Jaffa Volkovitch knew many things. Prayers and curses in antique Yiddish. How to pick the latest fingerprint-coded locks. The phone number of a busty lesbian dominatrix who hosted tasteful orgies out of her Brooklyn apartment.
She also knew that young immortals still aged, up until nineteen or thereabouts. But she had never really considered that people still aged at long distance.
For instance, she’d known Rihannon for a decade, and Rihannon sent her secure letters by messenger blue jay. Most fairies liked bluebirds or sparrows, but Rihannon was always writing long letters and enclosing things: pressed flowers, fabric swatches, ticket stubs. Over the decade of their friendship, her childish tiptilted scrawl had straightened into something that passed for penmanship. She’d gone from wishing for a puppy to walking dogs after gym class to studying dog grooming at vocational school.
But when Jaffa pictured Rihannon, her mental image never changed. A preteen girl in overalls, with dandelions woven into her messy brown braids.
On her third day camping in the Target parking lot, the blue jay landed on her rearview mirror, clutching a single scrap of paper in its beak.
As her seat shifted to an upright position, she blinked at the bird. Too lazy to reach for the controls, she rolled down the window with her toes. “What the fuck do you want?”
The bird squawked at her and poked her hand.
“All right, all right,” Jaffa muttered. She unfolded the paper.
Three words, in shaky glitter pen: I’M COMING. HELP.
It was evening, and she’d just awoken. Her head still pounded from last night’s hangover. Her mouth tasted like shit. But the only things in her mind were denim and dandelions. She hoped like hell the girl who wore them still survived.
It had always been easy for Rihannon to lose her grasp on human paraphernalia–concepts like time, numbers, entropy. When she was nervous they skittered away from her like tiny silver fish in a sun-dappled stream. No, like shrapnel after an explosion. Which makes me the walking wounded at the heart of the blast.
The streets around here had so many numbers. I’m a faerie mage, she wanted to tell every sign, not some sort of mortal scientist! She’d had to backtrack three–no, four times. And the overwhelming fear crowding around her like smog didn’t help.
The dead, wilted roses in the graffiti-covered planter raised their pink-curled heads in a sudden flourish of vivid life as she hurried past. The unlit sign above the nail salon sparked into full illumination. This injured city was pulling at her, drinking her life-giving power, and it thrilled her to give.
Except I carry power the way a nuclear reactor carries energy. I’m the most precious commodity on the black market. And unlike a nuclear reactor, I don’t have security protocols–I don’t have guards.
Just me, in the unwashed clothes I scrounged up from my bedroom floor yesterday morning like the responsible mortal adult I am.
The Copa was playing on a large TV over the bar, a blurry electronic crowd shouting about penalty kicks. She knew Jaffa came here to drink shots of cheap human alcohol and occasionally meet with contacts, that she’d be here tonight. But where was she?
She ordered a glass of red wine; when it came, she sipped it cautiously, trying not to wince at the bitter taste.
A white man in a polo shirt sidled up to her. He put his hand on hers.
Look unconcerned, she told herself. Odds are he’s just some guy–just some human guy from Rutgers on a Thirsty Thursday out…
“You’re going to leave with me,” he murmured.
Shove off, she would say. I’m waiting for my boyfriend. But by some alcohol-slurred alchemy, her intentions weren’t realized. She blinked up at him, feeling sleepy; smoke played around the edges of her vision, and colors shifted in and out of unsaturated dimensions. His hand on her lower back seemed to stretch–were those claws scratching at her shoulder blades? “Uh-huh,” she heard herself mumble. He helped her to her feet.
Someone save me, she wanted to scream. The words only came out as slurred little whines. She concentrated, bringing her magic to bear on the fog in her thoughts.
“You want to know what I put in your drink? As soon as I get you to my car, none of that will matter. I’ll make one hell of a profit turning you over to the Zagan Syndicate.”
The Zagan Syndicate. Allies of the winter fae and the bone demons. They’d spent years sending people to look for her. Even though they didn’t know where she was, they could still ruin her life. He herded her out the door and into the dark parking lot behind the building. She managed to plant her feet.
“Come on, sugar girl,” he said–like a boyfriend trying to get his girlfriend to forgive him after a fight, as if he wasn’t planning to profit from her death. “Let’s just get in the car, yeah?” His hand tightened on her shoulder, dangerously strong.
“Hey.” Sound spilled into the cold night as the door swung open; a tall, dangerous figure stood in that circle of illumination. “I don’t think that girl wants to leave with you.” She shifted forward, a predator’s walk.
