Isaac was standing in line for sangak behind a very short, implacable old lady in a shawl who had definitely been in line before, even though the big beige sign hung over the glass partition in front of the counter clearly said one sangak per one customer. She must be having a lot of relatives over, he guessed. He hadn't been planning on getting any sangak until he stepped inside the grocery store and the smell of fresh baked bread hit him right in the face; he kept resolving to ditch the long line and get some cereal and things as he had originally planned, but the line had been steadily moving forward while he was trying to make up his mind, and now he was so, so close. The old lady smacked her lips, her eyes fixed on the bakers' flour-coated arms. Isaac thought about skipping his own family's Friday dinner to hang out with Russell and his crew, maybe go go-karting with them if that was what they were doing, and tried to gauge how pissed his mom would be if he just showed his face and ducked out early, when a hand poked him sharply in the left kidney.
"Gah," Isaac said, flopping sideways. He met Tessa's smiling eyes and straightened with a huff.
"Is that how you're saying hi now?"
Tessa gave him a hug across the black crowd-control barrier that kept the non-sangak shoppers safe from the sangak line. "Hi."
"Are you busy?"
Isaac's grin disappeared. He was all too familiar with the expression that Tessa wore. "Yes."
Tessa's smile only broadened. A dimple appeared. She hooked her arm around his waist more securely.
"Let me get my sangak first!" Isaac squawked as the old lady looked upon him with approval. Tessa grumbled, but inched forward alongside him at the promise of a generous share, chatting about the traffic she had encountered on the way. They watched the old lady bully the apprentice baker on duty into handing over two more loaves, and squeezed between a giant cardboard box full of grapefruit and a pyramid of green pineapples and past a string of shoppers caught in a cart gridlock to breeze through the express checkout. They found an empty stretch of table in the indoor food court crammed in the space between the registers and the doors, where a handful of office workers from nearby were powering through a late lunch next to a couple of families. In the back corner, a flock of small children belonging to a pair of parents - surrounded by uncles and aunts busily vivisecting the aftermath of the disastrous wedding reception of a cousin so-and-so - was in the process of destroying several plates of borani and egg rolls and beef koobideh.
Even though he was about to be roped into another one of Tessa's exploits, Isaac felt pretty good about the broad loaf of sangak now securely in his hands, studded with sesame seeds and steaming warm.
"Got some intel," Tessa said, lowering her voice, even though the only one who might have eavesdropped in on their conversation over the low din of the food court was a bright-eyed baby in a bib in a high chair, two seats down the long cafeteria-style table. Tessa wriggled her fingers at the kid, who crinkled his eyes and gave her a drooly smile, and turned to Isaac, who crossed off tiny adorable babies off his list of things that could possibly distract Tessa from leading him headlong into trouble, at which she excelled. "Longlin," she said.
"A fabled object of great power that I have to retrieve and blah blab blah, there's like a prophecy."
"Tessa, you really gotta figure out a way to keep your relatives from dumping this all on you."
"My cousins are still in preschool, what do you want me to do?" she said, annoyed. "Once those twerps hit puberty, I'm so done. Till then," she spread her hands. "I can't let Inhwan and his gang get their hands on it."
"What's it even do?"
She shrugged impatiently. "I don't know. Something major, if he's personally interested."
"And you need me along why?"
"Carpool lane," Tessa answered. "It's kinda far away. Can we take your car? The air-conditioner in mine is broken."
"Too bad for you, it's in the shop," Isaac crowed. "I rode my bike," he explained a moment later.
He shrugged. "You know, the thing."
Tessa looked unhappy. "That leaves Merlin."
"If you really want him along don't warn him ahead of time," Isaac automatically said out loud, and then promised his brain that when this was all over he was going to beat the shit out of it at the AGA party on Saturday. He managed to pull his Blackberry halfway out of his back pocket before Tessa jabbed him right in the crook of his arm across the tabletop, fast and precise, making him yelp. He rubbed the inside of his elbow and held up his hands in defeat.
There was something deeply wrong with a world, Isaac thought, where there could come a day when he could regret not having Merlin on speed dial.
"Well, if you've got--"
"Three people for love and great justice," Tessa cheerfully said, pushing her chair back and standing up. "Let's just go over to his house then."
Isaac stifled a groan and followed her out into the boiling lot where a squabble over a parking spot had broken out. They gave the crowd a wide berth and picked up his bike from where it had been baking, latched to a pathetically small bike rack next to a row of vending machines. Gingerly, Isaac pushed it to where Tessa's had parked her hatchback. He toed aside a plastic bucket and a crumpled unopened bottle of water and stowed his bike, jamming it in awkwardly over the back seat before slumping inside next to Tessa, ready for the instant the engine would turn so that he could roll down the window. He ripped off another piece off of the loaf of sangak as Tessa muscled her way out of the crowded lot.
The drive wasn't a long one, but they needed to make a stop at Isaac's house so that he could drop off his bike and pick up his sword, which lived at the bottom of a pile of sneakers and jeans and T-shirts in his closet inside an old brass case that was inlaid with enough gold and silver to make up a small goblet or two were it ever to be ever melted down. There was inlay on the sword, too, lotuses and effusive scrolls, but the steel underneath it was something strange. Isaac had no clue how old it was. For all he knew, the sword could have been forged in Sogdia, Fergana, Tibet, maybe even in an imperial workshop patronized by the Sassanids or the Tang, it could have been descended from the hands of the Karluk smiths. It was missing a scabbard. Lost it a while before you were born, his dad simply said.
He bundled an old beach towel around the blade and snuck out the way he had come in - out the second-story window of his room, a short drop down to the patio, through a gap in the pyracantha bushes - just in case his mom returned home early from visiting her friends. It wasn't so much that his parents disapproved of his sallying forth like the sad lost love-child of Bruce Lee and Rustam, but Isaac was in plenty of trouble already for getting his car trashed the week before, even though that had been only partly his fault. He didn't want to have to explain why he was going out of his way to help Tessa, whose life was fantastically complicated as he was all too aware.
"Let's do this," Isaac half-heartedly said.
Merlin lived in a big empty split-level in a neighborhood a couple streets over, three houses down from Sandip, a fellow second-year biochem major who totally grokked why discussing the properties of moth silk versus spider silk was awesome, unlike Merlin, who could do a staggering amount of math in his head but only liked to talk about weird random books and was well on his way towards failing to get a degree in business management like his parents wanted. Merlin, who swore on the altar of Mazu-po that he was not named after either the wizard or the bird of prey, but who was almost pathologically fond of those places where the world was worn to the thickness of a single atom; in other words, those places where only birds of prey and wizards go. Tessa, the cutting edge of all their misadventures, had probably known him for as long as he had. Isaac considered their chance meeting as impressionable seven year-olds at the martial arts academy in Garden Grove the worst best thing, or possibly the best worst thing, that had ever happened to him.
