”
When he turned around, Valeria was behind him. “You’ve picked pretty much the most impossible location to have your little meltdown. In the Tower, at home? The kids aren’t going to leave you alone, and the Tower inhibits Cambion formation.”
Seth tried to hide his split second of shock, but she was his mother. She threw her dishtowel at him angrily. “Do you think you’re the only person to have ever lost somebody and wanted to fall? Wanted to break? Blow off the world? There’s a reason we keep damaged partners in the Tower, you little idiot.”
“You’re my mother. If I’m an idiot, it’s because you raised me that way.”
“I did, yes. And that’s why I know you’re being an idiot. It used to be I could get Natalie to knock some sense into you—” A sob choked off the rest of Valeria’s words, and she covered her face as tears flooded from her eyes.
Seth thought he couldn’t bear it before, but this made everything worse. He looked around wildly, then headed out the front door, slamming it behind him.