One of the problems of dating one of the Fae is that they're not exactly predictable. Or easy to contact. Or – well, human.
Warren, Knight of the Summer Court, is slightly better than most – at least he is still partly human. But he's also old-fashioned, over-generous, unsure of modern etiquette and, of course, tied to the Summer Court. He also had the Fae's weaknesses: aversion to iron, compulsion to tell the truth, and a love of information, politics and manipulation. I couldn't trust him with any information that could be used against me by the Court, and he couldn't tell me much about himself for the same reason. Despite that, we'd managed to go on several dates and had a few quiet evenings at my house, and the solution of restricting our conversations to innocuous subjects actually worked really well – if only because Warren hadn't been out in the world much for the past few decades due to the Court's habit of losing track of time, and so we had a lot of films, food types and cultural references to get through.
I hadn't seen him for a few weeks as he had been travelling on Court business, but I suspected that he was back in town - metaphorically - when I had a bunch of beautiful, entirely out-of-season spring flowers turned up mysteriously in my office. He knows where I work, and Fae are able to enter my office quite easily as there's no threshold – so to have the flowers sitting on my desk, shedding scent and brightening the entire room, was a bit of a giveaway.
They didn't wilt, either. They stayed fresh for an entire week, at which point I took them home to avoid making anyone more suspicious than they already were. Everyone had of course asked where they came from, and I'd had some good-natured teasing – although all of my work colleagues are reticent about their own private lives, so my evasions were accepted without too much questioning.
I came home the day after I'd removed the flowers back to my home to find a tiny winged Faerie sitting next to them on the worktop, cheerfully singing something off-key.
"Ice Cream Lady!" Mica is smaller than Davido, with a shock of purple hair and a shield made out of a bottle-cap. "I have been sent with a message."
I hang my bag on the back of a chair. "Spit it out, then."
"I have nothing in my mouth," the Faerie tells me seriously.
"Um. It means, tell me what the message is," I translate, unable to stop a grin. I sometimes forget that the Fae aren't very good at slang.
"Oh! The Summer Knight wishes to visit you."
"When?" The Little Folk are very conscientious, but aren't particularly good at remembering things.
"I will check!" Mica says, springing up.
"Wait! Tell him that I'm free this evening." Our relationship was, out of necessity, a bit of a sporadic one.
"I will, Ice Cream Lady!" The tiny Faerie shoots off in the direction of my front door, and I hear the letterbox bang. I sigh and go to find my laptop. Summer Knight notwithstanding, I've still got reports to write.
When Davido's tiny figure appears abruptly above my laptop screen, I give up on my reports and go to find him ice cream; and so when I open the door to Warren twenty minutes later, the kettle is already on, and my tiny Faerie guard is most of the way through his payment.
The rain's hammering down on the pavement; the clouds over the city are stained orange with the streetlights. The Summer Knight is standing outside with a smile on his face, entirely dry despite the rain; he's wearing a green shirt and jeans today, and brings a breath of spring leaves and the scent of warm earth as he steps over the threshold in response to my invitation. I smile back at him, feeling something inside me relax. "Tea?"
He runs his hand up the back of my neck and into my hair, and gently kisses me. His skin smells of clover and cut grass. "That would be welcome."
"How long can you stay?" I ask as I capture his hand and turn towards the kitchen to find tea.
"I have no curfew," Warren says, snaking his arm around my waist and walking with me down the hallway. "So I am entirely at your disposal."
My dirty laugh always manages to turn his ears red, but he's not at all averse to being pulled into a kiss.
But an hour later, just as the tea has gone properly cold, there's a hammering from the front door. "Dini! Open your fucking door!" a muffled voice calls.
I leave the warmth of Warren's arms and race down the hall, take the chain off and fling the door open. "Tony, what the hell-"
"It's freezing out here!" my brother complains. It is indeed tipping down with rain, and he looks like a drowned rat. I start laughing as I shut the door behind him, and my brother lapses into Italian to express his frustration as he hands me a broken umbrella and tries to work out if any of him is dry.
Warren is standing in the kitchen doorway, his hands clearly in view, obviously concerned. Tony glances up, and nods. "Sir Knight."
"Mr Cornetti," Warren says with a polite inclination of his head.
"Do you want a shower, Tony?" I ask.
"Yes. And dry clothes. Have you still got some?"
"Usual place." I watch Tony take his shoes off and squelch up the stairs in search of warmth and dryness.
"Am I able to ask what Mr Cornetti is doing here?" Warren asks as I come back into the kitchen.
"I don't know yet," I say acidly and dump the broken umbrella in the bin. "I haven't seen him for a while, so he's probably checking up on me. I'm sure he'll let me know when he comes back down."
Warren nods, and returns to the sofa. I go and put the kettle on to make more tea for myself and Warren, and a coffee for Tony.
The mafia boss comes back down the stairs fifteen minutes later, wearing an unusual - for him - combination of jeans and a jumper. I glance up from where I'm curled on the sofa with Warren. "Coffee's on the side."
"Thank you." Tony comes to sit on the sofa opposite, and we have a chance to look at each other. I see his eyes flick over Warren and my position, and an eyebrow raises. He just gets a flat look back, and then a slight nod. He is checking up.
"Why don't you have your car?" I ask with an edge to my voice.
"Julian's got it. I wanted to talk to you about another delivery," Tony says, wrapping his hands around his mug. "To Vegas."
I wrinkle my nose. "You have other couriers."
Tony's mouth flattens. "I don't trust them with him."
"I don't trust him. Find someone else."
"All right." Tony knows a flat refusal from me is final; the delivery might be important but after my last run-in, I'm not risking Kindred's help again. His eyes flick to Warren. "How serious, sorreletta?"
"Fairly," I admit.
He nods. "All right. How about we go for a walk, Sir Knight? I'd like to have a word with you without Miss Richardson listening."
I glare at Tony. "Seriously? You're not my fucking keeper-"
"I do enough protection-" my brother starts.
"I don't need your-"
"You call on it enough!"
"Because you won't take no-"
"You need it-"
"I don't need-"
We're face-to-face across the coffee table at this point - I'm the only person that can argue with Tony, and argue with any sort of success. However, I know I'm going to lose this one. My brother's a stubborn, over-protective idiot-
I throw my hands in the air. "Fine! I'll take a walk!"
"It's wet," Tony snaps.
"I'll dry." I stamp out of the room.
Tony follows me into the hall as I pull my boots on. "At least take an umbrella-"
I've shoved my arms into my coat sleeves, and snatch the umbrella out of his hand. "He's a member of the fucking Summer Court. At least be sensible about what you tell him!"
That gets a glare, but I've already yelled, "Davido!" and flung the front door open. And then I slam it very satisfactorily behind me.
It is indeed raining hard. I snap the umbrella open and feel Davido's weight land on my shoulder. "You are angry, Ice Cream Lady?"
"My fucking over-protective-" I stop the rest of the sentence. "Yes, I'm angry. Let's go walking and I'll calm down as we go."
"I will go and fight him for you!"
"No! Tony's my...employer. We argue quite often, and we still..." I trail off. The rain's hammering down on my umbrella and the air's cold; it's like a slap to my anger. "No. I don't need anyone to fight him except me. It's a personal thing."
Tony sighs as the front door slams, and shakes his head. Then he turns around to find Warren standing in the kitchen doorway, his expression faintly concerned.
"We argue a lot," the mafia boss says as he walks back down the hallway. "She'll calm down in a bit." A faint smile touches his lips. "I take it you haven't experienced Dini's temper yet, then?"
"Not as of the present time," the Summer Knight says gravely, seating himself on the sofa again. "I do not look forward to it being turned on myself."
"She likes you. She won't fight you...much." Tony sits down and picks up his mug of coffee, eyeing the man sitting across the room, noting the muscles in fighting trim, the active pose, the green eyes. "You know who I am, Sir Knight. Let me be blunt: Dini is important to my organisation. If she comes to harm while under your protection, or is harmed by the Summer Court, I will not be demanding weregild. I will be destroying you."
Warren blinks. "You threaten Faerie?"
"I know what iron does to you." Tony's voice is the flat monotone that he doesn't use often. "I know what monsters you can field, but the human world has fire, and steel, and men. I will tear your Court down around you if you harm something of mine. Do you understand me?"
"I will pass your comments back to the Summer Court, Mr Cornetti." Then Warren tilts his head. "Why is Miss Richardson so important to your mafia? She's a journalist. A mortal. Apparently unconnected to you apart from acting as your Envoy."
Tony gives that flat smile again. "That isn't relevant." He leans back. "You're...dating her. What are your intentions for her?"
Warren blinks. "Mine?" He hesitates, and then says, "You understand that I am not in a position to offer her any of the traditional accompaniments to a relationship..."
Tony laughs. "She'd refuse anyway. This is the modern world, Sir Knight! I don't care, but I doubt she wants to get married or have kids or whatever else you think is traditional. What I want to know is, how far will you go to protect her?"
"I am aware that she could be in danger because of my interest in her. I have done all I can at present to protect her."
Tony's eyebrows go up. "Could be? You don't consider Winter's attacks to be a danger?"
The Mantle rises, and the self-control needed to restrain it is evident in the set of the Knight's shoulders. "Attacks?"
"The rose? The Malks? Queen Mab's interest in her?"
The mafia boss raises an eyebrow, and then shrugs. "I'll let her explain that one, then. Did you ask the little winged one to guard her?"
"It was his desire to guard the Ice Cream Lady, but I have not opposed it," Warren says, forcing his shoulders to settle. "My Court is aware that I will protect her, too. The Accords and guest-rights give her protection...and I know she often carries a weapon. But there is only so much that I can do." He sighs, and adds with a faint smile, "And she will not accept much more."
Tony's lips twist in an answering smile. "She's stubborn, you've got that right. She only reluctantly accepts protection from me." Then he stands. "I will leave, Sir Knight. I've got an answer out of Dini, and I've said what I needed to you."
Warren gravely escorts him to the door, hands him one of the spare umbrellas from the side, and watches as the tall man stamps away into the rain. And then he shuts the door, and goes back to the sofa thoughtfully.
Half an hour later, I've calmed down enough to come back; I'm still angry, but at least I'm not likely to try and throw things if Tony's still there. However, when Warren comes to the door to meet me, I can see the Mantle in him...and my hackles rise again.
"Why did you not tell me about the Malk attack on yourself?" the Summer Knight snaps as soon as the door is shut.
"Because you would have smothered me in protection," I snap back, dumping my umbrella. Trust my fucking brother to stick his nose in! Davido flits off my shoulder, muttering about the rain, and vanishes towards the kitchen. "They were after Kindred, not me."
"You were with him again?"
"We were recruited," and I think my voice expresses my disdain at Mab's manipulation, "to recover the Erlking when he was kidnapped at Christmas. Kindred was involved, and escorted me home."
"Via the Malks." Warren's jaw tenses. "How close did they come?"
I remember the sharp teeth closing in on the back of my neck, the helpless terror as I lay in the snow... "Mab stepped in."
"You should not-"
I've slipped my coat off and hung it on the hook, and now I spin to face him as my fists clench and my anger rises. "Don't you dare!"
"You were in danger."
"It's my job!"
"No, it is not," Warren objects flatly, his eyes boring into me. "Why will you not see sense? You are in danger from your association with me! Winter has attacked you, and you need augmented defences against this. Summer would give you power-"
"At what price?" I snarl. "Loyalty to your Queen? My Name and soul? Another shadow behind me?"
That brings him up short and we are both silent for a moment, taking the opportunity to calm down. I lean one hand against the wall and pull my boots off.
"I can offer you protection on my own behalf-" the Summer Knight starts.
I'm already shaking my head. "I won't take that from Tony and I won't take that from you. I'll fight my own battles."
"You are not a fighter."
I glare. "I hold my own."
And he starts laughing - it brings the human Warren back, rather than the Summer Knight. "I admit that I would not fight you in that mood!"
I relax, as much as I can. "I'm neutral, for what it's worth. I won't ally myself with anyone."
He nods slowly. "I worry about you, Dini. I am scared that I have placed you in danger with my regard for you."
"I won't rely on anyone with their own agenda," I say quietly. "I won't take power or protection from you. Please don't ask again."
Warren inclines his head. "I will not, Miss Richardson." Something about the way he lays the stress on I suggests that his Lady will probably try, but that's an argument for another day...
He's run me a bath, and I strip my wet clothes off and blissfully slide into the hot water. I catch his smile as I surface with a sigh of contentment. The water's perfect, and smells of jasmine and vanilla; I can feel the heat soaking into my bones. The Summer Knight rests his elbows on the edge of the bath and trails one finger in the water, chasing the bubbles and enjoying my pleasure at the warmth.
"So what else did Tony say to you?" I ask eventually, leaning my head back onto the edge of the tub.
"He will destroy the Court if I allow harm to come to you," my lover says mildly. "He is also very worried about your protection."
My lips thin. My stupidity of a brother has just told the Summer Court that I am connected to him, and valuable...of all the idiotic things to do!
"He does that," I manage in the same mild tone. "He's rather over-protective of his employees."
"He is your brother, is he not?" Warren says, his fingers swirling bubbles through the water. I'm staring at the ceiling, and don't answer him. "You argue like siblings. You work against his aims, yet he tolerates and protects you. You have a connection that you guard fiercely."
I'm still silent, but he just waits. Eventually, I sigh. "I know you've been asking questions about me. But the truth gives you a lot of power over me."
"I offer you my Name."
I sit bolt upright. "What?"
He's half soaked from the wave of water I created, but calmly reaches out to flick the hot tap back on. "I offer you my Name."
"In exchange for mine?"
He shakes his head. "No, Miss Richardson. I offer mine freely."
I curl my legs into my body, leaning my arms on the side of the bath so that I am facing him. "You don't know if you can trust me. I'm not Fae. I don't have to tell the truth."
A faint smile touches his lips. "Neither do I." He leans forward to gently kiss my lips, and his green eyes are fixed on mine as he draws back. "I trust you. I am Warren Gregor Veit Sonnen."
I wonder how far the flowers have grown in his soul, from the tiny blooms all those months ago. "Why...?"