"When'd you get back? I haven't seen you in forever."
"And you're getting involved in some big-ass fight already."
She gave him a lopsided smile. Isaac handed her another piece of bread and they chewed in silence the rest of the way. Tessa knew about destiny; so did he.
They turned into the cul-de-sac where Merlin lived. Tessa parked the car a little ways down from his place and they quietly crept up the sidewalk to the driveway. Isaac carefully shooed some honeybees back toward the blue flowers that swooped out in tall piled cones over the fence. Tessa opened the gate to the narrow concrete-enclosed backyard and they went into the family room of the house through the unlockd patio doors.
Merlin was leaning against the kitchen counter in his usual slacker get-up and leather flip-flops, eating pretzels and watching AC Milan versus Napoli on the flat-screen that took up the top half of the far wall. One of his feet was planted on a skate deck that he was aimlessly sliding side to side in place on the grungy white tile. Isaac thought Merlin always looked like he could use the company of some sort of friendly four-legged creature. A cat, at the very least.
"Hey Merlin," Tessa said, waving and sliding the screen door firmly shut behind her. Isaac hopped up to sit on the counter next to him and grab some of the pretzels. "Which half we on?"
Merlin tried to pull the bowl out of his reach and glared. "Thanks for knocking. Whatever it is, you can forget it."
"Your two most favorite people in the world need a ride to Redlands," Tessa said. "Kinda right away."
"Yeah, I don't think so," he said, handing Isaac the bowl and edging around the corner of the counter.
"Merlin!" Tessa gushed, wrapping her arms around his waist before he could get away. "C'mon. I have to go keep a sacred artifact from falling into the wrong hands. You're not doing anything, right?"
"Again! Why do I gotta take you?"
"Cuz, Isaac's current set of wheels are like environmentally friendly and yours has air conditioning."
Merlin shook her off and retreated to the other side of the counter. "I'm not driving you and Isaac to Riverside at," he glanced at his phone, "3pm on a Thursday. Seriously. The other dudes can have it if they want to drive there during rush hour."
"Redlands," Isaac corrected.
"Yeah, not happening."
"You went to Pomona for a taco truck last week," Tessa said, narrowing her eyes. When Merlin opened his mouth, she added, "Don't even. I saw the pictures on your Facebook."
"The taco truck appreciates my business and is filled with delicious fusion tacos," Merlin said smoothly, pocketing his expensive overpowered platinum-plated phone. "Whereas you and Mister 'hey you know what's a great idea, saving the world on a weekday' are talking about going after some magic thingy and probably getting in a fight with what's-his-name over said doodad."
"Did you just say doodad?"
"Hey, this is not my idea."
Merlin opened the fridge and stuck his head inside. "Count me out. Want something to drink? I got juice, Mist--"
"Inhwan just texted me," Tessa said. "They left already, come on."
"Hey, we didn't get a text," Isaac said. He frowned. "Why is your mortal enemy texting you?"
Merlin shut the fridge door and handed him an ice-cold can. "Inhwan doesn't think we're cute," he conjectured. Isaac made a face. Tessa punched them both in the shoulder, hard, as she swept past. "It's a supervillain thing, you jerks. Let's go."
Isaac set the unopened can on the counter and hauled Merlin behind him out to the black Mercedes CLS parked on the driveway. Tessa tapped one of the wheels with her foot while Merlin circled around to the back and brushed some imaginary dust off the trunk in an obvious attempt to stall. "Are these new? What d'you drop?"
"Wa, hao gui," she exclaimed. "Hao gui ah," Merlin said. Isaac shook his head, eliciting a light shove from Merlin, and got in the car.
"What is it, anyway?"
"Something called dragon scales. I - didn't catch all of it," Tessa said. "I guess it's like a metaphor for infinity?"
"Wow. I can't see how going after something that has both 'dragon' and 'infinity' in it could possibly go wrong," Merlin observed as he slipped on a pair of Oakleys and backed the car out out of the driveway.
"It'll be fine," Tessa said, donning her own sunglasses and stretching out in the seat. Isaac snorted. Tessa flipped him off and began rummaging around the front of the car, prompting Merlin to start arguing with her about what to do about music while the car traveled east and north, out past the well-groomed yards, the three rival gas stations at the intersection at the bottom of the hill and down a main street of an artery to slip on to the toll road that spliced into the interstate, accelerating quietly all the while. After a few minutes, the landscape running alongside the highway changed from improbably tall green trees and corporate towers to flaking signage and stuccoed buildings, nothing taller than four or five stories, max, stitched together in horizontal parcels.
Merlin curved them around a what seemed like a fleet of SUVs, looming like chrome-plated warships over the sedans around them, and then muttered under his breath when the maneuver got them stuck behind a van going only five miles over the limit. Isaac rolled his eyes at him while Tessa snarked. Isaac noticed a Bentley on their right coming up fast, gliding through the steadily multiplying streams of vehicles like a pearl-skinned spaceship. While Merlin and Tessa fought over radio stations, Isaac answered a handful of text messages, lying through his teeth about where he was and what he was doing with whom, before all the staring at the screen started giving him a headache and he had to toss it to one side.
The conversation tapered off once they hit real traffic, and completely died about two and a half miles into the doldrums. The flow stopped to a crawl. Isaac was nodding off, sliding further and further down the back seat, when a loud rap against Tessa's window made him startle awake. They all stared at Inhwan, who lifted his knuckles from the glass to shine the light reflected on his sword into the car.
"Nice rims," he said loudly.
"Are you kidding me," Isaac said, his mouth suddenly dry, the same time Merlin, disbelieving, said, "He wouldn't." Tessa didn't give either of them a chance to think, grabbing the silk sash tied around the scabbard of her sword and rushing outside as Inhwan stepped rapidly away, unsheathing her blade in one swift motion and tossing its lacquered shell back inside before taking off in a run. Isaac jumped out after her, sword in hand, slamming both doors shut on Merlin shouting at them to hold up.
