Inhuman (World of the Lupi #3.5) : chap 1

Chapter 1

KAI Tallman Michalski stood at her kitchen sink looking out the window. In daytime she would have seen mesquite, tumbleweed, and the pale grasses of winter stretched across land as flat as her frying pan. But it was after eight o'clock at night in late January, and her apartment complex perched at the very edge of town. Beyond the reach of the parking area's lights, across the wide road that ran along the back of the complex, darkness waited.

Lightning stitched from one black-hung pocket of sky to the next. Eight seconds later, thunder rambled like a giant's empty belly.

Her own belly tightened.

"Where's your plastic wrap?"

She twitched all over like a nervous horse.

"Chill," Jackie said. "It's just me."

Kai turned away from the window to see her friend standing in a tiny kitchen aglow with color. Ghostly patterns swam through the air, some soft as a soap bubble, some so vibrant they seemed almost solid.

She clenched her fist, digging her fingernails into her palm. Pain was a quick way to focus—handy, too, since it was always available. The colors faded to a transparent overlay, barely visible. "Sorry. I phased out watching the storm rolling in on us. Listen, y'all don't have to clean up."

Jackie rolled her eyes. The transparent sea around her was olive shaded with royal blue. Small, discrete shapes swam in her colors like agitated minnows. "Plastic wrap," she repeated. She jiggled the platter she held, still half-full of broccoli, carrots, and bell pepper.

As usual, the vegetables had gone largely unappreciated. Kai always put them out—she liked them, even if no one else did. "In the bottom drawer by thestove. But there isn't much mess, and the storm—"

"Now, Kai." A chunky blonde zipped through the arch between the kitchen and the living area, her hands full of glasses. The colors swimming around her were as quick and lively as her hands as she plunked glasses in the dishwasher. Ginger was twenty years older than Kai and Jackie, but she didn't move like it. "That storm will bother you a lot more than it does us. You need to learn to accept help gracefully, like Jackie does."

Kai's smile stretched across her face, slow and amused. "Jackie does almost everything gracefully. Then she opens her mouth."

"Hey." Jackie's eyebrows lifted above eyes almost the same warm mocha as her skin. "You think I can't chew on my foot gracefully?"

Ginger patted the taller woman on the arm. "We love you anyway, sweetie. So," she said, ripping off a paper towel and turning on the water to dampen it. "Y'all are going to the rally tomorrow, right?"

"Count me out." Jackie's colors looked upset, the shapes breaking up and re-forming. "If what Kai said about those two people who were killed is true—"

"It is," Kai said quietly, opening the refrigerator to put away three unopened Cokes and two cans of Dr. Pepper. "You won't read about it in the paper, but they were both Gifted."

"So we're supposed to band together and march in public, demanding our rights?" Jackie snorted. "Might as well hang a sign around my neck: Gifted here. Come get me. Even if the psycho who whacked those two people doesn't come after me, other nulls might. Like my boss. Or the idiots in Reverend Barclay's congregation. Bet they'd be thrilled to know exactly who to hate."

"We've got to do something." Ginger was uncharacteristically serious. "We can't let them march us off a cliff without speaking up."

"Not everyone has your nerve," Kai said. "But I suppose I'll go. If you…" Her voice trailed off.

Jackie's colors were too jumpy, too dark. She was a deeply reluctant medium who did her best not to contact the dead, but sometimes they pushed their way in. "Hey." She put a hand on Jackie's shoulder. "What's wrong? Is one of the dearly departed giving you a hard time?"

"No. It's nothing. Here." Jackie thrust the wrapped veggies at her.

Deliberate lies were snot green. Something was wrong, but Jackie didn't want to talk about it, so she lied.

Kai didn't call her on it. She accepted the platter and found room for it in the refrigerator. People lied in so many ways, for so many reasons. Most lies weren't malicious. People dodged the truth to spare someone's feelings, to avoid long explanations, to get what they wanted, to fit in, to avoid the consequences of their actions.

Kai knew that good people lied, sometimes for good reasons. She just wished they'd stop. Which, of course, made her quite the hypocrite. She might only lie about one thing, but it was a whopper.

"So how's Nathan?" Ginger asked, whisking herself back into the living room, paper towel in hand.

The question wasn't the non sequitur it seemed. Kai had told everyone who showed up tonight about the two victims being Gifted; she wanted her friends to be wary. She hadn't told them how she knew, but they would assume the information came from Nathan.

As, of course, it had.

"More to the point," Jackie added, "where's Nathan? How come he didn't show? He always comes to your parties."

Ginger laughed. "Comes? He's usually here anyway."

