In 2020, the demons descended.
The cataclysmic event came to be called "The Rising," and the world that came after was called "Post-Apocalyptic," though for North America most ways of life were preserved when the Walls went up around the major cities. There were casualties. Los Angeles was leveled to the grounds and the demons took the ruins. Chicago lost miles of shoreline. Dallas was sucked into the ground. Washington D.C. was irreparably shattered in the initial struggle as the demons sought immediate control of the United States by striking at the federal government.
New York City still stood, and managed to retain its control of the port at great cost. The provisional city government paid the sums necessary for demon hunters to safeguard their precious routes of transportation. Twenty years after the Rising, they were even able to travel between continents again. Europe survived, and China. Africa had become a cauldron of warfare. The Middle East closed itself off as a militant state, treating the demon rising as a plague only quarantine could cure.
The coming of the demons had a vast impact on many threads of human existence; economically, for as the world moved toward globalization many nations' economies crashed and were forced to take immediate measures toward self-containment; socially, as family units were rent asunder and strictures and moral standards changed drastically while life both inside and outside the Walls was forced to adapt; academically, as mankind struggled to preserve knowledge of the past and move forward to cope with demonkind while dealing with the devastation in kind.
The Vanderbrant University was one such establishment of preservation founded by Donough Vanderbrant, one of the few wealthy billionaires to retain his fortune after the Rising. Donough saw the need to preserve knowledge, fund cutting-edge research, and possessed the means to enable it.
Pursuit of subjects such as archaeology and anthropology went by the wayside, but for the actions of a pair of celebrated professors, the Vailles, who traveled the world in the company of a cadre of demon hunters. Their contributions to the field were invaluable, restoring vigor to academics once more, and their deaths on a field expedition some eight years ago was a tremendous loss to Vanderbrant University as well as archaeology, anthropology, and the field of ancient languages.
Filling that void in the division, Professor Gabriel Vaille carries on that work, partly enabled through partnerships with the Orion Corporation, which barters funding for document translations and archaeoanthropological assessments of curios and other items. Today, Professor Vaille seeks...
"Your opinion on the grant request?"
"I don't know," said Roy Masters. "You said to be honest. So honestly, I think the opening is florid for a grant request. They already know the history of the university, right, Vaille?"
Gabriel Vaille turned toward his teacher assistant's desk with folded arms, one pale lavendar brow tilting. "Well, it's customary to lead into it before hitting them up for money, you know. I thought I'd start broad and narrow it to precisely why they should be pouring more money into the branch of ancient languages." His slender, fine-boned hands measured an armspan of distance and closed it to a handspan gap.
"And the third person? I guess that's customary, too."
"Of course," Gabriel replied, giving him a look that was mild and entirely astonished. "It's very presumptuous to write findings or requests for money in the first person. I've found it was fashionable in the last century, but these days it's considered vulgar."
"All right, given. But I still don't understand something," Roy began with an inquiring expression. "Why do you have to write a grant request to your own university?"
Gabriel shook his head slightly and palmed pale bangs away from his glasses. "The Vailles don't hold title to the university, Roy. My grandfather did, but the school is in trust right now -- his bequest for the school hasn't been unsealed. The dean is still my boss, and there are forms that must be followed."
His protege snorted softly. Roy pushed away from his desk with a rasp of steel on tile and tapped his fingers on the neatly-typed pages. "Sure...so you've got to fill the form out, but you know they're going to grant your request."
"Not necessarily," Gabriel replied with a hint of censure. "They've turned down grant funding requests before."
"What did you ask for on those occasions? A few real, live demons on which to hone your language skills?"
"Ha," Gabriel said flatly, but his generous mouth twitched with a hint of humor. "Never considered that, actually. I prefer to stick to dead languages rather than live subjects; you know that."
Roy shook his head a bit, vaguely smiling. "Yeah." He regarded the professor with a mixture of exasperated affection and respect. Gabriel Vaille was the youngest tenured professor on campus at twenty-eight -- a position earned completely apart from the entitlements his name and privileged position in society could have shoehorned him into. He was striking, tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, with a body any runner or swimmer could envy, and a face all angles, cheekbones, full lips, long straight nose and heavy-lidded turquoise-green eyes. He was brilliant, having been a prodigy at eight with five languages under fluent command; at twenty-eight, he was fluent in fifteen languages including three demonic tongues. As if that bounty weren't enough, he was rich: heir to the Vaille and Vanderbrant fortunes that would be shared out between he and his two brothers.
He was also every inch the absent-minded academic type, unaware of his beauty, peripherally aware of others; more interested in spending an afternoon with a tricky bit of old parchment or laying out lesson plans than having his leisure or conversation.
"Just tell them straight out you need the money for another language and an assistant, hint that the Orion Company is slavering over the possibility for increasing your translation output, and you'll have them hooked," Roy advised. "If you're any more oblique they may miss the point completely. Especially if you give a verbal presentation. You tend to be...pedantic."
"Ha," Gabriel said again, though his eyes went faraway as if he were considering it. "Hadn't considered a direct approach."
"No," Roy said with some amusement, "you wouldn't have."
"Anything else?" Gabriel prompted. His arms were folded over his broad chest, the fingers of his right hand twitching idly across his upper left arm.
