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T-minus three months and eleven days to the foretold doomsday
Near Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Cara Liu figured it didn’t matter whether it was a Catholic mass or a bloodletting ritual; funerals just flat-out sucked. More, the grief of losing Aaronwho had been a good guy, always ready with a laugh, a beer, or an ass kicking, depending on the situationcame with an equal amount of fear, because the men and women gathered around the pyre knew damn well that it could’ve been any one of them.
Aaron might’ve been the first winikin to lose his life fighting alongside the Nightkeepers, but it was a sure bet he wouldn’t be the last. With the earth’s magic- wielding guardians decimated and the end-time approaching fast, their new leader, Mendez, hadn’t had a choice. Within a month of Cara’s persuading fifty rebellious winikin to return to the training compound that they and their parents had fled nearly three decades earlier, Dez had “promoted” the traditional servants onto Nightkeeper-led fighting teams and put them through a crash course in killing demons and protecting their own asses, roughly in that order.
Sure, the winikin had voted in favor of fighting... but given that the alternative was an apocalypse that would turn mankind into an undead army, what other choice was there?
As the last of them passed by the pyre, thunder grumbled in the distance, warning that the darkening horizon meant business. It had been a dry desert summer, but it looked like the autumn rains were coming sooner than later.
“That’s just freaking great,” Cara muttered to nobody in particular, using irritation to blunt the knowledge that Aaron wouldn’t be dead if it hadn’t been for her. She had tracked him to a small town in upstate New York, where he’d been teaching high school English and coaching basketball, and she’d persuaded him to come to New Mexico. The world needs you, she’d said. And now, nine months later, he was dead, killed down in central Mexico when it had turned out that the extermination team hadn’t taken care of all of the infected villagers, after all. There had been one left, and it had gotten Aaron before any of the others had a chance to react.
When Cara’s eyes prickled, she scrubbed at them on the pretext of shoving her black, skunk-striped hair out of her face. She stood apart from the others, halfway up a flight of stone steps that led from the packed earth of the ball court. Wearing slim black pants and a matching blazer punked out with chains and zippers, with her weapons belt conspicuously absent in deference to the ritual, she thoughthopedshe looked calm, controlled, and capable. Nobody else needed to know that her insides were churning with anger and grief, along with the unease that had been dogging her for days now, weeks.
Don’t think about it, she told herself. It’s nothing.
Only it didn’t feel like nothing.
If she had been a true Nightkeeper, she would’ve thought it was prescience, a foretelling of some dire threat. She was a winikin, though, which meant that the nerves were probably just nerves, brought on by the knowledge that the zero date was almost on top of them and her people weren’t the united force they needed to be. Far from it, in fact.
Don’t think about it, she repeated inwardly, and forced herself to look at the intricately tied funerary bundle that rested atop the pyre. But it was like trying not to think about a big white wolf, because the moment she thought it, boom, there the big furry bastard was, smack in the middle of her brain, along with all the other stuff she was trying to ignore. It wasn’t like she was playing ostrich, either. In fact, she was emulating the Nightkeeper warriors and their ability to prioritize their goals and put the needs of the many over those of the few, even if those few were teammates or even their families and loved ones.
Love...Now, there was a concept. As was family.
She glanced over at her father, Carlos, who was a stocky bull of an ex-rancher in his fifties. His hair was silver-shot and his face was showing its age now, where before he’d looked a good decade younger than his calendar years. As she gazed at him, his shoulders went suddenly very square beneath his dark suit jacket, letting her know he’d caught her look, though he didn’t respond, didn’t even meet her eyes. The fiercest of the traditionalists, he hadn’t forgiven her for leaving Skywatch in the first place, never mind everything that had happened since circumstances had forced her to return.
Jamming her hands in her jacket pockets, she rocked back on the worn heels of her black cowboy boots. Holdovers from her old life in Montana, they were as much a comfort to her as chocolate might be to another woman. They reminded her of green meadows, endless gallops, and family dinners, all long gone.
She sighed and glanced again at the horizon. “The winds are changing,” she said, pitching her voice so it would carry to her second in command, who stood below her on the ball court.
Zane nodded without taking his eyes off the pyre. “We should move this along if we want to beat the rain.” The ex-marine was at parade rest, though she wasn’t sure whether he was standing guard, awaiting orders, or a little bit of both.
