From a crouched position behind a cement pillar, Ian stood upright, lowered his camera, and stared north.
“What are you doing?” Dijeree hissed, still on one knee beside him, night-vision goggles giving her a froglike appearance.
“Zeke’s back,” Ian said. It took all of his self-control not to drop everything and start running up Alaskan Way toward home.
“Oh, that’s great! Shitty timing, but great.” She stood as well, shoving the goggles back into her spiky red hair. The top of her head came to the level of Ian’s chin. Diminutive in stature, Ian’s best friend and former roommate was in no way diminutive in personality. She wore all black, the better to blend into shadows, but her hair was like a glowing flame, and the porcelain skin of her face shone like a miniature moon. She was human, but claimed a pixie ancestry.
The nymph they’d been tracking had vanished the instant Ian blew his cover. In search of tourists to cajole and roll, she’d been roaming the parking area beneath the elevated viaduct that ran along the waterfront.
“She’s on to us now.” Dijeree sighed and pulled the goggles from her head. She peered at him and tugged on his sleeve. “So is Zeke all right? You look dazed.”
A good part of Ian’s mind was taken up with interpreting signals traveling along the lines connecting him to Zeke. Zeke was alive and free and apparently robust. A hot, tingling energy coursed beneath Ian’s skin. But something was off. Zeke was holding back. Was he in danger? Had he been followed from the dark realm?
“Ian?” Dijeree asked.
“He’s okay. It’s complicated though. I’ve got to go home.”
“Natch. I’ll drive. You’ve got that lost-in-fairyland look in your eyes.”
“Uh-huh.” Ian stooped to gather their equipment. Recording actual images of magical beings was no easy task. Being mostly elfin, Ian didn’t need the goggles, which he’d cast a bit of magic-spotting enchantment over for Dijeree’s use, but getting a good photo for the pages of the Cosmic Eye
, the paper where he and Dijeree worked, required special lighting, special film, special filters, and most importantly, luck and charm.
A nymph intent on larceny probably wouldn’t hold still for any of Ian’s smooth flattery and coaxing anyway.
“How long has Zeke been MIA?” Dijeree asked.
“Three weeks. He said he’d only be away one.” Ian shouldered the heavy duffel bag and started walking toward Dijeree’s VW bug.
“Seems longer. You’re a bitch when he’s away.”
“I won’t argue with that. He keeps me grounded.”
“Yeah, that whole dark elf, light elf business. What you need is the opposite of one of those mood lights. Something that beams dark, gloomy energy at you while Zeke’s away.”
“That’s not an entirely bad idea.” Already, with Zeke’s energy coursing into him, Ian felt less uptight. The crippling worry that had been building ever since Zeke left lightened ever so slightly, like mist burning away at the first hint of dawn. As fear retreated, anger crept into its place. Damn inconsiderate svarta.
Ian tried to form a more substantial link, to find out what was happening, but still, Zeke wouldn’t respond. The tiny piece of Zeke that resided in Ian’s heart and never truly went away, like a speck of smoldering ember, flared and warmed Ian from the inside out. Not seeing what was before him, he walked straight into a garbage can. The resulting clang and clatter echoed off the cement bridge above them and drew the attention of some nefarious types lurking between buildings, the tips of their cigarettes glowing in the murky shadows. There were more creatures on the waterfront to be concerned with, not just nymphs and fairies. Humans were every bit as dangerous. Sometimes more so.
Thankfully Ian and Dijeree reached the car before the gang decided they were worth messing with. They threw their stuff in the cramped back seat and climbed in. The lurkers faded away.
“Let’s get you home. You won’t be good for anything until you hook up with Zeke.” Dijeree fired up the engine, and the headlights beamed across the mostly empty parking area. A green woman wrapped in a gauzy shift stood in front of them. The nymph they’d been hunting had come out to play. She lifted a graceful arm and flipped them off. Then she vanished in a swirl of green and silver.
* * * *
The instant the car stopped moving, Ian jumped out onto the sidewalk. The taste of Zeke’s magic hung ripe in the air. Mouth watering in response, Ian hurried up the narrow walkway, across the neglected lawn. He stopped at the foot of the steps. Desire drew him into the house and to Zeke like a leaf into a whirlpool. But if there was one thing Zeke had taught Ian in all their months together, it was not to rush blindly ahead while consumed with emotions.
Ian put one foot on the bottom step. It creaked in its comfortingly familiar way. The simple locking spell he’d cast was still in place.
He looked around the outside of the house, past the tangle of rhododendron bushes, lilacs, and wisteria vines for any sign of what might be keeping Zeke silent. Instead of lurking trolls or sinister elves, he spotted his Aunt Cleona bustling down the sidewalk, elbows swinging, her caftan a tidal wave of silk swishing around her.
