Chapter Six

"Both. Neither." Not really an answer. "You know whose business it is. Don't you?"

No answer from David. Rahel hadn't paid the slightest attention to me, but now her vivid gold-shimmering eyes wandered my direction and narrowed with something that might have been amusement, or annoyance, or disgust. "Snow White," she said. "Love the perm."

Defending my hairstyle was the least of my worries. "Rahel, what the hell is going on?" Because there was no question that trouble was brewing. No coincidence that Lewis was trying to get me, and then Rahel popped in with urgent business. I could feel the gravity, and we were right in its center.

She didn't answer, not directly. She turned her attention back to David and shrugged. "Tell her."

David shoved his hands in his coat pockets and leaned against the wall, considering her. "Oh, I don't think so. If Jonathan wants to see me, let him come find me. I don't come running to him like a kid to the principal's office."

"Do you imagine I'm giving you a choice?" she asked, silky as the finish on a knife. The tension already swirling in the air between them turned thick and ugly. "This is a bad place for you to fight me, David. And a very bad time, don't you agree? He wants to see you. It's not an invitation you refuse, you know that."

The elevator dinged to a stop on the third floor. Doors rumbled open. Outside, a middle-aged couple waited with impatient 'tudes. Anybody with a grain of sense would have known not to get in that elevator, given the body language of the three of us already inside, but these two were clearly self-absorbed to the point of impairment. The woman-fat, fifties, fabulously well kept-was complaining about the quality of the preserves on the breakfast tray as she petted a white rat of a dog. She crowded in. Hubby rumbled across the threshold after her.

"Excuse me," the matron said to me, clearly expecting me to move back and give her royal personage more breathing room. She raked me with a comprehensive fashion-police inspection from head to toe, then Rahel. "Are you guests here?" With the strong implication that we were working the hotel by the hour. Rahel shot me a glance out of eyes that had moderated themselves to merely amber. Still striking, but in a human fashion-model kind of way. She showed perfect teeth when the woman glared at her, but it wasn't a smile.

"No, ma'am," Rahel said equably. "Hotel security. May I see your room keys?"

The matron huffed and fluffed like a winter sparrow. Hubby dug a key card from his pocket. Rahel took it in inch-and-a-half-blue-taloned hands, studied it intently, and handed it back. "Very good. Have a nice day." For some reason, I had the strong impression that key card wouldn't be working the next time they tried it.

Another musical ding, and the elevator doors parted like the Red Sea. The couple stalked haughtily out into the arched marble foyer. I started to get out, too, but the doors snapped shut in front of me-fast and hard, like the serrated jaws of an animal trap.

David's eyes flared back to copper. Rahel's flashed back to bitter, glowing yellow. There was so much power crackling in the air it stung my skin.

"Okay, can't we just talk this over?" I asked, and then the elevator dropped. I mean, dropped. Fell straight down. I yelped and grabbed for a handhold, but there was no need; my feet stayed firmly on the carpeted floor. Neither David nor Rahel flinched, of course. I hated not being the coolest one in the room.

"Don't make me do this," David said, as steadily as if we weren't in free fall. "I don't want to fight you."

"Wouldn't be much of a fight," Rahel replied, and at her sides, her fingernails clicked together in a dry, bony rhythm. They were changing color, from neon blue to neon yellow. The pantsuit morphed to match. I knew, without quite knowing why, that these were Rahel's natural colors, that she was pulling power away from fripperies like outward manifestations to focus it inside. She was gathering her strength. "We both know it, and I have no wish to hurt you worse than you've already hurt yourself."

The downward drop of the elevator slowed, but there was no way any of this was natural. Even if we'd been headed for the basement, I didn't really believe that it was fifteen floors down from the lobby. No, we were well into Djinn geography now. Human rules applied only as a matter of politeness and convenience. The elevator was a metaphor, and we were arriving at another plane of existence. Danger land, next stop. Ladies' lingerie and life-threatening surprises.

"I'm not taking her to him. Not yet." David again, this time very soft, deceptively even.

Rahel grinned. "Who are you afraid for, David? Snow White, or yourself?"

"She's not ready."

"Then sistah girl better get her ass ready. You broke the law, David. Sooner or later, you knew you'd have to explain yourself."

