Yalathanil lay back on the bed, Greg half atop him. The dark brown locks of Greg’s hair tickled Yalathanil’s chest, and he smiled at the sensation. “Are you asleep?”
“Yes.” Greg’s voice answered him.
“I want to defy the rules. To stay.” Yalathanil took a deep breath.
“That would leave your people ruled by Saelethil, and uh…” Greg rolled to lay next to him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “Pretty sure that won’t work out well for humans in general.”
“I know.” Yalathanil sighed. “I wish I could show you my kingdom. The world beneath the waves, shielded from…” He rested his cheek on Greg’s head. “To show you the beauty of my world as you showed me the beauty of yours.”
“Twix bars and farmer’s markets.” Greg ran a hand over his chest. “I hadn’t even begun showing you the marvels of the surface.” He gave a small laugh. “I haven’t even gotten you drunk yet.” The laughter died on his lips. “I won’t forget you, Yala.”
“Perhaps…” Yalathanil closed his eyes. “There will come a time when my people can reach up to yours. When that happens…” He held Greg close. “I will remember you.”
“What about Greg?” Adele looked down at the notepad, then back up at Phil. Phil was still staring, somewhat slack-jawed, at Mbaba. “Phil?” She waved a hand in front of his face. “Earth to Phil.”
“What?” He blinked and turned toward her.
“Yeah…” Phil took a deep breath. “That’s a bigger problem. Xue apparently went out of his way to frame Greg for some shit and…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “We can probably arrange a plea bargain for him. Some probation, but with the fraud thing already on his back…”
“We are not letting Greg go to jail.” Natalya folded her arms, then turned to look at Mbaba.
“Politically, this is not my turf. He did my grandson a kindness, but in doing so greatly interfered with the plans of another.” Mbaba frowned. “If he goes to jail, I have no doubt he will be killed in retaliation.”
“So we have to make sure the plea bargain doesn’t incur jail time.” Phil nodded. “Can arrange a house arrest type thing —”
“Greg doesn’t have a house.” Adele tossed her pen down on the notepad. “He lives on his boat. He sold the condo just before all this happened.”
“That…” Phil exhaled. “Will complicate matters. He’s a flight risk.”
“Greg will simply have to come with me.” Mbaba laid her hands on the table. She smiled. “He seems a nice and intelligent young man. I always have use for such individuals.” She looked up at Phil. “I believe statutes of limitations will come into effect at some point.”
“Not for about ten years, ma’am.”
“Come with you where?” Adele raised an eyebrow. “I mean, you talk about territory and don’t think you…” She shrugged. “Or Jim for that matter, are based out of the US.”
“North America is divided fairly evenly between Tia and Myrddin, though Ryuu and Tia operate within each other’s territory with few limits upon each other.” Mbaba straightened. “My own territory lies in Africa.”
“And Jim?” Adele tilted her head as she picked the pen back up.
“His territory is…” Mbaba waved a hand. “Complicated. I believe he currently bases himself in Amsterdam.”
“Amster…” Natalya snickered a little.
“That amuses you?” Mbaba glanced at Natalya.
“It’s uh…” Adele shook her head. “Long story.” She leaned back. “We’ll need to talk with Greg, as soon as we can be sure we won’t be followed to his location.”
“I will make the arrangements when that time comes. You will be able to say your farewells.” Mbaba stood. “As for the rest of you, you did my grandson a great service. I am therefore within my rights to place you under my personal protection. As long as you go back to your research and interfere with the Cabal no further, that should be enough to keep you safe from their interference.” She waved a hand. “As for the academic matter, I will arrange for you to be granted research rights to something interesting in my territory. I trust you are savvy enough to use that to get back into the university’s favor.”
“I can definitely work with that.” Natalya nodded.
“I’ll have one of my people send you a list of options.” Mbaba smiled warmly. “There are several reefs that may interest you.”
