Raj lurched awake, retching air and gasping. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't think past the darkness slipping its way into his mind.
Maysam and Amira… and his master had come and… and then he had…
Bile rose, tasting faintly of citrus, and Raj heaved. He fought his way out of bed with trembling limbs, tumbling over the side and onto the floor and taking half the blankets with him. He could still feel the weight of those children inside of him, and he knew he could never be sick enough, could never expel enough to rid himself of the sensation of devouring them whole.
His throat closed and he snarled against the sob that wanted to break free. Most people could comfort themselves with assurances that such hells were only fleeting dreams, but Raj could make no such claim.
Why had he thought it would be okay to humor his master and sleep? Rest might give him a bit more energy and focus, but it wasn't strictly necessary. He could go weeks, even months without it. He knew what happened when he slept. Why had he thought it would be any different here? Just because the bedroom door remained unlocked? Because he had an actual bed instead of desert sand or a hard piece of ground or a rodent infested cot? Because his master had come in the other day and moved some things out of the closet and off the bookshelves, just in case he needed the space? Never mind that he carried nothing, owned nothing.
None of it changed where he ended up once he closed his eyes.
Focusing on a wilted plant on the windowsill, Raj took a deep breath in, then a deep breath out. Deep breath in, deep breath out. He reminded himself that what had happened was one moment in time, long over. Those children and that master long dead.
I am like water… I am like water…
With each breath the emotions retreated, and with it the darkness. Not far enough for his peace of mind, but enough that he could think clearly again and feel ashamed for lying in such a pathetic mess on the bedroom floor.
He forced himself to rise. His stomach stung from where he'd clawed it. There were four deep scratches across his abdomen, two of which were bleeding. A small surge of magic and they were healed.
He fixed the bed and dressed, using a magazine he'd snagged from the mail pile the other day for inspiration. Some masters insisted that he dress a certain way. He'd had masters that wanted in him rags, in order to humiliate him and remind him of his place. Others that had decorated him in gold, like a living treasure in their collection. Some had wanted him invisible to all but themselves, and some had wanted him bigger… scarier…
This master didn't seem to care so long as he blended in while out in public, and Raj was willing to go along with that for now.
He recreated the first decent outfit that he found, then looked himself over in the mirror. Jeans, t-shirt, overshirt and vest, topped with a flimsy scarf and sneakers. Raj got rid of the scarf and vest and changed the sneakers to a pair of thick boots. On impulse, he also added a couple gold cuffs to his wrists and ears.
When he was as human as he could stand to look, he headed downstairs. He found his master in the kitchen, surrounded by her usual assortment of books and papers. She was tapping her pencil against the edge of the table as she read, a rapid tap-tap-tap that bespoke of too much pent up energy or nerves, or both.
"Is something the matter?" he asked her.
She glanced up, face scrunching at the hopeful note in his voice before burying her nose deeper in her book. "No. I'm fine."
Raj continued to hover in the doorway. Unease was like an itch between his shoulder blades. His master was looking at her book, but it was clear from her unfocused gaze and pinch of her brow that she wasn't really seeing it. She continued tapping her pencil, but didn't turn the page or write anything down.
"Are you certain? You seem… anxious."
"I'm not anxious."
"If you say so."
She scowled over her book at him. "It's called doing homework."
"I know what it is." Did she think he was a complete fool? "The Makahl used to do it too back when he was still at university. It looks just as tedious and never-ending as it did then. Though he rarely became as agitated as you do," he added.
The tapping stuttered off. Jennifer shot him a funny look. Raj felt his defenses instinctively start to rise. "What?"
"You were around when Greg was in college?"
"My age rivals that of the pyramids," said Raj dryly. "Of course I was around when the Makahl was in school."
"That's not what I mean. You're telling me you were there, with Greg, when he was in college? Like, out of your Glass, strolling around campus kind of around?"
"I was hardly allowed to stroll around, as you put it. But… yes. Sometimes."
"Did he make wishes too?"
Raj tipped his head.
Jennifer gaped at him. "But—you told me he didn't make wishes. And he said it himself. He attacked us just to lock you back up!"
"I guess it would be more accurate to say he doesn't make wishes anymore."
"But he used to? That hypocrite!" She tossed her pencil into the crack of her book and flipped the tome shut with a heavy whap. "You know what? I am so not in the mood for this. Forget I even asked, okay? Are you hungry? Do you want some breakfast?"
Raj's stomach gave a sickening roll. He clenched his teeth and swallowed hard. "I'm fine."
He expected an argument. His master seemed to be stubborn about things like mealtimes. But she just shrugged and looked away, nibbling her lip. A beat passed. "Is Jack up yet, do you know?"