"He had to work tonight." Kai looked around. The kitchen was spotless, so she headed for the living area. "Besides, this wasn't my usual sort of get-together. Ginger, there isn't a thing left to clean in here."

"I guess you'd know his schedule." Ginger tossed her a grin as she wiped down the coffee table, a garage-sale find Kai had painted turquoise and coral and black. "Though I can't believe y'all are still paying for two apartments when you spend most of your time in just one."

Jackie's dark, angular face broke out in a smile. "So you and Nathan aren't just friends! I didn't see how you could be. I mean, the guy is seriously hot in a tall, dark, and uncommunicative sort of way, and you're hetero, right? And the two of you look good together, like bookends. You're both so buff and bony."

Ginger hooted. "Jackie's mouth strikes again!"

Jackie grimaced. "I didn't mean—"

"No, of course you didn't." Kai smiled. "But Nathan and I aren't lovers. We spend a lot of time together because we're friends, and because he's teaching me self-defense. He—"

"And you're teaching him computers," Ginger broke in. "And you run together. And eat dinner together half the time."

Kai looked at Jackie. "Ginger likes to think she's matchmaking with these little comments she makes. It's annoying, but I haven't been able to hint her into stopping."

"Hint!" Ginger laughed. "If I ever learn how to say things as bluntly as you do without people wanting to slap me—"

"It's that Buddha smile," Jackie said. "She smiles like that and you can't get mad."

"I think I'm blushing," Kai said.

"Really?" Ginger made a point of pressing her hand to Kai's cheek. "Nope. Not a hint of heat."

Kai looped an arm around Ginger's shoulders and hugged her. "Okay, not blushing, but I feel like I should be. Now, that gully washer is nearly here, so you two need to be on your way. I don't want to worry about you getting home safely."

Ginger returned the hug. "We'll be fine. But you'll do better if we aren't around when it hits, won't you?"

"What?" Jackie frowned, looking from one of them to the other. "I'm missing something here."

"You know Kai's Gift has a hitch in its gallop?"

"Well, yeah, but erratic empathy isn't such a bad deal. Who wants to feel everything everyone else feels all the time?"

"So true. Problem is, it goes wonky when there's a storm. Sometimes she gets nothing. Sometimes every feeling for a mile around washes right in on her."

Jackie looked appalled.

"Not to worry." Kai patted Jackie's arm reassuringly. "Someone gave me a recipe for a tea that helps. It's got a little magical boost that helps me shut things down. But I'll sleep after drinking it, and I can't do that until—"

"Until your guests are gone," Jackie finished for her. "Got it." She retrieved her coat from the couch and handed Ginger her jacket. "Come on, Ginger. I can't leave until you do, remember? I rode here with you."

Ginger just grinned. "Would that friend who gave you the tea be Nathan, by any chance?"

"If I'd wanted you to know who it was, I would have used his or her name. Go home, Ginger."

"Because I've wondered if Nathan was Wiccan. That's not a big deal in some parts of the country, but here in the Bible Belt it can be. Especially now. With Nathan being a deputy, it could mean trouble if he were known to be a witch. So I thought that might be his big secret. He'd have to be a solo practitioner, since he's not part of my coven, but—"

"Home." Kai grabbed Ginger's purse from the couch and held it out.

A few minutes later, Kai shut the door behind her friends. She breathed a sigh of relief. She loved Ginger dearly, but her friend's inquisitiveness could be a trial, and Nathan's secrets weren't hers to disclose.

Not that she knew many of his secrets, but she knew the biggie. Part of it, anyway. Nathan wasn't Wiccan or Gifted because those were human labels. And Nathan wasn't human.

Kai wandered around her small apartment, fluffing a pillow, straightening a stack of books, too twitchy to settle. It was barely nine o'clock. She didn't want to sleep, dammit, but with that storm… maybe she should listen to the weather forecast. She clicked on the radio.

"The president announced the expansion of the task force initially formed to study the effects of the power winds that shifted the balance of magic five weeks ago. Speaking to a crowded town-hall type meeting in Boston, she said…"

Kai snorted. She doubted a task force was going to help. They couldn't remake the world back into its old shape—though a few dozen more dragons to soak up excess magic leaking from nodes all over the world would help. Maybe they'd find a way to conjure or contact some.

Here in Midland, the Turning hadn't caused as many problems as elsewhere. With only one small node in the city, the ambient magic level hadn't risen enough to interfere badly with computers. They hadn't been troubled with things blown in by the power winds, either, like the goblins that hit a little town near Austin, or the hell-rain in Houston.

That had blazed for days in spite of the efforts of firefighters from all over the nation. It might be burning still if the FBI's Magical Crimes Division hadn't sent three covens to extinguish it.