Even drugged and half-dazed, Rihannon still had to catch her breath. She’d remembered Jaffa as being utterly mesmerizing. Childhood recollection hadn’t done her justice.
She’d mentioned her age once–early thirties. By human terms, that was middle aged; to shifters, Faeries, vampires, and their kindred, who could live to be four hundred years old, they were both barely legal.
A figure-hugging black tank top showed dangerous cleavage; her jeans left nothing to the imagination but whispered even more fantasies from the way denim poured over her long, well-muscled legs. She wore an old leather jacket like battered armor, and the streetlight showed every scratch.
The vampire scoffed. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m the dumbass with nothing better to do than take you down.” Her mouth twisted, and fuck-you Crimson lipstick accented that wicked smirk, dark curls as glossy as a blackbird’s wings brushing against her shoulders. “But you can call me Jaffa… ring any bells?”
“Dammit,” he growled. “They said you were dead.”
“Funny how rumors spread.”
They lunged at each other and began to fight, bloodsucker speed and agility against pure bestial instinct and strength. It was almost too quick and intense for the human eye to follow. But suddenly Jaffa stumbled, and the vampire took the advantage, grabbing her by the throat.
The drug had worn off, and Rihannon sprinted forward. “Get away from her, you jerk face!” She swung her backpack at his head, and her full water bottle banged his skull. It took him an instant to process the pain. In that moment, Jaffa stabbed him. A wound through the chest would slow any immortal down for at least a week.
Her hand came down on Rihannon’s shoulder. “Hey. Kid.”
Rihannon blinked up at her. “You knew I was in there?”
“I have a decent memory for scents and faces… and I could hardly forget yours. You all right?”
“I’m a little shaken up, but nothing that won’t heal. Do you still have that motorcycle? We need to get out before this creep’s backup arrives.”
“My baby girl’s been in the shop these past few weeks. We’d travel faster on her, but right now–we’ll just have to make do.” She gestured to a nearby beat-up car. The movement made her wince, and Rihannon noticed.
“Oh, no. Are you badly injured?”
“Just a scratch. Come on. You want to take the wheel while I bandage these up?”
“Umm… I’m kind of a shit driver.”
“You’re, what, twenty in human years? Must’ve had plenty of practice.”
“It’s not safe for me to drive when I’m in fae mode. I keep thinking about the caterpillars chewing through their cocoons in the oak trees and the dandelions blossoming at the side of the highway. It’s only my magic that lets me avoid crashes.”
“Note taken. I’ll get us onto the highway, then–we shouldn’t be seeing any cars once we’re far enough from civilization.”
Jaffa lived out of her car. It wasn’t as if she didn’t have the money to own homes. She just liked being able to move wherever the job took her… or flee when she felt the Zagan Syndicate nearby. The tradeoff was that her car was a fucking mess. She shoved some of the magazines with article titles like BEAUTIES OF THE NEGEV DESERT and ISRAEL’S HOTTEST QUEER WOMEN into the glove compartment, and kicked some greasy paper napkins under the seat.
Rihannon slid into her own seat and looked around. “There’s one thing you’ve forgotten.”
“I doubt it.”
Her smile was an infuriating flash of sunlight through clouds. “Seatbelt,” she said, clicking hers into place.
“Uh-huh. Tell the immortal shifter to wear her seatbelt.” Jaffa shook her head. “I stole the car, I make the rules.” She rifled through the glove compartment and came out with a first aid kit.
“Okay. But you should still wear your seatbelt.”
How long had it been since anyone dared to tease her? With the slightest roll of her eyes, she pulled the seatbelt across her chest.
Jaffa pulled out of the parking lot. “So… is this a pleasure visit, or are you offering me a job?”
She’d hoped to see Rihannon just because Rihannon wanted to see her. But the little faerie looked worried, her normally warm brown skin ashen, her pretty dark curls limp under her hoodie.
“I need to get out of human territory, now.”
“Did you piss someone off?”
“Yeah, by existing. You remember how it’s been safer for me in the human world? Well, now the tide’s changed. I’ve got to hurry home, as quick as I can.”
In her opinion, unfair was something that weak people said when they were making excuses, but Rihannon’s situation really was unfair. A daughter of deposed Fae nobility, she’d been forced to hide in the human world most of her life. She had immense power, and there was no telling what would happen if her magical strength fell into the wrong hands. Now that the rightful ruler was in control once again, it was safe for her to return, but various mercenaries were trying to kill her or capture her for her power before that could happen.
“My aunt said she’ll meet me in Connecticut. She has a portable portal…”
“You don’t carry your own escape route?”
