It was a miserable wet day. It was as miserable a wet day as it can get in Hawaii where moisture is the norm and rain is frequent. It wasn't a typhoon, it was just one of those incessant, penetrating rains that soaks everything and then continues to keep things wet.
Jonathan Raven and his friend Herman "Ski" Jablonski had taken shelter at Big Kahuna's when the storm broke. The tall, mid 30's man with the dark eyes and darker hair was a regular at BK's because Ski was a regular. They spent as much time in the bar keeping a finger on the pulse of the island, as they did at Ski's boat or Jonathan's home. The big, graying blonde man was surrounded by the usual bevy of bikini-clad babes who treated him as a cross between a doting uncle and a possible fun time. He was a bit of both. Jonathan sat solitary, reading and keeping an eye on Ski, as well as the rest of the restaurant bar. The beach outside was deserted.
Down the beach trudged a weary, waterlogged specimen with a drenched backpack. It was difficult to tell the gender of the figure, dressed in the seemingly obligatory scruffy jeans, T-shirt and grungy over shirt of the current crop of teens. A cap obscured the face. The hair was either short or tucked up under the cap. The figure stopped at the flimsy bamboo fence marking off the boundaries of the outdoor restaurant. Instead of crossing the boundary, the figure turned toward the building and trudged up the line to the parking lot.
Jonathan lost interest in the solitary figure as it moved out of sight. There was nothing menacing about it. Forlorn, maybe, but a lot of teens were that way these days. Out front, the figure surveyed the cars in the lot, gaze coming to rest on Jonathan's shiny black Jeep Renegade. The top was up, but the windows weren't. It would be a damp ride home.
Head tilted to one side, bright dark eyes studied the jeep. The rain was sluicing dirt off face and hands to reveal an attractive young face, high cheekbones sharp under dusky golden skin. The young woman approached the jeep cautiously. With one hand, she reached in and opened the glove box. She pulled out the insurance card. Jonathan Raven. With a curiously satisfied nod, she replaced the insurance card and closed the glove box. She was turning away from the vehicle when she became aware of someone stepping up behind her.
She looked up. She blinked against the rain.
"Something I can help you with?" The words were soft under the susurration of the falling water, but dangerous.
"I was looking for Mr. Jonathan Raven. I was told he drives a Jeep Renegade."
"And he does. Would you know him?" She suspected she was talking to him, but she was not going to let him know that. Besides, he looked interesting getting wet like this.
"I'm Jonathan Raven."
She smiled. It wasn't the bright, blinding smile he sometimes got from the female of the species, but it was a warm and welcoming one. "I'm Mandy Bright." She held out a hand to him.
Bemused, he took her hand in his. Hers was cold and wet, but the grasp was firm. "Miss Bright."
"Mandy," came the instant response.
He felt as though this should mean something to him, but couldn't place it. "Mandy. Are you hungry?"
"Yes. You don't have a clue, do you?"
She laughed. "We're cousins, on your mother's side."
He stopped and turned to look at her again. Cousins? He didn't have -- wait, his mother had a brother who had been -- military? Something. There was a reason his mother 's family had not claimed him.
"Dad was in jail when your parents died," she told him quietly, reading the questions in his suddenly stone face.
"Yeah. Jail. In Turkey. It wasn't a lot of fun. The Feds finally got him back about five years after -- by that time, there wasn't much point in trying to retrieve you. You had a home, and people who cared about you."
"He -- could have contacted me." But there was something in the way she spoke of him that said he might not have been able to make even that small of a commitment. "What was he in jail for?"
"Insulting a Turk. He whistled at a girl crossing the street. Apparently, that's against Turkish law, if it's a Turkish girl. When he objected to being beaten up for whistling at her, he got hauled off to jail."
Jonathan had heard that the "law" in Turkey was frequently more about interactions between the Turks and outsiders than it was about justice. He felt sorry for this unknown uncle of his. "What brings you here?"
She shrugged her shoulders as he led her into the restaurant. "I looked up the name on the net a while back. While I was here, I thought I'd see if you were the right one."
"And how did you find me?"
"Phone book. Raven, J." He could hear the grin in her voice. And he was listed in the phone book.
"How did you find me here? And how did you find out about the car?" He sounded very, very serious.
"I asked around."
"How long have you been on the street?" He frowned at her as she removed the cap and let a long braid fall down her back. She set the cap on the backpack.
"A while," was the evasive answer. Long enough to be evasive, long enough to know how to get information without raising suspicions, without any word getting back to him or Ski. "Do you always regard long lost cousins like bugs under microscopes? Or is it just me?"
"Jonathan," Ski's gravelly voice interrupted. He nodded at Mandy and proceeded to ask Jonathan the question he had on his mind.
"OK. It was worth askin'. Who's the kid?"
"My cousin." If he was waiting for Ski's jaw to drop, he was disappointed. Ski looked Mandy up and down and nodded. "Must be the girl askin' questions about you."
For a moment, Jonathan's face went blank. "Did you consider telling me?" The question was very quietly dangerous.
"Yeah. But the guys didn’t think nothin' of it. Just figured it was some kid who'd heard about your looking for a kid," Ski shot back. As though it was the most natural thing in the world. Maybe it was. Ski drifted back to his ladies.
Jonathan turned back to his guest, who was watching him expectantly, liquid dark eyes under straight black brows. Something about this was not sitting right. But he didn't exactly know what. "What would you like?"
Uh, huh. "Yes." The answer was a little too even.
"Good. I'm low on funds until Monday. I'll pay you back then."
Sure she would. "Anything you want. And don't worry about paying me back. I don't meet family every day." And that was the truth. He wondered if he was meeting family today.
The hamburger was expectable. The salad and the seafood appetizer were almost expectable. The fruit juice drink was not. She tucked into the food with a healthy appetite, and as though she might have missed a few meals here and there. There was certainly no extra weight on her small frame, as far as he could tell. They shared the meal in silence, Jonathan eating sparingly of what he had ordered.
No questions. Just those bright eyes on him now and again. And not all the time. She spent as much time unobtrusively keeping tabs on the people around them as he did.
She colored slightly. "Not really. But I don't get to see this many birds of paradise all at once that often," she assured him with a laugh. Something in her eyes didn't quite mesh with the statement. He filed it for future reference. "You're not eating?"
"Wasn't that hungry."
"You don't believe me, do you?" She could see his face become slightly remote. She grinned at him. "That's OK. Probably something of a shock to suddenly inherit a cousin."
"Inherit? You sound like you're moving in," he shot back lightly.
"Well, I could use a dry place to crash until Monday."
