After the Rising: The Vaille Brothers Saga
Volume One - Family Fortunes
Chapter Three

by Talya Firedancer

Sunlight warmed his face and pierced his eyelids to the point where he had to open them, blinking with drowsy lassitude across the room at the clock on the nightstand. Cedric was used to waking several times throughout the night and, on weekends, part of the morning so every time his eyes sought the clock, determining whether it was time to wake or not.

Yawning, he pushed himself upright and folded the bolster back, looking around the sun-bright summery green room. It was six o'clock, just enough time to get up and get ready before setting out for school.

Cedric scrubbed the last of the sleep from his eyes and hopped out of bed, wincing as his feet touched the cool bare floorboards. He set about getting ready for school with the meticulousness he devoted to every aspect of his existence.

First order of business, micturition.

After Cedric had relieved himself of a night's worth of accumulated bladder pressure, he padded across the hall on soundless bare feet and pushed open his brother Gabriel's door without knocking. He had learned early in life that knocking, especially on weekdays, got him nowhere. "Wake up," he said briskly, heading for the western wall and pulling the curtains wide open. Gabriel's room was the biggest in the apartment, had a terrace on one side and windows on the other, and ambient sunlight streamed into the room.

On the bed, the broad-shouldered figure beneath the covers stirred and groaned. "Wha..."

"Get up," Cedric told his brothers, hoping he wouldn't have to peel the bedclothes back today. Roman usually slept in the nude.

Roman lifted his head from Gabriel's chest and told him drowsily where he could go. Then he hid his face in Gabriel's armpit and found a pillow to cover his head.

These unorthodox sleeping arrangements were not surprising to Cedric in the least, as he could not recall a time when he'd ever gone to wake up Roman in his own bed. Roman had a bed, that much Cedric knew from his once-yearly trips into his aniki's room to boldly clean where few men had cleaned before, but the thing was typically obscured under a week's worth of clothing acquired from one modeling shoot or another, the detritus of teenage living, and occasionally something horrifying that had sprouted a layer of fur over ceramic. He wasn't quite sure why Roman slept with their older brother, but vaguely supposed it was one of those things he'd understand as he got older.

Gabriel pushed Roman off of him and sat up, reaching for the glasses laid on top of a book on his bedside table. "What time is it?"

"About six-fifteen. If you both shower now, we can all have breakfast together." Cedric also knew his brothers generally showered together in the morning to save time, and had never questioned it. He did occasionally wonder why a measure intended to be time-saving seemed to take twice the time it should. Not every time, but frequently.

"Hrrmwozzat." Beneath the pillow, Roman twitched.

"I'll make waffles," Cedric said, wheedling.

The pillow was cast to the foot-board. "I'm up," Roman announced, his pale hair sticking up in two places. Gabriel was already easing out of bed, bare-chested but wearing drawstring pajama bottoms.

Cedric nodded and left the room. Roman had a very lovely body, lean and sculpted like fine statuary, and he was beautifully proportioned. Still, there was no reason for Cedric to be subjected to his brother's naked body first thing in the morning -- he had a sense of modesty, but Roman didn't seem to. He supposed that was why Roman was such a good model.

"With strawberries?" Roman called after him hopefully.

"Probably jam," Cedric called back.

He returned to his room and donned a summer-weight cotton robe that resembled a yukata. Gabriel had bought it for him as a recent birthday gift. When he returned to the hallway, the sounds of the master bedroom shower had started up. He could shower in the other bathroom while his brothers did, but Cedric preferred to do so after he'd made breakfast and before he packed his school bag. He was nothing if not set in his routine.

Making a detour to the living room, he flipped on the stereo and found some soothing Mozart to cook by, piping the feed into just the kitchen. It was on a timer, and would turn itself off after an hour so Cedric didn't have to worry about turning it off himself.

He loved his brothers, but he enjoyed puttering around in the kitchen by himself in the mornings. He liked the feel of a house that wasn't empty, but a room that he could have to himself for a little while. Cedric started the coffee, pulled out a bowl for the waffle ingredients, and let his thoughts drift.

Today after school was the kendo club sign-ups, as well as the first academic decathlon group practice. He would have to communicate that to Rukawa in case the senior intended to walk him home again. And, too, he would probably have some class leader duties that he'd have to fit in there somewhere. Cedric felt a warm glow of satisfaction. This year was getting off to a particularly good start, Andy and his bully friends notwithstanding. He liked his teacher, and would be spending more time in the presence of a mentor figure as class leader; and he seemed to have picked up his very first friend, someone tall and handsome and thoughtfully taciturn. Cedric's thin chest swelled. He wished he could be more like Rukawa-senpai. Someone like that...was unthinkingly cool.

Roman stumbled into the kitchen, yawning wide enough to crack his jaws, and grabbed the pot of coffee. He poured himself a cup, spilling in drips and drabbles onto the polished counter, then clutched it to his chest and reeled out of the room like a sleepwalker.

Cedric shook his head ruefully and hurried over with a rag, wiping the counter and returning to his waffles. He had a stack ready by the time his oldest brother entered the kitchen, a great deal more composed and ready to go in a chocolate-brown suit and amber shirt. He had a maroon tie in his hands and his hair was uncombed.

"No," Cedric said, setting out jam and a plate of waffles on the table.

"No?" Gabriel echoed, looking confused.

"That tie does not go," Cedric said flatly. "It's the wrong shade. Maybe if it was scarlet, or a different shade of you want me to go get the brown one that matches the suit?"

"Uh, no, I'll get it," Gabriel said distractedly, backing out of the kitchen.

"And comb your hair, oniisan!" Cedric called after him. He put his hands on his hips for a moment. Honestly, was he the only one in the house with any sense?

Roman wandered back into the kitchen barefoot, uniform shirt untucked and unbuttoned, and poured himself another cup of coffee, spilling it on the counter again. "Ask Gabriel to tell you about Uncle Richard," he mumbled, wiping up after himself this time. "If I have to suffer, so should you." He was wearing a silver lion's-head choker.

"The necklace is against regulation," Cedric called after him. He sniffed the air deeply. The scent of browning waffles and coffee was a delicate homey blend. He wanted a cup of coffee, too, but Roman had imposed a ban on him until he'd entered high school. At least.

Gabriel entered the kitchen again.

"No!" Cedric exclaimed, exasperated now.

"Why not?" Gabriel was totally bewildered now, from the long expression.

"That one is mahogany!" Cedric plucked it from his hands and held it against a lapel. "See? You could get away with it, because you're you, but Roy would tease me next time he sees me if I let you out of the house like this."

"You'll have to find it for me," Gabriel said with a faintly mystified look. "I thought this was the one that matched the suit."

"Don't let the waffles burn," Cedric told him, hurrying up the hallway. Even though he'd said so, he knew he would have to hurry back with the right tie to rescue his latest batch. Gabriel burned coffee, toast, eggs, and anything else he put on the stove. He'd tried to boil eggs one morning, and had ended up scorching a pot when the water had boiled away after leaving it unattended for so long.

Tie located, Cedric returned to the kitchen just in time to thrust the tie into his brother's hands and pull the latest golden-brown waffle from the hot iron. He joined his brother at the table.

Gabriel sat back and sipped his coffee with every evidence of enjoyment. Cedric had tasted it once, spat, and still couldn't figure out how something that smelled so heavenly could taste so bitter. When he started drinking it he'd sugar his judiciously.

He joined his brother at the table, looking with satisfaction over the stack of waffles. He'd put out a bowl of fruit, too, but held little hope that either of his brothers would partake of it. Neither specialized in balanced meals and Roman thought that pizza covered all of the food groups.

Gabriel turned a sober look at him as Cedric slid into the seat opposite him. Cedric selected his waffles and spread jam on them liberally, avoiding the weight of that gaze.

"Cedric..." Gabriel began, and his voice was full of strain.

Cedric looked up, surprised. He shook bangs out of his eyes and gave his brother an encouraging little smile. Why, Gabriel actually looked nervous! "Yes, oniisan?" he prompted. He'd have to wolf down his breakfast and hop into the shower...he was glad he always made their lunches the night before. If he lingered over breakfast, he'd be pressed for time.

"Uh, there's something I need to talk to you about." Gabriel rubbed at his forehead with one hand.

"Oh! What is it this time?" Cedric asked. "Roman mentioned something about him..."

"Uh, what?" Gabriel blinked at him, then took a long swallow of coffee. He helped himself to some waffles, then looked queasy. "Roman mentioned...?"

"Uncle Richard," Cedric supplied. Gabriel was a little more absent-minded than usual this morning; it must have been bad.

"Oh! Oh yes, Uncle Richard..." Gabriel gulped. He pushed his glasses up, and met Cedric's eyes with something like relief. "Yes, he stopped by my office yesterday evening."

"What's he up to now?" Cedric began to cut his waffles up into neat bite-sized pieces. If Roman dallied much longer, he'd end up slapping his together like a jam sandwich and rolling them in a couple of napkins, tardy as he was with practically everything not work-related.

He'd never gotten the opportunity to really know his uncle, Richard Vanderbrant, and now that their grandfather was dead it seemed he never really would. Cedric thought it was a shame, because Richard was essentially their only surviving family. There were a few Vaille cousins on the west coast, but they had never met any of those. Cedric's impression of Richard was that of a calculating and driven man, focused but lacking the warmth or passion to aid humanity that had gripped Cedric's grandfather. He remembered his aunt, Richard's wife, from the funeral and a few other glimpses; she was a blonde and beautiful woman, but there was something insubstantial and sad about her. He knew they had young children that he'd never met.

Gabriel explained about the Vanderbrant Foundation and Richard's intention to challenge the trust. "He'll lose, of course," Gabriel said calmly. "Grandfather was too good a businessman and his lawyers were the best. Still, Richard seems to delight in stirring up trouble."

"Grandfather wanted the college to go to us," Cedric said, overwhelmed. That meant when he came of age not only would he receive the Vaille inheritance, as well as gain access to the money his grandfather had set aside for him; he would take a controlling seat on the college board.

"I think he figured Arianna's children would continue his legacy the way he'd want it," Gabriel said softly, steepling his fingers. "He accused me of not knowing what to do with the Foundation--"

"He's wrong!" Cedric interrupted indignantly. "We'll show him."

"'We?'" Gabriel's mouth quirked as if he were suppressing a smile, or a laugh.

"Of course, 'we.' I'm a Vaille, too," Cedric said stoutly. "I don't know if I want to be a professor some day...I probably will...but I know I'll want to sit on the college board."

Roman entered the kitchen again, fully dressed again at last. "Yeah, I figured you'd follow his conversation perfectly, ma petite soeur."

"Don't call me that!" Cedric exclaimed, aghast. It wasn't the first time Roman had called him "little sister" and probably wouldn't be the last, but he'd yet to figure out an effective counterattack.

Roman laughed and joined them, helping himself to the last of the waffles. He put butter and jam on them, which made Cedric faintly nauseous to look at. His green eyes slid in Gabriel's direction, then Cedric's.

"Well?" he said, and stuffed a forkful of waffle into his mouth. "Did you have 'The Talk?'"

Indistinct as it was, Cedric thought he detected the use of capitalization.

Gabriel's face reddened to a dull brick shade. "Yes, I talked to him about Uncle Richard," he said, getting up and grabbing his plate.

Roman stared. "Gabriel!" he protested around a full mouth, the syllables occluded.

"I've got to hurry, I promised Roy I would be in early," Gabriel said hastily, setting his dishes in the sink. "Sorry I've got to dash..."

Roman swallowed. "Gabriel," he growled, and there was a dire threat in the mere invocation of his name.

"I'll see you boys at dinner!"