“Most powerful Faerie mage in a generation. There’s no telling where that portal would lead after a few weeks in the same room with me. A high celestial pocket dimension, or the rich dark fire at the beginning of the universe. Sometimes I look at the stars and laugh for the sheer joy of living under them. I could warp a portal’s essence and end up on some planet known only to Life itself. I mean, I’d like to be the witchy goddess of an evolving civilization, but… awfully impractical, really.” When she laughed, her magic sparked.
Power poured off her smooth skin like waves of pure honey. People would kill for just a taste of this, Jaffa thought. Smash the world up to drink her down slow.
They were reaching an intersection, and Jaffa slammed her foot on the brake a little too hard. “You keep that shield up, you hear me? No telling who might be sniffing around. “ With that wild nimbus of power, Rihannon was like the neon sign outside a strip club, broadcasting an invitation to the world.
Instead of shielding herself, instead of being sensible, she just blinked at Jaffa. “But I’m safe around you, aren’t I?”
“I’d kill myself before I laid one claw on you, but I’m not unaffected. If you think I can play chauffer, sniper, and bodyguard with all that power curling from your lips like cigarette smoke every time you so much as breathe–well, you’d be right, because I have more control than these slavering idiots who are after you. But it’s still damn distracting. You dial it down, yeah?”
“Or what? You’ll knock me on the head with a shovel and hogtie me in the trunk?”
“Yup, that’s what you young things are doing these days. Bodily harm and kidnapping. Prime material for a new episode of I Love Lucy.”
Rihannon settled back in her seat, casting a dubious gaze at Jaffa, who pretended not to notice. “Stop pretending you’re all that much older than me.”
The first time they met, though, Jaffa had felt infinitely older.
Baby powder and white roses, lemon sugar, sweet honey still in the comb. The light glittery scent of faerie magic drifted over the lawn and kissed each wildflower. A little girl with deep brown curls was seated in the middle of a sunbeam, humming some action-movie theme as she steered a winged doll through a clump of weeds. She wasn’t a stock photo or a china figurine. Her hair was tangled and she’d worn through the knees of her jeans.
And Jaffa, lurking in the bushes at the edge of the yard, thought, what a goddamn good kid.
Then the first assassin leaped down from the tree, his gun already raised. Jaffa charged at him. She caught the bullet in her palm, already shifting; she hit the ground in full feral mode, with a snarl that showed every sharp fang.
Within an instant, she’d sunk her teeth into his neck and ripped. Her hands nearly paws, she fought the remaining assassins, heedless of the bullets sinking deep into her fur. “Kid,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. Her body could no longer maintain beast form; she dragged herself over on scraped hands, wincing with every movement.
“Kid, you can come out–it’s safe now, I got them…”
For a moment everything was silent. Then Rihannon peeked out from behind a tree. “I knew you’d protect me,” she said, her wide eyes shining. “I just knew it.”
At that moment, Jaffa knew she would have died for this girl’s sake.
There was a huge element of boredom in looking after someone who lived in the middle of nowhere. Rihannon went to school, to ballet class, and came straight home. On weekends, she and her aunt Anwen went to a local faerie prayer circle. Jaffa, used to high-stakes undercover assignments, thought longingly of New York.
Of course, she’d always been tough; her name was Jaffa, after the city. As a beast pup, she’d been raised by a scrappy Ashkenazi pack of newspaper boys and partisans, still as scruffy and hard-edged as they’d been when their aging slowed down. It was a household where the pantry lead to a secret escape tunnel and every discussion turned into a friendly argument in at least three languages. It was an upbringing that, she thought, had prepared her for anything. Except spending an entire summer in a small Midwestern town where the only place to cut wild was the county fair.
If not for Rihannon, she would have died of boredom, watching shitty reruns on the shoebox-sized old TV all night. Most children were scared of her, but Rihannon didn’t care. She invited her bodyguard to play Disney princess death match in the treehouse, brought her to school as a substitute gym class teacher, and whispered hilarious stories about all the backstage gossip of Nutcracker rehearsals. Having someone so interesting to look after helped her suppress the instinct to run wild.
“Tell me a story?”
So Jaffa talked about roaming half-wild in the Catskills, and how she’d stolen a neighbor’s chicken for show-and-tell; how she’d followed her foster parents into the mercenary business, and the three surreal months she’d spent undercover as a mortal fundamentalist to take down a baby-trafficking ring.
“You’re brilliant,” Rihannon always said. “I want to hear more.”
