She nodded slightly. Tears formed in her eyes, ran down her smooth, perfectly pale cheeks.
Patrick knew, she said. From the first moment he saw you.
That I could close the rift?
That you are the rift.
I didn't have time to feel the shock of that, because just then the pain started. Sara winced too, laid her hands over her chest and bent forward. It felt like we were being pulled by a fishhook, right through our bodies . . . tugged somewhere.
What the hell . . .
Sara looked up. Her eyes were flat black now, the jewel color lost, and her hair was twisting and blackening into a burned and petrified ruin.
It's time to go. Remember. Remember.
And then it was lost, all a gray dream, floating in oblivion.
Pop goes the perfume cork.
I was ready, this time-I came boiling out, took form as soon as I was free of the bottle, was already moving to grab Kevin's T-shirt and back him up against the wall.
"You!" I yelled. "You treacherous, shallow little-"
He was paler than usual, babbling something that I wasn't listening to, because there were Wardens and Djinn dying out there. I'd felt it like the death of a thousand cuts inside that bottle. With every life slipping away there'd been another slice, another piece gone from the world. From me.
And there was this summons. Dragging at me like an anchor, pulling me apart.
It was still there, throbbing come home like a heartbeat inside me.
Kevin was holding my bottle in a death grip. I grabbed his wrist and squeezed. "Drop it!" I snarled. "Drop it or I take your hand off."
"Don't hurt me." He managed to blurt that out, and I was trapped, another barrier in the road. Dammit. I let go-no choice-and backed away.
We were still in Patrick's remodeled apartment. The TV was showing something that involved a lot of ships in space blowing up, but the sound was on mute. I spun away from Kevin and stretched out my senses, such as were left, trying to find someone, anyone to help, because I absolutely had to go. The summons wasn't something that could be denied. The connection to David was still there-faint, but present-and I felt it twisting and vibrating with stress. God, what was she doing . . . no. David couldn't be my first priority. Not now.
"Sara!" I yelled. "Sara! Please! I don't understand what to do! Help me!"
The shadow of the Ifrit glided past me, drifting, barely visible. I grabbed for it, but it slipped away.
"Feed," she whispered.
I couldn't feed her. I had nothing in reserve, and so little coming from David that I was afraid to try to pull more; it might snap the connection altogether, leave him bleeding to death out there.
I turned to Kevin. He was still up against the wall where I'd left him, looking spooked and more than a little angry; I didn't have time for that, or for his adolescent angst, or even for his pain.
There was too much pain, now. His-and mine, and David's-was barely a drop in the bucket.
"Order me," I snapped.
"To do what?"
He looked blank for a second, then a sly, oily light came into his eyes. "Take your clothes off and put on the ones I like. The-" He made the corset gesture.
"Sure. Whatever." I started stripping, using my hands to slow down the process, as the gate opened to his power. I started siphoning for all I was worth, filling myself with that thick dark-syrup flood, and looked for Sara.
She was hovering like a ghost in the shadow next to the massive television. I locked eyes with the black void where I thought her face should be, and began sending Kevin's power into her. Force-feeding. By the time I'd stripped off my pants I'd already formed the lacy undergarments for the Frederick's outfit, so there was no actual nudity involved, but Kevin was looking just as stunned as if I'd done a Full Monty for him. Good. Stunned would keep him out of my way.
I templated on the French Maid outfit and walked forward, to where the Ifrit had gained dark, smooth substance. Can you hear me? I asked her. Somewhere under the shadows, I thought I saw a flash of purple eyes.
I hear. It was barely a whisper, but it was there. And it sounded like the Sara of my dreams.
Can you take me where I'm supposed to go?
Jonathan. Such a wealth of sadness in that single word. Yes. Can.
What about Patrick?
She seemed to flinch. Gone. Seeking.
I sucked in a deep breath that creaked the corset and strained the engineering of its lacings. Take me to Jonathan.
Barrier. The sparklies? No, that wasn't meant to be a barrier. It was far too porous. Hard to pass.
We had to. I held up a finger to put her on hold as Kevin walked up behind me.
He put his arms around me and pulled me close, and I nearly gagged when I realized how turned on he was. God, how had I gotten myself into this . . .
"I want you to-" Tactical error. I hadn't finished dressing yet, which meant I still had access to his power. He couldn't give me simultaneous commands.
"Sleep," I said, spun around in his arms and used some of the power that was still flowing through me to turn back on him. "Dream about me."
For a second I thought it wasn't going to work, but then his eyes rolled back in his head, his mouth fell open, and he dropped like a bag of bricks to the carpet. The bottle stayed in his hand, clenched tight. Dammit. If it had rolled free . . .
I tried working on his fingers, but I couldn't get them to relax. Probably some Djinn rule against it anyway. Couldn't break them, since he'd ordered me not to hurt him. Couldn't kill him-okay, not that I would have, but . . .