Of course, the hates-magic crowd thought the covens had started the fire in the first place. Never mind that experts said the Turning was caused by a shift in the realms—they blamed witches.

Now that most of the big, showy problems caused by the Turning had been dealt with, people were noticing another change. The population of Gifted had pretty much doubled. Turned out that a lot of people possessed a potential for magic, but so slight it had gone unnoticed until the power winds blew through in December. Existing Gifts had been strengthened. Nascent Gifts had bloomed into the real thing—delighting some, traumatizing some, and feeding the antimagic hysteria that spread like a fungus in others.

People always wanted someone to blame, didn't they? Fear tied knots in reason and shut down compassion, even in basically decent people.

Not everyone was basically decent. Politicians pandering to fear and prejudice had introduced a bill in the Texas House to require all Gifted to register their Gift. They wanted it put on driver's licenses and employment applications, loans, and several types of professional licenses. It made Kai think of the way the Nazis made Jews wear Stars of David on their clothing.

She bent to pick up a crumpled napkin Ginger had missed in her frenzy of cleaning. The truth was, she was afraid, too—not of magic, but of people. Which wasn't like her.

Kai gave a lot of parties, though she wasn't an extrovert in the usual sense. She just liked people. She especially liked bringing together those who'd never ordinarily have a chance to get acquainted, and her job took her into homes all over the city, so she knew people from all walks of life.

She threw good parties, too. Like a chef, she took a little of this, a little of that, and stirred up a delicious gathering. But tonight's party hadn't been her usual get-together. Tonight she'd asked her Gifted friends and a few concerned spouses or partners over to talk about the prejudice that had blown into Texas along with the power winds… and to pass on Nathan's warning.

Two people had been killed in the past month, their bodies drained of blood. Reverend Barclay and his ilk blamed some demonic cult, but Nathan said both victims had been Gifted.

"In other news," the NPR announcer was saying, "Republican House Leader Brent Trott renewed his opposition to the Dragon Accords, referring to them as 'deals with the devil.' The Accords, sometimes referred to as Dragon Treaties, were passed last week by strong majorities in both the House and the Senate, and the president is expected to sign them into law tomorrow. In China…"

Kai turned the radio off. She didn't need a weather report to know the storm was close. She'd better get her tea brewing.

In the kitchen she got down her teapot, filled it with water purified by more than reverse osmosis, and set it on the burner. Her stomach churned with guilt.

What she'd said outright was true: the tea helped protect her from the effects of the storm. The rest had been half-truth, misdirection, and lies.

The tea hadn't come from Nathan, as she'd allowed Ginger to assume, but from a shaman of her mother's tribe. That misdirection was for Nathan's sake. It was best if even tolerant people like Ginger continued to think him human. Nor did the brew knock her out. It enhanced her focus so she could put herself in sleep—a trance state that shut down her Gift along with her conscious mind. That half-truth had been for her own sake, to spare herself explanations she couldn't afford because of her one big lie.

Kai wasn't an empath.

While she waited for the water to boil, she wandered over to the sliding glass doors that opened onto a tiny balcony. Impulsively she yanked open the blinds, but the lighting tricked her out of a view. Instead she saw her own face, ghostly in its reflected state, looking back.

The face she saw was… bony, she thought, and chuckled. Trust Jackie! It was as good a description as any. Better than plain, which is what she usually thought when she looked in the mirror. Her features didn't rise to the extravagance of real ugliness, but they didn't add up to anything as smooth as prettiness, either. That sharp blade of a nose would have done any Dine warrior proud.

Like her grandfather. She smiled and her ghost smiled back. That beak looked great on that fierce old man. She did have good skin, and she thought her neck was rather elegant. Her hair was okay. It was thick, at least, though straight as poured water, and the color hit a bland halfway point between her mother's shiny black and her father's dusty blond.

The woman in the glass lost her smile. The root-ripping torrent of grief had long since subsided, and memory ran smoothly in its beds, a quietly welcoming stream. Yet she'd never stopped missing them. She'd give almost anything to hear her father's belly laugh one more time, or be back in her mother's kitchen making fry bread.

Her mother had been a pretty, feminine woman. Maybe if she'd taken after her mother more, Nathan would…

Oh, stop. She yanked the blinds closed. There were plenty of pretty women in Midland. She'd never known him to bring one of them home. Nor any pretty boys, for that matter. For awhile she'd wondered if his moral code precluded sex outside of marriage, or if he'd taken some kind of vow. A couple months ago she'd been nervy enough to ask.

He'd looked startled, then said, simply, "No."