At night, Jaffa crouched at the window with her sniper rifle, shooting down the occasional demon hunting party or extradimensional mercenary. She left at the end of the summer, when Rihannon and Anwen moved to a safer safehouse and the attacks ended. And although she was damn glad to be around other adults, she still caught herself looking at wildflowers and ballet slippers and wondering what Rhiannon would think of them.
Ten years was a short time in a shifter’s life, but it had made all the difference in that sunshiny kid. She’d grown into her power, emerging into near-immortality. The innocent teenager she’d felt so protective towards had grown up–and out–into one sweet little shot of whiskey. And feisty, too.
No more oversized band t-shirts and hand-me-down cargo pants; her current outfit was just as simple, but it fit her body, hinting at generous breasts and hips.
Down, dog. Don’t even think about it. This innocent creature was under her protection, and it wouldn’t be fair or right to make a move.
She noticed Rihannon was studying her. “So… uh… how you feeling about going back to Faerie?”
“Tis less-more mad where the glitter woods run, as I might sling syllaslang had I been caterpillared behind the Borderbrook’s rush.” Her voice fell into the sparkling, singsong tone that young Faeries often affected, half music and half mischief.
Jaffa nodded. “Not bad for someone raised with humans.” It was a pitch-perfect imitation, and she couldn’t help chuckling.
“All my allowance and birthday money, for my whole life, went on buying smuggled magazines from a secret mailing list. I keep up well enough with the important news and the biggest trends in pop culture, but I don’t remember what it’s like to feel that bright air on my face or drift for hours in a sunbeam–just a few blurred memories of colored streamers waving overhead, fried pastries, dancers on stilts. I’ll wake up every time I hear a bicycle messenger or a unicorn rider because I’m so used to cars–I bet I’ll still reach for my phone even though everyone in Faerie wears a communication crystal. In the way I walk, the way I dress, even the weather I’m used to, I’ll seem as human as can be. But I’ve never fit here, either. Could never. Too much magic in my blood, too much flickering Faerie whimsy. I laugh too easily and I eat foods none of my friends have even heard of–I haven’t grown up with the same lullabies as them or even the same holidays. Sometimes I feel like I don’t fit anywhere.”
She’d never thought of her sunny faerie as having problems, but now she knew Rihannon had suffered too. She felt genuine regret for a world that had forced a young girl to flee for her life. “That’s real tough, kid. I wish things could have been different.”
“I don’t.” Her dark eyes fixed on Jaffa’s. “There was no other way. This way, I’m alive–free to have problems and worry about whether or not I fit in.” She tapped her phone on the dashboard, her expression growing impish once again. “And I should be able to pick up some decent money when I sell this at the Goblin Market.”
Jaffa wanted nothing more than to swerve over to the side of the road and give Rihannon the biggest hug of her life. She now knew that Rihannon was wise beyond her years, that the trials of her life hadn’t made her bitter. There was still something pure in the world. “You’re… you’re really something, you know that?”
She ducked her head, smiling. If her skin was lighter, she probably would have blushed. Jaffa tightened her grip on the steering wheel, preparing to weather another honey blast of common-sense-melting-magic. Instead, the smile faded.
“Still, I can’t help worrying.”
“About what?” Jaffa wondered if she could punch whoever or whatever had upset Rihannon.
“If my bits-and-pieces childhood has robbed me of the ability to truly fit anywhere.”
Okay. She could metaphorically punch this. For a moment, she forgot her old wounds. “I mean, I was raised by immigrants, and I think of it this way: maybe it’s taught you to make friends anywhere. There will be outcasts and dreamers and lonely souls wherever you go. Anyone with your kind of sympathy, who can be kind to people who feel left out… I don’t think you’ll have any trouble making friends. Show some sympathy for people’s shit, and you’ll never get shitfaced alone.”
“That’s actually really reassuring.”
It felt strange to have a pretty girl smiling at her. “I’m just telling the truth.”
“I know. That’s why it helps.”
A few hours of starlight later, they were driving across a gravel road in the Pine barons. Jaffa winced at each bump. It had been a while since she’d seen a healer, and her old scars were starting to ache, warning of nearby danger and dark forces. Was there a real threat, or was her body just on high alert for the sake of its own unconscious paranoia? She had no idea.
Rhiannon looked at her, concerned. “Are you all right? You didn’t get hurt earlier, did you?”
“Let’s just say that the Syndicate… once they’ve got you in their crosshairs, they don’t let up… not until they’ve had their fun, or they think you’re no longer a threat.”
“What happened to you?” Rhiannon asked, then shook her head.
