Disclaimer: All things Raven belong to Frank Lupo and associates, and paramount, I think. Anyway, they don't belong to dragon. Cheri Yuconovich in all her incarnations is dragon's. g
Time: The Present
Place: Hawaii – as usual
Spoilers: MMmmmm – don't think so.
Synopsis: Jonathan Raven, being involved in museum security, has lost a valuable item and believes he has found the woman responsible for its taking. Turns out, looks can be deceiving and so can memories.
The party was bogging down nicely when the music started. Jonathan looked around to see the double doors flung open and a "gypsy" troupe danced in; bells, drums and stringed instruments playing in Middle Eastern tones. A slender woman in frothy garments entered with them and began to dance. She was graceful, veiled and seemed well versed in the cabaret version of Middle Eastern dance sometimes referred to as belly dancing.
The veil came off and Jonathan froze in recognition of the face. He waited until she was finishing up one dance and had gotten relatively close to where he stood. He reached out as she held a graceful pose, grabbed one slender wrist, bracelets and all and dragged her out into the garden with a quick smile and a "she'll be right back" comment.
She went with him. Once they were well away from the windows, he turned, catching her other wrist in his hand so he could judge by her pulse rate her reactions to him. For the moment, her pulse was elevated, but no more so than it should be by the strenuous movements of the dance.
"Where is it?" he demanded.
She regarded him with her head tilted slightly to one side, her eyes looking dark in the night. "Ow," she complained about the mistreatment of her wrists. "Which of many "its" I know about do you want? I mean, the Taj Mahal is still in India, being somewhat difficult to remove. The Hope diamond is in the Smithsonian, or its replica is, anyway. They cut up and sold the original a few years ago when they were having financial problems. Ow!" she complained as his grip tightened over her foolishness. "You gonna break that any time soon?"
"The Shikatami Skull."
After all the banter, he hadn't expected his captive to turn lethal. She wrenched from his grasp, ignoring any collateral damage she might have done to herself and turned from a bemused dancer into a skilled and deadly opponent. Whoever had trained her had assured she was as deadly as any assassin he had met. He found himself on the defensive, not a place he'd been in some time. The swirling skirt hampered her not at all as she launched attack after attack.
They migrated farther into the garden as they fought. He grabbed for the flimsy seeming fabric of her skirt, an attempt to entangle her in its folds. Instead, it came away, tangling around his arm. He discovered that she was still attached to the other end as she efficiently trapped him in the silken folds.
Trying to relieve himself of the yard s of fabric, he missed her dive for his feet. He hit the concrete hard, face down, and froze as her weight hit the middle of his back. The cold, cold metal of a gun barrel touched the back of his neck.
"Over and under .38 caliber derringer. Short on range, but that hardly matters at this range," she hissed. "Now, who are you and why do you want the skull."
"Answer me, or your friends, assuming you have any, will need dental records and finger prints to ID you."
He sensed the finger tightening on the trigger. "Jonathan Raven. I'm working security for the museum you stole it from." His voice was also low and filled with danger.
She lifted slightly and hauled him over onto his back before thumping down on the bottom of his rib cage. The derringer was no more than two inches from his chin. She stared into his face, judging his answer. Her face lost color under the exotic makeup, her eyes widening, the pupils, already wide to see in the near dark, swallowed whatever color there was.
She pulled back the gun. He heard the safety engage as she sagged back on to his stomach, her tension relaxing, turning into fear before his eyes.
"You really believe you had the skull," she whispered, more to herself than to him. "Oh, Hell."
He could sense the true feeling behind the almost banal words. "You're sitting on me," he pointed out conversationally.
He hadn't expected a scalded cat response to that. He and those he trained with moved with swiftness, precision and deadly force. This woman was better than most he had known.
She helped him sit up and unwrapped him, neatly twirling the fabric back into the skirt of her cabaret costume. She regarded him steadily.
"Look, whatever you were guarding, it wasn't the real thing. Guarantee it."
"How?" he asked getting to his feet.
"Because I know where the real one is. I hid it."
"Then I need it back."
"You didn't have it."
"You already said that. I need proof."
"What's it worth?"
He frowned at her. "What's the price?"