He shrugs. "Instinct. Foolishness. Because I am human."
My hands are gripping the edge of the bath, and I look down at them as Warren's warm, rough hand comes over my damp ones. His trust has shaken me...I want to respond, and it will tell him what he wants to know. But years of instinct are fighting.
"Mine doesn't just give you power over me. Mine comes with...." I hesitate, and shut my eyes. "Don't tell the Court." I sound like a child, pleading and scared.
His hands are warm over mine. "I will not reveal your true name or any truths you tell me on this day to the Summer Court, Fae or mortal, or any other being without your given permission."
I breathe out, and open my eyes to look into his green ones. "Elizabeth Maria Cornetti."
Warren looks at me for a long moment, and then quietly says, "You are siblings."
I nod. "I changed my name when he went into the business and began to gain power." I can feel my jaw clench. "I don't agree with it. I don't want to be associated with him."
"Elizabeth Maria Cornetti." It sounds strange to hear a name so long buried on someone else's lips. "Yet you do business for him."
I sigh, flick the tap off and stand up. Water sheets off my skin, and Warren unfolds a towel as I step out of the bath. "It's complicated," I say as he wraps the rough fabric and his arms around me. "Being involved with him offers benefits. I get information, I get contacts, I get backup if I need it. I wouldn't get that any other way. But I don't want to be seen to be associated with him." I pause as he releases his hold, and tuck the towel around myself. "And I pay my debts. I work with the police as well, and I can publish what I find out. I'm a snitch for both sides, so I have to be neutral. I wanted to make a difference, although I don't think it's worked." That comes with a stab of pain.
"Why will you not accept protection from him?" Warren asks quietly.
I grab another towel to dry my hair, and use the moments to think. Tony's...complicated. There's a childhood of emotions and a lifetime of conflict between us, and it's made for some interesting dynamics.
"I guess," I say as I pull the towel off my head, "what it comes down to is that I won't side with him. We've had too many disputes. I hate his work. I hate what he does. We'll use each other, but I won't be tainted with his corruption. I've done my best to get away from that."
"Because you do not want to be like him?" the Knight says softly. "He had few principles."
I laugh. "Oh, no. He has a lot of principles. Just most of them are...related to him. Power. Loyalty. He doesn't do ethics or legalities."
Warren is tipping his head to one side. "Yet you will use his power when you need it."
"Yes," I admit, heading for my bedroom to find some clothes. "But not as much as he would like."
"He offered you protection if you joined him formally?"
"I refused." My voice is steel. "I won't be him."
My lover's arms come around my waist, halting me in the doorway, and his warm lips touch my shoulder. "Elizabeth Maria Cornetti...you are most definitely not your brother."
After that diversion, we get pizza delivered. Warren gently teases me about my lack of cooking skills, which I think is a good sign. He's relaxing enough around me that he can make fun of me - even though he admits that he is quite happy with mortal food when he visits me, as it makes a change from the Court.
We're curled on the sofa with pizza boxes and a pizza-coma'd Davido on the table in front of us when he says, "Dini...do you desire more from this relationship?"
I look up from where my head is resting in his lap and study him thoughtfully. "What sort of more? Is this a commitment conversation?"
"I cannot ask for your hand in marriage," the Summer Knight says gravely. "It is not within my power, although your brother would not object-"
I sit bolt upright, almost cracking my head against his. "What? You discussed that with Tony?"
The Summer Knight nods equitably. "He doubted that you wished for anything as traditional as marriage, although he has no objections."
I know my brother is an over-protective idiot; he always has been, and I admit to myself that I'm not surprised. I force myself to relax, and shift around so that I can talk to Warren properly. It's obviously one of those conversations. "You're asking what I want. What..." I have to choose my words. "What will the Court let you offer?"
"The Summer Court must always come first; it is who I am. They have ties to me that I cannot break. But if you were my chosen lady, then you would be formally under my protection." Then he smiles; the warm, radiant smile that lights up his green eyes and makes the lines of his face relax. "And I would be honoured to be one that you had chosen."
"O-k, so a relationship. Not marriage." I look down at my hands, wound in my lap. "How much of that is protection, and trying to block out Kindred?"
"A little," he admits frankly. "I am concerned for your protection, and I do not trust the Winter Emissary, or his Queen. But I very much enjoy your company, and have great regard for you. You are welcome to the Court, and I would be honoured to have you there more frequently."
I look up at him. "But if...chose you, then I'd be Summer, too."
"You would not have to be. You have made clear your position on the matter, and I would ensure that it was respected."
It's tempting, and...oh, hell, I want this. If I contrast him to any of my other lovers - D'Arcy, Rick, Kindred - then he's worth so much more. To be able to see him more often, to be with him and to have him with me...
But he has danger in his shadow, too; Summer's nicer than Winter, but that doesn't mean anything: they're still Fae. He has another mistress, and another set of loyalties that I know nothing about. I can't ever forget that.
"Let me think about it," I whisper.
We're both silent for a long time; his arms are wrapped around me and I'm curled around him, enjoying the warmth and comfort.
A voice like a gentle breeze on summer leaves ruffles my hair. "I love you."
I can feel everything gathering in my chest. It's the first time in years I've admitted my birth name to anyone; the first time that I've admitted to myself that I feel like I've failed. I haven't managed to change anything here. I can't get away from Tony, and I can't fight the creatures I'm coming up against; I can't even fight my own battles in the arena I'm currently playing in. I truly am on my knees with my shadows around me, my sword grounded. And that hurts.
But then, wound up in all of it, is the fact I'm no longer alone. Warren's just told me his Name: I could bind him to me, destroy him, order him to do anything I wished. He's just trusted me with that. He's just told me that he loves me.
I'm not sure what to think. I can admit that I don't want to lose this man, despite all of his ties and hidden pieces.
But I'm not sure I can take what he's offering.
"I love you," I whisper. And then, in a voice that barely works, "But I can't..."
His arms tighten around me, and he buries his face into my hair.
"I like this," I say, trying to find the words. "I love seeing you. I love having you here. But...I can't. I won't declare for either side. I don't want to become Fae." And I don't want to become like you, trapped in your hillfort as the daisies slowly grow. They won't ever overwhelm those battlements. "You've got another mistress. I'll take what you can give, but you can't give me what I want. I can't promise more, or want more. It's not...it's not going to be there."
There's a long silence. And then he says, gently, "I understand."
I shift in his arms, until I can see his face. He's been crying too, and my own cheeks are wet. "So what now?"
He manages a smile. "Just this? If this is all we can have, then let us treasure it."
I nod. "I...Warren, I do love you."
"Elizabeth," he says gently, kissing one cheek, "Maria," a kiss on the other cheek, "Cornetti." A long kiss on my forehead.
And then, "Dini." And his lips touch mine.
Chapter 2: The Price of a Story
Tom's mouth is open by the time he's halfway through my notes. I'm typing as fast as my fingers can move, getting as much down as I can remember from them. "This is...they're accusing the Fomor? Without any proof? This is a declaration of war!"
"They're using us, that's all. They'll use the Accords if they do have an issue, so there's no problem with telling us - it's a shot across the bows, not a declaration of war. Let's do two articles," I decide. "One on the theft, and one as a statement from the owners of the item. Then we can at least be objective for one, and I can add the Summer Court info too."
Tom's still flicking. "Wow. This is juicy. I like."
"We need to get it out now, though. Kindred said 10pm."
"I'll get typing."
It's half eight by the time we get the story out, and I slump back in the chair. We've had to do a couple of different versions; I've done a full one for my Paranet contacts and a reduced version for the Internet, and Tom's been wrestling with the human-world translation. But we've managed to hit our deadlines with all of them. "Fuck, that was hard."
Tom's just proofing his final piece with Rachel hovering at his elbow. He hits send, and leans back. "Ok, sent. Rachel, are we done?"
The editor's turned to speak to someone else, but turns back briefly. "Yeah. Good work, guys. Don't be too late tomorrow morning," she adds over her shoulder as she strides off down the office to check with the printers. "I think this might be big."
I collect my bag and turn my computer off as Tom grabs his jacket. "So we're going to yours? How come this guy knows where you live?" I think Tom had only found out my address after three years of knowing me, and it was a sore point with a few people in the office that I tended towards privacy.
"I told him." I grimace as we thud down the stairs. "He left a damn rose on my front doorstep a few months ago."
"There's history? Well, you did say he's dangerous." He's suddenly looking nervous. "I'm now worrying about what I've got myself into."
"He should be ok. He's got to behave himself while in my house." I step out into the cool of the evening, breathing deeply to get the stale office air out of my lungs, and wave for a taxi. "A warning for you; he's a half-Fae bastard. He'll trick you, lie to you and when you think you've got him figured out, do something so kind and human that it breaks down every barrier. But...he's human. He might be a bit rough but that's it."
"I can live with bruises. So what's the history?"
I fill Tom in with a slightly amended version of my encounters with Kindred and the Winter Court as we head back to my house in the back of a slightly smelly taxi. My colleague's seen enough of the supernatural that he's fairly happy with everything, but the Malks make him shiver. "Wow, that sounds close."
"Tony was furious." I usually keep my allegiance to the mafia close to my chest, but Tom knows I'm a contact.
"I'm not surprised."
We swing into Cricklade Road, and I get the taxi to stop at the end of Avening Street. As Tom's paying the driver, I murmur, "Davido..."
The tiny Faerie pops into view in front of me. "Ice Cream Lady!"
"Is there anyone around? Glamoured, maybe?"
"I will check!" He shoots off in a cloud of shimmers. Irritating as the Little Folk can be, they're very pretty. As the taxi pulls away and Tom walks over, the tiny Faerie comes back. "Nothing, Ice Cream Lady!"
Tom's looking a little wide-eyed, although they have met before. Davido flutters himself down to sit on my shoulder and we head for my house. Nothing's untoward as I unlock the door and automatically invite Tom in. It's a habit now for guests, even though I know that I don't need to do it for most humans. He shucks off his suit jacket and hangs it on a hook as I slide my shoes off and drop my bag on the bench by the door.
"Davido?" I add. "The Winter Emissary's going to be here tonight. He's coming as my guest, and he will behave himself. Can you inform the Summer Knight that I am not available until tomorrow evening, and then return here?"
"Yes, Ice Cream Lady!" The tiny Faerie salutes me, and then the letterbox bangs in a shower of sparkly dust.
"I can't get used to that," Tom mutters as he follows me into the kitchen.
"It still freaks me out a bit," I admit, and head for the fridge. "Wine?"
"You angel. Got any white?"
"Absolutely." I pour us both a glass and dump the bottle on the table as Tom takes over one end of the sofa. When I next look up, he's pulled his tie off and is undoing his top button.
"I love the suit, but it's nice to relax," he comments when he sees my expression.
"Just go for comfort," I tease, happy in my own choice of smart jeans and a button-down shirt.
"I look too scruffy!" He's undoing his cuffs and rolling the sleeves up, and then scoops up the wine again and leans back. "That's better."
We talk about the theft for a while, both managing to relax a little. The wine certainly helps with that and when I next glance at the clock, we've drunk half the bottle and it's just gone ten.
And there's a knock on the door.
I pad down the hallway on bare feet and glance through the spyhole. Kindred's white-streaked hair greets me; he appears to be alone, and so I slide the chain off.
He grins at me as I open the door. I always underestimate how tall he is and forget how tiny I feel when standing in front of him. "Evening, dollface."
"Please come in, Kindred."
He steps over the threshold and waits while I shut and lock the door. "So are you prepared for this?"
"It's not me on offer, as you well know," I tell him levelly. "Are you going to behave yourself, or do I have to find some handcuffs?"
"Oh, sex and violence?" He smirks at me. "Sounds kinky."
He grins and cups my cheek. His kiss is sweet and gentle. "I'll be nice."
I snort. "That'd be a first. Come and meet him."
Tom stands as I enter, and then I step aside. "Tom, this is Kindred. Tom's a colleague of mine. Kindred's the Winter Emissary."
Kindred scans my fellow-reporter up and down. I admit that Tom's looking pretty good tonight; his suit trousers are tight enough to show off his ass and his shirt's slightly rumpled. Combined with blond hair so pale it's almost white and slightly flushed cheeks from the wine, he's enough to make Kindred's eyes linger as they shake hands. "Pleased to meet you." Then the Winter Emissary turns to me. "Well, I'd have preferred a woman, but..." And he grins at me. "I'm not complaining. Nice choice, dollface."
"Why do you call her that?" Tom asks, sitting back down and quirking an eyebrow. "She'd murder me if I tried."
"He's a bastard," I say. "And he's saved my life. He's allowed."
Tom laughs, and Kindred dumps his lanky form on the sofa next to my colleague, who promptly focuses all of his attention on the Emissary. "How come you're Winter Court?"
Kindred snorts. "You're a reporter, aren't you! Got sold to them to cure a heart defect, and then they saved my life after a car crash. How did Dini sucker you into this gig?"
"Dry spell. And it pays the bill for the story."
"You could have had White Court," I add mildly, and grin at Kindred's unimpressed look. "They're human. Technically."
That gets a smirk. "No, thanks. I'll take what you're offering." He raises one hand to cup Tom's cheek in the same way that he did mine, Tom's face tilted up and Kindred's messy hair falling across his eyes.
Luckily, that's the point that Davido decides to re-appear, and I can turn away from the kiss. "Ice Cream Lady! I have returned."
"Can you stay out the way tonight, Davido?" I murmur. Luckily my tiny guard can be quiet when he wants to be, and the two men don't appear to have noticed him. "Stay in the house but don't get in the way unless I ask you to."
"I can do this for you, Ice Cream Lady!" We did have a night in yesterday with a pot of Tony's coffee ice cream and two episodes of Friends (don't ask me why the Little Folk adore that show, but they do), and so he owes me. He vanishes from sight, and I cast a quick glance across to the sofa - they're both still engrossed in the kiss. Kindred's hand is winding up into the fine white hair, and Tom's hands starting to explore across Kindred's chest; both men are almost completely oblivious to everything. I can feel the heat in my cheeks and my breath is shallow, and I turn myself away. They're not trying to be private, but I still feel embarrassed to be watching.