Isaac shivered as he went from the cool air inside the car to the heat pouring up from the thousands of vehicles parked on the road. It rushed up his nose and melted into his sinuses. Isaac coughed, getting a lungful of exhaust for the effort. He could already hear the clanging of steel on steel, and Tessa's furious voice, and less distinctly, soft wheezes from car horns being lightly tapped, the sound of people noticing their presence over their cars' communal rumble. Isaac leapt up the side of the truck on his immediate right to get a better view. He caught a split-second glimpse in one of the side mirrors of the trucker, gaping open-mouthed, as he hauled himself up to the roof of the blue cargo container. Tessa and her arch-enemy were already a dozen cars ahead and getting further out, moving almost too fast for the eye to follow, exchanging rapid blows that he registered as flashes of reflected light and sound through the overpowering smell of asphalt and gas. He realized that he had left his sunglasses in the car and swore. Isaac shielded his eyes with one hand and made a running leap onto the roof of a minivan, doing his best to float his soles over the waves of hot air that roiled off the metal all around him.
"Are you crazy?!" Tessa shouted at Inhwan as Isaac made his way towards them.
Inhwan parried, holding his ground, red Converses planted on the windshield of a car whose owner was thumping the glass from the inside while letting loose a slew of muffled curses. Tessa's weapon, a straight single-edged beast of a saber, bore down on Inhwan again with more force this time, screaming across the edge of his sword. Inhwan let the blow pass through his body to buzz in the poorly maintained shocks of the vehicle. It shuddered from the impact like a creature in pain. The cursing from inside the car grew exponentially louder as the woman rolled down her window and started pounding on the horn; Inhwan wasn't even sweating as he stepped back onto the moving trunk of the car behind him and took off at a running walk across the lanes, skimming over the roofs like a stray plastic bag, Tessa right on his heels.
Isaac leapt after them, trying to keep his breathing as even as possible. The cars kept shifting. Everyone was moving at essentially the same rate; the problem was that it was all slow stop-and-go, and Isaac's eyes kept trying to unfocus, thanks to the glare, or worse, decide at an inopportune moment that a shift in the traffic pattern warranted investigation, just as the station wagon he had marked for landing lurched forward - and on top of that the smoky heat, the constant flashes of reflected afternoon light from the glass and metal--the smell alone would have been enough to make him feel sick.
"Just wanted to see how you were doing," he heard Inhwan call out. Tessa was pursuing him closely, almost caught up again, and Isaac put on a burst of speed.
"Have a nice trip?"
"None of your business!"
Inhwan's smile didn't waver as he landed on another hood, every hair perfectly in place, his eyes hidden behind a pair of shades. The honking around them was getting louder, adding another unwelcome layer to the pattern of things Iasac needed to parse and track. He slid down the car he had been standing on and jumped up to the roof of the Oldsmobile in the lane over, just a few feet behind Inhwan's position. Tessa mirrored Isaac almost exactly as he lunged from the left, Tessa from the right. Pivoting on his heel, Inhwan pulled his scabbard to block him and brought his sword arm up to go a round with her. Isaac tried to grab the scabbard and shove his shoulder into Inhwan's solar plexus, ducking a wide swing from Tessa, when Inhwan suddenly dropped and swept both their legs out from under them, which should have been impossible since they had all been standing on different cars--
Isaac flailed out to catch himself before he smashed his skull open on a fender and ended on his back on the hot sticky surface of the road, in the claustrophobic space between the Oldsmobile and the car in front of it. He hit the ground hard, yanked himself up and started to hack, the pain from having his breath being driven out momentarily overriding the burn in his palm where it was pressed flat against the hood of the car.
The middle-aged guy in the driver's seat flossing his teeth in his rearview mirror stared at him, his hands frozen in place. Isaac hurriedly looked away and wiped his mouth with the hem of his T-shirt. He shimmied up to another car roof to get Tessa and Inhwan's location. They were now sprinting dangerously fast in the space between two inner lanes, Inhwan taking rapid steps backwards, smiling and at ease, parrying Tessa's thrusts with seemingly no effort.
Just as Isaac reached them, Inhwan grabbed Tessa's wrists with one hand, pulling her arms up and nearly skewering Isaac in the face with her sword. Isaac's feet skidded over the edge of the roof and he painfully slid down the side of the Jeep, flinging his arm back and parallel to the car so that he wouldn't hit Tessa, just as Inhwan brought his sword up. Tessa cursed, bringing up her leg to knee Inhwan in the groin but freezing halfway when she realized that he was holding his sword against Isaac's throat. Inhwan's right shoulder dug into Isaac's left. The angle was bad--Inhwan's wrist was awkwardly cocked back, forcing a slope to the blade that meant Isaac had to bend his head sideways almost completely to the left or risk having his throat cut--but Inhwan's sword did not waver. Isaac fought to bring his breathing under control and tried not to dwell on the fact that his sword arm was currently trapped flat between the curve of Tessa's hip and the very hot surface of the Jeep's side door. He was getting a good look at Inhwan's fingers, pale with scars, and the bright colors wrapped around the hilt of his sword, blue, white, yellow, black, red.
"Look who's back."
"Shut up," Isaac gritted, trying not to swallow, splitting his death-glare between Inhwan, who was an utter prick, and Tessa, whose fault all this was. She just returned it, unrepentent.
"What. Did you want to say something?"
Isaac opened his mouth, intent on telling her exactly what he thought of her and this particular quest, when the car window at Tessa's right whirred. "Are you making a movie?!" the little girl behind it shrieked, jumping up and down in her seat, carroty hair flipping up in every direction, as her father shouted at her to "Stop pushing the down button and don't you talk to the people outside the car I MEAN IT Jaime Ashleigh Brianna Wes-"
Inhwan's shoulders was shaking minutely, which was really alarming because that meant the sword currently pressed up against his throat was moving, too; Isaac opened his mouth a second time to point this out, and then the car that he was squeezed up against moved incrementally forward.
"Oh, come on!" he said, but the driver of the Jeep either didn't hear him or, if he heard him, didn't care enough to take the chance that the car in front of the one with the hyperventilating kid in it, left-turn turn signal blinking, was going to pull into his lane, probably so that the white-haired gentleman talking excitedly and shaking his driver's shoulder could get a better look. Isaac instinctively sidestepped with the car, forcing Inhwan to take a step back, then another, then another, pulling Tessa forward. They were getting wedged even more uncomfortably closer together; Tessa's hip dragging over the inside of his forearm, Inhwan's arm sliding against his collarbone.
"Let go of me," Tessa said in a low voice. Isaac tensed; he hadn't realized there was another level to a feeling like this. But Tessa was - a dangerous person to know. He felt a little foolish for having this epiphany again, and now, but her tone seemed to be making Inhwan pause. He doesn't know the Tessa that I know, Isaac thought. Not yet. The knowledge warmed him oddly, made him anxious.