He had been one of her first recruits, and although he had carried serious rank out in the human world, he had zero problem taking orders from an inexperienced, pint-size woman ten years his junior. Rather than joining the others in complaining about how she’d wound up as their leader, he had done his damnedest to squelch the discontent and help level things off among the rebels, traditionalists, and Nightkeepers. And thank the gods for that, because she didn’t know how she could have gained even a semblance of control without him.
Touching the high-tech bracelet she wore on her right wrist, over the place where she had once been marked with the glyphs that tagged her as a servant to the coyote bloodline, she murmured into the bracelet’s audio pickup, “Rabbit? It’s time.”
The magi had paid their respects already, leaving the winikin to conduct their own ceremony, as was proper. Cara had decided to break with tradition, though, in having the Nightkeepers’ sole surviving fire starter light Aaron’s funerary bundleboth for the symbolism and because it would ensure a complete burn.
To her surprise there hadn’t been much of a protest, even from the trads. Then again, it wasn’t the first change she’d made, and it sure as heck wouldn’t be the last. Her predecessor, the royal winikin Jox, hadn’t chosen her to do more of the same; he’d picked her precisely because of who and what she was: a half-human, half-winikin who had been born after the massacre that wiped out their numbers and been raised by one of the most traditional of the trads, but who had no interest in serving the bloodline as Carlos did.
I want someone to shake things up, Jox had written in the sealed letter that named her the winikin’s new leader, and she had done plenty of that. But the countdown to the end date was down to its last three months and a few days now, which meant there wasn’t much shaking room left. At some point they were going to have to go with what they had.
“Here he comes.” Zane tipped his head toward the open end of the ball court nearest to the mansion.
Rabbit approached at a ground-eating jog. Although at twenty-three he was the youngest of the magi by nearly a decade, he looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, having been aged prematurely by the strange and powerful hybrid magic given to him by his mixed heritage. Pale eyed, sharp featured, and back to sporting a short mohawk, Rabbit could’ve stepped right out of central casting for Last of the Mohicans, even though his jeans, black tee, Goth-chained boots, and MAC-10 machine pistol were thoroughly modern.
Many of the winikinand not just the newcomerswere wary of Rabbit, who was a mind-bender and telekine in addition to being a fire starter. Cara, though, felt a certain nonconformists’ kinship. They were both half-bloods, both prone to making waves. He had the advantage, thoughhe had more magic than all the other Nightkeepers put together. She just had herself, and the illusion of control.
She came down the steps while he took his place at the foot of the pyre. And, as she hit the ground, she pretended not to see Zane’s outstretched hand. Guilt stung, though, along with a fleeting wish that things were different between them.
Zane was a good man, clean-cut and handsome in a blocky, bench-pressed sort of way, and it would’ve made practical and political sense for them to get together. But two days ago, when he’d surprised the hell out of her by showing up at the door of her suite with a bouquet of cactus blooms and feelings she hadn’t realized he’d been percolating, he’d put it exactly like that: Their pairing would be practical, politically advantageous, and stable. That wasn’t exactly the protestation of undying love she would’ve been hoping for... if she’d been hoping for one. Which she hadn’t been, because although destiny, or whatever you wanted to call it, might have forced her back to Skywatch, she’d be damned if she let herself fall into a relationship because it was practical or con-freaking-venient.
She wanted more than practicality, more than a lover who was her lover because he was right down the hall. No, she wanted sparks, fireworks, affection, trust. A guy who turned her on, adored her, would be there for her no matter what...and in her experience, that combination was about as common as a whale watch in the desert.
Besides, she thought, stifling a sigh as Zane fell in beside her and they crossed the short distance to the pyre together, it wasn’t like she had the time or energy to start something right now. Not even close. She had an army within an army to lead, dissidents to soothe, battles to fight... all in the hopes of making it through to December twenty- second intact and moving on with her life.
That was her promise to herself, the four words that kept her going day after day: I’ll do it after.
After the final battle, whenplease, godsSkywatch disbanded and they all went their separate ways, she would throw herself into the hunt and find a job she loved, a man she loved, a life she loved. Sparks, fireworks, volcanic eruptions... She would go for broke and live the life she hadn’t managed to find before Skywatch reopened, when she’d been young and sheltered, or after she’d gone off on her own, little realizing that her restlessness and chronic poor health had been the magic’s way of saying, “Get back where you belong.”
