The house was a simple shingle-sided frame structure south of town, just off Cotton Flat Road. It was empty, had been for years. There was no heat, no electricity, no water, and the only furniture was a lopsided couch that had been a home for several generations of mice. The trash on the cracked linoleum floor announced that two-legged residents had come and gone occasionally, too.
Kai had seen all that earlier, when there was still some light and the place still stank. Nathan had done something to fix the smell before he left. Something that involved speaking in a language she didn't know.
It was taking him a long time to get supplies. That, she knew, was her fault - or at least the result of her decision. He was on foot because she hadn't wanted him to steal a license plate or a car, so they'd ditched his official vehicle to walk the last few miles to get here.
It was full dark now. There was a sliver of moon outside, but the grimy window beside the front door let in none of the meager light. That window might still alert people in the nearest houses to her presence, though, if she used the big police-issue flashlight Nathan had left with her. It was for an emergency, not comfort.
Emergency being, she assumed, something more than the mice she could hear scurrying around. Something bigger, like the blood-drinking creature that had worn her face last night.
Kai shivered. Nathan warded this place, she reminded herself. She'd watched him do that before he left, loping silently around the house three times. "I'm no mage to raise wards with a gesture or by singing a little song," he'd said when she asked him about it. "But any of the wild sidhe can wrap a bit of protection around themselves. To do it over a larger area takes a bit more concentration, is all."
The wards were good for hours; they'd keep anything and everything out. But standing in the black, filthy living room with her arms wrapped tightly around her middle, it was easy to wonder how he could be sure. Easy to wonder how she had come to this. How could she have ended up on the run from the police, cold and hungry, alone in the dark and unable to do one damned thing to change any of it?
Stupid question. "Why me" questions always were. She knew that, just as she knew how inevitable those feelings were when life turned topsy-turvy. After the accident she'd been hit by multiple bouts of "why me." Eventually she'd accepted that she wasn't to blame, but neither was she exempt from random tragedy. Shit happens.
If she could just do something! She took two quick steps but stopped, not knowing what she might step on or trip over. She longed for water and a rag to clean a corner of this room, a spot big enough to sit down. And a candle. She'd need light to clean, wouldn't she? Light to hold back the dark that pressed against her skin as if winter itself was running cold fingers over her, trailing shivers and fear.
She should have gone with Nathan. She'd wanted to, but he'd said in his calm pragmatic way that obtaining what they needed would take much longer if she was with him.
Alone, he could move unseen, and quickly. That was undoubtedly true, but she hated being helpless, relying on him to supply her needs.
She hated being alone. If only she could call Grandfather... oh, she wanted him. The need for his voice, his presence, washed over her, leaving her shaky inside as well as out.
If, if, if. "If only" won't get supper on the table, Grandfather used to tell her. Can't start from where we wish we were. That was what he'd said when she lost her parents and he lost his only child. Start from where you are, or you don't start.
Kai consulted her belly and found she'd be starting from cold, hungry, scared... and mad. Anger was a relief. Anger made her less of a victim and shut out the whiny voice. What was she doing, handing control of her life over to someone else? Nathan meant well, but -
The door creaked and her stomach flipped back to plain old scared. She spun to face it.
"It's me," Nathan said softly. "Took longer than I expected."
Nathan was a black splotch against the smudged outdoor darkness, surrounded by the slowly moving shapes of his thoughts as they swam through a faint glow of indigo, lilac, and silver.
Those were not upset colors. "I want to talk to you."
"All right." The door creaked closed, shutting out the bit of moonlight. The grease-and-beef smell of fast food entered with him. "Let me fix the window first so we can have some light."
"Light would be good." To her disgust, her voice cracked.
Soft footsteps approached, along with his colors and the food smells. She felt his hand on her cheek. "Action is easy," he said softly. "Waiting is harder. Has it been bad, waiting here?"
"It isn't exactly bringing out the best in me."
"Hold this." Paper rustled as he pressed a paper bag into her hand. "I'll cover the window."
The greasy-fries scent from the contents of the bag hit her smack in the reptile brain. Her stomach growled as his colors moved to the dirty window. The thunk of a hammer twice announced progress in the window covering.
All at once there was light. A ball of it, rosy and welcoming, perched in the air behind Nathan's head as he turned to her.
"Ah... that's not a flashlight."
"You'd call it mage light or fairy light." When he crossed to her the light followed like an obedient puppy. It wasn't bright - maybe the equivalent of two or three candles - but was plenty for her to see the blanket draped over his arm. She didn't see the hammer she'd heard him use. "It's a simple trick. You could learn to summon one, if you wished."
"I do wish, but later. Nathan - "
Again he touched her, lightly this time and just on her arm. "You have questions, things you need to say. But we should eat first."
Her stomach seconded the idea. "Is that blanket for us to sit on?"
"Yes." He spread it out. "The drinks are in the car, as well as a few other things. I'll get them."
"What car?" she demanded.
"That was my decision. There's no blame to you for it."
Which meant he'd stolen the car. "Did you steal the supplies, too?"
"No. I prefer not to steal, but that wasn't practical with the car."