Nothing more, just that one word. With anyone else, it would have been a rebuke for having pried. With Nathan, it was a mark of trust that he'd answered at all.

She could only suppose that human women didn't ring his chimes. Pity he rang hers so well.

The whistling of the teapot drew her back to the kitchen. She took down the glass jar where she kept the herbal mixture, filled a mesh tea ball, and placed it in a glass mug. The herbs had an odd, not unpleasant aroma dominated by the anise scent of giant hyssop. As soon as she'd poured the hot water she covered the mug with her left hand and began chanting. Heat and moisture dampened her palm as she repeated the chant three times, then thanked the Powers. She covered the mug with a glass saucer and left the tea to finish steeping.

In the bathroom she pulled on her faded flannel pj's, put her clothes in the hamper, washed her face, and brushed her teeth. Her contacts went into their case and the world turned blurry, but she didn't bother with glasses. She retrieved the mug and brought it into her bedroom, where aqua walls and white wicker unknotted some of her tension.

Color mattered. Kai knew that better than most. She could see the way people responded to the colors around them. She'd painted this apartment as soon as she moved in last year—aqua in the bedroom, a warm tan in the living area, sandy tan in the kitchen, with a turquoise stripe wrapping the two areas to unite them.

She tugged down the covers and turned off the bedside lamp, leaving the one on in the kitchen. Childish, foolish… she promised herself again to stop with the name-calling, but it did embarrass her. Eleven years after the accident, and she still didn't like the dark.

She cozied into her nest of pillows and drank the tea in three big swallows. And shuddered.

The stuff tasted nastier than it smelled, but it worked fast. Even as she snuggled down flat, warmth opened in her middle like a blossom and began sending out tendrils.

She lay in the darkness breathing quietly, listening to the wind as it kicked up a fuss outside. Warmth continued to spread, reaching places that made her think of Nathan and wishes… a wish that hovered in the air, its wistful lavender woven threaded with silver and red. A nice carnal shade of red.

A sensible woman would be glad their relationship hadn't gone in the direction she'd wanted. He was leaving, wasn't he? He'd told her that three months ago. People he worked with were beginning to be suspicious about him. He couldn't stay in Midland much longer.

Surely it would hurt worse when he left if they'd become lovers. As it was, loss already ached inside her like a tooth going bad.

Maybe he wouldn't leave if…

Yes, he would. Dammit, she knew that.

Rain tapped its first, uncertain fingertips on the window. Time to finish putting herself out… not for her own sake, but for everyone else's. Her Gift might not be empathy, as she claimed, but it was skewed.

Which was just as well, since that was probably why she wasn't crazy. Telepaths usually were.

Kai didn't read minds. She saw thoughts and the emotions connected to those thoughts, and sometimes she changed minds. Literally. If she stayed awake for tonight's storm, there was a good chance that some of her thoughts would split off to tangle themselves up in other people's heads.

This wasn't unusual. The biggest null on the planet left a residue of thoughts and feelings behind, but such a faded wash that only a strong psychometry Gift could read anything from it. Strong emotions caused many people to project, and a few others were natural projectors.

But normal thought-bodies evaporated soon after separating from their origin. Kai's didn't. Her stray thoughts might cause her neighbors no more than a brief confusion or bad dream, but it could be worse. Much worse. And with the way her Gift had strengthened since the Turning, she couldn't take any chances.

Kai no longer needed to speak the entire spell aloud. Long practice plus the focusing property of the tea allowed her to carry only a single word deep inside, where she released it. In a dizzy, immaterial shift she slid into white fog, a place diffuse and warm where thought slowed… and slowed… and faded away.

Chapter 2

IT was the sobbing that woke her. Kai hung in the blurred state between sleep and waking, eyes closed, hearing the wash of rain drained of its earlier frenzy, the wail of her neighbor's Siamese cat, and the sobbing: Deep sobs, bereft of hope, aching with a terrible loneliness.

And familiar. She'd heard this before, in other dreams. Oh, sweetheartthere now, you aren't alone, I'm here. I'm

Her eyes opened. The sound of that terrible sorrow died, but the colors of it lingered for a second in alien shapes of black and silver before dissolving.

Kai sat up, shaken. She'd brought those thoughts back with her. That had never happened before. And she never experienced the emotions connected to thoughts.

Was her lie somehow coming true? Was she was turning into an empath as well as a weird-ass telepath?

That fear, put into words, sounded so silly she was able to set it aside. She'd been asleep, after all—normal sleep, not in-sleep; the trance state never lasted more than a couple hours. She'd connected with someone's thoughts, but her dreaming mind must have translated colors and shapes to conjure the experience of grief instead of the sight of it.

Could it have been Nathan's mind she'd touched?

