She had been picking grapes all morning, and was hot and sweaty, arms and legs scratched and stained with dirt and grape juice. She stood for a moment to stretch and ease her sore back, and that was when she saw him walking up the hillside.
Meredith froze. She could not move, she could not even run. Horror rooted her feet to the soil. She could not take her eyes off him, she could not take her eyes off his face.
It was like a nightmare. Here was everything good in the world around them. There was the warmth of the Andalucían sun, and the relief of a cool breeze fanning her hot cheeks and ruffling his hair. There was the scent of dusty, sun-baked earth and ripe grapes in her nostrils, the rugged, sprawling beauty of the countryside and the blue sky that seemed to go on forever. And there was Tyler, his face mutilated beyond recognition.
Long coarse lines stretched diagonally across his face like the rays of an angry sun, puckered and raised and a dark reddish-brown. By some fortunate grace, the scars broke off at lip and lash, leaving his eyes and mouth unscarred. Later, she would learn that this was because Tyler had flung his arms over his face, inadvertently protecting himself from being blinded, or worse. Later, in an apartment off East Angel Square in Berninski, she would find the continuation of those scars rippling across his chest and shoulders and forearms, visible under the markings of several black-green ward tattoos.
Her head pounded and her eyes burnt. The countryside spun for one horrifying moment and she thought she was going to faint. All the guilt of the world seemed to point a finger at her, laying the blame for his face at her feet.
The world stopped spinning as he stopped before her. There was gentleness upon those mangled features, and a strange mix of sadness and regret which she didn’t quite understand.
Then the mangled face broke into a smile, that familiar old Tyler smile. “You’re really hard to track, you know that?”
“Your face,” was all she could say, her voice breaking. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry …”
“It’s okay,” he said fiercely. “It’s all right, do you understand? This is not your fault. It’s –”
“Of course it’s my fault!” A sob escaped on that last word. “It’s my own damn stupid fault. I should have never –”
“You couldn’t have known –”
“I should have known!”
They stared at each other, the peace of the countryside shattered by their loud words. Meredith could see pain and desperation on his face, mirroring her own.
She turned away abruptly. “What are you doing here?”
He looked at her for the longest moment. “What do you think?”
Meredith shook her head. What did she think? She didn’t know what to think. Why would he ever wish to seek her out again? Revenge? Anger? Fear?
“I was so worried about you,” he continued. “No one would tell me what happened – if you were all right.”
His words baffled her. She burst out, “Aren’t you angry with me?”
“Angry?” The surprise in his voice was genuine. “Why should I be angry with you?”
Meredith couldn’t believe her ears. Why shouldn’t he be angry? “Be – because of everything! I deceived you! I lied to you and I – I almost killed you and because I’m a Wild One! You should hate me for that alone!”
Tyler stared at her. Then he laughed, a low laugh.
“And do you really believe,” he said, “that I would care about that?”
What did he mean? “You should care,” she said. “You should –”
“Meredith,” he cut her off. “I don’t care about any of that. I care about you.”
Meredith stared at him, bewildered. There was a lump in her throat, and a pounding in her chest. Tyler looked back steadily at her.
Finally, she looked away. “You don’t know what you’re saying, Tyler.”
“Yes, I do,” he said, and opened his hand.
It was as if he held a great wind in the palm of his hand, a wind he released into the world. Meredith felt the fierce, kinetic force of it swoop past her as it whistled out into the atmosphere, sending grape leaves swishing back and forth, snatching at her hair, pummelling the few trees on the slope back with its strength. The colour of the sky changed for one second, turning a strange, intense shade before fading back to ordinary. The very waves of the sun’s light froze, a golden glow suspended in a moment.
She stilled, recognising the strength of that power.
Tyler lowered his hand. “Something happened the night your power broke free at the Colonial House. The healer who saw me likened it to trauma unblocking a memory. Except instead of a memory, it unlocked some hidden dam of magic inside of me. I can feel it growing stronger every day, and I’m finding more ways to increase it.”
“All the more reason you shouldn’t come near me,” Meredith said faintly. “You know my trigger is magic.”
“I know,” Tyler said, “that the stronger a magician is, the higher their chances are of invoking the Wildness. But there comes a point at which a magician grows so powerful, he or she reaches what is known as the point of negation. Such a magician is able to mask their magic completely, in effect, negating a Wild One’s powers. Monique the Enchantress was one such magician, and her companion was Anarchont, a Wild One. And there was Sorta the Mad, who often ran with the Fey Host.”
Meredith shook her head. “You’re good, but you’re not that good.”
Tyler shrugged. “I’m working on it.”
Meredith arched an eyebrow. “And what does your mother have to say about this?”