I dragged him feet first over to the leather couch, got him comfortably situated, and tried not to listen to the moaning. Oh, yeah, he was dreaming about me. I hoped I'd remembered to Scotchgard the couch.
"Do it," I said to Sara.
The Ifrit leaped on me, dug talons deep into my chest, and started to feed. After the first few seconds of agony . . .
. . . we were falling through the aetheric. Fast. Balled up together, inseparable, feeding on one another like an ouroboros. Falling like a meteor through the aetheric, up through higher levels, the weirdest sensation of gliding in a direction that wasn't up or down or sideways, here or there. I remembered the weirdness of the journey to Jonathan's house, even in the relatively familiar analog of the elevator. The Ifrit wasn't even trying to cloak this in familiar terms.
The aetheric was a minefield of disasters in progress. To the east, the furious storm was consuming power at a frightening rate; it was a towering whirlwind of coldlight and pure energy, and the few Wardens still fighting it were flickering, weak, and near to breaking. I didn't sense any other Djinn. The fires in Yellowstone lit up the plane like a supernova-consuming everything in all the realms of our reality, nearly obscured by a shell of the swirling blue sparks. No Wardens at all near that, now. And no Djinn.
We hurtled toward the center of the inferno. I tried to scream, but the Ifrit was drawing everything out of me, every ounce of power and will, and I was deadweight by the time we hit the fires. The pain was so intense I thought that it was over, I was gone, but then there was a sense of pushing through something viscous and thick, of being squeezed, and then a sudden unexpected release.
We tumbled down, fast, still locked together. She was still feeding off of me.
We slammed down onto something hard and unyielding, and I realized I'd been made flesh again, sans tacky French Maid getup; I was wearing a long pale robe instead, something soft and cool and with a texture like silk.
It was the mirror image of what the woman kneeling astride me was wearing, only hers was a blinding white where mine was a soft cream.
Sara had regained her form. At least for the moment. She was breathing hard, eyes wide and a little wild, and the dull flush in her cheeks could have been exhilaration or post-traumatic stress. Her claws were still sunk deep into my chest, and I could see the pale steady fire of my lifeforce running up through them, into her.
"Get off!" I managed to say, and batted at her weakly. She pulled the claws out, looking stunned and still maniacally excited, and stood up as I rolled over on my side. Oh God. I felt a wave of pure nausea and spat out blue sparks. They were sparkling all over Sara, too, but she didn't seem to feel any ill effects from them. In fact, the sparks were going into her, not being rejected.
I'd never felt so frail and sick in my life-human or Djinn. I lay full length on the cool, silky wood floor, struggling to keep myself together, and heard footsteps from the other room.
Ah, perfect. Jonathan. She'd brought me to Jonathan.
He looked down at me with those cool, dark, judging eyes, then bent over and picked me up. Paused when he saw Sara standing there, looking unearthly and beautiful and unhealthily stuffed with energy.
"You," he said. Not welcoming, not unwelcoming, and not surprised. "Stay here."
I liked being held in a man's arms again, feeling the strength against me. It made me feel safe, for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. I tried to pay attention, but it was all just flashes and impressions-a hallway, a glimpse of a kitchen, what looked like photos on the wall, an open darkened doorway. Lights flipped on as he carried me in. The softness of a bed sucked me down.
Jonathan looked down at me, and I was surprised to see something in his eyes that might have been respect. "You made it," he said. "How'd you know where to go?"
"Didn't," I murmured. "Ifrit."
He nodded. "Yeah, she would." He took hold of my arm and ran both hands down it, like a coach giving a therapeutic massage; warmth cascaded back into me, silent and luminous. Life, coursing through me.
His hands moved on to my left arm, squeezed in energy. Then my legs, right, then left. The steady warm pressure of his hands lulled me into a half-dream.
Over on my back. Somehow my clothes were gone. Hands on my back, working down the muscles, healing.
"What are you?" I whispered. I felt Jonathan's presence like the sun behind me. His fingers were no longer pressing my skin, then were inside of me, touching deep.
He never answered.
I woke up warm and comfortable, with a soft feather pillow under my head and no memory at all of going to sleep. No dreams, either. The sheets smelled faintly of sandalwood, and they were crisp and cool on my bare skin. The room didn't look familiar. It featured a honey-warm wooden chest of drawers, massively carved, and a couple of paintings of space and the stars that looked vivid enough to be windows into infinity. A bookcase, loaded with hardbacks of all shapes, sizes, and colors. A bedside table with another lamp, currently off.
Lying on the rug next to the side of the bed, like a dog curled up for the night, was an Ifrit. It gleamed black in the shadows, and as I stared down at it, it raised its head and grinned at me with black needle teeth. I felt a wave of horror, a flash of dream come to life. Sara?
