"No. Absolutely not."
The words crackled over the line more harsh and oppressively flat than Roman Vaille had truly intended, and he turned away from the wide top-floor window, its glassy surface silvered over in the throes of noon. He rested his back against the warm single pane and held his tiny cell phone closer to his mouth. "Damon, really, I am telling you there's no need."
"No need?" The outrage in return was loud and clear, making Roman wince and hold the phone away from his ear. "River, someone tried to drug you. Remember that? At the very best, if you'd popped a few chocolates before the shoot, it would have been a disaster and an embarrassment to your career. At the worst...well, if someone had knocked on your door, anyone other than me–"
"I get the picture," Roman interrupted, becoming testy. "I have a brain, I can project probable outcomes. And I'm sorry that I caused you worry..."
On the other end, Damon stayed silent.
"But my career is exactly what I'm thinking of, and I'm telling you that if I push this it will be more than an embarrassment if anyone finds out. I could blow the contract with Psyblade and put a serious crimp in my future prospects."
He waited for a few anxious heartbeats. It would be Damon's style to forge on anyhow, out of some notion to be noble or protect his virtue or some such. If only he knew...
The grin was audible when Damon spoke up at last. "You're serious about your career? Come on, when you're inheriting your share of the Vaille fortune in a few years?"
Roman flinched, glad Damon couldn't see him. He said sharply, "Of course. I'm still modeling, aren't I? When I find something I want to pursue, I do it." He bit the tip of his tongue, acutely aware that he shouldn't say anything more. Damon had every right to be credulous. There were many things that bored Roman easily, and Damon had seen plenty enough evidence of that over the past few years. With modeling, though, each new contract brought more nuance to a career of what was essentially his narcissism given focus, a career he had stumbled into practically by accident when an eager, sharp-eyed talent scout had pressed her business card into his hand nearly four years ago. Roman was self-aware enough to realize this. Yet for all his vanity, he did take the work seriously, and would downplay how hard he worked to anyone who knew him with the possible exception of Gabriel. He supposed that he did have a work ethic in this regard, although it took a job this self-pandering to bring it out.
When he began to confide in Damon instead of his brother, Roman knew then it would be time to move out. Right now, he was still a person who clung to the closeness of his older brother.
"Right. Sorry, River," Damon said, sounding sheepish. "I don't understand how you can just drop the incident, though. And you want me to drop it, too." A faint hint of indignance returned.
"Let's examine it a little more," Roman said critically, holding up one hand to examine his cuticles, the well-tended nail beds, the faint sheen of healthy chitin. "Who would have had the motivation to spoil the photo shoot? With the timing, that really must have been the only objective."
"Are you serious?" Damon turned it back on him. "Whomever sent you that gift spiked it with aphrodisiacs. You could have a rapist fan, you know. Send you the gifts, show up at your changing room door–"
"Not possible," Roman said dismissively. "Security is too tight at Psyblade, thank goodness, and I haven't worked a contract in over a year where something like that was allowed to happen. The showing up at the door, I mean. It was delivered right when I was getting ready for the swim thong shoot, so I'm inclined to believe not only did it come from someone on staff, but it was intended to spoil the photo shoot. Now, who would want to do that?"
"One of the other models, I suppose," Damon muttered, sounding reluctant to abandon his theory.
"Bingo." Roman aimed a slender finger at the opposite wall, aiming for the plasma display beside an empty classroom that alternated between an inspirational print and the information that no classes were held there until the early afternoon.
"But–" Damon started.
"Why would someone want to embarrass me badly enough to get me to quit or be fired?" Roman supplied. He had thought this through. It made more sense to him, he knew, because he was a model, not the photographer. As much as Damon knew the ins and outs of the business, he had never worked his way up from a group changing room to exclusive contracts. The models were young, exceptionally beautiful, and viciously cutthroat. "Well, let me think. More than half the models contracted to Psyblade Sports are older than I am, with careers just as long or greater, so I'd start looking there."
"Oh?" The single utterance was alert. "So you are going after this."
Roman sighed. "Not right now, I'm not."
"But you just said–" The indignation was back, and Roman thought he knew where this was coming. Someone had dared to try and sabotage the something beautiful that Damon thought of as 'his.'
"He gets one freebie," Roman purred into the phone, "because if he's desperate enough to try and pull this kind of stunt in some misguided attempt to 'save' his career, then I'll let him have it. But if he tries it again..." Roman's hand flexed around the phone. Very few people knew how ruthless he could actually be. He was rich, therefore equated with useless and soft. What few people considered was how the rich became so, and it had nothing to do with mercy.
He would've loved for Uncle Richard to try and pull that kind of stunt on him.
Damon's sigh was soft but audible. "Good. I was worried that you were underestimating this whole thing."
Roman curled his lip. "I don't think you need to worry about that." Damon knew what he was talking about, but there were certain depths of the business with which even he was unacquainted. Roman was sure that Damon had never been offered a deal by his former manager to be pimped out to a team of the highest-level executives of one of the few remaining national corporations, for instance.
Instead of dropping it, Damon shifted tactics. "What about your uncle? You said he was poking around your brother's office, trying to cause trouble again."
Though he hadn't even hinted it, Roman was somewhat miffed by the potential implication that Gabriel really couldn't take care of himself, even though he'd just been thinking it himself. He rattled out a noisy, exasperated sigh, turning away from the wide plas-glass window with its view of the dazzling emerald lawn and propped his butt on the warm wooden sill. "I'm sorry I even told you about that." He let his exasperation bleed through. "Come on, my uncle wouldn't stoop to such a dirty trick. Besides, there's no business case for my failure. It must have been one of the other Psyblade models, I know it – and don't push it, Damon, because if I cost the wrong person their job, the backlash could be even worse."
Heavy silence again, followed by an answering sigh from Damon, resigned on his side. "You're too mature for your own good, River." It was acquiescence, followed by a warning. "I don't like it. I've got a bad feeling."
"Just let me handle it," Roman replied breezily.
"You always do," Damon said, quiet. "I've got to go. I love you, River."
Roman was caught off-guard. "Love you, too–" The dial tone caught the end of it. He eyed his phone for a moment before flipping it shut. Damon got curt with him when he didn't like something that Roman was doing but knew he couldn't stop it.
Well, whatever. He wasn't going to give up independent thought simply because the man loved him.
He pushed himself away from the windowsill, stuffing the cell phone into an unobtrusive thigh pocket and drifting up the hall. Roman had picked his noon vantage point most strategically: not only for the quiet place to hold an extended and possibly loud conversation over the phone, but also for the fact that it was quite close to the uppermost student lounge.
