“Ari,” he whispered, leaning into her, “You can conjure one.”
Grimacing at her own mental deficiency, Ari nodded. “Right.” Making sure no one was watching, Ari tucked a hand behind her chair and let her magic focus on creating a cell phone with Charlie’s number in it. Feeling the solid object take shape in her hand, Ari took a moment to ponder the weirdness of her life.
Yeah, Ari, making a cell phone appear out of thin air is so much weirder than being eviscerated by a Wind Demon older than Jesus Christ.
She shuddered, not wanting to think about the fact that she now knew what parts of her insides looked like. A bubble of bile rose up in the back of her throat and she gulped for air, jerking the cell up to her ear.
You OK? Jai’s concerned voice floated soothingly into her mind.
Not really. Trying to concentrate on the good stuff. She smiled sadly. I’d rather think about my dad being awake than what went on in that desert.
He squeezed her shoulder in silent understanding before dropping his hand back into his lap, flexing it like she’d burned him. Frowning, Ari pressed speed dial one on the cell, not surprised when Charlie picked up on the first ring.
“Oh thank God,” he breathed. “What happened? Are you OK?”
“I can’t really talk right now. I’m in the waiting room at ICU. The doctors say dad’s awake though.”
“I’ll be right there.”
“OK. See you soon.”
She hung up, letting her head loll back against the wall. “Charlie’s on his way.”
Like the never-ending stretch of Azazil’s Receiving Room it had felt like forever since Derek had stood in their living room. He looked great. He had color in his cheeks, meat on his bones — he looked as if nothing had ever happened to him. He could even walk. No dizziness, no muscle weakness. The doctors couldn’t work it out and since their tests were inconclusive and Derek was feeling absolutely fine, there was nothing they could do when he ignored their advice and told them he was discharging himself. Ari had stood by, giddily, watching him as he signed a form saying he was leaving against medical advice.
She had her dad back.
Although, hours before it felt as if that was never going to happen.
Sure enough Charlie had raced down to the hospital, crushing her up into a giant bear hug right there in the ICU in front of everyone. Ari had blushed at the way he stroked her hair off her face, his eyes narrowed and dark, as they drank her in. It had been that look again. That look he never used to give her. Before he could do anything to complicate her already complicated feelings, Ari had pulled him aside down an empty corridor to tell him what had happened. For a minute she expected Jai to follow her, before remembering he was no longer contracted to be glued to her hip.
After that it was literally just an agonizing wait to see her father.
When she had been allowed into the room, she’d rushed in alone and thrown her arms around him. Ari had tensed at the tentative pat he gave her on the back, expecting him to squeeze her close. Surprised and a little hurt, she’d had to remind herself that he had just come out of something extremely weird and scary. She’d pulled back and quietly watched as he went about organizing things as he always did.
Now midnight… and they were home. Jai had transformed back to the Great Dane instead of going into the Cloak since Derek was used to seeing him as a dog anyway. Ari stood facing her dad unsurely, Charlie on one side and Jai in dog form on the other.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked quietly.
“Yeah, sir, anything you need…?” Charlie added.
Derek snorted, a noise of disbelief that set alarm bells ringing in Ari’s head. He was acting weird. Even for someone just out of a coma. He hadn’t said a word in the car and every time she’d reached for him he’d flinched away from her touch. For the last few days Ari had gone over and over again in her mind that when her dad woke up she would have to leave him. But despite her fallout with Rachel and Staci, leaving Derek had seemed unreal, some distant unthinkable act that might never happen. Now, watching him refuse to meet her eyes, avoiding her touch, it was like she was already gone. And the thought made her want to shrivel up and die.
Finally he lifted his head, his eyes boring into her, his expression completely unreadable. “I know, Ari.”
Her whole body froze with shock and she felt Charlie move closer to her. “What?”
He threw up his hands, shaking his head like he couldn’t believe whatever was going on.
What is going on?
Ari, I think he knows, knows.
She glanced down at Jai in horror. What?
“In the coma,” Derek’s voice brought her head back up, “I heard everything. What you were all talking about. I heard it all.” He took a few steps back, lowering himself to the arm of the couch. He narrowed his eyes on her, his mouth hanging open as if he were finding it difficult to reach the right words. “When I woke up I just… I just sat there… thinking it couldn’t be true. But that thing…”
Heart palpitating, Ari whispered, “What thing?”
