Nathan lay on his stomach on Kai's couch, waiting for her to return with whatever medical supplies she thought she needed. He heard her muttering to herself as she rummaged in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom.
He'd already selected the knife – a short, sharp paring knife from her kitchen, part of a set he'd given her last Winterfaire.
Not Winterfaire. Christmas. That's what they called the celebration of the winter solstice here. Even after all these years, in the privacy of his mind he sometimes forgot to name things in the common way.
She'd given him a present, too – a suede shirt the color of sand, soft as a mare's nose. He was glad he hadn't worn it tonight... but that was silly thinking. He wanted to keep it for as long as possible, so he seldom wore it. Certainly not for a hunt, even such a limited one as tonight's had been.
Kai had laughed when she opened his gift and said something about the difference between men's presents and women's. She did see him as a man. Sometimes he wanted to ask her why. Was it only his shape that made her think of him that way? Or were his thoughts man-shaped in some ways?
That could be. He'd been here a long time. Perhaps he wasn't as far from human as he sometimes felt.
Feelings spiked in him at the thought. Complicated feelings. Humans dwelled within their complications so consistently, even as they squirmed and disavowed and tried to make the world simple by thinking it so. Nathan had never grown accustomed to human complexities, even – especially – when he experienced them. This wash of huge, contradictory feelings made him want to weep.
Instead he paid attention to the texture of the blanket beneath him, the rhythm of his breath, and the hot pain in his shoulder.
Tonight's shirt was ruined, but it was only cloth, not a gift. She'd helped him remove it. At his suggestion, she'd placed a blanket on the couch to keep it dry, since he hadn't taken off his wet jeans. He'd have been more comfortable without them, but that would have sent a sexual signal.
The blanket would also absorb blood, and there would be some. He could limit bleeding, but he couldn't stop it entirely without prematurely sealing the wound.
The first bright shock of pain from the bullet's entry had long since subsided to a crimson haze, unpleasant but manageable. Controlling pain did not mean setting up some magical shield to deny it, but going into it, accepting it fully. Just as his muscles would accept the knife's message when it sliced into him.
Harder, much harder, was making himself vulnerable to that knife. But Kai would be wielding it, so that was all right.
He lay quietly, waiting, bemused at himself. How odd that he'd come here. It had been instinct, of course. He'd been hurt, in need of help. He'd come to his friend.
His friend. Nathan basked in the wonder of that. He'd known he liked Kai, that he felt good around her, but hadn't realized... gods. He'd just found her. A year ago he would have felt nothing but joy at the finding. Now...
"Okay, I've got gauze and antibiotic ointment and peroxide," Kai said. Her footsteps, soft as they were on the carpet, were audible to him as she approached. "And I found my tweezers. I sterilized them with the peroxide, but I should probably boil them and the knife."
"Not necessary. I'm not susceptible to bacteria or viruses."
"Oh." She took a deep breath. "I'll still clean the area around the wound. It will make me feel better, and I need to get the dried blood off so I can see what I'm doing."
"All right." He slowed his breathing further, closing his eyes. The couch smelled musty; she gave off the fresh, bright scent of a healthy young woman, plus the subtle mix that said Kai to him.
He couldn't go under all the way. Her scent might be enough to keep him from interpreting the knife as an attack, but he wouldn't risk it. Besides, he needed to guide her.
"Where were you that you weren't supposed to be?"
The peroxide was cool and wet. Her touch was firm enough to do the job without being rough. It hurt, but he liked having her touch him. He wished she could do it more often. "At the morgue."
"Are you going to make me pull your story out question by question?"
He smiled at the image of her extracting answers with her tweezers. "I'd prefer to discuss it after the bullet's out."
Another deep breath. "I guess I'm trying to delay."
"Are your hands shaking?"
A pause. "No." She sounded surprised.
"You know how to cause pain when it's needed for healing." They'd talked about that, about how she'd had to learn to allow, even encourage, others to hurt in order to help them reclaim their bodies.
"Yes. Yes, I do. All right. Let's do it."
"You see the entry."