Broke the law? I blinked and dragged my eyes away from Rahel's glittering, neon-bright menace, and saw that David had gone very still. I'd seen that look before, when he'd been faced with slavery and death-it wasn't acceptance, it was a kind of insanely peaceful courage. "Then I'll see him alone. There's no reason to involve her in this."

Rahel clicked her talons dismissively. "You know better. She is the corpse at the murder scene, David. The crime, in the flesh. She comes." This time, when she bared her teeth, they took on a needle-sharp ferocity. "Unless you want to leave her orphaned in this cold, cruel world. How long would she last, do you think?"

"Hey! Don't talk around me, okay?" I barked, and stepped in between them. Rahel actually looked surprised at my outburst. "One of you had better start explaining to me what's going on. Now."

For a second, neither of them looked ready to spill the beans, but then the elevator came to a smooth gliding halt, and the bell rang.

David finally said, "We're going to see Jonathan."

"And I'm supposed to know who he is because . . ."

"Because he is the one true god of your new existence, little butterfly," Rahel said. She wasn't smiling anymore. "He is the Elder who was born at the first turning of the world. He is fire made flesh. And you really don't want to piss that man off."

The elevator doors cranked open. I don't know what I was expecting-some cheesy B-movie interpretation of Hell, maybe-but what I saw was nothing but a clean white hallway stretching off into the distance.

Rahel said, "You will do as Jonathan requests. Your choice, David. If you do force me to fight, you know the outcome."

"Do I?" His intensity was scary. So was the little half-smile on his lips. "Maybe I could surprise you."

She tilted her head to one side. The beads in her dreadlocks clicked and whispered. No other answer.

David pushed away from the wall and stepped out of the elevator into the hallway. I followed, pulled even with him, and felt a bubble of panic threatening to rise somewhere in my not-entirely-solid throat.

"We're in trouble, right?" I asked. I glanced back. The elevator doors were sliding closed. Rahel was nowhere in sight.

"Not-exactly." He stopped, put his hands on my shoulders and turned me to face him. "Jo, you have to listen to me now. It's important. When we get in there, don't say anything. Not even if he asks you directly. Keep your eyes down, and your mouth shut, no matter what happens. Got it?"

"Sure." He didn't look convinced. I searched his face for clues. "So how bad is this for you?"

Instead of answering, he ran his fingers slowly through my hair. Weirdest sensation: I could literally feel it relax, the curls falling out of it into soft waves. His touch moved down, an inch at a time, teasing it straight. It felt so warmly intimate it made me feel weak inside.

"David-" I whispered. He put a finger on my lips to hush me.

"Your eyes," he said, leaning closer. "They're too bright. Dim them down."

"I don't know how." His lips were about three inches from mine, close enough that I could taste them. "What color are they now?"

"Silver. They'll always be silver unless you change them." He had autumn brown firmly in place, looking human and mild as could be. "Try gray."

I thought of it in my head, a kind of smoky soft gray, gentle as doves. "Now?"

"Better. Focus on that color. Hold it there." His hands moved out of my hair and caressed my face, thumbs gently skimming my cheekbones. "Remember what I said."

"Eyes down. Mouth shut," I confirmed.

His lips quirked. "Why am I not convinced?"

"Because you know me." I put my hands over his, felt the burning power coursing under his skin. Light like blood, pumping inside him. "Seriously. How bad is this?"

He pulled in a deep breath and let go of me. "Just do what I told you, and we'll both be fine."

There was a door at the end of the hall marked with a red exit sign. David stiff-armed it without slowing down, and I followed him into a sudden feeling of pressure, motion, intense cold, disorientation . . .

. . . and somebody's house. A nice house, actually, lots of wood, high ceilings, a kind of cabinish feel while still maintaining that urban cachet. Big, soaring raw stone fireplace, complete with wrought iron tools and a big stack of logs that looked fresh-chopped. The living room-which was where we were-was spacious, comfortable, full of overstuffed furniture in masculine shades. Paintings on the walls-astronomy, stars, planets. I caught my breath and braced myself with my hand on the back of a sofa.

The place smelled of a strange combination of gun oil and aftershave, a peculiarly masculine kind of odor that comforted me in places that I hadn't known were nervous.

