Coming back from the dead was exhausting work.
Not that Kira Solomon had done much more since her resurrection than survive a celebratory feast with a demigod, an immortal warrior, a bureaucrat, an ageless woman, and two friends she’d accidentally tried to kill.
Then again, that was more than enough. As glad as she was to be on the right side of the grass, she’d had just about all the celebrating she could handle.
She leaned against the whitewashed column supporting the porch overhang, waiting for Khefar to show up with his car. The bungalow was situated in a beautiful old neighborhood in Ansley Park in Midtown Atlanta, tree-lined and gentrified, not far from the High Museum and Piedmont Park. Where else would Balm live other than some century-old neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places?
Kira wondered if the other residents of Ansley Park knew their sometime neighbor was a woman of unfathomable age who headed an international clandestine organization. An organization dedicated to fighting the evil of the Fallen: their human hosts, Shadow Avatars, and all those who consorted with or were descended from the original Fallen—demons, halflings, hybrids, and other beings of Shadow.
Somehow Kira didn’t think that was something that could be shared over tea and cookies with the neighborhood welcoming committee.
Right now, she could do with a soothing cup of tea herself. Anything to fight the chill that still clung to her bones despite her ever-present gloves and the black faux leather jacket she wore over charcoal wool trousers and a gray turtleneck sweater. All Kira wanted to do was go home, settle down on the couch or in her altar room, and relax with a mug of chamomile.
It was hard to be thrilled to be alive when so many weren’t—like the innocents who’d been on the receiving end of her bad Shadow-induced flipout. Feeling the weight of those deaths while playing happy with her friends and coworkers had been a burden almost impossible to bear. She was looking forward to having some time to herself, in her own space, surrounded by her own belongings.
The front door to the bungalow opened. Kira stiffened as Wynne stepped out. She should have been happy that her friends still wanted her around, but she couldn’t get past the guilt of what she’d done to them, especially Zoo. Even though Wynne’s husband seemed to be fully recovered, Kira knew he bore a jagged dark scar in his olive skin, thanks to her.
Wynne leaned over the porch rail, her pink hair a shocking contrast against the orange and bronze fall leaves of the neighborhood trees. Dressed in a pair of desert-print army combat uniform trousers from her former military life and a black sweater that looked as if it had been on the losing end of a catfight, Wynne Marlowe was every bit the contrast she presented: a disciplined soldier with an unpredictable nature, a petite woman with a sweetheart face and an expertise in tae kwon do, a big-hearted woman who took as much pride in the spells her husband wove as the weapons she forged.
“You know, now that this is over, the four of us should go somewhere guaranteed to be uneventful,” Wynne announced. “Maybe Antarctica. It can be like a couples’ vacation.”
“A couples’ vaca— Did Zoo add a little extra herb to your tea?”
“I’m being serious, Kira.” Wynne turned to face her.
Kira backed up a step, maintaining the space between them. “You’re being crazy. I’m not part of a couple.”
“Now who’s dipping into the herbs? I’m not blind. I was there when Khefar saved you and brought you back from—wherever y’all went. Something tells me he wouldn’t do that for just anybody.”
Kira shoved her gloved hands deep into her trouser pockets. Her dying memories swirled along the edges of her mind, much like the leaves scattering around the bungalow. Khefar had saved her. He certainly hadn’t had to, not the way he had. She’d tried and failed to come up with a good reason why he’d endangered himself to save her. She did know, however, that it wasn’t because they were a “couple.”
“Wynne, there’s no couple stuff going on between Khefar and me.”
“Why not? Don’t you want it to?”
Wynne might look like a pink punk pixie, but she was as tenacious as a terrier. Where the hell was Khefar and his car? “It’s not a question of want. The reality is that he lives—and has lived for thousands of years—to complete his redemption so he can die and be reunited with his family in the afterlife. I’ve got the most dangerous job on the planet with the possible exception of those people who take lava samples from active volcanoes. One day, sooner or later, I won’t be able to pull off a miracle. I’ll fail even more spectacularly than I have in the last couple of weeks, and that will be it. There won’t be any coming back. Khefar and I, we’re both short timers. Our clocks are winding down.”