Raj copied her master sighed and reached for her mug. Taking a sip, she made a face. "Uck, cold."
Raj steeled himself and crossed the threshold. He moved to her side and took the cup, letting his magic rise. It couldn't go far, but it was enough to warm his hands. He let the heat seep into the ceramic and handed it back. Jennifer took a small sip and her eyebrows flew up. "It's warm again!"
Setting the cup aside she grabbed for his hand, squeezing it between her own. Raj dropped his temperature before he could burn her. She brushed her fingers over his palm, expression marveling. The touch sent a shiver over his skin. He clenched his teeth and yanked his hand back. Jennifer blushed. "Ah. Sorry. It's just so cool how you can do that."
"I believe you mean hot," said Raj.
For some reason, her cheeks darkened. "I did not! I—" Her eyes flicked back to the mug and understanding dawned. "Oh, you meant… Ha. Right. I gotcha. Funny joke." Lifting the cup once more, she starting gulping it down, avoiding his eyes.
Footsteps pounded down the stairs. A hooded figure streaked past the kitchen, heading for the front door.
Jennifer's head shot up. She lunged from her seat, dropping the mug onto the table and sloshing tea everywhere. "Crap! Jack, stop, you—catch him!" she cried to Raj as she gave up on the mess and made for the door instead.
"Are you making a wish?"
His master shoved past him. Jack was already out the door. Back in the kitchen, the phone started to ring.
Jennifer stopped short. She cursed. Loudly.
Raj's eyebrows rose. "Impressive."
Shooting him a glare, Jennifer ran back into the kitchen and grabbed the phone. "Hi, Dad." It was almost amusing, how she pasted a smile onto her face as if her parent could see it. "I'm doing great. You?"
Grabbing a paper towel, she wet it and returned to the table, sopping up the spilled tea, then repeating the process with a dry one. And all the while, she smiled and nodded as she followed along with whatever her father was telling her. "Uh-huh. Mhm. Did he? Yeah, that sounds like him. Oh. Yes, we got the package. Jack ate all the snacks, though."
Even from across the kitchen, Raj could hear the deep rumble of the man's laughter. Jennifer smiled weakly and tossed her wad of dirty paper towels into the garbage can. She leaned back against the kitchen counter. "Yeah, well, you're right that he's definitely a growing boy. We're starting to worry he's not gonna stop. Mom will have to take more pictures. He's even taller than the last time we sent you—what? His voice? Y-yeah, that's changing too."
Her father said something else. Raj watched as his master's fingers, which had been fiddling with one of the cabinet knobs, clenched tight. "You what? Oh. Um, well, the thing is… he's kinda… not here right now. Yeah. Sorry. He crashed at a friend's house. He won't be back until—Mom? She's uh… she's out right now, too. Yeah. She went to pick up breakfast and got a flat. She's not hurt or anything, but she's still waiting on a tow."
Raj shot a glance down the hallway. The front door still sat wide. He leaned to the left and could just make out the car parked in it's usual spot of dead grass, all four tires intact.
He looked back at his master. She had let go of the cabinet knob and was now leaning back against the counter, shoulders hunched, one arm wrapped around her middle. "Yeah, Dad, I will. Yes, sir. Love you, too. Bye."
"Does your mother have a second vehicle I have not seen yet?" Raj asked her.
His master looked up from where she had been staring at the darkened phone screen. "What?"
Raj nodded toward the door. "Your mother's car. It seems to be home and fine to me."
Jennifer made a face. "And you think my sense of humor is bad." She tossed the phone onto the counter and scrubbed a hand over her face. "I lied, all right? She went out with her friend Becky last night. She always stays out when Dad's going to call. He knows she won't talk to him, but he still asks every time so…"
"So you lie."
"It's just easier, okay? He knows it's a lie anyway, so it's fine."
"Intriguing logic, that."
Jennifer shoved a hand through her hair. "What else am I supposed to do? Tell me, Raj, what's the answer? Cause I've got nothing."
"You know what my answer is."
"Yeah. I know it all right." She rubbed at her eyes and Raj tried to ignore how her fingers came away wet. Then she sniffled. The sound made him feel like choking.
He crossed to her, getting close enough that the tip of his boots bumped against her toes. Her head shot up. Eyes far too wide and shining for his comfort stared at him.
"I wish to go out," he told her.
Confusion and hurt passed over his master's face. She jerked her chin at the door. "So go then. No one's stopping you."
Exasperating human. Raj leaned in closer. "You misunderstand. I wish to go out. With you."
