TamLin outright preferred when others disliked or feared him, but as he stared at the flushed face of the petite woman lying on his guest room’s bed, he felt disgusted at his own actions.
He pulled himself back from her, from the bed, and stood. “Sorry.”
Third—damn it, he had to call her Second, now—propped herself up on her elbows and tilted her head and hid her hooded eyes with her lashes, but the tentative fingers she raised to feel her swollen lips said more than she likely realized. Intimacy was forbidden, to Nameless like her. Even a hug would’ve been foreign, and kissing went a bit beyond that.
He was an ass.
“Why?” she asked.
Why had he kissed her, or why had he pulled back? Or was she asking why he liked her, when he didn’t get along with the version of her from the same universe he was?
He shook his head and plucked her equipment belt off the floor, where he’d dropped it after testing how far she was willing to trust him. He tossed it toward her and adjusted his own clothes, ridding himself of whatever rumples he’d picked up and double-checking that everything was still fastened. He thought it was, but…
He hadn’t been that much of an ass, to his relief.
When he looked back at the young woman, Third/Second was still holding her belt.
Her sleeveless shirt had rucked up enough for a scar on her stomach to catch his eye. He was tracing it with a finger before he realized what he was doing.
Damn pulsar. It was the safest option that helped his cluster headaches, but the reduced inhibitions weren’t good for someone like him. Secrets and lies belonged in the dark, and someone had to keep them there.
For Second’s part, she drew a long, determined breath, then let it out in a huff—but she belted her equipment back on. Her fingers brushed against his.
He pulled his hand back, far more reluctantly than was wise.
Third—that was to say, Second, or whatever the hell he had to call her so he wouldn’t accidentally get her euthanized by her own family—lifted her chin. “Thank you.”
For kissing her—right after telling her outright that he knew she was attracted to him because he reminded her of her native universe’s version of him, who had died? Killed himself, from what First had told him.
TamLin didn’t care that she loved his alternate. He didn’t even care if she wanted to pretend he was that particular version of him. But he liked what little he’d seen of Second-who-used-to-be-Third, more than he’d ever liked Janni, and affection from him could get her killed.
Her clutch’s previous Second had just been murdered in graphic example of that.
He asked outright, “You have what, a year?” Until she was old enough to count as a person and maybe they could figure out if they would get along as well as he suspected they would.
She sighed so quietly that most wouldn’t have been able to hear her. She drew her legs up under her chin, wrapped her arms around them. “Bit more than that.”
She was even younger than he’d thought. “Fuck.”
She shrugged. “I wouldn’t tell if you didn’t.”
Even if they dared the risk, she and Janni—the version of her from his native universe—had resonance, a form of psychic bleed that happened between psy-positive alternates of the same person, when those two versions were in the same somewhen. Janni would soon know about their make-out session, if she didn’t already, and she would doubtless add it to the long list of grudges she held against him.
To have a bit more than a year left before she could join the Named, this woman had to be… “Twenty-five,” he said aloud. “You’re twenty-five.”
The spiderweb-like light that was characteristic of biologically modified persons from their type of universe glimmered from beneath her skin as she studied him. “You’re thirty-four.”
Janni couldn’t read telomeres and calculate ages that quickly. Without showing his surprise, he replied, “Yes.”
Second sighed and scooted aside so she could get out of the bed without stepping on his toes. “Thanks. I mean that. At least I have a start of an idea to what I’m miss—”
He had two fingers against her lips, shushing her. “You’re high. Don’t say anything you’ll regret later.”
Janni was going to be ticked off enough.
Second blinked once. “Stim.”
She had taken a jolt tab for some reason, and she was learning the hard way why psy-positives had to be leery of stimulants. He had to be careful with them, himself, and he was just psy-sensitive, not psy-positive. The distinction probably wasn’t as significant as they’d been raised to believe, but it did exist.
Second’s consideration of his words was characteristic of the person who had been named Jannis Lysacarly, in his universe. Janni could hide her thoughts and emotions, too, but she could never quite lose an underlying hardness. Her calmness was faked, a veneer to hide an underlying calculation and chill.
Second’s wasn’t, with staid nonchalance being her natural default rather than a façade. He liked it.
“I am more inclined to jabber and ignore the regen patch,” Second commented, “but I’ve been doing that anyway.”
He gave her a hard look.
She smiled sweetly, and the expression embodied what little he liked about Janni. Fools often mistook her for an idiot, discovering too late that she’d been playing them all along.
He was more unnerved than surprised to realize that Second had pulled off his belt without him noticing—treating him to the same test that he had done to her.
She’d answered consciously that yes, she trusted him enough to let him put her at a disadvantage.
He’d answered unconsciously, and that in itself was an admission of how much he liked her. (It also was a hint that ‘like’ wasn’t quite the right word for how he felt, but he knew better than to name that sort of emotion. He was too sentimental for his own good as it was.)
Thankfully, she was casually eying his belt, not him, so she’d not picked up on the physiological interest.
Or maybe she was just too inexperienced to be able to recognize his lust for what it was. There was a depressing thought.
She casually eyed his belt while she let it fall to the floor, as he’d done with hers mere minutes earlier. “Well, then. Guess I’d better go before Nev shows up.”
Nev being her oldest sister, who had murdered the previous Second before being killed, herself, by the woman who lived with Third/Second and Janni. “She wasn’t after you.”
She shrugged and rolled to her feet. “Nev is always after me. She got Second because she could. Now that she’s here, she’ll poke around for evidence until she has enough to claim I’m a Breach.”
“She’s dead.” Good thing, too, because he’d be even more troubled by who he was attracted to if he’d felt obligated to kill the sister who was a threat to her. Killing a lover’s relatives was not conducive to a long-term relationship, even if the lover was okay with it.
Third/Second froze for a long moment, then looked him in the eye. “Dead? Nev?”
“Yes. Raleigh got her.”
Third/Second bounced once on her toes, in a reserved expression of lighthearted exuberance that took his breath away. She was everything he’d wished Janni could be.
And she was a Nameless refugee from a post-apocalyptic hellverse, forbidden from life as a person until she reached an appropriate age—and she had a psychic link to the bondmate he never planned to marry but was still tied to, mostly because they’d both been too busy to bother with dissolving the bonding.
Life always was kicking him in the balls. “Fuck.”
Humor flashed in the young woman’s blue eyes. “Okay.”
“I meant—” He grabbed her hand before she could do anything with it that would encourage the pulsar. “No. Hit Naming, then we’ll talk, but before then…”
Her expression stayed flat, proving how she’d survived so long. Nameless weren’t allowed to care. She didn’t sigh again, but TamLin could tell that she wanted to.
He hesitated, too aware of the risks to truly want to tempt fate by giving reason for someone to consider her a Breach, but… With one clutchmate murdered by her sister and the other possibly suicidal from the loss of his lover and unborn child, she might need a reason to keep on fighting.
TamLin dropped a quick kiss on her lips, ran his thumb under her chin, and then retreated to the door. “Keep yourself alive, Second.”
She didn’t even flinch. She was too busy staring at him.
He let himself out and decided it was time to counter the pulsar with a tab of jolt, before he made any more of a fool of himself.