With such a large school, it was inevitable that some rooms would fall into disuse, especially those in tucked-away locations off the beaten path. There was a brace of unused classrooms bracketing the Krimsley Student Center, and the stairwell beside it had access to one of the school back entrances on the bottom floor. It was, in short, a perfect hiding place for a misanthropic student operative who might have to leave at short notice and preferred to avoid the more crowded student areas like cafeteria or the popular, always-full Grayson Student Center downstairs.
Roman palmed the door open, casting a furtive look around to make sure the student center really was empty. The occasional chess club meeting or similar association - needing space, liking solitude - had been known to co-opt the student center from time to time. As he'd expected, the place looked deserted at first glance. In a place like this, with virtually the entire school a floor or more belowstairs, a boy could get away with just about anything he liked. Roman knew because he had.
It took some diligent searching through a few of the more hidden nooks before he located his target. He wasn't the type to hang around in the open in case the student center ended up playing host to a group after all, as Roman had been wary. In the end Roman proved himself more wily.
Arashi cast an irritated look in his direction when he spotted Roman heading for him with purpose. He snapped shut a handheld device that he had been contemplating and stowed it in a back pocket, squaring his shoulders and lifting a hand. It was not a greeting.
"You again," Arashi said flatly.
"Me again," Roman agreed, crossing his arms and leaning against the pillar that formed a private nook, cutting a small seating area off from general view.
Arashi raised a tawny-brown brow. "I hope you're not going to try some kind of misguided attempt at blackmail." He wore that perpetual frown, the one that was between his brows even when his mouth wasn't slanting down.
"Me? What?" Roman pulled a wry look. "Orion would hand my ass to me if I tried any such thing. No, I like my life the way it is plus I'd prefer not having to pay for a wide-scale mindwipe. They like to be sure." He shuddered. It was like applying an atom bomb to a flea infestation.
Cool gray eyes continued to bore into him, assessing. "Fine. And your business with me?"
"You're all business," Roman complained. "Doesn't anyone ever tell you to relax?"
"My father. Often," Arashi replied at once. His frown never let up. "What do you want, then, Roman? If you're not going to blackmail me, I can't see that you would have anything to do with me. You're popular; I avoid it. You don't seem like the type who would need the new guy to help you with your homework, either. And I doubt you were appointed by the welcoming committee to show me around school."
It was the longest speech Roman had heard him utter, and he felt sure it was probably the longest he'd get. "You protect humanity by working for Orion Corp but you hate people," Roman observed. He turned out one of his feet, flexing it, directing his gaze downward away from those intense gray eyes. "Why bother, then?"
Arashi's frown deepened. He looked as if he would retort, demanding why Roman thought it was his business, but offered a surprising reply. "I don't want the demons to win. And I think humanity has potential."
"You do?" Roman pulled a cynical smile. Sometimes even he wondered about that.
"Have you studied history, Roman?"
"Uh, no...not really," Roman floundered. The glint in Arashi's eye told him he'd expected that to put him off balance.
"Things were really bad, before the Rising," Arashi said. He looked away, gesturing out the window past the prominence of the colorful skyline, and the scintillating Wall beyond. "Don't you know? The global economy was in a hard recession, currencies all over the world were falling while China hoarded all the resources, and the U.S. - what our country used to be - had tumbled from a great height, no longer a superpower but a laughingstock. Religion held the reins of the leaders, and they were legislating away the freedom of the people. There were world hunger problems, disease, humans making war against humans, and rampant overpopulation. Then the banks went bankrupt once the yuan started rising, people lost their homes, their health care, their jobs; food riots started...you could almost say the demons did our country a favor, I don't know about the rest of the world."
Roman scratched his head. "I dunno if the history books put it exactly like that," he said, and shrugged. "If they had, I might have actually listened."
Arashi snorted. "That's what I thought."
"So what happened after?" Roman asked, somewhat interested.
"You're kidding me." Arashi eyed him with flat-out disbelief. "It's not ancient history, you know."
Roman laughed. "No, but it all happened before I was born."
Arashi's eyes flashed. "And you could possibly wonder why I don't care to socialize with my age demographic."
"You sound like my little brother Cedric," Roman said fondly, and realized by the angry spark in Arashi's eye that he'd said entirely the wrong thing. "Er, he's genius-index, he skipped a couple of grades."
"Whatever," Arashi said, lifting a hand to his head, one finger briefly rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Look, what do you want?"
There was no way he could possibly be more blunt, Roman thought with mixed irritation and admiration. He'd finally found something of a match, but they were completely incompatible personality-wise. Roman could only reward such a direct question with an utterly honest answer. "Well, sex, of course."
Arashi stared at him.
Roman shrugged. "What other use would you have for a guy like me, anyhow?" he questioned, not precisely bitter. He knew his place in the world and wasn't pretentious about it whatsoever. He wasn't out to save the world, he didn't string two thoughts together contemplating the state of the human race, and he surely didn't apply his intelligence in remotely the same direction as his brothers. It was like a wolf facing down a feline, they were more than just two different breeds.
Arashi laughed, but the sound wasn't mocking, although it wasn't out of humor, either. "No beating around the bush," he said.
"Sure, I figured you would appreciate that." Roman thought of sidling up to him, then thought better of it. Arashi had a mean grip when he cared to exert it and Roman couldn't afford to explain more bruises to either of his steady lovers. "Don't you...I mean, you do have sex, do you?"
Arashi snorted. "Wouldn't it be more appropriate to ask me, first, if you're my type?"
"That's irrelevant, don't you think?" Roman said candidly. "This is going to be a limited affair, you know. And if you mean preference, well, I figured you'd make that clear off the bat."
The young man stalked within and arms' length of him, gaze sharpening. It was promising that he hadn't belted out an immediate 'no.'
"I also figured," Roman continued with a reflexive twitch of unease, "if my offer revolted you, you would tell me right off with hopefully no punching and we'd go our separate ways."
Arashi's mouth twitched. It was by no means a smile, but it still wasn't refusal. "No punching," he echoed.
Ah, a refusal, then. Roman shrugged and gave Arashi a brilliant photo-ready smile, pushing away from the pillar to give him the shoulder and leave the center. If he was quick enough – well, no. This was what he wanted, so he'd just go away unsatisfied for once.
A hand landed on his shoulder and Roman winced as he was turned, sure for a flinching moment that Arashi had decided in the name of violence, after all.
"Not so fast," Arashi said with a frown. "Don't assume." He fell silent as if even that much was too great an effort, and reverted to simply scowling as he looked Roman up and down.