She frowned, not liking the idea. She'd caught such a quick glimpse of those thoughts… for some reason they hadn't struck her as human, but she wasn't sure why. Nathan was lonely, though. Deeply so. That was one reason she'd reached out to him when they first met, both of them out running in the early morning.

That, and his incredible thighs. And shoulders. And…

And that was enough of that sort of thinking. She shook her head at herself and glanced at the red numerals on her clock, bought because the numbers were big enough for her to read them without contacts or glasses.

Two-ten.

Well, shit. She grimaced and reached for her glasses. No point in trying to go back to sleep. The in-sleep state rested

her deeply, and with a couple hours of real sleep on top of it, her tank was topped off. She might as well read for awhile.

Someone pounded on her door.

What the… it couldn't be good news, not at this hour. Kai swung out of bed, heart pounding, mentally sorting through various disasters as she hurried to her living area.

The police, arriving with some terrible news? A drank? A neighbor with an emergency?

Her last guess was right, she saw as she neared the door. Patterns clung to it, coining from the person on the other side—patterns she recognized.

Nathan. And pain. She fumbled with the locks, swung the door open, and let in a rush of cold, wet air.

The man standing in the puddle of yellow light from her porch light didn't move. He was on the lanky side of lean with a long face, black hair, and weathered skin that suggested native or Hispanic blood, though his features were Anglo. His clothes were dark and dripping. No jacket. He was cradling his left arm with his right, but she didn't see any blood.

"Nathan. Come in. What—No, come in first, then tell me."

"There's a bullet in my shoulder."

"An ambulance. I'll call… or do you want me to take you to the hospital? I'll get my coat." Keys. She needed her keys. She turned.

"Eh." One long arm reached out and stopped her. "No hospital. I don't want that. Will you take the bullet out?"

Her mouth gaped. She shut it. "I'm a physical therapist, not a doctor. Certainly not a surgeon."

"I don't need a surgeon. You know how a body is put together."

"I don't know how to—" She heard her voice rising and shut herself up, took a breath, and said more quietly, "I can at least clean it and wrap some gauze around it. Come inside."

"I shouldn't have bothered you." He turned.

This time she grabbed his arm. "In, dammit."

He looked down at her hand, then up at her face, and smiled a singularly sweet smile. That was typical. Nathan's smiles were rare, but each arrived as a new discovery, invented on the spot. "Yes, ma'am."

Standing still, Nathan didn't draw the eye. When he moved, men stood straighter and watched, wary. Women just watched. When he moved, Nathan was power.

Power with a bullet in the shoulder. A bullet. God! Kai shut the door, locked it, and stalked around behind him to look at the wound. How dare he get himself shot. How dare someone shoot him. And he wanted her to cut into him! She wanted to punch things. She was furious and irrational and hoped she'd get over it soon, but she wanted to punch things first.

His cotton shirt clung to his back, soaked through. There was a small, neat hole in the cloth in the neighborhood between his spine and his left scapula. "There's hardly any blood."

"It's usually best not to bleed."

She couldn't help but smile, which made it hard to hold on to her anger. "Bleeding isn't optional for most of us. What about pain? Is that optional, too? Unless you can shut the pain off, it's going to hurt badly if I start digging around in you.".

"Shutting pain off is dangerous."

"Can you do it?" she asked, startled.

He didn't answer. He did that sometimes. If she asked a question he didn't want to answer, he said nothing—no evasions, no anger. And no lies. In the eighteen months she'd known him, Nathan had never lied to her.

The last of her temper poofed out like mummy dust. "Nathan, I'm not qualified. You know that. You need a doctor."

He turned to face her. "Being cut will hurt, but I'm already in pain. Removing the bullet will allow me to heal properly. You're worried that you might damage me, but you won't. I'll direct you. If your hand slips and you cut where you shouldn't, I'll heal it. I heal quickly."

He spoke patiently, as if she were making a fuss over a simple favor. Maybe to him that's all this was. "And if I don't remove the bullet?"

"My body will push it out in a few days, but my range of motion will be impaired until then, and my healing delayed."

Not to mention the pain thing. "I guess a doctor would notice the quick healing. You don't want that."

"Yes. He or she would also have to report a gunshot wound."

Her neighbor's cat had quieted. The apartment was silent except for the shushing of the rain outside. Kai's heart thudded hard in her chest and her palms were damp. Was she seriously considering doing what he wanted?

She met his eyes. They were steel gray like a winter sky, and heavily lashed, striking beneath his dark brows. As usual, they gave away nothing. But the slow, indigo shapes of the thoughts weaving around his head and torso kept spiking into ragged scarlet, toothy orange. Pain colors, when they shaped themselves that way.

