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It turns out that it's hard to be afraid with death staring you in the face when your twin already tried to kill you after becoming a vampire.

Phil stares into the vampire's silver-blue eyes, who's gazing at him like--there's no other way to describe it--he's food. There's a brief moment of panic, that familiar stomach drop as he remembers he's really nowhere near the top of the food chain, and then his mind turns cool and calm, even as he knows he's going to die. The vampire is faster and hungrier and desperate. Phil doesn't have a chance.

The fear is numb, half-hearted at best, but his heart hammers anyway. The vampire's face is a horrible mixture of relief and bliss.

Phil can't bring himself to be fully afraid.

And then the windows explode.

 

#

 

Poppy's pretending to read a book when he wakes up.

"Phil!" The book goes flying and she reaches for his hand, forgetting her strength until his bones rub together and he can't stop himself from wincing. She drops his hand, momentarily horrified.

"It's okay," he says because he has to. Vampire or not, she's still his twin. Some things, he knows, are thicker than blood.

"I'm sorry," she says because she's still Poppy.

He sighs, trying to relax as he looks around the room. His bones feel fragile and hollow. "Where am I?"

"One of Circle Daybreak's safe houses. James is here, too."

Phil swallows, thinking, Circle Daybreak. The safe one. There's no point being surprised at the mention of James' name--where Poppy goes, James follows. An eternal package deal.

He realises Poppy is now carefully not looking at him.

Phil frowns. "What happened? I remember the vampire... and then the windows exploded--"

Poppy hesitates, then meets his eyes again. "We managed to make someone talk. It took our best trackers to find you. I may have got upset."

Phil almost laughs, until he remembers Poppy getting upset used to mean her throwing a strop. Now...

He looks at her for the first time since he woke up, really looks at her, and feels a prickle of fear at her too-pale skin and too-vivid eyes. A hunter's eyes gaze at him from his sister's face and despite everything, despite Phil knowing that she can control herself, part of him acknowledges that he still can't be entirely comfortable around her. She embraced their heritage, accepted the eternal kiss the Night World offered her, and he didn't.

They're still twins, but not still Phil and Poppy, and Phil realises he's never felt more alone in the almost-two years since Poppy died and came back as a vampire.

Poppy stiffens, her eyes going opaque, as if she can read his mind. "I'm glad you're okay," she whispers, but doesn't touch him again. The corners of her mouth jerk, a sad attempt at a smile, as if she's about to cry. She's gone from the room in a less than a moment.

A wave of exhaustion, dark and terrible, engulfs Phil. He's about to close his eyes, ready for sleep, when he suddenly remembers that he still can't properly shield his thoughts. Poppy probably didn't even have to try to read what he was thinking.

It's then he realises that he couldn't hear any of hers.

 

#

 

When Phil opens his eyes again, James is sitting by the bed, his arms crossed. He doesn't even pretend to be doing anything else.

Phil sighs.

"You upset Poppy," James says.

"I'm her brother." Phil shifts, trying and failing to get into a more comfortable position. "Not everything I say to her is going to be nice."

James' mouth tightens to a thin line, and then he says, "You really shouldn't upset her."

Phil glares at him. "Why, is she going to snap and rip out my throat?"

"No." James' gaze is cool and assessing. "But she's not the Poppy you said goodbye to. A lot has changed."

He's right, but not in the way he means. When James and Poppy drove away into the night, leaving Phil behind, Phil was already older. Now he's eighteen and in university; popular but a loner; kind but with a tendency to keep people at a distance; and Poppy--

Poppy still looks sixteen, still elfin, but now with an aura of danger that wasn't there before.

Phil looks at James and wishes he could claim this was all his fault, that the consequences of Poppy's transformation rest on his shoulders. But he can't. Not with the cancer.

"How are you feeling?" James asks.

Phil scowls. "Why bother asking? You can already read my thoughts."

"It's considered rude to read someone's thoughts when they know you can," James says though his teeth.

"Oh." Phil has the good grace to stare at his hands as his cheeks burn with shame. "Sorry." He takes a deep breath and adds, "I'm better. Less like I went backwards through a window."

James snorts. "No, more like the window fell on you. You were lucky that no shards hit anything major."

"Where did he come from?" Before, Phil would have dithered about asking James anything, unsure about what type of answer he really wanted, but that was before his world-view and overall life were altered almost beyond recognition. It's hard to take things like drinking and girls and exams seriously when you can never be completely sure that the person sitting next to you in World History is actually human.

He and James will never like each other. They'll never sit down and watch sports in a bar while eating crappy food. They'll never hang out. But Poppy is their buffer, the glue that keeps the three of them together. Mostly.

James turns grim. "We're pretty sure we have a mole who's been keeping track of family members. We got information two days ago that you were going to be the next hit. We were able to work as fast as we could, thanks to you and Poppy secretly keeping in touch."

"She's my sister," Phil says, because it's easier to say something he already knows than admit to the dark, creeping terror building in his stomach, fear he didn't properly possess when face-to-face with a furious, starving vampire.

"I know," James says in a flat, tired voice. "Maybe it's time you remembered that."