An intense, serious expression replaced Inhwan's smile. He released Tessa's wrists and straightened his sword arm at the same time Isaac slid to the right to step into the space where she had just been. Isaac took a rapid step back to give himself enough room to counter Inhwan, who slammed himself flat against the Jeep and swung his blade down at Isaac without his eyes ever leaving Tessa's face. The opening was enough for her to slide sideways past Inhwan, but narrow enough that they almost touched, that their lips almost touched - in that fleeting moment Isaac could see that Tessa's eyes were angry and wide, and as she completely passed by and got clear, Inhwan caught his eye and smirked. Isaac's blood boiled. He felt incoherent with - exactly what Tessa must be feeling, he blearily thought as he jumped up after the two of them. Rage. Had to be. Tessa was attacking Inhwan with renewed fury as they flitted over trailers, cars, a boat like a castle on wheels and trucks.
"What. Is. Wrong. With. You!"
"You want a list?"
Isaac thumbed the shallow, nearly imperceptible nick under his jaw and gritted his teeth. There was nothing he wanted to do more than to knock Inhwan down and leave him to marinate in the exhaust. He jumped up on the Jeep again, earning a loud honk for the trouble, and leapt to a Mini, two lanes over, and then to another station wagon. Balanced on top of the ski rack, he tried to track Inhwan and Tessa's movements to figure out where they were at - the other half of the interstate, which was currently not experiencing a traffic jam. Of course. Isaac heard skidding tires and angry car horns before he saw the two of them duel their way back to their side, where the cars were mostly stationary, at least for the time being. The three of them were moving towards the leading edge of the traffic jam, where the road was starting to open up and people were gradually upping their speed. Isaac's head pounded with the strain of trying to keep up with the pattern while fighting the blinding glare of the sun. Isaac misjudged the distance of a leap and had to scramble to get out of the way of a motorcycle driving up one of the spaces between the rows of cars. Isaac stumbled headfirst into the next lane, where a car screeched to a stop just inches from his face. He fought the nausea that bubbled up his throat at the blasting of the horn over the squeal of the tires, the air suddenly thick with the stink of fresh burnt rubber.
"You would've had to brake anyway, douchebag!" Isaac said under his breath. He brushed the gravel from his palms, steadied his grip on the hilt, and planted a heel on the hood of the car to jump, barrelling straight into Inhwan, who neatly twisted out of the path of his sword.
"Give it up," Inhwan said as he glided over the top of a cargo truck and slid to a stop.
"Fight me already!" Isaac yelled as he pursued.
Tessa climbed over the top of the truck from the back and slashed her sword down in a diagonal. Inhwan swung his sword in a flourish and balanced it over one shoulder. "You don't think two against one is a little unfair?"
Isaac and Tessa went straight for him in response; Inhwan laughed softly, bringing his weapons up. In all their previous encounters he had worn his sword, a double-edged blade with a trefoil pommel, on the right, but in the middle of parrying Tessa and trying to trip Isaac, Inhwan switched hands to finally exchange a flurry of blows with him and menace Tessa with the leather-wrapped iron scabbard. Isaac's lips pressed into a thin line. That Inhwan was able to do this - and without interrupting the fight even for a split second - royally pissed him off. With Tessa engaged, too, raining down blows that Inhwan was mostly dodging, keeping the rhythm he had going from spinning out of control was difficult - it was almost as if he was fighting her at the same time. Isaac put everything he had behind his swings while forcing his steps to be lighter, more precise, better.
The rasp of Inhwan's blade as it cut past his ear was as loud as the engine of a plane flying directly overhead. They were fighting by sight, touch, sound, and Isaac dearly wished that it were nighttime instead. He would have welcomed even a single cool breeze. When Isaac stuttered over a breath so that he could wrench himself out of the way of Inhwan's downswing, all his senses inclined to the berserk trembling of the air cut by Inhwan's sword, a hair's breadth from his skin; a beat later, when Isaac reclaimed his place in the rhythm, his mind-soul-body did the rest, sure in the knowledge that the air would part swiftly before his own sword, a blade scattered over with light, damascened with blessings he couldn't read. Everything that was Tessa in his awareness - that which was currently tilted on this inconsequential stretch of metal; split by the merciless sun; exhaled, inhaled, exhaled over the ugly bright clatter of battle - threaded into his senses, severed the heat coiled around him, exhorted his heart to pump faster, push harder, to fight.
Tessa shouted at Inhwan in frustration. "What are you up to!"
"I was bored," he said, "waiting for you to show up."
"Bullshit!" Tessa snarled through the clanging of steel.
"You got me," Inhwan said easily. "I was just bored. Nice going, leaving your friend defenseless back there."
They disengaged and backed away. Isaac's chest tightened. Tessa's voice made his blood run cold. "If you dare hurt Merlin, I'll--"
"If I'm actually here, right? Anyway, this was fun. Good seeing you."
They looked at him in horror. Inhwan smiled at them as he melted into heatwaves.
They stared at the empty space where Inhwan had been. "He's after--" Isaac said, feeling ill. Tessa made a strangled sound. "He didn't even bring anything!" she said, her face twisting. The expression that immediately followed was of a different kind. "He didn't bring anything, did he."
Isaac inwardly groaned and they doubled their speed, pinging off the cars as they flew back. There were no smoke trails in the sky; that had to be a good sign. The car looked fine from the outside. When they rushed inside, out of breath, an exasperated Merlin greeted them. "Are you out of your minds? We--"
"You're all right!" Tessa said, not adding, 'and you didn't blow stuff up,' and tried to give Merlin a hug, but ended up slapping him upside the head when he tried to rebuff her and accidentally smooshed her in the chest. Isaac briefly entertained the notion of smacking him, too, but settled for just leaning on the front seats with his elbows, relieved and sweaty and tired and already beginning to feel the aches that would be laying him low in the morning.
Merlin looked at them with the expression he normally reserved for things like stickers of the Virgin Mary stuck inside public bathroom stalls. "Was he with Verdad?" he asked, clearing his throat.
Tessa looked confused. "What?"
"That smoking hot girl he's always with," Merlin said. "Verdad? If you didn't see her, I bet you she's driving and they're still somewhere on the road. Why is it that Inhwan likes messing with you so much? I would almost say it's kind of. Ooh," his gaze turned infuriatingly patient and sage, "did he illusion you guys."