He'd given her what he considered enough information to make a decision. He wouldn't ask again. "Who shot you?"

"A city cop. I was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be."

"You'll tell me," she said fiercely. "If I do this, you'll tell me why you were shot, what you were doing—all of it."

He nodded.

"All right. I'm insane, but I'll do it."

Chapter 3

NATHAN lay on his stomach on Kai's couch, waiting for her to return with whatever medical supplies she thought she needed. He heard her muttering to herself as she rummaged in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom.

He'd already selected the knife—a short, sharp paring knife from her kitchen, part of a set he'd given her last Winterfaire.

Not Winterfaire. Christmas. That's what they called the celebration of the winter solstice here. Even after all these years, in the privacy of his mind he sometimes forgot to name things in the common way.

She'd given him a present, too—a suede shirt the color of sand, soft as a mare's nose. He was glad he hadn't worn it tonight… but that was silly thinking. He wanted to keep it for as long as possible, so he seldom wore it. Certainly not for a hunt, even such a limited one as tonight's had been.

Kai had laughed when she opened his gift and said something about the difference between men's presents and women's. She did see him as a man. Sometimes he wanted to ask her why. Was it only his shape that made her think of him that way? Or were his thoughts man-shaped in some ways?

That could be. He'd been here a long time. Perhaps he wasn't as far from human as he sometimes felt.

Feelings spiked in him at the thought. Complicated feelings. Humans dwelled within their complications so consistently, even as they squirmed and disavowed and tried to make the world simple by thinking it so. Nathan had never grown accustomed to human complexities, even—especially—when he experienced them. This wash of huge, contradictory feelings made him want to weep.

Instead he paid attention to the texture of the blanket beneath him, the rhythm of his breath, and the hot pain in his shoulder.

Tonight's shirt was ruined, but it was only cloth, not a gift. She'd helped him remove it. At his suggestion, she'd placed a blanket on the couch to keep it dry, since he hadn't taken off his wet jeans. He'd have been more comfortable without them, but that would have sent a sexual signal.

The blanket would also absorb blood, and there would be some. He could limit bleeding, but he couldn't stop it entirely without prematurely sealing the wound.

The first bright shock of pain from the bullet's entry had long since subsided to a crimson haze, unpleasant but manageable. Controlling pain did not mean setting up some magical shield to deny it, but going into it, accepting it fully. Just as his muscles would accept the knife's message when it sliced into him.

Harder, much harder, was making himself vulnerable to that knife. But Kai would be wielding it, so that was all right.

He lay quietly, waiting, bemused at himself. How odd that he'd come here. It had been instinct, of course. He'd been hurt, in need of help. He'd come to his friend.

His friend. Nathan basked in the wonder of that. He'd known he liked Kai, that he felt good around her, but hadn't realized… gods. He'd just found her. A year ago he would have felt nothing but joy at the finding. Now…

"Okay, I've got gauze and antibiotic ointment and peroxide," Kai said. Her footsteps, soft as they were on the carpet, were audible to him as she approached. "And I found my tweezers. I sterilized them with the peroxide, but I should probably boil them and the knife."

"Not necessary. I'm not susceptible to bacteria or viruses."

"Oh." She took a deep breath. "I'll still clean the area around the wound. It will make me feel better, and I need to get the dried blood off so I can see what I'm doing."

"All right." He slowed his breathing further, closing his eyes. The couch smelled musty; she gave off the fresh, bright scent of a healthy young woman, plus the subtle mix that said Kai to him.

He couldn't go under all the way. Her scent might be enough to keep him from interpreting the knife as an attack, but he wouldn't risk it. Besides, he needed to guide her.

"Where were you that you weren't supposed to be?"

The peroxide was cool and wet. Her touch was firm enough to do the job without being rough. It hurt, but he liked having her touch him. He wished she could do it more often. "At the morgue."

"Are you going to make me pull your story out question by question?"

He smiled at the image of her extracting answers with her tweezers. "I'd prefer to discuss it after the bullet's out."

Another deep breath. "I guess I'm trying to delay."

"Are your hands shaking?"

A pause. "No." She sounded surprised.

"You know how to cause pain when it's needed for healing." They'd talked about that, about how she'd had to learn to allow, even encourage, others to hurt in order to help them reclaim their bodies.

"Yes. Yes, I do. All right. Let's do it."

"You see the entry."

"Yes. It, ah, it's scabbed over and looks about three days old, but I see it."

"Good. The bullet's path was slightly up and to the left, leaving it wedged just beneath the edge of the shoulder blade. I've delayed the internal healing enough that I think you'll be able to see its path. Make a vertical cut, starting about two inches above the entry hole and extending an inch below to give you room to work. There will be some bleeding. I can't prevent that entirely without sealing up around the knife."