Roman adjusted to this new curve, dipping his head and bestowing a new brand of smile on Arashi, the one that invited him to do as he liked. Still Arashi's scowl persisted, though the hand didn't leave his shoulder. He took his cue from this. "There's perfectly comfortable seating over there," he pointed out. He wondered how many men - or boys - Arashi had had before now. Not many, he was willing to bet, given Arashi's mixed responses to him. He wanted it, but didn't want to ask for it. He wasn't self-assured or perhaps practiced enough to simply take what he wanted, though that was his style.
"What are you going to do?" Arashi asked, his frown deepening.
Roman kept his smile light, seductive; otherwise it might betray his sympathy. However well-masked, he could scent uncertainty. "Fellatio all right with you?" he questioned, now fairly sure he wouldn't enjoy a prolonged make-out session beforehand or perhaps not even a kiss on the lips.
By way of answer, Arashi removed the hand from his shoulder, and stepped for the far side of the alcove, where the couch waited. "Let's do it."
He was so brusque and businesslike about it, Roman had to smother a laugh.
He joined Arashi at the window seat, intending to go to his knees, but a hand grabbed the collar of his uniform shirt, drawing him down to a position beside Arashi. Roman was pleasantly surprised when Arashi reeled him in, crushing a kiss on his mouth fit to bruise. Arashi's kisses were emphatic, zinging and clean-flavored with the taste of mint. He led with his tongue, opening Roman's mouth with it, forcing him to reconsider his earlier opinion that Arashi didn't have much experience. He was probably just laid back about it, or too busy to think about it much - or maybe it had been awhile. His peripheral musings got shunted back, far back, as Arashi slanted Roman's head and really went at it, pushing him down on the couch.
"God," Roman uttered when Arashi let him up at last. He licked his lips, quite sure they were reddened now. They sure felt swollen.
Arashi gave him a look beneath half-lowered eyes that glittered. He leaned back, the subtle cue letting Roman know that an attempt to unzip his fly wouldn't be unwelcome.
Roman kneeled on the couch, steadying himself with a hand on Arashi's firm thigh. He was already incredibly excited. Each new liaison was like Christmas to him, the excitement of getting what he wanted at last streaked through with his own anticipation. He undid the first button of Arashi's dark slacks and felt the skin of his belly tighten beneath his fingers. He was so looking forward to this.
The low, almost subliminal chime warned him first, then a tremor throbbed in Arashi's left pocket. The buzz persisted, palm device jumping around and threatening to tear fabric. Roman looked up into Arashi's face, mouth falling open not with surprise but a kind of annoyance, knowing for sure Arashi would answer the page and hoping he would get his call over with so that they could get back to what they were doing.
A flicker of annoyance crossed Arashi's face, and he delved inside his pocket, not even jostling Roman. Now he did surprise him as he flipped open the device with one hand, but placed another on Roman's shoulder, the touch anchoring him in place. Don't go anywhere, Arashi's hand warned. We've got unfinished business.
Roman squirmed in place, wondering if he dared adjust his hard-on. That was nice. Arashi was actually into it enough to 'ask' him not to leave.
"Arashi," Arashi answered his own phone. Whatever the caller said, it made his entire body go tense. "Support needed?" He cocked his head, eyes going through Roman to the beyond. "I understand. I'll be right–what?"
Roman sat up, disengaging Arashi's hand without resistance. Whatever it was, their happy little tryst was over. He'd have to find his opportunity some other time.
"Yes," Arashi said slowly, his eyes focusing on Roman, "but I don't–" He broke off and listened again.
Giving a little wave to excuse himself, Roman gathered his legs to get off the sofa. He'd find Charlotte, fill her in while finishing up lunch – he looked down in surprise, because Arashi's hand had locked around his wrist. The dark-haired boy gave him a shake of the head, gray eyes gone hard, then he transferred his attention to some distant point as he continued to listen.
"Look," Roman said in a stage whisper, "I don't want to interrupt what's obviously an important call–" He fell silent as Arashi cut his hand sharply, a shushing gesture.
"Yes, I'll bring him." He flipped the phone shut and drew Roman off the couch with him. "I need to go to Orion Corporation and you're going with me."
"Okay, what?" Roman passed a hand through his pale hair, growing irritated. "Normally I'm perfectly happy to skip a half-day of classes, but why on earth–"
"I'm being called in on a Code 6," Arashi interrupted him. "Ms. Carson asked me to bring you along, because it concerns you and your family."
Roman eyed him blankly. "I don't understand."
Arashi's gray gaze touched him briefly, then his jaw firmed and he looked away. "It's your brother, Professor Gabriel. He's been taken."
The words failed to process. "I–I don't..."
"It was a demon," Arashi clarified. "That's why they're calling me in. I do research and limited field ops for Orion. They need to put you under protection, so you're coming with me." With a tug, Arashi set them in motion, towing Roman behind him by the wrist.
"This doesn't make any sense!" Roman burst out, frustrated and increasingly angry. "Demons don't kidnap people! This has to be a mistake. Why...why would..." He trailed off as Arashi increased his pace, hitting the door to the student center and making it fly open, dragging Roman for the nearby stairwell. Arashi was agitated, more so than Roman had thought possible from his unflappable, cool exterior. Whatever he'd learned from Ms. Carsons on the phone, it had rattled him - and Arashi didn't strike him as the kind of person who rattled easily.
Arashi answered grimly, "These demons do. Let's go. Time is of the essence if we're going to get him back."
The 'if' chilled Roman to the bone.
Cedric tapped his light-stylus against the desk, half his mind on the timeline and bullet points that Mr. McCormick was writing up on the data wall, the other turning over his most recent revelations. It had opened up a hitherto undiscovered realm of awareness. Now the shy glances of his female classmates took on a new meaning - they liked him, or thought he was cute at the very least. None of his male classmates looked at him the way the girls did, or with anything even approaching that, so he didn't think that there were any gay boys in his class, although the bullies looked at him with loathing. They sat in the back of his class, though, and he had Rukawa to protect him now, so he didn't have to pay them any mind from now on.
It was intriguing. He thought that most of the girls were quite pretty, but he wasn't sure that he was ready to apply even the tame stuff, like dating or holding hands. One thing he'd learned once he began his studies last night was that girls had a different rate of maturation, and also believed in things like 'romance,' 'destiny,' and 'child support payments.' That seemed to him a universe better left alone. It did make him wonder, briefly, what his mother Arianna had been like. From the little that Gabriel and Roman ever spoke of her, she sounded like she had been a singularly unusual woman, full partner to her husband Carson, in control of their joint finances and most charitable ventures, and a driving force in their academic work. If he were to grow up and like girls, he thought he would rather like to find someone like that.