"How much time have you got?" Roy said, giving him a bit of a smirk.
Gabriel began to shake his head. "I knew I shouldn't have asked you. Get back to simplifying my lesson plans, then, if you're going to be like that."
"Hmm." Roy leaned his head on one hand and looked over the screen-files scattered across his desktop. Each millimeter-thin, business card-sized file contained massive amounts of data and could be used in any notepad, modified, and used in the lecture room notepad to be projected on the room's holoscreen.
A knock sounded on the door of the old-fashioned office, still wood-paneled like the university of the days of Donough Vanderbrant's youth.
"I'll get it," Roy said, rising, and noticed with a half-smile that Gabriel had repossessed the screen-file that contained his grant request and was already looking it over it once more. He didn't even acknowledge the knock or Roy's words. He opened the door.
Keiran O'Bannon's pretty face greeted him. The young man, one of Gabriel's latest freshman groupies, was adorable -- a fresh-faced, enthusiastic nineteen, and one of the crop of new students who seemed to have a genuine interest in the subjects Vaille taught, unlike some of his other pretty young admirers. Most unfortunately, he was just to Roy's taste -- leggy, longish red hair not quite in need of a trim, the luminous-pale skin of a real redhead, and wide, curious blue eyes. Keiran was the current contender for Gabriel's biggest stalker. He leaned against the doorframe and attempted to peer into the room.
"Mr. Masters! Hello, is Professor Vaille in?"
Roy checked his watch, giving the boy a warm, wry glance that went completely over Keiran's pretty head, as always. "Do you know how late it is, Keiran? What are you still doing on campus?"
"Oh, I...uh, well," Keiran began, rubbing at the base of his neck. He blinked and shook his head. "Um, really I'm not here to pester him. I swear."
"Is there something I can help you with?" Roy asked, still blocking the door. He felt a pang looking down at the young man. Vaille was Keiran's professor for most of the large lectures, but Roy was the one who had Keiran in individual discussion classes. He knew this boy better than Vaille, and wanted him desperately. Of course, Keiran only had eyes for their professor.
"Oh, no, Mr. Masters, there's someone who's come for Professor Vaille," Keiran replied. "They asked me for directions, so...well, I offered to come."
"Of course," Roy said, wry. He wanted to reach out and tousle the young man's red hair. "Who's here?"
"Someone from Orion..." Keiran began.
"It's me, Mr. Masters," a cool, familiar voice interjected.
Roy looked beyond Keiran for the first time and noticed Alicia Carson, a tall, good-looking blonde in a white suit. She had a bulky package tucked under one arm.
"Ms. Carson," he greeted her. "We haven't been graced with your presence in a few weeks. Thanks, Keiran."
"Oh...sure..." He idled by the doorway for another moment as Alicia entered at his gesture, giving Roy a charming but professional smile as she squeezed past him into the office.
"We'll see you at tomorrow's lecture?" Roy prompted. It was a clear dismissal, as Keiran appeared to be looking for a way to linger.
"Oh. Yes." Keiran gave him a brief smile, looked beyond him once more, trying to catch a glimpse of his idol, then turned to go.
Roy shut the door, catching himself before he sighed. Professor Vaille's life was consumed with his books and studies; he wished he could be so lucky. It would be easy to make a joke of himself, pining after a student. He wanted to turn Keiran's attention toward himself and make him forget he'd ever wanted...
"Alicia Carson," Gabriel greeted their unexpected visitor. "Kind of late, isn't it?"
"What, are you starting to notice things like time, now?" Alicia said, chuckling. She clasped her package in the crook of her arm and shook hands with the professor. "We just acquired it today. The head of research took one look at it and decided it needed to be forwarded to you immediately."
Gabriel lifted a pale brow. "A priority project?"
Alicia gave him a nod and passed it over. She handled it with care, but Gabriel took it even more gingerly, unwrapping it at an empty station on his desk as if he were dealing with fragile goods. "I think you'll see. Means nothing to me, of course, but it had most of research in an uproar as soon as they looked at the cover inscriptions."
Gabriel glanced at her briefly, then back to the wrappings as he peeled them away from the large book. He took one look at it and went for one of his drawers, withdrawing a pair of sealed sterile gloves, opening them and donning them, then touching the dense fabric of the cover with a tentative finger. "It's bound in hide and ivory," he said reverently, examining it. He looked at Alicia again. "Did they open it?"
"Of course not." Alicia sniffed. "Do you take them for amateurs? They knew you'd want to handle that personally, just in case the material within is too delicate for conventional handling."
"It's very old," Gabriel said, already wearing the look of concentration that indicated he was half-gone, focusing on the book more than his audience. He fingered the spine, then glanced at the pressed pages. "Probably parchment of some sort. I'll have to handle it in vacuum with waldoes." He peered at the cover and the demonic script inscribed there.
"Whatever you think necessary," Alicia said. "Now, as to the time frame..."
"Ah," Gabriel said distantly, seeming barely aware of her words. He was already parsing the script on the cover. "My God! This is it! It's one of the key grimoires of the..." He broke off, lips working soundlessly.
"Yes," Alicia said, transferring her glance from the professor to Roy.
