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Stopping Time and Old Habits, Page 2

Melissa Marr

  The phone rang. She picked it up. No one was there. She laid it down. It rang again.


  Again, no one was there.

  Twice more it rang. Unknown Caller her readout showed. Every time, the caller didn’t speak. It wasn’t the first time she’d had weird calls. It had happened a few times the past month. Logic said it was nothing, but caution meant she was feeling twitchy.

  Resolutely, she ignored the next few calls. Her door buzzer went off twice. She paced as the calls continued for almost thirty more minutes.

  So when the phone rang again after ten minutes of silence, she was frazzled. “What? Who do you think you are?”

  “Leslie? Are you okay?” Niall was on the other end of the line. “I don’t…are you all right?”

  “I’m sorry.” She put her hand over her mouth, trying not to let her hysterical burst of laughter out, and walked to the door again. It was secure. She was safe in her apartment.

  “What’s going on?”

  For a moment, she didn’t want to tell him. Whoever was harassing her wasn’t a faery. Very few of them even used phones, and none of them would have her number. Or reason to call. This was a human problem.

  Not a faery issue. Not Niall’s issue.

  “Talk to me?” he asked. “Please?”

  So she did.

  When she was done, Niall was silent for so long that she wondered if they’d been disconnected. Her heart beat too loudly as she clutched her phone. “Niall?”

  “Let me come stay there or send someone. Just until we—”

  “I can’t. We’ve talked about this.” Leslie sank down onto her sofa. “If there were a faery threat, it would be different.”

  “Any threat is unacceptable, Leslie,” he interrupted, with a new darkness in his voice. It was the unflinching power of the Dark King, and she liked it. “You don’t need to deal with this. Let me—”

  “No.” She closed her eyes. “I’ll change the number. It’s probably just some drunk misdialing.”

  “And if it’s not?”

  “I’ll go to the police.” She pulled a blanket over her as if it would stop the shivering that had started. “It’s not a Dark Court concern.”

  “You are a Dark Court concern, and that’s not going to change,” Niall reminded her gently. “Your safety and your happiness will always be our concern. Irial and I both—”

  “If doing so negates my happiness, will you still interfere, Niall?”

  Niall was silent for several moments. Only his measured breathing made clear that he was still listening. Finally he said, “You are a difficult person to reason with sometimes.”

  “I know.” Her grip on the phone loosened a little. For all of the passions that drove him, Niall would do his best to let her have her distance. On that, he and Irial seemed to agree. Of course, if she so much as hinted that she wanted them to intervene, people could die at a word. The reality of that power wasn’t something she liked to ponder overmuch. Instead, she asked, “Talk to me about something else?”

  Niall, however, wasn’t eager to let the topic drop, not entirely. “You know I want to respect your need to be away from us, but Gabe is in the area. He had to see someone. If you needed anyone…”

  “What I need is a friend who talks to me so I can think about something good.” Leslie stretched out on the sofa, pepper spray in reach on the coffee table, Buffy staking monsters on the television, and Niall’s voice in her ear. “Be my friend? Please? Talk to me?”

  He sighed. “There was a new exhibit at the gallery I was telling you about last month.”

  Niall wouldn’t ignore the issue, but he would cooperate to a degree. And knowing he was out there protecting her made Leslie feel a little safer too. They both are. She felt guilty sometimes for the way they both continued to try to take care of her, but she also knew that having the protection of the Dark Kings was all that kept her safe from being drawn back into faery politics or becoming a victim of the strong solitary faeries. There were those who would happily destroy her if they learned that she was beloved of both the current Dark King and the last Dark King.

  For a breath she hoped that whoever called, if they were trying to upset her, was a faery. If it was a faery, Irial or Niall would find out. They would fix it.

  The reality of how easily she could sanction violence made her pause. That, she thought, is exactly why I can’t come back to either of you. She forced the thought aside. Friendship was all she could have with them, and even that was tenuous. She kept barriers in place: no speaking to Irial, no seeing Niall, and no touching either one of them. At first, she’d thought she could put them in her past and that they would forget about her, and maybe someday they would reach that point.