There was a pause. And then Tessa let out an inarticulate sound and slammed her palms against the glove compartment. Isaac grabbed the driver's seat and shook it. "That son of a!"
Merlin made an annoyed sound. "Hey Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
"What!" Isaac and Tessa yelled.
He just gave them a look. "You realize we're still stuck in traffic, right."
An endlesss moment ticked by. The two of them became exquisitely aware of the drivers in their immediate vicinity rolling down their windows, sporting disbelieving stares and having enormously loud conversations concerning--
Slowly, very slowly, Tessa turned to face forward and slide down her seat. Isaac reached for the nonexistent strings of his nonexistent hoodie and ended up clawing his ears and cursing his decision that morning to wear just a stupid T-shirt. He suddenly hated the perfect weather. Hated it.
"Oh, my God," Tessa said. "I hate you."
"Couldn't you like. Make this thing go faster," Isaac desperately said.
"You guys are why I had the windows tinted by the way," Merlin said, sanguine. He re-tuned the radio. "Seatbelts."
The traffic report came on, the station apparently inundated with calls of a disturbance on their stretch of the interstate, ushering in an excruciating eight minutes during which neither Isaac nor Tessa for once begrudged Merlin trying to kill them with his driving, which was technically excellent and yet still completely insane even at thirty-five miles an hour.
"See any cops behind us?" Merlin asked, craning his neck.
"I don't exist, don't talk to me," Tessa muttered. Isaac just lay where he had plastered himself across the back seat.
"I think we're clear. Carpool lane, yeah," Merlin said as the bumper-to-bumper crush finally let up entirely and he cut across to the far left. He tapped out various coordinates and routes on the GPS and declared that they would be taking some local roads, just in case, and anyway he was ravenously hungry thanks to Isaac-the-pretzel-stealer and Tessa, "I'm researching proximity alarms when I get home, I'm not even kidding." The two of them had by that point recovered enough to loudly override any preference Merlin might have expressed for dinner in favor of the pizza place one of Tessa's friends recommended when she called her up for advice. Merlin sniffed and declared pizza acceptable, "You plebs," at which point Tessa punched him in the arm, saving Isaac the bother.
"I have to wait for just before sunset anyway, prophecy says," she said. "My treat."
Isaac cheered with all the sarcasm that he could muster and lay down on his side to doze the rest of the way; they had to threaten various types of bodily harm to get him out of the car, and he barely touched his plate at the place that served the pizza, even though both Tessa and Merlin testified to its deliciousness. Isaac supposed it was the fight earlier, and tried not to think about what his lack of appetite could actually mean.
They hung out after the pizza was gone, decamping to the car only when the management started giving them dirty looks, and wended their way through the streets. Tessa convinced Merlin to turn off the GPS and follow her directions - based on some prophetic how-to, Isaac figured. They drove south for a while, along railroads and apartment complexes and stretches of field dotted with a few leftover orange trees. The sky was gradually shading into a cemetery violet. Isaac was sick of sitting inside the car and ready to go and do whatever it was Tessa needed, just so he could do something other than sit in a car and be sick of sitting in a car, the usual. They pulled into an abandoned lot hazeled with refuse from some unfinished construction project. Isaac got out first and stretched, yawning. Snail shells, long vacant, stirred from a westerly wind. A tongue of green water from nowhere occupied a shallow depression in the ground. A dusty pickup was parked on the other side of the lot, its windows down and lights off. About a hundred feet from where they had parked, two figures stood, talking idly.
Tessa looked at Merlin when he didn't make a move to step away from the car. He crossed his arms and leaned against the driver's side door. "I said I'd give you a ride, not that I would throw down."
"You suck," Tessa said. Merlin merely said, "Meh."
"Oh, you're too good to spar with us, I see how it is," she said airily.
"Tessa, are you seriously pulling that on me," Merlin said. "I've eaten Play-Doh for you. Play-Doh. I don't--" He ran a hand through his hair. "Tessa--"
She strode forward, speaking quickly, "Fine, it's fine." Isaac shot Merlin a look that said, 'what was that?' Merlin waved a hand in the 'complicated can't talk about it now' gesture. Isaac glowered and turned to Tessa, who was ignoring him to focus on their opponents.
"Well here come los Yankees," Inhwan murmured as they neared. Verdad's non-expression almost cracked - she looked like she was considering whether she wanted to laugh or not at the bad joke; Isaac was disappointed when she didn't and grudgingly impressed that Inhwan could manage even that, the bastard. Inhwan's back-up, Verdad was looking gorgeous, cool, and collected as usual - like some cover model you could only dream about, except for the fact that her nails were unvarnished and rough-edged and less than perfectly clean, as though she had been kneading clay, or disinterestedly ripping through someone's face, maybe.
"Two by two," Inhwan drawled. "What do you think?"
Verdad drew a pair of steel fans from the holsters crossed over the small of her back. "Whenever you're ready."
"Which one you want?"
She flicked one of the fans open and locked eyes with Isaac. Inhwan was already moving, unsheathing his sword and throwing the scabbard aside to launch himself at Tessa. Isaac brought his sword up in a guard and quickly stepped back lest he found himself caught in Verdad's immaculate geometry. She obliquely reminded him of Merlin - Verdad always looked at home in battle, in universes strung entirely out of those moments before life expires. The diamond-tipped edges of her fans peeled tiny slivers from his sword with every strike. The broad sweep of a fan caught the last of the evening sunlight to drench his vision, and Isaac just barely managed to avoid being cut by twisting to one side and rolling. The blue glass bead he wore around his neck arced out of his T-shirt to glitter on his chest.
"For evil eye," Isaac told her when a space between them opened up.
One of Verdad's perfect eyebrows lifted. "Oho."
Isaac grinned, then sobered at the shift in the sound of Tessa and Inhwan's fight. It was growing fiercer, and Tessa was holding her own, but being pushed back, and then - Isaac winced at the shrill sound, worse than even the brittle thin zinging of an improperly tempered sword. Isaac risked a glance at Tessa, who looked Merlin, who was looking at the long scratch running down the hood of the Benz. "Ah," she said, Inhwan temporarily forgotten.
"Why did I park here, why," Merlin muttered, looking up at the sky.
"Sorry!" Tessa said as she resumed her fight with Inhwan, who wasn't letting up. "I'll get it repaired!"
"Cheah, I'm making that retroactive for everything!" Merlin called out after her. "Starting with third grade, Ninja Turtle newsvan!"
"That was so Isaac!" Tessa protested.
"No it wasn't you lying liarpants," Isaac said as he made his way towards her, driving Verdad backwards.
