Sweat stung Kai's eyes. She had her contacts in, so she blinked furiously instead of rubbing and wished she'd remembered her sweatband. One corner of her mind contemplated laser surgery for the hundredth time, but most of her remained cradled in the steady, reassuring thud of her feet against the ground.
When she ran, when she focused on the physical, her thoughts stayed close, tight to her body. She scarcely noticed them at all, and the residue of others' thoughts slipped past, unseen. The world turned crisp, its edges purely material and lovely to her.
The voice behind her jarred her out of her near-trance. She lost the rhythm, found it again, and raised a hand to acknowledge Nathan's greeting. Though she kept moving, she couldn't find the smooth, centered place she'd been floating in. Her thoughts rose around her in a mist of worry-gray.
Why was he here? He was on duty. Was this official? He could have called, but he'd come to find her. Had they misidentified the body earlier and it was someone she knew, after all?
Punctuating the gray were pops of yellow: Nathan. Nathan's here.
She lacked the wind to sigh. She'd pushed herself hard enough this morning, she supposed. Her thighs were burning. She slowed to a jog.
"What's up?" she asked as Nathan drew alongside her, not the least bit winded. He never was, which had irritated her at first. She was more resigned now. He did sweat, at least. In the summer. If he ran more than a mile or two, that is, and it was really hot. Like a hundred.
"You're out running. A killer wants to drink your blood, and you're out running."
"My blood?" Startled, a little frightened, she looked at him. He faced ahead, his features set in an odd frown. But his thoughts - ! They weren't muddy - Nathan's colors were always clear - but they were sure jumpy. Indigo twitched into purple, slid back to blue, flashed into green flickering with tips of angry red.
"You'd make a good meal for it. You've a strong Gift."
"But you don't have any reason to think it's after me, personally. Do you?"
The thought-fish around him slowed and flattened. His voice turned wry. "No. I was... generalizing."
Overreacting, more like. Which was very interesting. She jogged along in silence for a moment. "I take it the newest victim was Gifted."
"I suspect he was, but a body drained of life and blood doesn't tell me that."
"Does it tell you other things?"
"Almost always. This one... didn't." Trouble bubbled beneath the even surface of his voice. She saw it in the dark swirls that lifted from him, then fell again. His breath huffed out in a rare show of frustration. "This wasn't at all what I came here to tell you. I don't know why I... no, I do know. It just... surprises me."
He was seesawing, saying one thing, then another; and that was not like him. When he fell silent she wanted to stop, grab him, and shake a few more words out. She settled for a civilized prompt. "And that reason would be... ?"
His feet hit the ground three more times before he answered. "I was frightened. I went to your door and you weren't there, and I was afraid for you."
She could have sworn her heart slid around in her chest in an unnatural way. "That's natural, I guess. You'd just come from a murder scene."
"I'm not used to it. Sometimes I... friends are rare. I don't find one often."
Now he was squeezing the heart he'd just sent sliding. She couldn't think of what to say. The urge to grab him hit again, but this time she wanted to hold him. To just hold on.
He discovered smiles again and offered her one. "Usually I'm the one who has trouble with words. I seem to have stolen yours this time."
"They'll come back." Eventually.
"I didn't know. That you were my friend, that is. Until last night, I didn't realize you had... come inside me that far." He paused. "This isn't what I wanted to talk about."
"I'm enjoying the subject."
"Are you?" This smile arrived so quickly and so lightly it was almost a grin. "Am I inside you, too, Kai?"
The flush of heat hit too fast for her mind to have any chance of controlling her tongue. "Don't I wish."
He stopped, and he did the grabbing, seizing her shoulders and making her stop, too. "I'm sorry. I should have thought about how that would sound."
Humiliation rolled over her with its very different heat. "Joke. That was a joke. You're supposed to grin and say something stupid back."
"Stupid, I might be able to handle, but I'm not good at jokes. I'm not good at sex, either."
She rolled her eyes. "So not believing you here. About jokes, maybe. You don't always get them, or sometimes you think something's funny that I don't get. But sex?" She shook her head and found her own smile. "Come on."
"I can do sex, of course. But it's too..." He shook his head, clearly frustrated. "This doesn't fit into words well. I need a connection. Sex without that connection is too lonely."
Her heart was pounding and it had little to do with her run. "Friendship is a connection."
She searched his face, seeing something different there, but unsure what. She tried to speak lightly. "You're giving me ideas, you know. If that isn't what you had in mind - "
"My mind has become strange territory. I don't know what's in it myself, so I can't tell you." He dropped his hands. "But you'll get chilled, stopping like this when you're sweaty. We should keep moving."
"I need to stretch first." Stretching helped with lactic acid buildup in taxed muscles, making them less likely to stiffen. It would also give her a few minutes to locate her brain, which had to be around here someplace.
Kai untied the jacket she'd fastened around her waist, shrugged it on, and moved to the curb so she could stretch her hamstrings. "So why did you track me down?" Automatically she reached for his shoulder to balance herself. This kind of touching they'd done often.
"I need to let you know about the killer."
"What about him?" She dropped her heels off the curb. "Or it."
"It may be a chameleon."