"When do you want it done?" Roy asked. He shook his head, smiling. "I'm assuming this is worth a good deal more than the standard fee. You and I can barter on that."
Alicia compressed her lips. "There'll be no barter this time. We'll pay whatever you ask...especially if the Professor can get the salient points in a month's time. Mention this to no one, as usual."
"Of course not," Roy replied, but he was already thinking of the grant request and the need for an assistant. Even if they didn't mention specifics, this would ensure Gabriel would get what he wanted. The Board looked highly on Orion Corporation's reliance on Professor Vaille's translation abilities, and at the same time they didn't want the brilliant professor seduced away from the University over to the Corporation with its special financing. There was a delicate partnership at work between the two where Vaille was concerned.
"I'll leave you to it," Alicia said, glancing at Gabriel again. There was amusement in her eyes. She gave Roy a nod. "I'll be in touch."
"Yes, thanks." Roy let her out. He was already working over how the addition of this latest project would change their workload. They could have used an assistant before, but now...
He settled back to his desk and tapped his fingers over the notepad's surface, starting it up from the idly-wheeling aurora borealis of the screensaver. He still had lectures to go over before leaving for the night. He was getting hungry, and he knew he couldn't stay much longer to babysit the professor.
"Oh, I can't get started tonight!" Gabriel backed away from the tome, running a hand through his loose lavendar hair. "Damn it, this requires more preparation than gloves. I'll wrap it in steri-film and get started tomorrow. Oh. OH. What time is it?"
"Near eight," Roy supplied. He was acutely aware. His stomach had let him know a while before that the evening was wearing thin.
Gabriel blinked. "Oh, no." He wrapped the book with reverent hands, then stripped his gloves off. Only after this did he go over his desk anxiously and pick up his cell phone, flipping it open, checking its diminutive LCD screen. "Oh. Oh, Roman."
Roy looked up. "You forgot your brother again?"
"I, uh, yes, apparently."
Roy laughed. "I'll close up the office. Get going; Roman's enough of a queen without something to complain about." He'd met the middle Vaille brother enough to know that much.
"Thank you, Roy." Gabriel ran a distracted hand through his hair, swept some screen-files and actual books into his briefcase, and looked about for anything he might have missed. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"I'll store the book in the safe," Roy promised.
"Yes, of course." Gabriel flashed him a grateful look. "Don't stay too much longer, I suppose you should probably getting home, as well."
Roy waved him off. It was true, he could finish the rest at home on the notepad. He'd go and dwell over lesson plans, or something. He caught the last longing look that Professor Vaille threw at the grimoire and contained a smile. If only his clutch of fangirls -- and a fair smattering of fanboys -- realized that the only thing nearest and dearest to their Professor's heart was his dusty books and family, they might be spared the trouble.
Then again, Roy reflected as he watched Gabriel depart, probably not. Only the dead could fail to admire that perfect body.
Roman Vaille folded his arms and tried not to frown too deeply as he stared at the fast-moving lights of the street beyond thick shatter-proof glass. He had been waiting in the lobby of the Psyblade Sports Gear tower for over an hour, and his absentminded fool of a brother had yet to show up. He checked his cell phone again out of habit, knowing Gabriel hadn't responded to any of his messages yet; the damned man probably had it turned off or silenced again. At least Cedric had his own arrangements to get home from school.
He twitched when a voice called out behind him. "River? What are you still doing here? The shoot wrapped over an hour ago!"
At the sound of his career name, Roman spun on his heel, green eyes flashing annoyance. "I'm waiting for my brother, Damon. An hour is nothing in the musty-dim recesses of his professor's brain."
Damon Raine crossed the wide polished lobby floor, the strap of his equipment bag settled over one wide shoulder. He was Roman's favorite photographer, twenty-five, with dark, striking good looks. Just now he was frowning.
"If you'd told me you would be waiting until we finished with some of the post-shoot work, I would have left early. I can give you a ride, you know." He loomed over Roman, placing one broad hand on the wall beyond him. "You're my precious commodity, River."
Roman assumed a more appreciative look, moistening his lips. He had been working with Damon for most of his career as a model -- since he was thirteen -- and they'd become lovers two years ago when he had made it clear to the older man he didn't want to wait a single day longer to appreciate all that his smoldering hazel eyes promised. At the focus of Damon's lens he felt cherished. He'd done his best work with Damon Raine on the other end of the camera, which had made the freelance photographer's career rise along with his own. And under his hands, Roman had awakened to an entirely new level of passion.
"Well? I can take you now," Damon offered.
"Hmm." Roman tried not to smile. He wanted to stretch up and lay a kiss on Damon's firm lips but the lobby of his latest big contract was definitely not the place. "I would, but it's Cedric's first day home from junior high. And Gabriel would probably get confused and park at the curb for another hour if I disappeared with you."
Damon's mouth turned down again. "It would serve him right," he said, but shook his head at Roman's warning look and attempted an ingratiating smile.
"You know I'm the only one allowed to bad-mouth my brother," Roman murmured, hooking a finger in between buttons of Damon's shirt.
Damon leaned for a moment as if he would kiss him, then disengaged Roman's hand and took a step to separate them. "When can I take you to dinner?"