Five steps and a pause for shoes later, the slam of the door announced that Gabriel had well and truly left for the day.

Roman sipped his coffee, then turned a speculative eye on Cedric.

Cedric chased a bit of waffle and jam around the plate with his fork, then looked up at his older brother. "Roman? What were we supposed to 'Talk' about?"

Roman bolted more waffle with a grim look. "Never mind, Cedric. You've got to hurry up and get ready for school."


From the moment he walked through the door Roy had his hands full for the morning. First off, he had to field the return of the Very Enthusiastic Assistant, who didn't seem discouraged in the least by his first task -- moving the mountains of files and paperworks and organizing them into a cohesively filed system. Actually, that task wasn't all done. Roy and Gabriel had been running rampant for months, and Roy had been getting behind on the organizational system until full-blown chaos had snuck up on them.

There were also lesson plans he hadn't finished from the day before, and in his spare time he had to work on proofs of his dissertation that he was preparing for an upcoming review. Still, with the mountain of work before him, he hadn't taken anything home with him last night.

He'd been far too distracted.

It had been an underhanded trick of Gabriel's, sending him home like that -- unexpected, too, as that sort of move was more Roman's style. Roy had been taken completely off balance, and seeing as it was Keiran, he had gone along. Of course, he should have known how it would turn out.

There was a nice mid-priced restaurant not too far from campus, the kind that offered steak and lobster and salads. Roy went there often, because prices were good and he as a bachelor didn't often have time to cook for himself. It was hard to cook for one.

Keiran had asked all sorts of probing questions about Professor Vaille, of course. Even when Roy had managed to deflect the conversation to questions about the boy himself, Keiran had eventually returned to his favorite subject du jour. Roy had learned, in turn, that Keiran was the youngest of a family of six, he was the fifth son, and he'd discovered his sexuality shortly before graduating from high school. He was totally ingenuous, enthusiastic about pretty much everything, and frustratingly oblivious to Roy's attraction for him.

Just as well, because he hadn't expected anything to come of it. As Roy accepted a cup of hot coffee from Keiran and looked into the boy's bright blue eyes, he found himself regretting that the freshman had been the most qualified. It was frustrating for him and potentially a bother for Gabriel.

Gabriel was right; he should have hired a girl.

"I'll just get started where I left off yesterday, shall I?" Keiran said, rolling up his sleeves with a smile.

Roy nodded, averting his eyes and retreating behind his desk. The lesson plans would wait for no man.

Moments later, before he'd finished with the anthropology class lecture notes, Gabriel came through the door with an abstracted air, briefcase in one hand, a magazine-style journal in the other.

Roy nearly collapsed with the shock.

"Hell's bells, what are you doing here!?" he demanded, half-rising from his desk.

Gabriel's vague green gaze sharpened as he fixed on Roy. "Am I late? It's too early for me to be missing a class...did I have an appointment somewhere else?"

"You really need to start using the planner functions of your phone," Roy said wryly. "It even interfaces with your notepad, you know."

Gabriel frowned. "We agreed to be early..."

"Yes, and I can count on the toes of my hand how many times you've followed up on that kind of promise," Roy said with good humor. "In the six years as your protege--"

"All right, enough," Gabriel said, holding up a hand. He looked around for a place to put his briefcase, then retreated to his office.

Roy followed. This was an event remarkable enough that he was honor-bound to follow up on it, and trace it to the source. "So, what are you doing here so early?"

"What? Uh, oh, never mind."

"Trouble with Roman?" Roy persisted. "Oh, I've got he throwing a snit fit over something?" Briefly he thought of the unusual appearance of the Vanderbrant uncle the night before, but that wouldn't make Gabriel early -- it would make him decidedly late, especially if he put in a visit with the Vaille family lawyer.

"No, no, it's not Roman," Gabriel said, laying his briefcase on his desk and looking around like a hunted man. "I could really use some coffee."

Roy poked his head out of the office. "O'Bannon, could you get the professor some coffee? Same as he took it last night, frothy and full of artificial sweeteners."

"Sure thing!"

That attended to, Roy folded his arms and leaned against the door frame and fixed Gabriel with a knowing look. "What's going on? Is there some trouble with Cedric? I know the two of you were both worried about him starting junior high..."

"Not worried, precisely," Gabriel hedged. An unexpected flush was rising to his cheeks. "No, no, nothing like that..."

"Spill it," Roy said amiably.

Gabriel paced back and forth a bit, then shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose with one finger. "I chickened out. I was supposed to give the sex talk to my brother this morning."

Roy stared. It took two tries to find his voice, and he was proud he did it without hooting. "I hate to break it to you, Gabriel, but I think Roman's a bit old to be explaining the bees and the bees. I'm pretty sure--"

"Not Roman," Gabriel interrupted him. "Cedric."

An implosion of sorts tore its way through Roy's brain, and he saw interesting fireworks of yellow and red dance before his eyes. "Gabriel, I'm quite sure you did NOT just say little Cedric. He's, what, five?"

Gabriel had stopped his pacing and he was regarding him with a sardonic little smile, hands shoved in the pockets of his suit. It wasn't yet eight in the morning and the professor managed to make a freshly-donned Versace look rumpled. "He's considerably older than that, you know. Do you honestly think they advance five-year olds to junior high?"

"Okay, well, even so." Roy overbalanced, windmilled his arms, and recovered. "What do you mean, give Cedric the sex talk? He's still too young..."

"Well, yes, I'd be inclined to agree, but Roman is insisting. You see, there's a handsome senior walking him home."

Roy swelled, and an implosion of some sort was involved again. Green and purple lights this time. "There's a WHAT? Who is the little punk!? I'll kill--uh, I mean, give me his name. I'll give that kid a talking-to..."

It was at that moment that Keiran returned with his cup of coffee, and he stopped short of edging past Roy. He cringed back a bit, grimacing as if in apology for whatever it might have been. "Uh, the professor's coffee?"

Gabriel came out from behind his desk and plucked it from Keiran's hand, brushing past the both of them into the office proper. "A talking-to, huh? No, that's okay, I just need to talk to Cedric about...stuff."

Roy followed, making a vehement gesture with one hand. "I mean it, Gabriel. It's not appropriate for a senior to be following around an innocent young boy like Cedric. If you won't give that senior a talking-to, I'd be more than willing--"

"No, really, it's all right," Gabriel interrupted, a bemused expression working over his face. He sipped his coffee and seemed to be thinking very hard about something. Then he shook his head and met Roy's eyes. "Don't trouble yourself. You'd have to stand in line, anyhow; Roman's already said as much. Keiran, how did your parents give you the Talk?" The capitalization was unmistakable.

"Huh? Uh..." Keiran looked back and forth between them, confused and eager to please as a dog with two masters. "Oh, well, I had four older brothers, you know. It's not like I ever sat down and had a formal talk with anyone...but they talked about all the time, oh, believe me, the time I got to junior high I knew all about it."

Gabriel palmed bangs out of his eyes and rested his butt on the edge of Roy's desk. "I wish I could simply give him a book and tell him to ask me if he has any questions. After all, that's what my mother did..."

"And look where it got you," Roy interrupted, giving him a hard look. "Gabriel, I hate to break it to you, but that's not the healthiest way to learn about sex. No matter how intellectual your parents are, and gave you credit for being, some just need to learn from someone else, you know?"

Gabriel adjusted his glasses and looked dubious. "No. But I'm willing to take it on faith."

Roy folded his arms and held back the sigh, but was fairly certain his expression was put-upon. "And there's a senior involved. You really think you can just get away with giving him a book?"

"I know, I know..." Gabriel pushed away from his desk. "You're both right, okay? And I will speak with him tonight, I...I'm not quite certain how, but I will. All right? Now, Roy, are the lesson plans ready? There's a class in an hour."

Roy fumed for a moment. He had everything set up on the desk behind him, and of course it would make him look bad-tempered if he were to pursue the matter, but this was little Cedric they were talking about. He'd known the boy since he was knee-high. Well, okay, maybe not that small, but the sentiment was there. "Are you doing class today? I thought I..."

"Well, it's my lecture," Gabriel said, rubbing at the nape of his neck. "But I didn't make as much headway as I'd thought I would with those translations and, didn't get much sleep last night."

Roy noted with interest that the back of Gabriel's neck seemed to be turning a dull shade of brick red. "I can handle it. It's just the freshman class."

"Hey," Keiran spoke up for the first time in a while with mild indignance. "Just freshmen?"

Roy's eyes flicked in his direction. "You're an atypical freshman, O'Bannon." While the boy glowed over the compliment, he held up the file of simplified lesson plans and tapped it on the professor's rumpled tie. "Let me take care of the class, while you take care of our bread and butter corporation."

"You're a lifesaver," Gabriel said gratefully. "Any chance I could get you to do a write-up of 'The Talk?'"

While Roy's brain clicked off in another round of quiet implosion, Keiran turned to the professor and inserted himself into the discussion again. "What's this bread and butter corporation he's talking about? Are you working on a top secret project?"

"Kind of," Gabriel said, fiddling with his briefcase handle. "I do a lot of freelance work for the Orion Corporation, and in return they donate money to me and the University. Right now they've brought me a big project and given me a month to translate the essentials. Most of what they give me has the potential to be hugely important for academia, once it's declassified -- which is why I do it."

"That's a great opportunity!" Keiran exclaimed, eyes shining.

"I'll get started on my work," the professor said, withdrawing to his inner office. From the abstract look on his face, he had already devoted most of his attention to the translation process.

"Whew," Roy exhaled, retreating behind his desk. "Hard to imagine little Cedric being old enough to warrant the talk. Rrgh." He shook his head.

"I'd better get to class," Keiran told him. "What time do you want me?"

Roy eyed the boy and considered another vigorous headshake to clear his dirty mind. What time, where, how often... "We won't need you until you're done for the day, but when you are, come back to the office. Don't worry, there's plenty to do piled up around here."

"Looking forward to it," Keiran replied with genuine enthusiasm.

Roy watched him go and tried to remember when he'd been that young and full of go-get-'em verve. Long hours and graduate studies for the past couple of years had drained him of it. He didn't know if things would improve or get worse when he began studying for his doctorate. It was too bad he didn't have someone to take care of him; it was problematic to meet someone while cloistered on campus, but then, he wouldn't meet the kind of person he wanted on the clubbing circuit. In the meantime, he got older, had brief and unsatisfying flings with other campus graduates, his sister was engaged to be married, and his parents were pestering him to do the same. Since he hadn't found a long-term partner yet, bringing a man to meet his parents was an idle nightmare that hadn't fused with reality.

Across the room, Gabriel had begun to spread reference screens and texts across the surface of the worktable near his inner office. Roy observed him for a moment, tried to picture how tall "little" Cedric was, then shook his head again and retreated behind his desk.

He had some time left before the class to pursue his own studies.


The minute hand was ticking past with each circuit of its sweeping search extending for hours, and a cold draft from the ceiling vent was playing with Roman's hair. The cool air kept him awake as the drone of the history teacher's voice went on and on. He was talking about the period around the turn of the century, the Technoboom and the oscillating world economy in the decades before the Rising; Roman was sure it was fascinating to people who cared about ancient history.

For Roman, the period "ancient history" extended up to anything including two weeks ago, depending on the subject matter. It was a wonder he was able to communicate with his brothers at all, lost as they were in the dim recesses of bygone years and literature.

Elbows braced on his desk, he snuck sidelong glances at the beautiful, moody profile of Arashi in the seat beside him. The transfer student had managed to get ahold of his school books, more was the pity, so he didn't need to share with Roman anymore. At the moment, he appeared just as bored with the lesson as Roman, and was doodling or writing something on his notepad computer. Roman had strained his field of vision enough to note that it wasn't anything school-related.