The look that Mr. McCormack gave him wasn't like the girls, or the boys, or Rukawa, OR his family. He labeled it an 'adult indulgence' sort of look...not quite like the way many of his teachers had regarded him, as curiosity and delight rolled up into one, but something more warm and avuncular, a spirit of kinship he supposed. He wanted to get to know Mr. McCormack the way he wanted to learn more about Rukawa, but that would be even more difficult, given the huge gap in their status - more than the student/teacher dichotomy, there was the child/adult gap to overcome. Cedric could circumvent it by pretending to have trouble with English...no, that wasn't plausible...perhaps History...well, his plans fell to pieces there. Mr. McCormack was quite sharp and he had already observed what a good student Cedric was. Besides, it was deceitful to make an association based on a false pretext, and Cedric despised deceitfulness.
"Can anyone tell me the five pivotal shifts of the Electronic Revolution?" Mr. McCormack asked, turning from the board and re-capturing Cedric's full attention.
Cedric kept his hand down, casting a curious glance around class. It had been in last night's reading, but his school experience told him only roughly half the class did the reading, and of those, many skimmed for highlights. Of that well-read number the shy ones kept their hands and heads down, hoping not to be called on, a few more held out simply due to apathy, and only a few absolutely certain of the answer and outgoing enough to do so raised their hands.
Blonde Samantha beside him was raising her hand. ""Capital," she stated clearly. "Corporations were wealthier than ever before, but there were enough of them that there was world-wide competition. They invested their capital in research."
"Very good," Mr. McCormack said, writing down 'capital' and 'research.' "You hit two of them, right there. Anyone else?" He nodded to someone beyond Cedric's field of vision.
"Labor," a boy called out. "The world had a huge population around the turn of the century, so they had lots of people who would work for dirt-cheap wages."
"Yes, that's right," Mr. McCormack replied. 'Labor' took its place beside 'capital' and 'research.' "Two more. Anyone remember what else caused the Electronic Revolution?" He nodded again.
"Um, literacy?" a girl guessed.
"Close," the teacher said, encouraging. "It's true that the literacy rate was high in our country and many others, even amongst some lower-class niches. We can't even fathom how lucky everyone was back then, able to devote a minimum of ten years of their lives to schooling. Apprenticeships had fallen largely into disuse, but knowledge was free and everyone not only had the time – in this country it was mandatory that all children receive a certain amount of..." he paused, letting the answer dangle.
"Education!" the girl exclaimed, filling in the blank.
"That's the one," Mr. McCormack said with a nod.
A boy snickered. "But we go to school..."
"It's true, but we living within the Walls are lucky," Mr. McCormack said. His tone was quiet but intense, and the students leaned in to listen. "For the people outside the Walls, there is no majority age, and there are hardly any schools but that of pure survival. Everyone is expected to work the moment you're old enough to pull crops, hold yarn for spooling, or load a gun."
"They get paid high wages, my dad says," a defiant-sounding boy piped up. "For the stuff they sell or gather for the vendors."
"You think they don't pay a price with their lives?" Mr. McCormack questioned. "Not everyone has a choice, either. The wages aren't as high as you would think - because things cost more outside the Walls, too. And it costs a mighty high price to buy your way into a Walled city for just one person, let alone a whole family. But we've gotten on a tangent...what is the last key ingredient that enabled the Electronic Revolution?"
No answers seemed forthcoming. Cedric cast a last glance around the room, then raised his hand. Mr. McCormack gave him a gentle smile as he called on him.
"Resources," Cedric said. "Because of the abundant supply of labor and capital, resources were more cheaply available than ever, and new ways of processing and refining minerals were continually being developed. Also, oil hadn't run out by that point; the oil resource fueled a huge boom and caused a world-wide step-up in production."
"Very good," Mr. McCormack praised. "Thank you, everyone, you've brought up great discussion points. You're doing the work for me!"
Cedric lowered his head, doodling on his electronic notepad. He had already brought up the bullet points he'd written down the night before.
"Now, a lot of people associate the Electronic Revolution with the turn of the century, but that's only a convenience. In actuality, it started quite a few decades before. Can anyone give me a pivotal event?" Mr. McCormack finished scrawling something on the data wall, turned, and blinked as a knock sounded on the door, making the entire classroom look up. "Excuse me."
Side conversations started up as Mr. McCormack went to the classroom door. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but Cedric could see a man beyond him who was even bigger, topping Mr. McCormack's substantial height, fair-haired and built like a tank. He spotted the crown of another head, but all he could see was dark hair.
Mr. McCormack turned with a troubled expression. "Cedric? Please come here and bring your things, if you would."
Cedric glanced round, as if checking for another classmate going by his name. His pulse began to pound in his throat, and his face heated up instantly. "Sir?"
"Please bring your things, Cedric," Mr. McCormack repeated gently.
Suffering already from the storm of whispering that had intensified the moment the teacher asked for him, Cedric began to stuff his things into his pack. He scrambled up off the chair. He had never been called out of a class before, but for an agonizing contraction of time all he felt was the eyes on him, instead of wondering why he was being taken from the middle of a history lesson.
"Mr. McCormack?" he whispered, drawing even with his handsome teacher, who laid a hand on his shoulder. Then he spotted the two people in the doorway, the ones who had interrupted his class.
His first, instinctive assessment was that the two of them were tough. The man was a towering wall of a person, with a strong jaw and distinctly Nordic features topped by gilt-fair hair. His face was drawn into a solemn, granite expression and he wore a battered leather thigh-length jacket even in the midst of summer, what looked like a white tank beneath, and black cords. The woman was as tall as Mr. McCormack, and looked as though she could break him in half. She was jet-black, with piercing light hazel eyes and a full, shapely mouth; she wore a red sleeveless top that looped around her neck and her bare arms had silver clasps around her stripped-muscle biceps. The clasps had glyphs etched into them that glowed with a faint blue-green brilliance. Another glyph-inscribed silver clasp caught dozens of tightly-cornrowed braids into a high ponytail at the crown of her head. The woman wore a gunbelt around her shoulders openly, and had holsters at both sides. What made her even more striking - and exotic, beside her comparatively plain but impressively huge companion – were the tattooes that chased up her arms and down her neck from the base of her ears, swirling over her shoulders and disappearing into her shirt. They were also glyphs, and had been obviously tattooed with more than just ink because they glowed a dusky, constant gold.