The next several minutes went about as he'd expected. Nathan didn't like pain, but it was a familiar enemy. He only tensed once, when her knife skidded across the bullet, sending it deeper.

Otherwise she did well. Kai wasn't trained in this sort of thing, but she understood the basic layout of the body. Her hand remained steady and she followed his directions meticulously. Still, by the time she finished it was a relief to relinquish control and let his body heal. He lay there and panted, exhausted.

She seemed to be doing the same, sitting back on her heels with her eyes closed and her face pale. After a moment she spoke. "It's closing up."

Her voice sounded odd. Spooked, maybe. He couldn't think of what he was supposed to say—agreeing that the wound was, indeed, closing seemed pointless. Perhaps she wanted to know what to expect. "The visible part of the wound heals first, to seal it. Since no vital organs were affected and I'm not in combat, the rest will heal more slowly."

"How slowly?"

"Several hours, probably."

"If you were in combat, it would heal faster?"

"Yes."

"Do you control the healing?"

"No." He reconsidered. That wasn't entirely accurate. "I can, to some extent. I slowed it on the way here, but it's difficult. Tiring."

"Your body prioritizes for you." A thread of humor lightened her voice.

She wasn't too spooked, then. Relieved, he made the effort to sit up. The pain was much less now. "Yes. A good way to put it. May I see the bullet?"

Her eyebrows lifted. "Ghoulish interest, or a souvenir?" She handed him the clump of bloody gauze where she'd dropped the slug.

"I haven't been shot in a long time, and ammunition has changed. It could be useful to know what kind of damage to expect from today's weapons."

"If you're well enough to sit up and examine your bullet, you're well enough to explain why a cop shot you in the back."

"He couldn't shoot me from the front. I was running away." He inspected the smashed lump. Hollow point, as he'd expected. That was standard police-issue and what he used himself. Good stopping power, and less likely to pass through the target and harm a nearby civilian or hostage. Probably a lightweight .38, he decided. Some of the older officers clung to their .38s.

"The officer will be disciplined, I imagine." He lifted his hip so he could slip the slug in his pocket. "He was too hasty in using his weapon. Chief Roberts thinks within narrow channels, but he's correct within his limits."

She huffed out a breath. "That is not an explanation."

He felt a smile start. Kai was angry. If he told her she was pretty when temper brought that flush to her skin, she might pick up the knife again. But she was.

Her Gift was linked to water, and she wore its colors often. The soft flannel she wore tonight was a pale green that made him think of one of the many bright pools in the Summer Lady's land. Her throat rose from the neck of her pajamas, a strong and beautiful pillar the color of warm, wet sand. She would smell so good right there, in the hollow between neck and collarbone.

He took a moment to rein in his body, but the smile lingered inside. "I've been searching for the killer."

"I know that. I don't know why you were at the morgue. Or why you were shot for being there."

"I wanted to see the bodies of the two who were slain. I didn't have permission." The two victims had been killed within city limits, so the city police were handling the investigation. Chief Roberts didn't play well with others, particularly those in the sheriff's office. "I hoped to pick up a… a scent. Traces left by the killer."

"Are you a—a werewolf? A lupus, I mean."

"Eh." The question startled him. Kai had always been careful not to pry, not to ask too many direct questions. But she was his friend. He knew her secret; he could give her more of his. "No," he said, then decided that wasn't enough. "This is the only realm with lupi. They're native to it. I'm not."

She nodded solemnly.

His muscles loosened in relief. She didn't fear him, wasn't upset—and she didn't go on to ask the obvious questions, the ones he wasn't sure he could answer. "I said I wanted to find the killer's scent. I meant the physical scent, but I… there's more, for me. I pick up other traces, psychic traces, but sensually, as a smell. Like you receive thoughts visually."

"Oh." She cocked her head. "I like that. It makes me feel less of a freak to know your talent works a bit like mine."

"You are not a freak."

She tapped her head. "This knows that." She touched her chest. "This doesn't. Did you get a scent from the bodies?"

He grimaced. "I never reached the bodies. The police have them under guard."

"I guess the morgue usually has someone there. An attendant."

"I allowed for that," he said dryly. He'd been sloppy, but not that sloppy. "I didn't expect officers to be stationed at the bodies." He could have killed or disarmed them, of course, but one action would have been immoral, the other stupid. He shook his head. "I don't understand why they were there. Chief Roberts is narrow, not stupid. He must have some reason to guard the bodies, but I can't come up with one."