“No–I shouldn’t be prying. If you’re not comfortable talking about it, I understand. You don’t have to tell me anything you’d rather keep secret.”
It was a mature and selfless response, and she couldn’t help but consider how the little faerie had been forced to grow up so quickly. Jaffa had spent years keeping secrets so close to her chest; now she wanted to share a fragment, even if it was just a minor detail. “I ended up on their radar when I stopped a sprite-smuggling operation. They’d taken over some catacombs, rigged a portal, and were selling the little creatures to mortal collectors in glass bottles.”
Compassion and concern filled her tone. “That’s horrible. I’m glad someone did something about it.”
She’d felt the same way, willing to risk anything to end the atrocity. “I thought I’d made it out with my cover intact, but let’s just say it was a while till I made a clean getaway.”
Rihannon didn’t press her for details, just nodded sympathetically, her face solemn.
And if she knew the truth, would she still feel safe in a car with me, Jaffa wondered. She wanted to change the subject, quick as she could. “Anyway, kid…”
“About your last letter!” Rihannon piped up. “I couldn’t help wondering–you promised to tell me about the fire-eaters, but I haven’t been in one place long enough to summon a bird.”
“For starters, let me just say you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a flame nymph twirl flames on her tits.”
Jaffa wasn’t just a brilliant storyteller, she was a brilliant listener. She listened to Rihannon’s descriptions of every elderly dog her school had fostered, every quirky customer she had to wrangle with in job placement class. At last Rihannon was too tired to talk, and she curled up in a little ball as Jaffa hummed along to the radio. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but she woke up at 3 AM when they pulled into some cheap motel.
“One room, one bed,” Jaffa told the sleepy-looking clerk, who blinked in surprise and looked them up and down before shrugging acquiescence to their request.
“Why was she so surprised?” Rihannon asked in the elevator. “I mean, sharing a bed is cheaper, right?”
“There are a lot of LGBT people on the east coast, but this is the cheapest no-name place to get a bed within state lines. It’s butt o’clock in the morning, you’re walking like you’re drunk, and you’ve got sleep hair. Let’s just say gal pals probably didn’t go through her mind.”
“Oh!” Rihannon covered her face, laughing from the awkwardness. Then she snuck a look at Jaffa. Did she mind that the clerk thought they were sleeping together? Would she want to go out with Rihannon, or did she still just see her as a scruffy kid in overalls?
But Jaffa’s face was unreadable as always. Rihannon decided to turn up the flirting a little and see if she noticed.
Okay, it’s stupid to flirt with my bodyguard–my biker-chick-sexy shifter bodyguard. But I’ve spent my entire life being so careful. She’d never even gone on a date because she didn’t want to draw too much attention to herself. Now life was offering her the chance to be a normal young faerie, to eat Wing City street food and make flowers blossom in public. Maybe a normal stupid crush on a hard femme who was way out of her league was just what she needed.
The room was run-down, but it looked like it had been cleaned recently, and Rihannon didn’t notice any cockroaches or rats. While Jaffa made a security sweep and checked for bugs, Rihannon took her suitcase into the bathroom. Back in LA, her friends had always tried to talk her into dressing more revealingly, saying it would help her snag a hot girl. She thought she’d never wear the vintage slip dress that Sofia had talked her into accepting as a going-away present, but since she’d thrown it in mid-packing-frenzy…
Rihannon stepped out of the bathroom, the nightgown swaying against her legs. She’d brushed her brown hair until it shone in the starlight. Maybe Jaffa would be stoic and unreadable no longer. Even if her flirting made things awkward, at least she’d have a distraction from the constant threat of death.
Except Jaffa was already fast asleep.
Fine, Rihannon thought. Good thing fairies are early risers! She slipped under the quilt and closed her eyes.
The next morning, Rihannon leaned over Jaffa as sun peeked through the curtains. She thought of the brightest, most glittery things she could to make her aura even more inviting: walking barefoot on the LA beaches, the smell of country-fair food.
Waking up my bodyguard in three, two, one…
A hand closed on Jaffa’s shoulder. One thought pierced through the fog of sleep: those bastards, I won’t let them get me again. She grabbed the person by the throat and slammed them against the wall before even opening her eyes. So the Syndicate thought they could mess with her again? She’d fucking show them.
Rhiannon stared at her with eyes full of fear. Instantly, she released her grip, seething with horror at herself. “Shit.”