There was a clatter from what must have been the kitchen, down the hall and to the left, and a man came around the corner carrying three dark brown bottles of Killian's Irish Red.

"Hey," he said, and tossed one to David. David caught it out of the air. "Sit your ass down. We're gonna be here a while."

I stared. Couldn't quite help it. I mean, with all the buildup, I'd been expecting a three-headed Satan breathing fire and picking his teeth with a human rib. This was just-a guy. Tall, lean, with a built-in grace that reminded me of animals that run for a living. He looked older-forty-five? fifty?-and his short hair was a kind of sandy brown, thickly salted with gray. An angular face, one that bypassed handsome for something far more interesting. Lived-in. Strong. Utterly self-assured.

He was wearing a black T-shirt, khaki cargo pants, some kind of efficient-looking boots, maybe Doc Martens. He settled himself down in a sprawl on the couch, all arms and legs and attitude, and finally held out the other beer toward me. I leaned forward to take it, and his eyes flicked over and fixed on mine.

I froze. Just . . . whited out. I thought nothing, felt nothing until the cold sweating bottle slapped my palm, and then I looked down and focused on it, blinking. I couldn't have said what color his eyes were, but they were incredible. Dark. Intense. And very dangerous.

David had eased himself down to a sitting position on the edge of a brown sofa with worn spots on the arms. He held the beer between his palms, rolling the bottle slowly back and forth, and now he glanced at me and I saw something unsettling in his eyes.

It might have been fear.

"Jonathan," David said.

"David. Glad we're still on a first-name basis," Jonathan replied, with a half-inch nod that conveyed nothing. His eyes flicked to me, then away, so brief you couldn't even call it a look. "You. Sit your ass down."

I did, feeling gawkish and stupid and so much like an intruder it stung. There was something between these two; it was so powerful that it warped space around them, tingled in my skin like electric shock. Love? Hate? Bitterness? Maybe it was all that. Certainly it wasn't a passing acquaintance. It had the ancient feel of something long-term and deep as the ocean.

Jonathan took a swig of beer. "Well, she's pretty," he said to David, and jerked his head at me. "You always did like the dark-haired ones."

David raised his eyebrows. "Is this the part where you try to embarrass me in front of her?"

"Enjoy it. This is as fun as it's likely to get."

The fire popped like a gunshot. Neither of them flinched. They were locked into a staring contest. David finally said, "Okay. I'm only here as a courtesy. Tell me what was important enough to send Rahel around after me like your personal sheepdog."

"Well, you don't call, you don't write . . . and you're offended on Rahel's behalf? That's new." Jonathan waved it away, tipped his bottle again and swallowed. "You know what's so important. I've never seen you do anything so ... incredibly, brainlessly stupid. And hey. That's saying something."

God, it all looked so real. I knew that the room around me had to be stage dressing, built out of Jonathan's power, but it felt utterly right. The pop and shimmer of the fire in the hearth. The woodsy smell of smoke and aftershave. The texture of the slightly rough couch fabric under my fingers. There was even frost on the windowpanes, and a localized chill from that direction-it was winter here, deep winter. I wondered if that was any indication of his mood.

David said lightly, "You're keeping score of my screwups? Must get boring for you down here, all by yourself. But then that's your choice, isn't it? Being alone."

A flash came and went fast in Jonathan's eyes, and sparked something in response in David. Silent communication, and very powerful. Ah. Whatever was between these two wasn't hate. It looked a lot- uncomfortably-like love.

Jonathan let that flash of emotion fade into a still, empty silence, set his beer aside, and leaned forward with his hands clasped. "Don't try to change the subject. What you did wasn't just selfish, it was nuts. You put us in danger." Jonathan's eyes were changing color, and I looked down, fast. I knew, without anybody telling me, that it wasn't safe to be facing that particular stare. His voice went quiet and iron hard. "Do I really have to tell you how serious this is?"

"No," David said. "Let's just get on with it."

"You want to at least explain to me why you did it?"

David's voice was warm, intimate, almost compassionate. "Jonathan, I don't have to explain a damn thing. You already know everything I'm going to say. You always have."

"Not true. You were always full of surprises."

"Good ones, occasionally. Maybe this will be one of them."