"Me?" The word came out a squeak. That was satisfying. "Th-that's… I mean..." Her eyes narrowed. "Why?"
"Because I feel like it? You did promise to take me sightseeing if I asked."
"I… did. But…"
"Are you reneging on your offer already?"
"No, but… I'd hardly be good company right now."
Raj shrugged. "I can't see how your company will be any more or less tolerable than it usually is."
"Gee, thanks." She continued to watch him. Raj kept his expression bland.
She sighed and wiped at her eyes. "Fine. Just… give me a minute to grab my shoes."
"Of course," he said, and couldn't resist adding a sarcastic, "I await you at your leisure."
The scowl she sent him was a vast improvement to the tears. She replied with equal snarkiness, "I'll try not to keep you waiting."
She had no idea.
They left through the backyard, slipping past the thick tree line by way of two diverging pines, beyond which a narrow trail threaded through the woods. Jennifer and Jack used to sneak out this way all the time as children to get to the park, but it had been years since then. The way was overgrown with fat, weedy vines and thorny bushes that grew in thick bunches. A good yank or hearty stomp and you were through, but it made for slow going. The vines especially tended to resist, and gave off a smell of something rotten if your broke them in half.
Jennifer had half-expected Raj to balk. After all, he was dressed like someone out of a fashion magazine today, all casual-chic, complete with the cool and distant expression on his face. But he followed without complaint, not seeming to care about the stinky vines, or the muddy ground, or even the oversized spider webs that stretched between the trees, delicate, sticky, and nearly invisible until you ran into them, usually headfirst.
Jennifer glanced down at her own outfit, wishing she had thought to change before leaving the house. Her sweatpants were tattered at the bottom and there was a faint blue splotch on one pocket where a pen had leaked. It made her feel even scrubbier than usual next to him, and seriously, could she be in a more self-pitying mood today? She really wished she could shake this sulkiness, but it clung worse than the webs in her hair.
A few more overgrown bushes and their dirt path bisected with one of the park's official trails. Jennifer turned right, leading them around to the main field.
It wasn't the town's best park, but it was Jennifer's favorite, with lots of soaring pine trees and little playground equipment to get in the way of the area's natural sprawling beauty. There were some picnic tables and benches, a water fountain, a pair of swing sets, and a rarely used campfire pit towards the back near the restrooms, but the rest of the park was open land, dappled by trees and carpeted with a thick blanket of pine needles.
A little ways away, a group of children were playing what looked like a game of soccer, but where tripping, shoving, and grabbing were all legal moves. Three boys and two girls ran in a packed bunch after a red kickball, trying to get it between the pairs of rocks set up at either end of the field. A much younger girl in a blue princess dress waddled after them on pudgy legs, giggling wildly though she was never fast enough to catch up to the poorly coordinated herd. If the kids turned too fast, putting her suddenly ahead of them, she'd shriek and run out of the way, pursuing them anew once they'd passed.
Jennifer bypassed the benches for a nice spot under the trees where she could watch the game. Raj followed suit without complaint, his eyes following the tiny players with interest. Jennifer found herself watching him more than the children. The djinn's expression was easy, his posture relaxed as he leaned back against a tree. She couldn't say that he looked particularly happy, but… content, maybe? Would someone who claimed to want the destruction of humanity watch a kid's soccer game like this? It seemed too contrary.
Next to her, Raj stiffened. At the same time a child's voice shouted, "Heads up!"
Red filled her vision. The smell of rubber and dirt permeated her nose. The kickball hovered inches in front of her face, so close her eyes didn't want to focus on it.
She looked over at Raj. He still sat next to her, one arm extended as he gripped the ball, his expression tight.
The children had chased the runaway ball over to them. They stood on the edge of the field, watching with nervous expressions. Probably worried they were about to get into trouble.
A girl in braids looked at Raj with wide eyes. "Nice catch."
Nice supernatural reflexes, you mean.
An older boy, perhaps ten years old, waved an impatient hand. "Yeah, yeah, very cool. Can we have our ball back now?"
Raj raised an eyebrow. Immediately the boy dropped his gaze, adding in a mumble to his feet, "Please."
Jennifer smothered a smile.
Raj held up the ball. "I suppose it's too much to expect accuracy from human children your age," he said. "But I do believe your goal was in the opposite direction, was it not?"
The boy was fair-skinned, so the blush that swept his face was visible from the tip of his chin to the top of his hairline. "It was an accident, okay?"
"I just said so, didn't I?" More quietly the boy added, "I'd like to see you do any better."
In one fluid movement, Raj was on his feet. Jennifer started to reach for him, but then thought better of it. There was an interesting glint in the djinn's eye, one she hadn't seen before. It didn't feel threatening. More like… eager.