"Tomorrow," Roman promised. He was very much regretting tonight's arrangements with his brother; he knew that Gabriel was unreliable and difficult to pry off-campus sometimes, but he'd had his hopes for the evening. The plan had been to get home fairly early, work aside, and fete their little brother Cedric for surviving his first day in the jungle of junior high. After that, well, it was typically easier to coax his brother Gabriel into thinking of other things once he'd gotten away from his beloved campus. He gave Damon a demure look from beneath lowered eyelashes. "It's been a couple of days since I've had more than your camera eye on me."
"Heh." Damon looked him up and down, eyes devouring appreciatively, then hefted his equipment bag onto his shoulder more securely. "You've hit your majority, you know. I keep telling you...get your driver's license, buy a car, move in with me."
"Very romantic," Roman said, biting his lip. He let his eyes twinkle up at Damon. "And I keep telling you, I'm happy with things as they are. I barely see my brothers as it is; if I were to move out, I'd never see them. Maybe in a few years, okay? I promise, you're the first on my list."
Damon's expression changed imperceptibly. "There are others?"
"It's an expression," said Roman, who had a fair of admirers at Vanderbrant High and wasn't shy of accepting favors. He was careful to keep his tone light, teasing, because it was so very easy for Damon to get serious and he tried to be considerate of his lover's feelings. There was Damon, and there was Gabriel; there were also passing fancies, on the job or at school. He would always have Gabriel, because they were brothers. He felt sure of Damon, as well, and felt comfortable with him as with no other man. Still, despite the surety, he never wanted to rub Damon's face in possible infidelities; he was so possessive.
"Well, I do want to take you out," Damon said, changing the subject. He looked as though he might lean over Roman again, then thought better of it. "The promo party was great, but I want to celebrate with you privately, for landing the contract with Psyblade Sports. You've got a terrific agent and I love the fact that he throws work my way."
"Hmm, well." Roman was momentarily sidetracked by thoughts of black-haired Aaron, one of the other models in Psyblade's stable, and their interlude in a private bathroom shortly after being introduced. He was one of those one-time incredible fucks. "Oh, you know my agent is well aware that I work best when you're the photographer in charge of the shoot." He gave his lover a dazzling smile.
Damon's features lightened, which was what Roman had been after. "How long have we been working together? You haven't changed a bit, River, just gotten taller."
Roman made a coquettish face. "I'll take that as a compliment." He stepped away from the wall, looking out the thick glass again. With irritation, he considered phoning his brother's graduate student. Roy Masters, at least, wasn't so far gone that he would ignore a ringing phone for the academic pleasures to be had. "Four years, lover, and you're still calling me by my career name."
"I called you River for two years before I knew your real name," Damon returned. "Consider it an affectionate nickname; I think it suits you." He lifted a hand and brushed strands of pale lavender hair from Roman's face.
Roman looked up into his eyes for a long moment, solemn. In his more honest instants he could admit he was difficult, at best, to deal with. His mother had said that to him once upon a time. Damon did more than treat him well; he knew how to handle him, and sometimes Roman thought he should feel guilty. Still, it was his nature and Damon put up with it.
"Sure we can't go out for a drink?" Damon suggested, hint of a smile touching his wide mouth. "I promise I'll have you back within the hour."
He sighed, and planted a hand over the breast-pocket of Damon's white shirt. "If I were going to do that, I might as well have you give me a lift home and leave yet another message on Gabriel's cell phone that he won't check until tomorrow."
Damon slanted a look at him, but didn't even suggest that Roman should have made alternate plans rather than rely on his brother. "It's as if you like testing him," he said, instead.
"And enjoy getting worked up when he fails to meet my expectations?" Roman said with a half-smile. "I promise you, I had good intentions. I'm not always so petty."
"Right, I believe you." Damon ducked his head; fiddled with the strap of his bag. "You want me to wait with you, then?"
Roman turned to him with an arch look. "Did you have somewhere you wanted to be, then? Without me, I mean."
Damon laughed and put his equipment down. "Cocky bastard. So, how much longer are you willing to wait?"
Roman looked at the blur of lights that streaked the windows with brilliance, and thought of Cedric alone home for hours. He had his work, and Gabriel his; it often fell to their little brother's shoulders to shore up the rest and make dinner. Cedric didn't seem to mind, he was always thinking of others. Gabriel had his books and Roman had...well, himself and his life; still, Cedric was patient with them. He was a quiet and loving boy who never complained and never asked for much -- Roman's diametric opposite.
"I want to get home," he said suddenly. "I think we've both made Cedric wait long enough. This was supposed to be a big day for him."
"All right." Graciously Damon hoisted his bag to his shoulder again and took Roman's elbow. "The garages are in back--"
A gray blur ground to a stop before the steps of the Psyblade building to the tune of indignant honking. It was Gabriel's claptrap piece of junk, a dowdy electric car that stood out amongst all the sleek hydrogen-cell models. They had the money for better but Gabriel preferred his old car for whatever reason; he would never say when Roman nagged after him.
"Well." Roman summoned up a tight smile. "He's here, after all."
"Damn his timing," Damon muttered.
"Oh, you'll live."
The slim-hipped, trim figure of Gabriel Vaille was climbing from the driver's side, all awkward haste. Roman thought with exasperation that only Gabriel could make vintage Armani look so untidy.
