Something soft and flimsy poked Sophie in the shoulder, and Sophie started, nearly falling onto the gift table. She was about to grab the edge when whatever had touched her before wrapped around her arm and helped steady her.
Warily, with a hand ready to pounce on whatever bug deigned to interrupt her sulking, she eyed her shoulder, and quickly breathed out a laugh. It was just the end of the satin ribbon adorning one of the boxes. Once she was safe on her feet, the ribbon pulled back, and the gift resumed its little fidgety dance around the table.
For a second, she wondered what kind of spell was on it — it could come in handy to have inanimate objects around willing to lend a hand — but a chilly breeze, like someone had opened a door or a window, stopped that thought short.
She'd lost track of Archer, but that didn't necessarily mean he'd already left the room. Archer's attire didn't exactly stand out, and Sophie wasn't about to go up to every waiter in the room and imply to them that Archer Cross was somewhere in the house. Which he probably was: he couldn't have teleported, because that kind of magic was conspicuous, and the room wasn't filled with just regular Prodigium; many people there were, on some level, doubling as party guests and security, trained to detect unexpected uses of magic.
So he probably was still around somewhere, walking around Thorne like he hadn't sneaked in under false pretenses, leaving the opposite way he'd come in. There were only two doors he could have gone out without raising suspicion; one led to the kitchen, past the dining hall. The other one led to the front gardens by way of a flight of stairs that curled around into a ridiculously long hallway. There was a third door, the one all the guests had come through, but it was on the opposite side of the conservatory; he would have had to run to get to it in the few seconds he'd been out of sight.
Sophie scanned the room in an attempt to gauge how many people would stop her if she tried to leave the room right now, and started walking before she could change her mind.
"Sophia, yes?" came the first interruption, a red-haired woman in her late twenties, thirties. She talked like she'd just remembered she was supposed to tell Sophie happy birthday; neither she nor Sophie were interested in making small talk, and it didn't take long to shake her off. A middle-aged couple — judging by their linked arms and the familiarity with which they leaned against each other — sidled up to her next. Sophie thanked them for their birthday wishes, but cut the man off before his full question about her experience at Hex Hall was out.
"I'm sorry, I promised I'd call my mom and tell her how the party was going," she said in her best polite tone. A short, soft sigh left her lips when the man nodded and turned on his heels.
Sophie looked straight forward until she was out of the room, her feet surprisingly light as she stepped quickly down the staircase and into the long hall.
The last time she'd been in this part of the house, it had been much closer to noon than midnight, the sunlight filtering in and coloring the intricate detailing on the frames lining up the wall opposite the glass windows. The windows covered the entire upper half of the outer side of the hallway, like the glass walls in the conservatory right above had tried to extend to the ground and felt satisfied halfway to it.
With the moon not yet out and the stars only beginning to pepper the sky, the hall had a different feel. It wasn't dark; the garden lights were lit, and two of the lamps fastened to the walls gave a soft glow that grew slightly brighter as Sophie walked past them, like they were programmed to recognize human presence. But instead of feeling like an entrance, an extension of the garden, the room felt like a hideaway.
Sophie wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad thing.
She could make out a figure near the door, the shapes becoming clearer as she drew closer. Someone other than Archer would have tried to meet her halfway. It wasn't a good enough reason to believe it was him, but she did anyway, felt it in her bones. She let her steps become louder, the weight of her costume hindering her movement again. The figure stood upright unhurriedly and took a few steps away from the door, fingering the edge of an elaborate mahogany hall table. His chest rose, holding a breath for a few seconds before falling.
"Cross," she said, hoping the normal volume of her voice would carry through the silence. The music upstairs barely trickled down, so nobody would have heard her if she'd yelled for him to wait up, but she wasn't taking any chances.
Archer turned to face her, a smile playing on his lips as she struggled to walk the length of the hall without tripping over her dress. He was still wearing his silver mask. Her pace slowed further now that she was sure it was him.
"It warms the cold shackles of my heart that you find my situation amusing," Sophie said dryly, her voice even thinner than before. There was something intimidating about the silence surrounding them, like a harsh sound might splinter the windowpanes and a cry scare the tree branches swaying softly outside into a frenzy.
"I thought you wanted me to leave," Archer said, matching her tone.
Sophie nodded. "I did. So why are you still here?"
With a nod towards the door, he said, "I'm not suicidal."
It was hard to see the driveway from so far away, but Sophie recognized the men talking by a large SUV as Kristopher and Roderick, two of the remaining council members.