"This is just precious," Inhwan said, sounding strangely irritated. He and Verdad crossed paths and then everything devolved into a melee, the tempo wild. "Don't make fun of my friends," Tessa told him, repelling one of Verdad's strikes.
"What, these fools?"
"Like you know anything about friendship," she taunted. Inhwan flinched.
"So your business with the triad went down ok," he said. Tessa went momentarily still. The rhythm skipped again. Isaac's head whipped around. "Tessa, exactly what are you--"
Merlin's voice carried over to them through a sudden low, all-pervasive hum. "Watch out, hey!"
They broke apart into cardinal directions, feet lifted by the wind, as a bright white light coalesced where they had been just fighting. The light burst into a tangle of vines, waving into a donut shape and spinning in place. Isaac and Tessa ran towards Merlin, who was once again loudly questioning his choice to park on the lot. Verdad walked after them, still interested in the fight, and Inhwan reluctantly after her. Before they could do anything more, an enormous thunderclap rumbled across the sky, making them all jump. Bolts of blue lightning flickered up and down on the ground beneath the glowing mass. Grey veins floated to the surface of the twisting white vines, whose smooth surface was starting to fracture and lift into flaps. The entire thing shook, the sound like thousands of wooden clappers clacking in unison. A large pointed head swayed up from the center of the light, opening two golden eyes. Indistinct voices echoed all around them.
"That's the dragon?" Isaac asked Tessa, skeptical.
"That's not a dragon," she said slowly, watching the creature loosen its body and settle to the earth. Verdad tapped one of her fans against her thigh. She looked sidelong past Isaac's shoulder at Inhwan, who was pissed.
"Let's go have a chat with them after we're done here," Inhwan said in a deliberately nonchalant voice. Verdad sighed and wet her lower lip, just a quick flicker of tongue.
The creature opened its mouth to reveal a quartet of long fangs. Its whiskers marvered through air that was suddenly electric. The mumbling grew louder and increasingly distinct.
"It's talking!" Merlin said with wonder and growing delight. "A talking snake!"
They all looked at him, and then Inhwan very delicately pinched the bridge of his nose while Tessa closed her eyes for a moment, holding in a breath; Isaac silently counted to three. Verdad looked singularly charmed, or perhaps slightly homicidal - Isaac couldn't quite tell.
"What's it saying?" he asked Tessa.
"It's like Hokkien," she replied. Merlin rolled his shoulders, translating as he went along. "Haha, it's saying when it scarfs up three more it'll ascend. Ha - Oh."
Inhwan broke the silence that ensued. "Verdad."
She seemed to be contemplating something in the distance. "Mm. But if I call la voladora," she said, her eyes sliding to meet his gaze. Inhwan looked angry. "I don't give a damn, do it."
"We both know that you can't pay," she said placidly.
"I don't think it cares which three of us it eats," Tessa interrupted, "so the two of you might want to--"
The words crescendoed to a roar and the serpent struck, its mouth stretched wide. They scattered and it snapped to the right, uncoiling partway as it went after Tessa. She raised her sword in a guard but stumbled a dozen steps back from the force of the strike. Isaac didn't think, just jumped, landing on the back of the serpent's head, slicing open the skin to reveal gummy fat and bright pink flesh. His shoes made indentations in the skin, surprisingly soft - but rapidly turning tough and brittle. It shook him off before he could stab down, flinging him into the air. He twisted just in time to find his bearings and land upright a few feet in front of Tessa, who gaped at him and Inhwan, who dodged a strike and joined them.
"That was incredibly stupid," Inhwan said, shifting the grip on his sword and eyeing him and the snake. Isaac showed him his teeth. "Let's see you do better."
Tessa physically broke in between them before they could start brawling in earnest, and only Verdad and Merlin crashing into them in a running tackle saved them from being crushed by the serpent's coils when it lunged again, attemping to wrap around them. The wet sandpaper texture of the snakeskin made Isaac shudder. It was getting more solid and more real, becoming deadlier with each passing moment. He broke apart from the others and went for the head again. The serpent repelled his attack this time, bucking. It was as if he had struck a boulder; the only thing he was sure of in the second that followed after, rolling out of the way of the fangs, was the echo of the strike buzzing down into the heel of his palm, boring into the flesh there and fanning out past the bone. One.
His third strike landed awry. Isaac peeled his knuckles on the razor edge of the scales and bit down on the pain that spiked up his arm. He dragged his sword along a slithering coil in a futile attempt to split it open. The serpent slammed its body into him and Isaac brought up the flat of his sword to block, but the blow was so powerful that he could feel the tang shiver in the hilt. He jumped backwards and shook the stars out of his vision, thoroughly percussed. He saw Verdad and Inhwan out the corner of his eye; there was nothing of the ballet about them as they evaded the snake's coils, now fully armored in scales arranged in rows of silvery iron lamellae. Isaac had to shield his face to keep from being blinded by the gravel and dirt clods being spun and thrown on the coils, ricocheting and exploding as they went airborne. Merlin had gotten clear, but not completely unscathed. Wearing several nasty-looking scrapes, he was doubled over, his lean frame wracked with coughs.
Isaac took a step towards him, but without raising his head and still coughing, Merlin waved him on ahead. Isaac exchanged a glance with Tessa, who took a running leap and vaulted over the lashing tail of the serpent, extending her arm. The instant she made her move, Isaac struck a heavy blow at the head, catching it on the tip of its nose. The serpent reared up as Tessa ran up the length of its neck and drove the saber into its skull at the point where the gash Isaac had inflicted was still fresh. The serpent convulsed, throwing Tessa into the air. A single point of light flew out after her, and Isaac stepped into Inhwan's path, his blade cleaving a figure eight. Tessa tumbled and rolled to her feet triumphantly, one hand gripping a small oval disk. Inhwan's face grew hard, and Isaac got ready for the attack, but Verdad's voice cut across the dust billowing between them.
"Inhwan, the locals," she said.
"I know," he snapped, stepping back to regroup alongside her.
Isaac frowned, then tried to stuff his nose into his shoulder as the serpent gave one last quiver and loosed a foul stench into the air. Bruise-colored rosettes bloomed on the snakeskin as it peeled away in great swathes to splash on the ground, where reedy tendrils of smoke began to waft up. They wove themselves into the form of monstrous carrion beasts, drawn by the energy - massive cats with human faces, comically bearded and mustachioed, blinking eyes as green as leaves, pot-bellied dogs with blood-soured breaths whose azure pelts shimmered from a faint inner light. The temperature dropped even as the stench intensified, thick enough to carve and sickeningly sweet. Unwrapping the night sky from around its shoulders, a skeletal figure as tall as a billboard waded through their ranks, each of its bones carved out of a pale dry wood, wearing human hair, human teeth, and human fingernails. It smiled down at them with handstitched lips of embroidery thread, red and pink and orange. Its long black braid brushed the earth.
