“How long have you been playing?”
“A long time.” Cradling the instrument on his lap, he plucked through a swift scale. “I enjoy it. It’s calming. Like meditation.”
“Thank you for playing for me,” I whispered.
He moved his head in a slow nod. Now I understood why his first attempt had been so stilted; he’d played popular music, something impersonal. I didn’t know why he’d chosen to share a piece he truly enjoyed, but I was touched he had.
“Ezra …” His name came out in a strange croak.
He shifted on the sofa to look at me. “What’s wrong?”
I coughed, not sure what I’d intended to say, and asked a different question instead. “Do you really think everything will go back to normal?”
“What do you mean?”
“The MPD investigation … my job …” I bit my lip. “I don’t see how it could work.”
“Even if you can’t work at the guild, it won’t change anything with us. You’re our friend, Tori.”
“Right.” I smiled wanly. “Of course.”
He twisted further to see my face. His mismatched eyes, one warm brown like melted chocolate, the other pale as ice and ringed in black, swept over me. “You can’t believe it, can you?”
My hands tightened around fistfuls of the blanket.
Facing forward, he strummed a few chords. “I didn’t believe it, either. Not at first. It took a long time for me to trust Aaron and Kai … to trust they wouldn’t give up on me.”
I fought the urge to tense. Ezra, more so than the other two, never spoke of the past.
“I didn’t get it until a year after I first met them.” His voice dropped to a murmur. “I’d assumed our friendship was temporary, that sooner or later they’d come to their senses, wonder what they’d seen in me, and that’d be it.”
My chest constricted. That was exactly how I felt now.
“Then …” His hand clenched around the guitar neck. “I hurt Aaron.”
I’d never heard such a rough rasp come from his butter-smooth voice before.
“I lost control … really lost it … and I hurt him badly.” He paused, the silence throbbing with pain and regret. “I knew that was it, that I should’ve left a long time ago. While Kai rushed Aaron to a healer, I packed my things.”
My eyes widened. When he’d said “hurt,” I thought he’d meant feelings, not that he’d wounded Aaron. What had Ezra done that would require an emergency magical healing?
Kai’s voice, words he’d gasped weeks ago, echoed in my ears. Stop them before Ezra kills Aaron.
Ezra stared at nothing for a long minute. “Kai caught up to me at the bus station. He dragged me back, shoved me into a chair at the healer’s house, and sat beside me. He said there was no way in hell he was letting me ditch them. He said …”
When he didn’t continue, I dared to whisper, “What did he say?”
“He …” Ezra drew in a slow breath, then shook his head. “We sat there all night. After the healer discharged him, Aaron never said a word about what I’d done. He’s never mentioned it, not once.”
His gaze flicked to mine, too quick for me to hide my horrified disbelief. Just how badly had he injured Aaron? The guys had warned me about Ezra’s temper, but I couldn’t imagine him lashing out at his friends with that degree of violence.
Weariness and bleak humor blended in his expression. “Second worst night of my life.”
“You’ve had a worse night?” I asked incredulously.
He nodded and touched the bottom of the scar that cut down his face.
“So, you see, Tori? An MPD investigation is nothing to them. Aaron and Kai will stick by you through everything—through the worst of anything. They’ll never let you down.”
I nodded, comforted if not convinced. Aaron and Kai’s loyalty to Ezra didn’t necessarily extend to me, but a girl could hope.
Ezra’s eyes slid away from mine. “Tori, nobody knows I’m the one who hurt Aaron.”
My breath hitched. I swallowed soundlessly, understanding what he was asking. “I’ll never tell a soul.”
He started to play again, a soft, soothing melody that verged on a lullaby. My eyes drifted closed. For the first time, Ezra had revealed one of his secrets—a frightening one, but I suspected all his secrets were scary. I wished I could ask more about those early days of his friendship with Aaron and Kai.
My fatigue had grown unbearable. The world grew fuzzy, and dark dreams, woven through with sweet notes, overtook my mind.
I didn’t stir until the music stopped. Rustling movements, footsteps retreating, then returning. Careful hands slid under me, then Ezra lifted me off the sofa and into his arms. I tucked my face against his warm neck, sleepily inhaling.