“I’m still…” Phil scratched his head. “Trying to wrap my head around…”
“Stop.” Mbaba put a hand on his shoulder. “Young man, I know you will be tempted to investigate further. I must ask that you refrain.”
“You’re telling me there is some Illuminati type group of conspirators messing with…” Phil shook his head. “Everything, and you don’t want me to investigate them?”
“Officially?” She nodded. “Yes.”
“And unofficially?” He frowned.
She smiled. “I will be in touch.”
Greg blinked as someone knocked on the door. He exchanged a look with Yala. Yala frowned. “Mbaba would have come through that door.” He pointed at the one adjorning the rooms.
“Yeah.” Greg nodded. Then he picked the knife off the table and moved to the door. A look through the peep hole made him stare a moment, then he opened the door. “Jim?”
The young man smiled. “Greg.” He inclined his head, then looked past Greg to where Yala stood. “Can I come in?”
“Uh…” Greg exchanged another look with Yala, then stepped back. “Yeah.”
As soon as the door closed, Yala strode forward, grabbed Jim by the front of his jacket, and slammed him into the wall. “Greg was wounded saving you, and you left him.” Yala’s eyes went the sharklike black, and his teeth became jagged as he switched to his amphibious form.
“I am aware.” Jim met Yala’s eyes calmly. “Let me go.”
“Give me one good —” Yala cut off as Jim’s form suddenly shifted. He grew a couple inches taller and aged by a couple decades as he turned into a much more heavily muscled man. Yala’s eyes went wide, and he released Jim before staggering back a few feet. “You.”
“It has come to my attention that my involvement in this matter may have done more harm than good.” Jim smoothed the front of his jacket. “I have come to apologize.” He turned, focusing his gaze on Greg. “And to repay the debt I now owe you.”
“Yala…” Greg glanced at where Yala was still staring. “Want to clue me —”
“Jörmungandr.” Yala swallowed. He made himself take a few deep breaths, then to Greg’s surprise, Yala shifted into a low bow. “I did not think to meet you. My father told me the stories of what you did for my people.”
“Stories have a way of changing with the telling.” Jim nodded.
“Wait…” Greg glanced at the door to Mbaba’s room. Mbaba was a dragon. And Yala had just called Jim… “Yala…” He swallowed, then pointed at Jim. “He’s a dragon?”
“And in no danger from the bullet you took.” Jim nodded. “Yet I cannot deny your intention with that act. Thus…” Jim reached into his pocket and pulled something out. “I offer this in reparation for the debt between us.” He held out a wide silver wrist cuff, inlaid with some kind of strange rune.
Yala said something in his own language, the words hissing strangely. He was staring at the cuff. Greg didn’t take it. Instead, he turned to Yala. “Yala…”
“That can’t be what…” Yala shook his head. “A lie. There are no more dwarves to craft such things.”
Jim smiled, and gave a small shake of his head before meeting Yala’s eyes. “The world is shifting, Yalathanil. The shepherds may be needed again, with what is to come. Given your people’s long absence, it may behoove you to have…” He glanced back at Greg. “An ambassador.” He looked back toward Yala. “Dryads still grow. Dwarves still smith. Elves still sing. I keep my promises.” He held out the cuff.
“I…” Greg stared as Yala all but snatched the cuff from Jim’s hand.
Then he moved toward Greg, and caught Greg’s arm. Yala rubbed a thumb over his wrist. “These were made so our brethren could visit us in the depths.” He looked down at the cuff, then back up at Greg. “Come home with me, Greg.”
His heart caught in his throat. His eyes went to the cuff. Then he leaned forward, and kissed Yala. “Yes.”
She was looking out the window when she realized she was no longer alone in the room. “You should knock.” She lifted her chin, then turned.
He wasn’t in the guise of Jim Gordon, but in the shape of the older man he’d been when Mbaba confronted him. And he was holding her kitten. “Your father has a guard watching your door.”