The children, realizing what he intended, shoved each other in their rush to get out of the way.
Raj dropped the ball onto the ground. And then, with a pointed look at the boy, he kicked it.
He could have aimed it straight across the field. Instead, he sent it flying off to the left, a blur of red almost too fast to track. It bounced off a pine tree at a near perfect ninety degree angle, cutting back across the field and rebounding off a bench, clipping the edge of it and forcing the ball to change directions once more. It hit the ground with a bounce and lost speed, rolling to a stop just inside the rocky goal line.
There was silence for a beat.
Then the children erupted.
"I call him!"
"No way, Tommy, he's ours."
"You've already got three players."
"Mandy doesn't count. And anyway you already have Raquel."
"So she's the fastest runner. It's only fair we get him." This was punctuated with the jab of a finger up at Raj.
"He is not playing," said Raj.
A chorus of disappointed whines followed this pronouncement. The oldest boy, Tommy, looked at him in confusion. "But… you can play."
"C'mon, please?" said the one with braids, Raquel. To which the littlest girl, Mandy, parroted, "Pwease?"
A muscle jumped in the djinn's cheek. His jaw worked, taking in all the tiny faces watching him. He looked over at Jennifer, for permission or help, she could't tell. She smiled and shrugged. "Up to you."
He huffed. Making a point of frowning, he pointed a finger at the the children. "Don't complain if you can't keep up."
The kids cheered. Before any arguing could start up over teams again, Raj declared, "And I shall be my own team. That would be fairest, yes?" Without waiting for an answer, he strode off towards the field. The children followed like excited puppies in his wake.
Jennifer caught Mandy before she could join them, a little nervous about how rough the game was about to get. Despite his little stunt with the kickball, she didn't think Raj would let himself get carried away. Still, like everything else he did, she couldn't help doubting. So she distracted Mandy with pine needle bracelets and dandelion flower tiaras until the girl grew tired enough to stay put without interference. Only then was Jennifer able to turn her full attention to the game.
What she saw took her breath away.
Raj was smiling. And it wasn't cynical, and it wasn't cruel. It was big and bright and fierce with happiness. It put dimples in his cheeks and crinkles by his eyes. He dodged around children as effortlessly as a bird in flight, dipping and whirling and utterly carefree, and she noticed that while the children continued to play as ruthlessly as ever, yanking on his clothes, grabbing at his arms, and otherwise trying to trip him up, Raj never so much as side-armed any of them in retaliation.
Tommy went in for a tackle. Raj slipped free easily, but it gave Raquel enough time race ahead. She stole the ball right from under his feet and Raj threw back his head and laughed, actually laughed, and Jennifer could only watch, entranced and breathless and utterly lost. How was this joyous person the same angry djinn she had been living with for the past week? The same one who picked fights and made threats as easily as he breathed? How?
The children swarmed him, just in case he tried to go after Raquel. He didn't. He stood passively as she made the goal, and when she spun to look back at him, a victorious grin on her face, he bowed his head to her in humble acknowledgement of her skill.
The game continued on for a while after that. The children scored several more times, but seemed just as happy when Raj managed to break away from them and make another impressive shot of his own. (Including one in the air kick that, had anyone besides children witnessed it, would have led to some tough questions about Raj and his seeming exemption from the rules of gravity.)
Eventually, though, the kids' energy started to flag. Several made noises about being hungry. Tommy conferred with Raquel, and together they made their goodbyes and started herding the younger ones away, Mandy still rubbing sleep from her eyes.
Jennifer joined Raj on the field. She dared to bump his shoulder with her own, flashing him a grin when he looked over at her. "You didn't tell me you were a sports star."
"Seriously. Djinn or not, that kind of footwork takes practice. How did you learn it?"
"The Makahl taught me."
"You mean Greg?" She couldn't imagine the two of them having ever been friendly enough to kick a ball around. But then, crazier things had happened. In the past week, no less. "What made him teach you?"
He shrugged and looked away, his gaze going to the retreating children. "Lack of options, I suppose."
"What does that mean?"
Raj raked a hand through his hair. "It means that he was a sniveling good-for-nothing as a boy, and anyone who spent any amount of time with him knew it, and avoided him accordingly."
"You mean he had no friends?"
"Except for you?"
Across the field, the troop of kids stopped as Mandy dug in her heels, fully awake now and not happy to be leaving.
Raj stiffened. "We were never friends."
"He made you play with him then?" said Jennifer. "And hang around him at college?"
"You understand nothing."
"I don't. That's why I'm asking."