"You're not talking about a cute little lizard that changes color."
"No, this creature changes its form entirely, not just its color. Chameleon is the closest word in English."
"Not the illusion of change? It really changes?"
"Yes. Mass is preserved, as is the essential brain composition and metabolism. They can look like anything, though, and unlike demons, they change quickly if they have a good pattern for the new shape."
"Scary." She switched positions, this time pulling her knee to her chest to stretch her quads.
He was looking at her legs. He never looked at her legs, not that way. "I wanted you to be watching for something that seems human, but isn't. You'll be able to tell from the way its thoughts look, won't you?"
She nodded, a frown pleating her forehead. "You have any reason to think I'm likely to run into this creature?"
"You aren't giving me a warm, fuzzy feeling. And what about you?" She started back at an easy jog. "Can it trick you?"
He fell in beside her. "Since its metabolism doesn't change, I'll smell the truth if I'm close enough."
"But you're not lupus."
This smile was amused. "No."
Personal questions amused him now, instead of making him run the other way? "Is that all you came here to tell me? To watch out for something like looks human, but isn't?"
He nodded. "I may have exaggerated the urgency. I think the killer is a chameleon - that fits what I know - but I'm not certain. They're extremely rare, for one thing, and normally they exist only in high-magic realms."
"Is that where you come from? A high-magic realm?"
Another answer, offered as easily as if his true nature wasn't a big, fat secret.
He added, "Not the realm where chameleons are found, though. They're constructs. That's not allowed in... my home realm."
"Made, not born."
"But - but how could that be possible?"
"As I understand it, the mage - no, it would have to be an adept. He or she would start with - "
"Hold on. There really are mages and adepts? I thought that was just myth, like unicorns or... never mind." She'd been about to say "or dragons," but they'd turned out to be real.
"Unicorns are real, too. Or mostly real. They don't exactly live in any of the realms, but... wait, wait." He held up a hand, forestalling the questions hovering on her tongue. "I'll explain another time, or try to. I don't understand unicorns myself. For now, accept that if this creature is a chameleon, it's extremely dangerous and may be drawn to those with a strong Gift."
They jogged together quietly after that. Kai was comfortable with the lack of speech; the companionship of silence reminded her of her grandfather, who could go days without using more than a handful of words, but was so present he made conversation with a glance or a gesture.
Nathan was present in much the same way. Last night and today, though, he'd dipped often into words, telling her more about himself than he'd ever revealed in one gulp. Yet much of him remained hints and questions, with a few facts swirling around in the mist.
Fact: He lived longer than humans. A lot longer. She'd learned that a few months ago when they were watching the History Channel and he commented on something that happened in the First World War - something he'd experienced. Fact: He healed fast, faster than she'd have believed possible if she hadn't seen it herself last night. Fact: He came from another realm... and oh, but she'd done a good job of pretending her mind wasn't blown by that news. There were stories of other realms, sure, but whatever reality lay behind those tales had been lost or obscured in their telling and retelling over the years.
The Turning had proved that reality was far stranger and broader than they'd known. Other realms were real. So were adepts and unicorns and the creatures he called chameleons.
So was Nathan. Whatever he was.
They reached the parking area of their complex and turned in. "I have to go," he said. "I'm on duty."
"Okay." Which made it all the more strange that he'd hunted her up.
His official car was parked two slots down from her little Toyota. They stopped there. He wasn't breathing hard, but neither was she this time. The easy jog had cooled her down.
Nathan didn't get in his car right away, though. He did something shocking. He put his hands on her face, fingers spread, and ran his thumbs over her jaw. His eyes searched hers, their wintry color alive with something she'd never seen there before. "Why did you not need to ask before now?"
"You didn't want anyone to know, and I respected that." You would have gone away.
"But you need to know now?"
He was confusing her badly. "I... yes." You're leaving anyway.
"You felt it, too." He sounded deeply satisfied. "Things changed for us last night."
Okay, time to roll. She swallowed her fear and plunged ahead. "Are you from Faerie?"
"From one of the Faerie realms, yes. There are many."
That sent a jolt of surprise through her, but as distractions went it couldn't compete with the ripples created by his stroking thumbs. "You're a... an elf?"
"I am sidhe."
He said that the way Elizabeth the First might have said, "I am queen" - fact and power so entwined that one made no sense without the other. "Uh... doesn't 'sidhe' mean elves?"
"Sidhe means... there are many kinds, but we usually speak of three. The High Sidhe are true immortals. A few of them, not many, have an interest in ruling, so they do. The middle sidhe, those you call elfin or faerie lords, have more of a taste for power and caste. Low sidhe is a more fluid term, but is generally understood to mean the less powerful elfin folk, as well as fairies and others you wouldn't recognize. But some sidhe are nothing like humans or elves and live outside those hierarchies. I... eh, I'm not sure what I am now."
His hands dropped and he looked at one, turning it over as if veins, muscles, and knuckles scribed some obscure message in his flesh. "It has been so long... but whatever else I am or am not, I am of the wild sidhe."
Wild sidhe? She shook her head, not understanding.
This smile was old and sad. A parting smile. "A hellhound, Kai. I was born a hellhound."