If he didn't know any better, he would have thought it was something resembling the code that Gabriel slaved over during his drier academic spells.

It was coming. Roman could sense it. The latest project from Orion heralded the return of one of those totally dry, focused times when Gabriel was interested in nothing but his books and his projects and, in vague moments of afterthought or intense beratement, eating and sleeping and making sure his roster of classes didn't founder without him.

When Gabriel entered these spells of his, Roman generally ended up picking up another lover or breaking another heart. As he had a feeling one couldn't break Arashi's heart...

He glanced to the side again, and a frisson went through him as he met Arashi's pointed gray stare. The other teen was looking at him in profile just as he was eyeing Arashi. A more easily-cowed soul would have dropped their gaze immediately, but Roman kept looking at Arashi at the edge of his vision, and a slight smile curved his lips. You're pretty, he might have said, or at least you're intriguing.

Roman turned his eyes to the data wall when it became apparent Arashi wouldn't be breaking his wary eye contact any time soon. He wasn't really interested in dominance play, but filed away the character note for further contemplation. He had used just about every method to seduce his chosen lovers and if locking horns followed by a submissive posture would get him into Arashi's pants, he'd do it.

Now focusing on Charlotte's backside, he contemplated stretching forth a hand and capturing one of her pale-brown braids. The ensuing squawk wouldn't be worth it, though. Right about now if they were side to side, Char would be nudging him and scolding in a reproachful whisper to pay attention to the lesson, or at least pretend. Roman shifted position for the third time in as many minutes and glanced at the data wall. The teacher appeared to be writing down an assignment in bold black strokes. He figured he might as well take it down...if he didn't and asked Charming for details later, she wouldn't be quite so congenial as her nickname.

Roman copied the assignment on his notepad and added a flag to alert him at around ten o'clock if he hadn't started his homework yet, which was commonly the case. Keeping up a full-time job and social calendar was enough work as far as he was concerned, and yet so much more was expected of him. Because he was a Vaille, he supposed. Or maybe it had something to do with his IQ. He'd been tested when he was younger but he'd forgotten the results, of course.

The bell sounded, cutting across Mr. Kim's closing remarks. The history teacher excused himself and left the class to its own devices. Roman gave the room a quick once-over, slipping his notepad into his bag, then standing and shouldering his pack. Arashi was ghosting out of the room, eluding the clutch of girls that had risen from their seats. Roman almost paused to admire the slick tactics, but if he hesitated then Arashi would lose him, too. He certainly couldn't have that. He waved aside any attempts at conversation and slipped into the hall corridor.

In the hallways, the chaos of the lunch period prevailed as students exited classrooms and swirled through the corridor, clogging lanes of movement as they clustered to catch up on gossip or trivia. Roman ducked and wove through the scattering of people, keeping his eye on Arashi's gold-kissed dark head. He soon realized that Arashi was headed for a rear stairwell, one that was close to a side exit, and wondered if Arashi intended to leave the school. While it was permitted for juniors to leave campus during lunch, hardly anyone made use of the rule because the period was barely long enough to leave campus for a place that sold lunch, then get back on time besides.

He had two possible tactics. Surprise Arashi now, or continue to follow and possibly discover whatever nook in which he'd intended to hide. Roman remained in the stairwell long enough to watch Arashi tinker with the swipe-panel where students logged in and out of school. The door slid open without waiting for Arashi to run his student ID chip along its scanner surface. As Roman gaped, Arashi left school from the rear side door -- without letting the school computer know that he was leaving.

Well. Roman had thought he was the only one who knew that trick.

It took him a mere moment to repeat the trick and step out of doors. Now he knew that Arashi was planning on being gone for a sizeable chunk of time, not simply the forty-five minutes or so of the lunch period. He was certainly game to follow.

Following Arashi's considerable lead, he left campus and caught the subway heading for downtown. It was difficult to remain inconspicuous with his pale hair and skin and unavoidably famous features, but Roman kept his head down and untucked his collar and hoped for the best -- a miracle. Since his biggest fan demographic -- tweens, teens, and college girls -- was in school or working these hours, he was mostly safe. He rode the subway, something he hadn't done in years, and watched the back of Arashi's head and tried to figure out where the hell the other boy was going. When Roman used his power or influence, it was generally for evil or at least having sex.

Arashi moved like he had a purpose.

When they got off the subway, Roman milled in the crowd and tried to lose himself until he saw clearly where Arashi was headed. He had to put distance between them -- not get too close. So far, Arashi hadn't looked behind himself a single time, and why would he? Who would follow?

Roman climbed the stairs leading to the sidewalk and squinted against the dazzling noon light. He looked up the street one way, then another, then sighed. Streams of pedestrians moving in both directions, but no long-legged gorgeous brunets.

"Shit." He'd lost him. From the clip Arashi had been moving at, he wasn't surprised.

Roman looked up the street to his left, and shoved his hands into his pockets. Psyblade Sports wasn't so far from here, and he could drop in on Damon and do something else for lunch; it would be a shame to waste an unaccounted-for absence from school, after all.

He walked past a chink of alleyway and something grabbed him by the throat.

Roman sputtered, wheezed most unattractively, and stared into blazing slits of stormy-gray eyes only centimeters from his own.

"What the hell are you doing, following me all this way?" Arashi hissed, pinning him to the alleyway wall with one hand.

"Whu--" Roman gurgled and his throat closed. His eyes rolled as he tried to convey wordlessly that he could hardly answer questions if he was dying of asphyxiation. Arashi was impressively strong, belying his lean frame; he could give Damon a run for his money.

Arashi's grip loosened infinitesimally. Roman put all his concentrating into drawing shallow breaths back into starved lungs.

" you think I was following you?" Roman managed, then grimaced. Very sexy. If he actually managed it after this, it would be seduction of the highest order.

Arashi's mouth thinned down and his fingers flexed.

"W-wait! Damn it!" Roman coughed. He figured he wouldn't get any more slack for asking if Arashi knew he was a hair-trigger bastard, so he left it unsaid. "I see a hot guy leave school in the middle of the day, I follow. Bonus points if he's the new guy. It's how I'm wired."

Arashi's expression was like ice, glacial and unreadable. His fingers loosened and he stepped back. "That's it? You really are as shallow as you look." His face was impassive but his voice conveyed disgust.

"I'm hurt," Roman said, and sounded it. He explored his throat with trembling fingers, then looked out at the street again. This was New York City. No one was going to come running to help him, even if they had noticed Arashi's quick snatch and grab. There was a building across the street that he recognized, if only because he'd waited at the curb a couple of times in Gabriel's idling electric car while his brother stepped inside for a professed minute. It was unmarked with any sort of corporate logo, though the private corporation stretched from coast to coast and played a large role in keeping North America's people safe behind the Walls. Things were starting to fall into place. "You...were you headed for Orion Corporation? Wait, you work for them?"

He saw stars in the next moment as he was slammed up against the wall, pinned with both hands as securely as Arashi's icy eyes riveted him in place. "And how the hell do you know that?"

Roman's lips curved. "Someone like me, you mean? Shallow, unthreatening me?"

"Don't push it," Arashi warned. He really looked as though he might go for the throat again.

"What are you going to do, kill me?" Roman taunted. "I don't think they'd help you cover it up. Famous model River, heir to the Vaille and Vanderbrant fortunes--"

"You think highly of yourself, brat," Arashi said between his teeth. His breath was hot on Roman's face; he was mad enough to spit on him, or choke him again.

Maybe, if he wriggled just so, he'd be mad enough to fuck him. But no, he was quite sure Arashi wasn't as turned on by this as he might be if it all wasn't so deadly serious.

"You must be a field operative--" Roman began, and shut up when Arashi's fingers dug into his shoulders and the other teen gave him a little shake, slamming him against the brick of the alley wall again. His eyes had moved past brutality into the red-hazed region of homicide. "Ha ha, it pisses you off that I'm right -- but it's my brother's work that keeps your ass safe in the field, you know."

Arashi frowned, the faint lines creasing his face more in puzzlement now than anger. Then he actually seemed to see Roman, and stepped back, hands gripping his shoulders convulsively before releasing him. ", Professor Gabriel Vaille..." He put a hand to his head now, as if a migraine had swept through his brow.

"How would you have silenced me if I didn't have connections, huh?" Roman put his hands against his knees and caught his breath. Maybe Arashi was a little too exciting to pursue.

Gray eyes pierced into him harder than the flex of strong fingers. "I would have taken you in for a mind wipe, of course," Arashi said simply. "It might have been a little inconvenient, but you only would have lost an hour or so. But since you already know about Orion, I suppose it can't be helped." He turned his back on Roman as if dismissing the whole incident.

Roman shuddered. "That's cold." He straightened. "Hey, wait! I said wait up, you pretty bastard. You should be more worried of me, you know. What if I decide to tell the kids at school?"

Arashi stopped, his back rigid. "What are you saying?"

Roman grinned. He was so going to get in trouble for this. "What will you do to keep me silent?"

It happened so fast he barely had time to think. Once again they were against the alley wall, Roman with his back to the brick, only this time Arashi wasn't touching him in any way. He only looked, and the look in his eyes was enough to put one in mind of absolute zero.

"How about," Arashi gritted, "I don't put my fist through your face?" He backed off, then astonishment crossed his face, as if he couldn't quite believe the intensity of his own anger. Arashi eyed him for a moment, then snorted softly and turned on his heel, dismissing the whole situation.

Roman slumped against the cool brick of the alley wall and tried to convince his knees that there was no reason to give out. He was still alive, after all, and in possession of all his teeth and his perfect good looks.

"Well," he said to no one in particular. "That went quite well for initial negotations, I think."


"All done," Cedric announced, setting out the last prepared slide beside the viewscreen on the desk nearest Mr. McCormack's.

"Wonderful," Mr. McCormack said, turning a warm smile on him. "That's wonderful, Cedric, we'll be ready to jump right into tomorrow's lesson thanks to you."

Cedric glowed, then lowered his head in abashment. "I like to help," he offered quietly.

"Well, this is definitely going above and beyond the call of duty," Mr. McCormack said, shutting his tabletop computer and stowing a handful of screen-files in his briefcase. "I do appreciate it."

Cedric brushed pale lavender bangs from his eyes and scrutinized his teacher. "I'm here late because of the academic decathlon sign-ups and initial ranking matches...but I didn't expect to see you here so late, Mr. McCormack."

"Ah." Alistair McCormack adjusted his glasses and looked right back at Cedric, a sort of affable half-smile crossing his face. "Well, it's quiet here, you know. It's easy to work late here if you get caught up in something, like adjusting lesson plans and grading papers."

"Aren't many papers to grade yet," Cedric pointed out, posing the sentence in a more natural-sounding agrammatical format.

Mr. McCormack fixed him with a knowing eye. "Well then, I suppose it's because there's not much reason for me to return home, yet if I stay late at the school, there is still the comfortable ambience of human noise around me."

"All right," Cedric acknowledged with a shy smile. "You didn't just move here, though, did you, sir?"

"Most of my college friends have long since moved on," Mr. McCormack told him. "At any rate, what keeps you here so late in the evening?"

Cedric struggled with telling Mr. McCormack that kendo club let out even later, and he was waiting for Rukawa to walk him home. He was sure that the teacher would act oddly just as his brothers had and for some reason he didn't want Mr. McCormack thinking differently of him. "Academic decathlon," he said at last. "Then when I walked by the classroom you were still here, so I figured I would ask if you needed any help."

"And I appreciate it," Mr. McCormack said again. He folded his large-boned hands over one knee. "I shouldn't keep you any longer; I'm sure you've got friends to meet or...or I'm keeping you from going home..." Now for a moment the man looked youthful and awkward, and Cedric realized that Mr. McCormack was not so very much older than his brother Roman. Just past college, which was younger than Gabriel -- younger that his assistant Roy, even.