Innocent enough, but it set off alarms within him. She didn't seem as much in need of succor as his last few guests. "I might be able to manage." He tried to ignore the borderline kicked puppy look. She didn't sniff. She didn't look like he'd smacked her, but there was that indefinable tinge of "well, all right, if you really want me sleeping in the rain, by myself. Insert heavy duty sigh. Don't want to be any trouble."
Then she ruined the effect by grinning at him. "That's OK. I'll find someplace to sleep. Thanks for the meal." She dropped her napkin on the table and stood, reaching for her pack and cap. "Oh, want me to leave your reimbursement with BK?" she asked as she shrugged into the straps on the backpack.
This was too easy. And that rang wrong as well. "I've got room -- for a cousin."
She stopped and looked full at him. "I don't want you regretting this meeting. And I do have money coming in Monday. I'm just a little short now."
"I won't regret it," he heard himself reassuring her. The back of his mind was looking at him with that old fashioned // uh, huh. Sure you won't // look. "Come on."
"What about your friend?" She nodded towards Ski.
He looked over at the man who now had six bikini-clad bimbos surrounding him. "I think he'll do just fine."
She followed him out to the car, allowing him to get in first before climbing into the passenger seat and settling in. The rain let up as they pulled out of the parking lot. "Kewl!"
Mandy took in Jonathan's home with an awed look. From the outside it was a rambling suburban bungalow, with an odd front door. The wooden gate came as a surprise to her. It slid open easily.
"Shoes," he said instinctively. Then noted that she was already kicking off her worn tennies before attempting to enter his home. He filed that away for further investigation. She padded along behind him, looking, but not commenting. "Well?"
"What do you think?"
"I think it stopped raining and I'm beginning to steam."
Evasive. "You have a change of clothes?"
He gestured toward the bathroom. "Bathroom. There should be spare towels."
He smiled at that. "Hot shower," he agreed with a smile. A small luxury he could afford.
She came out, changed into a less faded pair of denims, a clean black T-shirt and a clean plaid flannel shirt. She was brushing out her hair. It was thick and dark and wavy. With it down, she looked younger, if that was possible.
"How old are you?"
She looked startled. "Seventeen."
It was a slightly breathless answer. "Seventeen. What are you doing out on your own?"
He blinked. "Walkabout? You're aboriginal?"
She laughed. "No. I ran away from home."
"Oh -- the usual? I got -- I don't know. I got a bee in my bonnet about seeing something of the world before I start college." Lie. "I wanted to find you." Partial truth. "I -- got tired of being me." Truth. "It's been -- interesting." Partial truth. He could hear it in her vocal fluctuations. It was uncanny and unnerving. And he didn't like it.
A shrug of the shoulders. "I dunno. Haven't chosen yet."
Hadn't tried yet, more likely. "University of Hawaii is good."
"I hear that. I dunno, tho. I suspect I'm not ready."
"But you are ready to go wandering about on your own."
Dangerous ground here. How to skirt it without damaging her story or his trust? "Well, I've been successful at that, so far." She stood her ground as he moved toward her. Oh, dear. Gonna show the little girl how much trouble she could be in, she surmised. She avoided his sudden grab for her, barely. "Ah, ah. No grabbing while I untangle."
She'd avoided him. That was not an every day ability. There was a lot more to the slender young woman than met the eye. "No worries I could be dangerous?" he practically purred.
"Not to your cousin," she shot back.
"What do you want to know?" She knew that was a false step as soon as she said it, but there was no calling it back. Damn but he was dangerous. His eyes were his downfall. So revealing of his emotional state. Must make his life difficult.
'Who are you? Really?"
Ah, she had that one. "Amanda Bethany Bright."
"Daniel Xavier Bright."
Danny. Uncle Danny. Damn. No. Whoever she was, this was not his cousin -- if he had ever had one. "Your mother?"
"Angelina Maria Hortensia -- " Thoughtful look. "Damn, I'm missing a name here. Shoot. AngelMomHas -- Katherine Parra de la Hoya," she finished up in rush. "I know, you'd think I could remember that after all this time, wouldn't you. Mamma has such -- *had* such -- a long name." The falter was perfect. She knew it. He was beginning to drop his guard.
"Had?" he asked gently.
"Yeah," she confirmed with a sigh. "Had. Mamma died three years ago. Cancer. It was fast," she amended in a rush. "It wasn't -- Just kinda here and gone. I don't think Dad -- Well, you know."
"Hard on you, as well."
"Yeah. Well, -- Yeah." That // not gonna cry // crumple around the edges, along with the teenaged fidget over emotional stuff. Jonathan was about to buy it all. She sniffed and sealed his purchase. \\ This is not nice,// a part of her told her sternly. \\ I promised,\\ she shot back. \\ Nobody gets hurt.\\ , // right,// both of her inner voices
She yawned convincingly as the sun set in the most spectacular Hawaiian fashion outside. She finished brushing out her hair and neatly re-braided it. "Sorry about the yawn."
"That's all right. I only have the one bedroom. You'll be all right on
Couch? Well, yes, she would. That was an impressive couch. She sat down on it. Oh, yes. The couch would do quite well. She stretched out, like a cat, long and languorous. "Mmmm. Nice couch. Very nice couch," she murmured as her eyes closed. Very nice.
Jonathan waited until he was certain she was asleep, retrieving a spare blanket for her and gently covering her with it. She frowned as it touched her, her eyes coming partially open. He must have looked reassuring as she snuggled down under the blanket, curling onto her side.
He retrieved her pack from the bathroom. She had neatly bundled her wet clothes into a secondary pocket. He looked through her things swiftly, impersonally. The only intriguing item was a waterproofed box. Locked. He considered forcing the lock, but decided it wasn't worth it. And as inexpensive, not to say cheap, as the lock was, it would probably have broken before yielding to his skills with a lock pick.
Midnight. The moon was full and low in the sky. Jonathan Raven was sitting on his meditation platform at the far end of his back yard, gazing out over the water over which the platform was partially built. A movement caught his attention, even in his meditational state. He waited. A dark shape flitted swiftly across the yard and across the boundary into the next one. He frowned. Slowly, he arose and walked inside. Mandy was gone. The blanket was neatly folded on the couch. Her backpack stood next to where she had slept. He looked in the pack. The box was gone.
He sighed, picked up the phone and called his friend Ski.
"Hello?" the rusty, drink roughened voice answered.
"Well -- no." There was a touch of chagrin in the man's voice. "Need something?"
"Maybe. She's wandered out, leaving her pack here."
"I don't know."
"Well -- We'll find out."
Half an hour later, they met in the more unsavory area of Honolulu. The night life was in full swing. Finding one small teenager in all this might not be easy, but that would not prevent them from trying. Three hours after that, the trio of Yakuza bullies who were working on staking out some Hawaiian turf discovered that Mandy was not Hawaiian, and she was not without protectors.