He shrugged. “She’s pissed, but there’s not much she can do about it.” He returned to the subject at hand. “So, in the meantime, I spoke to my godmother Meerkha.”
“Meerkha, as in Meerkha the Witch Woman?” Meredith bit her lip, remembering the tag Witch Woman wasn’t very complimentary.
Tyler nodded, unperturbed. “Old family friend.”
Well. Talk about connections with the Berhansens.
“We’ve always been close. In fact, it was Meerkha who told me about the point of negation. She also said that as long as we spaced out the time we spend together, there’s a high chance we’d be able to avoid triggering your Wildness until I’ve finally figured out how to achieve negation.”
“Time together?” Meredith laughed faintly. “Try no time at all. I don’t think you’ve quite grasped how dangerous it is for you to be with me, Tyler, even for five minutes. And I’m not going to let you kill yourself over a – a stupid crush.”
“And how are you going to do that?” He moved closer, and she could feel said magic stirring within him. “You’re a runner, Meredith. But even you can’t run all the time. I found you here, didn’t I?” He reached up and caressed her cheek. She turned her head away, but he took her hand and pressed it against his face, against the rough scars there, and she shivered right before he kissed her fingers. “You can’t hurt me, Meredith, I’m not that breakable.”
She pulled away from him. He stood perfectly still as she ran her hands along his face, exploring the rough and smooth surfaces there. She traced her finger along one dark line, stretching from nose to temple. Took a deep, ragged breath and looked into his eyes. They were serious and wary and underwritten with a fear she understood at once. He feared being despised – by her, for what she had done to him.
He was breakable, just not in the way he had been talking about earlier.
She took his face in her hands and leaned up to kiss his scarred cheeks, softly, gently. He released a raggedy breath of his own right before she kissed his lips, his arms going slowly around her waist. She kissed him again, and again, and again, telling him with each kiss that it would never matter to her what he looked like.
“Thank you,” he murmured, and she wanted to cry because he was thanking her for not hating him for looking the way he did after she had disfigured him.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“There’s nothing to forgive,” he insisted, but he could feel her face against his, wet with tears. He tightened his arms around her, but she stiffened and pulled away. Reached up and swiped at her face, not looking at him.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said.
A minute passed, and she still wouldn’t look at him.
“Look,” he said at last. “I’m not going anywhere and you might as well face it, you’ll never get rid of me. I can see you’re, um, working hard here, picking grapes. But – can I at least come see you in the evenings?”
She hesitated. “Yes,” she said at last. “Yes, you can.”
Meredith shook her head at him. “How did you find me here?”
“Money,” he said simply. “Money – and magic. My mother tried every blocking spell she could think of to stop me, but I’ve managed to circumvent much of her magic. I don’t think she’s realised yet the full extent of what happened to me after… after that night at the Colonial House, this new unlocking of… something… within me. I’m seeing things a lot more clearly now, seeing how magic works in different ways that have never occurred to me before, understanding it better. I’m still not sure how to describe it. It’s like finally being able to identify the paths of a complicated maze, or mathematical combinations that have once eluded me. Everything is so much clearer now.”
Meredith frowned. She didn’t like all this talk of magic, particularly not of finding order within magic. Magic, wild magic, elemental magic, fey magic, was always a chaotic sort of thing. Indefinable and elusive and difficult to bind or control. Like the Wildness. It was the magicians who changed everything, with their endless search to bind and turn the world to their will, of trying to put order to magic. Perhaps this was why the Wildness was so repulsed by magicians, like a wild stallion that simply refused to be broken. And magicians did not like power that could not be tamed.
Meredith found she didn’t want to think of it. She tried to focus on something practical. “If your mother’s smart, she’d pull the plug on your credit cards so you’d have to give up this foolhardiness.”
“She can’t,” Tyler said cheerfully. “I’ve already come of age. My trust fund is all mine, to spend as I please.”
“Well, aren’t you lucky.”
He grimaced. “Not really, no. The money comes with a lot of baggage attached.”
Meredith stopped and looked closely at him. There was something in his voice, in the little ironic twist at the corner of his mouth, which made her wonder.
But, as quick as it had come, the bitter wryness was gone and those lips relaxed into their usual easy smile, those green eyes sparkling at her. “Never mind that, Meredith. Anna-Maria tells me the work day finishes at six. And there’s supper afterward, I hear? She invited me too, once I said I was your friend.”
Meredith rolled her eyes. “And I suppose it wouldn’t be any use my telling you not to come?”
“Nope. Nor would it be any use your running off as soon as I turn my back.” He grinned as he moved away. “See you later, sweetheart.”
Go on to: Chapter Thirteen
Go back to: Chapter Eleven
New to A Reason for Being? Start from: Chapter One.