Hleo

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Chapter 26

“I’m just going to go get changed,” I called over my shoulder as I sprinted up the stairs.

“Sounds good. I think I’ll go back to uploading your pictures for the time being. The more we get onto the computer the more likely a pattern might emerge.” Ethan strolled towards the dining room.

When I got to my room I shut the door and leaned against it. I could not be mistaken. Ethan had definitely been flirting with me. I pressed my hands to my cheeks and, even though I was still soaking wet from cold lake water, warmth spread through me.

I quickly stripped out of my clothes and threw on a pair of jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt. I stopped in the hallway and chewed my thumbnail. It wasn’t fair to be nice and warm and dry while Ethan suffered.

I walked into Dad’s bedroom and checked his drawers for something that Ethan could wear. I grabbed a nondescript black T-shirt that looked like it would fit, and moved on to the pants drawer. I hesitated. Could I take Ethan a pair of my dad’s pants? Was that weird? Maybe the shirt was good enough.

Ethan stood by the scanner when I entered the dining room. “I thought you might appreciate a dry shirt.” I tossed him the article of clothing.

“That’s great, thanks.”

“No big deal. It’s my dad’s. Sorry I don’t have any pants for you, unless you want to try a pair of his.” I jerked my thumb towards the stairs. I could run up and get him a pair if he really wanted.

Ethan held up a hand. “No that’s okay. The shirt is more than enough.” He set it on the dining room table and pulled his wet shirt up over his head.

I worked to keep my breathing even as I stared at his superbly shaped torso. He turned his back to me as he reached for the new shirt. He had a tattoo type of marking on his back between his shoulder blades, except the marked skin had a slight sheen to it, like that of a scar left behind after a burn. The symbol was a reddish-tinged black, double-line, figure eight, set at roughly a 45-degree angle, with a second double line cutting through the center, creating almost an X-shape.

“That’s a different-looking tattoo.” I reached out to trace the symbol with my finger, but yanked my hand back before I made contact. What are you thinking? Don’t make this moment any more awkward than it already is.

Ethan pulled the new shirt down. “It’s the symbol of the Hleo society, but it’s actually more than a tattoo. When a person chooses to become a Hleo, they go through a branding ceremony, and they are given this mark.”

“What is a branding ceremony?” I plunked back down on the chair I’d been sitting at in the morning and grabbed the sketchbook I’d left off at.

Ethan looked torn. The ceremony must be one of the Hleo secrets he wasn’t supposed to share with me and should never have mentioned in the first place. He tugged his shirt into place. “The ceremony is a person’s official entrance into the Hleo society. Going through it is a stepping up to the commitment of being a Hleo. By allowing yourself to be branded, you agree to the life of a Hleo, and at the same time, during the process you go through a physical change. I can’t exactly describe it; the poker is warmed in a fire, similar to a normal branding poker, but then just before it is applied to the skin it is dipped and coated in a special serum. When it is pressed into your skin the serum seeps into you and your body becomes altered. In that moment you step outside of nature somehow, and are given the abilities I mentioned the other night.” Ethan sat down in the chair beside me and glanced at the sketches I had organized.

“How does the serum work? What is it?” The now familiar headache of information overload lingered, but I was too curious not to ask, and rubbed my forehead with my fingers to fend off the pain.

“I’m not entirely sure. It’s as though a special steroid flows from the poker right into your spine, and then spreads throughout your entire body, like a new life force begins coursing through your veins, but it affects everything, not just your blood. Every cell in your body becomes sheathed in this new force. Only a few Hleo, those that have been around for centuries, still have a grasp of exactly what happens during the process and what the serum is made of. They don’t share that information because they’re worried people outside the society will figure out how to make such power work for

them.” Ethan’s mouth thinned into a hard line.

“Wow.” Once again I was struck by just how completely different Ethan was than other people.

Ethan’s phone buzzed and he pulled it from the pocket of his jeans. “Glad my phone’s waterproof.” He checked the call display. “It’s Evelyn. I’ll take it in the kitchen.” He strode towards the dining room doorway, answering the phone as he went. “What’s up? … Yeah we did take a break … I don’t see how …” He walked down the hallway and rounded the corner into the kitchen.

I peered after him until he’d disappeared. What could she want? Ethan had said she wouldn’t send out the pictures to other Hleo until she had a good number of them, and he had only scanned three sketchbooks so far. If not that, though, what was she calling about?

I sighed and turned my attention to the pictures in front of me. I’d already gone through five of the thirteen sketchbooks and probably would have done more, but I took my time to study each of the drawings, trying to will the images back into my head the way they had originally looked to me. None of them would come. It seemed that, once they were on paper, they were erased from my mind, possibly to make room for new images. I pressed my fingers to my temples. Why was this happening to me, or better yet how?

