“We’re still human,” Chezza said.
“Maybe,” Chas said from the other side of the fire. “And maybe we’re not.” He grinned in his usual way, and cockily took his next bite, straight off the bone in his hand.
Anie watched him, held her breath, waiting for him to go on before she realized that Darien and Wesson were rolling their eyes. Thea was wearing that steady smile that always hid something else, and Chezza had one eyebrow bent over her eye in disbelief. Only Mel looked as curious as she did.
“You believe the stories?” Thea asked quietly. She looked at Chas, measuring him as if wondering if she’d imagined his height and he was still a small boy. “That our blood is made of lightning and our muscles out of thunderheads?”
“You never watch a storm coming over the horizon and think you’ve just found the brother you’ve never met?” Chas asked her, jokingly Anie thought, but there was just enough honesty in the way he looked at her to make Anie listen twice.
“I feel the shift in the air. I feel it’s coming before Mel does,” she said. She nodded toward her younger sister, quietly giving her space to object. Mel only shrugged a little.
“But it’s barely before my father’s bad shoulder tells him that’s it’s coming,” Thea said. “Do you have kinship with my father’s shoulder too?”
Chas shook his head immediately, still smiling. “No, no. I’ve heard your father complain about that shoulder.” He propped his arm on his knee, waved a finger at her. “He says it aches when rain’s on the way. Once, he told me it felt like a bear was sinking its teeth straight to the bone, grinding his bones together. That’s not what we feel.”
Darien laughed softly beside him. “No,” he said. “Not even a little.”
“What does it feel like?” Mel asked beside him. Sometime in the last few moments her hands had slipped down to her ankles, locking her knees to her chest. Her plate rested, forgotten, at her hip, and she looked exactly as she always did when Da had started to spin stories around the fireplace. Anie almost laughed when she realized that her hands had slipped too. Then she leaned into the circle, put her chin on her knees and grinned.
Darien looked a little flummoxed at the question. “It feels like…”
“Like the first time another building feels like home,” Thea said, glancing over with a smile to rescue him. “Comfortable. Secure. Except you’re calling the open sky the roof, and the sweeping wind, the walls.”
“It feels like madness,” Chas said. “The first time you realize that that ice breeze pushing through your shirt, actually feels warm.”
“It feels like being held,” Wesson said. “In arms that know you.”
Chezza didn’t put words to it. She only shook her head and let the conversation skip on around the circle.
“It feels like your skin fits right for the first time in your life,” Darien said. “And it’s gotten so light that you wouldn’t feel it if it weren’t for the tingles playing on it.”
Mel smiled at him. Anie hugged her arms tighter, trying to imagine it.
“It’s why they call us keimon,” Thea explained. She looked at Mel first, then over her shoulder at Anie, making sure she had their attention. Anie pulled her thoughts back together, quickly, catching every word. The syllables sounded strange on her older sister’s tongue, spoken louder than she could remember hearing, the echo of their dark room absent behind her. It sounded like she was reading from a book, like she wasn’t actually sure she knew the truth of what she was saying, but she was entranced enough by it to pass it on. “Living storms, netted in human skin. The very, very old stories talk about the day that our ancestors came down from the sky, chased out of the clouds by their wilder brothers and forced to hide inside human skins. They were thunderstorms, with voices like cracking stone and hands that could shape lightning the way we shape clay. They fell in love before they found their way to sneak back into the sky, and their children were the first keimon, blessed with the gifts of lightning and rain and air. And forever trapped in their skins.”
Mel laughed. “And of course, you don’t believe any of it.”
“Do you?” Anie asked her. “You think Thea’s half a thunderstorm?”
“I know she is,” Mel said easily.
Anie blinked at her.
“Like I said,” Chas said, glancing around at the others. “Maybe we are, maybe we’re not.”
“I always heard that whatever we were, we should never say anything out loud, except that we’re human,” a woman said coming up behind Chezza. “That Fate likes to tangle her fingers in the lives of greater beings, and we shouldn’t tempt her attention.”
The sun had set just enough to set her in shadows before she stepped all the way up to the firelight. Then Anie could make out her dark hair, tanned skin, belted clothes held tight to her frame as if she didn’t like any loose bit to get in her way. She’d been on the horse earlier, Anie realized, and she was shorter than Anie had thought. Her hands were callused, like Da’s, thick lines across her palms from use. She nodded hello to Chezza, then to the rest of them.
“I’ve heard that,” Wesson said. “I’m not sure it’s true, but I’m not so sure that we’re not human, so…” He shrugged.
The woman nodded. “Fair enough,” she said.
“This is Seryn,” Chezza said, introducing her to the rest of the group. Then she nodded around the circle and gave their names as well. “Anie. Mel. Darien. Thea. Chas. Wesson.”
Seryn met Anie’s eye. It was a comfortable look, and Anie caught herself trying to return it with the same steady confidence, the same weight that managed to feel more like gravity than heavy stone. And then Seryn was looking at the others, looking at each of them in turn as Chezza introduced them.
“It’s good to meet you,” Seryn said at the end. “I’m sorry I can’t stay. It looks like someone here actually knows how to cook. But I was just looking for Chezza.”
“You need me?” Chezza asked. She sounded curious, but her tone came out so evenly, it was clear it was a regular occurrence.
Seryn nodded. “Aled and Drystan are back.” She was smiling. Anie thought that it looked a little too steady, a little too much like Thea’s, covering over something else.
Chezza stood immediately, rolling to her feet in one smooth motion without bracing her hands against the ground. She was taller than Seryn by half a foot, but ducked her head as if she didn’t know it. “Thank you,” she told Anie and the others. She smiled. “I hope I’ll see you all soon. If nothing else, I might sneak back the next time I have something good to offer for dinner. I mangle things when I try to cook them myself.” She tapped her forehead with two fingers and fell in step behind Seryn, disappearing back into the shadowed paths between campfires. Anie bent a little, watching them go.