  “Did you buy anything this time?” she asked.

  “What? You think I can’t go to a gallery without buying something?” His voice was teasing, sweet, calming.

  “I do.”

  “Three prints,” he said.

  She laughed, letting herself enjoy the comfort he offered. “Someone has a problem.”

  “Oh, but you should see them,” he began, and then he told her about each print in loving detail, and then about others he saw but didn’t buy, and by the time he was done, she was smiling and yawning and able to sleep.

  Irial saw the boy, Michael, lurking outside the building. He stayed to the shadows, making it obvious that he was trying to be stealthy. He stood in a spot where the streetlights didn’t eliminate the cover of darkness, yet still had a clear line of sight to the entrance to the building. The mortal had a large cup of coffee, a jacket, and dark clothes. The combination made Irial aware that the boy intended to stay there for some time.

  Why? He’d seemed tense earlier, and Irial hadn’t missed the glares aimed at him. The glares were not unwarranted; jealousy was a mortal trait. Setting up watch outside Leslie’s building seemed overreactive. Usually. Irial spared himself a wry smile. Watching over her is overreactive unless it’s me doing it or ordering it. The difference was that Irial knew the horrors that existed in the world around them—had, in fact, ordered horrors committed—so his cautious streak where Leslie was concerned was logical.

  “Why are you here?” he asked.

  Michael startled.

  He wasn’t fey, nor did he have the Sight, so Irial made himself visible. At this hour, Leslie wouldn’t be coming outside. And if she did… Irial smiled. She wouldn’t expect him to act any differently. Leslie saw him for who he was, for what he was, and loved him still. Despite being what nightmares are made of, Irial wasn’t frightening to her.

  It wasn’t Leslie who saw him, though. Between one step and the next, he made himself seen to another mortal. If Michael had been a threat, Irial wouldn’t do so.

  The boy swallowed nervously, took a step backward, and blinked several times. To his credit, he didn’t run or scream or do anything awkward. It spoke well of Leslie’s character judgment that she’d selected the mortal as a friend.

  “What are you doing here?” Irial asked as gently as he could. “Why are you at this place? At this hour? Hiding in the dark?”

  “Checking on her.” The mortal straightened his shoulders, stood still enough to almost hide his trembling. “What are you? You just appeared. Right? You did.”

  “I did.” Irial repressed a smile at the boy’s bravery. Many mortals did not handle the shock of seeing the impossible become manifest. Leslie had chosen well when she’d made friends with this one.

  “It doesn’t matter. I won’t let you hurt her,” Michael said.

  Irial waited. Silence often proved to be more incentive than questions.

  “I saw you earlier. Everyone did. You’re the one stalking her,” Michael accused.

  Irial let the shadows around him shift visibly, let his wings become seen. “No, I’m visiting her, watching out for her. She knows where I am. She expects me to be here. Does she know you’re here?”

  “No.” The boy’s gaze flickered nervous
ly to the ground, back to Irial, and then to the building. “I worry, though. She’s so…fragile.”

  “No one will hurt her. Ever.” Irial shook his head. “Once, I was the King of Nightmares. Now, I’m something else. No matter what I am, I’ll be here keeping her safe as long as we both live.”

  Michael narrowed his gaze. “You’re not human.”

  “She is,” Irial said. “And she needs human friends…like you.”

  “Michael.” The boy held out his hand. “I’m Michael.”

  “Irial.” Irial shook the mortal’s hand. “I know. I watch when you can’t see me too. You care for her.”

  Michael didn’t reply, but he didn’t need to. Irial had watched the mortal talk to her, escort her to her building, say things that made her smile. He was a good human. Unfortunately for him, he was also half in love with Leslie, ready to protect her from threats. Irial had seen that clearly several weeks ago when he’d watched them walking at night. If Irial cared overmuch for humans, he’d feel sympathy for the boy; as it was, Irial was practical: Michael’s emotions made him useful.