“You’re such a heavy sleeper, I wanted to see if I could wake you…” Rhiannon swallowed hard, touching her bruised throat. The movement drew attention to the low neckline of her nightgown, a silky slip dress trimmed in lace. Did she know how tight it was? Twin dark circles showed through the pastel fabric.
Fuck. Jaffa ran a hand through her hair. Spending so much time around the faerie’s unshielded aura was seriously getting to her, like some sort of crazy secondhand high. “I’m a heavy sleeper until I register a threat. If I’d sensed there was anyone watching us, I would have gone from zero to sixty in an instant. You set off a false alarm–it’s not your fault. Change out of that and we’ll grab breakfast. I’m going for a smoke.” Around humans, she smoked normal cigarettes. The tobacco chemicals bounced right off her immortal metabolism, not even touching her racing thoughts; it was another part of her persona. But around other immortals, she lit up the real stuff–elfweed spiked with pixie dust, all charcoal and maple smoke. I could do with one now, Jaffa decided, and got out of bed.
That is, she tried to.
“Are your old injuries hurting badly today?” Rihannon’s doe-brown eyes filled with concern.
“No. I’m–fine.” She tried to pull herself out of bed and stifled a cry of agony. The spells implanted in her bones hadn’t throbbed this badly in months. Evil forces were nearby… looking for Rihannon, possibly. Well, they won’t find her here. I’ll get her to a safe haven. But first to get out of bed.
“I can’t take your pain away, but I can turn a bad day into an average day,” Rihannon hinted.
She must have looked dubious, because Rihannon continued. “I know about pain. Sometimes it’s worse and sometimes it’s better, right? But it’s always there. And everyone thinks you should either be in bed crying helplessly or just get over it… but you keep going because you’re a fighter. And that’s what you do.”
In the morning sun, she seemed so old, and yet so innocent. Jaffa wished she’d done more to protect her. “You sound like you know a lot about pain.”
“One of my poetry teachers had late-stage Lyme disease. I couldn’t get her out of the wheelchair, but I kept her out of the hospital until treatment kicked in. No organ failures on my watch.”
“That’s all? Really?” She hadn’t meant to ask. It just slipped out. But Rihannon sat on the edge of the bed, letting out a small, melancholy sigh.
“Sometimes it sucks being on the run. I’ve had to leave California behind, switch what I’m studying, even change my name. I just want to go home and swim in the town pool, volunteer a few shifts at the library. I’d ask my neighbor how her rose garden is coming along and Sofia and I could do each other’s nails and I could pet Carmen’s pugs. Instead I can’t even log into my old social media because some greedy technomancer might decide to use my BFFs against me. And it sucks so much ass.” She looked straight at Jaffa with a tremulous smile. “But I’m living with it, even though it hurts.”
“Yeah, kid. I getcha,” Jaffa said softly. In that moment, she would have done anything to make a home for her old friend. One that Rihannon would never have to leave.
Then Rihannon laid a hand on her, and the magic rushed through her like a drug. She didn’t know they were moving closer together until Rihannon’s forehead touched hers. Didn’t know they were kissing until she heard herself moan.
Jaffa tasted like smoke and spice and dark chocolate, and her skin was as warm as blankets and the dawn. Rihannon wanted to melt into those hands gripping her shoulders, into this blissful dizziness. “Yes,” Jaffa gasped, and she growled and buried a hand in her hair, as if Rihannon was a tantalizing treasure to hold fast to, as if she wanted to live in this moment forever. She hardly dared to breathe. Jaffa’s long hair swept over her, brushing against her collarbones, the swell of her breasts. She heard herself sigh, a deep shiver of untamed sound-
“No,” Jaffa said, her voice sharp as barbed wire. “We can’t do this. We can’t ever do this.”
Rihannon fell back against the headboard, her mouth open. Emotions swirled through her: exasperated, upset, confused. “But-why not?”
If she’d been awkward, or angry, or even ordinarily polite, Rihannon would have known how to feel. Instead Jaffa smiled a strange half-smile and chuckled a razor-blade laugh, a laugh that seemed to mock the world as much as it mocked herself. “I’m too old for you.”
“You can’t say that and really mean it. I’ll live to be at least two hundred. Can’t you make more sense? At least tell me if you like me or not–or let me know if I’m a bad kisser.” Heat flared over her cheeks, and only her olive skin was saving her from a humiliating bright red blush.
“I know the High Fae measure age in full moons because those are the only things they know how to count. But there are other immortals–the extraplanars, the undergrounds… who measure age in what a person’s seen. What they’ve been through. And my soul is older than yours will ever be.”
