All Together Dead

Chapter 4

IT WAS STILL WARM AT NIGHT, BUT NOT OPPRESSIVELY so, not this late in September. I wore a sleeveless white dress with red flowers on it, one I'd worn before when I had a date with Bill (whom I wouldn't think about). Out of sheer vanity, I put on my high-heeled red sandals, though they were hardly practical footwear for a wedding on a roughly paved road. I put on some makeup while Quinn was showering, and I wasn't displeased with my reflection. There's nothing like great sex to give you a glow. I came out of my room and glanced at the clock. We needed to leave pretty quickly.

Amelia was wearing a short-sleeved dress, beige with a tiny navy pattern. Amelia loved to buy clothes and considered herself a snappy dresser, but her taste was strictly suburban young matron. She wore little navy sandals with flowers on the straps, much more appropriate than my heels.

Just when I was beginning to worry, Quinn came out of my room wearing a brown silk dress shirt and khakis.

"What about a tie?" he asked. "I've got some in my bag."

I thought of the rural setting and vast lack of sophistication in the little community of Hotshot. "I don't think a tie will be necessary," I said, and Quinn looked relieved.

We piled into my car and drove west and then south. On the drive, I had a chance to explain to my out-of-town guests about the isolated band of werepanthers and their small cluster of houses grouped together in rural Renard Parish. I was driving, since that was just simplest. Once out of sight of the old railroad tracks, the country became increasingly unpopulated until for two or three miles we saw no lights of any kind. Then we saw cars and lights at a crossroads ahead. We were there.

Hotshot was out in the middle of nowhere, set in a long depression in the middle of gently rolling land, swells that were too ill-defined to be called hills. Formed around an ancient crossroads, the lonely community had a powerful vibration of magic. I could tell that Amelia was feeling that power. Her face became sharper and wiser as we got closer. Even Quinn inhaled deeply. As for me, I could detect the presence of magic, but it didn't affect non-supernatural me.

I pulled over to the side of the road behind Hoyt Fortenberry's truck. Hoyt was Jason's best friend and lifelong shadow. I spied him right ahead of us, trudging down the road to a well-lit area. I'd handed Amelia and Quinn a flashlight, and I kept one aimed at my feet.

"Hoyt," I called. I hurried to catch up with him, at least as much as was practical in the red heels. "Hey, are you okay?" I asked when I saw his downcast face. Hoyt was not a very good-looking guy, or very bright, but he was steady and tended to see past the moment to its consequences, something my brother had never mastered.

"Sook," Hoyt said. "I can't believe he's getting hitched. I guess I thought me and Jason would be bachelors forever." He attempted to smile.

I gave him a pat on the shoulder. Life would've been neat 'n' tidy if I could have fallen in love with Hoyt, thus attaching him to my brother forever, but Hoyt and I had never had the slightest interest in each other.

Hoyt's mind was radiating a dull misery. He was certain that his life was changing forever this night. He expected Jason to mend his ways completely, to stay in with his wife like a husband should, and to forsake all others.

I sure hoped Hoyt's expectations were right on the money.

On the edges of the crowd, Hoyt met up with Catfish Hennessy, and they began making loud jokes about Jason's breaking down and marrying.

I hoped the male bonding would help Hoyt get through the ceremony. I didn't know if Crystal truly loved my brother - but Hoyt did.

Quinn took my hand, and with Amelia in our wake we forged through the little crowd until we reached the center.

Jason was wearing a new suit, and the blue of it was only a bit darker than the blue of his eyes. He looked great, and he was smiling to beat the band. Crystal was wearing a leopard-print dress cut as low in the front as you could get and still term the garment a dress. I didn't know if the leopard motif was an ironic statement on her part or a simple expression of her fashion sense. I suspected the latter.

The happy couple was standing in the middle of an empty space, accompanied by Calvin Norris, leader of the Hotshot community. The crowd kept respectfully back, forming an uneven circle.

Calvin, who happened to be Crystal's uncle, was holding Crystal's arm. He smiled at me. Calvin had trimmed his beard and dug out a suit for the occasion, but he and Jason were the only men wearing ties. Quinn noticed that and thought relieved thoughts.

Jason spotted me right after Calvin did, and he beckoned to me. I stepped forward, suddenly realizing that I was going to have a part in the ceremony. I hugged my brother, smelling his musky cologne...but no alcohol. I relaxed a fraction. I had suspected Jason had fortified himself with a drink or two, but he was quite sober.

I let go of Jason and glanced behind me to see what had become of my companions, so I knew the moment when the werepanthers realized Quinn was there. There was a sudden hush among the two-natured, and I heard his name ripple through them like a little wind.

Calvin whispered, "You brought Quinn?" as if I'd arrived with Santa Claus or some other mythical creature.

"Is that okay?" I said, since I'd had no clue it would create such a stir.

