When Nathan was sent to Earth to find a renegade mage, a redheaded queen was sitting on England's throne. The Spaniards had just founded the first European settlement in North America at St. Augustine, and William Shakespeare hadn't yet set foot on a London stage. In Italy, a young man named Galileo Galilei was disappointing his father by studying pendulums and other nonsense instead of medicine. And the Purge was just beginning.
For thirty-two years, Nathan had tracked the mage. When he finished his hunt, both Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth were dead; Jamestown had been established; and the Purge was over, with thousands of Gifted dead at the hands of the Inquisition, their governments, or their own neighbors. And Nathan had been stranded, cut off from all he knew, even from his proper shape.
"Ilke had violated many laws, committed many sins," Nathan said, "but the queens don't intervene in lesser matters. But he crossed one line too many when he practiced death magic."
Kai lay against Nathan's chest, listening to his heartbeat as well as his voice. His arms were around her; his colors swam with hers. In front of them the mage light burned steadily like a heatless campfire. "Death magic, huh? He' must have been a major bad guy."
She heard a smile in his voice. "Hellhounds aren't set on the trail of jaywalkers. You are... okay with this? That my purpose was to hunt and kill those who broke the queens' laws?"
"I'm okay with policemen and soldiers. Your role was something like theirs."
He fell silent, toying absently with the ends of her hair in a way she found most distracting. Not that she wanted him to stop. Finally he said, "I haven't killed only at my queen's command. When I was stranded here... an able-bodied man can't simply decide to never again use his hands and arms. Common sense and instinct will defeat him. That's how it is for a hound and the hunt. I couldn't simply decide not to hunt, but it was hard, very hard, to learn how to choose my own hunts. The queen never loosed me lightly, so I tried to choose as she might have, but at first I didn't understand human society. Death isn't always a solution. Even when the prey is causing obvious harm, killing can spread ill instead of containing it."
"Have you... here in Midland, I mean. Have you hunted here?"
"Not a true hunt. Not to the death, except for the ghoul. I've learned to take satisfaction in lesser hunts, though. I couldn't be a law officer otherwise."
"Ghoul? You mean there was – No, never mind." She set that aside for another time. "I'm having trouble getting my mind around this. I know you, know your colors, the shapes of your thoughts. I've never known anyone with less anger. You aren't a violent man."
"Anger is too big a response for most things. It gets in the way. You haven't seen me on a true hunt. I am violent then, Kai."
He wasn't apologizing. He was stating a fact.
She didn't say anything for several minutes. She wasn't sure how she felt. Nathan killed according to rules she didn't know, but he'd spent years – lifetimes, maybe, by her way of measuring – evolving those rules. He didn't just come from a different culture, but from a different species.
Was she bothered by the violence in him, or did she just think she ought to be? His arms still felt right around her; his heartbeat still soothed her. She didn't understand, no, but maybe – right this moment – she didn't have to. "It took you years to understand how to choose your hunts," she said at last. "It may take me awhile to understand, but I hope it won't be years."
His voice was soft. "You don't regret our bond."
"No. I don't regret it." Though she wished she knew what it meant to him. Kai shifted so she could look at him. "How did this mage – Ilke, you called him. How did Ilke end up here?"
"He knew his crimes had been uncovered to the two queens and fled. Because he was part sidhe and strengthened by death magic, he was able to leave Faerie entirely, hoping my queen would not set me on his trail once he was beyond her territory. Only a hellhound could track him, you see."
"Sometimes you say queen singular, sometimes queens, plural. Which is it?"
"I told you that a few High Sidhe take an interest in governing. The Summer Queen and the Winter Queen are... eh, you don't have the right words. Call them the High Lords of the thirteen realms. They don't operate a government, a bureaucracy, such as you're used to, but each queen has her court, her dominion. Each steps in when she sees a need."
"Do they rule together?"
"Not precisely. Their dominions overlap at times. When this happens they discuss the matter and decide which of them will act. For them to act together... that hasn't happened in my lifetime."