"You brought a car?" Sophie asked. She didn't mean to sound disbelieving. The fact that Archer driving to Thorne struck her as weird was probably weirder than anything else there.
Archer tilted his head, his mouth set in a line like he was trying to figure out how to phrase something. "Let's just say I need to go through there to get to my vehicle." Sophie raised an eyebrow; Archer shrugged, unapologetic, and said, "You'll find out in nine days."
Sophie bit back an incredulous, drawn-out okay and walked around him. She leaned back against the table, settling her weight there, and reached for her crown. It only took lifting it up an inch for her to remember how much better her head felt without it. Maybe she could leave it here, pretend she'd lost it in a fern or something. She wondered if anyone in the room would notice. She'd already made her entrance and paraded — sulked, whatever — around for a while in the full ensemble. Lara couldn't ask for any more than that, and Sophie doubted anyone else would care enough to say anything to her.
Her fingers tugged at the band, and she felt a sharp twinge of pain in her scalp. Before she could tell him to back off, Archer's hands were in her hair, one holding the crown in place and the other trying to untwist the hair that had caught in the filigree.
The closeness was completely unnecessary. Frustrating, too. Back at Hex Hall, she'd physically fought him more than once, but Defense class had always been pretty tough, a soft thrumming of pain keeping her from thinking about Archer in ways she shouldn't. Now they were fighting on a different level, standing at opposing sides, and it should be enough, knowing that Archer worked for an organization that wanted to wipe out her kind, but without a physical obstacle — like distance, she thought, closing her eyes for a second and trying not to wish she hadn't come down here — it was harder to avoid the reckless impulse to touch him, give into the stupid, stupid pull that seemed to draw her to him.
It didn't help that she hadn't felt in danger from him since the shock from the raid at Shelley's had worn off, sometime around the moment he'd handed her that medallion. She reminded herself that she should be, that it didn't matter how familiar he smelled or how, if she just shifted a little, she could bury her head in his neck, trace her nose along the collar of his shirt. He was still a threat. More importantly, he'd still spent months deliberately lying to her.
It was enough to call back her dislike of him, but as he disentangled, removed and gently placed the crown in her hands, she realized her heart wasn't in it. Not right now, and probably not until he pulled some other stunt for L'Occhio, at which point she imagined her self-preservation instincts would put her back firmly in the Archer-hating camp.
She heard her name and looked up from the crown. Archer had said it softly, not like he'd been calling her for a while, so she pushed down the urge to justify her distraction.
Sophie didn't notice she was staring at his mouth until Archer wet his lips to speak. But it wasn't staring, anyway. Her eyes hadn't settled there consciously, but it was the best frame of reference she had for his expression, what with the mask and all, so she kept her gaze where it was.
"You didn't think this outfit through, did you," Archer said, casual, and that was the thing: this was the Archer she'd known at Hex Hall, relaxed under pressure — relaxes in places he'd conned his way into, apparently — and kind of a smart-ass, and a part of her wanted so badly not to have developed a crush on some fake persona, even if it hurt more to know the Archer she liked only existed under a few layers of belonging to L'Occhio di Dio.
"Actually, I did," Sophie said, grimacing and stretching her legs, hoping he'd get the hint. "I didn't pick out this costume, but I did agree to wear it."
Archer took a short step back. "A tiara?"
Sophie hissed through her teeth. "This is not a tiara," she said, holding it up and barely mustering up an accusing look at it before leaving it on top of the table. "This thing weighs three times as much as my head." Her voice was flat, tired of the argument, and now she was thinking, again, about Jenna, and Jenna skipping her birthday party. Jenna wouldn't have let Sophie sneak out to see a boy who had orders to hurt her, abduct her, possibly kill her — and Sophie probably would've lied about it anyway, which would have felt worse than sneaking out without telling anyone.
Pressing her lips together, Sophie lifted herself onto her feet and walked past Archer, smoothing the back of her dress with her hands as she turned to face him. This time she met his eyes; it was a little unsettling in the dim light and the situation they were in, but she was grateful for the distraction.
"Still a tiara," said Archer. He didn't sound like he particularly wanted to continue the conversation, and his voice trailed off into a distracted whisper as he spoke. She felt his hand brush against her wrist; he'd reached for her, before. He must have thought she was leaving, but his hand was still there, hovering close to hers.
She didn't move, not at the feel of his palm on her wrist bone, not when he traced his fingertips faintly over her knuckles. It didn't feel like an option, smashing the moment into pieces. She turned her hand slowly in an attempt to meet his fingers, which curled soft, so softly between hers the touch felt more like proximity than touch, a tingling sensation spreading up her arm, and she shuddered.