Cedric inclined his head and grabbed his school bag. He knew awkward moments from the inside out, and didn't want to make it worse for Mr. McCormack. "See you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," the teacher acknowledged, and gave him a little wave when he was halfway out the door.

Cedric smiled, then settled his bag on one shoulder and loitered in the hallway for a moment as he considered his options. He could wait outside the gym wing's dojo, but that might be awkward for Rukawa. He could linger on the school steps like some of the other kids, who lingered on campus long after the last bell had rung -- they clustered in groups while socializing or doing their homework in groups.

Before he could formulate any kind of decision, Cedric was seized from behind by brutally strong hands. He squeaked and a thick wad of cloth was stuffed into his mouth. His bag was ripped from his shoulder and he flailed, disoriented, as he was dragged down the hallway. Someone chuckled in his ear and Cedric froze like a cornered mouse, certain now that he recognized the voice and the hands that had seized him.

He wasn't sure where they were taking him until they reached the end of the hall and one of the storage closets full of janitor supplies and other odds and ends. Cedric began to thrash, now quite certain that Andy and his friends intended to work him over -- and there was no Rukawa here to protect him.

"Gonna get what's coming to you, teacher's pet," Andy growled in his ear.

Jeff sniggered, flipping the light switch on and wiping out the dusty gray calm with harsh white floods.

Cedric tried to wrench away and cried out as Andy spun him, twisting his wrist and all but throwing him onto a heap of broken-down cardboard boxes.

"I said we shoulda taken him to the toilets," heavyset Shawn whined. "You know, give his head a good flush or two."

"You've got an unhealthy fixation," Andy said, resting his hand on one hip with a sneer. "Besides, there's too many people around still. Our teacher, for one. I like a good set-down as much as the next guy but it's no good if you get caught."

"You pathetic bullies!" Cedric burst out, freed of the paralyzing fear with the knowledge that these boys weren't going to let him out of here without seriously roughing him up. There was a peculiar sort of exhilaration in the inevitable. "What good is beating me up going to do?"

"You shut up," Andy said, pivoting to shake a finger near his face. "You're gonna get it, smart-ass, you wanna make it worse for yourself?"

"Got any money?" Jeff asked, giggling, leaning against a gray metal cabinet stacked with supplies. He picked up a roll of toilet paper and tossed it thoughtfully in one hand. "You can pay us not to make it worse."

Andy cracked his knuckles and gave Cedric a sharklike smile. "Oh, I dunno. There's not much I want besides the pleasure of kicking this little teacher's pet's butt."

"Yeah, not much else you can do with his lily-white useless butt," Shawn sniggered.

Cedric lifted his chin. "I don't have any money on me--"

Andy hooted. A strange gleam had entered his eye, and he punched the wall beside Cedric's head. "Prissy little heiress like you? What, did you forget to put out for your allowance?"

Cedric blinked. Andy, apparently angry that he hadn't flinched, punched the wall again.

"You know, there's something I've always wondered," Jeff said, and sniggered again.

Andy looked over his shoulder. "What's that?"

"Think a baby queer's ass looks any different from yours 'n mine?" Jeff said, his voice slow and almost dreamy.

Andy glanced back at Cedric, still wearing that fixed, strange grin. "Well, there's only one way to find out, y'know?"

Cedric shrank against the heap of cardboard. "Wh-what are you talking about?" he sputtered, working himself up into anger. Like Gabriel, it took a lot to get Cedric angry, and maybe there wasn't much he could do, but if he was backed against a corner he'd lash out.

Without warning, Andy slapped him across the mouth. "You think you can do anything about it?"

Cedric reached up to grab Andy's hands but Andy was quicker, smacking Cedric's head lightly, contemptuously, then seizing and pinioning his wrists in one hand. "Let me go! You jerk, you--"

"Shut up," Andy said, and his face was dark enough that Cedric fell silent, a little afraid. No one knew he was here. No one was coming.

As if reading his thoughts, Jeff laughed. "Y'gonna do it, Andy? It's not like his big, bad protector is here to save the day, after all--"

Andy laughed, too, and hauled on Cedric's arms, wrenching them painfully and turning Cedric over his knee. "Maybe the little wussy just needs a good spanking to make him shape up, huh?"

"I still think we should shove his head down the toilet," Shawn groused, speaking up. "Who cares what his ass looks like, geez? Bunch of queers."

"Shut it," Andy said sharply, giving Cedric's wrists a painful squeeze and making him cry out. His hand descended, giving Cedric a hard open-handed swat.

Cedric squalled and began to struggle in earnest.

The door banged open gunshot-loud and Cedric heard Shawn squeal like a pig, high and thin. He struggled again and was knocked sprawling; Andy shouted and there was a metallic clatter-bang. Cedric hauled himself up and was treated to the sight of Rukawa punching Andy full across the mouth, knocking him against Jeff as the redhead struggled to straighten himself where he'd fallen against the metal shelving.

Cedric sucked in a breath as Rukawa pulled a fist back to strike again. "Rukawa-senpai!"

Rukawa turned, saw him, and let his hand drop to his side. "Let's go," he uttered, and held a hand out to Cedric, who climbed to his feet. "You okay?"

Cedric rubbed at his mouth, wondering if he would bruise. "Fine," he uttered tersely, and accepted Rukawa's helping hand. "Yeah, let's go." He scooped his bag up off the floor.

"You -- you bastard!" Andy yelled, and fell back against Jeff when Rukawa lifted his fist again.

"If you so much as look at him wrong again, I'll find out about it," Rukawa said in a quiet, dreadful voice. "Next time I'll break your nose."

The last thing Cedric saw as they left the storage closet was a hate-filled look from Andy as Rukawa slammed the door behind them.

"Cedric," Rukawa said in his usual low-voiced way. "Are you really okay?"

Cedric swiped disordered bangs out of his eyes and tried to give Rukawa what he thought was a reassuring look. "Really, I'm fine. They knocked me around a little, that's all."

"I'm sorry I didn't get there sooner." The Japanese boy's brow lowered in a fierce look that wasn't directed at Cedric.

"How did you find me?" Cedric asked curiously. "I was going to wait on the lawn, I figured that kendo class wasn't over..."

"Alicia from my class came to get me," Rukawa answered. He hesitated, then squeezed Cedric's hand and released it. "She saw you."

"Oh...I guess she'd seen us eating lunch together?" Cedric hazarded.

Rukawa shrugged.

Cedric shouldered his bag and hoped none of his screen-files had been crushed. "Well...I'm glad you found me," he said shyly. He found he still felt shaky inside. "I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't."

"Did those anything to you?" Rukawa asked quietly, sounding pained.

"Do...huh?" Cedric blinked. "Andy smacked me around. He was going to spank me!" Outrage colored his tone. He'd never been spanked by any of his family members; for an upstart bully to take him to task was the height of indignity. He glanced sidelong and thought he saw Rukawa suppress a snort or chuckle or some other expression of incredulity.

"As long as you're okay," Rukawa told him. "Let's get you home."

Outside, the sky above and beyond the campus park was shading into dark gold with the onset of early evening. Cedric almost wished for the warm clasp of Rukawa's fingers on his again to reassure him and still the internal quakes from his close encounter. They were halfway to the fountain before he worked up the courage. He slipped his hand into Rukawa's big, warm, calloused one and felt a second of tension before those fingers closed firmly around his.

That, he thought, was the beauty of a laconic man. Moments like these didn't need words, and Rukawa didn't use them.

After they'd crossed the street Rukawa's hand fell away and Cedric frowned, glancing up at him, before he turned his eyes in the direction of the Carrack building's front entrance. A tall, broad-shouldered man was extracting his lanky frame from an old-style electric car parked at the curb. He shook back pale lavender hair and looked in their direction.

"It's my brother, Gabriel," Cedric said in a small voice, thinking of the old saying -- for someone to rain on his parade. He had entertained hopes of inviting Rukawa up again, thanking him for saving him, maybe asking for another game of chess...

"See you tomorrow," Rukawa said, tucking hands into his pockets.

"Tomorrow," Cedric agreed. He would see the older boy tomorrow at school. He had a sudden flare of inspiration -- he could make Rukawa a traditional bento, by way of thank-you!

As Rukawa passed his older brother, Cedric could see that the man topped his upperclassman by only a few inches. Rukawa had gotten an impressive growth spurt somewhere along the line; when he reached his full growth, it might even top Gabriel's. Gabriel's bespectacled gaze flickered uncertainly over the dark-haired boy, then fixed on Cedric as he approached.

"You're home early," Cedric greeted Gabriel, swinging his bag idly back and forth. He stopped and looked up at his brother, then at the electric car by the curb. Gabriel had parked in front, which meant he wasn't in for the night yet. "Did you come to see Rukawa-senpai?"

Gabriel blinked. "Er, no, not directly," he replied, and seemed unsettled. "Welcome home."

Cedric stirred. It wasn't very often he got to hear those words, rather than giving them to someone else. "Want me to make dinner?"

"Let's go upstairs," Gabriel suggested.

Hm. Cedric observed his older brother with a bit more intensity than usual. Something was making Gabriel ill at ease. Was it seeing them walking home together? Oh...had he seen Cedric holding Rukawa's hand?

"All right," Cedric said, and thought fleetingly of Andy and his bully friends dragging him into the closet. He definitely wouldn't tell Gabriel about that. On the other hand, mentioning it to Gabriel could get those boys kicked out of school, so it was tempting. Cedric believed that he shouldn't use his family connections for something petty like that, but where was the line? If they were doing something bad, they should be punished. The only one he could ask was Rukawa, because he already knew. If he so much as mentioned hypotheticals to Roman, his aniki would end up stalking his junior high class. "What's going on?"

Gabriel coughed. "Hmm...what do you say we sit down and have a cup of tea?"

Cedric smothered a smile. He'd had few enough manly chats with Gabriel, but recognized the signs of another. "Sounds good to me," he said. He thought he still might be trembling, a little. The tea would be good for his nerves.


The homey scent of cloves and spice hung on the air as Gabriel set packets in whalebone china cups to steep fragrantly. He set the kettle back on the range, keeping the water warm and reserving the option to have another cup if need be. One thing he'd learned from his mother Arianna was that when all else failed, try tea. Not that she had ever been a particularly nervous or erratic woman -- Carson had had more ups and downs than his unflappable wife -- but some of Gabriel's best memories of his mother involved sitting across the table and enjoying a hot cup of tea while they talked.

Today's scenario was so vastly different from those tame mother-son talks of bygone days that it made Gabriel want to clutch his head at the comparison. Now he had an inkling of how poor Roy had felt this morning. He was mortally certain Cedric wasn't old enough for the talk, and yet--

"I assume the young man was your so-called Rukawa-senpai?" Gabriel said evenly, trapping the bag from one cup in a tea-strainer and squeezing it dry.

Cedric looked up like a startled bird, his eyes fixing on Gabriel with a kind of wariness. "Yes, why? Is that the reason you came home early?"

"I already said no," Gabriel said, a little nettled. That was hedging it, though. His concerns now dovetailed with Roman's now that he'd seen his younger brother walking across the street hand in hand with an older boy. Gabriel wasn't naive. He knew what happened when kids held hands. That was the first step. There were other steps in the game, and they involved kissing and petting and something Roman called a "full-frontal snog" and Gabriel was damned if he'd let it get that far; he'd sworn to take care of his little brother, not let his virtue get stripped while he was still in junior high.

He finished straining the tea bags with a vengeance and set Cedric's cup before him with a decisive chink.