The djinn clenched his fists and Jennifer backed up, worried for a moment that she had overstepped. But he didn't follow her. Didn't even glance her way. His focus was entirely on the children.
Tommy had taken hold Mandy's hand and was now trying to pull her along, but the toddler wasn't having it. Her feet were planted and she was leaning as far back as she could go, forcing the boy to hold her up. With her free hand she clawed at him with her tiny fingers, making pitiful whining noises that said real tears were on their way.
"Raj?" said Jennifer. She waved a hand in front of his face. "Helloooo."
He didn't answer. His breathing was coming fast and rough, the muscles in his arms and shoulders bunched as if prepared to take a blow, or deliver one.
Mandy let out a screeching cry. His eyes flared gold.
"Make her stop."
"Who? Mandy? It's just a little tantrum. Jack used to throw ones that were way worse. Still does, actually." When he didn't respond to her teasing, Jennifer went on, more seriously. "She's just tired, Raj. She'll calm down eventually. She's fine."
"He's hurting her."
"I swear to you, he's not."
Tommy swept Mandy up into his arms and the little girl screamed, thrashing and kicking. The djinn shuddered.
"Raj, talk to me," said Jennifer. "What's—"
The child screamed again and it was like the starting shot from a gun. Raj bolted towards the sound, startling Jennifer back a step. She called after him, but he ignored her. Already he was halfway to the children, and Jennifer was reminded of nothing so much as a predator stalking towards oblivious prey.
You're being paranoid, she told herself. He had been so sweet to the children all afternoon. Surely he wouldn't hurt them now. And over what, some tears?
But the way he moved with such single-minded purpose... and the wild-eyed look he'd had. There had been nothing harmless in that look.
Jennifer found herself hurrying to catch up to him.
Tommy was trying to carry Mandy away, but she was struggling too much for him to get anywhere. Her cries increased, both in desperation and in pitch. Raj broke into a lope, the tiger going in for the kill, and Jennifer felt a real spike of fear go through her.
She ran faster.
She caught up to Raj just as he reached the edge of the field. She slammed into him from behind, knocking him off his feet with a surprised grunt. The moment they hit the ground, Raj was twisting, rolling them until Jennifer was pinned beneath him.
"Raj, stop. Stop it."
He snarled down at her, real fangs glinting between his lips, and Jennifer's heart pounded triple-time at the sight. Claws dug into her arms. She yelped.
Raj flinched as if she'd struck him.
"Raj, don't," Jennifer gasped. His claws flexed, burrowing deeper, and she couldn't stop a cry of pain.
He went entirely still above her. Awareness flickered in the depth of his eyes. He stared down at Jennifer, his snarl twisting into something less ferocious and more tortured.
Beyond them, Mandy continued to cry.
"Make her stop." The words came out strangled. Jennifer could feel his entire body trembling. "Make it stop."
Jennifer looked over at the children. They hadn't noticed her and Raj yet, focused as they were on Mandy. Jennifer could yell at them to leave, but she was afraid if she did it would have the opposite affect of making them curious and luring them over. And she didn't want them getting any closer, not with Raj in the state he was in.
She could try and untangle herself from Raj and lead him away, but she worried that prompting any sort of movement on his part might make him snap again.
Raquel stepped in to help Tommy. Together they managed to start carrying Mandy away. But the child's shrieks only grew more distressed at finding herself thwarted.
Raj clenched his teeth, eyelids slamming shut like he could block the noise out with willpower alone.
Taking a deep breath, Jennifer reached up. When her fingers brushed his earlobes, he jerked. But he didn't object or bite or try to pull away, and so she kept going, following the curves of his ears until she could cup her hands over them, blocking out the sound as best she could.
His breathing was a too-fast puffing on her temple. She could feel his heart pounding against her chest, making her own feel off rhythm. He still held her by the arms, but his grip was more clinging now, less restraining. Pine needles prickled against the back of her arms and neck, but she didn't dare shift.
It seemed like forever before the sound of crying finally faded away. Even when Jennifer couldn't hear it anymore, she stayed as she was, waiting for Raj to make the first move.
Eventually, he pulled away. He did it slowly, as if doubting that the noise was truly gone. When he raised his head enough to meet her eyes, his expression was locked down tight.
At least his fangs were gone.
Lifting her hands a bit, she asked him, "Okay?"
"Not until you—ah." He vanished, leaving her squinting up at a blinding sky. For a moment she thought he had disappeared completely, and panic spiked through her at the thought that he might have gone after the children.
But then she sat up and spotted him pacing several feet away, looking agitated but lucid. Good enough.