"Felicia Ark," she introduced herself, and gave a sidewise nod. "This is Humphrey Platt. We're from Orion, Cedric."
"All right," Cedric accepted this, looking up at both of them in turn. He wondered why Humphrey hadn't introduced himself. "Something's happened, hasn't it? Or you wouldn't be here."
Felicia raised a dark brow, glanced at her companion, and gave a sort of half-shrug when Humphrey didn't meet the look halfway. "Yes, son, you're going to have to come with us."
Cedric was about to speak up when Mr. McCormack did that for him, ushering them out into the hallway and closing the classroom door. "I hope you won't take offense if I ask for some identification."
Felicia pinned him with cool hazel eyes. "Sir, you should've asked already. And of course not. We verified with your principal already, but feel free to page him." She dug something out of her pocket; it appeared to be a thin coin. When she displayed it, the holographic logo of Orion Corporation appeared in the air. "As Cedric may already know, this is both a visual and electronic ident, feel free to verify it against your data wall, there." She gave a nod to the classroom display behind them.
"I'll do both," Mr. McCormack said, took the ident disc, and turned to the console, using his back to shield the display from view.
"What's going on?" Cedric asked of Felicia, already convinced that she was who she claimed. He had met Orion Corp bodyguards before, at the house and on a few of the occasions that he'd visited his brother's professorial digs.
Again Felicia glanced to the side, and shook her head. "I'm sorry, son, it's a Code 6. Better if I explain in the car."
Cedric's stomach sank. "Nobody's dead?" he said in a small voice.
Felicia gave him a look that said 'it's complicated.' There was pity mixed in there along with compassion and a fair bit of concern. "Not that we know of," she replied.
"Since it's probably not Roman, it must be Gabriel," Cedric said with mortal certainty.
Felicia chuckled. "You are a bright thing," she said, seeming a little dismayed, a little delighted. "Ms. Carson warned us about that – I'm sorry, son. It's your brother Gabriel, as you say. He's been kidnapped."
"Ah." Cedric clutched onto his backpack, whitening his knuckles. He had to look away from the sympathy in her eyes. A white-noise sense of unreality settled over him, buzzing in his ears. It couldn't be right, could it? But here they were.
Mr. McCormack turned away from the data console, handing the ident disc back to Felicia. "Thank you for putting up with me," he said politely. "Everything checks out, and the Principal said that Cedric was to leave here right away."
Felicia gave him a tight nod, then held out her hand to Cedric. "Come on, son, we've got to get to the Cygnus building as soon as possible."
"Will I be coming back to school?" Cedric asked her in a small voice, withholding his hand.
Felicia cocked her head. "Probably, when we know more." Her eyes slid in Humphrey's direction, then she shrugged again.
Something about the way they acted made Cedric think that they hadn't really worked together before. He turned to bid goodbye to his teacher, who was clearly worried and trying to seem as if he wasn't. Mr. McCormack gave him an approximation of a reassuring smile.
"We'll see you soon, Cedric," he said, clasping Cedric's shoulder briefly. "Take care."
He nodded, trying to swallow the difficult lump that had risen in his throat. Mr. McCormack waited while he turned to join the bodyguards, who flanked him on either side, and they took the hallway toward the stairs.
"Wait," Cedric said, stopping at the top step, seizing onto both straps of his pack and giving Felicia wide eyes. "I want to tell my senpai – I mean, my friend Rukawa. But he's in a different class."
"Sorry, son," Felicia told him, compounding his sinking feeling. He had figured she wouldn't agree.
"But he'll wait for me, otherwise!" Cedric tried that tack.
Felicia considered it for a moment, then shook her head. "I'm sure your teacher will let him know. We can't afford to stay here too long, in case..."
"In case they try for me, too," Cedric supplied, the jumbled knot in his stomach adding a queasy thread fear into the mix, as well.
"That's right. And there are too d–too many civilians in this building, I want to get us into that car and rolling," Felicia finished up. "Sorry about that, son. You can call him later."
Cedric shook his head, beginning to descend the stairs as the bodyguards got moving again. He didn't know Rukawa's number. He wanted someone familiar and he wanted them now. "And Roman?" he said, hopeful that they would go pick him up from his classroom next. He was a building over.
"He's on his way, should be there by the time we reach Cygnus, too."
Cedric squeezed the strap of his backpack in a strangle-grip. Between his two huge bodyguards, he suddenly felt small and alone. He wanted his brothers, both of them. Now there was no telling when – or if – he would see Gabriel again. "Please let him be okay," he subvocalized, not even thinking of himself.
Humphrey's head turned, and the big man looked at him with a stolid expression. It might have been his imagination, but he thought he saw a sad, sympathetic glint in those narrow blue eyes before the man looked away.
Roy Masters was running late, and he was tired, and not looking forward to yet another long day of re-directing Keiran's youthful crush on their boss into actual, productive energy around their office. He preferred to be in the office by seven at the latest, but usually arrived at six, partly to get a jump start on the day before morning lecture but also to tweak his mentor. He liked teasing Gabriel about being late, though technically he never was because his earliest lecture started at eight-thirty and there was only two of those a week - neither of which was today, thank Apollo.
He had a case full of screen files, and hadn't gotten through all of those the night before. He hadn't even begun revising today's lectures. Roy tried to remember if Gabriel had left out any grimoire-related files. At least he'd promised not to take any photoslides home, that truly made him nervous. There was something about this latest project from Orion that gave him a shivery bad feeling, and Roy was not a superstitious sort.
The commute to work was a short one. Roy had a car, but preferred to take the bus. Campus was only twelve blocks away, long enough that he didn't care to walk the distance, but it was easy enough to bus it within a couple of blocks. He walked up the lane that would take him to campus, enjoying the early autumn blossoms that were starting to make an appearance in planters beside the curbs. While walking, he spotted a familiar, somewhat rumpled figure, shaded his eyes with a hand, and cursed under his breath. It looked as if he wouldn't be able to get into the office ahead of Gabriel, after all. His reputation was going to suffer.
Roy dithered between calling out a greeting and crossing over, and making a break for it. Gabriel looked abstracted as usual, which probably meant he was already going over translations in his head even without the photoslide in front of him. In fact, he was about to collide– A tall man in a long gray overcoat bumped into him, and Roy frowned. It was still summery weather out, there was no reason to wear such a–he gasped as the man seized him, delivering a cutting blow to the neck.