"I'm sorry," Gabriel apologized, as soon as he'd palmed the door in and taken in his brother's tapping foot, folded arms, and the sight of Damon surely glowering just beyond his shoulder.
"You know, if you're going to be this late, the least you can do is let me know so that I can make other arrangements," Roman said pointedly, never ready to leave without a fight.
The "other arrangement" shifted behind him and Roman heard the inhalation of his breath, a preparation to speak.
"I am sorry," Gabriel repeated penitently. He stopped before them, eyes going back and forth between Damon and Roman. "I got caught up..."
Roman snorted. "Yes, well, thanks for the notice. You know, you can program reminders into your cell phone. It was Cede's first day of school."
"Our brother's name is Cedric," Gabriel said with a quick frown, "and I know that, and I..."
"You forgot," Roman said silkily. He lifted a hand and let it drop. "Well, let's go. I don't want to keep him waiting any longer than he already has."
Palpable hit scored, Roman turned to his photographer. He hadn't hulled Gabriel, merely delivered a warning shot across the bow. Gabriel needed these little reminders from time to time to pull him from his enshrouding scholarly complacency. "Call me," he murmured to Damon, reaching up to brush fingers across the man's wide mouth. Lips twitched against the pads of his fingers. "We'll go out soon."
"I'll call," Damon promised, glancing once more over his shoulder at Gabriel with a masculine sort of wariness.
"Mm." Roman touched his own fingers to his lips, watching Damon go for a long moment. When he turned on his heel, his brother wore an abstracted, vaguely poleaxed look. "Oh, let's go," Roman said crossly, losing patience with the game.
"Once again, I am sorry..." Gabriel began after the car had pulled from the curb and Roman sat slumped on the passenger's side, staring broodingly out the window. "I didn't mean..."
"You never mean to!" Roman interrupted. "And we make do, I guess, but when it really counts sometimes you flake, Gabriel. I know Cedric doesn't expect so much, well, why would he; you've let him down so often. But I still keep hoping."
Stricken, Gabriel drove them in silence for several blocks. The city at night was kaleidoscope flecks ever-spinning, nothing settling as the car threaded through glittering canals toward Central Park. At length, Roman picked up his phone and flipped it open.
"What are you doing?" Gabriel broke silence first.
"Calling for pizza delivery," Roman said, a bit sour. "You think I'm going to let Cedric cook tonight?"
"I could cook," Gabriel offered tentatively, a peace extended.
Roman laughed. "We'd be ordering out anyhow, after you did that."
Gabriel began to say something, cut himself off, and held his tongue for the rest of the trip to the Carrack building. He pulled into the parking lot and let the car idle for a moment before turning it off. He rested both hands on the wheel.
"What do you want me to do?" he said quietly, to the steering wheel.
"I'm just angry," Roman said, stowing his phone. "It'll pass." He shifted in his seat, reaching across the gap between them, touching one high pale cheekbone half-obscured by unbound lavender hair. Gabriel kept his hair about as long as his own, just barely long enough to reach his shoulders; his was layered differently, though, easier to pull back in a tie with no escaping wisps.
Gabriel turned his face in Roman's direction. "I'm not our parents," he said, nearly inaudible. "I never asked for this."
Roman's heart squeezed in on him. He never felt it more keenly than when he was on the end of that look; he'd been a real bitch, but really, had it been unjustified? He framed Gabriel's face with both hands now, leaning in to press the lightest of kisses on his mouth. "I'm not asking you to be spot-on all the time. Just every now and again."
"I love you," Gabriel murmured, lashes fluttering half-closed over his blue-green eyes. "I love you both."
"Oh, we know it," Roman reassured him throatily, and let his lips dwell against Gabriel's a little longer.
Gabriel licked his mouth open and pressed his tongue inside, gentle and thorough. His scholarly concentration certainly served him well here; Roman had been around, but still his brother was one of the best lovers he'd ever had. Gabriel did have a gift for devoting every portion of his attention to a task at hand. The only problem sometimes was getting it when one asked for it.
"Am I forgiven?" he asked, still quiet.
Roman's mouth quirked. He stretched to nibble Gabriel's lower lip, briefly. "You know I don't hold grudges. Come on, let's go debrief our little boy on his day."
"That's all for today," said Mr. McCormack, setting down the stylus he'd used to write the day's last assignments on the data wall. "Class dismissed." On the heels of his words, the chime sounded that announced the start and finish of each period.
Cedric lingered at his desk with papers and books, sorting each, stowing them into his backpack individually. He already knew enough to hold back on the first day, hoping above hope that by the time he left the classroom the rest would be gone. It never worked, of course, but one had to try.
He kept his head down, so if there were any glances he missed them.
This was the junior high and many of his classmates had advanced along with him from elementary to sixth grade, but still Cedric had claimed a lone table during the lunch hour. There was no one quite suited to sit with him even though he'd advanced to bigger halls. As far as Cedric was concerned that was as it had always been and he was accustomed to his sole companion being that of a book.
"Vaille, isn't it?" The gentle baritone of the teacher filled the empty room, pulling his head up. "Cedric Vaille?"
"Yes, sir?" Cedric said, standing at last. He shouldered his backpack.
