They stared each other down for long moments, each sweltering in the heat of his separate aggravations.
"What the hell is going on?" Connor growled. "What's this about?"
"I want someone—you—to consider the possibility that the Elders are hiding something."
"All right. But I want you to consider the possibility that they're not."
"Fine." Aidan ran a hand through the sweat-dampened roots of his hair and heaved out his breath. "I'm going to get cleaned up."
Connor crossed his arms. "Then what?"
"I don't know. You figure something out."
"Whenever I do the planning, we get in trouble. That's why you're captain."
"No. I'm captain because I'm better than you." Connor threw his golden head back and laughed his deep-timbered laugh, a sound that blew through the tension like a hard breeze in fog. "There's still some of that bravado left in you."
As Aidan went to take a shower, he hoped he had more than bravado left.
He'd need everything he had to make it through the hard assignments ahead. Assignments his instincts didn't agree with at all.
* * *
Lyssa Bates glanced at the cat-shaped clock on the wall with its ticking tail and second-hand whiskers. It was finally nearing five o'clock. Almost time to start the weekend, and she couldn't wait.
Exhausted, she ran her hands through her long hair and yawned. It seemed she never got recharged enough, no matter how long she rested. Her days off passed in a blur of kicked-off sheets and buckets of coffee. Her social life had slowed to a drip as her time spent in bed grew longer and longer. None of the prescription insomnia medicines did any good. It wasn't that she couldn't sleep. In fact, she couldn't seem to stop sleeping.
She just wasn't getting any rest.
Standing, she held her arms above her head and stretched. Every sinew in her body protested. Flames from scented candles nickered on the tops of her metal filing cabinets, covering the medicinal odors of her clinic with the smell of sugar cookies. But the yummy scent failed to entice her hunger as it was meant to do. She was losing weight and growing weaker. Her doctor was prepared to send her to a sleep clinic to monitor her REM patterns, and she was about to agree. He said her lifelong lack of dream recollection was a mental manifestation of a physical malady, one he just hadn't pinpointed yet. Lyssa was just grateful that he didn't prescribe a strait jacket.
"That was your last patient, so you can go home if you want."
Turning, Lyssa managed a smile for Stacey, her receptionist, who stood in the office doorway.
"You look like shit, Doc. Are you coming down with something?"
"Hell if I know," Lyssa muttered. "I've been feeling under the weather for at least a month now."
She had actually been "sickly" most of her life, which was one of the reasons she had turned to medicine for a career. Now she spent as much time as her energy level would allow in her cheery clinic with its creamy marble floors and soft Victorian decor. Behind Stacey, the narrow wainscoted hallway led to the waiting area decorated with cooing lovebirds in antique cages. It was cozy and warm, a place where Lyssa enjoyed spending time. When she wasn't so damn tired.
Stacey leaned against the doorjamb and wrinkled her nose. Dressed in scrubs with cartoon animals on them, she looked cute and bubbly, which suited her personality. "God, I hate being sick. I hope you feel better soon. Your first patient on Monday is a Lab who just needs boosters. I'll reschedule them, if you want. Give you an extra hour to decide if you feel up to coming in or not."
"I love you," Lyssa said with a grateful smile.
"Nah, you just need someone to take care of you. Like a boyfriend. Man, the way the single guys look at you when they come in here…" Stacey whistled. "Half the time I think they bought dogs just to come see you."
"Didn't you just say I looked like shit?"
"Girl talk. "You'd look better on your deathbed than most women on their best day. These guys don't remember their pets' checkups because of the reminder postcards. Trust me."
Lyssa rolled her eyes. "I just gave you a raise. What do you want now?"
"For you to go home. I'll close up with Mike."
"I won't argue with that." She was dead on her feet, and although the clinic was still filled with the soothing cacophony of barking dogs, Mike's whirring grooming tools, and talking birds, everything was gradually winding down for the evening. "Let me put these charts away and I'll—"
"No way. If I let you start doing my job, what'll you need me for?" Stacey strode over, scooped up the files from the mahogany desktop, and moved out to the hallway. "See ya Monday, Doc."
