The summons was weak, and I took my time arriving. A weak summons meant a weak magician, so I picked a particularly nasty form to appear in—my own. Hopefully I could scare the idiot out of his pentacle, get a quick snack, and return to the Other Place before I'd fully materialized on Earth.
A hideous creature—all tentacles and spikes and very little shape beyond—burst into existence in the pentacle. I opened my mouths to roar, and—
Tentacles froze mid-threat, and the horrifying monster squeaked, "Kitty?"
She stood in her own pentacle a few yards away, clasping her hands in front of her and grinning, nearly bouncing on her toes with excitement.
On the first few planes, she looked much as I remembered—white hair, lined skin, though perhaps the lines were not as deep. On the higher planes, though, her aura shone like a star, warm and golden, and her youthful face smiled at me from the glow.
"Bartimaeus!" she cried, exultant (Well, who could blame her? She'd summoned me, after all. Exultation was well-warranted.) "I didn't think—I wasn't sure—"
And without a single thought or hesitation, she stepped toward me and out of her pentacle.
For the tiniest fraction of a second, the pain of being summoned combined with five thousand years of habit, and I leaned forward, preparing to devour her. But only for that fraction. (Far smaller than any human brain could fathom, but that's just one of your many limitations) Instead, I moved toward her, tentacles waving with delight.
Kitty stopped and eyed me dubiously.
"What?" I asked. "This is a happy wave, not an I'm-going-to-eat-you wave. Even though I could, you stupid girl."
"Oh, I know that," she said. "It's just that I'm not hugging you while you look like that." She wrinkled her nose.
I huffed. "For your information, this is what I really look like."
"No wonder you change form."
"Hey! At least I'm not all shriveled."
She put her hands on her hips. "If you're going to be like this, then I'll just send you back."
I crossed some tentacles and struck a disdainful pose. (Harder than it sounds when you're more amorphous than anything else.) "You can't. You stepped out of the pentacle. So maybe I'll just leave. Who says I want to be hugged, anyway?"
We glared at each other. (Or rather, she glared at me. Not having eyes, I had to settle for bristling my spines in a menacing manner.)
Then something in her face cracked.
I changed instantly, taking Ptolemy's form, and Kitty flung herself at me.
I caught her—though the force of impact knocked me back half a step (Ptolemy never got to experience the joy of a growth spurt before he died, and was therefore rather short for his age. In his form, Kitty had a good six inches on me. She also tackled like a professional rugby player, old and wizened or not.)—and held her, glad I had no need to breathe, as the force of her arms would have put a stop to that. Neither of us spoke, despite her shaking. I didn't need to ask its cause.
After a long moment, she stepped away from me, wiping her face.
"How long has it been?" I asked.
"Oh, I see how it is. Took your sweet time, didn't you?"
Kitty grinned. "So you wanted to be summoned?"
"Well, no, but a little more concern on your part would have been nice. Nine months!"
She looked away. "I wasn't sure there was any point in trying. And I wasn't sure I was up to it." As though realizing the truth of her words, she swayed on her feet. I caught hold of her arms and held her up.
"I'm not sure you were up to it," I scolded.
She allowed me lead her to a rocking chair in the corner, using me to support more of her weight than I liked. Once she'd settled into the chair, she smiled at me, her head resting against its back.
"Sorry," she said. "I don't usually tire this quickly."
I let my gaze wander around the room and then let my legs follow. "Probably all the excitement of seeing me again," I said as I opened the drawers of her bureau and peeked at their contents. "Lesser humans than you have been overcome by the sheer force of my presence." I scanned the spines of the books on her shelf, impressed with her small collection.
"Mm-hmm. I'm sure. What are you looking for?"
I pulled Ptolemy's Apocrypha from the top shelf and held it up. "Did you ever learn how to read this?"
She cocked an insolent eyebrow at me, already starting to recover. "Learn Ancient Greek in nine months? I'm flattered you think so highly of me."
I retrieved a Greek primer from the bottom shelf and displayed it wordlessly.
Kitty rolled her eyes. "I'm working on it."
I replaced the books and resumed my exploration of her room. It was small and starkly functional. Even in her deteriorated state, she obviously didn't spend a lot of time here.
"So why'd you summon me, anyway?" I asked, poking through the toiletries arranged on the sink in the corner. "Not that it's not nice to see you, of course, but there is generally a reason."
She didn't answer at first, hesitating long enough to pull me away from the sink and back to her side, where I sank into a cross-legged position on the floor, mindful of my loincloth. I remembered the mocking I'd taken the first time she summoned me.
"I just…wanted to see if you'd come, mostly," she said, looking over my shoulder. "I assumed that you'd both…but after a while I started to wonder. This was one way to find out for sure."
I waited for her to continue, to ask just how I happened to be sitting in her room when Nathaniel was likely a scorch mark in St. James Park. I ignored the small twinge somewhere in my midsection. Months recovering in the Other Place had healed my essence, but memories were different. Nathaniel was no Ptolemy (I'd never take his form, for instance. Well, probably. I am capricious by nature, as a spirit of air and fire. And fickle. And sometimes I get bored. So really, you never know.), but he'd turned out all right at the last. If things had ended differently, I wouldn't have minded serving him a while longer. (But just a little while. Maybe a couple weeks. And I certainly never would have told him to his face.)