"Oh, yes," he said. "He's your man now?" Calvin's face held such a mixture of startled reevaluation and speculation that I immediately began wondering what I didn't know about my new lover.

"Um, well, sorta," I said with sudden caution.

"We're honored to have him here," Calvin assured me.

"Quinn," Crystal breathed. Her pupils were dilating, and I felt her brain focus on my date with a sort of groupie longing. I wanted to kick her. Here to marry my brother, remember?

Jason looked as puzzled as I was. Since he'd been a panther only a few months, there was a lot about the hidden world of the two-natured he hadn't picked up on yet.

Me, too.

Crystal made an effort to quell herself and get back into the moment. She was naturally enjoying being the center of attention, but she spared a moment to reassess her prospective sister-in-law. Her respect for me (pretty much nonexistent, heretofore) had just shot off the charts.

"What's the procedure?" I asked briskly, trying to get us all back on track.

Calvin reverted to his practical self. "Since we have human guests, we've adapted the ceremony," he explained in a very low voice. "Here's how it vouch for Jason as his closest living relative, because he ain't got no one older than you to do it. I'm Crystal's oldest living relative, so I vouch for her. We offer to take the penalty if either of them does wrong."

Ah-oh. I didn't like the sound of that. I darted a quick look at my brother, who (naturally) didn't seem to think twice about the commitment I was making. I shouldn't have expected anything else.

"Then the minister comes forward and the service proceeds just like any other wedding," Calvin said. "If there weren't outsiders here, it would be different."

I was curious about that, but this wasn't the time to ask lots of questions. However, there were a few that had to be answered. "What penalty am I promising to pay? What constitutes 'doing wrong'?"

Jason huffed a sigh, exasperated that I wanted to find out what I was promising. Calvin's calm yellow eyes met mine, and they were full of understanding.

"Here's what you're vowing," Calvin said in a voice that was quiet but intense. We huddled around him. "Jason, you listen hard. We went over this, but I don't think you were giving me your full attention." Jason was listening now, but I could feel his impatience.

"Being married here" - and Calvin waved a hand to indicate the little Hotshot community - "means being faithful to your mate, unless the mate has to breed to keep the group up. Since Crystal's pretty much out of the running on that, Jason, that means she has to be faithful to you, and you to her. You don't have mating obligations like the purebloods do." Jason flushed at this reminder that his status was lesser since he was only a shifter because he'd been bitten by one, not because he'd been born with the gene. "So if Crystal runs around on you and a member of the community can attest to it, and if she can't pay the price for some reason - pregnancy, or illness, or a kid to raise - I have to do it. We're not talking money here, you understand?"

Jason nodded. "You're talking physical punishment," he said.

"Yes," Calvin said. "Not only are you promising to be faithful, you're also swearing to keep our secret."

Jason nodded again.

"And to help out other members of the community if they're in need."

Jason scowled.

"Example?" I said.

"If Maryelizabeth's roof needs replacing, we might all chip in a bit to buy the material and we'd all make time to do the work. If a kid needs a place to stay, your home is open to that kid. We take care of each other."

Jason nodded again. "I understand," he said. "I'm willing." He would have to give up some of his buddy time, and I felt sad for Hoyt; and I confess I felt a little sad for myself. I wasn't gaining a sister; I was losing my brother, at least to some degree.

"Mean this from the heart or call it off now," I said, keeping my voice very low. "You're committing my life to this, too. Can you keep the promises you're making to this woman and her community, or not?"

Jason looked at Crystal for a long moment, and I had no right to be in his head, so I pulled out and instead cast through the crowd for random thoughts. They were mostly what you'd expect: a bit of excitement at being at a wedding, a bit of pleasure at seeing the parish's most notorious bachelor shackled to a wild young woman, a bit of curiosity about the odd Hotshot ritual. Hotshot was a byword in the parish - "as weird as a guy from Hotshot" had been a saying for years, and Hotshot kids who attended the Bon Temps school often had a hard time of it until after the first few playground fights.

"I'll keep my promises," Jason said, his voice hoarse.

"I'll keep mine," Crystal said.

The difference between the two was this: Jason was sincere, though I doubted his ability to stick to his word. Crystal had the ability, but she wasn't sincere.

"You don't mean it," I said to her.

"The hell you say," she retorted.

"I don't usually say one way or another," I said, making the effort to keep my voice low. "But this is too serious to keep silent. I can see inside your head, Crystal. Don't you ever forget I can."

"I ain't forgetting nothing," she said, making sure each word had weight. "And I'm marrying Jason tonight."

I looked at Calvin. He was troubled, but in the end, he shrugged. "We can't stop this," he said. For a second, I was tempted to struggle with his pronouncement. Why not? I thought. If I hauled off and slapped her, maybe that would be enough disruption to stall the whole thing. Then I reconsidered. They were both grown-ups, at least theoretically. They would get married if they chose, either here and now or somewhere else on some other night. I bowed my head and sucked up my misgivings.