Ski and Jonathan were coming around an alley corner when they heard the muffled yelp of a young woman being accosted. As one, they went toward the source.
"Let me go!"
Laughter. Japanese comments of the coarser kind. The lighter female voice responded with a comment about Chinese whores, Japanese sailors and a dog. Jonathan broke into a run, as much from curiosity to see who the woman was as to see if he could keep her from reaping the painful rewards of making comments like that.
Three men and one small, dark haired woman. Two were holding her arms as the snarling third reached for her shirt. The woman used her captors as leverage, swinging her legs up to land both feet in the face of the third man. He reeled back, clutching his face, blood seeping between his fingers from the smashed ruin of his nose. He spit epithets of gutter Japanese and teeth mixed with blood onto the ground as Jonathan entered the fight.
The two men holding Mandy, for want of a better name, lost interest in the fight as Jonathan downed one swiftly and Ski came up brandishing two pistols, both ready for action. The third man helped their damaged leader out of the alleyway; Jonathan's glare helping them on their way. He turned back to Mandy who was recovering her cap from the dirt a few feet away.
"Where did you learn Japanese?"
Blink, blink. "Japanese? Is that what that was?"
Oh, dear. Cousin Jonathan did not look amused. She dusted off her cap and placed it back on her head. The shirt seemed to have gotten a little breezy. She discarded it without a second thought while she tried to find an answer for him. Explaining that World War II gutter Japanese was easy to come by in Hong Kong in 1938 did not seem as thought it would go over well.
"Uhm -- actually, I just mimicked something I'd heard. I figured it was probably rude enough to annoy them into doing something stupid. I was right."
"Don't sound so proud of yourself. Alone you wouldn't have survived." His voice was harsh.
She decided not to argue with that pronouncement. After all, there was survival and -- uhm -- survival. "You could have a point there," she agreed. "It was a bit scary."
"A bit?" he echoed. " You could have been raped and murdered and no one would have known."
Something odd flickered in those dark eyes. How many times over the years -- "You're right," she agreed. "I'm sorry." Murdered, probably. Raped, probably not. She really didn't put up with that sort of thing any more. Not when she could goad people the way she could.
"Why did you come out?"
"I'm used to it. This is where I live."
She frowned at him. "Isn't it?"
Impasse. "If you're going to stay with me, there are some ground rules."
"No leaving without telling me." And as soon as he thought of some more rules to impose on a 17 year old, he would. The part of his mind concerned with logic wondered what he was getting himself into. Was he accepting her at face value, in spite of the indications he had that she was lying to him?
"Come on. It's late."
"And you're tired. I don't suppose I could talk you into going home and leaving me -- I didn't think so."
"What do you want to do?" He was curious now.
She shrugged her shoulders. "Hang out. Explore Life, the Universe and Everything? No?" She sighed. "I dunno, I just woke up and needed something to do." Telling him she had this itch of a feeling there was somebody out here she needed to find, to meet -- no. Not functional. "Ok, I give up. I'll come along quietly." She shot him one of those infectious grins. "So, why'd you come out?"
"Why did you come out?"
"You were missing."
"My stuff is still there."
"Yes." But that hardly meant she'd be coming back. Or did it? Should he reveal that he knew something was missing from her pack? Probably not. Not yet. Which was when it dawned on him that she didn't have it on her. "But you got into trouble. You wouldn't have made it back to collect it."
"OK. There is that little glitch in my logic. So, what do you do after dark?"
He regarded her steadily as they climbed into the jeep. What exactly was she asking? "What I usually do."
"And that is?"
"Depends on what Ski has cooking."
"He cooks?" That got a smile. He had a nice smile. He should use it more often.
"Yes, he does. But that's not exactly what I meant. Ski's a private investigator. I'm -- one of his consultants."
She considered this. "Must pay well. How do you get to be a consultant?"
"A badly misspent youth," he shot back.
She laughed. "Great. So, when I’m as ancient as the two of you, I get to be a consultant? And afford a house like this?" she concluded as they pulled into his drive way. "I some how doubt this," she finished with a chuckle.
Their eyes met for a long moment. Unsettling. Mandy found him attractive in ways no seventeen-year-old cousin should. She slowed her breathing and let her pulse slow down as well. She could see she was annoying him, but was appealing to him as well. Damn. A promise was a promise, but some things just did not work out as desired. She would have to leave Monday, as soon as the banks opened.
They settled in for the night, Mandy returning to her couch while Jonathan retreated into his bedroom. He slid between black satin sheets and laid his head down on the pillow expecting sleep to come instantly. Instead, he found himself replaying the incident in the alleyway. Mandy was too self-assured, too skilled. It took time and training to master that set of reflexes, and there was no hesitation as she used her assailants to leverage the kick that downed the third man. And there was no cringing, crying or even attempt to cover herself afterward. She'd dropped the torn shirt and acted like the tawny bra had been just another bikini top.
That was odd. The more he thought about it, the stranger it seemed. She hadn't flinched from his gaze or Ski's, hadn't invited, hadn't been brazen about it. It was almost as though her state of dress, or lack of it, was completely inconsequential. Not the attitude one would have expected from any woman, much less a 17 year old street kid. Mandy Bright would not have reacted that way, of that he was sure. So, who was his guest?
For her part, Mandy settled onto the couch, skinned out of her denims and snuggled under the blanket. She watched the man turn out the lights and listened to the soft sound of his bare feet on the floor as he walked into his bedroom. She knew an intense desire to follow him. She'd slept alone for a long time, there was a longing inside of her to not sleep alone tonight.
"He's your cousin," she told herself silently.
// No, he's not.// another part of her shot back. // You promised a dying woman you'd find him. You've found him. Drop the subterfuge and get it on.//
\\ How the hell did I get so crude?\\
// The same way you get to Carnegie Hall, practice, practice, practice.\\
// Yeah, right. \\ She pounded the pillow into submission and thumped her head down onto it. // Not tonight. He has a headache.//
Morning came far too early. The birdsong was bad enough, but the scuffle of feet on grass was too much. Mandy sat up and looked around. Out the back, she could see her host working with a sword. For a moment, she felt chilled to the bone. She told herself to breath. There were no signs that this man was one of *them*. Absolutely none. Still, the clean slices and passes of the gently curved katana were beautiful to behold.
She folded up the blanket and padded into the bathroom. When she came out, brushing her hair out, he was apparently finished with his sword practice and sat in meditation on the wooden platform she'd noticed at the edge of the back yard. Part of it seemed to be built out over the water. The yard fell away in a small cliff, no sandy beach on this edge of the island. Expensive house, expensive property. She wondered what Jonathan Raven had done to acquire the funds to live as he did.