Kitty closed her eyes and started rocking, the chair creaking in a soothing manner, and I waited. Her hand drifted off the chair's arm and hung near my leg, her fingertips brushing against my knee with every creak. I watched her face, watched as her body relaxed and some of the lines around her eyes softened. To all appearances, she'd drifted off like some old geezer.
I knew better.
"What's with the hand?" I asked, batting at it. "You're tickling me."
A corner of her mouth twitched. "Just making sure you're still there."
I straightened, exaggerating my offense even though she couldn't see me. Maybe it'd seep through her eyelids. "You don't trust me?"
"Yes," she said evenly, "but you can leave whenever you want, remember? I just wanted to make sure you stayed for a few moments."
"By tickling me? That's not very good incentive. Also, summoning me here just to ignore me is rude – and also not incentive to stay."
She opened her eyes, turning her head on the chair to look at me. "Sorry. I was thinking. He dismissed you, didn't he? And that broke the Staff?"
Her fingertips tickled my kneecap. I snatched at her hand and held it in mine, examining the worn skin around her knuckles. Her palm, in contrast, was smooth.
She watched me.
"You always were too clever for your own good," I said. I placed her hand back on the armrest. "Why do you have this old rocking chair, anyway? You're not actually decrepit, you know. Just when you stupidly summon djinn and wear yourself out."
"Sometimes being sixty-five suits me more than being twenty. The chair makes for a nice effect." She stopped rocking in order to lean forward, and I missed its rhythmic sound. Maybe she was onto something.
"I'm sorry," she said. "For summoning you."
I blinked, torn from imagining ways to incorporate a rocking chair into some of my forms. "Why?"
"Well, because it hurts you. And because you deserve to be left alone, after everything you've done. And—"
I stood and leaned over her, placing my hands on her shoulders. "I don't mind. Honest."
She smiled. "You can be honest?"
"I'm always honest. Well, usually. Humans just don't like it." (This is true. (See? A paragon of honesty, me.) The quickest way to get a magician's knickers in a twist was to tell him the truth. Always worked with Nathaniel.)
"Anyway," Kitty continued, her voice earnest, "it shouldn't happen again."
"What, me being honest? You shouldn't believe everything people say about me. Unless it's good. Then it's probably true."
She shook her head, smiling. "I mean getting summoned. After Nathaniel died, I explained to the new government council that you were with him. You've been recorded as dead."
I stared at her. Her hands came up to grip mine, which still lay on her shoulders.
"As far as the magical community is concerned, you no longer exist."
This was wonderful news. An eternity of bliss, drifting in the Other Place. No more summons, no more wars or chases or battles against nearly insurmountable odds. (Though I always surmounted, of course.) No more menial chores or putting up with egotistical magicians. Just…peace.
I scooped Kitty out of her chair and swung her about in circles. She laughed, bright and young again. I set her on her feet, kissed her forehead with a flourish, and declared, "You're marvelous!"
She laughed again, steadying herself by holding onto my arms. (I'd forgotten humans get dizzy, or I might not have swung her about so much. It's not something djinn suffer from, not having inner ears. Makes flying much easier. Never heard of a motion sick djinn, now have you?) "Well, I thought it was true."
Her smile slipped, and she stepped toward me.
Djinn don't take much interest in human emotions. Too messy. We generally try to steer clear of them whenever possible, but Kitty was different. I found I didn't mind. I stood still, willing to give her what she needed.
Moving slowly, timidly, she placed her hands on either side of my face.
"I'm very glad it's not," she said.
She wrapped her arms around my neck. Her hug felt different this time, though I couldn't quite put my finger on why.
"Well, I'm certainly getting a lot of favorable attention today," I said. Her hair made my nose itch.
I felt her laughter rather than heard it. "Then I don't want to keep you," she said into my neck. "You might get spoiled, and I know you have important things to do. Voids to float about in, that sort of thing."
I tightened my hold on her. "Oh, yes. If I don't go soon, I'll miss the Millennial Conference of Utter Nothingness. I've missed it the last four millenniums. Hate to do so again just because some prematurely-aged human girl's gone all weepy on my shoulder."
"I am not weepy."
"No," I agreed quietly. "That you're not." I paused. "Though you might think about dyeing your hair. You look ancient."
"I know. That's why you're so terribly fond of me that it makes you weepy."
"I give up." She let go of me and took a step back. "Get out of here before I do get emotional." Her smile seemed made of water.
I scuffed my bare feet against her wooden floor and gave her room one last look. "You can summon me again, if you want," I said, my gaze focused on a cobweb in the corner of her ceiling. "I won't mind. I mean, you don't want me to get bored, do you?"
I looked at her and tried Ptolemy's most charming smile, the one I'd never been able to resist.
Kitty swallowed, shook her head, then nodded. "Okay," she whispered. "I will."
But as I faded from the room, I saw the look in her eyes, and I knew she wouldn't.
Note: Thanks to Avadriel for the beta and for squealing about these books with me. Fandom soulmates are hard to find.
Disclaimer: Not mine.