"What are you willing to pay?"
Suddenly the pale face framed by black hair seemed more sinister than any other he had seen. "All right. * What * is it?"
"You really don't know, do you?"
"I need to finish the set," she changed the subject abruptly. "Afterwards. Find me." She turned with a swish of fabric and ran lightly back to the mansion.
He followed her slowly, trying to make sense of what had transpired. He had been taken down with appalling ease. He had no answers. She had come very close to killing him. And now, he sensed that the question she had asked was critical.
What would he pay for the skull? What * was * the skull that she would ask the question that seriously? What had he gotten himself into this time?
He stood by the velvet shrouded French windows and watched as she danced. He had never really appreciated the art of belly dancing. Yet, as she danced, he saw a muscular control that paralleled the masters from whom he had learned martial arts and ninja skills. Then he began to see that she incorporated familiar martial arts movements into her presentation.
He frowned as her performance ended. She ran swiftly from the floor and the room. H moved around the perimeter of the room as she left. He stepped into an empty hallway.
Which way? The musicians began exiting the room. They went left. Jonathan considered this and went to the right. He was almost surprised when he found her.
She was out of the sparkling costume and half into her favorite outfit of denims, t-shirt and moccasin boots. He caught a glimmer of pale skin, small, high set breasts with dark nipples as she pulled on the soft black shirt.
She turned toward him as she gathered up a leather jacket and motorcycle helmet. She walked past him, leaving the boxed costume behind. He followed her in silence.
The waiting motorcycle was big, old and black. She threw a leg over the machine and tossed him the helmet. She turned the key in the ignition. The machine roared under her. He drew on the helmet and slid onto the seat behind her as she put up the kickstand.
He wrapped his long arms around her waist and held on. Her hair whipped back around his head making him glad that the helmet had a faceplate. The machine cut through the night, traveling on and on until they came to a small, secluded beach.
She parked the bike and waited for him to move. He let go and pulled off the helmet. He did not recognize the area, but he did not ask where they were. He waited. For several long minutes she stared out at the water. Then she abruptly turned on the seat to face him, one leg folded on the seat between them to help balance her. She stared at him, wide eyed, the pupils of her eyes dilating as she did.
"What is it?"
She smiled, a mirthless stretch of the lips. "Part of me wants kill you, right here, right now," she said softly. He was startled by the almost emotionless response and his face showed it. "Not your fault," she assured him. "You bear a terrifying resemblance to someone."
She shook her head, dismissing the question or the answer. "Unimportant now. Why did you think I took the skull?"
"I saw you."
"You couldn't have. I didn't take it – because I already know where it is – all right, you don't know about that," she ended more to herself than to him. She brought her gaze back to his face again, her winging black eyebrows pulled together in a frown. "I know you from somewhere. But where?"
"Which museum?" she asked seriously.
"The one here locally where the skull was on display?" he prompted gently.
"It – The Shikatami Skull wasn't in your museum. Whatever * was * there, it wasn't the real thing. And I can't think of a really good reason to steal a fake one."
"To keep someone from finding out it was a fake?"
She blinked. "Well, yes. That might make sense. But who?" She focused somewhere past his face and looked like she might have gotten the answer. It wasn't the answer he had already. "Tanya."
She pulled her gaze back to his face. "Tanya Kropotkin. A little out of her league, of course. But it would explain why you thought you saw me." She frowned at him, and reached up to touch his face, running a fingertip gently along the line of his lower lip. "Although it wouldn't explain why I keep - what *is * your name?"
She blinked again. It was an unnerving combination of refocusing and mechanical movement. "You're – I – "
Her eyes rolled back in her head and she fainted. He caught her before she could topple off the motorcycle. He checked her pulse. It was extremely slow. He kept an arm around her as he climbed off the bike and then picked her up and set her down on the sand. He sat next to her, frowning as he watched her nearly white pale face in the moonlight. A hint of familiarity tugged at the corners of his mind, but he couldn't quite manage to make a connection that was eluding him.
Half an hour passed. She stirred, mumbled something incomprehensible and her eyes opened. She stared up at the moon and stars for a moment, wondering how they'd gotten into her room. Then she heard the surf and realized she was not alone. She sat up and turned, almost as though expecting an attack. She focused on his face and relaxed.