The shout froze in Roy's throat. Without even casting a look around, the tall creature was hustling Gabriel for a nearby car that had pulled up to the curb beside them. The dark wraparound sunglasses, the coordination of the kidnapping – Orion had no trade competitors, so no one would be taking Gabriel to hold those secrets hostage. Roy forced himself to keep moving, while groping for the cell in his pocket. This was bad news, and the worst of it was his utter helplessness. He was too far away, and even if he sprinted, he was sure that was a Nephilim. It would mean his life, and Gabriel wouldn't thank him for the attempted rescue if anything happened.
If Gabriel got out of it alive.
With shaking fingers, he began to dial his cell phone, fumbled, and stopped. Numbers grayed out of his mind entirely. Grateful for his own organizational skills, he located the number for his Orion contact at the top of his phone directory. Alicia Carson picked up on the first ring.
"This is Carson."
"Alicia, someone just took Gabriel," Roy said, dispensing with pleasantries.
"Human or other?"
"Not sure," Roy said, frowning, concentrating on the car's blurry registry as it sped up the street. "You have a pencil?"
He recited the string of numbers for her. "That's the car that took him. Whether it was Nephilim or not, they'd have someone working on the inside, no?"
"Leave that to us," Alicia said coolly. "Roy, where are you? And where's the commission we left?"
"On my way to the office, which is where that should be, as well, Athena permitting," Roy replied, quickening his steps. He thanked whatever benevolent god might have been watching that Keiran did not come in until later, so he was bound to be safe and asleep in his bed at this early hour.
"All right. I'm sending a team, stay there until they get there," she told him.
"Okay...wha–wait, what do you mean, a team?" Roy sputtered.
"We're extracting you, Roy. If Gabriel's been taken, your location may be compromised. To be safe we're going to have to remove you, the item, and whatever else you need until this situation is resolved."
Roy blinked, realized that he had come to a complete stop, and forced his limbs to move again. "You can't," he said dumbly. "I have classes..." He trailed off, realizing how trivial that sounded. This very instant, Gabriel was in danger. But as long as the grimoire was safe...if it was still in the office...they had a chance. If they needed it, they might keep Gabriel alive long enough to try and find it.
"We'll make arrangements," Alicia was reassuring him, sounding stern. "Roy, I'm afraid I'll have to insist. If the Nephilim–"
"I know," Roy interrupted, shaking his head, forgetting that she couldn't see him. "I need to realign my priorities. I'm sorry, I'm not thinking quite rationally. I'll get to the office and start packing."
"It's understandable. I'm hanging up now, Roy, I have several calls to make."
Roy clicked off, marveling at her calm. It was clear which one of them was the professional, at least. She acted as if she handled a crisis every morning before breakfast. For all he knew, she did – though like him she might have already eaten that day. He caught himself seizing on those irrelevancies as if they were issues of great importance. He really must be in shock.
Gabriel had been snatched away right before his eyes, and it had been so fast. A chill coursed down his neck, prickling hairs in its wake. If that really had been a Nephilim...
Roy hurried the rest of the distance to the office, a sick feeling building inside him. Gabriel, gone...if the grimoire was gone, too, then all the crack teams Orion could put together might not... Demons wouldn't need him for the translation, after all. He fumbled with the lock to the office, slightly less sick at the fact that it was still locked. Why bother to lock it, after all, if you were a demon and what you'd stolen was within your grasp?
He flung the door open, casting wildly about the darkened office space. The tidiness made an immediate impression on him, and he blessed Keiran in his heart for having cleaned the place. With the mess it had been before, a mess after break-in would look much the same. Everything was still in order. He hurried to the back, dialed open the safe and peered inside, then shut it once more and sank into a nearby chair to spare his trembling knees.
The grimoire was still within, exactly in its seal as Gabriel had left it.
Roy covered his face with his hands. He was at a loss. There was a strong pull inside him to call someone, but there was no one who needed notifying. Ms. Carson would take care of the two remaining Vaille brothers. When she had spoken of extraction, he knew what that meant. Once they had begun working for Orion Corporation, one of the things laid out on the table from the very beginning were case scenarios in case something went wrong. This was what Orion referred to as a "Code 6" scenario - where one or more parties under their protection were in imminent danger. A team would pick up Roy and anything essential or particularly non-essential that he wanted to go with him to the secure location. Roman and Cedric Vaille would be brought there as well, for safety's sake. And then...
Then, he supposed, plans would be made to recover Gabriel. At least they had something that would buy them some time. Roy hoped by all the protective gods that Gabriel wouldn't crack immediately and let slip the fact of his eidetic memory.
He peeled his hands away from his face and looked around the office. That would have to go...and that...he'd have to locate a box for all the files and books he'd need; someone would have to drop by his apartment for his effects, he hoped the "team" Ms. Carson had mentioned had the capability to extract the entire safe and take it along with them. First, to begin with he would have to make himself stand and get started.
After ordering several screen-files into a pile and locating several of the more esoteric books that he was sure Orion wouldn't have on tap, Roy got himself into the mindless rhythm of gathering up everything that would have to go along. He managed not to think about why he was doing it as he rushed to locate everything, including Gabriel's personal files, that he thought would be useful. He had his back turned to the door as he located a crate and began piling things, so when the lights flipped on he stiffened as if a gunshot had gone off.
"Whoa! I'm sorry, Mr. Masters! I didn't mean to startle you..."
Roy turned, letting out a slow, hissing breath. "Keiran...you can't sneak up on a man like that." He palmed his bangs out of his eyes, noting absently that it was just about time for a trim. He really was noticing minutia this morning.
"I know, I'm sorry..." Keiran was instantly contrite. He advanced a few steps, looking around – probably for his beloved professor, Roy thought with only a trace of bitterness. "What are you doing getting ready with the lights off – wait, is something wrong?"
"Yes," Roy said point-blank. No point in hiding it, because Keiran at least would need to know. "The professor has been kidnapped."
Keiran simply stood there for a moment, hand still lifted for the light switch. "But how...how is that possible?"
Roy produced a short, angry bark of sound approximating laughter. "How? Someone took him right off the street, I saw it with my own eyes." He passed a hand over his face. There should have been something that he could have done. He had been there. If he'd called out–
He could have been killed, the voice of sensibility intruded on his self-flagellation; and then no one would have known that Gabriel was missing for hours. Roy clenched his jaw. But Gabriel could be killed – the grimoire was still here...
"No," Keiran persisted, "I guess I mean, why? Why would anyone take him?"