She didn't mean to shudder. It was too loud, too sharp, and a sort of cold hit her chest, a new distance. She tried to tell herself it was all for the better, she did, but then a hand was covering her jaw and Archer was kissing her, and it was hard to think at all.
Her lips parted naturally, unselfconscious to give him better access, and she used the hand he'd almost held to grip his arm. Something like fear rose in her chest, and she couldn't tell if she was afraid to want Archer or if she was already dreading letting him go.
Whatever it was, it made her pull back, teetering in her heels to put some space between them, even if it was only a few steps. She let out a long, exhausted sigh as her back hit the wall.
"We shouldn't," she began, fruitlessly steeling herself to leave.
Archer looked at the floor. It lasted about three seconds, and it was probably the closest thing to an apology she was going to get. Not that she needed one. "Do we have to do the whole cliché this is a bad idea dance? We both know where we stand."
"And apparently that's a deserted hall under a room full of people who want your head on a platter."
"Way to kill the mood, Mercer," Archer said, but he was smiling. She wondered if he'd always been like that or if his blasé attitude about being in danger came from years of training and experience. Sometimes it felt like he didn't even register the gravity of the situations he walked himself into until they blew up.
"That's what's important here," Sophie said, "the mood." She drew out the word a little too long, overdoing the effort to make light of the situation, and she let her lids close for a second, breathing in deep.
"I should leave," Archer said, his voice soft again.
He didn't move. Sophie's eyes were still closed, but she could feel his presence, his stillness, the normal way and the way she could sometimes feel other people's magic.
She opened her eyes and enjoyed the silence for a while. The storm hadn't let up, and small flurries of rain encouraged by the wind and the trees pattered comfortingly against the window. The music from upstairs was still too muffled to make out, but it was still playing, a sign that even if she was missed it wasn't worrisome enough to send out a search party.
Archer was still there, thumbing the edge of his pocket, his mouth shifting unconsciously like jittery knees in a waiting room.
"Can we just," Sophie said, low like a sigh, and took a deep breath before going on, "pretend you're a normal boy—"
"Warlock," Archer interrupted. "I'm not giving up my powers."
Sophie rolled her eyes, and regretted it as soon as she remembered the glitter on her lids. "—that you're just a warlock," she went on anyway, her voice stronger now, aware of the way the corners of Archer's mouth slowly curled upwards as she spoke, "and I'm just a—witch, and my birthday party is not even in part a political event and that I just needed a break from all the—" She cracked a smile. "—ruckus. And people and stuff."
Archer laughed. "And you found me here," he said, much quieter than his laugh, an intimate voice to match the strange seclusion of the hall.
"And I found you here," Sophie agreed, suddenly feeling breathless, like she'd run the whole way to the party and back again.
"Because I needed a break from all those people, too." He cocked his head, looking her over pointedly. Under the mask, he was probably raising his eyebrows, the gesture readable in what little of his forehead she could see.
Sophie shrugged, smug but unaffected for the first time all night. She felt comfortable now, enough to bend a knee, enough to lift a heel and trace circles on the floor with the end of her shoe. "Tough luck, Cross," she said, going for friendly. It came out kind of sultry instead, like an invitation.
Might as well, at this point. She used the wall to prop herself upright, and this time she was expecting it when Archer stepped into her personal space and set his hands low on her waist. The subtle tilt of his head was new, and the press of his lips against hers felt different, unburdened if just for a moment. It was Sophie who deepened the kiss this time, keeping it unhurried anyway, trying to retain the impression of ease, of having time.
She didn't register any movement past the easy sway of her body leaning into his, but after a while her shoulder blades brushed the wall, first, and before she knew it her back was almost flat up against it, Archer's fingers digging into the swell of her ass and their hips lining up, not quite insistent — she was not dressed for this — but definitely present. His mouth moved to her jaw, soft nips going down her neck, the edge of collarbone and shoulders her dress left uncovered.
A soft peck on her lips, and then Archer's voice was in her ear, saying, "You should have thought this outfit through," somewhere between amusement — at her predicament — and frustration.
"We're in public anyway," Sophie murmured, because it seemed like the safest thing to say.
"I haven't seen anyone come down here but you."
"Since you left all of a few minutes ago?"