"Yes. It, ah, it's scabbed over and looks about three days old, but I see it."
"Good. The bullet's path was slightly up and to the left, leaving it wedged just beneath the edge of the shoulder blade. I've delayed the internal healing enough that I think you'll be able to see its path. Make a vertical cut, starting about two inches above the entry hole and extending an inch below to give you room to work. There will be some bleeding. I can't prevent that entirely without sealing up around the knife."
The next several minutes went about as he'd expected. Nathan didn't like pain, but it was a familiar enemy. He only tensed once, when her knife skidded across the bullet, sending it deeper.
Otherwise she did well. Kai wasn't trained in this sort of thing, but she understood the basic layout of the body. Her hand remained steady and she followed his directions meticulously. Still, by the time she finished it was a relief to relinquish control and let his body heal. He lay there and panted, exhausted.
She seemed to be doing the same, sitting back on her heels with her eyes closed and her face pale. After a moment she spoke. "It's closing up."
Her voice sounded odd. Spooked, maybe. He couldn't think of what he was supposed to say – agreeing that the wound was, indeed, closing seemed pointless. Perhaps she wanted to know what to expect. "The visible part of the wound heals first, to seal it. Since no vital organs were affected and I'm not in combat, the rest will heal more slowly."
"Several hours, probably."
"If you were in combat, it would heal faster?"
"Do you control the healing?"
"No." He reconsidered. That wasn't entirely accurate. "I can, to some extent. I slowed it on the way here, but it's difficult. Tiring."
"Your body prioritizes for you." A thread of humor lightened her voice.
She wasn't too spooked, then. Relieved, he made the effort to sit up. The pain was much less now. "Yes. A good way to put it. May I see the bullet?"
Her eyebrows lifted. "Ghoulish interest, or a souvenir?" She handed him the clump of bloody gauze where she'd dropped the slug.
"I haven't been shot in a long time, and ammunition has changed. It could be useful to know what kind of damage to expect from today's weapons."
"If you're well enough to sit up and examine your bullet, you're well enough to explain why a cop shot you in the back."
"He couldn't shoot me from the front. I was running away." He inspected the smashed lump. Hollow point, as he'd expected. That was standard police-issue and what he used himself. Good stopping power, and less likely to pass through the target and harm a nearby civilian or hostage. Probably a lightweight .38, he decided. Some of the older officers clung to their .38s.
"The officer will be disciplined, I imagine." He lifted his hip so he could slip the slug in his pocket. "He was too hasty in using his weapon. Chief Roberts thinks within narrow channels, but he's correct within his limits."
She huffed out a breath. "That is not an explanation."
He felt a smile start. Kai was angry. If he told her she was pretty when temper brought that flush to her skin, she might pick up the knife again. But she was.
Her Gift was linked to water, and she wore its colors often. The soft flannel she wore tonight was a pale green that made him think of one of the many bright pools in the Summer Lady's land. Her throat rose from the neck of her pajamas, a strong and beautiful pillar the color of warm, wet sand. She would smell so good right there, in the hollow between neck and collarbone.
He took a moment to rein in his body, but the smile lingered inside. "I've been searching for the killer."
"I know that. I don't know why you were at the morgue. Or why you were shot for being there."
"I wanted to see the bodies of the two who were slain. I didn't have permission." The two victims had been killed within city limits, so the city police were handling the investigation. Chief Roberts didn't play well with others, particularly those in the sheriff's office. "I hoped to pick up a... a scent. Traces left by the killer."
"Are you a – a werewolf? A lupus, I mean."
"Eh." The question startled him. Kai had always been careful not to pry, not to ask too many direct questions. But she was his friend. He knew her secret; he could give her more of his. "No," he said, then decided that wasn't enough. "This is the only realm with lupi. They're native to it. I'm not."
She nodded solemnly.
His muscles loosened in relief. She didn't fear him, wasn't upset – and she didn't go on to ask the obvious questions, the ones he wasn't sure he could answer. "I said I wanted to find the killer's scent. I meant the physical scent, but I... there's more, for me. I pick up other traces, psychic traces, but sensually, as a smell. Like you receive thoughts visually."