She took a moment to collect herself, shaking out her hair and plucking the pine needles from her shirt. Only after she was done did she finally stand and face Raj. "You know I have to ask."
He stopped pacing but didn't look at her.
"You were doing great until Mandy started crying."
He didn't so much as blink. Seriously, the trees had more give than him.
Jennifer chewed on her lip and told herself not to get frustrated. He wasn't the only one feeling temperamental. She was still plenty mad herself. He'd scared her. And hurt her. And she hated that she still wasn't sure what he'd planned to do once he had reached those children.
Still, she knew that demanding an explanation from him would get her nowhere. So she shoved the emotions down and tried a different tactic instead.
"You know, my grandfather had panic attacks, after the war. Even decades later. Loud noises especially would get to him. One time a neighbor was setting off fireworks—"
"I do not care about your grandfather," said Raj.
The harsh words stymied her, as they were meant to. But Jennifer recovered after a moment and continued, undaunted. "I'm just saying that I know what you're going through. And… well, you listened to me complain about my dad when I know you'd rather not have. I'd be happy to return the favor."
"You truly think my problems compare to your petty complaints?"
"So you admit you have a problem. That's good."
"Don't." He was in her face in a blink, and though she didn't fear for her life this time, he still looked plenty murderous.
"I have done more terrible things at the right hand of my masters than I ever did as a free djinn. Unendurable things."
"Things involving children?"
Raj's throat worked. "Yes."
Jennifer ignored the way her stomach turned over at his answer. It wasn't his fault. Whatever he had done, it hadn't been his choice. She had to remember that.
"The Makahls made you do these things?"
He took a step back. "No. They had their own sins. This was by another master."
"But… you told me the djinn gave you to the Makahls. And until last week when Greg lost you—"
"Until last week I had indeed been with the Makahls for a very long time. But a family that old is not without its dark periods. And keeping hold of something as priceless and dangerous as my Glass was no easy feat. Greg was not the first to lose it. Over the years my Glass has been forgotten, hidden, lost, thrown away, bartered, and, once... stolen."
"Is that how this other master found you? By stealing your Glass?"
"Yes." Raj reached for her, but stopped just before touching. He looked up at her from under his lashes. It was the most uncertain she had ever seen him. "May I?"
She hesitated only a moment before nodding. He took her arm, his touch as light as a breeze now, and carefully turned her arm over. There was a thin line of blood, already drying. He followed the trail up to five puncture wounds that still ached from where he'd pierced muscle. A quick inspection of her other arm revealed similar marks.
"I cannot heal you without a wish." To his credit, he sounded genuinely regretful about it.
"There is one way."
He met her gaze. A single eyebrow quirked in question. Jennifer smiled. "You can apologize for it."
His response was a snort. "What good will that do?"
"You'd be surprised."
He still looked unconvinced.
"C'mon, humor me."
Raj sighed. His thumb ghosting over the wound, he said, "I am sorry for injuring you. I was not myself."
"Glad to hear it," said Jennifer. "Now promise you won't do it again. And that if you feel… whatever that was, coming on again, you'll leave before it gets too bad. Or come get me."
His jaw worked. She knew what he was thinking. He could make her wish for it, if she truly wanted to enforce such a rule.
But then he looked at her arm and the smear of blood his touch had left there, and the fight seemed to drain out of him.
"I promise," he said.
"You see? I feel all better now."
"Then your senses are terrible. You are still hurt."
Slowly, Jennifer reached for his hand, happy when he let her take it. It was much bigger and warmer than her own, the skin darker and rougher. But still just a hand. The claws were gone, his fingers lax, letting her trace the exposed flesh of his palm, his life line and fate line and heart line. Even his nails were short, clean, and neatly shaped.
See? she told herself, not scary at all.
Raj watched her with wary eyes.
"Look, I know you've been through a lot," she told him. "And it has to be hard, dealing with it all. But I'm hoping… I want you to think of this as chance to start over. Whatever you did—whatever you were forced to do in the past doesn't matter—"
His fingers twitched in her hold. "You say that when you don't even know what I've done."
"I don't care. Whatever it was, it wasn't you're fault. You shouldn't let it keep ruining your life. You just need to forgive yourself and—"
"Or if you can't right now, then I'll forgive you," said Jennifer. She smiled up at him, enjoying his stupefied expression. She understood the feeling. She had surprised herself with the offer. But having said it, it felt... good. Right. Why hadn't she thought of it before? If she could absolve Raj of his terrible past just a bit, then maybe it would help him find peace. Maybe he would finally be able to let go of all that anger.
Raj's face contorted. Jennifer had a brief moment to wonder if she had overwhelmed him when he ripped his hand from hers.