Isaac took a step back and gripped his sword more tightly. Behind him, Tessa said, "Um."
The beasts swarmed over the steaming flesh of the serpent. The pale figure swung its limbs in their direction, reaching out. Inhwan leveled his sword and bit out, "Aquí se cierra el círculo," a move none of them had heard him use before - a line taken from the lines that made up the edge of the world, too vast, too final. It wasn't enough. Isaac went down on one knee - the sound - and nearly hurled at the sound of the nails, the feeling crawling over him, reaching into his mouth. The pale fingers slowly scraped over the barrier Inhwan had called into existence. Next to him Tessa looked like she was trying to keep from screaming, and Merlin's eyes were screwed tightly shut in concentration. Inhwan's face turned slightly gray and the sword trembled. The barrier held, just barely.
"Inhwan," Verdad said, reaching for him, her breath coming in short gasps.
Inhwan clenched his jaw, standing his ground. But the scraping sound was - the cold, the awful sound--
Isaac fell forward, shaking. The sound had his insides in a vice. He had to end it, anything to end it - his sword was there, the hilt burning into his palm, the blade, the cold-
He didn't hear Merlin pull up to his side, but he definitely felt the elbow in his ribs, hard enough to bruise, stab up his spine, kick around inside his brain, clear the desperate fog that had nearly swallowed him up. The statement of everlasting gratitude Isaac meant to utter slurred into an emphatic "Ow," but Merlin just nodded as though he understood and raised his eyes to the grinning skull looking down upon them. He stretched up and grabbed Inhwan's wrist, pulling his arm down. The moment he caused the barrier to shatter, Merlin shouted something impossible and brilliant, enveloping them in a rush of warm wind. The hair on the beasts didn't even stir, but the carcass emitted a noise like a tree falling, sloughing into a cloud of vapor that instantly dispersed.
The creatures jumped, surprised. Their faces swiveled towards Merlin, who took another breath. But the pale figure turned away, then, crumbling into wisps of yellow grass. The canine and feline spirits mewled with discontent, but wove themselves around its legs and disintegrated into sand. The sky folded itself around them once more, and the oppressive cold rushed to fill the space they left behind. The ice crystals in the air evaporated, leaving no trace behind.
"Sharpened by fire, blunted by air; polished by air, edged by fire." Tessa whispered shakily. "I gotta learn that."
Isaac tried it out in Parsi in his head as he helped her up. Wondered if the numinous would answer if he were the one to call them all the way out here, across the sand, across the water. He pushed her behind him when Inhwan yanked his arm out of Merlin's white-knuckled grip, curling his lip and brandishing his sword once more. Merlin scooted back and sat up on his heels, wary.
"Hand it over," Inhwan said, lifting his eyes to meet Tessa's gaze.
She shoved past Isaac. "We just saved you! Have you got no shame at all?"
"If I can take it, it's mine."
"That's not how it works!"
Inhwan flashed her a cold smile. His color was bad, and for the first time they had seen him that day, his expression was something less than genuine. "For you, maybe. I've never done an honest day's work in my life."
"Get over yourself," Tessa growled, and they were off again. Isaac suppressed a sigh, perturbed. He swung his sword. "Go?"
Verdad rose to her feet and brushed her knees clean of dust. "Hn."
"Me neither," Isaac said, relaxing his stance. "What are you going to do now?
"Head back to Los," she replied. "Dinner, but only after. Wanna come along?"
Merlin's head shot up and Isaac said, "Seriously?"
She seemed amused. Her half-lidded gaze brushed over Merlin, who had apparently misplaced his vocal cords. "You don't want to join our cofrad’a? Bring your sorcerer along and we'll all be hermanos, nice, huh."
Merlin was frantically waving his arms. Isaac ignored him. "No Tessa?"
Verdad shrugged. "Depends. Inhwan."
"You should hang out with us instead," Isaac jokingly countered.
Verdad shook her head gently. "Looks to me like you're on your way in, while the two of us--" she said, drifting off on the last syllable. She lowered her eyes in a sweep of dense dark lashes when she heard the crystal clear ring of Tessa pulling off a major strike. "Careful who you play with."
Isaac barked out a laugh. "As opposed to a guy who picks a fight on the freeway."
"Bato knows how it is," Verdad said. She slipped her fans back into their embossed leather holsters and stepped back. She gave him a neutral look. "You should cut him some slack."
"I don't think I'm the one who needs to cut him slack," Isaac said, letting his sword fall loosely to his side as Inhwan flew backwards over their heads to crash into the ground in a violent furl of dust. His hands were empty. It was over. "See ya," Verdad said to Isaac, turning to see if Inhwan needed any help getting up.
"Safis!" he yelled at her, reaching for a sword that wasn't there. His fingers clawed the dirt. His lips were bright with blood.
Tessa stalked over to where he was sprawled. "Yield!"
Inhwan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sneered as he staggered to his feet. "We're not done yet."
Tessa slammed her sword into the scabbard and threw up her hands. "You are so hot, and yet you are so evil."
Merlin's jaw dropped. Inhwan twitched. Without looking, Isaac reached out grabbed Merlin in a chokehold before he could laugh and ruin the moment, and bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from doing the same. Inhwan kept on staring at Tessa, completely at a loss, looking exactly like a deer caught in the headlights of a truck, except - something passed over his face and just as fast, was gone. He abruptly turned on his heel. "I'm out of here."
"We'll get you next time," Verdad said, her expression gloomy.
"Drive safe," Merlin called out, shoving free of Isaac. He punched him in the shoulder, not lightly, "I thought we were bros!" Merlin complained. "You could have at least gotten her number."
"Merlin. Say Verdad was into you. Could that possibly be a bad thing you think? Just maybe?"
Merlin paused. "So you think she likes me, too, right?" he said, and ducked when Isaac took a swipe at him. Merlin had just gotten him in a headlock when Tessa returned to their midst and broke it up, giving them each a long-suffering look. Isaac contemplated the complete unfairness of it all. They watched as the pickup revved its way out of the lot, and headed to the car. Tessa's bravado and Merlin's very unwelcome exegesis of colubrine literature filled Isaac's ears. He walked after them with leaden steps, nursing a dull ache in his side that he was pretty sure had to be a feeling of doom. Tessa smiled at him, but it didn't make him feel much better. She held up the clear oval disk and then pocketed it wordlessly.