There were all of the usual answers that he could offer to Keiran. Ransom, for Gabriel Vaille was very rich; jealousy, fanaticism, corporate secrets. Even his bedamned uncle Richard Vanderbrandt, though that man probably wouldn't resort to such tactics because he was the type to carefully weigh what he'd have to gain from any such action.
"Shut the door," Roy said.
Keiran complied, his pretty heart-shaped face hesitant but alert. He approached as Roy gestured, drew even with him and stood with arms folded over his skinny chest.
"Remember the confidentiality agreement that you signed with Orion Corporation," Roy began, feeling somewhat uneasy about talking about it nonetheless.
Keiran's long-lashed blue eyes widened. "No way, this has something to do with Orion!?" he blurted.
"Let me finish," Roy said, leveling a repressive schoolteacherish look on him.
Keiran caught his lip between his teeth and waited.
Roy sighed, cast his eyes to the ceiling and searched for the words, and shook his head. "You know what he was working on. That grimoire."
Keiran nodded his head, holding in whatever questions he might have. His eyes were so large and curious, Roy couldn't help noticing.
"That grimoire is an important key to some very high-level demonic secrets, or so Orion thinks - and Gabriel seemed to be convinced of it, as well. Even if they don't need it themselves, there is just about anything they'd do to keep humans from having it. This is speculation on my part, but I'm sure that it was a demon who hustled Gabriel into that car. Orion will look into it, but given what we have in the safe right now, that's the only thing I can think of," Roy said, gripping the back of a chair in front of him. He lowered his head, thoughts pounding briefly over him of how he should have done something, anything to prevent Gabriel from entering that car. Useless.
"They...they who?" Keiran prompted, after giving him a moment and apparently deciding he wasn't going to resume explanations. "What do you mean, demons kidnapped? They don't...they just kill people!"
Roy shook his head slowly, raising haunted eyes. "The most cunning thing that the Nephilim ever did was make mankind believe that demons didn't exist."
Keiran's mouth formed a round 'o' and he waited for elaboration.
"The Nephilim, Keiran. They look like men, but they're demons."
"I...I don't understand..."
"Of course not." Roy sighed, putting a hand to his head. Even though Keiran had signed the confidentiality agreement, even though he and Gabriel might have divulged this information to him after careful discussion of the necessity, Roy felt as if he was spilling secrets that he shouldn't. "It's one of their best-kept secrets, demons. Nephilim want to pass as human. Ever since the Rising, when you hear tell of demons it's the misshapen, the clearly inhuman. And Orion and those in charge want to keep it that way too."
"But...but if they're trying to pass, and Orion is complicit in that..." Keiran floundered.
"Not complicit. Protecting their own interests." Roy scrubbed a hand over his face again. He was distracted, a hundred threads of thought pulling him in different directions, and he wasn't explaining this very well. "Do you know how many half- or part-demon people would be kicked out of the walls or killed if it were generally known that they're part Nephilim? Not to mention a good half or more of our demon hunters have, themselves, demon blood in them. It makes them strong enough to fight, or resist."
Keiran's brows beetled. "But if they have demon blood they must be bad, right?"
"Not all of them," Roy said quietly. "Call them throwbacks, or inexplicably soft on the human race, but we have plenty of allies, and it's part of what has kept humans alive. Nephilim have been living amongst us for a long time, and after the Rising, they came to either help us or see us dead."
"But Gabriel was kidnapped by the Nephilim," Keiran stated.
"I'm pretty sure, yeah."
Roy was exasperated. It was too much for him to explain right now, so he cut off Keiran's inexpert speculations. "Not now, okay? Help me pack these things up."
For the first time, Keiran cast a wide glance around the office, noticing that Roy was bundling up a great deal of research material. "Where are you going?"
"The Professor has been kidnapped," Roy said, holding onto his patience. He liked this boy, and didn't want to hurt his feelings. Of course, he didn't know the things Roy did, and shouldn't be expected to. It was just another thing to have to deal with right now with him going out of his mind. "Orion is coming to extract me, all the relevant research materials, and the grimoire. They'll take Gabriel's brothers to a safe place, in case the Nephilim intended to seize them as targets. And then..."
"They'll rescue the Professor?" Keiran seized on the possibility, his blue eyes glowing.
Roy took in a sharp breath. "We'll see. They'll try. Orion always has the best operatives."
The knock on the door startled them both. Roy motioned Keiran to stay put and answered it. A piece of his tension dissolved when he opened the door and recognized Kellan Raye, sometime Orion courier who had delivered various odd jobs when Ms. Carson wasn't available.
"Roy. I'm sorry about Gabriel," Kellan said, sticking her hand out forthrightly. She was an olive-complected, very attractive woman at about Keiran's height, tall for a woman. Her long, sleek chestnut hair was pulled back in a functional ponytail that, even up, fell halfway down her back. He had never seen her dressed in anything but dark gray, though she was a lovely woman – high cheekbones, wide-spaced almond shaped eyes – with the coloring to support bright hues and fabrics. There was something in those forthright eyes that made him wonder, occasionally, if she was one of the demon-blooded. Of course, he'd never ask.
"Thanks for coming, Kellan." He looked over her shoulder. The promised 'team' was four others besides her competent self, three big men and a surprisingly tiny woman – or at least, she was comparatively small.
"Of course," Kellan returned, entering the office as he allowed room. "Ms. Carson wanted to send someone familiar to you, it's a tense situation. Mannon, Aberlaide, we're extracting the safe." She turned a querying look on him.
"That's right," Roy confirmed, leading the way. "I'll dial it open again, disarm it - if you have a truck, you can port the whole thing."
"We have a truck," Kellan said. She picked her way elegantly around desks and hovered over the pile of screen-files that Roy had put together, then turned her clinical gaze on Keiran. "And who's this?"
Roy turned from the door, where he had been momentarily distracted watching the other two team members enter the office - and remain near the entrance. One was a tall, muscled bodyguard type, dark-skinned, shoulder-length hair that fell to his shoulders and gleamed like silk, long unseasonably warm leather trench coat. He could have been a bouncer rather than a bodyguard, and he wore sunglasses as coal-black as his coat. If this had been the one to show up at his door, rather than familiar Kellan, Roy would have had to ask for an ident disc.
The girl stayed near the tall black bodyguard, her back turned to the room. Of the entire team, she looked least like a fighter, so it was possible she was psychic, or part demon. She couldn't possibly look any less the part; she was fine-boned and slender, standing a few headspans below her taller companion. All Roy could see of her at the moment was her flowing abundance of white-gold hair. It cascaded down to her elbows. He couldn't recall any remarkable features about her face from his quick earlier glance, but he was rather distracted still.