Dijeree climbed out of the car and waved. “Hey, Cleona!”
Ian sighed. So much for a private rendezvous with his long-lost lover.
Cleona didn’t answer but continued to huff and puff as she veered off the sidewalk and marched straight toward Ian. She’d apparently power-walked the six blocks from her apartment. Her kinky blonde hair bobbed around her face, and in the light from the porch, Ian could see she was flushed, her golden eyes gleaming.
“Where is he?” she wheezed.
“Good evening, Aunt,” Ian said. “What brings you out this late at night?”
“Cut the chitchat. Alistair called me, so I know what your dark elf is up to.”
“Then you know more than I do,” Ian said. “What is Zeke up to?”
“He’s promised to help that crazy old coot catch a mermaid. I don’t care if Alistair thinks he’s in love with Mellosa, those fishy floozies are dangerous! What is Zeke thinking?”
“I have no idea.” Ian furrowed his brow, wondering why Zeke had sought out Alistair before contacting Ian and what in the world mermaids had to do with anything.
Cleona elbowed past him and marched up the steps. “Unlock that spelly-majig. Zeke has some explaining to do.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?” Ian grumbled.
“Alistair is laying in supplies and getting ready to set sail, so no, it can’t wait.”
“What’s this about mermaids?” Dijeree asked, coming up behind Ian.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” Ian said. “That is, if Zeke’s home.”
“Of course he is! Even a humble witch can tell that much.” Cleona pressed in against the spell, muttering curses beneath her breath as sparks prickled up her arms.
Ian waved his hand in the air and uttered the unlocking phrase. Cleona lurched forward, righted herself, and twisted the doorknob. She barreled inside. Ian and Dijeree ran up the stairs after her.
“Zeke!” Cleona shouted. “I want a word with you!”
Ian entered the house just in time to witness a bizarre display of magic. Translucent sheathes of shimmering lavender curled up from the floor. Like the petals of an enormous flower, they closed around Cleona, the bee at their center. She was instantly immobilized, though not silenced. Her shriek pierced the night.
“Holy Venus flytrap!” Dijeree exclaimed.
Ian fought down a burst of panic and analyzed the trap. As impressive as it was, he detected no sense of menace. Despite appearances, the plant didn’t seem intent on eating and digesting his aunt.
“Help! Ian, get me out of this thing!” Cleona wailed.
“Calm down, Cleona. Let me think.” Ian circled the thing. Not only was it not menacing, it was lovely, in a way. “I don’t think it’s dangerous.”
“Easy for you to say!”
Ian held up a palm and felt the warm, slightly vibrating energy flowing from the trap. Zeke had shown him how every race of magical creature left distinctive patterns on the spells they crafted, but Ian didn’t recognize this design. He hadn’t exactly been studying. Not with larcenous nymphs to chase and a missing lover to fret about.
“Well, what a fine fuckup this is,” a familiar voice said.
Ian jumped and turned. Zeke stood in the doorway to the kitchen, hands on his hips.
“Zeke!” Ian’s heart, already agitated, expanded until it felt like his chest might crack open.
Zeke’s scowl transformed into a grin. “Hello, lover.”
“Don’t you two dare start making out with me still trapped in here,” Cleona said. And indeed, Ian had been halfway across the room when he stopped short. It wouldn’t be safe to succumb to passion with an invasion of hostile magic at work in the room. Although it tore him to shreds to look at Zeke standing there and not fly into his arms, Ian curled his fingers into fists and took a deep breath.
In this pause, he remembered he was mad at Zeke for being gone so long. And then another thought occurred to Ian. Zeke wasn’t the sort to ever feel embarrassment, but a flicker of what could only be called a sheepish expression crossed his handsome face.
“You put this here, didn’t you?” Ian asked.
Zeke immediately restored his usual confident, slightly haughty demeanor.
“Yes. Isn’t it pretty?”
“Not from inside it isn’t.” Cleona groused.
“Wait a minute,” Dijeree said, poking gingerly at one of the shimmering petals. “This is Zeke’s handiwork?”
“A bit of something I picked up in the dark realm,” Zeke said. He leaned against the doorjamb and crossed his arms over his chest. His long, lean body called to Ian, but Ian stood firm.
“This was for me, wasn’t it?”
“A lesson in self-protection. While I’ve been gone, you’ve ignored all my warnings. The house is lit up by your magic, the defenses abysmally porous. And Alistair informed me you’ve defied my orders and gone chasing after magical creatures without me here to protect you.”
“Orders?” Ian asked, voice tight.
Zeke sighed and rolled his gorgeous eyes. “Informed suggestions.”