I pad into the hallway to grab my laptop from my bag and set up at the breakfast bar, trying to ignore the pair on the sofa. It's long enough for me to have got into my emails and answered two when they re-surface, and I look round to find Tom reaching for his wine glass, his face flushed and lips wet.
Kindred gives me a wink as Tom drains the glass and then picks up the bottle, extending it towards me. "Refill?"
I shake my head. I'm barely halfway through my second refill, for all that Tom's now pouring a third.
"And for you?" Tom adds, quirking an eyebrow at Kindred.
The Winter Emissary shakes his head. "I stay off that stuff since I joined the Court. I don't want another crash."
"Wouldn't they just save you again?" I ask.
"It'd cost me another bit of soul." There's pain in Kindred's eyes. "Then they'd own me. They only own two pieces so far."
I take a sip of my wine and sigh. "Fucking Faeries."
"Literally," Kindred smirks. "So, dollface. Are you going to do anything, or are you just here to look pretty?"
"I'm not part of the package. Isn't looking pretty your job?" I shoot back. "Oh, no, wait."
"I'm not here to look decorative," Kindred starts, grinning.
"No," Tom interrupts brazenly, "you're here to fuck. Come on."
Kindred gives me a smirk as he's pulled up off the sofa and led out of the room, and I shake my head, trying not to smile.
And then I find my headphones. I have a suspicion that they might be noisy.
They're not too noisy - or at least, I'm able to ignore it with the help of Abba and a knotty article. I sneak up upstairs to get changed and ignore the moans coming from behind the closed door as I brush my teeth, but apart from that I don't hear anything. Certainly when I wake, curled under a blanket on my sofa in the dawn light, I'm not aware of having slept badly.
I'm already working when Tom appears, and gesture to the kettle. "It's still hot."
"Angel." He makes himself coffee and sits down - a little gingerly - with the steaming mug.
"So?" I ask.
Tom's lips, still faintly swollen and red from last night, curve into a smile. "I enjoyed myself a lot."
"I'm glad. Worth the story?"
"I'd say so. Any news?"
I shrug. "Rachel texted me. I think a lot of people are interested, but it sounds like she's fielding it all. She hasn't phoned me yet so that's a good sign. Are you going to head in?"
He nods. "Yeah, just to keep an eye on things. Plus I'm not sure I can cope with anything more after last night. Everything aches!"
I grin. "Is he awake?"
"You want a shower?"
Tom stands and stretches, and then smiles at me. He's got dark circles under his eyes, but he looks pretty awake. "I'll head home first. I want a change of clothes anyway." He hesitates by the counter. "I'll see you later?"
"Sounds like I'm off the hook for a bit as far as Rachel's concerned, but yeah, I'll be in."
He looks like he wants to say something more, which I'm sure relates to Kindred. But after a second he nods and heads off to find his shoes.
When I pad upstairs with a mug of coffee ten minutes later, Kindred's still asleep. His face is relaxed and he seems entirely at peace; even the faint lines of tension that are usually around his eyes are gone. I leave the coffee by the bedside and pad back downstairs.
An hour later, I've nearly finished my emails when there's movement in the doorway. I glance up to find a yawning Kindred there with the mug of coffee in one hand. It's steaming. "Morning, dollface."
"I don't feel like someone's going to stab me in the back here," he says, wandering in and leaning on the counter next to me. He's stark naked, and looks really good. "I slept better than I have for years."
"How did you get the coffee hot again?"
"Just took the cold out of it. There's an ice-cube on your bedside table."
I quirk an eyebrow at him. "For later use?"
He smirks at me. "Oh, you're up for that? Has sweetcheeks gone, by the way?" he adds.
"Yeah, about an hour ago. He's keeping an eye on things in the office."
"Don't you have to be back to help Mab with the search?"
"Nah, she set the furry bastards on it," he says casually, sipping the coffee. I suppress a shiver. Having Malks chasing me would not be something I'd want even if I was a powerful wizard. "Plus half of Winter. I'm probably going to Vegas and keep an eye on things there, but not for a few days. Mab's probably grateful at the moment that I'm keeping you out of the way."
"Why would I get in the way?"
"Wouldn't a chase make a great story?"
"A capture would make an even better one."
"I'll try to keep you filled...in." He smirks at me. "Advance payment?"
"You had a night of debauchery, and you're asking for more sex?" He's still smirking at me, and I realise he's just trying to push my buttons. "Fuck off, Kindred."
And then I get another of those quick, sweet kisses that always surprise me. "I don't need more favours right now, dollface," he murmurs into my ear, his hand cool against my cheek. "Maybe if you start asking too much."
"So, anything," I snark at him as he steps back.
He grins at me. "Hey, always happy to do you a favour. Same terms."
I roll my eyes. "Get dressed and get out."
He winks at me and strolls off, whistling. I hear him moving around upstairs, and then footsteps on the stairs. I half expect him to come back in and try to wind me up some more, but there's only the sound of the front door shutting.
I stare unseeing at my emails for a moment, and try to find a swearword that fits. Goddamn bastard Winter Faeries.
But I got my story.
Chapter 3: A Request for Help
It's always Wednesdays that cause the trouble...
On this particular Wednesday, I've got a deadline. I'm a newspaper journalist at the Swindon Advertiser, and I've got fifteen browser tabs, two email accounts, three articles and one bar of chocolate open. My desk is littered with two cold mugs of coffee, one half-eaten sandwich, and a rather unseasonal bunch of flowers that are still fresh a week after they were delivered. I've also got a small Tinkerbell-like fairy lying in my in-tray, singing something off-key. Don't ask.
But with all that, now is really not a good time for reception to ring up.
I pick up the phone and cradle it between my shoulder and cheek so that I can continue typing. "Hi, Seb."
"Mr Kindred is asking to see you."
My first instinct is to swear. My second is to roll my eyes. I suppress both. "What does he want?"
There's a brief pause, and then a lower voice comes over the phone. "I need your help."
I hesitate. Kindred's an arrogant, manipulative bastard who has somehow become a friend, fuck-buddy, and information source - and has saved my life twice. He's proud enough that if he's asking for help, he really needs it. Just what I don't need, then. "I'll be right down."
Tom glances up as I slam the phone back on the cradle and stand. "You're busy."
"This is probably important." I leave my fairy in the in-box - he's sleeping off my second sandwich, anyway - and tap down the stairs.
The Fae Emissary to the Sidhe Court of Winter, otherwise known by "Kindred", is sitting in one of the chairs in the reception of the Swindon Advertiser when I get there, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He's in ripped jeans and a black t-shirt that's seen better days, and his white-streaked hair has grown so that it's almost at his shoulders. His badly scarred face ripples as he grins at me. "Hello, dollface."
"What do you want?" I admit it isn't the most gracious greeting.
"Information." He stands up, all angles and muscle, looming over me.
"So you didn't come by just to check up? I'm flattered." I nod to the receptionist and jerk my head at Kindred. "Come on up, we can use a meeting room."
"Oh, really?" I know him well enough that I don't need to turn to see the smirk on his face. "What for?"
"The private conversation you're obviously wanting." I head up to the first floor, and flip the sign on the meeting room to 'busy'. "Do you want a drink?"
"Water if you've got it." He sits down as I fill two glasses, looking around. "Nice."
I sit down a few seats away. "So?"
"I'm still trailing the theft." He straightens and rests his elbows on the table, the light-hearted smirk falling off his face to be replaced with a more serious expression. "We've traced Grey to Vegas, and I know you've got some contacts there. I've hit dead ends. I need help."
Last time I saw Kindred, a powerful and valuable book had just been stolen from the Winter Court vaults by a shapeshifter. I helped Kindred get the story out to the mortal world and the supernatural one, but hadn't heard anything in the past two weeks. If the thief has been traced to Vegas...I consider. "Why me?"
"You'll help. And you're prettier company than anyone else I can ask." That brings his grin back. "Vegas is Summer Court territory, as well as being a supernatural gang-bang. I'm being blocked at every turn. I need someone who can get people to talk."
"I can do Summer Court and Paranet and Fomor. What do you need?"
"All of 'em."
"So you just want a list of people, codewords, introductions?"
He shrugs and takes a drink. "I'll take you with me if you'll come, dollface."
"I'm not that big, Kindred. I only know people through Tony, and the Paranet."
"That's more than I do." He jabs a finger at me as he puts his glass down, suddenly serious again. "Dini, my Queen is on my back. I'm not really human and the contacts know it; I can be traced. You can't, and you know people. I have to find out who he sold this to and where it's gone. Name your price."
I hesitate. I can't believe I'm considering this. "I'd need to check with Tony, and here. But I'm owed some holiday. How long do you think this will take?
He shrugs. "Give it a week, dollface. If we finish sooner, then you've got a holiday..."
I can't help the smile that crosses my face as he smirks at me. "Ok, ok. I'll come. I don't know what I want in payment, though. You have to swear to protect me, but beyond that, I don't know."
He holds out a hand. "You'll help me trace Grey and the book in Vegas to the best of your abilities, you'll protect and travel with me, and you won't betray me. In return I'll protect and travel with you, I won't betray you, and I'll negotiate a price with you on our return."
I lean back. I can wipe away my workload with a thought - for something like this, it can wait, or go to other people. And a holiday in Vegas wouldn't be a bad thing - although it wouldn't be a holiday. It would be hard work...
What the hell, I'm a sucker for punishment. It's an opportunity that I can't pass up; I'm just starting to make a name for myself in the supernatural world, and just starting to secure allies. This is a chance to actually prove myself and stretch my wings a little. I stretch out a hand, and feel Kindred's cool skin on mine as he shakes. "All right. Let me go and talk to my boss and then Tony. How quickly do you need to leave?"
He shrugs. "It's been two weeks, so another day won't make a difference."
"I'll need a bit of time to wrap up some work, then. Is that ok?"
"Sure. How do you want to travel?"
I think. "I'll see if I can arrange flights, if you're ok with that."
He looks slightly relieved. The other option is the NeverNever, and that isn't the friendliest way to travel - as I know from a previous misadventure. "Sure thing. I'll go and talk to the Winter Court and let them know you're on board." He hesitates. "Are you going to get Summer backup?"
I bite my lip, and then meet his eyes. "Do you think I should?"
He's obviously fighting with himself before he answers. The Winter Court's hatred of the Summer Court is entirely mutual and has broken out into very bloody and destructive warfare over the centuries, despite both Courts being necessary to maintain a balance. His natural inclination is to refuse any help from Summer, but eventually practicality wins and he spits out, "Yes. I need a Summer rep for Vegas, and you'll need the protection."
I nod. "I'll go there as well, then, and I need to see my brother. D'you want to come back this evening?"
"I'll come by your place after I finish?" he offers.
My boss Rachel is easy - I'm owed a lot of holiday. She looks at the calendar, scribbles a note to herself, and tell me to have a nice time. My workload is less easy, but Tom takes the news of my holiday with his usual sanguine attitude and agrees to take on two of my articles. I finish the third in twenty minutes and send it out, and then close down all my tabs. "Tom, can you check both of my emails?" I ask as I set an out of office message that's completely useless at telling anyone anything beyond the fact I'm not reading their messages.
He nods. I've got a couple of more discreet and unusual channels of communication, which he'll monitor for me. "What's the best contact?"
"My phone or Tony. Nothing will be instant."
He smiles at me. "Have a nice time."
I gather the few things I need and then head out, calling the news to a few colleagues. Most respond with jokes, and I wave. The news'll go round fast enough, and Tom can field most of the queries.
Next stop, Tony.
My brother's fingers are twitching. He doesn't have a lot of choice in whether I agree to this set-up or not, but he can definitely see the possibilities. "Well, you know more of the contacts over there than I do. I'll call in some favours and let people know to expect you, and you can use my name. Why are you helping him, sorreletta?"
I shrug. "I'm bored, I guess."
"Between werewolves and vampires, and you're bored..." He sighs and leans back in his worn office chair. My brother may be a mafia boss with a stupidly large amount of money going in and out of his empire, but he doesn't believe in spending it when he doesn't have to, and that includes his office furniture.
"I haven't travelled much, Tony. It's a chance to get out of the office." I've got itchy feet. I want to see more of the world than here, and the bits that Warren and Kindred have shown me just make me want to see more. "Plus it should be fairly safe. Kindred's the one doing the running around."
Tony snorts. "You know my thoughts on him! Take your ammo."
"I'll pick some up."
My brother comes round the desk as I stand, and kisses my forehead. "I could come with you..."
"You're well-known. I'll be fine." I smile at him. "You worry too much."
"With good reason. Anyway...you're not going to get a direct flight. Want me to sort it?"
I hesitate. "How much will it cost?"
"I've got a favour or two to call in." Tony smiles at me. "And I have to look after my family, sorreletta."
I raise an eyebrow. "You're voluntarily spending money on me?"
"It's the first time you've let me do something nice in a while."
I can't help a smile. My brother and I have a love-hate relationship, and I usually won't let him do anything - much as he tries. "All right. Do we need a car?"
"I'll sort it all. Go and pack."
Next stop: backup of a different sort. I get the bus over to Lydiard, staring unseeing out of the window as we trundle through the streets.
I want to chase this. I was fascinated by the story when I first heard about it - fascinated enough to risk another encounter with Kindred, which I can't say was one I want to repeat, although it did get me my information. But the story...who would risk Mab's Vault to get the book? There must be a lot at stake for it. Money, favours, a promise of something...
And the person who was hired to steal it. A shapeshifter, a man who can get into the Vault without triggering any alarms, who can waltz straight past some of the most powerful magical protections around. Goodman Grey...I turn the name over in my mind, tasting it. Normal, Kindred had said, apart from the eyes. I haven't been able to find out much more about him without risking his attention, but I found some of his history. Previous heists, old loves, old contacts. He's for hire if you know where to go and, I suspect, have an interesting enough commission.
I wonder if that's why he took it. And for a moment, I see the aching loneliness in Warren's eyes: the years of servitude, the endless power held in check by a web of obligations and debt. If you had eons to live, wouldn't you be bored?