Jennifer blinked. "What?"
He was shaking again. When he looked at her, instead of the gratitude she had expected to see, his expression was dark with rage. "People like you. You are the worst."
"People like me? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Acting so compassionate. Forgiving when you don't even know what you're forgiving me for."
"I told you, it doesn't matter—"
"Spare me," spat Raj. "The truth is that you don't want to know. Because then you'd have to face the fact that you might not be as merciful as you like to think you are. It's easy to say you don't care when you don't know. It's another thing entirely to know and accept, and then forgive."
"I ate children." He stared her down, forcing Jennifer look at him, to hear his words. "Two little girls who had done nothing but offer me kindness and trust, and I became their nightmare made flesh. I watched myself change in the reflection of their horrified eyes and then I snatched them up and swallowed them whole. They never stood a chance, and neither did their families. I killed them all. Men and women and more children. Entire generations, gone in a moment."
Jennifer stared at him, hardly able to fathom. Though the picture he painted was detailed enough, her mind shied away from it on instinct.
"It's still not your fault. Your master was the one who wished for it."
Raj shook his head. "It was my fault he even had possession of my Glass in the first place."
"How? You said he stole it—"
"In truth, I helped him do it."
"Because the Makahl family was in decline. And I knew that soon, one of them would grow desperate enough to make a wish, just a small one to fix their financial problems, and then I would be returned to my Glass and forced to wait who knew how many more years in that hellish desert." Raj's gaze swept the park, and Jennifer knew he wasn't seeing trees, but crags of rock. Not the flat carpet of weedy grass, but infinite hills of sand.
"When Tariq broke in that night and called me forth, I knew he would be greedy enough to use me, and I was not about to let my chance at freedom get away. I let him live when I could easily have killed him, and I let him murder the guards and servants foolish enough to get in the way of his escape."
"You were desperate," reasoned Jennifer. "Years of abuse and mental torture... You couldn't know he would make you do such terrible things."
But Raj was already shaking his head. "I knew. The moment I saw him, I recognized the darkness in his eyes. I knew whatever he wished from me would not be pleasant. I knew I would be damning myself and countless others if I allowed him to have possession of my Glass. I simply didn't care."
Here, though, was something Jennifer could refute, and she latched onto it with relief. "You cared about the children."
Raj threw up his hands. "And so I am absolved. I let them live, you know."
"The children I had consumed. I wasn't even aware I had done it at first, for I was hardly sane at the time. But as I finished destroying their home and killing their friends and family, I came back to myself enough to realize what I had done. And you know what? I was glad for it."
"Because you were able to save them?" Jennifer guessed.
"Because it meant I had bested my master, even if he didn't know it. And because it meant I was growing stronger. I would never have been able to pull off such a feat before, you see. Unlike the Makahls, Tariq had used me, but he'd always made sure to keep his wishes small, carefully wording them for maximum effect with minimal magic needed. But finally, those tiny little wishes were adding up. The evidence was inside me, breathing, surviving." The pride in Raj's voice disturbed Jennifer almost as much as his words. "After I was finished, my master left me there in the wreckage—to wallow, I suppose. And once he had gone, I slit my own stomach and the children came spilling out."
"Were they… okay?" asked Jennifer.
The look he shot her was disgusted. "Would anyone be? They were in shock, and the sight of their slaughtered brethren didn't help. One beast had escaped my wrath. I put them on it and started leading them towards the closest city that I knew of. At dawn, my master called me back. I was forced to abandon them there in the desert. No money, no family, no supplies. If I'd had any mercy at all, I would have killed them before I went. Instead I left them there, alive, forcing them to face death twice."
It wasn't your fault. You meant well. Jennifer wanted to say the words, but they stuck to her tongue and wouldn't come off. She felt sick and horrified by his story. She wasn't sure she would be able to speak without crying, much less form any kind of reassurance.
"Well, go on then," Raj told her. "Forgive me now."
But Jennifer could only stare at him helplessly. The djinn nodded once in bitter satisfaction. "As I thought."
He turned away. Panicked, Jennifer threw out a hand. "W-wait!" she said. "Just… just give me second to—to absorb all of this and—"
Jennifer dropped her gaze. Her stomach was a roiling mess, her mind little better. She felt… caught. And ashamed. And sorry, so sorry.
But he was right. She couldn't say she forgave him. She wasn't sure she even wanted to say it anymore, even as a lie.
"Next time, save your forgiveness for someone who asks for it," said Raj. He turned away from her. "I think I've done enough sightseeing for today."
The wind gusted. Jennifer knew without looking that he had gone, and she hated herself for feeling relieved by it.