Shaking her head with a smile, Lyssa retrieved her purse and fished out her keys before she exited the back of her clinic to the staff parking area. Her black BMW Roadster waited in the nearly empty lot. It was a beautiful day, both sunny and warm, and she lowered the top before heading home. During the twenty-minute drive, she guzzled the cold leftover coffee in her cup holder and blared the radio, trying to stay awake long enough to keep from killing herself or someone else on the highway.
Her sleek car wove easily through the slight traffic in her small Southern California town. An impulse buy when she had finally acknowledged she was destined to die young, the Roadster was a purchase she'd never regretted.
Over the last four years she had made a lot of similarly drastic changes, like moving to the Temecula Valley and leaving a hugely successful veterinary practice in San Diego behind. She'd thought her chronic fatigue was due to her stressful work schedule and outrageous cost-of-living, and for the first few years after the move, she had felt much better. Lately, however, her health seemed worse than ever.
A battery of tests had ruled out a variety of ailments, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. Incorrect diagnoses like nbromyalgia and sleep apnea had her taking useless medications and wearing painful masks that prevented any shuteye whatsoever. The latest diagnosis of narcolepsy was depressing, suggesting no cure for the weariness that was ruining her life. Her ability to work the long hours she enjoyed had been diminished years ago, and she was slowly losing her mind.
The wrought-iron gate to her condo community swung open and she pulled inside, passing the communal pool area she had yet to use before hitting the remote to her garage door around the corner.
She pulled to an abrupt stop inside with pinpoint precision, hit the remote again, and was inside her granite-countered kitchen before the garage door had lowered all the way. Tossing her purse on the breakfast bar, Lyssa stripped out of her ivory silk shirt and blue slacks, then sank into her down-stuffed couch.
She was asleep before her head hit the cushion.
* * *
Aidan stared at the portal barring him from his latest assignment and scowled. The psyche inside was seriously fucked up to build a barrier like this. Metallic and broad, it stood alone in a sea of black. Rising upward so far he couldn't see where the damn thing ended, it was the strongest deterrent he had ever come across. No wonder the other half-dozen Guardians had met with failure.
He cursed and ran his hands through his hair, which was now graying slightly at the temples. Guardians didn't age. They were immortal, unless a Nightmare sucked the life out of them. But some of the whacked-out shit he'd seen over the years had scarred him visibly. Weary and disheartened, he gripped the hilt of his sword and banged hard on the door. It was going to be a long night.
"Who is it?" came a lilting voice from inside.
He paused mid-swing, his interest piqued.
"Hello?" she called out.
With his brain slowed by the unexpectedness of the conversation, he blurted the first thing that came to mind. "Who do you want it to be?"
"Oh, go away," she grumbled. "I'm sick of you wackos."
Aidan blinked at the door. "Excuse me?"
"No wonder I never get any sleep with you guys banging on the door with your riddles. If you won't tell me your name, you can go away."
"What name do you prefer?"
"Your real one, smart ass."
His brow arched as he suddenly felt as if he were the one who was mentally disturbed and not the other way around.
"Bye, whoever you are. Nice talking to you." Her voice grew distant, and he knew he was losing her.
"Aidan," he yelled.
"Oh." There was a pregnant pause. "I like that name."
"Good. I guess." He frowned, not sure what to do next. "Can I come in?"
The door swung open with torturous leisure, the hinges screeching and soft puffs of rust exploding from the cracks. He stared for a moment, startled at how easy it was to gain entry when he had been warned the task would be next to impossible. Then he was struck by the interior. Inside was just as pitch black as the outside. He'd never seen anything like it.
Stepping carefully into her "dream," he asked, "Why don't you turn the lights on?"
"You know," she said dryly, "I've been trying to do that for years."
Her voice floated across the darkness like a warm spring breeze. He searched through her memories and found nothing unusual. Lyssa Bates was an ordinary woman who lived an ordinary life. There was nothing in her past or present that could explain this emptiness.
The door behind him stood open. He could withdraw. Send for a Nurturer. Be grateful for the easiest assignment he'd had in a long, long time. Instead, he stayed, intrigued by the first flash of genuine interest in a Dreamer he had felt in many centuries.
"Well…" He scrubbed a hand along his jaw. "Try thinking of someplace you'd like to go and take us there."
"Close the door, please." He heard her padding away.
Aidan considered the wisdom of shutting himself inside here with her. "Can't we leave it open?"
"No. They'll come in if you don't shut it."