He was aware of someone approaching, silently. His mind was clear. He was centered in his universe. The steps were quite, but not stealthy. "Good morning, Mandy."
"Good morning. Nice dragon." She commented on the tattoo that covered his left shoulder blade. "Mean anything, or just like the design enough to sit through the torture?"
He looked around at her. The gaze was innocently inquiring. "Not a question most people ask." Europe and America did not put much stock in tattoos, their associations left mostly to the underground subcultures of street gangs and Goths. She knew enough that his might be more than just a decoration.
"I'm not most people."
True enough. "No, you're not," he agreed. "I received it while I was training with the Black Dragon Clan." Yes, the flicker of recognition in her eyes. Now where would she have heard of the Black Dragons.
"Wow. Good thing the triads didn't know I had a seriously Japanese cousin, huh?"
"Yeah. Ran with a couple of Triad gangs in San Francisco for a while. Very big on tattoos. Very anti- Japanese. Very deadly."
"I should think they'd be more concerned with the Japanese criminals."
"Yakuza. Yeah. Nasty bits of work." Her eyes grew darker. She shook her head. "Sorry. Bad time in the Empire," she joked. He looked blank. "You've been on another planet, haven't you?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"The laser platform the government wants to build?"
"No, the movies the government named the platform after."
"Yeah. Based, loosely, on the Samurai Trilogy with -- oh, shoot. Not Akira Kurosawa, the actor -- Toshiro Mifune! That was it!"
Jonathan was lost and looked it. Popular culture was not one of his strong points. "Missed it completely, I guess."
She laughed. "Oh, my. Maybe we should further your education. Do you even have a TV?"
"Good. Tape rental."
She sighed. "You do live on another plane of existence, don't you?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"OK. Try this. Movies have been released to the public on videotape. There are places you can rent them so that you may view them in the privacy and comfort of your own home."
"Actually, I was aware of that."
She laughed. It had an infectious ring to it. "Good. I was beginning to suspect that the real Jonathan Raven had been kidnapped by aliens and replaced." OK, that one went over his head as well. "Bad joke. Comes from people acting out of character and someone looking at them and saying something like "who are you and what have you done with -- insert appropriate term --? --- You missed that part of popular culture completely, didn't you?"
"I think so. I think I'm glad I did."
He led the way to breakfast. He was surprised when he didn't get the usual questioning look over his preference for a Japanese style breakfast. Nor did she seem to have a problem with chopsticks as eating utensils. "You are full of surprises."
The sticks stopped halfway between plate and mouth. "Oh?"
"I don't often meet people who aren't Japanese who use chopsticks with such dexterity."
"Triad," she responded as monosyllabically as she could and continued eating. Of course, the Chinese tended to retain the cultural preference for eating sticks as well. Breakfast continued in silence.
The silence ended when Ski arrived. "Jonathan."
"Oh, yeah." Ski had managed through the front door and across the house before Jonathan's reminder caused him to stop and kick off his shoes. He tucked them under one arm as he continued toward the two. "Mornin'," he bobbed his head toward Mandy as he realized she was there.
"Good morning. Uhm -- why don't I leave you two to talk?" She picked up her plate and glass and walked into the house.
Ski sat down across from Jonathan who serenely finished his breakfast. "Yes?"
"I don't know who she is, but she ain't Amanda Bright." He wasn't happy about watching his friend's face cloud over. "At least, she ain't any Amanda Bright I can find." He set a file down on the table between them.
There was a long silence. Then the younger man reached over and picked up the file. The girl's fingerprints had come up negative. She wasn't in any database to which they had access, so she probably wasn't in any database at all. Of the three Amanda Brights Ski had located information on, one was an ancient tribal artist of the Navajo who used only a portion of her name to sign her wares. One was a middle-aged teacher in Saskatchewan.
The third was in her late twenties and had disappeared about three years earlier. The third was the story "Mandy" had spun when she first met Cousin Jonathan. Only the age was wrong. So was the accompanying picture. A pleasant faced, thin blonde gazed out of the picture. She looked older than her age, worn. Ski watched his friend's face harden as he scanned the information.
He got up, setting the file down, and strode into the house. It was empty. The dish and glass had been washed, dried and put away. On the counter lay a thick, leather bound, dog-eared book. It was a half sized loose-leaf notebook. He picked it up. It was a diary. Amanda Bright's diary. He frowned as he read the first page. Amanda had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Very rare. No cure. She had apparently started the diary soon after the diagnosis. It started as a morbid analysis of every ache and pain.
It became clear that Amanda's nature was brighter than that. And the account became one of small triumphs as she outlived the doctor's prognosis. She deliberately divested herself of everything she owned, acquired a nationally accepted debit card and walked out of whatever life she had once called hers. The open road had called, and she had answered. He leafed through the diary swiftly, looking for some hint of who the woman was who now called herself Mandy Bright.
A few pages from the end, when the writing began to degenerate, he found a name and a description. "She has the most outlandish name. Jarial. At least, that's what she's using now. So alone. So young. And yet not young at all. I see lightning in her eyes. And something else. Sometimes someone else looks at me out of her eyes. Not all of them are as nice as she is."
Two pages farther on: "I made her promise to find him. I know I won't make it now. It doesn't hurt, but everything is failing. The clinic wants to put me in the hospital. Silly people. I won't go. But I made her promise. He needs to know we didn't forget him, we didn't abandon him. Well, we did, but not because we wanted to. Dad couldn't. There just wasn't any way. Not then. I hope he will forgive us."
The final entry, in someone else's hand. "Amanda Bethany Bright. 11:40pm. January 3, 1991. May the angels keep thee."
"So, who's the girl?"
"I suspect a young woman named Jarial who befriended Amanda Bright the last few months of her life."
"So, why's she passin' herself off as Mandy?"
"I don't know. But I intend to find out." He wondered if Daniel was still alive. Something neither the Black Dragons nor the Agency had told him. No ties outside. He wondered why he felt more saddened than angry. Maybe all his work was paying off.
Mandy Bright or Jarial or any number of other names she had ever used, was walking determinedly no where in particular, the pack on her back seeming oddly lighter and heavier at the same time. "I tried." She kept telling herself that. She had tried, she really had tried to do what she thought Mandy would have wanted. She had tried to experience meeting Jonathan Raven as though they really were related. It hadn't worked. He was just too good at what he did. Whatever that was.
She sighed. "You would have liked him." She changed direction, heading for someplace she knew, someplace she had to go before she accessed her fund transfer Monday and left Hawaii for a while.
Some time later, there was a phone call placed to Jonathan Raven from his good friend Ski who had finally managed to locate the girl who had claimed to be Jonathan's cousin.
"Cemetery. The big one with the little urn cubicles." Ski wasn't actually being cryptic, he was just describing a place that gave him the willies.