“Why were you gone so long? Did you really expect me to sit inside with the curtains drawn while—”
“Boys,” Cleona said. “Aunt in trap here.” She sounded calmer and seemed to be relaxing into the gentle curves of the trap. It did look comfortable. Ian gritted his teeth as his body responded to the thought of being held inside, at Zeke’s mercy. The damn svarta kept pushing Ian’s boundaries. The irritating thing was, Ian enjoyed Zeke’s dominance much more than he wanted to.
“All right. Quit your mewling.” Zeke strolled into the room, shoulder brushing Ian’s as he passed. So different from the wild, unrestrained reunion Ian had fantasized about ever since Zeke left. Zeke was better at hiding his tension than Ian, but Ian knew he must be fairly bursting as well. The thought made Ian’s already agitated cock rock hard.
“Let’s see.” Zeke rubbed his chin and walked around the flower. “I’d really planned on drawing on Ian’s magic to undo the damn thing.”
“Are you telling me you don’t have the key?” Cleona asked.
“I do. Only I wouldn’t have cast it so strongly if I’d known a mere human would stumble into it. What are you doing here, by the way?”
“Why, to welcome you home, sweet Ezekiel,” Cleona said. Although the petals obscured her image, Ian could see a grimace-like smile appear on her face.
“Out with it, lying witch, or I’ll leave you in there.”
“Don’t you dare help Alistair fish for mermaids! That tart with a tail will crack him open like an oyster and slurp out his heart. Then she’ll drown what’s left and use his bones to fertilize her seaweed garden.”
“Why, Cleona, I do believe you’re jealous.” Zeke ran his hands along the outside of the trap, causing the magic to swirl.
Cleona giggled, but quickly recovered her pique. “Don’t be ridiculous! I don’t want the old man to kill himself. And I don’t want mermaids loose in Lake Union.”
“That’s his choice to make, isn’t it?” Zeke stepped back and cocked his head to the side. “Ian, I need your help.”
“Tell me what to do.” With magic as advanced as this, Ian had no clue how to proceed. As a liosa, he might be able to use his light energy to freeze the plant, but that could harm Cleona as well.
“Stand opposite me and put your hands on it like so. We’re going to lift it.”
Zeke put his palms near the bottom of the trap, as if he was about to lift a large box. Ian mimicked him. With his stomach and chest pressed against a petal, the energy wafting off the trap lathered him in warm, tingling energy. He could hug the thing all day if Zeke asked him to. Yes, Ian would’ve been utterly helpless inside it. He reminded himself he was angry. He wasn’t about to let Zeke off the hook without setting a few things straight.
“Can I take pictures?” Dijeree asked. She’d ensconced herself on the couch, watching with rapt attention.
“No!” Zeke and Ian said simultaneously.
“All right, all right.” She drew her knees up and rested her chin on top. “Seems a shame though.”
“I told you, I’m not going to out myself as an elf on the cover of the Cosmic Eye
,” Ian said. Although his life’s mission had been to find proof of the existence of magical creatures, he wasn’t ready to offer himself up as the evidence.
“Concentrate,” Zeke commanded. At that moment, a surge of the svarta’s dark energy coursed into Ian, almost knocking him sideways. His liosa defenses reacted instinctively, and the magic that seemed remote and barely tangible when Zeke wasn’t around swelled inside him. He hadn’t realized how much his entire being missed Zeke until the emptiness was filled.
Zeke’s voice was tight when he spoke again. He was feeling it too, the reunion of their energies. “We are going to pluck this flower and release it into the ether. On my word, we’ll raise our arms.”
Zeke’s magic interwove with Ian’s and drew it out as Zeke spun cords around the trap, making the lavender aura swirl and darken. Cleona giggled more intensely.
“That tickles!” she gasped.
“Rise,” Zeke said. He and Ian lifted their arms at the same time, and the elaborate trap rose into the air. The petals opened, sending a shower of winged silver seeds spiraling into the room.
“That can’t be good,” Ian muttered.
“Can’t be helped,” Zeke said, although by his chagrined tone, Ian suspected the flower trap’s self-propagation had come as a surprise.
With this release, the petals dissolved, seeming to melt into the carpet.
Cleona stretched out her arms and shook herself like a wet dog. “Well, Zeke, you do keep life around here interesting.”
“I’d appreciate it if you two left now. Ian wishes to yell at me.”
There was no hiding one’s emotions from someone you’d just mingled your magic with, Ian reminded himself. So Zeke knew Ian was horny as hell, and Zeke was too. Maybe they could make love first and fight later. But no, then Ian would forget why he was mad, and Zeke would get away with acting like a jerk once again.
“Promise me you won’t help Alistair nab a mermaid,” Cleona insisted.
“But I solemnly swore to create an irresistible lure,” Zeke said.
“But not to help him actually catch the awful creature?”
“Then there’s hope. Ian, talk sense to the man. Assuming you do any talking after we leave. Come, Dijeree. Let’s get out of here before we’re victimized by another bizarre elfin mating ritual.”