Well, she was back at Skywatch, all right, but she still didn’t belong. She was determined, though, to live long enough to rejoin the world, and do her part to make sure there was a world worth escaping into. And if that meant falling asleep some nights with her pillow clutched to her chest and her insides so hollow they ached, then that was a sacrifice she was willing to make. That was what she’d told Zanemore or lessthe other night, and it was what she reminded herself of now as she had to fight a brief and unfair desire to lean into his solid bulk.
Instead, taking a deep, settling breath, she moved into the circle on Rabbit’s right side, which put her next to Natalie, the pretty blond archaeologist who had become her closest friend at Skywatch. The women exchanged a look, but said nothing. Now wasn’t the time.
When Zane stepped up to complete the circle on Natalie’s other side, face set, Cara nodded to Rabbit. “Go ahead.”
The big, tough-looking mage hesitated, though, and took a long look around at the the winikin. The pause lasted so long that she wondered what he saw. Did he notice that he was taller than any of them by at least a head, heavier by a good fifty pounds? Did he ask himself what the hell Mendez was up to, trying to make the members of the servant class into a fighting force? Or was he thinking about something else entirely?
It was hard to tell with Rabbit.
Finally he said, “For what it’s worth, I think it sucks that the First Father’s magic has trapped you the way it has. It’s not fair that you don’t have a choice whether to serve or not, and, well...” He scanned their faces, though she didn’t know what he was looking for, still didn’t know what he saw. “Anyway. I’m sorry for your loss.”
He said something else, but Cara couldn’t hear him over the sudden rushing in her ears as his words kicked up memories of one of the things she was seriously trying not to think about: the last funeral she attended.
I’m sorry for your loss, the priest had told her, and most of the people who filed past the grave had spouted a variation on the theme. She had made the right noises, forcing herself to act the hostess because there was nobody else left to carry the burden. Her mother was in that fresh-turned grave, her father just standing there beside her, staring through the people who stopped to shake his hand and murmur something they thought would comfort. And the fourth member of their strange little familyher so-called foster brother, Sven, who hadn’t been any sort of brother at allhadn’t even shown up. He was off diving the Great Barrier Reef, he’d said by way of a voice mail, and couldn’t get there in time. So he hadn’t even tried.
That wasn’t the first time Sven had let her down, but it had been the final proof that he cared far more about his adventures than the people who loved him.
Shit. Don’t go there. And for gods’ sake, focus. This wasn’t about her and Zane, wasn’t about her and Sven, wasn’t about her at all. It was about completing the ritual and showing the winikin that she wasn’t dumping all of the traditions. Just the ones that didn’t make modern-day sense.
Realizing that Rabbit had started the funerary rite, she winced and made herself dial back in.
“We ask the First Father, the Hero Twins, and the gods themselves to take thewinikin Aaron Rockwell up into the sky to be reborn,” he said, reciting from memory, though she’d told him he could read it. “Since what has happened before will happen again, we will see you anew, brother, in the next cycle of life.” He lifted an oblong bundle wrapped in gray cloth, which he opened to reveal a thin, narrow stone spike that had been carved to resemble the barb of a stingray’s tail and sharpened to a deadly point. He turned and handed it to Cara.
Her stomach churned as she took the smooth, thin stone, but there was adrenaline alongside the nerves now. The funeral ceremony was one of the very few rituals that called on the winikin to make their own blood sacrifice, bringing it very close to an actual spell. And there were recent hints that the winikin could do magic, after all. But although Dez had lifted the stricture forbidding the winikinfrom working magiche too had been put in place to shake things upnone of them had been able to manage even the simplest spell. More, a search of the Nightkeepers’ vast library had failed to turn up any hint of how a winikin was supposed to work magic, or even whether it was possible. She kept hoping, though. And given the nature of the magic and its dependence on blood sacrifice, it was tempting to think that Aaron’s death might open the floodgates.
As she slid her fingers along the spine, all other thoughts fell away, leaving only her awareness of the pyre and the others gathered around her, the sudden tension in the air. Please, gods, she whispered inwardly. Then, steeling herself, she set the spine to the tip of her tongue, then closed her eyes and, with a quick, jerky move, drove the bloodletter deep and yanked it free again.