  “Tell me why you are here,” Irial encouraged.

  “Someone’s been calling her at weird hours,” Michael blurted. “After the way you were watching her, I thought maybe it was you. She says not to worry, but she…I just…”

  “I understand.” Irial smiled and dropped an arm around the boy’s shoulders. “These are the sorts of things I’d like you to tell me, Michael. Come sit with me.”

  Michael glanced at her building. “Shouldn’t we…you at least…stay here?”

  “I have a flat across the street for when I’m in town.” Irial led the boy to a nondescript building. “That way I’m close if she needs me. If not me, there are others near enough to hear her should she call for us.”

  “Oh.” Michael looked at him for a moment. His gaze was assessing, albeit far too trusting.

  In another era, in another life, walking off blindly with a Gancanagh was foolish. Perhaps it still is. Irial meant the boy no harm. He was merely a tool, a useful resource. Leslie was what mattered. But for one other in all the world, everyone else was fair game for whatever he needed in order to assure her happiness and safety.

  When Leslie woke the next morning, she was still holding the phone. She didn’t hear a dial tone, so she asked, “Hello?”

  “Good morning,” Niall said.

  “You stayed on the phone while I slept?” She sat up.

  Niall laughed. “You don’t talk in your sleep.”

  “I snore.”

  “A little,” he admitted. “But I liked being there to hear it.”

  “Weirdo.” She felt safe, though. Having him there—even only on the phone—made her feel protected. “I’m glad you were…here.”

  “I wish I was really there.”

  “I…I know.” She never knew the right words to reply to such things. They all fell short, partly because they weren’t the whole truth. She wanted to be with him—and Irial—but doing so would mean being in the Dark Court.

  They stayed silent. She heard him breathing, heard him waiting for something she couldn’t give him.

  “We should stop talking.” She clutched the phone. “I can’t…I’m not…I need time to live, and your court…”

  “I know.” His voice was gentle. “You’re too good to live here with us.”

  “I didn’t say that!” She felt the tears threaten. She missed them, missed Niall, Irial, Gabriel, Ani, Tish, Rabbit…her court, her family.

  “I said it,” Niall murmured. “I love you.”

  “You too,” she whispered.

  “Be safe. If you need anything—”

  “I know.” She disconnected then. What she needed was to let go; what she wanted was to hold on tighter. Irial was addictive to touch, and Niall had to stay with his court. Being with Irial would kill her. Being with Niall would mean living in the Dark Court. She couldn’t have a normal mortal life in the middle of the Dark Court; she couldn’t let herself become the person she would be if she lived there. She wasn’t ever going to be anything other than human, and humans didn’t thrive in their world. They died.

  Self-pity doesn’t fix a thing, she lectured.

  So she got up and got ready for class, and she knew that somewhere out there in the streets faeries watched to guard her, that Irial waited somewhere to protect her, that farther away Niall waited to listen and help her believe in herself. She was not alone, but she was still lonely.

  Irial followed Leslie without her knowing. It felt wrong to hide himself from her, but he was quick enough to slip out of sight when she turned to glance over her shoulder.

  “I’m sorry, love,” he whispered each time. It felt too near to a lie, but if she saw him following her so closely she would be alarmed. They’d never spoken any agreement, but he kept himself out of sight except for their once-a-week silent meetings. If she saw him so near, she’d know that he’d learned of her disquieting calls or she’d suspect that something else was amiss. He’d rather not upset her if he could avoid doing so.

  When she went into the red brick building, he waited and watched the courtyard. Mortals fascinated him far more now that he was a Gancanagh again. Their flirty laughs and knowing smiles, their defiant gazes and inviting postures—it was not an easy thing to resist so much potential. He didn’t remember being so easily intrigued by them, but it had been a lifetime since he was a Gancanagh. Being Dark King had nullified that for him, just as it now did for Niall.

  Niall…who would beat me half to death if I indulged.