My phone dings, distracting me. Flights sorted. Details emailed. Tony's nothing if not efficient.
I hop off the bus at Lydiard, and hesitate. I'm asking for Summer's help to go to Las Vegas and chase a shapeshifter who stole a book - not that Summer will care, it was a Winter possession - and destroyed a chunk of Summer land. That's my hook, and they're not likely to get a better in. Winter aren't going to tell Summer anything, so I'm their best chance.
I don't know if Titania's going to care, but it's worth a try. If I want to chase this, I need Titania's help, much as I'm not sure I want to ask for it. I don't know what it will cost me.
Do I want to chase this?
I start walking through the park. It's a grey day, cold enough to be slightly unpleasant, and I jam my hands into my pockets. I do want to chase this. I've spent the past two weeks researching, emailing Paranet contacts, even asking my supernatural contacts what they know - discreetly, of course. I've got some interesting information.
I'm stubborn. And I'm curious. I want to know more about the story, and the thief.
And hey, I get to go to Vegas! With Kindred, but you can't have everything perfect.
I square my shoulders, and step through the portal into Summer.
What feels like hours later but seems to have only been minutes, I'm heading back on the bus through the Swindon traffic, trying to make sense of my Summer visit. Kindred is waiting on my doorstep with a black bag by his feet, chatting to Mica. He stands up as I approach. "Fancy seeing you here, dollface."
"Kindred, you're invited in," I say, suddenly feeling tired as I unlock the door. "What did your Court say?"
"They're happy. Well, they're not happy that I've called in help, but who cares. It's not like they have any better ideas." Kindred dumps his bag in the hall. "You?"
"Warren wasn't happy." My lover had been supremely unhappy in a cold, cut-off way that I hadn't seen before...he was even more formal than usual, and my chest is suddenly a tight band of misery at the memory. It had been Titania's permission that had swayed the balance, and Warren had grudgingly accepted it. I try to shrug off the hurt and lighten my tone. "He's just been sent off to China on some mission, and I think he was more annoyed that he wouldn't be anywhere near me if I got into trouble."
Kindred snorts. "Big surprise."
"It wasn't you, for once." I manage a half-smile. "And the Queen can't interfere as it's a Winter Court matter, and so she can't do anything overt. But she gave me a shield." I slide my sleeve up, and show him the silver-and-bronze woven bracelet that's now on my wrist. I've also got a tiny acorn attached to a chain around my neck, for use if I need to summon Court help. I've got no idea what it will bring, but I'm grateful they gave me that much. The possibility of finding the person who damaged Summer territory was enough of a lure to make Titania stick her neck out.
Kindred nods. "So, we're set?"
"Yeah. Tony's sent me documents through, and there'll be a plane at Bristol airport at eight this evening. He's sending a car to pick us up at six, so I've got an hour to pack. Have you got a passport?"
Kindred fishes in his bag and produces one. "Yep. Anything else I need?"
"Anything...unofficial...that I should know about?"
He rummages and produces a bracelet that looks a little like mine, and a couple of rings. "Only some magical toys. They won't get detected." He holds a ring out for me to look at. It's a white-blue silver, hammered into the intricate overlaps of snowflakes, and-
I jerk my hand back with a hiss as it burns my fingers. Kindred's eyes are wide as he picks it up, and I turn my hand to show him the white-red skin of the frost burn.
"I didn't think you were that Summer," the Winter Emissary mutters. "What else did she give you?" I pull the acorn out and show him, and he winces. "Ah, that'd do it. Can you take it off for a minute?"
I'm starting to trust him - I pull the chain over my head without wondering if he's trying to get under my guard. He shuts his eyes and holds a hand out in my direction, and then nods. "Yeah, that's the problem. The bracelet is just a defensive shield but that's linked to the Court. They'll be able to track you, too."
I swallow. "I guess they need to know where to send the help if I ask for it."
The Winter Emissary's eyebrows quirk. "That they do. But it's upsides and downsides, dollface. Weren't you packing?"
I scowl at him and head upstairs to pack.
Chapter 4: Viva Las Vegas
Three hours later, we're sitting amongst a few other passengers in a small jet, waiting to take off. There's a few businessmen, one smartly-dressed woman, and two skinny girls who I'm sure are models. Kindred hasn't been able to take his eyes off them.
"Two at once?" I murmur to him as the plane stops.
"Why not?" Their waves of hair can be seen a few rows in front of us. "The more the better."
"I don't think this plane has a bedroom."
"Ah, who needs that." He grins and stretches out, cat-like and lithe. The seats are far enough apart that even his lanky form fits well, and he's obviously enjoying it. "There are ways."
"Well, have fun." The acceleration pushes me back in the seat, and then we're flying. I watch out of the window as Bristol's lights drop away from us, and then pull a book out of my bag and immerse myself in that as Kindred undoes his seatbelt and prowls off.
When I surface an hour later as the steward offers me food, Kindred's down the plane with the girls, making them laugh. I choose a sandwich and go back to my book.
It's three hours later, just as I've put my book away and curled up in my seat to get some sleep, that he reappears. I open one eye. "Fun?"
"Definitely." He grins at me. "I've got an address, too. They're in town for a few days."
"Just don't get distracted." I yawn and close my eyes.
It's 4am, our time, when we land in Vegas, but they're eight hours behind us. The sun's just setting as we head into the terminal, and I can feel the heat coming off the tarmac... although it doesn't seem to be affecting me. I'm guessing that's something to do with the Summer Court, considering I was close to overheating last time I came here.
Kindred leans over to me. "Need some cool, dollface? Can't have you overheating."
I shake my head and touch the acorn, hidden under my thin shirt. I see his eyes widen fractionally, but then he shrugs.
The trip through passport control is fairly quick - Tony's sorted everything, which is nice - and when we step out into arrivals, there's a woman with a "Richardson" sign. She smiles at Kindred and I, obviously recognising us from a description. "Welcome to Vegas! There's rooms booked for you at the Wyndham Grand Desert. If you'd like to follow me..."
Kindred's looking around as we head out to the taxi. "So where do we start?"
"Check in, and then you give me as much information as possible." I'm staring out at the bright lights as we drive down the wide streets. The traffic's just picking up. "Then we go hunting."
The Wyndham Grand is nicely cool after the heat outside. I check us in, and then hand Kindred his key. "Let's dump our stuff and head out?"
"Sure, dollface." He's got the room next to mine, and I briefly glance around my own as I dump my bag. Bathroom, double bed, air con...nice enough.
I rap on Kindred's door, and he opens it bare-chested, with his hair damp. I'd guess he's just dunked his head under the tap. "Ok, ok. Just coming."
"I can wait." I step inside and sit on the bed, looking around as he goes into the bathroom. "So, update me. Where did you get to?"
He comes out again with a towel on his head, scrubbing his hair furiously. "Grey. Shapeshifter. He came through from the NeverNever on Wynn Golf Club, and then the Little Folk lost him. The White Court let slip to me that he was still in town, and staying at Palms. I traced his room, but he was never in it. I've caught his...signature...a few times on the Strip, but never anywhere I could get to. He's in town but I can't find him."
"And the book?"
"No one would even answer my questions. They know Mab's after it. Everyone just clammed up or pretended ignorance."
I nod as he drops the towel on the floor and pulls a t-shirt over his head. "All right. I need to check in with someone at Caesar's, and then I've got a few places we can start. Ready to go?"
He grins wolfishly at me, and rakes a hand through his hair. "Sure thing, dollface."
My first stop is Caesar's Palace. A taxi drops us at the door, and I stroll comfortably into the casino, glancing around as I get some chips. The table I want is near the middle...blackjack, there.
"Go and play on the slot machines," I tell Kindred when he tries to follow.
"Just for the look of it."
There's an empty seat at the table, and I slide into it. The dealer nods, and I flick a chip onto the table. A few hands later, I'm starting to get into it. I don't usually like gambling, but Tony and I played enough when we were children that I know how to play.
Two hands later, I'm dealt two Jacks. I obediently fold, flick my losses onto the table, and stroll away to find Kindred.
I'm peering over his shoulder when someone comes up behind me. "Fancy seeing you here," a voice drawls.
"What a pleasant surprise," I riposte with a half-smile, turning. The only sign of Jack's age is his white hair, which he keeps silver on purpose. "How are you?"
"Never better." He kisses my cheek with a genuine smile. "A few years since I've seen you, kid. Who's your friend?"
"Kindred, this is Jack."
The Winter Emissary unfolds from the seat and sticks out a hand. "Hi."
Jack shakes it, eyeing up Kindred's scars. "So what's your first step?" he says to me.
"The 7-11, unless you've got anything for us."
"He's still in town," Jack says, still with the smile, but I can see the seriousness under it. "Rumours of a job being planned that needs his talents."
"Any danger to us?"
"No more than usual. The cartels are jumpy, though. Not sure what the target is."
"Do you know?"
He shakes his head. "A few guesses is all. I'll talk to you later about it, sweetheart. Where are you staying?"
"Small place." I smile. Jack's perfectly aware of where we're staying. "No point wasting money that could go on the tables, is there?"
Jack grins broadly, and slaps Kindred's shoulder. "You go enjoy your night, y'hear?"
We wind out through the casino, and Kindred follows me as I ignore the taxi rank and head out to the pavement. The dusk air is pleasantly cool, and I smile as I feel the heat fading.
"So?" Kindred asks, falling into step with me.
"Let's go visit a corner store."
"I'm after people who buy things," I say to the woman in the 7-11. She obviously remembers me from my last visit - although that might be Kindred's white hair, glinting in the evening sunshine as he waits outside. "Magical things."
She nods, and winds off some of the till receipt. "He called to say that you'd be asking. There's something you're looking for specifically?"
"A dangerous book."
She purses her lips. "Fomor, Jades, the Dragon, the Reds, the God-damned Blacks, various bits of the underworld. Could be anyone. Where do you want to start?"
"Not the Whites?"
She snorts. "Too busy to care, them. Got enough coming in without worrying about extras. Although Eloise does always know who's in town...I'll add her. These are the best starters I can come up with..." and she scribbles a list of names and locations on the till roll. "I'd personally say Fomor."
"Thanks." I smile and put a five-dollar bill on the counter. "Got two cokes?"
She hands two cans across, and I stroll back out into the hot dusk.
Kindred catches the coke with a grin. "So?"
"I got a list." I glance down the names. "She reckons Fomor, but the Whites are a good source of information."
Kindred's grinning. "MGM...guess where my models were staying?"
I start laughing. "I'd guess it's your lucky day, then."
Chapter 5: A Party at the MGM
Kindred's two friends do indeed know a party, and it's at the MGM. Our taxi puts us at the entrance, and Kindred stops for a word with the bouncers, who direct us to one of the side lifts. As we rise up the floors, I look at our reflections in the mirror. One pale, dark-haired woman in light slacks and a white shirt, somehow looking absolutely cool and unconcerned by anything. And one tall, lanky, scarred man with white-streaked hair in scrappy jeans and a t-shirt, who is somehow looking like he's a secret rock star and doesn't give a damn about anything. Hopefully we'll fit right in.
The lift slides open, and we step out into a wide corridor. There's another bouncer there, but when Kindred mentions the girl's names, he nods and opens the door to us.
It's the penthouse suite, and I take a moment to look around. There's maybe thirty people here...about ten have the stupidly good looks of the White Court, and the rest are either model-beautiful or, surprisingly, ordinary. I'm feeling a bit better.
One of the White Court, a woman with beautiful brown-blonde hair and a golden tan, spots us and begins to drift over, but Kindred's two models have spotted him first and overtake her to slam into him. "Kindred! Honey, this is our friend from the plane-" and then breaks into giggles.
Kindred wraps one arm around each girl and gives Honey a wide grin as she reaches him. "Hi. I see you've heard of me."
"We have." She's frankly assessing him, and I get the feeling she knows he's Winter Court - although it doesn't seem to make a difference. She gestures, and the two girls begin to lead him over to one of the wide sofas in the middle of the room. "Can I get you... anything?"
"What are you offering?" I hear as the white-streaked hair gets swamped with giggles and perfect bodies.
Well, looks like I'm on my own. I wander over to the bar that's taking up one entire wall to pick up a drink from the barman, a tired-looking older man, and then head out the glass doors to the hot tub that's on the balcony. There's two men and a woman in there laughing about something, and so I walk around the balcony to the far side, looking out over the city for a while. The lights of the Strip are laid out below me, all neon and sparkles in the darkness. I can see the headlights as the cars fill the road, but the noise that comes up to me is just a dull hum. The city's alive with light.
"There's something unusual about you, my dear," a drawling female voice says to me from over my shoulder.
I turn. "Most people say that."
The woman who's standing next to me is slightly shorter than me, with hair as dark as mine, although her figure is a lot curvier. She's dressed in a purple sheath that clings to her in all the right places, and she's got the sort of attractiveness that screams White Court vampire. But she smiles at me. "Oh, but I mean it. I can't figure you out."
"It's good for you," I say dryly. "You are?"
"Eloise, my dear." She reaches out to take my hand, I assume intending to kiss the back.
I move my hand from her reach before she can touch it. "I don't let your sort touch me."
Her eyes widen fractionally, and then she laughs. "Ah, that's a clue! But you're not anything I've come across before. You're rather intoxicating, miss...?"
"My name's Dini."
"So what would I have to do to get your full name out of you, my dear?"
I can feel her power wash over me, but somehow, that's all it does - I can ignore it. I smile at her. "Have a lot more bartering power than you currently have."
She rests one curved elbow on the railing and smiles back at me with a glint in her eye. She knows her lust-charm just failed. "I see. Can I ask what led you to our small party?"
There's maybe fifty people now, and the room is filling up fast. I can see lithe bodies and smiling faces behind the glass, while we're protected by the darkness. I lean back against the railing and relax a little, taking a sip of my drink. "Is this how you feed?"
Eloise glances at the room. "Small sips, my dear. There are so many people that pass through Vegas that we can afford to drink little and often. And it saves on the bodies. Your friend is fitting in well."