"Oh. It's you."
"You were expecting someone else?"
"Uh – no. I was a bit – disoriented – I passed out?"
"Yes. I told you my name and you seemed upset."
"Jonathan Raven. I'm sorry. I – I don't think you'd believe my explanation. I think I'd told you that the probability is your mystery thief is the Kropotkin."
"Yes. Who is Tanya Kropotkin?"
"My cousin. International assassin, freelance. All around not real nice lady. Not usually into stealing stuff from museums, though." She sighed. "I suspect she thought it was the real thing. She is not going to be happy when she finds out it's not."
"Why would she want it?"
"How much do you know about it?"
"It's old, it's valuable, it has some religious significance to a small cult in Japan. That's about it."
"The Shon – rei. The cult is devoted to the pursuit of immortality on several levels, including the physical. The skull, when appropriately propitiated and used in conjunction with some other items, is supposed to confer immortality, or bring a strong spirit back from – the – dead. Oh, no. No. no. no. no. no. Bad idea. Really bad idea. We've got find her."
She looked at him suddenly as though rediscovering his presence. "Me. I. You need to stay out it. Please. You really don't want to get any further involved in this." She got to her feet and was heading for the motorcycle as she spoke.
He got to his feet and grabbed for her arm as she moved past him. "Wait a – minute," he finished as she turned on him again. He backed across the sand to avoid her flying fists and feet. "Hold it." He caught her wrist again and just held it.
She managed to pull her next strike. "Let go."
That stopped her for the moment. "No?"
"No. I'm already involved."
That unnerving stare held him for a long moment. Her shoulders sagged and her gaze dropped. "You are, aren't you." Her voice was hardly more than a whisper. "Damn. No." She sounded tired, exhausted. "Here, you drive." She handed the keys to the motorcycle to him.
She looked up into his face and blinked. "Unless you want to walk back."
He searched her face for a moment, trying to understand what was happening here and failing. If he was going to get to the bottom of this, he was going to have to keep going. He led the way back to the bike and climbed on, resuming the helmet while he waited for her to mount behind him.
She slid onto the extended saddle as he started the bike. Her arms went around him. The touch struck a chord within him. There was something comfortingly familiar about her touch. He frowned as he backed the bike up and turned it toward the road. What was he missing here? Who was she that her arms round him felt not just comfortable, but familiar? She settled her head against the back of his shoulder, molding herself to his back, the inside of her thighs gently settling against the outside of his. With a mental shake, he headed back the way they had come.
They stopped at a light for a moment, and he thought to ask her where they were going. He flipped the faceplate up and looked around at her. She snuggled against him, but nothing more. "Miss Yuconovich?"
He frowned at that. She was asleep on the back of the motorcycle, so certain of his abilities that she trusted him to get them where they were going while she slept. It was flattering and frustrating. With another mental shrug, he headed toward his own home. He'd reclaim his Jeep Renegade from the party in the morning.
He pulled into the drive, dropped the kickstand and turned off the motor. She stirred and loosened her hold on him, allowing him to get off the bike. She blinked at him sleepily, brushing her hair out of her face. He held out a hand to steady her as she slipped off the saddle. She accepted and ended standing on the driveway facing him and looking bemused. He picked her up and carried her into the house. He wasn't surprised when she put her arms around his neck and leaned her head against his shoulder. She was asleep again when he laid her down on the couch.
He stood there looking down at her face as she slept. She looked younger, calmer. Then a slight frown drew her brows together. Again there was an air of familiarity. Why couldn't he remember where they'd met before? He was certain they had met, and he was beginning to be certain that she was not the woman at the museum. He pulled off the soft-soled moccasin boots and set them aside before going to find a blanket for her. He gently pulled the blanket over her. He thought he heard her mutter a thank you, but he wasn't certain.
"Good night," he said softly and leaned over and kissed her cheek. The gesture surprised him. He drew back, frowning, and went out to meditate for a while before going to bed.
She awoke with the sunrise, a little disoriented at first. She poked her head out from under the covers and frowned at the pale cushions beneath her nose. It didn't look like the bed in the hotel room she'd rented. She shifted slightly, hearing someone moving about on the other side of the couch. She leaned up and looked over the back.