If it was, what I'd given her hadn't been enough to keep her in Djinn form for long. And I'd given her so much-almost everything I had. The Ifrit put its head back down again, curled its long, vaguely human form into a tighter coil, and relaxed. Guard dog? If so, I had no idea how to call her off. Or even if I should.
"Hello?" I tried a tentative whisper, and slid up to a sitting position in the bed. The Ifrit didn't twitch. I kept an eye on it and cranked the volume up a notch. "Anybody?"
The bedroom door framed a moving shadow. Light silhouetted a tall male figure, and for a frozen, relieved second I thought David!, but then he moved into the warm glow of the table lamp and it was Jonathan. He had his hands thrust into the pockets of his jeans, looking casual in pose but not in body language. His dark eyes were too bright and too focused.
He didn't so much as glance at the Ifrit. I found that interesting. The Ifrit raised its head and sniffed at him, climbed to its feet and stalked around him in a circle.
Jonathan kept watching me, though he reached over and patted the Ifrit on the head. It flopped down, elegance etched in darkness, and I felt it watching him with something like adoration.
"So?" he asked me. I rubbed one bare arm and found gooseflesh popping up, courtesy of a slight chill in the air, or maybe his presence.
"Well, I'm not coming apart," I said. "Gotta be an improvement."
He nodded. "Came close, though."
"I figured." I cleared my throat. "Um . . . how many others made it here?" He just looked at me for a long few seconds, and I asked the question I dreaded. "Rahel? Did she make it?"
He dropped into a crouch next to the bed. I held the sheet up as a modesty cover, but didn't particularly worry about it if he decided to check the side view. He didn't. Quite. "No. How much do you know?"
"Not too damn much."
"Okay." He put his bare hand on my bare shoulder, drawing a fresh shiver out of me, but once again I got the therapeutic touch, nothing personal. "You're clear. You can get up now."
He turned his back, not as if he was intent on giving me some kind of personal space, more as if he deeply didn't care whether or not I was naked; I formed clothes as I got up, anyway. Blue denim jeans, work shirt, sturdy boots. They seemed appropriate, here.
"What about David?" I asked.
"You tell me." His back was still turned; he was pulling things out of the bookcase, restlessly flipping pages. Something to do with his hands. There was so much repressed energy in him, I wondered how he survived here, stuck in this house, unable to leave. He didn't seem to be someone with a peaceful interior life. "He enjoying himself? Having a good old time with the Widder Prentiss?"
Sarcasm thick enough to spread like manure. I heard the pain underneath, though. And remembered the dream. "I didn't want him to do that. I would have stopped it if I could have."
"Yeah, well, not always about what you want. Or any of us, for that matter." He shoved the book back in place with unnecessary violence and turned to face me, arms folded across his chest. Forbidding, that was the word for the expression on his face. Flint-hard eyes. Lips in a straight, unsympathetic line. Anything I said would sound whiny and self-pitying, so I said nothing. Just looked at him. He finally transferred the stare down to his black Doc Martens. "I notice you managed to get away. Maybe you'll be of some use. We can always use some good solid cannon fodder."
"No wonder humans don't become Djinn very often," I replied. "What with your incredible recruitment efforts."
Jonathan's lips twitched. It might have been a smile, but he didn't let me see it to be sure. "Yeah, well, you get set in your ways after the first couple of millennia or so. Sorry if we haven't made you feel like one of the boys."
I elected not to get into the gender-specific arguments. "Does she still have him?"
"Madame de Sade? Oh yeah." He rocked back and forth on his heels, arms still folded.
"And . . ."
He looked up. "You want details?" The tone could have frozen mercury. "Should've stuck around. Could've been part of the whole experience. I'm sure he would've loved for you to see it."
Oh, he was so angry . . . showing none of it in his blank expression, but the raw cutting edges of it came through.
"Rahel is on her way," he said. "She went to run an errand for me."
"But you know how dangerous-"
He held up a cautioning finger. "Don't. Don't do that. You want to stay on my good side, Jo, let's get something straight. Never remind me of the obvious. And never assume I didn't notice it."
He turned and started for the door. I called a question after him. "How bad is it? Out there in the aetheric?"
"Come with me," he said, and disappeared down the hall. I followed. "While you were sleeping, you've missed the party."
I was unprepared for a living room full of people. There were at least thirty or forty crowded in. Djinn of every size, shape, description, color, and dressed in every conceivable style. Some evidently had a whole god complex going; the silks and satins were way over the top, not to mention the jewelry. It made Rahel's traditionally neon color scheme look positively corporate.
Jonathan carved an easy path through the crowd and stood next to the fireplace, watching the jockeying for position; when he caught sight of me standing at the back, he jerked his head in a come here gesture that had nothing to do with concern. More like he wanted to keep his enemies close. I grabbed wall space at his shoulder and tried to look insignificant, which turned out to be difficult, since I was drawing stares and whispers. Jonathan held up his hands for quiet. Instant obedience.
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