I can just see Kindred's white-streaked hair over the back of the sofa, with a brown and blonde head either side of him. "He likes a chance to play."
"He's Winter, isn't he?"
I turn my head. I know she's White Court, but I like this woman, and I'm going to trust my instincts on her. "I'm willing to trade information."
She's studying me. "You're interesting, my dear. I'd like to know more about him, and definitely more about you. What are you here for?"
"I'm looking for people who buy things."
"A specific thing?"
"A book, and its seller."
She nods. "I heard. The Fomor are always the first port of call for anyone interested in magical items. You'll be wanting Bres at the Bali Hai Golf Club. If it wasn't them, then the local Reds are the second place. They're based at the Venetian." She wrinkles her nose. "And that's all they've got."
I nod. "Thanks. Kindred's the Winter Emissary. I'm...temporarily...allied to Summer."
Her eyebrows shoot up. "Working together?"
"For this job. I'm prettier than most of the folk he hangs out with."
"I've met some of the Sidhe. I doubt it." But she's studying me frankly. "That's what it is, then. Summer's glamour is following you. Who are you when you're a mortal?"
I shrug. "I've got mafia connections, and journalistic ones."
"Sometimes." I'm studying her in turn. "What's your part in this?"
She laughs. "I'm a contact here, and I think I'll be hearing your name again. I'd better go and remind my friends to play nicely with yours."
"He can look after himself."
"I know he can, my dear. But bruises do so ruin the atmosphere."
"I should collect him anyway. We've got other places to be. And," I add with a bitter edge to my voice as we step away from the railing, "I doubt he's got much soul left for you to eat."
She stops. "He bargained it away?"
I shug. "You'll owe me an information debt if you want that story."
She touches my wrist, obviously intending to agree. The smell of burnt flesh is the first thing that I'm aware of, followed by Eloise jerking her hand back from mine with a small scream. Faces turn towards us. In the moment of stillness, I'm aware of how high up we are, how the only real exit is the doors we came through, and I'm going to have to get through the entire room-
But the woman, despite the pain on her face, straightens. "I am sorry, my dear. You did warn me." The loud words in the silence do help, and faces turn away as chatter resumes.
I'd honestly completely forgotten about my unintended effect on White Court vampires, and I'd only warned her not to touch me in a vain hope of stalling the emotion for a while. But I take control of my face and nod. "I'm sorry. Is it...are you all right?"
"I'll get some ice, my dear. But I think you'd better get your friend and leave." She does smile at me, though. "I'll be seeing you, and I'll remember that you're a little too attractive."
She's gone before I can work out what that meant, and so I wander inside. The crowds part from me, and then I'm standing in front of Kindred. "Come on, you. Time to go."
He's kissing one of the girls from the plane, his hand between her legs. "One moment, dollface..."
I sigh and take my half-empty glass over to the barman, hearing the girl's moans get louder before tailing off. And then Kindred's by my elbow. "You're no fun."
"Of course not." I head for the door, clearing a path again without even trying. "I got a contact."
"You couldn't even stop for a night of fun?"
"No." The door shuts behind us, and we step into the lift. "Eloise thinks Fomor would be the first place for something like that. She gave me an address."
"Doozy. D'you think she's trying to get rid of us?"
I consider it. "No. I liked her."
"All right. Do you want to see the Red Court?"
"Not if I can help it."
"Hey, I don't want to talk to the Fomor. You gotta do..."
"Yeah, ok. Who's first?"
We step out into the night air. "What contacts did you get?" Kindred asks.
"Fomor, Bres, at the Bali Hai Golf Club. The Red Court are at the Venetian."
"They wouldn't even see me." Kindred grumbles. "Fomor are better in daylight. Red Court?"
I shiver. "All right."
Chapter 6: A Visit To the Venetian
When we enter the Venetian I quietly stop at the reception desk, tucked away in a corner of the casino. "Could you inform Madam Star that Miss Richardson would appreciate a word."
"I'll call it through, ma'am." She does, while I lean my elbows on the desk and look out over the casino. There's golden pillars, a painted roof, beautiful carvings...and then rows upon rows of slot machines. It kinda spoils the look.
The reception girl put the phone down. "She's just in a meeting, but she won't be long. She's requested a member of staff to escort you if you'd like to wait in the lounge..."
"We'll wander around, if that's ok. I've always wanted to see Venice." I glance over at Kindred. He's pretty recognisable. "I'm sure the staff member will find us."
We head out of the rows of slot machines and head up one floor. 'Venice' is a series of bridges over some far-too-clean-looking canals, surrounded by shops. "Have you ever been to the real one?" I ask Kindred after a while as we stop on one of the bridges and look down the space. Even the roof is painted to look like blue sky with clouds...ugh.
"Nah, although it is Winter Court. Maybe I should, some day."
"I hope it's not this garish." The entire place is ostentatiously rich.
Kindred spins abruptly, his hands darting out defensively, and the woman who's walking up behind us stops. "Madame Star will see you now."
I nod, and we both follow her through the 'street' and up one of the escalators. A woman in a black dress is sitting at the table, looking out over the balcony edge and sipping something.
"Miss Richardson and Mr Kindred," our escort says, and the black-clad woman nods. We're beckoned forward and the escort gestures for us to be seated.
Kindred holds a chair for me, and I sit down opposite the black-clad woman. She's beautiful, but...I get a flicker of age. Of tiredness. Of cynicism. She's been in the business too long, and I wonder how old she really is.
"Thank you for agreeing to meet us," I say quietly.
She inclines her head slightly. "I am always open to business opportunities. Would you care for a drink?"
"A gin and tonic, please." I feel Kindred's sudden wariness as he sits down next to me, and he shakes his head abruptly. We wait in silence until the drinks come back, and then I deliberately take a sip of mine.
The woman across the table seems to relax. We're obeying the Laws of Hospitality - or at least I am. Kindred's being an ass.
"How is your brother?" the woman asks. Ho hum, here comes Round 2...
"My employer," and I gently stress the word, "is well. He sends his regards, and suggests that the source of your problems is two levels down. One of the messengers seems to be mixing their sources up. An honest mistake, he's sure." There's a few drops of liquid on the table from my glass, and I'm absently doodling in the water with my fingertips. The letters stay for a second before I wipe them away into meaningless droplets.
Her eyes have narrowed slightly. "I see. Please thank him for being so diligent, and inform him that I will be in contact if I need further advice." I nod. "And your query?"
"A man came to Vegas about two weeks ago. He's known by the name Grey, and he was offering a book for sale. Do you have any information on the man or the book?"
Her eyes widen fractionally. "Grey? He is in town for a...job. Objective uncertain. I knew nothing of a book, or any other reason for him being in Vegas."
She'd expected us to ask about the job. I relax a little. "We don't know his objective for the job either. I've been informed the same as you've just said, and nothing more." She knows that means that Jack isn't behind the job - or at least, if he is, he's not telling the UK mafia about it. "Do you know who'd be likely to want a book?"
She shrugs slightly. "The usual suspects."
I take another sip of my drink, and then nod. "I think that was all we came for. Do you have any other questions?"
She smiles for the first time, displaying perfect white teeth. "I'd offer you a job, Miss Richardson, but I know how that turned out for my brethren. Please let Mr Cornetti know that his information has been useful, and his support is valued."
I stand. "As has yours, madam. Thank you for your hospitality."
Kindred falls in beside me as I head back round to the elevator, but he's mercifully silent until we're back out into the hot sunshine. I stop for a moment on the bridge and admire the replica Venice laid out before us, complete with gondoliers. Who the hell decides to build Venice in a desert?
"They wouldn't even talk to me last time." Kindred's got his hands in his pockets, looking thoroughly grumpy. "Fuckers."
"That's what you hired me for. Plus, you were rude to them."
"Humph. What was all that about the messenger?"
"The Swindon Red Court's part of a group siphoning money, or at least they're part of the chain. Whether they know they're being used or are actively part of it, Tony couldn't find out. But she'll look into it."
"Well, we got fuck all out of them in return."
"No," I correct, "we got an honest answer, which is what I paid for. They don't know where it is and they haven't seen the book."
"Or someone else has paid them more to lie."
I shrug. "It's possible, but them's the risks. What now?"
"It's coming up to dawn," Kindred says. "We should go and sleep. Vegas shuts down in the day."
"All right. Food?"
We stop at a burger joint and grab what feels like the first meal in far too long, and then head back to the Wyndham Grand. By the time we reach it, I'm stumbling, and it feels like a long way up in the lift. But eventually we're there, and my bed's there, and I can sleep.
Chapter 7: A Flaming Encounter
The sun's starting to sink when I wake again. I completely forgot to close the curtains, but I've somehow slept through the desert sunshine.
There's a light knocking on my door. I'd guess that was what woke me. "Wakey, wakey," Kindred's voice says.
I push myself out of the bed and stumble over, checking through the spyhole that it is him. But I do open the door on the chain. "Yes?"
"We've got work to do." He's looking irritatingly awake, and his hair's neat for once.
"Have I got time for a shower?"
"Not really. Let me in?"
"I'm just going to get some clothes on, you pervert."
"All right." No sarcastic quip? My hackles are rising as I shut the door.
I shut the door. "Davido..." I murmur. "Can you go and check if Kindred's in his room?"
The tiny Faerie zips off, and I pull my gun from under the pillow before pulling on my trousers and then shrugging a shirt over my head, alert for every sound. But whoever's at the door appears to be waiting patiently...
"He is asleep," Davido says, reappearing. Oh, fuck.
I slide the bracelet down my wrist. "Wake him up, by any means possible."
As soon as the tiny Faerie vanishes again, I step back to the door. Kindred's still outside, looking impatient, and as soon as I click the lock the door slams open-
-and bounces on the chain, which gives me just enough time to step to the side and open fire as 'Kindred' slams his full weight into it-
And collapses onto the floor, my bullet through his head.
I look down as the body dissolves into goo. Ectoplasm, nice.
Kindred's door slams open as I take mine off the chain and the Winter Emissary lunges out, completely naked with his hands outspread. But he pulls up short as he sees the goo. "What the hell?"
"Shapeshifter of some sort."
He steps over and looks down, and then snorts. "Get your stuff. You're staying in my room."
I stare him down. His hair's a mess. "Prove you're you."
"Dollface, I'm not in the mood. Get yourself in here."
I manage a small smile and step back into my room to sling my bag onto my shoulder. Kindred carefully locks the room, and then locks and chains his own door after we've both stepped in.
"Can I get a shower?" I ask, dumping my bag next to his.
"Sure, I just got one. I'll get dressed and then we'll go see the Fomor."
My shower is brief, and when I step out into the room, Kindred's dressed. He glances at me. "Showing off, dollface?"
I glance down. The only dry towel was a small one, and it barely skims my thighs. "Cope. What do you think that thing was?"
Kindred shrugs and sprawls himself into the chair by the window. "Construct. Pretty much any smart wizard could make one, and almost every faction has one or two on the books. Take your pick."
"I'd opt for Red Court."
"You always do." He's openly watching me as I dry off and then find clean clothes in my bag. "What is your beef with them, anyway?"
"Apart from their irritating habit of trying to drug me?" I pull a skirt on and rummage for a t-shirt. "I don't like them. Or White Court, for the same reason."
"You've got a defence against that now."
"What causes that?" I ask, tugging my t-shirt down and picking up a comb.
He gives me an unimpressed look. "You seriously don't know?"
"I've got no idea."
"Love, dollface. It burns them."
I blink. "Warren?"
"You're so in love that you can burn vampires." His voice is bitter. "Congratulations."
I run the comb through my hair on automatic, and fall in behind him as he stalks past me. But the click of the lock recalls us both to more important things, and he glances at me. "You'll know it's me, dollface."
"You're still pushing your luck, Winter boy," I snap back. "Where are we going, then?"
"Fomor, while there's some light."
I nod reluctantly. "All right."
As we sit in the taxi, Kindred leans back. "So how are we going to approach this?"
"The ones I've met liked trades."
"They like getting the best of the bargain," Kindred corrects. "What can we trade?"
"Do you know where anything else is?"
He considers it. "Dyrnwyn. Amoracchius. Would they pay for that?"
"With the location of the book? I'd hope so. I don't think they'd give you Grey, though."
"No, he's going to be a bit trickier. To be honest, I hope he's already left."
"Jack said he's still in town."
"Hard to tell, with a shapeshifter."
I shrug. "Well, all right. I'm assuming that he is, for the moment."
The Golf Club's got quite a few expensive cars parked in front of it. I stretch out my hands as we climb out of the taxi, enjoying the feel of the evening sun on my skin, and see Kindred's scowl. Even his Winter cool is pushed to keep him a good temperature, and the strain's showing.
We stroll into the club. The decor is...well, tasteless, in my opinion, but then most of Vegas is. Kindred doesn't look any more impressed by the fake plants and stone fireplace than I am, and leans over to murmur in my ear, "It looks like a log cabin has a fight with a cactus..."
I swallow a snort of laughter as we reach the reception desk, and the receptionist smiles. "Hiya, guys. Can I help?"
"I'd like to see Bres, on a business matter."
His expression doesn't change. "Your name?"
He calls it through, and then puts the phone down. "Someone will be right down. Please take a seat."
A few golfers come through as we sit in the lobby, chattering in their American drawls. I hear snatches of business deals and general gossip.
After a few minutes, a man comes out. He looks mostly human, except for the fact he's dressed in a black turtle-neck jumper. He stops in front of us and looks us up and down.
"You are Sidhe," he says flatly.
"He's Winter. I'm not." I keep my face blank. "I do work for Jack occasionally. We want information."
He's silent for a moment, just looking at us, and then nods. "Follow me."
The room we're led to looks out over the too-green golf course - who on earth thought grass in the middle of a desert was a good idea? Some people just have too much money.
The man standing on the far side of the room lives up to what I know of the Fomor; he looks like a frog with his wide lips and bulging eyes...he's also not the best specimen of anything remotely resembling humanity, with very greasy hair and sallow skin. I admit that I don't usually judge by appearances, but the flat and vicious look that he gives me from those bulging eyes doesn't do anything to raise my opinion. He's got one similar frog look-alike standing nearby, along with two people who look human...and thuggish. There's something about them that I don't like, but then I don't really like any of this situation.