A group of runners appeared, jogging along the south trail around the field. They were all high school boys, and wore the standard training outfit that all the sport groups did—plain white t-shirts and red and silver shorts. The school colors. Jennifer thought they might be part of the football team, but she couldn't remember any of their names. Duncan hung out with them occasionally.
One of them, a broad-shouldered guy with close cropped hair and more muscle than any of the others, noticed her and slowed.
"You all right?" he called over to her.
He'd noticed her arm. Jennifer covered it with a hand and angled herself so he couldn't see the matching set on her other side.
"Fine," she told him. "Wasn't looking where I was running, I guess. Scraped it on a tree."
His mouth quirked, no doubt wondering how oblivious a person had to be to run into a giant pine tree. But he seemed to accept the lie, and with a nod ran to catch up with his friends.
Jennifer waited until the boys were gone, then headed in the opposite direction, back towards the trail that would lead her home.
But not, she suspected, back to Raj.
He had been aiming for the ocean. Instead, Raj found himself surrounded by a sea of gold.
The wheat field he was in seemed endless. Not a fence or farmhouse in sight. Just acres of uninterrupted grain that rippled and bowed in a blustering wind that whistled through the field, stemming no doubt from the voluminous gray storm clouds that stretched across the sky, threatening to swallow up what remained of the late evening sun.
Raj stomped through the swaying wheat, clawing at the stalks that blew against his face, unable to focus on anything but the rage pounding inside of him. It pressed against the back of his eyes and throat, threatening to blind him or choke him or both. He thought he would burst from the sheer pressure if he didn't expel it, now, somewhere, on something—
He stopped and snatched up a piece of wheat. The tufted head was both soft and crunchy and prickled as he held it in his palm.
A surge of magic and it burned to ash in his hand.
How dare his master make him an offer like that out of nowhere! And so easily. Like it was nothing for her to do so. Like his past was nothing.
He grabbed for another piece of wheat. With a whoosh, it went up.
He hadn't asked to be forgiven. And yet she had pushed it on him without a single word of warning, and he had been forced to feel the weight of it upon him, all the hope and pain and gratitude of it, before making her take it all back. And she had. Sorrowfully, perhaps, but she had done it. As he had known she would. As anyone capable of grasping the gravity of his crimes would.
Damn her anyway.
Another surge of magic and another stalk was incinerated.
If only she hadn't smiled at him so sweetly. Just remembering it made him feel as if she had cut out one of his lungs. He couldn't breath right and his chest ached. He knew better than anyone that he didn't deserve to be forgiven. But in that moment, looking at her, Raj hadn't been able to stop himself from wishing for things that even the most powerful magic could not give him.
He smiled bitterly. That was nothing new, though, was it? There had been plenty of other times. Such as the night when Greg had returned home from the funeral, disheveled and reeking of alcohol with one of his family's damned diaries in his hands, voice hoarse but no less impassioned as he'd wish Raj back to hell.
Or the day when one of his own kind had picked up his Glass after it had been lost by some bumbling Makahl in a hurry, only to return it despite Raj's pleadings for them not to.
Or the morning after his ninth birthday, when he had woken up to find that his parents had finally worked up the courage to abandon him once and for all.
Raj grabbed a fistful of wheat and lit it all up. It ignited with a crackling hiss, a hot blue flame engulfing the pile for a brief moment before dying out, leaving nothing but blackened husks behind.
He wasn't looking for forgiveness. In truth, he didn't want it. And who was his new master to make such an offer anyway? Some needy little human who thought herself a savior? Savior to whom? She didn't even have the courage to save herself. He saw how little food her family kept stored in their kitchen, the worn state of their clothes, the tension between her, her sibling, and her parents. The very bones of the family's relationship were weak and arthritic, just waiting to snap under the weight of all the issues piled on top of them. And yet his master wanted to help him? Ha!
He swiped a hand through the stalks, tempted to set all of it ablaze. He could raze the entire field if he wanted to, burn the land all the way down to the coast. He imagined the look on his master's face when she heard about it, either from him or from her little television set she like to try and spy on him with. Shock, anger, disappointment. He very much liked the idea of the first two. As for the third… imagining it put a heavy weight in his gut he didn't like the feeling of one bit.
With a snarl, he dropped his hand and turned away. He was done with this. No more promises. No more agreements or compromises or vows. He was through with playing nice. From now on, if his master wanted something from him, she could wish for it or go without. He didn't need her friendship, or affection, or understanding, and he certainly didn't need her forgiveness. All he needed from her was his freedom.
And he would sacrifice whatever and whoever he had to in order to get it from her.