And how long was that? She decided not to ask. Not yet. "But you speak of 'my queen.' Singular."
"Hellhounds are the Huntsman's to command, and so I was, at first. But the Huntsman is brother to Winter and lover to Summer... I saw both queens often, and one day I knew I must go with zan Al'aran. With the Winter Queen." A hint of longing underlay the words. "So I became hers, and she became mine. It's hard, being queen. Harder for Winter than Summer, because who doesn't love Summer? She'll have been lonely without me."
Kai felt like squirming. It was pointless to be jealous of an immortal – and no doubt supernally beautiful – elfin queen. But she was. Oh, she was. She tried to take the high road. "I imagine she was upset when the realms shifted and you couldn't return."
"The realms didn't shift then. That happened centuries ago, after the Great War. After that your realm was hard to reach, requiring great power. The magic here wasn't replenished, so by the time I arrived there was little left." He sighed. "The hunt took too long. Over the years my own power lessened because there was less for me to draw on, to absorb. By the time I killed Ilke, I couldn't go home."
"Couldn't your queen have brought you back? If she's so powerful – "
"It doesn't work that way. Hellhounds travel between realms without a gate. It's inborn, that skill, and common to many of the wild sidhe. But to bring someone to you from another realm, you must open a gate. After the Great War, the Old Ones forbade opening gates to Earth."
He nodded. "Strange beings, on the whole. I think they're like unicorns."
"I'm getting seriously dizzy here."
"Unicorns have that effect on me, too."
Kai found herself smiling. Unicorns, Old Ones, elfin queens, renegade mages... it all sounded fantastic, even absurd. She accepted that these things were true because Nathan said so, and he didn't lie. But the reality she understood was the warmth of his hand, the chill of the winter air, and the slow, sad song of the wind outside.
Also a steadily glowing mage light. "Did you know you'd be stranded?" she asked quietly. "When your queen set you to track Ilke, did you know you wouldn't be able to return?"
"I knew it was possible, yet I didn't. Not really." His thoughts, usually slow, turned busy – silvery minnows struggling to find a fit as he hunted words. "Hellhounds are sentients, but our brains shape our thoughts, and hellhound brains are not human. What I knew as a hound was different from what I can know as a man. Lesser in some ways, greater in others. I knew I could be trapped here, but that was so apart from my reality that it had no meaning until it happened."
She nodded. "Like unicorns. You tell me they're real and I believe you, but I can't grasp it."
He found one of his smiles, this one holding equal parts sweet and sad. "Yes. The queen told me I could be lost here and I accepted that it was true, but didn't grasp that truth."
"But she sent you. She sent you anyway."
"She's queen." His smile turned gentle, as if Kai had said something mildly foolish. "And she's immortal. A few hundred years isn't long to her. She'd expect me to understand and accept the necessity, and she'd be right. Ilke couldn't be allowed to live. With death magic empowering him and none here able to oppose him, he could have done terrible harm to your world. And those in the thirteen realms needed to know he'd be found and punished."
"How would they know? You didn't find him until years after the Earth was closed to them."
His eyebrows lifted. "The Winter Queen announced she'd set her hound on his trail. Those of Faerie wouldn't need to be present at the kill to know it happened."
A touch of arrogance there. No, more than a touch. "Are you unstoppable, then?"
"Short of death, yes, and hellhounds are difficult to kill. There are few who can manage it."
"A part-sidhe mage pumped up on death magic wouldn't be one of those few."
His gray eyes warmed with amusement. "As you see, he was not."
"Good point." To her surprise, a yawn overtook her. "Wow. Didn't think I could relax enough to be sleepy, but I am. I don't suppose you've got a toothbrush in one of those sacks?"
"Of course." He stretched out a hand and retrieved one of the grocery bags. "Breakfast is in the other bag – fruit, bread, and peanut butter. I didn't get anything for coffee or tea, I'm afraid."