"Then why did you come home early?" Cedric prompted, swiping pale bangs from his eyes and giving him a look. It wasn't quite nearly so effective as Roman's practiced look, the one he used to rivet Gabriel in place and imply he was stripping him from the inside out with his incisive stare, but Cedric was definitely on the way.

"To talk to you," Gabriel said, and seated himself. He crossed his leg over one knee and blew on his cooling tea and tried to order his thoughts into some sort of sequential pattern that would be helpful and not too disturbing. Dammit, why had Roman left him to do the dirty work? Then he tried to imagine Roman giving a sex-talk and shuddered.

Cedric stirred two lumps of sugar into his tea and tapped the spoon against the saucer, then looked at his brother. "Is it really that bad?" he asked curiously. "I haven't done anything wrong, have I?"

Gabriel concentrated on Cedric again. His brother actually looked a little apprehensive. "Now, what could you have possibly done, little bird?" he asked gently. "You haven't ever gotten a detention or a grade lower than a 3.8. I've never once had to take you to task -- well, just the once, when you wanted to take your chess set into the bath with you."

"It would have been fine, the board was wider than the rim of the tub," Cedric said, then shut his mouth and flushed. "Anyhow, I was just a baby back then."

Gabriel smiled. Cedric was still "just a baby" now, as far as he was concerned. Roy, too, apparently. "All right. Here it is. How much do you know about dating?"

Cedric looked at him. "Dating? Oniisan, are you asking permission to start?"

Gabriel choked. "Uh,, I d-don't--" There was little point in trying to explain he neither needed nor wanted to date; his studies and Roman provided him with all the satisfaction he ever needed. Sometimes a little more than he particularly wanted.

"Then why are you--" Cedric blinked and his mouth actually dropped open. "Oh, oniisan. You think that I want to date now that I'm in junior high?"

"The thought had begun to cross my mind," Gabriel said wryly, recalling the sight of two boys, the one tall enough to be a high school graduate, the other tiny Cedric, crossing the street with their hands clasped between them.

Cedric burst out laughing.

Gabriel waited him out patiently, testing his tea. It was cool enough to drink without burning his tongue, and so he took a few swallows while Cedric laughed himself out.

"Th-there's no girls I'm interested in," Cedric said at last, and dabbed at the corner of one eye. "Really, the thought of dating has never crossed my mind."

Gabriel leaned back in his chair, beginning to get nervous. He'd have to be more direct, but he'd start with a circuitous route. "Cedric, how much do you know about dating? Chapter and verse."

Cedric blinked and straightened in his chair. He sipped at his cup of tea and settled it back in the saucer. "Well, dating is how young women and men get to know one another. There's casual dating, where they decide whether they're interested in engaging in a relationship, and there is more serious dating, when the boy and girl is an acknowledged couple together. Shall I go on?"

"Define 'date,'" Gabriel told him.

"A date is an outing or other form of get-together when a boy and a girl--"

Gabriel raised a brow. "A boy and a girl?"

"Yes, when a boy and a girl engage in social activities--" Cedric looked at him and his brow puckered. "Wait, what are you suggesting?"

"You're making a critical assumption," Gabriel chided him. "Examine your pronouns."

"All right, when two individuals engage in social activities--" Cedric stopped and his mouth dropped open. "Are you implying what I think you are?"

Gabriel sighed and got up from his chair to refresh his tea. "Roman should have been slipping you some of his books. Then again, you were too young."

"Am not!" Cedric said, but his protest was half-hearted. His eyes were focused inward. "Dates can be between two girls, or two boys?"

"Relationships can be between two females and two males, yes," Gabriel said. "Haven't you heard of homosexuality?"

"Well, I encountered the word once or twice but never really thought about it," Cedric said slowly. "After all, our race is homo sapiens, and...huh." His brow was contracted with some extreme intensity of thought.

"It's natural not to have really thought about this yet, you know," Gabriel assured him, thinking with amusement that everyone couldn't be like Roman, the unusually precocious ever-ready. "Still, dating begins for most young adults in junior high as they undergo puberty."

"I never really thought of my female classmates as aesthetically pleasing," Cedric said abruptly. "I mean, I was aware of the difference between pretty and homely, but when other boys talked about the girls, I never saw what they did. I figured it was because I'm younger than most in my grade."

"That's natural too," Gabriel agreed, feeling relieved. This was going better than he'd thought. "More tea?" He brought his cup to his lips.

"So if you can date boys, homosexuality means that you can have sex with boys, is that right?" Cedric's green eyes penetrated into him.

Gabriel sputtered, slopped tea, and spent more time than was strictly necessary at the sink cleaning himself up. "Well, uh...well yes, that's what it means...uh, Cedric..."

"More tea," Cedric decided suddenly. He was gripping the edge of the table with both hands and looked up at Gabriel with slightly wild eyes.

"I'm gathering you never thought particularly about sex, either," Gabriel said. He took Cedric's cup and replenished them with fresh tea bags and hot water.

"Why would I?" Cedric said, a flush rising in his pale cheeks. He let go of the table and fumbled one hand over the other before lacing his fingers together. The skin over his knuckles strained white. "Girls are, I mean...girls are girls, you know? They're just...they like me all right, I guess, but I'm more interested in the teacher." Cedric snapped his mouth shut and blushed in earnest.

Gabriel stared. "I hope you don't mean that the way it sounded."

"Studies!" Cedric burst out, face contorted in embarrassment. "I'm more interested in what the teacher has to say, and my books and studies, and the boys in academic decathlon -- I mean, the decathlon club...I am going to be quiet now."

Gabriel watched the tea steep and tried not to laugh. "When I was younger, I never used to wonder what was wrong with me, or anything like that. I was like you, more interested in studying and academic accomplishment than the social doings around me. We moved around a lot, as well, which made it easier not to notice that where my interests lay was...different from most of those I knew. At any rate, I think I have a low sex drive normally." He noted with amusement that Cedric's ears turned red when there was nothing left in his face to flush. "It wasn't until I was in college that I realized I was gay. Wanted a relationship with men, that is, when I wanted sex at all."

"Is that what you think?" Cedric said in a small voice. "About me, I mean? You think I'm gay?"

Gabriel took a long time over the tea, wringing the bags free of water and flavor and bringing them to the table once more. "I'm not saying you're one or the other," he said evenly.

"Then why bring it up?" Cedric questioned. His green eyes narrowed.

"Well," Gabriel hedged, and saw the Moment of Truth. This is where he had to mention how Rukawa hooked into the whole discussion. "Well, now that you're in junior high, you're on the verge of discovering, that is to say, you're going through puberty and your body is undergoing a lot of...uh, changes..." Cedric was still staring at him, biting down thoughtfully on his lower lip, narrowed green gaze telling him plainly that he wasn't buying the whole spiel. Gabriel rushed on as his brother picked up his tea cup and blew. "And you're quite an attractive boy, Cedric, and if the girls aren't lining up to try for you, the boys certainly will be -- and you ought to be prepared in the eventuality that one of them makes a move on you which is why you probably should try not to be alone around Rukawa because he might want to have sex with you."

Cedric spat his mouthful of tea.

Gabriel leapt up from the table. "Oh -- oh dear," he said, distressed. He seized a napkin and dabbed at the front of his shirt and tie, now liberally spotted in tea. "You do know about sex."

Cedric was busy coughing into his hand.

Gabriel hovered over him anxiously, patting him between the shoulder blades. "Cedric...oh, dear. I'm sorry."

"H-ha-have sex with me?" Cedric squeaked, breaking an octave higher than usual. "Gabriel, I...uh...he can't possibly...Rukawa and I are just friends!"

Gabriel passed him a wad of napkins and seated himself again. He took off his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. "Roman would have been so much better at this."

"This was Roman-aniki's idea, wasn't it?" Cedric said, his normally gentle tone bordering on a growl. "He put you up to this...Roman-aniki...uh..." His mouth dropped open and his eyes went faraway.

"We-we've never really talked about sex and relationships and dating," Gabriel tried again, nervously, "but you're getting to the age where you may begin to take an interest--uh, Cedric?"

"Roman is kind of a slut, isn't he?" Cedric said, blinking. "All those guys who came over once or twice...they weren't really his friends, were they?"

"Uh..." Gabriel said, and busied himself with polishing his glasses. "What do you mean, all those guys?"

"Did you not know?" Cedric bit his lip again. "Sorry. Roman's, uh...popular." He blushed crimson at his own words. "I never realized before..."

Gabriel groaned and set his head in his hands. He'd unleashed a Pandora's box of naughty thoughts. It was only a matter of time before... "I should have just given you a book."

Cedric sipped at his tea and kicked his neatly-crossed feet. "Why? This is MUCH more fun." He grinned a jaunty little grin. "Tell me, oniisan. I've read about male and female coupling, but what exactly are the mechanics of male/male coupling?"

Splaying fingers over his forehead, Gabriel shook his head slowly. "Oh, no. You're going to have to look that up yourself. I am not pandering to your sexual curiosity. Besides, if you think about it, I'm sure the mechanics will become quite clear."

True to his nature, Cedric's gaze went far away in concentration once more. Gabriel tried a napkin on his front once more and resigned himself to changing his clothing. He took up the cups and deposited them in the sink. He'd done his best -- maybe he'd skimped on the details, maybe he'd told too much -- but highlights were taken care of and he knew that Cedric, with his scholarly curiosity, would turn to books and the Net for the rest. It was time to get back to work.

"Oh...ew, gross! Why would anyone want to put it THERE!?"

Gabriel could say he needed to get back to work, but really, it was more of a strategic retreat.


The skyline outside the eleventh-story window was silhouetted with the flame of the setting sun as Damon gathered up the last of his proofs and stowed them in his portfolio. It was near eight and River would be getting ready for the shoot right around now. A contemplative smirk settled on Damon's face as he allowed himself to dwell on all of the pale, pale skin bared by today's outfit -- a hip-belt and swim thong. They were doing beach products today for the post-summer sales. He, Damon Raine, was the one who got to shoot all of that leggy, lanky glory.

His contract with Psyblade was excellent. He got a lot of creative control this time around, aside from the concepts that the ad campaign people laid out. His relationship with River had really allowed him to build a reputation. He could pick his own choice projects, work with anyone he wanted, and generally set the highest price the market would bear.

With all that, he still preferred to work with River whenever the opportunity was presented. He couldn't help it. It was love, and if he couldn't live with him, at least he could work with him. He didn't like to think that he might not see him much if it weren't for work.

It was almost time to go to the shoot, and he didn't know if he should go straight there or stop at River's dressing room first. He looked around his surroundings. Psyblade was top class, giving him such a great office with a view for the length of the contract.

Damon put his portfolio in his briefcase, checked his phone messages, and sighed. One of the messages was from his mother, inviting him to come over for dinner early next week. His sister Shannon would be over with her fiance Carl, so if Damon had anyone he was cetera. This, he knew, was a part of the reason he pushed River at regular intervals to move in with him. The main reason, of course, was that he loved him and wanted to spend the rest of his life with him...but his mother had succeeded in convincing Shannon to get married at long last (that was how Elizabeth Raine looked at it) and now it was time for the wayward son to commit, as well.

Until they were living together, or some other outward sign of commitment, he wouldn't feel right bringing River to his parents as a lover -- and if he was being honest with himself, that was mostly because of River's age. He was, after all, barely legal.

He'd thought several times of getting River a ring, but knew he would be laughed at. Rings belonged to the heterosexual institution, as far as River was concerned. They'd talked enough for Damon to know that a real commitment, in River's terms, was living together, becoming a family unit together.