Adele glanced at the door, then nodded. “Yeah.” She took a deep breath. “Probably better if I don’t have to explain you.” She held out her hands.
Jormun petted the kitten before placing Octopus in her outstretched arms. “I took the liberty of seeing to her vaccinations.”
“Thank…” She looked down at the purring kitten.
His phone rang, and he glanced at it. Then he glared at it. “One moment.” He answered. “Christophe.” He rubbed his eyes. “Did you explain to them that the US Government tends to overreact to that kind of…” He growled. “I am not being a hypocrite, that was a completely different —” Jim’s eyes widened. “They fired…” He made a growling sound. “That’s coming out of your salary.” He rolled his eyes. “Because I pay you to stop them from —” He took a deep breath. “You know, if they ever compile a list of the top ten things you should never say to a dragon, that would likely be at the top of the list.” He listened for a moment. “Where is Tonga and why do they want to conquer…” He sighed. “I was being sarcastic. I didn’t mean they should actually take over a small country.” He hung his head. “I want all of you back in…” He frowned, then pulled the phone away from his ear. “He hung up on me again.”
“Who is Christophe?” She frowned.
“Oddly enough…” He shrugged. “A friend.”
“What did he say?” She petted Octopus. “I mean, what did he say that you should never say to a dragon?”
“He said…” Jormun chuckled. “Bite me.”
“Yeah.” She laughed. “Probably shouldn’t say that to a dragon.” She scratched Octopus under the chin. “Thank you.”
“You are most —”
“You’re not.” She looked up, meeting his eyes.
“I’m not…” He gave her a confused look.
“I gave Jim my number because he was trying to do the right thing. And I think…” She inhaled. “I think that part wasn’t a lie.” She smiled at him. “Guys like that aren’t expendable.”
“I…” He smiled. “Thank you, Adele.” He started to turn away, then stopped and looked back. “I meant it.” When she raised an eyebrow, he smiled again. “About hanging on to your number.”
“You’d better.” She grinned. “I still owe you dinner for looking after Octopus.”
“We’re going to miss you.” Natalya sighed, and then hugged Greg again.
“Once you are researching those reefs, we’ll make contact.” Greg hugged her back. “Take care of my boat.”
“Um, as of fifteen minutes ago…” She shook her head and gestured at the papers. “It’s my boat.” He kissed her nose, then stepped back. Yala stepped to his side, and impulsively she leaned forward and hugged Yala as well. “And you take care of him.”
“Always.” Yala nodded. “Mbaba will set up a station near the water. We will be able to contact you by phone or that…” He glanced at Greg.
“E-mail.” Greg provided the word with a smile on his face.
“That. Greg said he will teach me your symbols for communication.” Yala smiled at her.
“Alright, Aquaman…” She stepped back. When Yala gave her a confused look, she blinked. “Oh, he’s a fictional character who is supposedly the king of the sea and —” She shook her head. “Have Greg teach you how to Google.”
“It is time.” Mbaba’s voice came from the left.
“Be safe, both of you.” Adele wiped at her eyes.
“Until we meet again.” Yala inclined his head before taking Greg’s hand.
Natalya couldn’t quite stop herself from smiling as she watched them go with Mbaba. “You know, I really should have seen that coming.”
“That Greg would end up dating a merman prince?” Adele turned to stare at her. Then she blinked, and raised an eyebrow at where Phil was standing, pinching the bridge of his nose. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m trying not to think about seahorses.”
“Why would…” Natalya choked a bit on her words. “Phil!”
“Sorry.” He winced. Then he shook his head. “Come on, I’ll buy the drinks to get the images out of our heads.”
“That’s going to take a lot of rum.” Adele sighed as she fell into step with them. “Now you two…” She waved at where Phil had taken Natalya’s hand. “You know, I’m really not sure which couple has the better ‘how we met’ story. Rescued from a lab, kidnapped and taken hostage…”
Phil laughed before pulling Natalya into a kiss.