Pain flashed and her stomach lurched as blood filled her mouth, making her want to gag at the salty tang. Instead, she let the blood pool in her mouth, then stepped forward and spit out the mouthful of mingled saliva and bloodboth sacred to the gods, who had given their blood to create mankind in a land where water was scarce.
Optimism flared for a nanosecond... and then died. Because when her offering hit the pyre there were none of the red-gold sparkles the Nightkeepers talked about seeing when they dialed into their magic, no buzzing hum in the air. All she got was a throbbing tongue, a gnarly case of muck-mouth, and a solid reminder that none of the prophecies ever even mentioned anyone besides the Nightkeepers fighting in the final battle, never mind using magic to do it.
Exhaling, she passed the spike to Zane, who took it without comment and made his sacrifice in grim silence. The others did the same, all the way around the circle until the bloodletter returned to Rabbit, who touched it to his lips and then tossed it on the pyre. Overhead, the storm clouds had blotted out the sun, turning the scene dark and gloomy, though the air didn’t really smell of rain.
Rabbit looked around the circle again, as if he wanted to say something else. But then he shook his head, focused on the funerary bundle, spread his fingers, and called fire in the old tongue with a whisper of, “Kaak.”
Energy cracked and a gout of flames erupted from the base of the pyre. The fire geysered upward in a blaze that rose ten, then twenty feet, and the air went suddenly scorching, burning Cara’s skin. Whoa! She stumbled back, shielding her face with her arm as the churning in her stomach suddenly increased a thousandfold. “Rabbit, dial it down!”
“I can’t!” His eyes were wide, his face ashen as he tried to beckon the power back into him. “It’s not working! The magic is”
Crack! A huge lightning bolt lashed up from the fiery pillar and speared into one of the black storm clouds. Cara screamed, heart clutching as the cloud freakingdetonated, fragmenting into dark chunks that plummeted toward the earth, trailing vapor. The missiles hit in a circular spray around them, impacting meteor-fast, shaking the earth beneath her feet and digging huge craters that spewed dirt and broken stone.
“Form up!” Zane shouted over the roar of the fire and the aerial cannonade. Some of the winikin responded instantly, scrambling into the four fighting teams; others stood and gaped.
“Get close together,” Rabbit yelled. “I’ll shield!”
Cara went for her wristband, hit the panic button that would broadcast on every available channel and trigger the alarms back at the main mansion, and shouted, “Mayday! Mayday! The funeral is under attack!”
“Come on!” Natalie grabbed her arm and dragged her into a stumbling run toward the others as Rabbit started casting his fiery orange shield spell around them.
Catching sight of movement, Cara missed a step, and the churning in her gut suddenly condensed to a hard, cold pit of terror. “The craters! Look!”
Shiny black shadows writhed within each pit, and then boiled up and over to become dark creatures, huge animals that had been twisted into hideous monsters. Gods! What were they? How had they gotten inside Skywatch’s shields? She saw jaguars, foxes, eagles, owls, all black and slick, their pelts glued together into slimy spikes by a sticky coating, as if they had just been born, fully formed, from the underworld itself.
The demons screeched and roared as they materialized, a dozen of them and then more, landing with earth-shuddering thuds and casting around momentarily before they oriented on the winikin and began to move. They were slow at first, uncoordinated, as if learning to use their bodies. But that didn’t last long.
Rabbit shouted, “Cara, move! Come on!” He waved to the single gap that remained in the fiery shield, left open for her and Natalie.
Heart pounding, Cara bolted the short distance remaining and shoved Natalie through. “Is everyone” She turned back and broke off with a gasp as she caught sight of two stumbling figures lagging behind, recognized them. “Zane!”
He was coming toward them half carrying, half dragging Lora, who had been a decorated cop in the outside world, but now was limp and sobbing.
Cara’s breath froze as a shadow rose up behind them: a huge eagle with a minivan wingspan and a talon spread the size of a human head, coordinated now and flying with fiendish intent, its coal red eyes locked on its prey. It was maybe a thousand feet from Zane. Eight hundred. Seven.
He wasn’t going to make it.
Her heart went thudda-thudda, but she didn’t let her voice shake as she said to Rabbit, “Give me your gun.”
His eyes blazed. “No fucking way. I’ll go.”