Ethan returned shortly after and resumed uploading my pictures without a word to me. He seemed subdued, or possibly just focused on the task at hand, it was hard to tell. I wonder what they talked about.

“Hannah, I should tell you, you are exceptionally talented.” Ethan had been studying a sketch I’d drawn of a young woman leaning in across a dresser applying makeup in front of a mirror, and looked up at me still holding the drawing. I liked that particular scene and remembered that drawing the perspective of the woman from both angles—real life and in the mirror—had been an interesting challenge.

Warmth rushed to my cheeks. I’d been told before that I was a good artist and that I had a lot of natural ability, but never by someone who made my palms sweat.

“Thanks, that’s really nice of you to say. I’ve always loved to draw; it’s a release for me, a way to escape everyday life for a little while and just be in the moment that I’m creating on paper,” I admitted with a shy smile.

“I understand the desire to escape. You’re probably wishing you could escape from all of this right now.” Ethan set down the sketchbook he’d been pulling pages out of to scan. “I have to confess I’ve never protected anyone quite like you before, and I hope I’m taking the right course of action. If you ever feel it’s too much and want to take a step back, I can continue with Evelyn. Even though you’ve found out about the world of the Hleo and that you are a protected, you should still be able to carry on with your life as normally as possible. I’m probably putting too much pressure on you. I should never have given you the burden of knowing who I am.” Ethan rubbed a hand across his forehead. The stress he felt was clear in the dark shadows under his eyes.

“Ethan, no, I don’t want to escape this, or you. I’m so glad that I know who you are, that you’ve told me as much about yourself as you have, even the difficult stuff. It makes me feel as though I can trust you more. It is a lot to comprehend, and I’ll be honest, most of it is over my head, but I’m managing. I just want to figure out why I can see flashes of the past, and what that means for me.”

“Okay, I wanted to make sure.” Ethan worked diligently, as though he was in as much of a hurry to figure out this mystery as I was.

“I know this girl,” he said a few minutes later. He sounded strange, almost like he was amused but with something more I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

“Who was she?” I got up from the table and peered over his shoulder to see the sketch he held of a young girl and a guy, both about my age. They walked arm in arm with their backs towards the viewer. Dressed in formalwear, probably from the 1940’s, they strolled along a moonlit path in a garden bordered by weeping willow trees. I’d sketched the image with lots of deep blues and greens to reflect the lushness of their surroundings.

“Her name was Charlotte Dubeau. I protected her for a while in the late 1940’s.” Ethan still spoke in that strange, amused tone.

“Really? How can you be sure? You can only see her back in this picture.” I frowned as I scrutinized the drawing. There was no way the viewer could tell the identity of either person in the picture; they would have to be able to recognize the scene.

“Because I’m pretty sure that’s me.” Ethan pointed at the male figure.

“What?” I snatched the picture out of his hand. It did sort of look like Ethan. His hairstyle was different, shorter and more slicked back, but the body type was the same.

Ethan waited patiently for me to examine the drawing and hand it back to him. When I did, he studied it intently.

I studied him equally intently. What are you thinking, Ethan, and who was Charlotte Dubeau to you? The picture portrayed two young people sharing a fairly romantic, intimate stroll. Is that exactly what it had been? My stomach knotted. Could Ethan have been in a relationship with another girl? I tried not to jump to conclusions. The drawing could be completely misleading. I straightened my shoulders. Even if it was telling the story it appeared to be, what right did I have to be upset? He was just my bodyguard.

“I can’t believe it.” I took a deep breath.

“Neither can I. It’s a very strange feeling to look at yourself on paper, captured in a moment you thought no one saw.” Ethan’s eyes were still focused on the couple.

“So, you and Charlotte were … ?”

“I protected her for almost a year and then I moved on.” Ethan looked over at me. He watched my expression, as though trying to figure out what I was thinking, but was he worried or amused by my possible assumptions?

“And what was your cover story for her?”

“My cover story was that I worked for her father as a

personal bodyguard. He was a wealthy southern businessman who was running for political office and he was worried that someone was going to come after his only daughter.” He rubbed his jaw with the back of his hand. He wasn’t telling me the whole story.

I tried not to let my frustration at his holding back information show on my face. “What did she do? I mean, what was her decision or moment?” I cleared my throat. Do I sound jealous?

“I’m not sure,” Ethan admitted, sounding as though he was trying to remember but couldn’t. He cupped his chin in his hand in concentration.

“You don’t remember?” I asked incredulously.

“No, I wasn’t actually her Hleo anymore when her moment came and went.” Ethan gently set the paper on the dining room table.

That sounded odd to me. From everything Ethan had shared, it seemed that Hleos stayed with their protecteds until their destiny moment had been fulfilled. Was he lying to me? I didn’t want to press the issue, but it was going to bug me. Ethan was clearly going to keep whatever had been between himself and Charlotte exactly that, between them.