Jonathan looked at his watch and shook his head. How long would she be here? He moved swiftly out to his car, a sense of being watched caused him to survey the area. Nothing. He shrugged it off and drove to the cemetery. Ski met him at the front gate.
"She's still there."
"Wait here." The taller man walked softly in this place of death that looked so alive. The grass was green and even. The plants, set as memorials and to make the setting as pleasant as possible for the living that visited here, seemed unnaturally without movement. He crossed the gravel walk and entered the building reserved for those cremated and their visitors. Odd concept that. He was a little surprised that there were as many rows of urn walls as there were. He walked quietly, nodding to the occasional -- mourner? Visitor? -- he encountered.
He heard her voice softly talking before he saw her. Cautiously, he approached the end of the row.
"He got miffed. I mean it's understandable. He's got a really good radar sense for people lying to him. Then he turns into a thundercloud. It never occurred to me he'd have so many information connections. So, I walked out. I left him your diary."
He chanced a quick look. She was standing, almost leaning her head against the wall. Her fingertips were touching the plaque in front of her, and there were several small figurines sitting on the ledge in front of the plaque. She reached in her pocket and pulled out another small figure. Muttering something he didn't quite catch, she set the figure on the ledge, and a watery laugh escaped her.
"You're running out of room for your herd. I hope you can hear me. I hope you can know that I tried. But I'm not you. And he's not the type to put up with mysteries or conundrums, or figures that don't add up. I'm sorry. You would have liked him. There's a lot of caring under that hard shell. And the shell's got some soft places, too. I think they're pretty new. It's like he really wants to reach out, but he has a very, very hard time letting people reach back."
She gently stroked each figurine with her fingertip. "His friend is a trip, as they say. There's a lot of caring on both sides. No story tho'. Didn't stick around long enough to get it, or even try. Well, I think I've given all the visitors on both sides of this wall way too much to think about. I guess I'll go hit the ATM and put up with the alien ATM charges. Sounds like the things come from another planet. Dangerous planet, at that. I'll stop by again."
She picked up her backpack and walked to the opposite end of the row before turning toward the exit. Curious, Jonathan went to look at the plaque. Amanda B. Bright. There was a row of little cow figures on the ledge in front of the plaque. All were exquisitely carved, frozen motion. A few wore whorls of color on their sides and heads. He knew of no religion for which these were symbols. Perhaps Amanda and her friend had collected small figures like this. He walked to the end of the row and turned toward the exit.
He found her standing about five feet away from the jeep frowning at it. "What are you doing here?" she demanded of him without preface, and without turning to face him. Her stance indicated a certain amount of anger.
"Looking for you."
She turned to face him, a hardness in her making her seem suddenly much older. "Why?"
"I read some of the diary."
"So, I thought I might owe you an apology." // HUH?//
She considered this. "Why? I mean, I could see you thinking I owed you an apology, but not the other way round."
"I'm not certain I appreciate what you did, but I understand it, I think." He was surprised to see tears form in her eyes.
She turned away. "Well, it's over. Done with. Don't give it another thought."
"Need a lift?" He tried another tack.
"No." Sniffle. Sniff.
"Someone to talk to?" he asked softly as he stepped up behind her. He hesitated, then reached out and pulled her into his arms. She resisted slightly, then yielded and turned her face into his shoulder. He held her and let the grief wear itself out.
She sniffed and inhaled shakily, ineffectually brushing at her face with one hand. "Sorry." The word was muffled by her position against him. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and offered it to her. She accepted, wiped her face off and blew her nose solidly. She regarded the piece of cloth for a moment and tucked it into her pocket. "I'll get it washed."
"Don't worry about it. Do you have a name?"
She regarded him with those wide dark, still damp eyes. "Of course, I do."
"Could you tell me what it is?"
She shrugged her shoulders and backed out of his loosened grip. "You'd just know who I am then. Probably decide I needed sending home, which I don't."
"If I promise not to try to send you home? Mandy and Jarial are nice names, but I don't think either one is yours."
She grinned at that. "You *are* scary."
"Not too scary?"
"Keshthal." // What the hell do you think you're doing!// a part of her mind shouted in alarm.
"Keshthal -- ?"
"Dah bosh Neth."
Jonathan regarded the young woman seriously for a moment. Something in her relaxed stance told him that this was the truth, whether he recognized the name or not. "Keshthal Dabosh Neth. Interesting name."
"Yeah." // And one unlikely to have touched his life before.//
She laughed. "You keep asking me that."
"You keep answering in the affirmative."
More laughter. The sadness of a few moments earlier seemed to have passed. "This time, I'll buy." She caught his troubled look over that. "Hey, my plastic is as good as anyone's."
"In your own name?"
"Hardly. But I pay my bills and so my credit is good on this card and a couple of others. Emergency funds, so to speak."
"All right. Where?"
"That way!" she pointed as she stepped into the jeep.
How she had managed to discover the best Japanese - Korean - Mongol restaurant in Honolulu was beyond him. It served both traditional (non Americanized) Japanese fare and the more common Western versions. It also served Mongolian Hot Pot and Korean delicacies to burn the tongue and tantalize the appetite. And Keshthal immediately realized her error upon entering. She'd forgotten how well she had once known the young man who established the restaurant in the teeth of societal disapproval.
Haruki Notama was no longer a young man. Thick bifocal glasses enlarged his slivers of black eyes in a plump face. Unlike many of his countrymen, he had become plump over the years. Well into his 70's, his hair was white, worn slightly long. He nodded to the man and woman as they entered, and then did a double take of classic proportions.
"Kay? Kay Long? No, it cannot be. Kay -- "
"My grandmother, Mr. Notama," she slid in deftly. "She told me a lot about you."
"Grandmother? Oh, no? To young to -- ah, but no." He bowed slightly, honor, but to one much younger.
Keshthal returned the bow, to the proper depth to greet an elder of her grandmother's generation. "You honor me to see the resemblance."
"I am pleased that she remembers me. She told you of the restaurant?"
"Yes, sir. And I hate to be impatient, but I am so very hungry for the delicious food she told me about." She managed the perfect blend of wheedle and mischief to appeal to the old man.
He nodded and summoned a waiter. "Good table for these two. Granddaughter of an old friend. -- I will stop by the table."
"I would be honored."
"Long?" Jonathan whispered as they were shown to a table.
"Maternal Grandmother," she shot back without missing a beat. She could see that he didn't believe her. This was gonna be rocky.
"Ah. Striking resemblance, I take it."
"Spittin' image. Although, I suspect anyone accusing the old lady of spitting would feel the sharp edge of her tongue and the edge of her cane."
The smile didn't quite reach his eyes. Would she ever just tell him the truth? // And what have you done to earn that trust?//
The meal passed without too many hitches.