Our guide gestures forward. "Two visitors to see you."
Frog-face stares at us, eyes lingering first on Kindred, and then on me - and then on my breasts for rather longer than I'm happy with. "And you are?"
"People interested in trading information," I say blandly. His hands are too large, and look almost webbed. I make a mental note to investigate the Fomor when I get back.
"Things you've bought, and the people you've bought them from."
Frog-face is looking back at me. "I can see that he's Winter, but who are you?"
"An interested party." I keep my face blank. "Do you have information or not?"
"What do you have to trade?" the second frog-man asks.
"Confirmed locations of a number of other items of power," Kindred says, sounding bored. "Likely to interest your clients, I suspect."
The Winter Emissary grins, showing his teeth. "Dyrnwyn, for starters."
Frog-face is good, but I can see the sudden gleam in his eyes. "Anything else?"
That makes Frog-face hiss. "Confirmed locations? Very well. What do you want from me?"
"Have you purchased a book recently?" I ask bluntly.
"Several. Which one?"
"A rather dangerous one."
Frog-face scrubs at one cheek with a webby hand. "They all are. You're Mab's lackeys?"
"Offering useful information to you if you have answers," Kindred says pleasantly. "Have you had the Necronomicon passing through your organisation?"
Frog-face snorts. "We didn't order the theft. Didn't buy the book. It wasn't offered to us."
"Have you had contact with the thief?"
Frog-face grins. "You want his contact? Hah! We'll give you that."
"Do it, then."
Frog-face scribbles something down, and thrusts it at one of the thugs to bring to us. "Now, locations."
"Dyrnwyn is in the Vault," Kindred says. "Amoracchius is in Chicago."
Frog-face is grinning, and the thug hands over the paper to Kindred. "There. Now, you go."
My shoulderblades are twitching as we turn and walk towards the still-closed door. We're about two metres from it when I hear a thump, and spin. Kindred's hand is out, and I can feel the ice-cold of the shield in front of us. My bracelet suddenly feels warm on my wrist, and the thugs start to move forward. I glance back and see the guide moving in front of the doors. Fuck.
"Back off," Kindred snarls. "You're dicing with the Accords."
"She's not a power, Emissary, for all that she's working for Summer," Frog-face spits back. "She stays. You leave."
There's a moment of hesitation, and then suddenly the shield drops, and before I'm aware of what's happening, Kindred shoves me forward - towards the Frogs.
I stumble forwards three steps and try to stop my body falling, but there's too much momentum - by the look on Frog-face's slimy mouth, he wasn't expecting Kindred to just give me up, and his slimy hands are grasping for me as his smile changes to a wide-lipped grin that I'll see in my nightmares-
There's an explosion of fire.
Flames blast outwards, a fire that burns my cheeks and wraps itself around my fingers. The Fomor around me stumble back, charring, turning into seared flesh and blackened dust, their slimy hands falling away. I'm driven to my knees by a sudden surge of exhaustion as the flames obscure my vision...but they're not touching me. I feel drained yet somehow elated, all my emotions stripped from me, watching the dancing fires in bemusement.
"Come on, dollface!"
Kindred's standing by the door with a wide grin on his face and a shimmering blue shield covering him. The guide's lying on his back, out cold, and the doors are open.
I haven't got time to worry; the flames around me are dying down. I sprint for Kindred and the doors.
"You're a bastard."
We're walking down the Strip, dodging people. Kindred's got his arm around me; by the time we had got into the lobby of the golf club, I was stumbling, overwhelmed with exhaustion. I think I probably look drunk at the moment, as no-one gives us a second glance. It's early in the Las Vegas night, but I guess drunken people don't really have any time limit.
"You know it, dollface," the man holding me says, grinning.
"Did you know it was going to do that?" My strength is slowly returning.
He shrugs with one shoulder. "Wouldn't be much point in giving you a shield that didn't do anything, would there?"
"So you didn't."
He quirks an eyebrow at me in his most annoying manner. "It got us out of there."
"And killed four Fomor!"
"They attacked first."
"How are you planning on proving that?"
"Why do I need to? Who's going to be arguing with that much fire?"
"You fucking bastard." I shake him off and manage to stand by myself.
"I swore to protect you, dollface. Stop complaining."
"Protecting me does not include shoving me into danger!"
"I would have thought of something if it didn't work." He's got his smug expression on again.
Gah. I know he's a bastard, so I can't really complain when he lives up to it. "How did it do that?"
"Probably emotions, considering how tired you are. It taps into your power to lash out at anyone who's an enemy."
I shove my hands in my pockets. "So what now?"
Kindred opens his hand. "The Mirage. Room 1146."
I look around. The Strip's lighting up and the last rays of the sunshine are flaring across the sky. "Now?"
"May as well, while he's still there," Kindred says, sounding grim.
"What's the plan?"
"Get in there and try to get some answers."
He sighs and runs a hand through his hair. "This man's a fucking shapeshifter and major wizard. If he's on a job, I don't know when that's going to be happening. He could be out of town tomorrow. We need to get in there now."
I can't disagree, but nerves have suddenly punched into my stomach. "Ok. Let's go."
Chapter 8: Meeting At The Mirage
Kindred's fiddling with his bracelet and rings as we step out into the corridor, somewhere in the depths of the Mirage. I'm feeling nervous about not scouting, having no other information...this could quite easily be a trap, but I've got no idea how else to approach this.
Walk in and find out, I guess.
Kindred glances up at the door number, and waves a hand in front of the door as if trying to feel something invisible. Then he blinks, looks at it, and blinks again. Apparently satisfied, he puts a hand on the wood.
I raise an eyebrow as he steps back.
"Nothing," he mouths to me, and then points to the lock with a raised eyebrow.
I shrug. Lockpicking isn't my best skill.
Kindred rolls his eyes and bends. And then the door clicks open.
It's a standard hotel room beyond that; there's a half-made bed and wide windows looking out onto the sunset. It's apparently empty, but Kindred still walks in with his hands outstretched, trying to look everywhere at once. I cautiously follow a few steps behind as he starts round the bed.
And something slams Kindred backwards. He manages to roll, coming up with blizzards whirling around his fist-
The man who's suddenly appeared on the far side of the room puts out a hand again, and I see his lips move. Kindred throws himself to one side, but a second blow spins him and he tumbles like a rag doll. He lands on the floor and stays still; I can see blood seeping down his forehead, and hope that he isn't too badly hurt. But he's definitely out cold.
It's only taken an instant.
I flick my eyes back to the man, but he's just standing there. For a moment, we just study each other over the rumpled bed. He's of average height with short brown hair, and he's wearing a grey suit. I remember Kindred's description of a forgettable man...but his eyes are strange, glinting and flickering. I wonder what he sees when he looks at me. He just looks faintly interested.
"Miss Richardson, I believe?" His voice is slightly gravelly, deeper than I was expecting.
"Mr Grey," I get out, my automatic reactions somehow making me sound like a normal person. I wasn't expecting this confrontation without Kindred at my side...but then I don't really know what I was expecting.
Grey walks around the bed towards me. It takes a supreme effort of will to remain where I am, but I somehow do. "I assume you are here with a message."
"Queen Titania wants reparations for the damage that you did to her land. And Mab wants the item that you stole returned to her."
"I can only apologise to Titania." Grey stops a few steps away from me. His face is sober and he sounds penitent. "I did not intend such damage to Summer. As for Mab...if her security is that poor, then she should take it as a warning. A fairly stolen item is a fair theft, is it not?"
"Who ordered it? Who did you give the book to?"
He shakes his head slowly, and takes a step forward. I take an involuntary step back but with another quick step, he's caught up and is standing right in front of me, his hand touching my cheek. "I don't betray my clients, Miss Richardson," his voice says quietly as I slide into darkness.
I wake to dawn light, and Kindred leaning over me. "Dini..."
I'm lying on something soft...I manage a groan and roll over, feeling like I've been partying far too hard. But I wasn't partying, I was...
I sit up and nearly crack my skull against Kindred's. "Grey!"
I'm lying on the rumpled bed, but the room's empty. The blood has dried on Kindred's forehead, and I can see the patch on the floor where he was lying. There's no one else around.
"He's long gone," Kindred says with disgust. "I don't remember anything after trying to whomp him. What did he do to you?"
"He talked to me." I clutch my head, wondering what spell Grey used on me. "He's sorry for the damage. But said he's not going to return the item - it was fairly stolen, Mab should have better security. And he wouldn't betray his client." That sentence is still echoing in my head.
"Damnit," Kindred spits, and leans back. "Fuck and damnit. We were so close!"
"So now what?" I ask, eyeing the dried blood and bruises on his head. "We failed."
Kindred shrugs and offers me a hand to climb off the bed. "He's gone. There was a major break-in at the Bellagio, but it's all over. We've been out of it for the entire night."
"At least clean your face before we leave," I comment as he heads for the door. "Otherwise you'll look more of a scruff than you do already."
Well, screw you too." But he does go and wash the blood off his face.
"Will Mab be ok with that message?" I ask as we leave, Kindred double-checking round corners. But if Grey was at the Bellagio then he'll be long gone, and won't have worried about a pair of Fae messengers that were knocked out for the night. I hope.
"She's going to have to be," Kindred grumbles as we step into the lift. "I need to find the book, though..."
"You'll have to trace it from the other end."
"So much for my holiday."
"You were never on holiday," I say as we speed downwards. "This was work."
"I could probably take a few days off, though..." Kindred grins wolfishly. "Waste some money, waste some time..."
I shrug. "I've got a week off, but she's your Queen."
His smile fades. "Yeah. When can you get a flight for?"
I shrug again as the floor indicator dings. "I'll see what I can do. So what now?"
"Back to the hotel?" Kindred suggests as we wander through the lobby, and turns to look for a taxi before I can reply. My head still aches, so I suppose that's the best option.
The first taxi doesn't stop, and neither does the second. It ends up being the third that does a u-turn and comes to pick us up. "Where to?" the driver asks.
"The Wyndham Grand."
"All right." Kindred settles back as I slam the door, and we pull off into the traffic.
Five minutes later, I reach out to hold Kindred's hand. He gives me an odd look, but I'm already leaning forward. "We missed our turning. Where are you taking us?"
"Someone wants to see you," the driver says. "Just sit tight."
Kindred looks at me, and raises one eyebrow. I just shrug, and he squeezes my hand. And then we both lean back into the seats, and watch the ostentation and the glamour fly past us in the morning sunshine.
The driver takes us to the El Cortez, on the far end of the Strip. As the doors unlock, Kindred gives my hand a last squeeze and unfolds himself out of the taxi. I shut the door behind me, and it drives off as a black-suited flunky comes forward. "This way."
We're led into the casino, through the rows of mostly-empty slot machines to the tables. The flunky gestures us to wait, and bends to speak in the ear of a woman in a figure-hugging red dress, who places her cards down and glances at us. Then she nods, and beckons us to follow.
"Recognise her?" Kindred murmurs to me as we follow.
We're led through a pair of double doors and then the woman holds up a hand, and vanishes into another room. After a second, she comes out again, and holds the door for us. "Through here."
Kindred leads, for which I'm grateful. There's a lot about the situation that's put me on edge.
The room's fairly dark, with wall lights providing pools of light. One one wall is a large screen, showing displays from the casino. In front of it is a low-backed chair with a woman sitting in it.
She turns the chair, and Kindred immediately bows.
I don't. "Who are you?"
The woman smiles, as if I amuse her. She's got very shiny hair, as it's reflecting the light off almost every strand, and slitted eyes that remind me a little of the Fae. "My full name is a bit of a mouthful, little one. You can call me Dragon."
I suppress the urge to raise an eyebrow, and opt for bowing politely.
"I am glad you finally made it here," the woman says. "I did try to speak to you earlier, but you destroyed my messenger."
"That construct?" Kindred asks.
"I thought the lady might be more amenable to meeting me in the company of someone she knew." She says it as if sending a duplicate Kindred construct to kidnap someone is entirely reasonable.
"Less, actually," I say dryly. "It didn't give the best impression."
"You could have just asked." Kindred snaps.
Dragon raises a perfect eyebrow. "I did not think Winter would be amenable to my requests, but as the lady was unlikely to come alone, now you are both here. So..."
And Kindred crumples.
I'm learning. I stay completely still for an instant, and then kneel and check his pulse. Still there, and he's breathing fine.
"Just to make sure he doesn't interfere, little one," Dragon says, still sounding amused.
I stand up again, feeling terrified and trying not to show it. I guess I'm failing. "State your request, then." I meet her eyes, trying to project some bravado.
"If Mr Kindred finds this book, I would be...interested in obtaining it. He has loyalties beyond the mortal, and Mab will want it returned." She chuckles, her eyes still locked on mine. "I would like it to be diverted."
"I don't know if he'll find it, or if he'll tell me." I'm terrified, but I can't break her gaze. "Anyway, don't you know where it is?"
She shakes her head. "Not at the present time. I am sure it will surface. My request stands for a while, anyway. And you will not tell anyone about this."
The pressure of her statement settles on me like a crushing blow, and I can feel myself wilting. Her eyes are filling my vision, even as I fight the blackness and my knees hit the carpet.
"Do we have an accord?" Dragon's voice purrs.
"If he finds it, I'll let you know. But I won't steal it," I choke out. "I can't. I'm not a thief."
"Information, then, little one. You pass on what you find out about the location."
But the pressure doesn't ease. She seems to be thinking. "What else while you're here, little one? Maybe you should become an information source for me, yes? I could use someone else in England."
"And in return?"
"The Court has taught you bad habits, little one."
"No." I'm struggling to breathe, but I won't give her a carte blanche on my knowledge. "Not - without - something..."
"How disappointing." But the pressure does ease and I can tear my eyes away from her gaze. "But now I know you. I may be in contact again."
Kindred's eyes flutter and he pushes himself up with a groan. I'm on my knees on the floor next to him, but the pressure has suddenly gone from my chest.