Tall, dark haired, wearing a black kimono and black pants, the man she'd met the night before was getting a drink in the kitchen. He looked as though he had not slept well. She watched him move, the familiarity of the body language causing her to frown. She knew him, and not just from their current encounter. She closed her eyes and she could see him with a sword in his hands going through a kendo exercise. She could see him – her eyes snapped open. She recognized the house now, remembered being here, remembered the man who was looking at her with his black brows raised in inquiry.
She blushed and disappeared back under the blanket to gain some composure. Apparently, he did not recall their previous encounter either.
She peeked over the edge of the blanket at him, her eyes twinkled with silent laughter. "Hi. Fell asleep did I?"
"On the bike?"
"Well, yeah. How many people do you know you'd trust to drive your vehicle with you asleep in the back seat?"
"Makes two of us. Could I use your shower? Assuming you have one."
"Certainly." He was wearing a bemused look by this time. The conversation was not going any of a number of directions he might have expected it to go. He watched her as she got up, neatly folded the blanket and padded bare foot out to the bike to retrieve a change of clothes from her saddlebags.
She disappeared into the bathroom. The water felt good. She washed her hair, wondering if it was time to cut the waist length mane of blue black strands. She dried, pulled on the clean t-shirt and denims and padded out to the kitchen still blotting her hair dry.
There was a glass of juice waiting for her. She drank half of it down gratefully and went looking for her host who was sitting on his meditation deck, staring out over the ocean. She stood at the edge of it watching him curiously, sipping the juice. Finally, he got tired of being watched and turned to face her. The look in her eyes was disconcerting.
"Oh. Her. Well, probably."
"That's what you said last night. Twins?"
There was a brief hesitation before she corrected him with 'cousins'. "First cousins."
"What disturbed you last night?"
"I told you, you bear a really disturbing surface resemblance to – a really nasty piece of business."
"Does he have a name?"
"Rand. David Gabriel Rand. He's a cyberneticist. Or, he was."
"Was? In jail?"
"Dead." Yet there was something about the word that didn't ring quite true.
He stood up and moved off the platform to stand in front of her. She could feel her temperature rising at the proximity. Her heartbeat picked up as well, and she was having a touch of difficulty with her breathing. Damn, he wasn't supposed to be that devastating, was he? Memories of touching and being touched surfaced. Oh, yes. He was definitely that devastating.
She took refuge in her glass of juice only to find it empty. "Well, hell," she muttered.
"What aren't you telling me?"
She looked up and grinned suddenly. "My life story, for one. Long and boring," she said with laughter in her voice and eyes.
His immediate instinct was to force some truth out of her. He found it over ridden by a deeper, more visceral instinct as he pulled her into his arms. If he was surprised to find her willing, even eager, it was only in his mind. His body seemed to find her supple melting against him expectable, a repeat of another time, another place. Their mouths met. He felt exhilarated and like he was coming home.
They parted for breath. Half closed eyes met and he remembered her. Slimmer then, half starved, amnesiac. "You."
She smiled up at him. "Sorta seems that way, doesn't it. Could we – mmmmm." A long lazy kiss took her words away, her breath away and any coherent thought she might have considered for the moment.
A long time later, she rolled onto her stomach beside him to look into his velvet dark eyes. She kissed him lightly. "Penny for your thoughts."
"I thought you were dead."
"Good start. Nope. Not even. How did I manage to forget you? Well, having forgotten everything else, I guess misplacing you when I got my memory back is par for the course. I'm glad I've got that set of memories back."
He reached up and stroked the silken hair, so like Aki's and so unlike. "So am I."
"Still, there's that fake skull wandering around with Tanya."
"And I would like to retrieve it, regardless of its reality."
She nodded. "So, we go looking for Tan."
"Do you really think you'll find her without me?"
"Do I really think she's still in Hawaii, might be the better question."
"Well, there is that. Except she saw you."
He frowned at that. "What has that got to do with the skull?"
"She saw you, she's – oh, boy. This is going to sound nuts. She's trying to retrieve our dear departed Dr. Rand. You look like him. I told you that."