“You need to protect the others.” The demons were homing in on the winikinhuddled within his glowing shield.
“I Shit. Here.” He tossed the MAC-10. “Go!”
She caught it, fumbled it, then got it in a two-handed grip. The machine pistol still felt strange in her hands even after all the training she’d had, as if her body knew on the DNA level that she wasn’t made for fighting. But she hung on to the weapon, fingers slipping with the cold sweat that suddenly bathed her as she wheeled and bolted toward the stragglers.
The demon eagle was very close to Zane. A few hundred feet, if that. Do it, she told herself. Just do it! Heart thundering in her ears, she fired over his head, wasting the first burst and then sending a wobbly line of bullets stitching across the creature’s torso and left wing. The beast screeched and its wing beats faltered, but it stayed in the air, locking onto her with blazing crimson eyes. The fury in themthe pure evilfroze her momentarily in place. This was the enemy they were going to be fighting during the war, she realized with sudden sharp horror. Not the xombis or any other sort of possessed human, but the demons themselves. And these were the smallest of them.
Oh, gods. She couldn’t do this. They couldn’t do it. There was no way a dozen magi and fifty-some winikin could fight an army of these things and win.
“Cara, no!” Zane waved her off with his free hand, his expression going wild. “Get back!”
Snapping from her paralysis, she bolted toward him, toward the demon, her legs moving while her brain screeched, Wrong way! But she skidded and got to Lora’s other side. Imagining the demon’s hot breath on her neck, she screamed,“Move!”
They ran for the shield, legs pumping, but Lora was deadweight, dragging them down. Rabbit extended a tendril of the shield, trying to meet them halfway, but it wasn’t enough.
Hearing the snap of feathers, Cara twisted around and muffled a cry of terror at seeing the creature nearly on top of them. She twisted and fired off a burst of jade-tipped bullets into its gaping mouth, but this time the bullets just seemed to piss it off more. It screamed and reached for her, claws spreading into a ring of wickedly curved blades.
“Down!” Rabbit bellowed.
Zane yanked Lora to the ground and Cara hit the deck a nanosecond behind them as the mage unleashed a huge fireball. A crackling roar seared over them and then the fiery missile slammed into the raptor, driving it back and away. The eagle was instantly ablaze. It screamed and flailed its flaming wings, then fell with a sickening thud that jarred the ground beneath them.
Cara and Zane lunged to their feet and dragged Lora up, but from within the shield, Natalie screamed, “Look out!”
Whipping around, Cara let out an, “Oh, shit,” at the sight of a huge, rangy, doglike creature bearing down on them. Its fur was mottled black and stuck up in spikes fouled by the ropy saliva that slicked its jaws and chest, coming from a mouth that showed huge fangs and barbed ivory teeth.
Throat closing with bitter panic, she yanked away and shoved Lora and Zane toward the shield. “Move!”
“No, damn it.” Zane spun back, eyes fierce. “Let me”
“Go. That’s an order.” She got between them and the oncoming beast, heart thundering in her ears as she told herself, You’ve just got to slow it down long enough for Rabbit’ s magic to recharge. They had trained on scenarios like this. Now it was time to put that training to use. Aware that Zane had followed orderswhatever he might feel for her, he was a soldier at heartshe aimed for the dog-creature’s legs and fired.
She got two shots off and then heard a sour clunk as the machine pistol freaking jammed.
“No!” She yanked at the receiver arm that had come loose, locking the bolt, but it didn’t budge. The huge dogwolf?seemed to understand what had happened. Its gleaming red eyes lit and it accelerated, jaws gaping.
“Run!” Natalie screamed.
Cara spun and bolted. The shield was farther away than she thought, the demon closing fast. Panic spurted, along with a thought of, Oh, gods, this is it. And then the world did a weird slow-motion thing around her.
She saw Zane shove Lora into the shield and turn back for her, but the beast was too close, too fast. She could hear it right behind her, could feel the jarring thud of its feet through the worn soles of her boots and smell its rotting stench. Her body tensed for pain, for fear, and incredulity flared at the knowledge that she wasn’t going to make it. She was going to be the second winikin to die in battle, wasn’t ever going to get the chance to live the life she wanted after the war. Her breath sobbed. Please, no.