"He may be thinking of vampires. A lot of people are right now. The bodies were drained of blood, right? So he might have posted people to watch and make sure they don't—well, rise or something."

Nathan snorted. "If he's trying to find a vampire, he's wasting his time. They don't exist. Not the way they're depicted in fiction."

"But… they do exist?"

"Blood-drinkers are real, but not native to this realm. Most of them aren't intelligent, and none of them reproduce by endowing their victims with the ability to rise from the dead."

She grinned. "Or go around seducing young virgins?"

They'd watched Interview With the Vampire together last Halloween. Funny show. He'd chuckled at what she claimed were all the wrong places. "Exactly."

"So you think it's a human who killed those people?"

"Unlikely. A deranged or evil human might drink blood, but he or she couldn't suck out the entire ten pints in the average body. Nor is it easy to drain a body completely in other ways, and the victims were apparently exsanguinated in the same places the bodies were found."

"Then it's an animal of some sort. Something that came in on the power wind."

"Probably." He considered his words for a moment. "By 'animal' I don't just mean inhuman. I mean a species incapable of complex communication."

"Communication? You think that's the dividing line between animal and, uh… I guess I can't say human, but I'm not sure how to put it."

"Sentient is the closest word in English."

"Okay, then. I would have thought the level of sentience depended on intelligence, the ability to reason."

"Reason can be denned in different ways, and intelligence is a slippery scale to apply. Is a severely retarded man a beast?"

She grimaced. "You make your point."

"Sophisticated communication which conveys concepts rather than just 'danger' or 'food' is essential because without it, intelligence and moral reasoning don't develop. A potentially intelligent being that is unable to communicate effectively never develops its potential. Take cats, for example."

"Uh… cats?"

"Cats are potentially sentient, but only those who live closely with other sentients develop fully because they lack the stimulus of clear communication. Not all cats develop a high level of sentience," he added. "But some do. The ones with good telepathic skills."

"Cats." Her voice and expression were blank. Then a smile spread across her face like the early colors of dawn. She shook her head, rueful, smiling. "I think I'm weirded out. Also wiped," she said, rising. "And so are you. Do you want to stay here for what's left of the night?"

"That would be good." Healing drained him. Delaying the healing drained him more. "Did you see that in my colors?" he asked, suddenly curious. "That I need rest?"

"Not the colors so much as the way they're behaving. Droopy and sluggish."

He nodded. That made sense—his thoughts felt sluggish. "Thank you. For the offer of your couch, and for helping."

"You're welcome. I'll get you a pillow and a cover." A yawn caught her, and she stretched.

Long-buried feelings stirred inside him. He had to be stern with his body in order to quiet it before she noticed. "A sheet would be welcome. I don't need a blanket. Is it all right if I remove my jeans? They're wet."

"Sure." Her smile came a shade too quickly, a tint too bright. "I'll get you that sheet."

He didn't remove his pants yet. He'd do that after she was in bed. Kai couldn't regulate her body the way he did, nor could she hide her response from him. He couldn't hide his response from her, either, for that matter—she'd see it in his colors if he allowed himself to become aroused. So he hadn't. He didn't want to raise expectations. But he allowed himself the rare indulgence of enjoying the way her body moved beneath her loose pajamas as she left the room. Maybe…

He wouldn't rush things. But he knew her now for a friend, so… maybe.

Chapter 4

IT was still dark when Nathan woke to three bars from the William Tell Overture. He rolled into a sitting position, reached for his jeans, and pulled his cell phone out of the pocket.

Six-oh-five, he noted. And the call was from dispatch. "Hunter."

The phone had woken Kai, too. She drifted out to stand in the doorway to her bedroom while he listened, acknowledged his instructions, then disconnected. He stepped into his jeans, which were clammy and damp still. She didn't ask any questions, but they hung, suspended, in her eyes.

"There's been another killing," he told her, running a hand over his chin. Bristles. He'd have to shave. "The body appears to have been exsanguinated, like the others. It's about three miles from here, just off County Road 60."

Her eyes widened. "But that—that's our road. Nathan, who was it?"

"I don't have an ID." She'd had friends over last night. Gifted friends. She'd worry that the victim was one of them, and with reason. Last night's party and the proximity of the body might not be coincidence. "All I know is that the victim was male."

"Pete… Pete was with Meagan. They wouldn't have gone that way. Neither would Ryan, but Mark—he and Andrew live in Odessa. They might have taken 60. It runs into 1788, which would bring them back to 191, so—but you know all that." She scrubbed both hands over her face as if trying to rub sense in, sleep out. She dropped her hands. "I'm babbling. You know all those roads."

He could see the fear swimming in her eyes, could all but

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