"Is there something you wanted to ask me?" His teacher was standing as well, a towering figure as Cedric approached the front of the room with hands knotted before him.
"Oh. Well. Um, actually...I was wondering," Cedric put forth diffidently, "if you'll be choosing a class leader."
Alistair McCormack blinked, gathering his files together with long-boned slender hands. He tapped them together to even them out, then slipped them into the leather briefcase sitting on his desk. "Well, do you think I need one?"
"I'm only asking because my elementary school had them," Cedric said quickly. "Not, um..." He glanced to the edge of his vision, where he could see a few of the bigger boys in his class passing back and forth in the open doorway.
"Not to volunteer yourself for the position?" Mr. McCormack supplied, giving Cedric a kind smile. He was a tall, handsome man, in between Cedric's older brothers for height. He had long chestnut hair with a hint of wave caught back in a ponytail at the base of his neck. His eyes were kind and some indeterminate shade between hazel and gray.
"No, I was just wondering." Cedric smiled up at him with relief. The teacher appeared to understand. Cedric, as a rule, didn't put himself forward for anything (except occasionally answering questions when he knew he was right) yet had found himself chosen for class leader on a few occasions. The only advantage, as far as he could see, was that it was a position of some slight security against bullies.
Mr. McCormack picked up his briefcase. "I'll give it some thought, and ask some other teachers. This is the first class I've had the charge of, you know," he confided.
Cedric widened his eyes. "Really?" Mr. McCormack seemed to him to be enormously competent and self-contained, handling the class with a quiet assurance that every teacher should possess.
"Oh, yes," Mr. McCormack said with another smile. "I'm just out of college myself."
"Vanderbrant University?" Cedric asked ingenuously.
"That's me, I'm a graduate," Mr. McCormack agreed. One hand went to the base of his neck, rubbing in a gesture Cedric recognized from his brother Gabriel as self-conscious. "It's a little silly, isn't it? Graduating from your school and going right back to teach an earlier grade?"
"I don't think so at all," Cedric said firmly. "Once you've found something you like the most, why should you put it aside just because something else might be better?"
Mr. McCormack's eyes stayed on him, thoughtful, until finally Cedric flushed and looked away. "Yes," he said slowly, "I suppose that's exactly it."
Cedric glanced up at his teacher, then away again. He was perturbed by a peculiar squirm of feeling that went through his vitals, just from looking at Mr. McCormack's face.
"Well," the teacher said, picking up his briefcase, "I won't keep you, Cedric. It's a lovely August afternoon. I'll see you tomorrow, all right?"
"Yes, thank you," Cedric replied automatically, hands going to rest on his shoulder straps. Still he lingered, watching the teacher straighten the last of his daily implements, until he could no longer prolong the inevitable. He stepped into the hallway.
Though he'd looked briefly in each direction, he had taken no more than a few steps before a hard shoulder collided with his.
"Oops," murmured the deep already-broken voice of a boy from his class, Andy Perkins. "Sorry about that." He brushed past Cedric.
"Yeah, sorry," said another, shouldering past him roughly. A third bumped him in passing, nearly knocking him against the lockers that lined the hallway, without saying a word.
Earlier that day that trio had knocked him over in between classes. He had been fetching books for Mr. McCormack at the time, and they had spilled to the floor. It had taken him a few minutes to gather them up and none of the boys had offered to help.
The covert harassment had begun.
Cedric sighed and resumed trudging up the hallway. The only thing to do with it was to ignore it. He was usually bullied from year to year; it generally died off after a few months. Most of the time.
He passed many familiar faces as he threaded his way through the mazelike halls of the junior high. Vanderbrant was an elevator institution, which meant that those who passed the exams for elementary were automatically passed to junior high. To apply for high school, however, another exam was required, but once that was passed, those in high school advanced automatically to the university. Anyone applying from the outside had to take a rigorous exam regardless of what year they were applying for.
Outside, girls and boys lingered in segregated clusters across the elegantly-landscaped lawn. Class had been dismissed for today but the clubs and sign-ups wouldn't be until the next day, and so to socialize they hung around the lawn of the school, groups forming and scattering and re-forming. A group of boys left the patch of lawn near the stairs, heading for the playground adjunct to the elementary division that Cedric could see in the distance beyond the right wing of the junior high.
Cedric kept his eyes downcast and trudged past them all. From year to year, there had been those he considered acquaintances from each of his classes, but he'd never had the kinds of friends that Roman had brought home whenever he liked. Cedric thought with discernment that he didn't want the kind of company Roman usually kept; rough, loud boys who threw their arms carelessly over Roman's shoulders, who caressed his pale silvery-lavender hair as if he were a pet and rough-housed with him and came back once or twice, then were never to be seen again.
It was his name, too, that kept the other kids at bay. Once or twice a girl or boy of his class had approached him. You're Cedric. You just skipped a grade into ours, right? When the Vaille name came up, their attitudes changed. Not liking that, he soon distanced himself. Everyone assumed that because Cedric held himself aloof from the petty politics of the classroom, he was a snob.
He made his way for the thin strip of sidewalk that bordered the canal. The campus of Vanderbrant was huge in its entirety, covering several city blocks. The junior high occupied most of one, flanked on the south by a canal, the west by a park that separated the junior high campus from the university. On the north was Vanderbrant Avenue, and the east behind the school contained tracks and gymnasiums that were shared with the high school campus beyond.