She sighed, weary with change, fear, and decisions. Too weary to sort through the wrongs and rights. "I'll help bring things in."
"You can, but I'll have to take down the wards first."
"Do you mean I can't leave until you do that? That I've been trapped in here all this time?"
"Eh." He rubbed his nose, looked at the floor. "Well, yes. I'll fix that later, all right?"
She settled unhappily on the blanket.
When he opened the door, the mage light winked out - no gesture or incantation needed. Every time he returned - first with Cokes, bottled water, and two grocery sacks, then with sleeping bags - the light popped back on, too.
She wanted one.
It was an odd and hasty picnic. With the first bite Kai discovered she was beyond hungry, well into ravenous. She devoured most of the burger and half the fries before speaking again. "I shouldn't have run. I shouldn't be here, hiding. I'd like to help you catch the creature, but - "
"They've released your name to the media."
"I heard it on the radio. Knox gave a press conference and spoke of the warrant for your arrest. I suspect your image was on the television news, but I didn't see that."
She put down the uneaten portion of her hamburger, her knotted stomach rejecting the idea of food.
Nathan reached for her hand. "Kai. If you don't hide, you'll be in jail by midnight. I don't know if you'll be safe there, if the chief will take the steps to assure that you are. There's ill-feeling toward all Gifted right now, and - "
"And I'm the wicked witch the house is about to fall on. No one objects when she gets flattened. God!" She shoved to her feet clumsily, knocking over her Coke. His hand shot out, catching the cup before it finished tipping in a motion so quick it blurred.
She stared at his hand. He had long, blunt fingers and a wide palm, with a sprinkling of dark hair at the wrist. Such a human hand, in spite of the speed with which it had just moved. She dragged her gaze back to his face. "Why would it want to look like me?"
Nathan rose much more gracefully than she had. "I don't know. There's a link, though. It may select its prey ahead of time and take their shape."
Her eyes widened as fear pooled in her belly.
"I won't let it get to you." He closed the distance between them, setting his hands on her shoulders. "If it does come for you, I'll stop it. Kill it, I hope, because we can prove your innocence with its body. If it remains in its natural state, the shape of the mouth and teeth will match the bites on Shaw's body. If it doesn't, its transformed body will still prove that it could have worn your face."
"Posthumous vindication isn't that appealing to me."
He squeezed gently. "Do you think I'd let it harm you? There are beings, creatures, I couldn't be sure of stopping, but this isn't one of them."
"I love your confidence, but you don't know much about chameleons."
"I know mass is conserved when they change form. This one looked enough like you to fool someone who knows you, so its mass is similar to yours. If it comes after you, I can stop it."
She chewed on her lip, trying to think her way past the fear. If she gave herself up to the police, she might be in danger from other prisoners, maybe even the guards. If she hid out, the monster might come after her.
The chameleon was certainly the bigger danger, but here she had Nathan. In jail she wouldn't. And they needed the chameleon to prove she wasn't the killer. "Do you Change? Like a lupus, I mean."
"Eh. No. I've had a human body and brain for more than four hundred years now. I can't go back to my hound body, not on my own."
Four hundred years? She'd known he'd lived much longer than a human, but that... that would take some getting used to. "Tell me." She reached for the hand on her shoulder, clasped it. "Tell me how you came to be here. How you came to have that human body and brain."
"My queen sent me, and I needed a human form for the hunt. We knew it would take time for me to track the... Kai, are you going to allow me to keep you hidden here?"
Relief stripped him naked. She'd never seen his face so raw with feeling. "May I... is it all right to hold you?"
She didn't bother with words. Arms were better, and hers slid around him as naturally as if they were already lovers. His arms answered, wrapping her breath-stealingly tight for a second, then loosening. He ran his hands up and down her back, buried his nose in her hair. "I have wanted this," he said fiercely. "For so long, I have wanted..." His breath shuddered out.
Silence wrapped itself around them then - a silence of heartbeats and breaths settling into a shared rhythm. Kai closed her eyes so she could absorb the feel of him through muscle, scent, and skin.
Which wasn't touching his, dammit. Though the way their bodies were touching, she knew he wasn't sexually indifferent to her. Not anymore. "I've wanted, too," she said softly. "I still do."
He raised his head. She saw his throat work as he swallowed. "Kai." He said her name the way he smiled - as if he'd just found it, just this moment wrapped his lips around the sound. He ran both hands along her hair. "I can't... if I'm to keep you safe, I can't be distracted."
"You're turning me down."
He grimaced. "I'm turning us both down, but it's hard." His eyebrows lifted in brief surprise. "That was a pun, wasn't it?"
Actually, it wasn't hard. Not anymore. "Ah... did you do something just now? Because you aren't... things changed."
"I control my body. I've been controlling it around you from the first day we met. The wanting is still there, but it isn't reinforced physically."
Well. He'd been controlling his desire from the time they met? That struck her as a good news, bad news deal. He'd wanted her all along, but he didn't want to want her... because sex was too lonely without a bond, he'd said.
But friendship was a bond, a strong one. That tipped things to the good news side, she decided. "Who's this queen that sent you here?"
"I'll tell you." With a sigh he released her. "Sit with me and I'll tell you whatever you want to know."