“The thing.” He flicked a hand at his face in disgust. “Face like some kind of hybrid lion.”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah oh my God.” He nodded at her. And then he shook his head, his eyes growing glassy with tears, his face red as the tendons in his jaw flexed. “I knew there was something off about Sala. I knew it. But it was like I couldn’t control myself around her.”
“I’m not that though, am I, Ari?” A tear escaped, dripping down his cheek. He wiped it away roughly. “My little girl…”
Fighting back her own tears, Ari trembled. “I’m still your little girl.”
He frowned, seeming in pain. “I know, I know. And what you did for me… I am so grateful… I just…” heaving a sigh, looking as if he’d lost the most precious thing in his life, her dad stood to his feet. “For being in a coma for days I’m kind of beat. I’m going to head to bed.”
“Let him.” Charlie grabbed her arm, stopping her from following Derek out of the room. They watched him ascend the stairs like a man twice his age. “He’s learned a lot of weird crap in the last few days and coming from personal experience, the guy needs time to adjust. Just let him sleep on it. You can talk in the morning.”
Ari bit her lip, feeling numb. “He hates me.”
“Listen to me. That is not a guy who hates you. That’s a guy who’s messed up. And you can’t blame him. But he still loves you, Ari. Eighteen years of being your dad doesn’t just go away overnight.”
“As much as I hate to admit it, Charlie’s right,” Jai added as the flames disappeared around him.
To Charlie’s credit he bit back a retort, glaring at Jai as he pulled Ari into another strong, warm hug. “I’ve got to get home. My mom has been calling non-stop today and I haven’t been answering because I was too worried about you. But I’ll be back in the morning.”
“Of course.” Ari pulled away. “Go, she’ll be worried.”
“Yeah.” Charlie grinned in surprise. “What’s that about right?”
“I’m glad… that things are getting better for you.”
He gave her a sad smile before pressing a soft kiss to her forehead. “Yeah, we’ll see.”
When he was gone, the house seemed to ring and vibrate in the quiet. A forlorn feeling knotted in her chest before she turned around to find Jai staring at her. She took one step away from the front door as Jai strolled towards her, his face flashing in and out of the darkness as the moonlight streamed in through the windows.
The need Ari felt just looking at him was overwhelming, her chest tightening so much so she could barely breathe.
“Well… I should go,” he said softly so Derek wouldn’t hear. “Just use your mind if you need me OK, and I’ll be back to check in tomorrow. You still have a lot of decisions to make. This isn’t over, Ari.”
She barely heard anything after the words ‘I should go’. Desperate to keep him with her a little longer Ari smiled up into his face, finally letting her feelings shine out of her eyes. “I want to thank you for coming with me, for protecting me.”
Jai’s eyes widened just a fraction before he could stop himself. Clearing his throat he took a wary step back. “Just doing my job.”
Frustrated and feeling reckless after everything that had gone down Ari reached out, gripping his arm and taking advantage of his surprise by hauling him close. The spicy, musky scent of his cologne made her stomach flip. In that moment, as she gazed up into his face, Ari just wanted to let go and drown in his eyes. “Don’t,” she whispered, almost pleadingly, throwing away pride and guilt in the face of what she was sure they shared. Charlie’s eyes tried to probe their way into her mind but she pushed them out, focusing on the man in front of her, the man who made her feel things she had never felt before. Truthfully… not even Charlie. “Don’t act like you’re not my friend, Jai. After everything… you are my friend.” Unconsciously, her eyes dipped to his mouth and she flushed remembering the way it felt against her own. Licking her lips Ari began to tremble as her body fought with her brain.
Jai cursed and she snapped her gaze back up to his eyes just as he took hold of her upper arms, pushing her back into the door behind her. Leaning close, his eyes blazed into hers. “Stop it,” he whispered harshly, his breath teasing her lips, his chest rising and falling rapidly. Heat exploded through Ari. “Stop looking at me like that.”
“Like what?” she whispered back, leaning in just a little closer so her top lip brushed his bottom lip.
He jerked back, another curse slipping out of his mouth as his grip became almost painful around her arms. “You know what,” he replied hoarsely. “I’m your guardian, Ari. Ginnaye. You and I… we can’t…” Shuddering he let go, abruptly stepping back from her, and for the first time since becoming Jinn Ari felt the cold wrap its arms around her. “We can’t and we won’t.” Jai lowered his gaze now, taking a deep breath, taking a moment, before he was able to meet her eyes. “I don’t… look… you are… beautiful. You’re really beautiful and you’re…great. But you’re only eighteen and you love Charlie and I… I… well, there’s someone else… in my life.”