"This...oh, this is Keiran, the Prof–my assistant, really. It's okay, he's confidential." Roy disarmed the safe for the two big bodyguards, then returned to his box. He wasn't half done with the packing yet.
Kellan's dark eyes measured the redhead, who still had his arms wrapped over his chest and looked as if he'd back into a corner, given a single harsh word. "He knows about the item?"
It was almost laughable to him that they were still talking in code. 'The item.' Only a dangerous piece of work that never should have left the safeguards of an Orion building in the first place.
"Yes, he does." Roy sifted through another pile that he had brought over, and opted to dump the entire thing into one of his "keeper" boxes rather than sort the entire thing right now.
Kellan looked back and forth between them, sizing them up in a snap, then stepped a little closer to Roy. "He's going to need to come with us, then."
"What!?" Keiran exclaimed. "Wait – no, I don't know anything!"
"It doesn't matter," Kellan replied with a headshake. Her long chestnut tail swished to and fro. It was the only soft thing about her. "Don't you understand? If that was Nephilim, they could come right back onto this campus and take anyone associated with the office."
"Only if they knew what they were going for," Roy retorted, playing devil's advocate.
"Don't be stupid," Kellan ground out, stepping up. Her amber-brown eyes were fierce. "Whomever kidnapped Gabriel, they knew him by sight, didn't they? They took him from the street before he even reached campus, you told Ms. Carson. Stands to reason they've had you under surveillance. This was not a spur of the moment job. And you know the Nephilim can pass. If they've seen this boy, they'll take him to toy with the Professor...and then maybe try and pump him for information."
Roy dropped his stack of files, stricken. "I...I didn't think..."
"Obviously," Kellan said, that note of steel still present in her voice. "Now let's finish up here, get to Cygnus, and we'll need to debrief you. Don't fall apart on me, Masters."
Roy squared his shoulders, lifting his chin. "I am not falling apart," he objected, turning to face her directly. "Forgive me for seeming scattered; this is the first time I've had to deal with an abduction before. I'm city folk, remember? I've never even seen the outside of a Wall."
Kellan leaned over the desk, her eyes still locked with his. "Good for you." She pointed at Keiran. "Give Mr. Masters a hand, will you? I want us out of here as soon as they port the safe into the truck's bed." Her jaw was tight.
Roy didn't know Kellan very well, but it seemed to him that she was nervous. This might be even bigger than he thought; it had certainly gotten Gabriel excited. With a pang, he left the box aside and the sight of the exposed safe, Keiran's stricken face, and returned to his boss's office to see if there was anything he'd missed. Gabriel was both boss and friend, and already Roy was thinking in past tenses, going over his memory to try and snatch back the last words they'd exchanged. He hadn't even called out good morning. Had just watched him get assaulted...
The soft voice at his elbow made him blink back the prickle of moisture and turn. "I'm sorry, Keiran. Sorry for dragging you into this whole mess," Roy muttered. There was nothing left in the office that he needed, only the lingering presence of Gabriel, scent of real, aged books neatly lined on the shelves - the one thing he could keep organized - and the cluttered desk that had been pillaged of all possibly useful files. He reached up, rubbing across the bridge of his nose, surreptitiously scooping beneath one eye. He was fine.
"No, I..." Keiran shook his head, attempted a smile that collapsed in on itself. "It's fine, I just hope that the Professor will be all right. Do you know where they're taking us?"
Roy cursed himself for inconsiderateness. "Orion Corporation has safe locations in town. This would be one of their covert underground facilities."
"'Covert' is another word for 'secret,'" Keiran observed. "This is just until they find the Professor, right, Mr. Masters?"
"Call me Roy," he said grimly, pushing away from the door's threshold and casting a glance around the office. "We're in this together, you know? And to answer your question...I'm really not sure. We're just going to have to find out. But I certainly hope so."
He watched as the two big men fitted the safe with lifts, easing it out of its former niche. Roy could feel a veil of dispassion settling over him, the distance of necessity. Kellan had finished the realignment of priorities that his phone call to Ms. Carson had started. He couldn't afford any time for hysteria; there were things he needed to do and he could still be helpful - to Orion, and to Gabriel. The project had to continue while the search began.
"Okay," Keiran said, recalling his attention. The boy's habitual cheer had been quenched. "What can I do to help?"
That's almost what I'd like to know, Roy thought wryly, but he was already writing up mental lists as he allowed that last self-pitying flicker to pass through him. "Grab everything that looks remotely related to the project and box it," Roy directed. Kellan had stepped away and it looked as though she would be escorting the safe to the truck. He wondered for a moment what her particular priorities were, and whether she had been ordered to protect the grimoire or their lives first.
He dismissed it as a useless thought. In a pinch, the bodyguards would do what they had to - protect. And he would grab Keiran, hit the deck, and do his part not to make that more difficult for them. He was being naive and possibly paranoid to boot.
The tall black man spoke up from the office entrance. "Mr. Masters, please finish up. They have the safe in the truck and they want to get rolling." He had a faint hint of accent as if he'd grown up overseas.
The blonde turned. "Need a hand?" she asked. "Reims can't carry anything, he has to have his hands free." She offered a smile, warm and encouraging, as she joined them. There were four boxes between them, so it would work out if Roy took two.
"I appreciate it," Roy said with a nod, passing one over. The blonde had regular but unremarkable features, neither pretty nor plain, but her eyes...he looked closer, then away as she widened her eyes at him and the smile curved up one side of her mouth. She shrugged.
Her eyes weren't actually dark, but the pupil took up almost the entire area of her iris, which was a thin bluish ring that seemed to glow the tiniest bit. Not enough that he'd noticed it at first glance.
"Can't be helped," she said, accepting the box. "I've got my eyes wide open right now, if you know what I mean. They go back to normal once I'm not really looking for anything special."
"Sorry," Roy apologized for staring.
She shrugged, dismissing it. "Let's go before Reims gets impatient. Which he does. On a regular basis." Her tone was soft, teasing, and not nearly loud enough for the man all the way across the room to hear.
"I heard that," Reims spoke up.
"'Course you did, honey, you've got ears like a bat."
Outside the office wing, a large vehicle that dwarfed the term 'truck' awaited them, motor already rumbling. One of the suited bodyguards gestured them forward. "In the truck, come on."
They piled their stuff, climbed into the double cab, and one of the bodyguards – Mannon or Aberlaide, he wasn't sure which – shut them in and headed for one of the hydrobikes that flanked the large vehicle.
"Reims, take us to Cygnus," Kellen declared, and the engine gunned.