The fact that River didn't want to move in yet made Damon worry sometimes. He felt as if River might be sowing wild oats kept carefully out of his sight. Then he would shake his head, thinking how on earth the boy could make the time with his brim-filled planner to have sex behind his back. No, for some reason, it was River's older brother Gabriel who made him the most nervous...every time Damon mentioned moving in, River would bring up the fact that he wasn't ready to leave his brothers. For some reason that always made him think of the wary looks Gabriel would give him on their infrequent meetings.

With a soft click the door opened and Damon set his briefcase aside, looking up. River had a terrycloth robe pulled over his outfit and his arms were crossed over his breast, each hand clutching the opposite upper arm.

"Ah, it's you," Damon greeted his lover with a broad smile. "I was thinking about coming to find you, we've got about a half an hour before the shoot." He frowned. River's green eyes were wide and a little dazed.

"I...I feel..." River began, paused, and licked his lips. "Damon, I -- I think I'm..." He took a few tottering steps and Damon met him more than halfway, taking River by the shoulders and supporting him. He bent and rested his forehead against his lover's; River looked wild and feverish.

"Cold? Are you okay?" Damon asked with a frown. Though he looked as if he were cold, River felt normal, if a little warm. "Baby, what's wrong?"

River twined against him, arms locking around his neck, robe falling open over his supple mostly-nude body. "Horny," he purred, rubbing his mouth along Damon's jawline. "I...I feel so hot. I'm burning up, Damon! I need it, right now!"

"River," Damon began uncomfortably, and a gasp clogged his throat as River pressed firm against him, the heat barely contained in his thin swim-thong giving tangible proof to his words. "We -- we've got only half an hour, someone might..."

"No one's going to come in, everyone's busy getting ready for the shoot," River told him, hooking a leg around him and pulling their lower bodies into taut alignment. River gasped, tilting his head back and looking crazily up into Damon's eyes as he thrust with slow-building pressure. "I -- gods, I need it! Damon, please..." A low cry was wrung from his throat as Damon caught and clasped his ass, holding him tightly in place.

"What's wrong with you?" Damon nuzzled his lover's hairline and felt beads of sweat against his skin. "Not that I'm complaining, River; you're normally this eager--" River bucked against his hands, pushing for the good rhythm. His cock throbbed staccato against Damon's rising erection and he moaned, tossing his head. "Well, almost this eager...but...what's going on?"

"I don't know," River groaned, tossing his head until strands of hair fell across his flushing face. "I don't know, I'm sorry, I was just getting ready in my room...all of a sudden I wanted it bad, I want it now, want to feel your hands touching me sliding under my robe and over my ass and cupping me over the thong and inside and, gods, inside, I want to feel you inside of me, spread me, turn me over the desk and rub yourself all over me, push your heavy cock all the way in and take me, spear me, fuck me---" The dirty litany went on until River stretched up and nibbled on his ear, both hands stealing beneath Damon's shirt and smoothing over ridges of muscle.

Damon's knees weakened and he found himself kneading River's perfect ass, wanting nothing more than to do as bidden and lay him out on the desk. "Even though we've got to work in half an hour?" he said hoarsely. River thrust again, pressing their dicks together as he reached up inside Damon's shirt to tweak a nipple.

"Fuck work," River mumbled against his throat. "You can take me inside half an hour."

Damon gripped him by the shoulders now, peeling them apart enough to look into River's flushed face. River gave him a petulant look, shifting with a noise of discontent as he tried to rub against Damon again. "Now I know this is too good to be true, because you don't risk business for a quick fuck."

"Don't I?" River purred, twisting in his hands, then giving up and going for his belt with both hands.

Damon shook him a little. "What's going on, River? You're not this sex-starved. We can do it after the shoot."

"No, I need it now!" River cried, breaking his grip and plastering himself against Damon's front. His hips inscribed desperate, jerky circles as he humped against Damon's thigh. With a low wail, he clutched Damon and began to shudder. "I...unh...unngh...I need you..."

With a curse, Damon held him as River convulsed and came, thrusting against him again and again. His own groin throbbed in sympathy while he tried to fathom where this frightening urgency was coming from. "It's okay...come on..." He stroked his lover's hair and River cried out, pushing against him, spreading dampness against his pants. "Oh, shit." He'd have to get them cleaned up but that was the least of his worries. River was still shuddering in his arms.

"Want you to...fuck me," River mumbled, head dropping against his shoulder.

"I don't think you're in any condition," Damon warned, rubbing a hand over River's back in what he hoped was a soothing manner. "If you can't pull yourself together I'm going to postpone the shoot."

"Fine, postpone it," River said, insinuating a hand into his shirt again. His hips were starting to move again and Damon could feel the outline of his erection rising firm.

"What happened to you?" Damon tried again. He was getting very worried.

"Less talk, more fucking."

"River?" Damon took his lover's face in both hands. His eyes were huge, the pale green of his iris practically drowning in pupil. "River? Roman. Roman, focus."

"Focus is finding the lube," River muttered, separating their bodies enough to begin rummaging through his pockets. He stumbled and fell against Damon. "Whoops!" He began to snicker softly.

"Did someone drug you?" Damon demanded, gripping his arms tight. He gave River a little shake, hoping maybe to focus him that way.

"Ooh, you want to play rough, I like it," River purred, twining arms around his neck again and snuggling his body against Damon's. "You know I don't do drugs! I just got a box of candies from one of my fans, that's all; there's nothing wrong with eating a little chocolate every now and then..."

"River!" Damon gave him another shake.

"What!? If you tell me I'll get fat, I swear, I won't give you a blow job..."

"Was it after the chocolate?" Damon's fingers dug into River's shoulders. "Focus. Listen to me. Roman, was it after you ate the chocolate that you started feeling hot?"

"Mmm..." River moved against him languourously, sliding his lips up Damon's jaw and licking a path back down. "Mmm, yes, I think so." He didn't sound particularly concerned.

In spite of himself Damon was turned on. It was half an hour to the shoot -- no, less now -- and River was flying high on aphrodisiacs, rubbing against him hot and bothered and freeing a hand to fumble with his pants again.

"Take them off," River whined.

Still, nothing said 'fired' faster than spreading the new face of Psyblade on his corner-office desk and just asking for someone to walk in and catch them at it. "River," Damon started, and stopped with a groan as his lover latched onto his ear, nibbling with enthusiasm. He was in no condition to model in half an hour. At this rate he'd offer to spread for more than just the magazine.

"I hope you kept the box," Damon told him, and disentangled himself. "We're going to have to figure out who did this." He made for the door and River clutched at his hand, attempting to draw on him then following closely.

"Don't leave," River choked. "Damon, don't leave me." That thread of desperation in his voice was the real River, stripped of defense and speaking through the haze of the cheerful wanton he tried so hard to be.

Damon knew in that instant he was terrified, his desire careering out of control. With River, his sexuality was mask and control for the vulnerable self. He drew River close into the circle of his arm. "Lover, I'm just going to lock the door." River shivered against his side but couldn't stop himself from thrusting against his thigh.

"It's okay, shh, it's all right," Damon said. He locked the office door and leaned against it, pulling River into a tight embrace. The boy burrowed against his chest, working his arms around Damon's waist and shuddering, aligning their groins. Damon put his lips to pale lavender hair and thanked whatever lucky guardian for seeing River's steps safely to his office. He wouldn't want anyone else near him in this condition. At the very least it would have been a big scandal for his career... River whimpered and thrust against him slightly, recalling attention to the here and physical now. "I'm here, River, I'm not going to leave you."

"I'm going to eat you alive," River told him, and went down on his knees. His hands clasped at Damon's clothing, helping to ease him down. His eyes were points of green flame in his hungry face as Damon looked into them, riveted by the intensity of those pupils swimming in their encircling jade. His fingers were busy eager creatures, zipping and untucking.

"Wait," Damon said, panting slightly. "Wait." He unclipped his cell phone and tried not to think about how good River's hands felt on him, stroking deft and sure over naked skin.

River's eyes stared up at him, barely sentient in his need.

"Hi, Mina? Yeah, it's Damon...I've got River here, he's...he's, uh, not feeling well. No...yes...yes, I think we'll need to reschedule. I'm sorry." He stroked the side of River's face and the boy nuzzled against his palm. "Just tell them it's something he ate. He's really not well. I'll make sure he gets home, okay? Thanks, I'll make it up to you." Even before he thumbed the phone off he felt feverish lips on his cockhead, River's mouth sliding down over him with supple hunger.

Damon gave up and sank his head against the plaswood panel of the door. He ran his fingers through River's hair, tugging slightly, world narrowing down to a fine point of need and River's lips working back and forth, sealing him into a rutting mindset with his greedy mouth. "River...god, ah, River..."

I want to be with you, Damon. A younger River crawled into his lap with his shirt unlaced, turning the force of his huge green eyes on Damon. His luscious lips hovered a fraction from Damon's, then he sat back on his thighs to beg. I want it to be you. I don't want to wait.

"River," Damon gasped, speaking to memory and the moment. "Are you sure?"

River pulled his mouth away and kissed Damon's thigh, his fingers kneading possessively over Damon's buttocks. He leaned back on his heels, the raw desperation on his face exposing that underlying vulnerability again. "I need it...need you...Damon, please, I want your cock inside me. I want, I need you to fuck me, fill me, cram it in me please, I'm empty, I'm burning, FUCK me!" He began to shudder again, gyrating his hips against nothing, and his robe had fallen completely apart, exposing his near-nudity. The fabric of his thong-suit had a spreading stain over the crotch. His hands grasped at Damon's pants like a lifeline.

Damon bent and scooped River's slight weight into his arms. He swore the boy weighed less than a girl his age. River's mouth fastened on his as he began to half-walk, half-shuffle with his pants sliding down his thighs so he moved blindly for the desk. His lover hooked an arm around his neck and thrust his tongue into his mouth, making as if he would eat him alive as threatened. "Wait for me," Damon murmured against his ear as Roman mapped down his jaw for the cluster of nerves at the hinge. "I'm going to catch up, all right?"

I'm not just going to take your virginity, River. In his mind he faced River's younger self. Don't get me wrong. I'm fascinated with you, I -- maybe I'm obsessed with you; I take the best damn pictures when I'm shooting you, and as a subject you're a photographer's dream. You're sexy and you know it. But I need to know--

River gasped as he was dumped unceremoniously on Damon's desk, then he wrapped his legs around Damon and clung. "Do you love me?" he entreated as Damon excavated the pocket he'd missed, the one that actually had lube in it.

Damon paused, drawing back to look him full in the face. River's eyes were glazed, his expression barely cognizant. Still the portion of him that struggled for awareness wanted to know this much. He dodged River's lips to plant one on his temple, gathering him to his chest. "I love you," he promised. "I'm in love with you. Roman." Sometimes he wondered how much of the real Roman he knew; how much did Roman love or need him? Yet Roman was the one who'd initiated their relationship. He was the one who kept coming back.

River shuddered against him again, making fists against his shirt. "Then fuck me," he groaned. "Fuck me, fuck me. Don't wait, please, Damon just put it in please fuck me..."

"I get the picture," Damon assured him, lipping his ear and easing him back on the desk. River was flexible, and canted his legs up higher as Damon reached down to twitch the thong aside -- it wasn't concealing anything anymore -- and then slicked himself good. He guided the tip of his dick to the waiting heat behind River's balls then hiked the boy's legs over his arms.

River MOANED as he pushed in, a breathless long sound as if Damon were fucking him for the first time. Damon was harder than he'd been in a while and River felt so good inside, hotter and tighter than the suction of his mouth, writhing up against him with a little groan and clutching him inside and out. He had to pause, sawing his hips from side to side, widening the passage before he could continue.

"Yes...yes..." River sobbed against his neck, fingers digging into his shoulders hard enough to leave marks if the skin had been bare. "Damon, baby..."