"Where to now?" her companion asked as they left the restaurant.
"I dunno. You have someplace to go?"
"Yes. I do." He hadn't worked on his house for a while. Not the one he lived in currently, but one he was building on land still relatively wild. He wasn't certain why he was considering inviting her along, but he was. Perhaps it was the hidden depths. Perhaps it was just the need to share the beauty of the place with someone. He suspected she would appreciate it.
And it gave him an excuse to leave town for a while, to get rid of the nagging feeling that someone was watching him.
Inside the restaurant, an elegant Japanese businessman finished his meal and paid for it. His eyes never left his quarry as the man and woman got into the so Western vehicle and drove off. Whenever he was near enough, he felt the tingle that told him another of his kind was nigh. Good. That would make his killing of the traitor Jonathan Raven a double pleasure.
They stopped at Jonathan's house to pick up tools, tent and some food supplies. She blinked at the stuff he stuck in the back.
"Uhm -- camping?"
"Let me out when you turn off the highway," she told him with a laugh.
He looked at her for a moment, trying to decide how to take that. "All right."
They drove in silence. He started to offer her lunch when they approached a roadside restaurant he liked. He discovered his passenger was asleep, her head braced against the roll bar and her arms wrapped loosely around her backpack. She looked, older rather than younger, which was odd.
He stopped, hesitated slightly about leaving her alone and decided she would be all right. He went inside, got his meal and returned. She was still asleep. Peaceful looking. He slid back into the driver's seat and drove on.
Keshthal awoke with the cessation of movement. She yawned, stretched sleepily and looked down over the side of the door. Dirt. Rocks. Thud. Thud? She looked over. Jonathan was unloading the back of the jeep.
"Uhm. You ran out of road?" she asked, blinking sleepily.
"Uhm, wasn't there mention of letting me out when you turned off the highway?" she asked as she climbed out of the jeep and looked at the items sitting on the ground.
"You were asleep."
"I have been known to wake up if approached properly."
He smiled. "I didn't know that."
She laughed. "Guess not. You really need all this stuff to go camp out?"
He picked up the tent and a pack and moved into the undergrowth. He could feel her eyes on him. He kept moving. He was surprised to hear her behind him. He walked until he came to the clearing where he was building a house, slowly. He dropped his burdens on the ground and turned to see his guest arriving with the rest of his things. She set them down and looked at him.
"Thought I'd save you the trip back and forth."
'Thank you. Staying?"
She was looking around, taking in the platform of the floor, the waterfall feeding the lake in front of it, the wild growth of native plants. "It's beautiful. I can see why you'd choose it."
She looked at the floor he had built already. "Not bad. You do all the work?"
"Kewl. Is it swim-able?" she nodded toward the pond/lake.
"Good. I could use a cool down." She dropped her pack at the edge of the water and stripped out of her clothing. She entered the water in one smooth move, leaving her host bemused on the bank. She surfaced and looked around.
"Do you always do that?"
"Ignore convention?" He knew the answer to that before he finished speaking. Of course she did.
"You mean skinny dipping with an audience?" She splashed a handful of water at him. “You look like you could use cooling off."
He dodged the water. "sI have a tent to set up."
He walked away from the water. The flash of lightly tanned skin through the shaded water was -- tantalizing. He set about putting his tent up. It took a little longer than usual. When he was finished, he looked around to see her standing under the waterfall, enjoying the sensation of clean, cool water on her skin. He walked around the pool to the edge of the waterfall.
She looked up at him and laughed, gurgling water as she did. "Peeping Tom?"
'Hardly. You're in plain sight. And under age."
"I thought we settled that."
"I'm over 18."
He couldn't resist the question. "How much over?"
She laughed. "Enough." She splashed back into the water and swam away, a pale golden fish in a sun-dappled pond.
Jonathan watched her for a while, wondering why he wanted to join her, swim with her -- he pulled his libido back into line. He had no reason to believe her words, yet he felt that this time she had told the truth, or a part of it. And if she was over 18, and not his cousin, there was nothing to hold him -- except his usual distrust of anyone who lied to him. And she had lied to him -- in a good cause. At least, she had thought it was a good cause.
He wondered if he also believed it was a good cause. He found himself wishing he had met his cousin. He turned away from the water and went back to where he was working on the house. He took a moment to decide what to work on next. The last time he'd been out, he'd gotten very little accomplished due to his trying to get to know the boy who had come with him. He smiled at that, Lucas hadn't been his son, but he had turned out to be a good kid who now lived with a couple Jonathan knew.
He probably would have done more if a trio of thugs hadn't shown up looking for Lucas and he hadn't gotten shot. He was glad things had worked out for Lucas, even if it did leave a hollow place he was beginning to wonder if he'd ever manage to fill. He started sawing, determined to block out his misgivings about finding his son, or anyone else to share his life.
Water sprinkled him, breaking his concentration. He looked around with an exasperated look. Nothing. Water ripples. He turned back to the saw. Water. He had a feeling he wouldn't see anything if he turned around again. He turned his head. He was right.
"Boy, you're no fun," Keshthal told him as she came up to the bankS.
"I wasn't aware I was supposed to be entertaining you," he said crossly.
She laughed. "No. You're working. What are you working on?"
Keshthal stepped out of the water, her skin shedding water like a duck's feathers. She shook off the remaining droplets and began pulling on her T-shirt and jeans. An infinitesimal buzzing in the back of her head warned her there was another of her kind nearby. She shook it off, ignored it as she did the small flying insects that inhabited the area.
She pulled on her pants and shirt and walked over. "Wouldn't it go faster if you had someone on the other end of the saw?"
She took a grip on the other handle and looked at him expectantly.
"This isn't easy."
"Did I ask?"
With a darkling look, he took his grip on the other side and pulled. He was surprised that she fell into rhythm with him as easily as she did. They worked in silence for a while; neatly cutting even width slabs off of the log he had been working on. The sounds of the saw against the wood and the waterfall became the world.
He realized about halfway through the fourth cut that his companion was chanting something under her breath. He stopped the saw. Keshthal looked up curiously.
"No. You said something."
"I did?" She looked honestly surprised, thought for a moment, then laughed. "Oh, I was probably chanting."
"Uh, yeah. It's -- something I -- picked up somewhere." Oh, shoot, there was that look again. But then, he'd probably look that way if she told him is was a work chant from her childhood tending the cattle and oxen that were the life of her people -- several thousand years ago. Nyah. Not functional.
"Jonathan, it is a work chant. You know, rhythmic sounds that make work seem less monotonous? Like for planting rice, winnowing wheat, that sort of thing?"
"I know what a work chant is." He did. There were still farmlands in Japan where the age old chants and drums were used to keep people working in a rhythm designed to make the time pass faster. "Teach it to me."