His swaying steps moved across the room, heading for the stairs, but the clatter of the back door opening brought him to a halt. More footsteps approached, but caught on the edge of sleep, I was too weary to open my eyes.
“How is she?” Aaron whispered.
“Tired. She fell asleep on the sofa.”
“We got the grimoire,” Kai said in a low voice. “I’m almost positive it has the ritual. Now we need someone who can figure out a counter spell.”
“One step closer,” Aaron murmured. “We’ll get her through this.”
Ezra adjusted his hold on me. “I’ll put her to bed.”
My senses whirled as he climbed the stairs. A door creaked open. He shifted me into one arm, bearing my weight like I was no more cumbersome than a doll. He leaned over the bed, blankets rustling, then laid me down.
I sank into the mattress, my head on the pillow and my nose clouded with his delicious scent. He pulled the blankets over me and tucked them up to my chin.
Silence fell over the room, and I sleepily wondered if I’d missed the sound of him leaving.
The slight creak of a floorboard beside the bed. A whisper-soft touch on my hair, his thumb brushing my cheek. Then quick, quiet footsteps, followed by the snick of the door latch.
I opened my eyes and stared at the closed door, my skin tingling in the wake of Ezra’s gentle touch.
Face buried in the pillow, I wondered if it was possible to be alive while this exhausted. Maybe I’d died at some point and was now a zombie.
I’d slept through the night and gotten up for breakfast like a normal person, then fallen asleep on the sofa. I’d woken up in Ezra’s bed again with no clue which guy had carried me upstairs. It was now—I squinted at the alarm clock on Ezra’s nightstand—eight o’clock in the evening. I’d done nothing but nap all day, and I didn’t feel any less tired. Clearly, Zak’s fancy potion had already worn off.
Anxiety rolled through me. I’d texted Zak every time I’d been awake enough to pilot my phone, but he hadn’t responded. What a jerk. I might literally be dying here and he didn’t care.
Voices rumbled from the lower level—Aaron and Ezra, and it sounded like Kai was home now too. He and Aaron had been in and out all day, carting their newly acquired black-magic grimoire to various guild members, hoping someone could decipher it.
Sighing wearily, I checked my phone for notifications. No responses from Zak, but my battery was at twenty-six percent. Great. I flopped toward the bed’s edge and leaned over it, scanning the floor. Aha, my purse. Stretching out an arm, I grabbed the bag, heaved it onto the bed, and dug in, searching for a phone charger. I didn’t think I had one, but the contents of my oversized handbag had surprised me before.
Wallet, sunglasses, crumpled receipts. I pulled out a knitted winter hat—why was I carrying that around in the summer?—and froze at the gleam of something pale.
A silvery-blue orb was nestled in the bottom of my bag. Hadn’t I left the dormant fae at home? I had no recollection of putting it in my purse. I lifted it out and weighed its smooth warmth in my palms.
The ridged texture heated under my skin—then the whole thing moved. It unraveled and expanded, spiky wings lifting off its back, a sinuous neck uncoiling, pink eyes shining. My empty hands hung in place.
A fae hovered in front of me: the silvery creature that had saved me last night.
Its serpentine body undulated like a Chinese dragon, weightless and immune to gravity. More aquamarine-blue than silver, its reptilian face was shaped like a gecko’s, with giant pink eyes and a matching crystal in the center of its wide forehead. It had two small front arms but no hind legs, and its body morphed into a thick tail at least five feet long. Small wings, like a cross between bat wings and butterfly wings, rose off its back.
Two pairs of long antennae protruded from its head, ending in glowing blue crystals. They bobbed as the creature brought its blunt muzzle close to my nose, those huge eyes fixed on mine expectantly.
“Um.” I swallowed repeatedly. “Hello?”
Its tail snaked back and forth through the air, filling half the room. Wings flicking open and closed like a folding fan, the creature drifted backward. Its jaw opened, displaying needle-sharp teeth in a wide yawn. Ducking its head, it rapidly curled its body inward. Its long tail wound into the ball, the whole shape tightened and shrank, then the bluish-silver sphere dropped into my lap.