"You want it?" Damon was breathing harder. "I'll give it to you." He fed the rest of his cock into River in a controlled glide, alert for the slightest sign of pain. River was used to taking it from him but there was no reason not to be careful. River keened, but the look on his face was pure pleasure. He turned his face up for a kiss and Damon obliged, already working his cock free to thrust back in again and slam him with the rhythm.

River panted again. "Yes, yes! Faster, harder oh GOD." He let go of Damon's neck and let himself sink backward, lying on the desk and stretching out his robed arms rapturously. Damon shifted his grip to River's hips and put those limber legs over his shoulders, fucking into him harder, giving him long pounding strokes. "YES! Damon, oh, more, yes..."

Damon growled, trying to hold back the urge to haul River back up by the hair and bite some of that tempting, flawless white skin. River would let him mark him sometimes, but he was hardly in a lucid enough frame of mind to give informed consent. Right now his lover would probably let him do just about anything as long as the end result involved sex and coming. He wallowed in him, slowing the pace to deep leisurely thrusts until River was screaming and begging him for more, faster and Damon remembered that the office wasn't soundproofed that well.

"Something he ate" indeed, Mina would say.

"Fuck me," River pled, and whimpered as Damon pulled him up with a hand cupped at the back of his neck, realigning him and pushing the length of his cock into him from an entirely new angle. He covered River's mouth and tasted him; a coppery tang spread between them. River must have bitten his tongue.

Suddenly River stiffened against him, arms coming around him again to clutch at his shirt. "Ahh...aggh..." he panted against Damon's mouth, and a mess of pearly white erupted between them, coating River's stomach. "!" His hips continued to undulate for Damon, coaxing the rip-tide just barely beyond reach.

His lover's needs seen to for now, Damon gave himself over to some serious deep-dicking. He cradled River's hips and nuzzled the tempting line of shoulder and neck and poured himself into thrusting. "Ah...ahh, River..." In his mind's eye, he saw the younger River seducing him. He'd never tried to fool himself into thinking it was any other way. He saw sixteen-year old River curled on his bed wearing nothing but a party hat. Let's celebrate. He watched River smile, laugh, strut, pose, dance for his camera's eye, then he lowered it to savor the real smile that was bestowed on him. A gamut of thoughts flashed through him before the climax swept over in merciless ripples of pleasure, each fine line of it gathered up inside to stream from him into his lover.

River hid his face against Damon's neck after they had finished. Damon held him, stroking his back and tucking the disheveled robe around him as best he could.

"I'm sorry," River told him, muffled.

"I'm just glad it was me," Damon said, relief making him overly loud. "Feeling better?"

River nestled his face closer into Damon's shoulder, proving it possible. "I'm really sorry," he reiterated.

"It's okay." Damon continued to pet him.



Still muffled, River spoke against his neck. "I love you."

Another kind of relief bloomed in him. "I love you, baby, you know that." He ran delicate fingers along his lover's spine.


"Yes?" Absently Damon looked around the office, trying to remember if he had water stowed away in the side cooler.

River's voice was very small when he spoke up again, putting him in mind yet again of younger River. "Do you think, in a few minutes, you could fuck me again?"

Oh. Dear. God.


The front door opened with a click and clatter that Cedric was barely sensible of, immersed as he was in the contents of the 'Netscreen before his riveted eyes.

"--here? Hello, is someone here?"

Cedric swiftly minimized all 'Netscreen tabs to leave only his innocuous French impressionist background and tore his eyes away from the notepad. His cheeks were flushed. He had been aware of the mechanics of the more commonly considered hetero sex, but it had never seemed particularly relevant to him. Now he knew why. After spending a few hours with some 'Net reference material, entire horizons had expanded open. Now the mere thought of sex -- with a male, specifically with respect to Rukawa-senpai or his teacher Mr. McCormack -- made him tingle and clench his thighs together.

"Hello? Damon?" Cedric called back, confused. He hadn't seen his brother's boyfriend in a while. Several weeks, in fact. It had been a dinner one night when Gabriel had been working late. For some reason, Gabriel didn't particularly seem to like Roman's boyfriend, and vice versa, so the two tended not to frequent the same time-space intervals.

Cedric blinked, and received an epiphany. It was sexual tension. Damon was sleeping with Roman -- he was virtually certain of it, given the proof of hundreds of subtle clues that made sense in the context of his new awareness. And Gabriel was the man of the house. They took an alpha-male view toward one another, and there was an element of territorialism where Roman was concerned.

He padded out into the hallway and gaped. His older brother was deadweight in Damon's hands, one of his arms looped over Damon's shoulders. Roman peered at him blearily. His other hand clutched the throat of a long gray coat, keeping it shut.

"What in Azriel's name is going on?" Cedric demanded.

"Water," Roman croaked feebly.

"Do you have some water?" Damon seconded.

Cedric turned for the kitchen, keeping one eye angled on his brother. "Uh, yes...what happened?"

"Roman's, um, not feeling well," Damon said, sounding apologetic. "He ate something he shouldn't have."

Cedric snorted softly and pulled a bottle from the fridge. "Has he been purging? He looks dreadful."

"Um, no. Not that kind of...never mind. I'm going to take him to his room first."

Cedric returned to the hallway and watched in amazement as Damon helped his brother down the hall. Roman looked like he was limping. Why would bad food have anything to do with a physical impairment like that? His quick mind ran through a couple of scenarios and he grimaced.

He followed them with the water and a sense that he wasn't strictly supposed to be doing so. Still, Damon hadn't said not to. Cedric peered around the jamb and saw enough to realize that beneath the coat Damon was sliding from Roman's shoulders, his brother seemed to be naked.

That made up his mind rather quickly and he scampered back to the kitchen, frowning. Hadn't Roman had a shoot that night? Then why...?

"Home rather early, aren't you?" Cedric said, tossing the water bottle once Damon and his brother entered the kitchen.

Damon caught the bottle, helped Roman to a chair, and unscrewed the cap. "Yes, a few things came up. We had to postpone the shoot. River, here."

Roman took the bottle in one hand and scraped hair away from his face with the other. He looked drawn and his eyes were dilated. "Mmm," he responded, and slugged down half the bottle in one shot.

"I see," Cedric said, who didn't. He had two guesses and both of them made him squeamish. What could have given his brother diarrhea, in any case? "Is he going to be okay?"

"He'll need food and more water," Damon said, and leaned over to kiss the top of Roman's head. The teen gave his lover a wan smile and guzzled the rest of the bottle. "But yeah, he should be fine. You making dinner, Cedric? Want me to help?"

Cedric considered it. It was later than he'd realized; he had gotten totally immersed in the contents of the successive 'Netscreen tabs he had been browsing. The joys of gay sex. His cheeks warmed again. "Gabriel is getting home soon," he said mournfully. "I don't mean to chase you out, but..."

Damon's jaw flexed.

"...I know you don't get along very well with him," Cedric concluded diplomatically. It was better than saying Damon and his brother acted like two possessive dogs around a bitch in heat when they were both in Roman's vicinity.

"Right," Damon muttered, and kneeled beside Roman. He seemed to be checking his eyes, putting a thumb below first one eyelid, then the other, peering into them. He slid his hand to Roman's neck and checked his pulse. After doing all this, he leaned in and kissed Roman on the lips.

At first his brother merely twitched, then Cedric was shocked as Roman snaked an arm around Damon, then the other, holding onto him tightly. He returned the kiss with a passion and enthusiasm Cedric had never seen in person before -- had rarely seen in the movies he watched infrequently -- until his cheeks were flaming and he felt he should turn away from an intensely private moment. The only reason he didn't look away was because he was too busy trying to figure out if it was Roman's tongue between Damon's lips or vice versa.

They broke and Damon was hugging Roman, one big hand cradling the back of his head. "I love you." The words were a quick undertone, almost inaudible to Cedric, and the photographer was standing in the next instant, patting Cedric on the head. "See you later, kiddo."

"Un." Cedric followed Damon to the door, puzzling over something. Roman had brought several boys over during the past couple of years, and with his new awareness he was fairly certain now that Roman had slept with them. His brother had been dating Damon during the whole time, though, and from what he'd understood the relationship was reasonably serious. Now from what he'd just seen he was sure Roman loved this man. Damon definitely loved Roman.

Was his brother really just a slut, or what?

"See you later, Damon," Cedric said. "Come over for dinner again some time soon, okay?"

Damon showed his teeth briefly. "I'd be delighted. You let Roman know some time when your brother won't be here for dinner, okay?"

"Sure," Cedric chirped. He liked Damon.

After bidding his brother's boyfriend goodbye, he returned to the brother sitting slumped at the kitchen table. Cedric got another bottled water from the fridge and joined him at the table, uncapping it and setting it before him.

"You okay?" Cedric asked casually.

Roman shuddered and lifted up his head from crossed arms just enough to fix a dilated green eye on Cedric. "I'll live. Time will tell whether that's fortunate or not."

"What happened to you?"

Roman appeared to consider this question with undue gravity. Indeed, the thought process took nearly five minutes. He drank another half-bottle of water. "Did Gabriel speak with you this afternoon, Cedric?"

Cedric was so gratified his brother hadn't used a diminutive or insulting nickname that he almost missed the thrust of the question. "Yes, he...oh. You knew, didn't you?" He adopted an accusatory tone.

Roman sighed and drank thirstily from the bottle. "Good. The Talk, huh?"

"The sex talk," Cedric agreed, and fixed a glare on his brother. "You're the one who told oniisan you thought Rukawa-senpai might want to have sex with me, didn't you?"

Roman began to choke on his water.

"He's not like that," Cedric continued fretfully. "Rukawa-senpai just wants to be friends."

Recouping, Roman set aside the bottle. "Oh, sure, it starts out that way." He waved a hand airily. "Fun and games and suddenly a heated chess game turns into a...uh..." He looked at Cedric and then devoted his attention to the bottle of water.

Cedric propped his chin on his hands. "Was that how it was with you, aniki? Did your classmates just seduce you?"

"Uh..." Roman stared, then surprisingly, flushed. "Cede, you're not supposed to know about that."

"Don't call me that!" Cedric said, his tone tart and rebuking. "And how am I not supposed to know? I get it now, you know. You wanted me to talk with oniisan about sex, fine, we talked. Now I understand that when you were locked up with your friends for a few hours 'doing homework' with the music on real loud, that wasn't all you were doing. Ezekiel, Roman, how you could have sex in that mess is beyond me..."

"You'd be surprised," Roman muttered, tipping his face into his arms again. "How far some of those boys would go to get lucky."

Cedric sighed and got up again to get his brother some more water. "Why would you need to get lucky? You have Damon. You care about him, don't you?"

"I don't know," Roman groaned, his voice muffled in his sweater-clad arms. "I just DO it, okay? I think I have a high sex drive, or something."

Cedric wrinkled his nose. First Gabriel, now Roman...he was the recipient of far too much information today. "Well, why not, have a lot of sex with Damon?"

Roman let his shoulders lift and drop in a half-hearted shrug. "That would probably be fucking picture-perfect," he said, and there was a surprising hint of bitterness to his tone. "Then I could move in with him and it would be like we were fucking married."

Cedric pushed himself away from the table with both hands. He'd never heard Roman speak so frankly, not like this. "What's so wrong with that?" he inquired softly. "Do you love him?"

Appearing once more from the cradle of his arms, Roman retrieved his bottle of water without meeting Cedric's eye. "I love him," he answered, his tone equally soft. "It scares me. I'm...goddammit, I'm really young, you know? I don't feel like it but I know I am, especially when I compare myself to co-workers." He laughed and Cedric heard the bitterness. "Co-workers. Most kids my age only have to worry about high school. I'm too young to nail my life up so tightly. So maybe that's why I do it. The screwing around. Because I love him, and it scares me, and I could spend the rest of my life with him, so I'll fuck it up by dicking around."