Xue set down some papers and looked down at his hands. They weren’t shaking. Not yet. He took a deep breath. “Sir?” Genna entered behind him. “The Cabal’s representative was supposed to be here ten minutes ago.”
“Not like them to be late.” He frowned. Then he sighed. “We’ll turn over all the —”
A loud thud drew both their attention. He exchanged a look with Genna, and saw she had paled just a little. Slowly, he walked to the door and opened it. Xue saw a light on in the observation room. Slowly, he headed that way.
Inside, a young man with dark hair and slightly slanted eyes was examining a tank containing a blue-ringed octopus. He was tracing his finger over the glass, and the octopus was moving in response. “Did you know an octopus has the problem-solving intelligence of the average human three year old?” The young man glanced over his shoulder at them before returning his attention to the tank. “They’ve even been shown to have a sense of humor and to have a rudimentary language.” He straightened. “Since they use tools, they do technically meet all the requirements for sentience.”
“Who are you?” Xue raised an eyebrow. He’d expected to see Macario or perhaps even Giroux.
“The part that irritates me about this job is that when the cops show up…” The young man turned toward them, then jerked his head at the tank. “They are probably going to dispose of your specimens as ‘dangerous and invasive wildlife.’” He shrugged. “Mind if I take this one with me?” He pointed his thumb at the octopus. “He’s cute.”
“You’re welcome to whatever specimens you like.” Genna found her voice. “I’d be happy to make arrangements for their delivery and —”
“Yeah.” The young man shook his head. “It’s not going to work that way. Sorry.”
“Who are you?” Xue repeated the question. “I’m calling security.”
“You mean those guys?” He pointed toward the other side of the room, and Xue felt his stomach drop. One of the handlers lay in a pool of his own blood, his chest crushed and oozing, like a huge weight had been dropped onto him.
Genna gasped. “No…”
“You…” Xue turned back toward the young man. “You’re with the Cabal.”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “I like it when Giroux sends me on jobs like this one. Killing assholes is just so much more satisfying.”
“Who…” Genna took an involuntary step backward.
“Oh, right. Introductions.” The young man gave a mocking bow. “Madam…” He grinned. “I’m Adam.”
“I’ll get it.” Adele yelled toward where Natalya and Phil were playing a video game. She walked to the door, glanced through the peephole, then frowned before opening the door. “Jormun.” She raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing here?”
“I…” Jormun gave a slightly awkward shrug. “I repaid you and Greg, but I still owed an apology to Natalya.”
“Well, she’s…” Adele’s eyes widened when she caught sight of the figure behind Jormun. Her hands went over her mouth, and she felt tears start to prick behind her eyes. “How?”
“After you told me what happened…” He smiled, then glanced over his shoulder. “The last thing he remembers is the island. It’s…” He gave her an apologetic look. “Better that way.”
“Adele, who is at the…” Natalya trailed off. She staggered, and if Phil hadn’t been right there, she’d have fallen. “I…” Her voice broke. “Viktor?”
“Nat.” The man behind Jormun stepped through the door. Then he started forward and pulled her into a hug. “He told me you were alright but…”
“Viktor.” Natalya sobbed as she hugged him back. “Viktor.”
Slowly, Adele turned back toward Jormun. There was a small smile on his face as he watched the scene. “You…”
“I needed a place to scuttle a nuclear submarine…” When she raised an eyebrow, he shrugged. “Long story. The lair of a…” He waved a hand. “Ensured it won’t be found again and well…” He smiled. “As I said. I still owed Natalya an apology.”
“That’s…” She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Then she reached forward, grabbed the front of his shirt, and planted a kiss on his mouth. “You…” She looked him square in the eye. “Call me.” She narrowed her eyes. “Or else.”
He laughed, then nodded. “See to your friend.” Then he stepped back into the shadows and vanished. She stood in the door for a moment. Then she closed it, and went in to help Natalya hug the shit out of Viktor.