"Your prey has left town," Dragon says, amused again. "And I do not think he will like you following him."
Chapter 9: Out And About In Vegas
We're shown through the casino again, and get a taxi in silence. Vegas is collapsing into daylight stupor, and there isn't a lot of traffic on the roads. After a minute, Kindred says, "Can you tell me what she wanted?"
The sudden crushing pressure is on my chest again. "No," I choke.
"I don't know why she bothered. I can guess that she either wanted Grey's location or the book's." Kindred's looking out of the window. "Mab wants both, of course."
"Anything you can tell me?"
I shake my head, struggling to breathe.
His hand comes around mine. "Eh, don't worry, dollface. I don't trust her anyway."
"Who is she?"
He waggles his hand. "She could be one of the Dragons. There's three - or there were three until one got killed. They're basically elemental forces with a shitload of power. Or she could be a smaller dragon, who are just powerful. They can look like the scaly things, but I guess they can look human, too..." He trails off.
"Someone powerful, anyway."
"Yeah. Did she...did you promise her anything?"
I manage to nod, but it's a struggle.
"Information on the book?" I can't breathe enough to answer his questions, and he sees that. "The location? When I find it...fuck."
"She...can...fight Mab," I get out. Dragon knowing where the book is won't necessarily help her.
And Kindred relaxes with a grin. "True. Eh, we'll see how things unfold. Gotta find it first, wherever it's gotten to in this godforsaken city."
"About that..." I say, sucking air into my lungs. "Grey was here, but are you sure the book came here?"
He opens his mouth, shuts it, and then shrugs. "No. I can't trace that like I can him. I lost him for a day and then he popped up here, so I guessed he'd brought it here to sell."
"What if he left it someplace else? Where did he come out of Summer?"
Kindred shrugs. "No idea, but that's something we could set the Little Folk onto." Then he leans back and groans. "I'm a fucking idiot, aren't I? The book probably didn't come here."
"It could have gone straight to whoever ordered it here, though." I shrug in turn. "He could have got rid of it sooner."
"No idea how we find that out." Kindred sits up and opens his eyes. "No, I do have an idea...but we'll need pizza. And probably dark."
"So we've got the day off?" My head really aches now.
"We found Grey. No-one else has seen the damn book, and I think dark's better to talk to the people I want to. So...yeah." Kindred sounds subdued as we pull into the Wyndham Grand. "I could use some sleep."
I've apparently missed a few calls from the night before, and while Kindred's in the shower, I talk to people. Jack's the first, wanting an update on Grey. I tell him all I know and hear the moment of silence as he registers what happened.
"Well, you did your best, sweetheart," he says after the pause. "He's a tricky one. Need anything?"
"Not yet. We've got a few more leads to chase."
"All right, kid. Speak soon."
The second call was Eloise with an invite to a party tonight. I put my hand over the phone and catch Kindred's eye from where he's lying naked on the bed. "Hey, Winter boy. You up for a party tonight?" His sleepy grin says everything, and I turn back to the phone. "That sounds lovely, Eloise. When and where?"
She gives me the information, and then I can put the phone down and gratefully crawl into the bed beside the damp, half-asleep figure of Kindred.
I wake after what seems like hours and glance at the clock. It's just gone midday, ages to go yet...I've slept myself out, but Kindred's still snoring. I find my shirt and skirt, leave him a note on the pad next to the telephone, and head out of the hotel with Davido on my shoulder.
The heat's not too oppressive; it almost feels light, as if it could lift me up and carry me. I float through the streets, enjoying the chance to just be somewhere else, away from the damp and brick of Swindon...this is concrete and cars, bright lights, half-dead weeds and flashing signs for casinos, American accents and snatches of music. I stop by the 7-11 to update my contact there and chat for a while, sitting on the counter and drinking coke. Then I amble onwards, heading for the strip, stopping to buy a burger on my way and throwing the wrapper in the air for Davido to fence. I'm feeling free for the first time in a while; no-one to worry about, no-one to check up on me, no-one - I hope - chasing me.
I get to the Strip, and glance at my watch. It's still only 1pm...
"Where to, miss?" the taxi driver asks as I climb in.
"The New York."
I get to be a kid for an hour, going on the rollercoaster four times. Eventually, Davido does talk me into going to get ice cream, and I wander around the casino. Strangely, no-one tries to chat me up. Either I'm invisible or have my fuck-off face on...or I'm so happy that I don't give a damn. I'm still feeling light, as if I'm floating, with a warmth wrapping around me like a glow.
I call in via one of the random dress shops on my way out, and pick up something for the evening. As I leave with the bag slung over my shoulder, a man in slacks and a polo shirt comes up to me. "Excuse me, Miss Richardson. Jack would like a word. This way, if you please."
I stare at him. "And what is Jack doing at the New York?"
I step around him and walk on.
I've reached the slot machine section when someone else catches me up. "Ferchrissakes, kid. I'm not as young as I was!"
I do stop, and raise my eyebrows at Jack. "What are you doing here?"
"Checking up on something, and then had a message that someone odd was poking around." He grins at me. "Thought you'd rather me than security."
I shrug. "I've never been thrown out of a casino."
"Neither have I. Can I invite you to have a drink with me?"
He looks a little hurt and then seems to twig, and smiles. "Does your brother still hate mint?"
I relax. "I'd love a drink."
It's only 4pm by the time I get in a taxi to head back to the Wyndham Grand, and I admit to being mildly tipsy when I arrive. When I push the hotel room door open, Kindred's sitting on the bed with his back to me, entirely naked.
He glances round, looking faintly guilty. "Uh, hi, dollface. Didn't expect you back so soon."
I shut the door and lean on it, wondering what to make of the situation. Something about his expression suggests what he's just been doing. "Are you going to put some clothes on?" I ask, aiming for sarcasm despite the nicely-muscled - and deeply scarred - back on display. He's as attractive as ever, and I wonder if I should make the most of this opportunity. There's a warmth spreading through my bones; the acorn at my throat is burning, spreading heat across my skin. I want to-
"Dini," Kindred says, slowly and deliberately, forcing the words out. "Take it off. Take the acorn off."
I hesitate. Is he a construct? Is it another trap? He's tensing, his chest rising and falling as he sucks in breaths, and his bright eyes are fixed on mine. My skin is tingling, almost burning, and I just want to touch him, run my hands-
I drop the garment bag and fumble the acorn over my head, and then tug at the bracelet as well. It's Summer. I'm more attractive than I want to be right now, especially to someone who's not wearing anything, is thoroughly turned on, and definitely desiring the member of an opposing Court. And because I've got Summer trinkets, they're amplifying any lust I feel. This is not good.
With an effort, Kindred turns his back on me and leans forward, gripping his hands together, leaning his head on his fists.
"What should I do with them?" I ask, suddenly scared of the items I'm holding. "I could go out again-"
"No. You need to have them on if you leave." His voice is slightly muffled, but I can hear the strain. And then he swears and straightens up. "Ok. Ok. It's under control."
I stay by the door just in case while he pulls on jeans, and then he manages a smile as he sits back down on the bed. "It's ok. You can probably put them back on."
"I'll leave them off for the moment," I say, picking up the bag and risking coming far enough into the room to drape it over the back of the chair, then putting the necklace and bracelet on the desk. "Are you ok?"
"Yeah. D'you want to play poker or something?" It's said with a light-hearted tone, but I can still see the tenseness underneath. It's still an effort for him to keep his Winter side under control.
"Ok. No stakes, though." I fish the pack of cards out from the drawer - this is Vegas, after all - and sit on the bed to open them. "Can we...talk about it?"
"I'm not made of fucking glass, dollface," Kindred snaps, and I throw him the cards. He starts to shuffle. "What do you want to know that isn't already obvious?"
I raise an eyebrow at him. "Thanks for warning me. The Kindred I knew six months ago wouldn't have."
"You have such a bad impression of me." He sounds penitent, but I'm feeling a bit easier. He's relaxing as he deals the cards.
"No, I have an entirely accurate impression of you. You're a bastard who's only in anything for self-interest, and only then if he can get money or laid."
He snorts. "I think that's a bit unfair. Anyway, how about you, dollface?" He dumps the remainder of the pack between us on the rumpled duvet.
"What about me?"
He's looking through his hand, and doesn't look up at me. "Far too moral in certain circumstances, but not at all in others. Power-hungry. Manipulative to get what you want. Happy to use people as bargaining chips. You've almost got Winter morals."
I realise he's trying to wind me up, and just smile. "Or human ones."
He looks up from the cards and grins back. "And you've chilled out a lot."
"It happens." I glance at my own cards. "Or maybe you're just not as good at winding me up as you think."
"Don't make me prove you wrong."
"The only thing you're going to be wrong about is that your hand can beat mine."
He snorts. "Bring it on!"
We play for about an hour until we both get fed up; he's got a good poker face but I'm better at cards, so we end up roughly even. When he gets fed up with losing we call for room service and get some healthy food - I'm craving vegetables, so bite me - and then it's getting towards dusk, so I slide into my party dress. Kindred's eyes suggest that he'd prefer me to take it off again, but instead he pulls on some fairly neat jeans and a shirt, makes sure I have the necklace and bracelet back on, and comes down to the lobby to get a taxi.
I slide in and glance at him as he bumps me over and slams the door behind us. "So where are we going?"
He grins at me. "Driver! We need to stop for pizza, and then we're going golfing."
Wynn Golf Club is as green as the Bali Hai - I think. I can't see much in the dark, but I can feel that we're treading on grass. Kindred did his hexing trick on the security camera and then froze the fence to break the wire, and we're into a forested area. I can see enough from the reflected city lights to weave through the trees, and then there's empty space in front of us. I can hear the sound of running water over the traffic.
Kindred stops at the edge of the forest. "Ok, I think we're clear. I can't sense anyone around."
As he steps out onto the green, I bend and quickly undo my sandals. The grass is lush under my feet, and I run to catch Kindred up, suddenly smiling, full of a joy that I can't express.
"Ice Cream Lady!" And the air around me is suddenly full of lights, dancing and shimmering around me. It's a multitude of piping voices as the lights weave and bob. "Ice Cream Lady!"
I laugh, spread my arms and spin out into the darkness with their colours floating around me. I feel like I'm falling, flying with the night around me and their shadows flickering, weaving and floating as I spin, dancing with the Little Folk to music that no-one else can hear...
When I open my eyes, the light are all around me and Kindred's staring at me with an odd expression from a metre away, standing with the pizza boxes in his hands. "What?" I ask, panting, unable to stop my smile as the Little Folk start to land, coming to rest on my hair and shoulders and dress, lighting me with an angel's glow.
The Winter Emissary's expression is something I can't decipher - fear and longing and pain and disgust, all mixed together. I'd guess that he's never done this, and for an instant I feel a punch of pure sadness. Summer is beautiful, for all of its power, and Winter will never have the same elegance and grace. He's never danced with the Little Folk, spun to the sound of a music no-one else can hear...
But he holds out the pizza boxes, and the moment's broken. "Pizza!" the Fae shriek, and the lights zoom towards Kindred.
"We want some answers!" Kindred says, keeping the lids firmly shut.
One of the larger Little Folk, a purple-haired female with a cocktail skewer for a sword, hovers in front of Kindred's nose. "I will talk to you, but you must keep pizza as my reward!"
I walk over and take a box from the stack. "I will keep this one for you and me and Kindred. Your kin can have the others."
The tiny woman considers it. "This is good. Give pizza!"
Kindred bends and flips the lid of the first box, laying it on the grass. As the lights descend he flips the second and puts that down as well. "Eat well."
I kneel down and lay our box in front of me. "What's your name?"
The little woman lands in front of me, on the pizza box lid. "Elidee."
Kindred comes to sit next to us. "A man came through, two weeks ago. I came and asked you about him."
"You did! You brought us pizza then."
"When he came through, was he carrying anything in his hands?"
Elidee considers it. "No."
"Did he have a bag, or anything other than his human clothes?"
Another period of thought, and then, "No."
"Have you seen him pass through again?"
"No, 'Za Master!"
Kindred groans. "Fuck. Thanks, Elidee. The pizza's yours."
I open the lid and remove two slices as Elidee attacks the rest of it. Kindred takes the greasy, cheesy mess from me, and we both eat in silence for a few minutes.
"So he got rid of it sooner," the Winter Emissary says after a while, wiping his fingers on the grass. "Where to start with that?"
"Last known location?" I suggest. "Summer's kill zone."
The Fae lights around the pizza box are enough to light his face, and I see him wrinkle his nose. "Great. A Winter Emissary tromping into Summer and asking to see the thing that pissed Titania off..."
"Otherwise it's starting here."
Kindred snarls. "Great. Well, that's going to be fun."
"Party first," I comment lightly, and see him relax. "Let's go mingle with some vampires."
Chapter 10: Back To The MGM
It's Eloise who greets us as we exit the lift at the MGM, her dark hair curled in a bun and her impressive cleavage firmly on display. Kindred's immediately riveted.
"My dear, I am glad you wanted to see us again," the White Court vampire says, smiling at me. "And you are prepared!"
I'm dressed in a black dress that shows off my slim figure and lace gloves up to my elbows. Kindred couldn't resist a few gropes in the taxi, despite my return pinches. "I try."
She holds out a hand to me, and I gingerly touch hers. Nothing. We both relax, and she turns. "Mr Kindred, if you will...this way."
We step out onto a balcony overlooking a large room. I can see booths and smaller sections further along the balcony, and downstairs is a long bar. Music's thumping from the other side of a wide archway, and the room's full of clusters of people.
"A drink, maybe?" Eloise asks.
Kindred's spotted someone that I think is Honey, and turns to me. "Going to be ok on your own, dollface?"
"Oh, she won't be on her own," Eloise puts in smoothly. "Go and enjoy yourself."
I turn to the vampire as Kindred prowls down the stairs, all lanky muscles. "Why are you interested?"
"I like a challenge, my dear." She smiles at me. "And, frankly, I'm bored of the insipid air-heads we get around here. To be able to talk to someone without the desire to feed is rather nice."
I smile back. "Well, how can I refuse an offer like that?"