"You're right. It sounds crazy," he agreed, stretching lazily.
"So does – Oh, hell." She turned over to stop looking at him. Between waves of pure lust and desire; she was also afraid for him. If Tanya thought she had the real skull and access to its purported ability to bring the dead back to life, finding a physical double for the dead Dr. Rand would probably keep her in the islands until she could find a way to get the ghost and the body together. There had to be a way to send Jonathan on a wild goose chase to get him out of harm's way. Except she'd already told him too damn much to get him to go. Shit.
He could sense the flurry of thoughts going through her head. He could feel the flow of tensions as she considered and discarded ideas. "Just tell me the truth," he broke the silence.
She looked around at him, that odd opaque look she'd given him the night before in her eyes again. He felt as though he was being weighed against some invisible scale. Then the look softened and she reached for him, pulling him into a fierce hug that felt somehow protective as well as loving. He returned the hug, holding her to him, feeling her cool skin against his. Wondering what was passing behind her eyes.
"All right," she told his chest. "But remember, you asked." Her stomach growled and made her laugh. "Maybe we'd better eat and talk."
That was a lunch made memorable both by her easy acceptance of what he prepared and the story she told. Unlike so many of the women he had let into his life, the Japanese food did not surprise her, she used chopsticks as though born to them, her expressive hand gestures including the sticks like extra fingers. She ate and talked of her encounters with the unstoppable Dr. Rand, his created assassin, Tanya Kropotkin, and the problems of practical immortality.
When she was done, she wondered if she'd over loaded his ability to take in the improbable. A long silence developed. She finished her lunch and sat back to wait.
He regarded her for a long time, weighing what he had heard. That she believed it to be true, was obvious. The tale was preposterous, a story out of the legends of the past. And yet – he was standing on the edge of believing her.
"It must be lonely."
A look of almost disbelief crossed her face. "Of all the things to have said – You're amazing."
He frowned slightly at that. "Why?"
"Because you cut to the heart of things so easily. Hell, my best friends when faced with the proof of what I've said, tend to hit the "wow, immortal" wall full tilt before they get to anything else."
"It's why you can't kill him."
"Look, I'm not saying I accept the immortality tale, or even Dr. Rand's existence, as reality. But if you are, then that's why you haven't found a way to dispose of him permanently."
She blinked at him, trying to take his evaluation in. "Oh. Well. That actually makes sense. Of course, there is the small problem of killing a ghost. It's not easy to do in the dead, you know."
"No. But there are people who purport to know how to do so."
She opened her mouth to say something, closed it, and thought about it. "The Legacy."
It was Jonathan's turn to blink. "The Legacy?"
He'd heard of the Luna Foundation somewhere. "That I've heard of. Although not in connection with ghosts."
"It's a cover story for the Legacy, an ancient society dedicated to fighting the forces of darkness. I – uh – met the head of the San Francisco House about five years ago."
"After you were here."
"And after the last encounter I had with Dr. Rand."
"Why didn't you ask him for help?"
"Well, we – uh – there was another problem on hand and by the time it was over he wasn't in any shape to work on the Rand problem. Hell, he'd have a hard enough time believing in my being what I am without trying to do something about me. Unfortunately, to the Legacy, if it's not Christian, it's dark side. Well, most of the time. And the training tends to color the attitudes of even the most liberal of them."
"Hmm. Still, if you need to deal with this ghost, they would seem like the people to contact."
"Agreed. However, there's no guarantee she's located him. And she doesn't have the real skull."
"So you say."
She made a face a him. "All right. I can check on the skull. And—you can call San Franciso."
"Yes. Then they get the sceptic's point of view and I don't trigger any strange memories in Derek Rayne until absolutely necessary." She grinned at him. She reached over and touched his face gently. "Thank you."
"For not immediately thinking you needed to call the local funny farm and have me locked up."
He gave her a faint smile that warmed his eyes. "I'll wait until something you've told me turns out to be untrue. Then I'll call the authorities."
She laughed and kissed him. They cleared the table and washed the dishes in companionable silence. "I'd better check in with my accompanists. I could use the pay from last night. I'll be back."
He stood and watched the bike disappear down the street and around the corner.