"Of course," I said, raising my face and smiling that bright smile I got when I was really anxious. "Let's get on with the ceremony." I caught a glimpse of Quinn's face in the crowd. He was looking at me, concerned by the low-voiced argument. Amelia, on the other hand, was happily chatting with Catfish, whom she'd met at the bar. Hoyt was by himself right under one of the portable lights rigged up for the occasion. He had his hands thrust in his pockets, and he looked more serious than I'd ever seen him. There was something strange about the sight, and after a second I figured out why.

It was one of the few times I'd ever seen Hoyt alone.

I took my brother's arm, and Calvin again gripped Crystal's. The priest stepped into the center of the circle, and the ceremony began. Though I tried hard to look happy for Jason, I had a difficult time holding back my tears while my brother became the bridegroom of a wild and willful girl who had been dangerous from birth.

There was dancing afterward, and a wedding cake, and lots of alcohol. There was food galore, and consequently there were huge trash cans that filled up with paper plates, cans, and crumpled paper napkins. Some of the men had brought cases of beer and wine, and some had hard liquor, too. No one could say that Hotshot couldn't throw a party.

While a zydeco band from Monroe played, the crowd danced in the street. The music echoed across the fields in an eerie way. I shivered and wondered what was watching from the dark.

"They're good, aren't they?" Jason asked. "The band?"

"Yeah," I said. He was flushed with happiness. His bride was dancing with one of her cousins.

"That's why we hurried this wedding up," he said. "She found out she was pregnant, and we decided to go on and do it - just do it. And her favorite band was free for tonight."

I shook my head at my brother's impulsiveness. Then I reminded myself to keep visible signs of disapproval at a minimum. The bride's family might take issue.

Quinn was a good dancer, though I had to show him some of the Cajun steps. All the Hotshot belles wanted a dance with Quinn, too, so I had a turn with Calvin, and Hoyt, and Catfish. Quinn was having a good time, I could tell, and on one level I was, too. But around two thirty a.m., we gave each other a little nod. He had to leave the next day, and I wanted to be alone with him. Plus, I was tired of smiling.

As Quinn thanked Calvin for the wonderful evening, I watched Jason and Crystal dancing together, both apparently delighted with each other. I knew right from Jason's brain that he was infatuated with the shifter girl, with the subculture that had formed her, with the newness of being a supernatural. I knew from Crystal's brain that she was exultant. She'd been determined to marry someone that hadn't grown up in Hotshot, someone who was exciting in bed, someone able to stand up to not only her but her extended family...and now she had.

I made my way over to the happy couple and gave each of them a kiss on the cheek. Now Crystal was family, after all, and I would have to accept her as such and leave the two to work out their own life together. I gave Calvin a hug, too, and he held me for a second before releasing me and giving me a reassuring pat on the back. Catfish danced me around in a circle, and a drunken Hoyt took up where he'd left off. I had a hard time convincing the two that I really meant to leave, but finally Quinn and I began to make our way back to my car.

As we wended through the edges of the crowd, I spotted Amelia dancing with one of her Hotshot beaux. They were both in high spirits, both literally and libation-wise. I called to Amelia that we were leaving, and she yelled, "I'll get a ride with someone later!"

Though I enjoyed seeing Amelia happy, it must have been Misgiving Night, because I worried about her a little. However, if anyone could take care of herself, it was Amelia.

We were moving slow when we let ourselves into the house. I didn't check out Quinn's head, but mine was muzzy from the noise, the clamor of all the brains around me, and the extra surges of emotion. It had been a long day. Some of it had been excellent, though. As I recalled the very best parts, I caught myself smiling down at Bob. The big cat rubbed himself against my ankles, meowing in an inquiring kind of way.

Oh, geez.

I felt like I had to explain Amelia's absence to the cat. I squatted down and scratched Bob's head, and (feeling incredibly foolish) I said, "Hey, Bob. She's going to be real late tonight; she's still dancing at the party. But don't you worry, she'll be home!" The cat turned his back on me and stalked out of the room. I was never sure how much human was lurking in Bob's little feline brain, but I hoped he'd just fall asleep and forget all about our strange conversation.

Just at that moment, I heard Quinn call to me from my bedroom, and I put thoughts about Bob on hold. After all, it was our last night together for maybe weeks.

While I brushed my teeth and washed my face, I had one last flare of worry about Jason. My brother had made his bed. I hoped he could lie comfortably in it for some time. He's a grown-up, I told myself over and over as I went into the bedroom in my nicest nightgown.

Quinn pulled me to him, said, "Don't worry, babe, don't worry...."

I banished my brother and Bob from my thoughts and this bedroom. I brought a hand up to trace the curve of Quinn's scalp, kept those fingers going down his spine, loved it when he shivered.

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