She grinned. "Done."
The words were like nothing he'd ever heard, and had touches of several of the languages he knew. The rhythm worked well with the sound and motion of the saw. The work passed quickly, their voices providing counterpoint to each other.
"Whew." She drew a hand across her sweaty brow. "You look like you've been swimming." Her admiring gaze traveled up and down his sweat slick torso and arms. "I think we've accomplished a great deal, even if I don't know what we're doing, exactly," she finished with a laugh.
"Working on my house."
"*That* part I had. The specifics elude me. I need a drink of water." She walked over to the water, leaned down and scooped water into her hand and then her mouth. Jonathan watched fascinated. The movement was smooth, practiced, and primitive; something only a person who had lived off the land and in a primitive society would have mastered so well.
She sneaked a peek at him watching her. He turned away, reaching for a towel to dry off. A mischievous grin curved her mouth. She reached around for a small container she had left conveniently next to the water, filled it and was on her feet and moving before Jonathan turned back to her. The contents drenched him.
The reaction was all she could have hoped for; he whirled, focused and reached. She danced back, laughing. "Hey, you needed to cool off."
"I needed -- " The grin was not exactly nice as he advanced on her. A part of him appreciated what she had done; he was definitely cooler than he had been a few moments earlier. The other part wanted to catch her, spank her and get some straight answers out of her. He stalked forward.
She kept dancing backwards until she teetered on the edge of the pool. "Oh, shit," she laughed as she realized her balance was about to leave her in the water. Jonathan grabbed for her and missed. Splash. He got wet again.
Keshthal surfaced laughing and spluttering. She looked up at a dripping Jonathan. "Uhm, hi? Come on in, the water's fine."
He shook his head, drops of water showering out of his hair. "Why not." He stripped off his trousers and joined her in the water. He swam toward her and was not surprised when she coyly dove under the surface and swam away. He lazed in the water for a while before seriously attempting to capture his companion.
It took some work, but finally he managed to lay hands on Keshthal. She was a lithe laughing bundle in his arms, exciting quite a number of responses from him. He looked down into her dark eyes and nearly lost himself in them. Their lips met, softly, exploring. He pulled back. Was that disappointment in her eyes? He let her go, not quite knowing why and swam back to the shore, pulling himself out onto the bank and heading for a towel.
Keshthal watched him go. She wondered what she had triggered. It was obvious that he was attracted to her, that he had wanted the kiss as much as she had, that he wanted more than just the kiss, yet he had broken off, walked away -- so to speak. She lay back in the water and lazed her way across to the waterfall. The thunder of the water cut off all other sounds, making the world wet and silent beyond the fall.
Jonathan was reaching for a clean shirt when he became aware that he was no longer alone.
The elegant Japanese gentleman from the restaurant had followed the pair, discreetly. He wondered that the man did not seem wary, to sense him. Perhaps he was newly come to his knowledge. That would make it a short fight. Although Jonathan Raven was acknowledged a master of the sword in the Clan, he would be no match for the centuries honed skills of the Japanese. He allowed a smile to curve his thin lips.
He parked his own vehicle in an unobtrusive area, well away from the Jeep Renegade the gaijin drove. He admired the vehicle, the shiny surface, the black hue, the well-kept cleanliness, all bespoke a man of habit and breeding. His face hardened. A traitor to the Clan, murderer. He would take the Clan's vengeance on Jonathan Raven, today.
Clad in black from top of head to split toed boots, he slid swiftly through the trees to find his quarry. Almost a pity he would have to deal with the woman as well, but there was no sense in leaving witnesses to his vengeance. It was a part of the game.
He witnessed Jonathan coming out of the water, leaving the woman behind. He smiled. The gaijin sensed him coming. Good. Perhaps the woman would not witness enough to have to die.
Jonathan straightened, some sixth sense telling him of the attack as the Ninja clad figure burst out of the greenery surrounding the clearing and attacked him. He evaded the attack, much more easily than he would have anticipated. He turned to face the man, black clad from head to foot, only his eyes and hands left bare.
"I am Hiroki Tasumatu, Black Dragon Clan," he introduced himself formally in Japanese. He waited for Jonathan to do the same.
Instead, the man looked bemused, a frown furrowing his brow. He bowed courteously and waited. This was retribution, revenge for the vengeance he had exacted on the Black Dragon Clan. He was known to the entire clan. Yet something prompted him to speak.
"Jonathan Raven, no longer of the Black Dragon Clan," he said softly.
Tasumatu bowed and drew his sword. Jonathan looked around for something to use as a weapon, knowing the sword was razor sharp and deadly in the hands of a master. He moved backwards and away, awaiting the first strike and praying he'd find something to defend himself with before the man struck. He stumbled over a length of bamboo, rolled backwards and came to his feet with the length in his hands.
Tasumatu frowned behind his mask. Was this one so young he did not know the rules? No matter. The traitor would die. He struck and was surprised to find he had not touched his opponent. Raven now had two pieces of bamboo and a worried look on his face. He didn't need Keshthal coming back to the clearing in the middle of this and he had lost track of her.
He waited for the Japanese to move again. He tried to clear his mind of everything but the fight at hand. The strike came, fast, slicing his ribs as he moved away, striking with both lengths of bamboo and feeling a rib crack under his assault. He followed up swiftly, striking hard and fast, beating a tattoo on his opponent’s body, but not doing enough damage to make certain the man would stay down. He was breathing hard as he avoided another strike and went down, tripping over Keshthal's backpack. He expected to feel the bite of the other's steel and was surprised when nothing happened.
Then he heard the water and Keshthal's voice. There was something eerie about the intonations as she spoke.
"I am Keshthal Dah Bos Neth, Forever Chosen and Beloved of the Herd. In the end, there can be only one."
The ninja turned his eyes toward the water. Naked, water running off her golden skin, hair her only covering, Keshthal stood on the bank and smiled. He could feel the vibrations now, stronger than any he had felt before. Yet she stood unarmed before him.
"Me. What, you thought my companion was the one? Chauvinist." The last was without rancor.
He turned to face her fully, and bowed, repeating his formal introduction. She nodded her understanding. Now, what the hell was she gonna do for a weapon. Keshthal, unlike others of her kind, had not carried a sword with her in decades. She noticed Jonathan reaching into his tent and bringing out -- the katana he had on display at his home.
Jonathan's face was a study of reactions as he reached into the tent and pulled out the treasured sword. He took a breath and tossed the sword to the woman at the edge of the water, praying that this was the right choice.
She caught it and pulled the blade from the scabbard in one smooth move. She settled into a comfortable stance, one he did not recognize, but that he saw was right for her. She waited at the water's edge for the other to move.