 

#

 

He spots the familiar vampire--Poppy said he was one of the lamia, like James--two days later, when he's finally allowed to wander around the grounds alone and trying to forget that Poppy is ignoring him. It's the graceful gait that gives the vampire away, like that of a large cat. The walk of a predator.

When Poppy called it a safe house, this sprawling mansion wasn't exactly what Phil had imagined, with its perfectly manicured lawns to amuse them and clockwork patrols of guards to protect them. Poppy won't say all that much about Thierry, the financier behind all this and, from the bits and pieces of gossip he's managed to pick up, someone important in the Night World. Phil could walk right by this Thierry person and not know him, but when he'd mentoned this, both James and Poppy had said he'd know. From their expressions, Phil had no choice but to believe them.

It takes him a moment to remember his name--Ash, that was it--but there's no irritation, no fury over what he had almost done to Poppy. Ash has changed, Poppy told him once. What James had said to him at Thierry's almost two years before had come true.

There had been, and still was, a girl.

Phil watches Ash prowl the grounds, and contemplates going over and asking him just what it was about this girl that had sparked such a profound change. What had possessed him, like James, to throw away everything he had known for an ideal he couldn't be sure would come true.

In the end, though, he stands and watches Ash walk away from his line of sight.

 

#

 

He likes Thea. Out of all the Night People that Poppy has befriended, it's her he feels the most comfortable around. She has her moments of forgetting and accidental blunders, like all the supernaturals it seems, but she has a genuine fondness for aspects of humanity that makes up for her upbringing.

Phil knows it's part of why Eric fell for her. Apart from the whole soulmate thing, obviously.

So when she sits down beside him one morning, when they're the first people awake, he feels like she has betrayed him when she says, "I know you're a lost witch, Phil. And I think it's time you embraced that part of yourself."

She doesn't look distressed when he replies, "No," in a flat voice. She merely gives him a sad, sweet smile, pats his knee, and tells him to think about it.

It feels like he suddenly blinks and he's alone in the breakfast room, the cup of coffee curdled and cold in his hands. Thea doesn't know what she's asking. Of course she doesn't--she was raised as a witch, has known nothing else despite her self-imposed exile for love. She has known nothing except the Night World and her line, even with her fondness for humanity.

She chose exile for Eric, he reminds himself. Not for humanity.

He won't embrace the darker side of himself like Poppy did. He can't.

One of the North twins has to remember what it's like to be human.

 

#

 

It takes him a while to realise that Eric and David have sort of adopted him as one of their own. It makes sense, he supposes, since he's the only other comparatively normal human in the safe house (or so they assume; it seems James and Poppy have only told Thea about his witch heritage).

It's horrible, how much of a relief it is to be able to sit and watch football with other guys, and eat bad food and shout at the TV, and not have to worry about whether the guy sitting next to him could snap his neck without a second thought if he wanted to.

Sometimes, when he's trying to imagine what he would sound like if he was explaining this to someone else, Phil realises how fucked up his life has become.

Still, he knows it could be worse. Mostly.

So they watch football, and eat bad food, and basically hang out like any other bunch of teenage guys, and it's pretty awesome. Eric's a bit weird, admittedly, but Phil has hung around worse.

And then Blaise waltzes in, her smile setting off a million and one alarms in Phil's head, and asks Phil out on a date. Since witch guys are few and far between.

For a handful of seconds, Phil desperately wants to kill her, even though it would definitely upset Thea. Not to mention Poppy would be pretty angry with him, if she deigned to look him in the eye, much less speak to him.

In fairness--if Phil particularly wants to be fair or charitable, which he really doesn't--the guys don't visibly recoil from him. Their soulmates are witches, and they both didn't know it when they first met them. This isn't the first time their world has been turned on its head, and it likely won't be the last.

But he sees their eyes change, just a little, coolness shuttering over their expressions. They won't be so easy to trust him now, their acceptance withdrawn. They'll still be friendly, still easy with him, but the warmth will be gone. It's all cordial, surface friendliness from here on out.

It's later, when he's brooding and steeling himself for tracking down Blaise, that Phil realises they looked at him in much the same way he probably looked at Poppy when he woke up.

 

#

 

Blaise, Phil realises within ten seconds, is a bitch. A drop-dead gorgeous one, of course, but still a bitch.

A bitch who would gladly see the end of the human race as long as it didn't affect those she loved. But since Blaise only truly loves Thea, her cousin-but-practically-sister, it means that only Eric has to stay alive. The rest of them can go to hell. Up until Blaise overheard Poppy and Thea talking about Phil's reluctance to accept his inheritance, the rest of them also included Phil himself.

"I don't like you," he finally says, hating that she has brought him to full-on frustration in less than thirty seconds.

("Be careful of Blaise," Poppy told him once. "As long as she thinks you're human, you're fair game for her to ruin." Granted, there had been little reason to suspect their paths would eventually cross, or Poppy would have told Blaise the truth. As it is, their unofficial-but-totally-an-open-secret avoidance probably made that more complicated. Phil can't quite convince himself that he wouldn't have been angry if Poppy had told the truth about him.)