Isaac raised his eyes. "Triad?"
"It's fine now," Tessa said dismissively. "I made them a deal but I'm not - it's fine."
"What, you can't even explain why--"
Tessa tried to laugh. "Compared to the mess you're in--"
"How 'bout we not talk about my ongoing fuck-up with Old World forces of chaos and concentrate on your problem," Isaac said, a touch too sharp. Tessa glared at him, gearing up to argue, but then Merlin asked Isaac, "How's your hand?"
"It's fine," he replied, and then he said, because he didn't like seeing Tessa look so torn up, "Forget it. What's up with...?"
Tessa reddened. "Nothing!"
Isaac studied the frayed ends of the tassels that hung from the hilt of his blade. "I'm not gonna judge you or anything if you decide to go out with SoCal's most notorious sword-for-hire."
"I would," Merlin said, and leapt back to avoid Tessa's kick.
"I happen to be way out of Inhwan's league, thank you very much," Tessa told them, marching into the car and slamming the door. A moment later, she pushed it open to take a gulp of fresh air. "Merlin, start the car already! Also, FYI: I don't date guys whose idea of a good time is summoning up demon snakes."
Merlin slapped Isaac's back as he moved to comply. "I wouldn't put it past Inhwan to go through a sellout moment, just so you know. Mystical feelings~" he said in a low voice, waving his arms in imitation of an octopus.
"You. Shut it."
Merlin gave him a knowing grin. He paused to gaze morosely at the scratch and popped the trunk open, taking out antiseptic and gauze and tape. Isaac gathered up the first-aid kit when Merlin was done and slid into the car. His hands propped up on the roof and looking in through the wide-open driver's side door, Merlin was about to say something about the quantity of dirt they had tracked into the pristine leather interior, but then just sighed in resignation. No one said anything until they got back on the freeway, when Tessa blurted out, "I'm sorry for getting you involved."
Isaac threw the plastic bottle he had just capped on the floor. "Look, that's not what I'm--"
"Then what? I'm just," Tessa said, her voice going raw-edged. Isaac took a deep breath. He didn't know what he wanted to say, where to even start, what it was that was making him suddenly so angry. All the words at his disposal seemed like the wrong things to say. Merlin broke in. "Do you have to do this now? I want to know what's up with you and Inhwan before we start being all ex-friends or whatever."
"What! No!" Tessa said. "Don't be ridiculous, we'll be friends forev-" Isaac started to say, then clamped his mouth shut on what he had been about to admit. Merlin leered at him as if he had just caught him doing something extremely, hilariously uncool - which he had. Isaac ground his teeth as Merlin went on merrily.
"He's prolly just using you for some nefarious plan," Merlin scoffed. "Play him at his own game. Oh! I know exactly how you could totally blow his mind, Tessa--"
She shoved her hand in his face, and Merlin laughed around it. "Driving here."
"Whatever. You can date Inhwan if you care so much."
"Ugh, Tessa, driving here!"
"It'd be a waste of a perfectly good Merlin," Isaac said.
Tessa went thoughtfully silent. Merlin said, scandalized, "Hey! Cut that out right now. Merlin and Verdad on the other hand, totally cool."
Isaac put his head in his hands. "The two of you have too much free time. Obviously. Are you even going to class?"
Merlin didn't say anything to that, and Tessa sighed. "Dude, how are you ever gonna grow up to be a hedge fund manager if you keep skipping your classes?"
"A filthy rich hedge fund manager," Isaac amended.
"Fuck you guys," Merlin said. He drummed his fingers on the wheel. "I'm thinking about switching majors."
"Your parents cool with that?" Isaac asked.
"They're in Taiwan for another three months," Merlin replied, flippant, but the line of his shoulders tightened a little. Tessa reached over to muss his hair. Isaac rummaged around the floor until he found the take-out box he had noticed earlier. He bit into the lone dried-out food court samosa and grimaced. Gross, Tessa mouthed at him. Isaac took that as a cue to make extra loud munching noises, and mulled over the events of the day. "Come over tomorrow night, my mom will cook you guys something good."
"Gotta get my car fixed."
"It's not going to grow overnight," Isaac said.
"Maybe next time we could duke it out over at the Spectrum," Tessa said, glancing at the clock.
"NO," Merlin and Isaac said at the same time. Tessa rolled her eyes. "It'd be closer. I have class at eight tomorrow." She yawned, and Isaac muttered something about his Friday morning lecture.
"Just stay over at my place and head out early," Merlin said. "We can check if anyone got your fight on the 5 on video."
Tessa's eyes went huge. "Crap." The realization hit, and Isaac instantly felt his gut suck all the blood from his face. Merlin flipped his phone out, balanced it on the steering wheel between his hands and started typing. The keys thudded, staccato.
"Yeah it's already up," he said into the silence. "What the hell, we're not ninjas."
Tessa dared a peek at the screen. "Ha! They only got Isaac. Nice form, dude."
Isaac groaned and re-buried his head in his hands. "Shit."
"The camera's shaky and we're moving really fast. Hey, there's my foot." Tessa transferred her attention to him. "No one will know it was you."
"Shit, your car, Merlin," Isaac said, jerking up.
"I switched out my plates before we headed out," he said.
There was another silence.
"Merlin," Tessa said. "Update your status right away if you ever join the dark side, ok."
"Yeah ok. We should watch the news tonight to see if a traffic copter got anything though."
"Shit," Isaac repeated, sinking back down into the seat. Merlin twirled the phone between his fingers.
"Man, don't freak, I got your back. Misdirection, you know? Like be all Sun Tzu," he said. "I'll ask Denny to upload a copy of this and--"
"Whoa whoa whoa lane, lane!" Tessa said, her voice climbing.
Isaac struggled upright as the car lurched. "You ass! Watch the road!"
"Not cool, Merlin!"
"Gimme a sec," Merlin said confidently, brows drawing together in concentration. Tessa swatted at Isaac with the hand that wasn't braced against the dashboard to prevent him from leaping forward and punching their driver in the head, but he got one of his arms through anyway. Merlin hung on to the wheel and gamely maneuvered his thumbs over the keypad of his phone, and without taking his eyes off the road, flashed what he had just typed into the screen. Freeway.
Isaac's face attained another level of pure suffering.
Tessa took one look and didn't stop laughing until they passed the 215.