The terrier made a puppy-dog expression. “But—”
“Wynne.” Kira closed her eyes for a brief moment, dreading what would come next. This wasn’t going to be easy, and she would rather have waited. But what she had to say needed to be said, and sooner was better than later.
“You’re a good friend, a true friend, and I appreciate you and Zoo having my back in combat and in normal life more than I can ever say.”
Wynne narrowed her eyes. “Why does it feel like there’s a humongous ‘but’ coming? Like you’re breaking up with me?” Her pale face paled further as surprise widened her eyes. “Wait. Are
you breaking up with us?”
“Not the friendship,” Kira said quickly. “But I can’t have you guys helping me with Chases anymore.”
the Shadowchaser. I’ve got the training and magic to take on the Fallen, and I barely survived the encounter. You guys aren’t even part of Gilead’s support staff. You’re not protected!”
Wynne folded her arms across her chest, looking like a petulant teen. A petulant teen who just happened to be an excellent marksman and weapons master. “We’re protected. We’ve got skills, weapons, and my man’s a witch. There’s no reason why we can’t still have your back.”
For a moment Kira couldn’t even form words. “Have you forgotten what happened a couple of days ago? I almost killed you and Zoo!”
Wynne’s hand cut through the air between them. “That was a one-time thing and not your fault! You were doped up on Shadow and out of your mind. We don’t blame you for what happened in the cemetery!”
“I know.” Kira kept herself as still as possible. She didn’t want to accidentally touch Wynne, even with thick jackets and her gloves between them. Magically downloading every bit of her friend’s thoughts, emotions, and memories, and possibly draining her life-force just wasn’t high on the list of things she wanted to do, ever. “I know you don’t blame me, and I’m grateful. So very grateful. But … it was hard seeing Zoo like that, seeing you seeing your husband like that. It was hard finding out I had done that to him without even hesitating.”
“Kira.” Tears shimmered in Wynne’s lashes. “You were defending yourself. You thought we were trying to hurt you. You even warned us to stay back!”
“It doesn’t matter.” Kira didn’t know how she could make her friend understand, but she had to try. “I need you to try to understand where I’m coming from on this. It’s too dangerous now. I don’t think it’s going to get any less dangerous. The Fallen know they can hurt me and other Chasers, make me do things that go against everything I stand for.”
“They pushed me into Shadow, Wynne!” She pulled her gloved hands out of her pockets, wrapped them around the porch railing. Somehow she forced her voice back to normal. “They changed me, and they won’t stop until they drag me kicking and screaming to the other side. I’m not taking anyone else with me.”
“We won’t let them!” Wynne scrubbed at her eyes, leaving a smear of black eyeliner across her cheek and knuckles. “We can help like we always do!”
“No, Wynne. You’ve done your time on the front lines. You and Zoo deserve a little peace and quiet.”
“Since when have we done peace and quiet?”
Kira dragged out a smile. “Okay, your version of peace and quiet. Either way, you guys need to tend to your business, to the family you want to have. Helping me makes you both targets, and I can’t do what I need to do when I’m worrying about you.”
Wynne set her jaw. “That’s what this is really about, isn’t it? You think we’re a liability.”
“I didn’t say that!”
“You didn’t have to.” Wynne stepped back toward the front door. “I guess now that you have an immortal warrior and a demigod on your side, you don’t need two humans getting in the way.”
Kira winced. That was true and not true at the same time. Because Wynne and Zoo were human and fragile and her friends, she wanted them safely out of harm’s way. If they stayed away from her they’d be safe—safe from the things Kira Chased, and from Kira herself. How could it be wrong of her to feel that way?
“Well.” Wynne sniffed, then...