Cedric's head was reeling. He didn't quite "get" Roman-logic. "Okay. Remind me not to try to help with your problems."

Roman sighed. "I'll figure it out," he said. "I just hope I figure it out before Damon gets fed up with me, and decides he'd be better off without me."

"Damon wouldn't do that," Cedric said with absolute certainty.

Roman laughed again. "I don't know just how much he'd forgive, you know? But still, I can't help myself." He drank the rest of his water. "In a way it has nothing to do with Damon. I see a good-looking guy, someone I want to sleep with, and I just--" He shrugged.

Cedric pronounced, "Aniki, I believe the term 'sowing your wild oats' applies."

Roman regarded him with a vague smile. "Oh, yeah? Comforting."

"So." Cedric refused to be diverted from the subject. "What happened to you tonight?"

The smile dropped from Roman's face like it had been wiped clean, almost making Cedric regret he'd brought it up. Whatever it was, Roman was obviously not happy with it. "Tonight, uh...tonight I was getting ready for the shoot and there was a pile of fan-mail next to my dresser. There was, um, some chocolate in a nice little package. I had some time before I needed to get to make-up, so I popped the lid and had a couple."

Cedric peered sharply at his brother's face. Roman sounded a little bewildered and...ashamed?

"I started feeling hot," Roman recited slowly. " So I went to find Damon, went to his office because I was starting to burn up inside. Um." He squirmed uncomfortably.

"More water?" Cedric asked.

Roman palmed his face. "Please."

Cedric managed not to smile. He was pretty sure at this point humor would be taken amiss. He retrieved another bottle and set it before his brother, who was clutching his head as if he were having some kind of mental crisis.

"I shouldn't be telling you this," Roman said.

"You started it," Cedric said. "Come on, I want to know. If it's bad enough I might try to convince you to go to the doctor."

Roman looked up sharply. "I can't do that," he exclaimed. "My reputation..."

"Please, try to tell me our doctor isn't discreet. Besides, the Hippocratic oath--"

"Don't be naive," Roman interrupted. "It's not the staff I'm worried about, it's the people at the hospital. Anyhow, like Damon said, I'll be okay. I'm mostly, er, dehydrated. Because the chocolates were full of aphrodisiacs, and I've spent the last two hours begging Damon"

"I get the picture," Cedric said hastily. He thought he might be turning red again. His face certainly felt hot enough. Now his head was suddenly stuffed with the images he'd been glutting himself on for the past few hours, only now one of the figures had pale, pale skin and his brother's face, and the other had Damon's broad shoulders and gentle grin.

"Right," Roman said. He heaved himself up from the table, clutching a water bottle. "I think I'm gonna go crash, little bro. Wake me up for dinner?"

"All right," Cedric said, trying to absorb everything. He'd been positively deluged with information today.

"Oh...and, uh, don't tell Gabriel," Roman said with a little wince.

Cedric gave him incredulous eyes. "You honestly think he won't notice?"

"One can only hope."


Gabriel yawned and lifted his head muzzily from his pillow, aware of distant music somewhere in the apartment. He gave up on the notion of immediate consciousness and placed his head back on the pillow. Beside him Roman snuggled closer under the covers, mumbling nonsense against his neck. That made Gabriel rouse and he tried to recall whatever it was with respect to Roman that he should be remembering.

"Roman," he mumbled.


Gabriel nudged him. "Roman, you--" He stroked down his brother's back and realized with a start that he was wearing pajamas, for a change. Oh, yes. Roman hadn't wanted to have sex last night, which had been more of a relief than anything to Gabriel. After talking with Cedric...

As if he were on strings Gabriel levered upright into a half-sitting position, peeling back the bolster. Roman protested vehemently as he was dumped from comfortable shoulder onto his unused pillow.

Steely green eyes peered at him from the foot of the bed. Looking unusually stern, Cedric gripped the footboard and hovered there, regarding the tableau that the two of them presented. "You two are having sex, aren't you?" he said with an accusatory air.

Gabriel put a hand to his forehead, wincing. That was it. After speaking with Cedric about sex, he could no longer expect his youngest brother to leave those particular dots unconnected. He and Roman had slept in the same bed for years and Cedric had never particularly remarked on it. But now... "Er..."

"Not always," Roman spoke up from his sleepy jumble of sheets and pillow and mussed hair.

Gabriel uttered a quiet, despairing groan.

"But you do have sex," Cedric pounced on the qualifier. "The two of you have sex in this bed."

"Sometimes the study," Roman offered. "Once on the living room rug--"

"Roman." Gabriel gritted his teeth. "Don't help. Er, Cedric, you may think what we're doing is wrong--"

Cedric had an oddly set, stubborn expression on his face, as if he had come up with some sort of resolve. "Are you talking about the incest taboo? Don't be silly, Roman can't have deformed babies, and as far as I'm concerned that's the only valid reason for the taboo." His hands clenched on the footboard. "I'm very upset that you kept it from me for so long. What did you think I'd do, act like an irrational child?"

"I could be declared an unfit guardian," Gabriel said softly. "Our Uncle Richard would jump all over that, you realize."

That stubborn expression remained on Cedric's face. "What goes on in our family is just between us," he said, frowning hard. "How, uh, how long--"

Roman sat up with a low groan. "I think I need breakfast for a talk like this," he decided. He climbed shakily out of bed and headed for the bathroom with slow, pained steps.

Gabriel watched him go. Now he was the one frowning. Roman walked as if he'd been fucked all night, but... Gabriel shuddered and cut off that thought. He did NOT need to know about Roman's relationship with his lover, he told himself. He was certainly not jealous; there was no need for it. He had the nagging love and steady companionship of his brother, and more sex than he was sure any two men needed. Well, Roman got sex from two men and it seemed to barely sustain him, but he was young.

He turned his head and caught Cedric watching him with a contemplative scowl that couldn't make him look any less adorable.

"What?" Gabriel prompted.

"I'm going to go make breakfast," Cedric replied, then hesitated. Instead of leaving the bedroom he padded around the side of the bed and climbed onto the edge. Then he put his hands on Gabriel's shoulders and kissed him unexpectedly and firmly on the mouth. Gabriel was surprised, but there was certainly nothing wrong with a chaste kiss. He brushed Cedric's cheek with his fingers, giving the boy a smile, then noted the odd considering look in his huge green eyes. Gabriel decided to table his unformed speculations when Cedric climbed off the bed and left the room, humming something happily.

After a moment he joined Roman in the shower to wash his brother's back. Gabriel opened the plasglass shower door and stepped inside, taking Roman's shoulders in his hands first, brushing aside colorless wet hair plastered to his neck. He noticed a bite mark on the back of Roman's neck and looked away, seizing the shampoo to begin ministering to his brother's hair. His hair was pale enough to be called platinum, like all theirs, but possessed a faint lavender tint. Gabriel gathered up his brother's hair and remembered a day when Roman had come home from school, angry and half-crying, because the other boys had called him "demon-bait." It was generally known that demons went for exotic coloring and beauty.

What wasn't quite so generally known was that there was a class of demons that walked the earth in human form. Those called themselves the Nephilim, and sported many exotic and unusual tints in their hair and eye and skin coloration.

Their mother, Arianna, had had very pale platinum-blonde hair. Their father, Carson Vaille, had speculated that his own father might have possessed demon blood, but he had died long before Gabriel's birth. Seeing that Gabriel was named for his grandfather, it was entirely possible that was true. He wondered, though. Neither he nor his father had possessed any sort of the psychic traits exhibited by someone of true demon-blood. Roman and Cedric were normal, as well.

"Are you all right?" Gabriel asked him, sluicing off the shampoo and rubbing a gentle hand over his scalp.

Roman leaned back against him. He was soaping up his front without his typical enthusiasm for the task. "I'm okay."

Gabriel turned, and Roman's strong fingers skimmed over his back. "All right," he said mildly. If Roman didn't want to tell him, he wouldn't force him. He might be oblivious at the best of times, but he'd learned to read his brother's cues. There was no point in pressing.

After they had bathed and parted ways to dress for the day, Gabriel donned a sunlight-gold Armani suit that Roman had selected for him some time ago. He wore a white dress shirt and it had a matching tie, so there would be nothing for Cedric to fault today. With that taken care of, he felt ready to face the day -- at least, Cedric and the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of coffee from the French press and thought back to the translations that awaited him, locked in the office safe. Roy had been very firm with him, refusing to allow him to take his work home on the grounds of security. With Richard Vanderbrant's recent demands, Gabriel had reluctantly acquiesced. It was all too likely that Richard might try to arrange for something to happen to discredit him with Orion.

"How long?" Cedric prompted him.

Gabriel turned, blinking. Cedric had stolen into the kitchen on silent feet, already dressed in his school uniform and ready to go. He wasn't quite sure he should answer that question. There was a high potential it could get him in trouble.

A hand landed on Cedric's silvery-lavender head. "I climbed into bed and seduced him when I was thirteen, Cede."

"Stop calling me that!"

"What, you prefer 'ma petite soeur?'" Roman teased him.

"I would prefer you call me by my given name. Which is Cedric, not any variation thereof." Cedric's brows contracted. "Seduced him, huh..."

That look on his face made Gabriel's stomach plummet. It was very like a calculating expression he'd seen on thirteen-year old Roman's face.

"What should I cook for breakfast?" Roman asked rhetorically, moving past him.

Cedric squawked. "Don't you touch the stove!"

After filling up on one of Cedric's delicious breakfasts, Gabriel bade his brothers goodbye, seized his briefcase, and took his leave once more. He didn't know why but for some reason, leaving the house these days had begun to feel like retreating. Perhaps if he were very unlucky, Roman and Cedric were still in the kitchen plotting his downfall. No, those were crazy thoughts. Ridiculously paranoid thoughts.

He set off before his brothers on the walk to campus. For them, school started at eight. For Gabriel, though Roy accused him of habitual lateness, that was only because his assistant had a tendency to start his work at six in the morning. He liked his morning walks; they gave him time to contemplate the day. Roy had taken over most of his Thursday classes, so it would just be him and the grimoire and long stretches of uninterrupted translation.

Gabriel was very much looking forward to it. He felt a peculiar affinity to the grimoire, as if the most wondrous secrets were bound up in its pages just waiting for him to unlock them.

He was so preoccupied with his thoughts, already calling up the next page to study its symbols, that he hardly noticed when someone bumped into him on the sidewalk.

"Excuse me," the stranger said, steadying himself briefly on Gabriel's shoulder.

"Mmh," Gabriel responded.

The man's annoyed voice followed him. "Isn't it customary to apologize after knocking into someone so rudely?"

Gabriel paused and adjusted his glasses. "But you did apologize."

Air hissed between the man's teeth and he stalked over, a long dark gray coat flaring out behind him like agitated wings. He was tall, Gabriel noted distractedly, and had butter-blonde hair pulled back in a knot at the nape of his neck. He was wearing dark matte wraparound sunglasses. He seized a fistful of Gabriel's suit. "Wiseass, huh? You, professor, are making this ever so much easier."

"What -- what are you talking about?" Gabriel said, brow furrowing. "Do I know you?"

The man grinned, revealing a mouthful of sharp teeth. "Let's just say that an associate of mine is dying to meet you."

"Nephilim," Gabriel gasped, and tried to twist out of his grip, maybe even leave his suit behind entirely.

Before he could act, a hand descended to deliver a cutting chop to the back of his neck. Gabriel went limp and his last conscious thought was for the grimoire locked in his office. He hoped Roy would be all right...