She glanced back just in time to see the huge creature rock onto its haunches, preparing to spring, and
“Cara, get down!” The words came from the other side of her, in a deep voice that jolted her like lightning and sped the world back up to normal once more.
Before she could react, a gray-and-buff blur raced past with a bloodcurdling howl of rage, and the hard, heavy weight of a man’s body slammed into her, knocking her out of the demon’s path and taking her to the ground. Her rescuer wrapped his arms around her and rolled them as they hit, so he took the brunt and cushioned her fall.
There was sudden warmth, solid muscle, and the yielding, unfamiliar press of a man’s body. And not just any man: She caught rapid-fire impressions of sun-bleached hair against deeply tanned skin, stormy blue eyes, and an air of wildness that defied the high-tech armband and warrior’s garb. Their legs tangled, and when they stopped rolling, he was on top of her with his hips planted firmly between her thighs. Instead of untangling himself, he reared up over her on one arm and lifted the other to summon first a shield and then a huge fireball, and although her brain was struggling to catch up, her soul already knew exactly what was going on.
“Sven,” she whispered, frozen with the shock of seeing her foster nonbrother again after so long, though her body reacted to the way his magic spit and sparked, prickling awareness across her skin.
He looked grimmer and more tired than he had a few months earlier, when he’d taken off for the south. There were new stress lines cut alongside his aristocratic nose and wide, slashing cheekbones, and his old trademark surfer’s ponytail was a grown-out military brush cut now, gone shaggy and adding to the sense of some wild creature contained within human form. He wore close-fitting armor and the Kevlar-impregnated black-on-black of a Nightkeeper, and he was all warrior as his eyes went to where an enormous gray-and-buff coyotehis bonded familiar, Macwas fighting with the huge black demon.
“Leave it!” he ordered. Mac quickly tore away and leaped back, and Sven unleashed his deadly fireball with a heave that rippled through his body and into Cara’s.
Hiss-boom! Instantly engulfed in flames, the demon-dog reared back with a horrible, unearthly howl. A terrible stench filled the air as it struggled in its death throes. The other animals too were dead and dying, making Cara suddenly aware that the rest of the magi had arrived and were tightening around thewinikin in a protective ring as the creatures melted to stinking black puddles. After a moment, even those faded and disappeared, leaving silence behind.
As her pulse pounded in her ears, she thought crazily that it was the kind of utter quiet that came in the aftermath of a disaster that didn’t cause any actual casualties but had come damn close, to the point where everyone sort of sat there for a second, thinking, What the fuck just happened? Because that was what had to be going through the minds of the other winikin. It was undoubtedly what the magi were thinking as they watched the last of the creatures puff to greasy smoke. And it was what she ought to be thinking too. Because although the Nightkeepers’ former nemesis, the Xibalban mage Iago, had tricked his way into Skywatch twice, no demon had entered the compound in nearly thirty years. Not since the Solstice Massacre.
But although those were the questions she knew ought to be going through her head, her mind had blanked. All she could do was stare at Sven as he levered himself off her and rose to his feet with a loose-limbed grace that sharply defined the muscles under his tight black clothing, making her entirely aware of his body, and the imprint it had left on her own.
Don’t think about it, she told herself, but the familiar refrain barely registered.
There was a low whine and the scuff of paws on dirt as Mac trotted over to stand beside him, then looked at her with his pale green, human-seeming eyes gleaming, his ears pricked and his plumed tail wagging in wide sweeps. Sven and the coyote made a formidable pair, and the sight tightened her throat. It had been a long six months since they had gone down to Mexico to head up the Nightkeepers’ efforts to contain the spread of the xombi virusan infection that was part magic, part disease, and thoroughly vile. She had worried about them, especially when the reports back from the southern front had grown increasingly grim. But her relief that they were home safe caromed off resentment that she hadn’t gotten any word beyond the official reports, nothing personal, nothing that acknowledged her and Sven’s connection or the fact that he’d been the one to bring her back to Skywatch to take on a job she hadn’t wanted. He’d promised to help her with the winikin... and then he’d taken off without a word. Which was just Sven, and shouldn’t have surprised her.
It had, though, and that was why, as irritation won out over relief, she summoned a flip smile she knew would piss him off, and said, “Hey, welcome back. Did you miss me?”
That was a laugh, of course, because he’d always made it his business never to miss anyone.