"I'll tough it out." She dug through the sack he'd handed her. Soap, a washcloth and towel, sunscreen, paper plates and cups, deodorant, tampons – tampons! Her usual brand, too, which she assumed he'd seen in her bathroom at some point. She shook her head, smiling. She didn't need them at the moment, but if she was as punctual as usual, she'd want them in another two days.
How many men would have even thought of tampons?
There was also antibacterial ointment, toothbrushes, toothpaste, contact lens solution, and a roll of toilet paper. She took it out, frowning. "With that water you brought I can brush my teeth over the sink in the kitchen, but I'm not using this bathroom."
"You'll want to go outside. I need to set the wards to let you pass anyway, so we'll do that. But first I need to check the area." He stood.
While Nathan scouted around outside, Kai thought about those mysterious wards. Once he'd determined that the area was safe, he had her stand in the doorway with her hands outstretched while he loped around the house again. That was to somehow mix her energy with his so she could pass through his wards.
When he was done she went out and took care of necessities in the concealing darkness. She came back in and brushed her teeth and washed her face in the kitchen using the bottled water as sparingly as she could – with a tiny bubble of mage light posted to her shoulder. And she thought about Nathan.
To protect her, he'd tossed aside everything. From what she could tell, he hadn't felt an instant of doubt or regret for that decision. She knew the colors of those emotions, the way they muddied thoughts. Nathan's colors remained as clear and true as ever.
The hunt, he'd said, was part of him the way her hands were part of her. She suspected he needed the kill at its end, too, at least sometimes. He'd learned to do without that, but when he spoke of a true hunt, he meant to the death.
He was a killer.
He was the most honest person she'd ever met. He was rare, kind, practical, sometimes too serious, and... and innocent. It was an odd word to use for someone hundreds of years old and experienced in ways she couldn't even guess at, but it fit. There was no taint to Nathan.
He'd bought her tampons. Somehow that summed everything up for her.
When Kai finished washing and brushing and went back to the living room, he'd unrolled the sleeping bags. They lay primly side by side in the middle of the room. She paused. "I smell smoke."
"I disposed of the papers and such from supper. Best not to tempt the mice."
She couldn't agree more. Kai walked up to him and put her hand on his chest. His heart beat slow and steady, but his eyebrows lifted in surprise and his colors warmed. He looked at her, waiting.
"You should have put our sleeping bags together."
"I don't expect to sleep. Are you cold? I can warm the air in here, but it will take power I'd rather save for greater need."
She shook her head. "I'm not talking about sleeping, Nathan."
"Kai – "
"You didn't turn me down because you couldn't risk the distraction. Your wards will tell you if anything comes close enough to be a threat. If you have another reason for not making love with me now, tell me what it is."
For a long moment he said nothing, but his thoughts sped up and a rosy hue brightened the purple they swam in. And his heart beat faster. "You're right," he said at last. "I'm afraid. I hadn't realized that."
"Okay." She nodded. "Good. So am I." And she reached for his head and put her hands behind it, went up on tiptoe, and kissed him.
His lips were warm and, for two difficult seconds, completely still. Then he quivered. And exploded.
His arms took over, binding her tightly to him. He wanted his mouth everywhere, not just on hers. He kissed her chin, the crest of her cheek, and licked her ear, then kissed her eyes closed and ran the tip of his tongue along the base of the lashes. Then returned to her mouth. "Beautiful, beautiful," he crooned, his breath soft and warm against her lips. "So beautiful."
It was true. Nathan never lied. Under the glory of his hands coursing her back, her arms, her hips, with his mouth making magic on her skin, she was beautiful. She tried to tell him the same with her mouth and hands – that he was splendid, glorious, and hers. Hers. In this moment, if only for this moment, he was hers.
"A moment," he said, tearing his mouth away to lean his forehead against hers. His breath came fast. "It's been so long... I need a moment, or my control – "
"Nathan." She cupped his face in her two hands. "Will you hurt me? If you turn loose of your bloody control, is there any chance you would hurt me?"