"Oh, you'd so better hope."

It was a very heavy silence that followed. I listened to the crack and pop of logs on the fire and focused on the smooth pebbled leather of my skirt. Eyes down. Mouth shut. I could do that.

Jonathan sighed and stirred. "You gonna drink that beer or what?"

"No. You know I hate the stuff." David held out the untouched bottle.

Jonathan leaned across the empty space and took it. "How about you, Snow White? You drinking?" He was talking to me. I'd almost forgotten about the sweating cold Killian's in my hand, except as something to hold on to; I took a fast, mute sip and glanced up.

Mistake. He was staring at me. I fell into those eyes, like Jonathan had his own dark gravity, and for a few seconds I knew him. Old. Wise. Limitlessly powerful. Funny. Sarcastic. Cold. Merciless. Sentimental. Sad. Lonely. I could see history stretching back to a dizzying distance, just a blur of days . . .

But the door swung both ways.

I knew him.

He knew me, too.

There was nothing, nothing he didn't touch inside of me, and yet it wasn't like the raping intrusion you'd think. I had the sense of compassion, of amusement, and a kind of strange gentleness as he gathered me in, learned me, lived in me.

"Jonathan! Dammit, stop!" I heard David's shout, but it was too far, too far to travel to answer. Was it possible to be consumed like that, and still be whole? I felt like I was unraveling, spreading thinner, thinner . . . there was no pain, but a vast sense of becoming . . .

Something sliced across that connection like the blade of a knife, and I felt the bottle in my fingers sliding free, out of control, heading in frozen ticks of time for the floor.

David caught me as I fell. I heard the bottle hit the floor. Every nerve in my body fired as if a bolt of lightning hissed up from the ground, down from the clouds, caught me in its current and burned me into nothing.

The bottle shouldn't have broken, but it did, it shattered into a million glittering pieces. I felt myself breaking, too.

I heard Jonathan say, "You should know better, David." He was still sitting on the couch at ease, watching the two of us. "They're too fragile. You're working with flawed material. Talk about your lost causes-"

"Leave her alone!" David yelled. He lifted me in his arms, and I felt the solid weight of him, the flaring pale beauty of fire reaching out to wrap me close. "Jonathan, please stop!"

"No. You stop me." Jonathan wasn't just a guy on a couch now, he was more than that, he was a vast power moving through the aetheric, a shadow on the wind, a storm on the air. "C'mon, David. Stop me. It's easy, you've done it a thousand times. No big deal."

I was . . . unraveling. Breaking apart. Being subsumed into something vast and unknown and deep as space, sweet as pure cold mountain air ...

I felt David grabbing for me on the aetheric, struggling to hang on, but it was like trying to hold sand in the wind.

Stop me, Jonathan said, in the aetheric, in the world, in that other place I couldn't even name yet. Come on, David. Just do it.

"I can't!" David's raw scream of rage sounded torn out of him with pliers. "Jonathan, I'm begging you, please stop!"

And Jonathan let go. I fell back into flesh, into David's arms, into pain. Oh, God, that hurt. Everything too bright, too sharp, too cold, too hot. For a few aching seconds I wanted to go back to that place where Jonathan had taken me, the place on the edge of nothing. I wanted oblivion with an intensity that scared me.

Jonathan picked up a beer bottle and took a long, throat-working gulp, put the empty down, and sat back with his arms crossed. Looking at the two of us. I couldn't tell anything at all from his expression. Had all of that, all of me meant anything to him at all?

"So, did you tell her?" he asked. No answer from David, but I could feel the trembling of his muscles. "Of course you didn't. Look-what's your name? Joanne?-Djinn live by rules, and one of the rules is that humans die while we go on. Like it or not, there's nothing we can do about that." His dark, dark eyes moved to David's face. "We can't create energy, all we can do is translate it from one form to another. The demons that killed you ate the energy that kept you alive, and you died. So David stole life energy from another source to bring you back."

David let me slide down to stand on my feet, but he kept a hand on my arm, steadying me. I felt sick, lightheaded. "What?" I whispered.

Jonathan sighed. "He stole life energy and gave it to you."

"Stole it?" Oh, God, don't tell me he killed someone else. Don't tell me that.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***