He moved, swift, sure and surprised when he missed, again. Damn. He turned, blade flashing in the light, hers ringing against his in defense. Her style was a bastardization of several, incorporating samurai with two-handed European styling. And it worked. It was almost as though she anticipated his moves. Then he realized, her eyes were open, but unfocused. This was a master of the sword he faced, a master who had entered the Zen state within a very few moments of the beginning of the battle. Fear touched the ninja's heart. As good as he was, the fabled Zen fugue state was not one he had ever attained.
That was his last thought as she dove under his stroke, slicing across his waist and chest, through ribs and lungs and heart. He froze, feeling his death, knowing that this was one from which he would not return. His sword started to drop as she came up and drew the blade backwards across his neck, removing his head. She stopped moving as the head separated from the body, a striking golden statue with a bloody blade in one hand and the sword's scabbard in the other.
Jonathan watched the body drop. "You didn't have to kill him," he heard himself say; somehow knowing that he was wrong. Yet the death was affecting him profoundly. Another death to lay at his door, another Dragon dead. When did it stop?
She turned toward him; her face carved of stone, and blinked. "Yes. I did," she said softly.
And then the lightning started.
Jonathan's eyes widened in disbelief as the energy poured out of the body into the clearing, the bolts of what looked like lightning striking Keshthal and the sword she held again and again, apparently feeding into her. She tilted her head back and bellowed into the maelstrom. The word was unintelligible to him.
The storm died down as abruptly as it had started. Keshthal looked around at Jonathan, realized it was his sword she was holding and neatly re-scabbarded it before sinking to her knees in front of him and holding it out to return it. He accepted the sword, staring at the top of her appropriately bowed head.
"What --" He tried to find his voice and tried again. "What was that?"
She met his gaze. "A lot of energy." She grinned lopsidedly. Did he really want to know? Did she dare trust him with the reality?
"I noticed. It was *necessary* to kill him? What you said when you came out of the water --"
"In the end, there can be only one," she repeated softly. "At least, that's what the legend says."
"Legend?" Was he really ready for this? Did he really want to know? He gazed into her eyes and knew that he did. "Could we try this from the beginning?"
She laughed and leaned forward to kiss him. The kiss deepened and he found himself with an armful of naked, slightly damp, insistent woman. He stopped fighting what was rapidly becoming inevitable.
They lay on the grass, tangled limbs, enjoying the afterglow of their vigorous coupling. He leaned up slightly, supporting his head on one hand and stroked her golden skin with the other. "Who are you?"
"I told you. Keshthal Dah Bos Neth .."
"Forever Chosen and Beloved of the Herd," he repeated from memory. "What does that mean?"
'What it says. My people were the people of the Herd. They were our life. We cared for them, and we were of them. The herds stretched as far as the eye could see. When they moved, the sound was like thunder before a storm." He could see that she was there in her mind, not here.
She focused on him. "Are you sure you really want to hear this?"
"I like being told the truth."
"Yes, you do," she agreed, coming back to the present and stroking the side of his face with a fingertip. She took a breath and released it. "It was a very long time ago."
"Yeah. The chant. The title. They dug up my birthplace a while back. It's called Chatal Huyuk, in Turkey."
The name meant nothing to him. "Old?"
"And that would make you?"
He looked her up and down. "Nice antique. Well kept up."
She pushed him away with a laugh. "I'm an immortal."
"Immortal? As in --"
"Practically impossible to kill. There are a number of us. The legend tells us that we will survive until a final combat is called. After that combat, there will be only one and that one will gain a great prize. The legend's a little hazy about the prize, but most believe the final immortal will rule the world in one form or another."
"And nobody knows about you?"
"I didn't say that."
"So, someone knows about -- immortals?"
"The Watchers know. And the companions of a number of them know."
"Of course. If you have a number of hidden entities who may or may not eventually rule the world, word gets out. Others have seen our battles over time. Luckily, most of those who know of us are not inclined to share that knowledge. The Watchers keep records. I think they want to make certain that the wrong one doesn't end up with the prize."
"You have a -- Watcher?"
"Uh, no," she admitted, with almost a guilty look.
Well, that was good. "Why not?"
"I -- I think we might want to get dressed."
"I'll tell. I'm getting chilly."
They got dressed in silence. She sat on the edge of the floor to his house and tried to remember the exact events that led to her walking away from the life she had built. There was Gary. Oh, yes. Gary. After all this time, it still hurt to remember him. Jonathan watched her face as she tried to gain control of emotions long buried. He sat next to her.
"I had a companion. About fifty years ago. He was -- 25 or so when we met. He was barely 30 when he died."
She shook her head. "No. Disease. He knew about us, we were companions. He was diagnosed with -- a blood disorder. I couldn't do anything but watch him die. I tried. I looked at every possible treatment, I made certain he was comfortable and we did the things he wanted to do for two and a half years. I held him in my arms and watched him slip away from me." She looked at him, unshed tears in her eyes. "I knew he would die, but we had so short a time -- and it cut so deep."
He pulled her into his arms and held her. He felt her arms go around him. She took a shaky breath. "And then?"
"I walked away from everything. I saw him buried, I turned all of my assets over to a company that would establish a foundation to research and find a cure for what killed him, and I walked away."
"Just a back pack and the clothes on your back?"
"Not even that. I took only what I wore. I left the antiques and the artifacts I had collected over a thousand years, I left everything to Gary's family and the foundation."
"But you didn't stick around to make certain it worked."
"No. I couldn't. It hurt too much. Hell, I haven't even carried a sword in fifty years."
"Looks like you still know how to use one."
"Yeah. So, what now?" She looked into his face and tried to read it.
"What do you want?"
She smiled. "I dunno. Maybe I could help this man I met build a house out here."
"That's an idea."
"Think he'd let me?"
"I think -- I think he'd be very glad to have your help. If you can manage not to lie to him."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Lies become a way of survival. Think about it."
He did. Just as he had relied on false information to survive as an assassin, as he had told lies to stay in the Black Dragons until he could exact his vengeance. "Sometimes they do," he agreed, holding her close.
"But I think you can be trusted, Jonathan Raven."
"And I think you can," he told her softly, wondering exactly what he was saying.
He told her about his background, about Ski, about his son and his search for the boy. He admitted to slaying the Black Dragons and being an assassin, and he was relieved when she did not turn away from him. He saw understanding, sympathy and a growing love for him in those eyes.
They disposed of the body and head and settled into his tent for the night. She snuggled against him, warm and willing. "Jonathan."
"I love you," she whispered in his ear.
A great weight seemed to lift from him. He held her tightly, his heart, so often held under lock and key, felt like it had expanded inside his chest. "And I, you," he told her, resting his face against her soft, thick hair. "And I, you."