Cedric had been walking this path home for years. He liked to stop beside the canal, sometimes, and pore over whatever materials he'd brought home with him that day, or spread out his homework and do it in the late afternoon sunlight.
Coming to a stop beside a likely spot, he shrugged his backpack off his shoulders and settled onto the sun-warmed grass. Alistair McCormack was their teacher for English and history as well as their homeroom teacher, and Cedric was glad he was especially good in those subjects. For some reason he didn't mind the prospect of others thinking he was currying favor with Mr. McCormack. He was the handsomest teacher Cedric had ever had, and he seemed sensitive as well. Cedric found himself wanting to look up to the man, the same way he looked up to his older brother Gabriel.
He was wholly absorbed in the first pages of his history text, and so he hardly noticed he was no longer alone until a shadow fell across him. In the next instant the history text was plucked from his hands.
"Hey!" Cedric cried, grasping for it.
The big boy held it out of his reach, sniggering. "Geez, will you look at him? It's only the first day and already he's studying."
The two other boys laughed. The redhead said "I guess it's true he skipped a couple grades to get here."
"Study harder, little prig," said the third. "That way we won't have to see your pretty-boy face in class anymore. Why do they let little girls into junior high, anyhow?"
As Cedric scrambled to his feet, the biggest boy tossed the history text to one of the others and upended Cedric's backpack, snatching up the rest of the books. "Be kind of hard to be a teacher's pet," he said thoughtfully, "if you don't have the books to study with."
"Ha, yeah, let's take 'em and sell them back to the school bookstore!" cried the third boy, a little heavyset and dark-haired.
"I've got a better idea, Shawn." A malicious smile spread across the biggest boy's face, and he heaved his armful of books, chucking them into the canal where they landed with dull splashes.
"Do it, Jeff!" Shawn urged, and the redhead threw the history book into the canal as well, dusting his hands off and eyeing Cedric with a challenging sort of smirk.
Cedric pressed his lips together and gave them a blank look.
"Not gonna say anything?" the big boy challenged, folding his arms and grinning at Cedric. "Ooh, you are smart, huh."
"There wasn't any need for that," Cedric said tightly. "I'm not a threat to you or your friends; you're just great bullies, aren't you?" Then, despite the looming sense of danger, he bent to retrieve his backpack.
Hands shoved hard at his shoulders and Cedric tottered almost upright.
"You've got a smart mouth, little boy!" the big one told him, fingers snaring in his tie, pinioning Cedric in place. Then he released him abruptly and laughed as Cedric pinwheeled, the backpack overbalancing him and sending him tumbling to the grass. It smarted but he didn't dare utter a peep.
"Show him, Andy!" one of his friends cheered.
"If you say anything," said the biggest boy, Andy, with a casually menacing gesture, "like to a teacher or whatever? Then it won't just be your books that get chucked in the canal tomorrow."
Cedric couldn't say anything. His mouth was sealed with senseless hurt. He had an allowance, so it was no trouble to replace the books, but it hurt him to see anything damaged. Far worse was the slight to his pride. He began to stand up, hands going to his crooked tie to fix it.
"Who said you could get up yet?" Andy growled, lifting a fist and towering over him.
Cedric widened his eyes. Getting rough-housed, he had come to expect -- it had happened to him at the start of almost every year since he was eight. That was usually before class rankings settled out and he was on top, the elite and shunned. Getting beaten, though -- that would make trouble. If Roman ever found out...
"Yeah, you little girly-boy, thinking of running away?" the pimply-faced redhead, Jeff, sniggered behind Andy's back.
Cedric measured the look in Andy's dark eyes. He'd probably knock him down flat again if he even tried to get up.
"We should take him to the toilets," said Shawn, the third, putting his hand on his chin in a ponderous imitation of thought. "He's so prissy I'm sure he'd appreciate it if we cleaned him up good before sending him home."
Now Cedric's mouth dropped open; he was ready to voice his outrage.
Andy was already leaning down to grab him by the tie and haul him up.
"What the hell's going on here?"
It was a new voice, deeper, mild and monotone.
Andy snapped upright and the other two boys began to draw back. "Nothin', man," he said, tone ingratiating all at once. "He fell, see, and I was gonna help him up."
Feet drew even with Cedric, rubber-soled sneakers and the navy uniform pants of their school. Cedric looked up and kept looking, because his unexpected rescuer was extraordinarily tall. If he weren't wearing the junior high uniform, Cedric would have put him in the Vanderbrant High category.
"I don't think he wants your help," said the newcomer in a quiet, flat voice. His hands were in his pockets; the strap of his schoolbag was slung over his shoulder.
"Whatever, man," Andy said, backing up, then he turned. His flunkies turned with him and they started off, jostling each other. The further they got, the more the cockiness returned to their step, and Cedric heard the jeering tones until they were out of earshot.
A hand extended into his field of view. "You'll get your pants dirty. Grass stains are hard to get out."