Jaffa said it so matter-of-factly. From anyone else, those words would have seemed ridiculous. But there was nothing of drama or pretension in the contradiction of her smile. She stood up and ran her hands down her body as if to erase any evidence of Rihannon’s touch. “I’m going out for a smoke. Get your stuff. We’ll leave in ten.”
“What about the free breakfast buffet?”
“Fuck the buffet.” She slammed the door behind her, and the glass rattled in its frame.
Rihannon took the pillows off the bed and threw them across the room. At least she wasn’t a High Fae, so fragile and ethereal that she could barely tolerate the intense vibrations of the human world–but now she could imagine how it felt.
She’s still going to see me as a child, the rest of my life.
Something chimed from inside her tote bag. She opened it. It was the burner phone she’d gotten for Aunt Anwen to contact her in case of emergency.
Instead of saying, “Hello,” she said “What’s the password?”
Their password–the recipe for Rihannon’s favorite human drink–protected against impersonation.
“Celery and avocado,” Rihannon replied, completing the password. “I’m so glad to hear from you! Is everything all right?”
“Yes, but there’s been a change of plans. I’m being tracked as well, so I thought it would be safer to meet you halfway. I used magic to trace you earlier today, and I’ve been driving like a bat out of the demon realms ever since. In fact, I’m right here in the parking lot, can you come down and meet me?”
“I would love to,” Rihannon said, and hung up the phone. She glanced towards the glass door, wondering if she should let Jaffa know. Then she decided against it.
Well, let her worry for a few minutes! When she found out, it would make her realize that Rihannon was no child. I got to the faerie realm without your help, without even bothering to tell you. She flipped an elastic off her wrist and put her hair up, slung her purse over her shoulder, and left the hotel room.
Jaffa felt like she had confirmed every stereotype by forcing herself on the faerie. The predatory older lesbian, the feral werewolf incapable of controlling her animal lust. Her claws dug through her jeans as she imagined former friends staring at her in disbelief and anger. That was the unfortunate part about being culturally Jewish. You couldn’t pray away your wrongdoings with a Hail Mary or whatever. You just had to deal with the guilt.
She smoked deliberately, slowly, her eyes fixed on the featureless forest horizon. At last, all too soon, the worn-down embers stung her skin. With a sigh, she ground the cigarette out under her foot and slipped back inside.
“Rihannon? Where are you?” She glanced in the bathroom–in the closet. The faerie was absent.
Then her phone began to ring. ANWEN, the screen read. She leapt on it.
“Oh, Jaffa, forgive me–I was careless–they’ve had me in their grasp for days, I managed to escape–but they’ve gotten the secret password, they’ll be able to trick Rihannon into coming to them… they wanted to use me as bait, but I broke out of the car once their truth serum wore off. You must tell her I’m all right. She is with you, isn’t she?”
“No,” Jaffa said, her voice hollow. As if magnetized, she looked out the window. She saw the faded lines of the parking lot, the head of brown curls bobbing in the sunshine.
The phone fell from her hand as she broke into a run.
Jaffa emerged into the parking lot running at top speed. Then she skidded to a stop.
“Fuck,” she heard herself whisper. She’d hoped never to see the Syndicate’s torturer-in-chief again.
But now she was here, leaning against a black van with tinted windows. Her blonde curls rippled in the wind as she turned her contemptuous gaze from a helpless Rihannon to the new arrival.
“Well, isn’t this perfect! Jaffa Volkovitch!” She laughed, high and lovely as birdsong, and tightened her grip on Rihannon’s neck. “They say shifters are proud beasts, but you cowered like a whipped mutt when I’d finished with my skinning knife. Oh, yes, my team and I got everything we wanted out of you–and more, much more. I thought I’d have to dirty my hands today, but you? I know you’ve learned your lesson. So we’ll just be going.”
In any other situation, Jaffa would have been paralyzed with fear. Spasms of panic would skitter up and down her scars, reducing her entire awareness to pain–to what she’d suffered at those pale, pretty hands. The hands of a woman who’d skinned muscle from bone and laughed at the agony she caused.
But now those hands were wrapped around Rihannon’s throat. And anger blazed through her mind, wiping away everything else. Letting out a furious roar, she charged.
Fifteen minutes later, Jaffa had propped Rihannon up against a tree. She was washing blue demon blood off the faerie’s face with the least greasy of her backseat napkins. In the cold early morning, Rihannon seemed as still as a doll, her eyes wide and unseeing. Jaffa fought the impulse to gather her into her arms and warm her with kisses.
At last Rihannon shook herself, blinking. Then her gaze fixed on Jaffa.