  Irial grinned at the thought. It had been too long since Niall had been willing to fight with him. Perhaps when this matter was resolved, he’d tell the Dark King that he’d been pondering enjoying some sport with mortals.

  Business before fun.

  So Irial waited until Leslie was safely in the building and then he went to find Gabriel. Her class lasted for not quite an hour, but he’d be back well before that. It wouldn’t take long to find someone who could locate Gabriel. Then, they’d need to decide if Niall should be involved in locating whoever was upsetting Leslie or if the matter could be handled with more discretion.

  Class had only just begun when Leslie felt the vibrations from her phone. The professor had a strict “no phones in class” policy, so she tried to ignore the phone, but after the fourth time, she began to worry. It rang silently in her pocket. Text messages came in, making it vibrate again.

  Carefully, she slid it out of her pocket and glanced at the message.

  “Time’s up,” the first message read.

  She didn’t know the number it came from.

  The second one read, “If you want Them exposed ignore me. If not come down NOW.”

  Them? There weren’t a lot of threats that would make her panic, but danger to Irial or Niall was near the top of the list. The threats were vague. There was no reason to assume that the Them meant Irial and Niall. She shivered.

  The third text added, “I know WHAT they are.”

  Her hand tightened on the phone for a moment, and then she shoved it into her pocket, got up, and walked out of class. There was no way she was going to keep her regular routine if someone was out there threatening her. Her hands were shaking as she accessed her voice mail. Faeries don’t leave creepy messages. Faeries don’t text threats. She knew it wasn’t a faery.

  She stepped into the sunlight outside the building and saw him—her mystery harasser.

  Cherub-pretty and too familiar, her brother sat on one of the tables in the small courtyard outside Davis Hall. His feet were on the bench, and he had one arm across his middle. His unzipped jacket covered his hand; the other hand rested on his knee. He didn’t stand when he saw her approaching, but there was little likelihood that she’d be offering him a sisterly embrace. Despite the irritation of seeing him, it was almost a relief. She might not like him, might not have anything but loathing left for him, but he was her brother.

  “What the hell, Ren?
” She folded her arms over her chest to hide the shaking. “You think you’re funny calling and—”

  “No.” Ren grinned. “I think I’m smart. You get spooked, and your little friends will show up. Do you know how much I can get paid once I prove that there are monsters living around us?”

  He stood, his arm still against his chest.

  Leslie forced a laugh. “Monsters? Really?” She gestured around her. “The only monster I see is you.”

  For an odd moment, she realized that it was true: No Dark Court faeries were in sight. Because I’m supposed to be in class. She thought about screaming. One of them was surely in hearing range. He’s my brother. If they came, if they saw him near her, they’d hurt him. Despite everything, that wasn’t her first choice.

  “Your boyfriend wasn’t human, Les.” Ren stepped forward, grabbed her arm, and pulled her closer. When they were near enough that it looked like they should embrace, he let go and pulled his jacket open. Inside, he held a gun, hidden from view by both the jacket and her proximity. “Scream or fight, and I’ll shoot you, Sis.”

  Leslie stared at the gun for a long moment. She knew nothing about guns, nothing about make or model, nothing about their effect on faeries. When she pulled her gaze away, she looked at her brother’s face. “Why?”

  “Nothing personal.” Ren smiled, and it wasn’t a reassuring look. “You think I like working with low-end dealers? I can make a pretty sum if I collect a freak. Business is business.”

  “I don’t know what you think they are—”

  “Don’t care. Smile, now.” Ren dropped his arm over her shoulders and started walking. She felt the gun muzzle pressing against her side.

  “This is a mistake.” Leslie didn’t look around. He’s my brother. He won’t actually shoot me. Ren was a lot of things, had done horrific things, but he’d never had the stomach to dirty his hands directly. Like everything in his life, he half-assed this too.

  “Let’s go home, Les.” Ren kissed her cheek and reminded her, “Smile. I’m not intending to shoot you if I don’t have to. You’re just bait.”