I had absolutely no right to be annoyed if Ethan had been romantically involved with someone. He had existed for almost 150 years, and I had no particular claim on him. I needed to accept that, and yet, as I looked at the picture of Charlotte one more time, it was impossible not to feel a bitter ache in my stomach.

After sketchbook number seven of the thirteen, I checked my watch. It was already almost four in the afternoon. I couldn’t believe the day had gone by so quickly and we had barely discovered anything, I’d organized the sketches as best I could, but some of them were over five years old and I couldn’t really remember the exact order of them anymore.

My phone rang, and I grabbed it off the dining room table, knowing it would be Katie.

“Where are you?” Her tone was perturbed.

“I’m at home. Why?” My forehead wrinkled in confusion at the strain in her voice.

“If you think staying home from school will keep you from going on this date with Ryan tonight you are completely wrong. You would have to be in the hospital or something, and even then I might

bring him to you.”

I slapped my hand to my forehead. That was today? After everything that had occurred in the last few weeks it felt like a lifetime since I’d agreed to my date with Ryan.

“Katie, I totally forgot. Something came up. Is there any way we can postpone?” I hoped she would hear the urgency in my voice and let me off the hook.

“The only way you are getting out of tonight is if you tell me you and Ethan have finally declared your undying love for each other and played hooky today, since he was also suspiciously absent from school.”

Moments of my outing at the beach with Ethan played through my mind, but I squashed them away. It hadn’t been a date, it had been recon.

“No, it’s nothing like that. I don’t know where he is.” I shot a glance over at Ethan and winced. I hated lying to Katie, it made me feel terrible, but I kept telling myself it was for the best. I couldn’t see her handling the truth very well. After all, I was barely handling it, and it was about me.

“Then come on Hanns, please. I need Ryan off my back, and if he isn’t occupied he’s going to come over. Luke and I have plans to go to River Glen for dinner. We can’t get all cozy at a candlelit table for two with a third wheel who won’t shut up about the newest video game he scored from his buddy at Electronics Heaven. Please, it’s tonight or never,” Katie begged.

“You’re sure that wouldn’t add to the romance of the evening?” I teased, laughing at the amount of detail she’d thrown into her plea.

“You are not funny,” Katie replied indignantly.

My shoulders slumped and I glanced up to the ceiling. “Okay, when are we supposed to meet and what exactly are we doing?” Ethan could continue uploading my sketches onto the computer while I was gone; it would give him a chance to catch up. And to find out whether any Hleo had recognized any of the people in my drawings.

“You’re meeting at five o’clock for dinner at Jo’s Place, and then I think the plan is to go mini golfing.”

“Mini golfing?” I looked out the window. It was getting a little cold for outdoor activities.

“I’m sure it’ll be fun.”

“Okay, but if he tries to do that arms around me, let me show you the proper way to take a swing thing, I will slap him and the date will be over,” I warned. Ethan’s eyebrows shot up at my comment, and he gave me a funny look. I turned away from him, realizing that he had probably been listening to the entire conversation. What could he be thinking?

“Of course, I told him like forty times you’re just going as friends; I’m sure one of those times it sunk in.” She sounded a little too uncertain for my liking, and I scrunched up my nose. This whole thing seems like a really bad idea.

“Well, I should get ready if I’m supposed to meet him in less than an hour.”

“Thank you so much, Hanns. I owe you big,” Katie said.

“Yes, you do.” I laughed and hung up the phone.

I quickly pulled out my ponytail elastic and shook my hair loose as I jumped up from the dining room chair. I should take a shower, although I wasn’t going to try too hard to look good. I didn’t want to give Ryan the wrong idea in any way if I could help it, but I figured I should at least smell okay, and I still felt grungy from lake water mixed with sand.

“What was that about?” Ethan continued to look through the latest sketchbook he was working on. Was he actually indifferent or pretending to be?

“I promised Katie I would go on a date with Ryan tonight but I forgot, and now I have to hurry to get ready in time.” I headed for the doorway so I could go upstairs and find something decent to wear miniature golfing that would keep me warm.

“You’re going on a date with Ryan?” Ethan sounded surprised.

“Yeah, as a favor to Katie,” I repeated.

“You and Ryan, hmm.” A thoughtful look crossed Ethan’s face, as though he were mulling the thought of us over in his mind. “I can’t really picture it,” he declared after a moment.

“Well, it’s just as friends.”

“I should let you go so you can get ready.” Ethan picked up the next image to load onto the scanner.

“I’m going to jump in the shower and get changed.”

He didn’t look over and I trudged up to my bedroom. Maybe my feelings were unwarranted, but I couldn’t help thinking that I could handle my plans this evening a lot better if Ethan could get at least as jealous over my date with another guy as I had over the time he’d spent with a girl sixty years ago and hadn’t seen since.

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