Blaise throws back her head and laughs. "Like I care." Before, when she thought he was human, the words would have been laced with scorn. Now that he's revealed as a lost witch, untrained but no longer all that lost, her voice has a dark and smoky edge.

She's flirting with him.

He grits his teeth, but forces out: "I'm not like you. And I don't appreciate you telling people things about me that I prefer to stay secret."

She snorts. "Nothing ever stays secret."

Phil realises too late that there's no point in attempting reason with Blaise. So instead he chooses the ultimately hopeless, but vindictively satisfying option of arguing in a loop with her.

"And what about what will come, witch boy?" She crosses her arms, the corner of her mouth tilting up in a mocking smile. "When we're fighting for our lives, will you be content with your twin protecting you while you hide, cowering? Because that's what you are right now: a helpless human, even with your witch heritage."

Her words are like a bucket of icy water dumped over his head. Horror and panic unfurl in his stomach, but he forces himself to stay calm. Even though she probably can't read his mind, he visualises a brick wall around his thoughts. He wants--needs--to keep this to himself.

"And what about your parents?" Blaise presses, her eyes gleaming, knowing that she's found a chink in his armour and determined to widen it. "No matter how good Thierry's guards are, they're not perfect. Eventually, something's going to happen and they'll have to be told about all of this. And what will you do then?"

Phil swallows, knowing this isn't an argument he's going to win. Despite his ancestors, every single Night Person here--including his own sister--treats him as inferior, even when they don't mean to. They treat him like a child: naive, weak, and foolish. He's starting to wonder if Poppy wanting him to survive this badly was worth it when she still can't bring herself to speak to him.

He turns and walks away with his head held high. For a moment, a single moment, he does admit that no girl has dismissed his opinions as easily as Blaise. If he didn't want to slam her head against a wall so badly--and Phil is not normally inclined to violence; this is what spending too much time around Night People has done to him--it would be intriguing.

"By the way," Blaise calls after him. "You should really learn to control your heartbeat. Your pulse gives you away."

Or not.

 

#

 

It's when an assassin comes for him and nearly kills David in the process that Phil realises Blaise was, in her own way, right all along.

Poppy rushes towards him after the healers have deemed him fit and unharmed, and hugs him until he worries she's going to unintentionally crush his ribs. He needs them, but he lets her do it anyway. He'll survive. Hopefully.

Poppy stares up at him, her eyes huge and bright in her pale face, and says, "I'm sorry."

He attempts a smile. "I am, too."

Later, when Thea and Blaise come to see how he is, Phil takes a deep breath. "I've been thinking. And maybe you were both right."

Thea's expression is carefully neutral. Blaise raises an eyebrow and tilts her head as she looks at him through her eyelashes.

Despite her encouraging hand squeeze--Poppy is reluctant to leave his side--Phil notices her stiffen as she eyes Blaise. Apparently Phil becoming acquainted with Thea's unruly cousin wasn't quite part of the general plan.

"If there's a war coming," Phil says, "then I need to know how to defend myself. I don't think I'll be that good--I'm not as fast as a vampire, or able to take as much damage--but I can't be helpless. The Night World knows I'm Poppy's twin. Now it needs to know who I really am."

Thea looks ridiculously proud of him. Blaise is giving him a reconsidering look, like he's suddenly done something interesting and revealed an unexpected side to himself. She also looks like she wants to get to know the real him, too, and he shifts uncomfortably.

Phil sighs. "I guess I need to learn whatever a witch needs to know. For my own safety, and for everyone else's." Gillian has not left David's side since he was stabbed.

The others have risked everything for love. He's going to do it for family. Including the one who's no longer human, even if she has a soulmate.

"If it makes you feel any better," Blaise says dryly, "you'll never be short of a date for the rest of your life."

Poppy glares at her. Thea rolls her eyes.

"It doesn't actually, no," Phil says. This time Blaise rolls her eyes.

She brushes her fingers across the back of his hand as she passes on her way to the door, to blatantly unnerve him and infuriate Poppy. A spark flares between them. Phil jumps. Blaise stumbles. They stare at each other.

Phil is vaguely aware of Poppy and Thea exchanging worried and horrified looks.

He knows what such things mean, of course; he's been here too long, surrounded by soulmate couples, not to.

He thinks, No. No. Not you, and not now.

If her expression is anything to go by, Blaise feels exactly the same way.

They glare at each other.

Phil watches Blaise turn on her heel and stalk out the door, heedless of Poppy's high-pitched babble and Thea's worried murmuring. All he wants is a normal life, especially when he realised it wasn't that likely for him unless he cut off all ties with Poppy. And he'd rather cut off his right arm than do that.

In fact, someone else nearly cut off his right arm for him.

But he doesn't want this. He didn't want his sister to become a vampire. He didn't want to be descended from a witch. He doesn't want to be stuck in the middle of a war, a target when he hasn't even done anything wrong.

He doesn't want Blaise to be his soulmate.

He's beginning to realise the Night World doesn't give a damn about what he wants.