Archer licked his lips and lifted his mask up to his head. It would be easy to pull down if anyone walked by, but now she could see his face, and she was a little taken aback by it. He looked good — a little tired, maybe, but with his eyes bright and his mouth wet and the mess she'd made of his hair, it was easy to pretend their only connection was classmates at Hex Hall, that no one was anything other than exactly what they'd claimed to be when they met.
"Didn't see anybody use that door when I was up there either," he added, and moved one of his hands along Sophie's side, . "But you could just tell me to back off now. If that's what you want," he said, matter-of-fact with a hint of pleading. Sophie liked the pleading part, but she wasn't in the mood for mind games.
"You're kidding, right?" she said, lacing her hands behind his head, tugging him in. She leaned into him as much as her dress would allow, enjoying the press of his warm body against hers, the tingling in her breasts when they dragged along his chest, the way he kissed dirtier when she let her nails scrape the skin beneath the collar of his shirt.
She'd never had a chance to get a taste for this, for Archer, but she felt like she'd missed it, like she'd spent a long time not just wanting it but wanting it back. It wasn't fair that they had a history and only he knew how much of it was true, and she should have dismissed it all the second she saw the tattoo on his chest — in fact, she was sure she had — but now, seeing him again, she couldn't bring herself to believe that all of it had been a lie. She still didn't know how to fit all the pieces she had of him together, but she knew it wasn't wishful thinking or her crush clouding her senses. She was aware of what side he was on, what that side had done to Prodigium across history, but she was also aware of his breath on her neck, his teeth reddening spots on her collarbone, shifting quickly like he wanted to leave marks but knew perfectly well that he couldn't.
She ran a hand down his back and let her head tilt back. Archer raised an arm to cup the side of her face, fingers slipping between the wall and Sophie's skull.
Her phone rang.
Sophie jumped. Her head would have hit the wall hard if Archer's hand hadn't been acting as buffer. He groaned at the slam and pulled his arm back, bending and stretching his fingers with his other hand.
"Sorry. Thanks for that," she said, and fished her phone out of the sleeve she'd charmed to hold it. Archer stepped away and ran his fingers through his hair, which only resulted in it looking even more ruffled.
On the phone was a text from Lara. All it said was, James is looking for you, but it was enough to bring the gravity of their situation into startling clarity.
"Oh, god," Sophie said, and started to laugh. She covered her face with her hands as she got it out, rubbing her eyes with warm fingertips. When she calmed down, Archer was watching her with eyes that seemed almost fond, so much more friendly than they should have been.
As he slipped the mask back over his eyes, Sophie bit her lip, sobering up at the reminder that he wasn't supposed to be here. And they definitely couldn't start something now. There probably wasn't much of a chance in the long run, either. But she didn't want to say goodbye on a sour note, not when she was supposed to meet him again in nine days anyway.
"You should probably leave now." She slipped her phone back into the sleeve.
Archer moved his lips in a considering "yeah, I don't know about that" gesture and said, "You know what, I might stay."
Sophie laughed. "Okay, now I'm really disappointed you didn't bring a gift. You crash a party, you have to bring a gift. I just want you to know that for future reference."
"Oh, we're referencing the future now?"
Sophie let out a low, choked-off laugh and curled her fingers around the back of his neck, pulling him into a kiss. "We're pretending, remember?"
"I remember," Archer said, dry. "What if I just want to stay because I'm—" He waved his hand around.
Archer's lips opened and closed twice before he settled on a word. "Concerned."
"I think the time for manipulative lying has passed," Sophie said, feeling kind of bitter all of a sudden. She walked past him and picked her crown off the hall table.
"And what is it that I want you to do now, Mercer?" Archer said. "I don't know if you've noticed, but if they gave awards for throwing yourself into truly, mind-bogglingly reckless situations, just this once, I think I'd win. I'm hardly in a position to make demands."
"Well, you needed to tell me — that you needed to tell me something," Sophie offered. A part of her had hoped he'd come out with it now, but he only looked at her. "I imagine if you came here, that justifies the risk in some way. Keeps the guilt at bay," she finished awkwardly, setting the crown back on her head. This time she managed not to catch any hair in it — or she might have, but it didn't hurt and it didn't hinder the position of the thing, so it wasn't an immediate concern.
"It does," Archer said, serious for once, with an honesty that struck Sophie silent.
She nodded, wondering what was so huge that she needed to know about it, and why. Why would you deliberately walk into a house full of people who wanted you dead just to slip information to someone who was essentially an enemy? She couldn't justify it, not unless it was a trap, but she knew with startling certainty that Archer wasn't planning to hurt her.
Nine days, she mouthed at him, and then she adjusted her crown and walked away.