Roman has always known he was different. He was a Godfrey. His family ran this whole shit-stain of a town, if not the entire county, and their money and their name could stretch that influence nearly anywhere they pleased. From the very moment he was born, Roman belonged to a social strata most people could only dream of.
So he was rich, he was good looking, he was charming when he wanted to be; there were very few things in life Roman Godfrey couldn’t have, and he was certain once he turned eighteen and officially inherited everything the list would be even smaller.
The trouble was Roman’s reasons were different from everyone else’s.
The trouble was Roman hadn’t known.
“Freak,” Roman hears someone mutter, the sharp way you do when you want someone to overhear.
There are a lot of rumors about gypsies. That they can steal your heart right out of your chest along with all your valuables. But some say they can mend broken hearts, or conjure you a new one. Some even swear they can grant you wishes, though what that’s supposed to cost Roman doesn’t know.
He knows Olivia used to go see the old man who lived there. That he used get something for her. Something illegal, probably, but Roman doubts it had anything to do with his mother’s so-called heart.
He flicks the remainder of his cigarette away and heads to class.
Roman and Peter become friends on a bloodstained playground; Roman watches Peter strip naked and transform; Roman watches Peter eat his heart whole and have another bloom in his chest like a night flower, while Peter’s wolf mouth snarls and chews his own steaming flesh.
Olivia sneers the word Gypsy as though shit drops from her mouth every time she says it, but Shelley grins whenever Peter’s name is mentioned. Letha shares her fruit salad with him at lunch. The front seat of Roman’s car becomes scattered with long, dark hairs, bits of loose tobacco, a faintly dusty smell. He learns Peter’s heart flares up like a fire alarm when he’s scared and glows like an ember when he’s happy. If they sit close together, shoulder to shoulder, sharing a beer or a smoke or driving in the car, Roman can feel it bounce around in Peter’s chest. It’s the loudest heart Roman’s ever heard, and almost as bright as Shelley’s, and he wants to bask in it like a snake in sunlight.
They rob graves, they sift through the lives of these dead girls, they lie and lie and lie and it doesn’t matter. Roman presses one hand to the ache under his collarbones and thinks, this is probably what love is.
Roman and Peter find the other half of Lisa Willoughby’s body at the old steel mill. Her chest is torn open, ribs splayed out like broken piano keys, and something has eaten her heart.
“Jesus,” Peter says, and kisses the necklace he keeps tucked under his shirt.
“Messed up,” Roman agrees. He coughs to cover up the way he wants to gag at the smell.
The rest of his night consists of letting Officers Neck and Nose arrest him, even though the mill is practically his, then getting lectured to within an inch of his life by his mother. He thinks that’s the cherry on top until he tries to get in touch with Peter.
Peter, who wants him to go away. Who says they’re done.
Done what? Roman wants to ask. What was this, what’s done? And the sick feeling inside him spreads and spreads and spreads, like his ribs can no longer contain it. Just like Lisa Willoughby.
Roman decides to do a lot of coke. Roman decides to visit the White Tower. Roman steals the security guard’s badge and tries to break into the basement. Because Roman is a bad decision making fuck up of a person anyway, right?
“Where is it?” he asks Pryce. His knuckles are bleeding from banging on the door, one fingernail hanging off where he’d tried to pry the card-reader open. “Where is it? Where’s Atreus?” and the scaly motherfucker just smiles.
Atreus is housed in a sub-basement, down a locked staircase, tucked away from the rest of the labs. The lights there are softer, and older, and flicker with an instability not allowed anywhere else in the facility.
Pryce is still smiling when he opens the door.
“What. What is it.”
“It’s a heart, of course,” Pryce says.
“Outside a body?” Roman asks, dumbly, because of course outside a body. It’s sitting in a fucking tank.
“Oh yes,” Pryce continues. “For now.”
Then there’s a sharp pain in Roman’s neck, and - for a while - nothing at all.
get up, the voice tells him, get up get up GET UP--
“Catabasis,” not-Shelley explains. Roman only knows who she is because her heart is the same; the outside is much more beautiful. “Because you can’t even fall into a coma without doing it dramatically.”
“But what does it mean?”
“A catabasis is a ritualized descent into the underworld to accomplish a necessary task or defeat a dangerous adversary,” Shelley recites, sing-song.
“You’re not like other people, Roman.” Shelley’s hand is soft in his. “You’ve always known this.”
Norman is sitting behind his desk. His doctor desk, his solid fuck-you-I’m-the-authority desk. It’s made of Carpathian Elm, and his aunt had it shipped from Spain for their fifth wedding anniversary.
“Which wolf are you feeding, Roman?” his uncle asks. His tapping fingers echo like war drums. “Which wolf do you want to win?”
“But I only know one wolf,” Roman protests, and Norman laughs and laughs.
Chasseur is sitting on the lawn next to him, cross-legged.
“Do you even know what you’re feeding it?” she asks. “A heart is traditional, of course, but that’s a little out of your purview.” She has blood on her hands and on her face, but not between her teeth. He can see that when she smiles.
People have hearts.
Ergo, Roman has a heart.
“Plenty of people have no hearts,” Shelley tells him matter-of-factly, swinging her feet.
Of course she’s right. There are people who have given them away, or had them stolen, or even had them broken so badly they crumbled to dust. You could live without a heart, sometimes, if you were strong enough.
Roman never really thought of himself as strong, if he was being honest.
“I don’t think I’m that kind of person,” he says. He’d never done any of those things.
Shelley’s eyes - a warm brown, a perfect matched set - are kind. “Oh Roman,” she sighs. “You always were.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise to find his mother last, strolling the halls of the mansion in a dress so white it glows.
“You really should snap out of this,” Olivia says, flicking her cigarette so the ash scatters. “It’s tiresome.”
“Tiresome,” Roman repeats. “You know what’s fucking tiresome? Being in a coma!”
Olivia tilts her head back, a delicate roll of her eyes. “Haven’t you figured it out yet, darling? You can leave any time you like. Any time you admit it to yourself.”
Admit what, Roman wants to ask. It sticks in his throat.
"You were born with the caul, Roman,” his mother continues. “I waited years for you. Many years, and many children. Don’t you think you got the better end of this particular bargain?”
“People have hearts!” he yells, voice cracking.
“People do,” his mother agrees. “But you’re not people, darling. You never were.”
He’s starting to think she doesn’t mean it as metaphorically as everything else around here.
“My little emperor,” she says, the light spilling out of her chest so bright it blinds him. “Mine.”
When Roman wakes up, Peter is at his bedside.
Roman figures that’s as much a sign as anything that happened in the coma.
“You know, right,” Peter asks him, later. They’re sitting on the front steps of the trailer, stomachs full of Lynda’s stroganoff, cans of beer at their feet. “I mean, you... know now.”
“Yeah,” Roman says. “I do.” He passes Peter a cigarette. “Weird, huh?”
“Buddy, I’m a werewolf,” Peter says. He takes a drag from the cigarette before handing it back. “But yeah. Pretty weird.”
This close, arm to arm, Roman can feel the way Peter’s heart thumps around in his chest.
Probably that’s enough, he thinks. Maybe that will be enough.