“Was it true, what she said about you?” she asked.
“Yes,” Jaffa said, looking away. “Everything she said–and more. Want to know how I escaped? I didn’t. They got tired of hearing me beg and left me in a shallow grave to rot. There you have it.” She snapped her fingers. “Get rid of your phone; it’s been compromised by Syndicate technomancers. I’ll hack the car and see if I can confuse them.”
Rihannon didn’t reply. Still shocked into silence, Jaffa thought with a merciless smile. “See, aren’t you glad you didn’t kiss me?”
“What?” Her voice was too quiet to hold discernible emotion.
“I know what you remember about me. The protector from your childhood, wearing a supple leather jacket and disappearing in a cloud of backroom smoke. The Big Bad Wolf to your Little Red. I’ve learned to live with the battle scars, but you, sunshine… I’m worried you’ve got some warrior princess fantasy lover in your pretty little head. That I’ll hurt you when I let you down. See, it’s not just that I was in pain. I begged for my damn life. I didn’t even escape. They only let me go because I had no more information to give them. Now you know–come on, let’s go hotwire another car-“ She turned to move away, but Rihannon grabbed her jacket.
“Wait. Do you think so little of me–of yourself–that you expect what you’ve been through would make the slightest bit of difference?”
Jaffa could always turn her words on a woman. Words to seduce, to mollify, to tempt. Now, for the first time in her life, she stood utterly speechless before a woman she genuinely loved.
“Don’t you remember all those letters you sent me? I loved them because they contained stories of your adventures. But what I loved even more was that you cared enough to write to me, no matter where you were. I don’t want some made-up perfect woman. I want to be with the woman who would risk her life to save someone in trouble, just like you did today. The fact that you’ve got a few weaknesses doesn’t change the fact that you’re the strongest person I’ve ever known. You think you’re protecting me by pushing me away, but do you know where the one place I’ve felt safe is? Here. The only times I’ve ever slept through the night, not worrying about kidnappers or goblins or the Syndicate, have been when I’m with you. I’ve had to give up so much to keep my gift out of the hands of people who would use it for evil… running from home after home, sleeping in anonymous safe houses and Faraday cages made of iron. if you want to protect me, let me have this. Stay with me. Please.”
“You mean that? All of it?”
“My magic draws people to me. It doesn’t make people want to kiss me unless…” She giggled and shook her head, glancing down at her cheap sneakers.
Jaffa reached out. Slowly, she drew Rihannon’s chin upwards. A smile had slipped onto her own face now. It felt so easy it startled her, like walking barefoot on soft grass. She could imagine a thousand more smiles, all just as natural, all reflected in the sweet mirror of those doe-brown eyes. “Unless?”
“Unless I want them to kiss me back,” Rihannon said. The words all flew out in a single silver laugh.
Jaffa could think of no better invitation.
Studying the shifter, Rihannon realized that the Syndicate’s cruelty had left a hidden scar just as painful as the ones that stiffened her limbs. They’d shoved her into a deep pit of hatred, convincing her that she was unworthy of love or a home. I can’t carry her out of that darkness, but I’ll be there to cheer her on when she starts to climb. “If you want, you could come with me to Faerie. Be my lover, or even just my roommate.”
She grinned, with only a hint of sardonic weariness. “You sure about that, kid? I shed. And I haven’t changed as much as you have; I still like partying, picking up girls… Just because I’ve always had a soft spot for you doesn’t mean you can change me.”
“I’ll buy a lint roller. I’d be happy pulling some loose fur off my couches if it meant you were comfortable.” What she really meant was: I don’t care if you’re not perfect. It’s not a burden to cope with you, it’s an opportunity to care for you. “And as for partying, picking up girls, even taking more than a sip of wildflower wine… I’ve lived in hiding. Haven’t talked to another immortal except you for years and years. Why wouldn’t I want a little wildness? I wouldn’t mind settling down with you, but I’d much rather be wild with you.” She took Jaffa’s hands. “We can get a first-floor studio down Border way. What do you think?”
“How about this, kid. Let’s travel together until we get you clear of human land. Then, once you’re surrounded by your own people… if you’re still set on me, you can make me that offer again, and I’ll know you mean it.”
“And what will you say?”
Jaffa let out a low growl of possessive contentment and swept an arm around Rihannon’s shoulders. “Yes, you damn little enchantress–yes, if you’ll have me. A thousand times yes.”
Could yes mean until forever? All Rihannon knew was that the further they traveled, the less she’d worry about where she truly belonged. Because even the open road could feel like home with someone you loved.