Cedric took it, and was brought to his feet lightly as if he were a feather. He felt just about as insignificant. "Sorry to trouble you," he murmured, looking up at his rescuer from beneath lowered lashes. The tall boy had to be a junior high senior. His hair was inky-dark like a brush's tip, cut in short prickles that fell sleekly against his head. His eyes were dark brown and he looked expressionless, almost bored, until his features lightened almost imperceptibly at Cedric's words.
"They're the trouble-makers. You shouldn't apologize for it." One brow raised, an unusual gesture that his brother Gabriel had mastered too. They were still clasping hands, and the older boy gave his fingers a squeeze, firm without being crushing. "I'm Akito Rukawa."
"Cedric Vaille," Cedric answered, a bit breathless. Once Rukawa released him, he straightened his tie and clamped his mouth in a thin line. "Anyway it won't do any good. They'll only be at it tomorrow."
Rukawa shook his head. "Where do you live?"
Cedric pointed. "The old Carrack building. You can see it from here, it's at the edge of the park, just across Vanderbrant Avenue. My grandfather was the founder, you see, and that's one reason I get bullied."
Rukawa's dark brows drew together in a heavy scowl. "They won't be at it if you have someone walking you home."
Cedric blinked up at him, unsteady. His pulse had throbbed double-time in his throat at those words. Why should this boy, a complete and total stranger, take an interest in protecting him? "That's kind of you..." He was cut off before he could get to the 'but.'
"It's on my way." Rukawa began walking up the grass to reach the sidewalk once more, then stopped to look over his shoulder. His hands had returned to his pockets.
"Oh," Cedric said lamely, and wondered if he should say thank you. He settled his empty bag on his shoulders and looked over at the canal and the opaque waters that had swallowed up his text-books.
Rukawa was examining him as Cedric joined him on the sidewalk, his intent dark eyes going over Cedric's disheveled appearance. "What happened to your school books?" he asked abruptly.
"Uh--" Cedric shook his head a little. This wasn't Roman. He could probably tell Rukawa what had happened, because he didn't look as if he were volatile enough to go off like a gunshot, loud and twice as violent.
"They tossed them in the canal?" Rukawa guessed.
"Yes," Cedric said meekly.
Rukawa looked at him a moment longer. Cedric felt as if he would wilt under the scrutiny of those keen dark eyes, or perhaps he should look away, but Rukawa was the one to break the connection first. "What class are you in?"
"Um, class One-D," Cedric replied, a little confused. No one had ever asked before, and why would Rukawa need to know?
Unfortunately for his peace of mind, Rukawa wasn't exactly forthcoming with information, either. They walked through the park in silence while Cedric's mind formulated questions his tongue was too tied to bring forth. He wanted to know more about this stoic, mostly-silent older boy. Like his name -- it was Japanese. He didn't have an accent, not that Cedric had heard...but then again, he hadn't spoken that much.
"What year are you?" Cedric managed, finally speaking as they passed the glorious stone fountain in the middle of the park.
Rukawa bent a mild look on him. "Third year," he replied laconically.
"Oh." Cedric looked at him covertly as they walked, taking in the bulk of the older boy. He would be thirteen or fourteen, then. He looked older. He certainly was tall, already as tall as Cedric's brother Roman, who was seventeen.
Cedric worked his way up to another question as they approached the edge of the park. The walk was almost over and he hadn't even been able to start up a conversation. This, Cedric thought to himself woefully, was why he didn't have any friends. He just didn't know what to say to people.
"Do you play sports?" he blurted as they waited on the sidewalk to cross the street.
Rukawa looked at him again, dark eyes turning in his direction as if he had forgotten Cedric was there. He looked as if he were considering his reply. At last, "Not really," escaped his lips, and he turned his head and scanned the street for approaching cars.
Cedric was, despite the Spartan reply, not put off in the slightest. Was it possible he'd found someone for whom conversation was even more difficult than it was for him? He caught Rukawa looking at him again, just before they began to march across the street, and felt warmed.
If only he had the courage to invite Rukawa up to the apartment to have snacks, as he was sure most of his peer-group did. It was what one did with friends, right? If only...
"This is my building," Cedric piped up, looking at the facade of the old building, sleekly re-sheathed in stone and brick and decorated on every tier with copies of stone sculpture. It was an ostentatious-looking building, reeking of money. Cedric's family held title and rented out every floor but the very top one.
"Ah." Rukawa paused and looked at him for a moment. His hands were still stuck in his pockets. "See you." Then he turned and began to walk up the street. Cedric wondered if he was headed for the bus stop, or if he really did live around here. There were other old moneyed apartments in the area, but that didn't signify, as there were plenty of scholarship openings at every level of the Vanderbrant schools. One had to be smart to earn them.
Andy and his cronies obviously had some kind of money.
Cedric stayed rooted to the pavement for a moment longer, watching Rukawa's broad-shouldered figure recede from him until he'd turned the corner, and was gone. He really did wish he wasn't such a coward. He wondered what Rukawa had meant by "not really" when he had asked if he played sports. He wondered most of all if he would see the senior again, and felt wistful.
At last he turned and entered the Carrack building and tried to figure out how to tell Gabriel he'd lost all his books on the first day. Gabriel, he would be able to convince somehow they hadn't issued them yet, but Roman was too sharp for that.
It wasn't even four o'clock. He had a few hours yet before he would have to dredge up explanations.