We stay at the bar for a while, talking about politics, the latest musicians in both countries, and the worst foods. Kindred reappears when we're bitching about the Red Court with another White Court vampire, and I've just sent Eloise and Marty into fits of laughter.
"Enjoying yourself?" he asks, sliding a hand around my waist.
"Of course." I'm slightly drunk and enjoying it immensely. "You?"
"I'm off somewhere private for a bit." He smirks at me, and then bends to kiss my cheek - and whisper, "Guard up, dollface."
I smile as if he's just said something inconsequential. "Have fun!"
I see the reason for his paranoia when we're approached by a tall man with dyed black hair and a swagger to match any of Rick's. He's scanning the bar area, and as soon as his eyes light on our trio, he changes course towards us. "Eloise, my darling. And Martin..." His voice gets slightly colder for the male vampire, but then he's turned to me, and the charming smile is back in full force.
"Hello there," and he bends to kiss my hand. This time the power doesn't completely wash over me...I can feel the edge of it touch me, and the familiar lust sweeps in. But I can see the wariness in Eloise's eyes, the worry. "And you are?"
"Dini." I force the lust away. "You are?"
"Mr Raith, but you may call me Derek."
Ahhh, head of the Court here. This could cause problems if he won't back off sensibly...and I think he's assumed that Eloise and Marty have been softening me up for him. The assumption is confirmed when he slides an arm around my waist and smiles at Eloise. "So, my dear, shall we?"
I try to twist away. "That's not a good idea." But his arm is steel around my waist.
"Oh, a challenge?" He smiles at me, and I can see that this is not a man used to being crossed. He starts to pull me towards the stairs and Eloise follows, the worry still in her eyes. I can't see Kindred, and I don't think calling for help would do any good. Can I risk the Summer Court here? Would they even be able to come, if it's White Court territory? After a frantic few seconds, I walk with him to avoid being dragged, and hope that my ability to burn them works with anyone...
"Sir, she's protected," Eloise says. She sounds oddly meek, and I wonder if she's playing a game...or as scared as she sounds.
"There are ways to deal with that," Derek says, and starts up the stairs. "And the man she came in with?"
I'm not struggling; I wonder if he expects me to be.
"Is with Honey and a friend," Eloise says, still subdued. She's a step behind us.
"Fetch someone else, then...not one of our kin. The protection can be removed."
Fuck. They can remove it? That means I'm in trouble. But if I call for Summer Court help, can they enter here? Can I risk that much trouble with the Accords? I'm looking around frantically for Kindred, but Eloise has just hurried back down the stairs and I can't see him anywhere, even with the additional height. Will she help me by getting him? I doubt it.
I start to move my hands to try to slide my gloves off, but then something slams into my back and I'm gasping for breath. The White Court vampire has pushed me into the wall, and is now leaning down over me, his hands gripping one wrist. "Don't cross me."
I glare up at him. He's too far away to lunge for or headbutt - not that I really want him to think I'm trying to kiss him. "You'd chance Summer Court protection and severe burns?"
I see a flicker of worry at my mention of the Summer Court, but I spot Eloise out of the corner of my eye. She's coming back up the stairs with a man in tow; he looks human, and handsome, but also well-muscled. My stomach begins to knot itself. What do they want to do to me?
Derek smiles down at me. "Your protection's removeable, and you're not Fae. They won't object if you come back...happy."
"I'll object," I said acidly as he pulls away from me and starts to drag me along the balcony by one wrist. His grip is tight enough to make me worry about my bones breaking.
"Oh, you won't." He's still smiling. "You'll know complete pleasure."
"I've faced down Red Court vampires," I snap. "I think I can live without your machinations."
I'm dragged into one of the booths that line the upstairs balcony, half-hidden by a curtain. Derek sits down and drags me onto his lap, and then Eloise steps inside. Her eyes are fastened on me, and I can't read her expression - but whether she's guarding it from him or from me, I don't know. Derek's arms are still steel around my waist, pulling me to him.
"I'm tired of this," Derek says from behind me, letting my waist go. I try to get free, but he's already got my other wrist, and I'm abruptly jerked back to his lap. I can feel his erection against my leg, and wonder if screaming would make any difference. "Eloise, call him in."
The man is looming behind Eloise, and as she steps aside, he steps in; all curved muscles and perfect hair, and dead eyes behind a smile that says he's just happy to be of service.
It feels like a wave of cold; I realise what they want to do, and how I can't get my wrists free, and the room's too small and Eloise is blocking the entrance and the man's coming forward and I can't draw enough breath to scream and-
Don't touch me. Don't touch me. Don't touch me.
Fire explodes out of me.
I hear Derek Raith scream behind me, and the grip on my wrists is gone. The man in front of me is staggering back, crying out as flames engulf him. And Eloise is just standing there, bemused as the flames reach for her, so hungry...
No. Not her.
They're white-tipped, outlined in light, trying to grasp everything at once. The bracelet on my wrist is white-hot on my skin and I push myself up with a sob, away from the screaming man behind me, towards the woman who's still wreathed in the white-tipped flames...
The sprinklers come on with a bang and I'm suddenly drenched, the flames vanishing abruptly with the sudden shock of the water. My wrists ache, but I'm standing.
Eloise's silver eyes are staring behind me, and I turn. Derek is curled on the seat, a mess of blackened fabric and red-blistered flesh, whimpering in the sudden cold. He doesn't really look human, just a mass of hurt and pain.
"You need to go," Eloise whispers. Her clothes are singed, but that's it. "I have a deal to renegotiate."
I've seen the silver light in her eyes before, and I know the Hunger is rising. I stumble out, past the water-drenched and hungry woman, past the human man slumped against the seat with the same blistered and blackened flesh, out onto the balcony with my chest aching and every limb heavy.
The party hasn't been dampened at all by the sprinklers - everyone apparently took it as part of the fun, and the sound system's still working in the other room. There's other damp people piling out onto the balcony, but they all seem fairly happy despite being soaking wet. I guess alcohol and White Court lust is a good combination for a good time.
I catch sight of a soaking wet Kindred as he sprints up the stairs, and then he's striding along the balcony towards me. "Dini! What-"
I stumble into his arms. "Let's go. Please."
He glances into the booth and puts an arm around me, leading me away.
"She said she had a deal to renegotiate." We're in the taxi, and it's the first sentence I can manage. I'm feeling absolutely exhausted. "What did she mean?"
Kindred shrugs. "I'd guess it's something to do with power in the White Court, but I don't know. She was bending over him when we left. What happened?"
"They said it could be removed. Called in a man to rape me."
Kindred's arm tightens around me. "Did they-"
"No. I burned them." I look down at my wrist. "The bracelet burned them."
"Summer Court power, dollface. You'll owe Titania."
I'm too tired to worry about the implications. "Did you know...he'd try that?"
"I didn't think he'd be stupid enough to attack someone with protection," Kindred says bitterly. "Well, bang went my good night."
I shake my head. "I want to go and sleep, but you can go out again."
He pulls me close to him. "Nah, dollface. I'll stay with you."
"Starting to care, Winter boy?" My voice is fading as exhaustion sweeps over me.
"Not a chance, Summer girl," he murmurs into my wet hair. "Just protecting an investment, that's all."
The streetlights flicker past us, and then the taxi pulls into the Wyndham driveway and stops. Kindred hops out of the car and comes round to pull me out, then steers me inside. I hate being mortal some days.
"You've just done some pretty powerful magic," the Winter Emissary points out when I voice this as the lift doors slide shut. "You're going to be tired."
"Magic uses emotions?"
"Human magic does. Fae magic's a bit different."
"I was angry. And scared."
"That'd work, particularly for defence."
The conversation's getting me along the corridor. "But I can't do magic."
"I guess the bracelet uses Summer magic to trigger it, and then you just fed more into it. Anyone can use Fae magic."
His room's in front of us. I notice that there's still a stain from the ectoplasm goo in front of mine. "Huh. Interesting."
He unlocks the door and steers me inside. "What time's the flight?"
"Tomorrow evening. I figured we'd both be flat out from the party."
The man glances at the clock, and gives a hollow laugh. "Well, you put paid to that. It's only 3am."
"I can get the flight moved."
I look down at myself. I'm starting to get my strength back, although I'm still feeling tired and washed-out. "Why don't you sort some food out? I could use something more than one slice of pizza."
"Sure. I'll be back in a bit, ok? I'll let you know it's me." He grins at me, and heads out.
I find my phone and strip my wet dress and gloves off as I make the calls. Jack's assistant is around, and he promises to sort everything. True to his word, by the time I've dried myself off and pulled on dry clothes, he rings back with a new flight time in six hours. "Couldn't get anything sooner, I'm afraid. Do you need protection?"
I think of Kindred, and my bracelet. "No, we should be ok. Can you arrange a car to the airport?"
"Absolutely. I'll send it to the hotel for 7am."
"You're an angel, Pat."
"Aw, just doing what I'm good at, Miss Richardson. You have a nice flight, y'hear?"
I ring off and sit on the bed for a moment, just letting everything settle. The quiet is nice; just a moment to relax, and reflect.
There's a knock on the door a few minutes later, and I stumble over. It's Kindred's face that appears in the spyhole. "I still don't like trolls, dollface. Or paying to cross bridges." I smile, and open the door to let Kindred stroll in. "Food, dollface."
"Flight's at 9, car coming at 7."
"More time to waste, then."
"He couldn't get it sooner." I tear into the burger and chips that he's got. "Thanks, Kindred."
That gets a genuine smile out of him. "You're welcome." Then he looks at the food, and the bed. "Ah, fuck it." And he promptly strips out of his still-wet clothes.
I start laughing, and I can't stop. Sitting in a hotel room in Vegas with a bedraggled, naked man, when I'm in underwear and a t-shirt, eating burger and chips...
Kindred looks slightly offended, but keeps eating. Eventually I run out of energy and it turns into sobs. He lets me cry myself out, and then pushes the now-cold chips over. "Eat, dollface."
I manage a few more chips while he goes to get a shower. The next hour is packing and lying on the bed, just waiting for the car to come, waiting to leave. But eventually it does, and we're out into the light, the neon and nightlife fading under the new sun.
The flight's another small one, a charter with businessmen and a few seasoned travellers. We stand out, being fairly scruffy and - in Kindred's case - the tallest and most scarred man around, but after a short delay we're in the air.
And I relax.
"Well, that was a complete fuck-up," Kindred says grumpily from beside me.
"Yeah," I agree. "Although you do know the book never got there."
"Means I have to search somewhere else."
"Let me help?" That's Dragon's compulsion talking; I have to stay involved in his stupid search.
He eyes me, and then shrugs. "As a separate thing, sure. I know you'll pass the info onto her, though. I'm not stupid."
I shrug; it's all the choking pressure will let me do. Kindred smiles in a not-nice way. "Well, you're useful anyway, dollface. I'll contact you after I've seen Mab."
"She's not going to be happy, is she," I say quietly.
He shrugs. "I wonder how much of this she knew. She definitely knew Grey was in Vegas. And that I'd probably catch up with him."
"She wanted him to flatten you?"
"But she knew he wouldn't flatten you." Kindred flicks my nose. "I dunno, dollface. Mab's schemes are too complicated for me to follow. But I don't think she'll be too upset."
I lean back in the seat and make a face. "I'll trade you my conversation with Titania."
He grins. "Meet you in the Sir Dan to bitch about the Queens?"
"I'm in enough trouble already!"
I've got a message from Tony when I turn my phone on again as we walk into the departures in Bristol. From someone called Eloise; I owe you a debt. What the hell?
"Change of leadership in the White Court in Vegas?" I suggest to Kindred.
"Looks like it." He slept for a few hours on the flight, and it seems to have made him thoroughly grumpy. "You did a number on him. Where's the lift?"
Julian's waiting for us in arrivals. "Hop in. How did it go?"
"Fucking failure. Book's here and Grey got away," Kindred grumbles.
"It sounded like you upset quite a few people," Julian says. I know he's amused.
"That's my job," the Winter Emissary snarls, leaning back into the seat. "Fucking bloody vampires."
"And Dragons. And Fomor." I smile. "We did upset everyone."
"They upset me." Kindred's still grumpy. "It's their problem."
I wind my fingers through his. He apparently ignores me, although he does leave his hand in my grasp, and dozes off. I watch the greenery through the window, marvelling with tired eyes at the speed in which we go from the desert to this lush, green land...
Swindon's concrete and traffic. I have to nudge Kindred awake as Julian pulls off the ring road. "Where to?"
He rubs his eyes. "Old Town. Are you still in for helping trace this sodding book, dollface?"
"Fuck it, I'm interested." I can't help it; I am personally interested as well as having Dragon's compulsion in my head. I need to get someone to look at that. "You need a guide to get to the Summer Court, and I've got contacts here. Who do you think it was sold to?"
He shrugs. "No fucking clue. Let's find where he left the NeverNever and go from there?"
"All right. I'll have to ask Titania, though."
"I need to update Mab first. How about I come back to you tomorrow? You need to get over the jet lag, anyway."
"You need to decide on your payment for this trip, dollface." He's looking at me with his periwinkle-blue eyes, a frozen stare. "You helped me."
"Nothing." I'm tired; a bone-deep weariness that seems to be settling into my core. "You don't have anything I want."
But my word seems to physically pain him. "Dini...please. I have to give you something."
"All right." The car slows and pulls to a halt outside the elegant building that houses the Winter Court. "One Name."
He meets my eyes for a second, and then winds a hand around the back of my neck, pulling me in. His lips touch my ear, and he murmurs, "Kindred."
I smile as he draws back. "Thanks, Winter boy."
He runs a thumb down my cheek, and then slings his bag up and opens the door, sliding out of the car. "Be seein' ya, dollface."
I watch as he gets smaller in the rear-view mirror, and then sigh. "Home, please, Julian."
I have no idea what time I think it is, but I'm tired. I unlock the door to my house and hear Julian pull away as I shut it behind me, Mica and Davido dancing around me. I drop my bag, climb the stairs, and then my bed's there and it's a blissful silence.
It's not over...