"Oh." She cocked her head. "I like that. It makes me feel less of a freak to know your talent works a bit like mine."
"You are not a freak."
She tapped her head. "This knows that." She touched her chest. "This doesn't. Did you get a scent from the bodies?"
He grimaced. "I never reached the bodies. The police have them under guard."
"I guess the morgue usually has someone there. An attendant."
"I allowed for that," he said dryly. He'd been sloppy, but not that sloppy. "I didn't expect officers to be stationed at the bodies." He could have killed or disarmed them, of course, but one action would have been immoral, the other stupid. He shook his head. "I don't understand why they were there. Chief Roberts is narrow, not stupid. He must have some reason to guard the bodies, but I can't come up with one."
"He may be thinking of vampires. A lot of people are right now. The bodies were drained of blood, right? So he might have posted people to watch and make sure they don't – well, rise or something."
Nathan snorted. "If he's trying to find a vampire, he's wasting his time. They don't exist. Not the way they're depicted in fiction."
"But... they do exist?"
"Blood-drinkers are real, but not native to this realm. Most of them aren't intelligent, and none of them reproduce by endowing their victims with the ability to rise from the dead."
She grinned. "Or go around seducing young virgins?"
They'd watched Interview With the Vampire together last Halloween. Funny show. He'd chuckled at what she claimed were all the wrong places. "Exactly."
"So you think it's a human who killed those people?"
"Unlikely. A deranged or evil human might drink blood, but he or she couldn't suck out the entire ten pints in the average body. Nor is it easy to drain a body completely in other ways, and the victims were apparently exsanguinated in the same places the bodies were found."
"Then it's an animal of some sort. Something that came in on the power wind."
"Probably." He considered his words for a moment. "By 'animal' I don't just mean inhuman. I mean a species incapable of complex communication."
"Communication? You think that's the dividing line between animal and, uh... I guess I can't say human, but I'm not sure how to put it."
"Sentient is the closest word in English."
"Okay, then. I would have thought the level of sentience depended on intelligence, the ability to reason."
"Reason can be denned in different ways, and intelligence is a slippery scale to apply. Is a severely retarded man a beast?"
She grimaced. "You make your point."
"Sophisticated communication which conveys concepts rather than just 'danger' or 'food' is essential because without it, intelligence and moral reasoning don't develop. A potentially intelligent being that is unable to communicate effectively never develops its potential. Take cats, for example."
"Cats are potentially sentient, but only those who live closely with other sentients develop fully because they lack the stimulus of clear communication. Not all cats develop a high level of sentience," he added. "But some do. The ones with good telepathic skills."
"Cats." Her voice and expression were blank. Then a smile spread across her face like the early colors of dawn. She shook her head, rueful, smiling. "I think I'm weirded out. Also wiped," she said, rising. "And so are you. Do you want to stay here for what's left of the night?"
"That would be good." Healing drained him. Delaying the healing drained him more. "Did you see that in my colors?" he asked, suddenly curious. "That I need rest?"
"Not the colors so much as the way they're behaving. Droopy and sluggish."
He nodded. That made sense – his thoughts felt sluggish. "Thank you. For the offer of your couch, and for helping."
"You're welcome. I'll get you a pillow and a cover." A yawn caught her, and she stretched.
Long-buried feelings stirred inside him. He had to be stern with his body in order to quiet it before she noticed. "A sheet would be welcome. I don't need a blanket. Is it all right if I remove my jeans? They're wet."
"Sure." Her smile came a shade too quickly, a tint too bright. "I'll get you that sheet."
He didn't remove his pants yet. He'd do that after she was in bed. Kai couldn't regulate her body the way he did, nor could she hide her response from him. He couldn't hide his response from her, either, for that matter – she'd see it in his colors if he allowed himself to become aroused. So he hadn't. He didn't want to raise expectations. But he allowed himself the rare indulgence of enjoying the way her body moved beneath her loose pajamas as she left the room. Maybe...
He wouldn't rush things. But he knew her now for a friend, so... maybe.