His eyes were so dark, the pupils dilated. So intent. He shook his head once, his eyes never losing their focus on her. "But it's been so long. I don't... expectations are different than they used to be. I want to do right by you."
Her breath huffed out. "You don't have to do this right. There is no right way because there is no wrong way, not between us. Do you understand? You can't do this wrong."
"Oh." He blinked. "Oh!" And he laughed, delighted, and the sound of it was young and beautiful. Beautiful. "I see. Of course. You're wise, Kai. My Kai." The possessive came out fierce, startling her for an instant – just long enough for him to sweep her into his arms.
He laid her on one of the sleeping bags and crouched over her on hands and knees, tugging off her jacket, then her shirt – a stretchy knit, which was good, because he was not patient with the fabric. And kissing her, kissing whatever part of her his mouth happened to be near as he stripped her.
She was hard put to keep up, but she managed to get his shirt off and his pants unzipped before he yanked her jeans off. And her panties. And her bra. He moved her hands aside and finished stripping himself with the same ruthless efficiency he'd used on her. Her eyes widened briefly as he removed the sheath on his leg – a sheath and a knife she hadn't known was there.
Then he lay down beside her and held her, just held her, pressing skin to skin, touching her hair, her breasts, and whispering to her – English words like "soft" and "beautiful." Words in other languages – French, Spanish, what might be Russian. Words in tongues she'd never heard or heard of.
Her name sounded the same in all of them.
Her hands acquainted themselves with him, too – sandpaper skin on his cheeks, where his beard was growing. Softer skin on his flanks and bottom, coarse hair on thighs tight with muscle. The fascinating flex of muscles in his back and shoulders as he stroked her.
Need pooled in her belly. When his lips closed over her nipple, the liquid tugging turned her as hasty as a kid waking up on Christmas morning. "Now," she said, and, "Oh, yes," as he played with her. "Oh, lovely. Yes. But now, Nathan." She wrapped her hand around him, hard and twitching, and he trembled.
But he wasn't finished. He told her so, and he found more places to touch, turning her on her side, lifting her leg, exploring her until she trembled and clutched him and panted. Before panting turned to cursing – barely before – steady, imperturbable Nathan suddenly shook all over. He flipped her onto her back and centered himself over her and drove home.
With his second stroke, she exploded. On the third, he did, too.
Eons later they lay in the crumpled dark with breaths and legs tangled together, the one still quick, the other limp. Kai found enough wind to say, "I always thought that was an old wives' tale. And I didn't do it myself, either."
"What?" He stroked her hair.
"I've gone blind."
He choked on a laugh. "No, but the mage light... you were right, but so was I. Normally keeping it going is automatic, but I was distracted for a few moments there at the end. Extremely distracted."
The light bounced back into being, but muted now, no more than a candle glow hovering over his shoulder. She could see him smiling at her, and that was good. He'd invented a truly lovely smile this time.
But she'd already known he was happy. His colors were so bright. She smiled back, loving him.
"Sleep." He touched her cheek and sat up.
"Wait. Where are you going?"
"Nowhere." He reached for his pants. "But I need to stay alert, and I won't if I lie beside you."
"I'm not..." But a yawn caught her, making a lie of what she'd been about to say, so she finished wryly,"... not going to argue, I guess. But you'll need to sleep, too."
"I like sleep, but I can do without it, especially on a hunt. One sleepless night is easy enough for me."
There was some shifting necessary so she could zip the sleeping bag up around her. Somehow she hadn't noticed the chill earlier, but she did now. He strapped that sheath with its lethal contents back on his calf and pulled on slacks and shirt, but didn't seem bothered by the cold. Then he settled beside her and took her hand.
The mage light winked out. "Do you mind?" he asked softly. "It's best if I let my eyes accustom themselves to the moonlight."
What moonlight? The air might have turned to ink, it was so black. But she was too exhausted to care, and she had Nathan's hand. Or maybe he had hers, and she pondered that and what difference, if any, it made as sleep drew her down, down, its raven feathers brushing her mind into stillness.