Damon clicked off the phone with unusual force, stabbing at the slim electronic device and nearly breaking a button. He could understand River's line of reasoning, he could abide by it if necessary, but he truly despised it. Someone had fucked around with his River and was going to get away with it, because he'd been ordered not to do something. It was tremendously galling.
Not to mention...he was somewhat sheepish about it, but he was a little sore from the marathon sex, and couldn't even imagine how River was feeling today. One hand slipped under his shirt in the back to finger over some of the scratches that River had given him. They covered almost every inch of his back and stung madly.
"River," he murmured, "what am I going to do with you?"
He drifted barefoot from the wide, sun-lit living room into the studio with its digital equipment, lightboard, and other various gear of his trade. He'd go through some of his older shoots to calm himself. There were actually some older photoslides that had absolutely nothing to do with the pale-haired boy who'd captured his heart. In a maddening way.
There was no concept meeting this afternoon, as originally planned. Instead they had to reschedule the photo shoot, which wasted more than a whole days' work for several affected staff, and had slotted another meeting into the place of the conceptual one that had been originally planned. Then they would try the photo shoot again... Damon sighed, picking up a slender sheaf of hard-copy photos, and the scratches on his back throbbed.
They had done it so many times that his dick was sore. When he thought that he wouldn't be able to get it up anymore, River dropped to his knees and proved Damon wrong. The teen had been absolutely insatiable...which was only slightly more voracious than his typical appetite. Really, he was a marvel.
He leafed through some of his older portfolios for a while, then put them away. Damon had trouble looking at copies of his older work most of the time, and didn't even like to keep prints of his photos on any of the walls of his apartment. He had a few up in the studio here, ones that reminded him of particularly strong events or high points of his career. And there was one photo of River that he kept, with the model's permission, framed on his bed-stand; not from a shoot or any professional occasion, but the first genuine smile that he'd given Damon, free of artifice or even allure. It wasn't a particularly good shot, necessarily, but the smile shone through – and had been snapped the morning after their first time.
Sentimental fool, River called him. Probably so.
Damon brewed himself a cup of tea and stood for a long moment in his living room, looking out the bay windows at the coruscating colors of the Wall in the distance, blurred rose-orange like a perpetual sunset, threaded through with an occasional discharge of electric blue.
His father had grown up outside the Wall, and tucked away enough hazard pay and established connections that he'd been able to buy his way into the city before his thirtieth birthday. He'd met Damon's mother, wooed and married her, maintained a lucrative business that involved operations that connected three city areas, and provided for them to be educated inside the Walls and live their entire lives with minimal risk, if they wanted. Damon would always be grateful for it. He'd risked his own self in the early days of his career, trying to build a name for himself - his convoys had always been protected by hunters, it was true, but things went wrong every day.
After testing his tea and determining that it wasn't too piping hot, he returned to the studio. He would work on last week's proofs, after all. Too much the creature of habit, Damon chafed during down-times and preferred to have too much to do rather than not enough. He'd be happy when River graduated, because it meant that he'd be able to work full-time...
Not that they'd always have contracts like this. But by then, well...
His head jerked up from the proof he was examining as the phone rang again. Unconcerned, he thumbed it open, noted that it was from River again, and took the call. "River? What's going on–" It was past the lunch hour, he should definitely be back in class by now.
A hitched sound, a sobbing gasp greeted him. "D-Damon." On the other end of the line River sucked in a slow, shaky breath. "Damon, they took him. He's gone."
"What?" Damon pushed upright from his work station, clutching the phone more tightly to his ear as if that would help the words make sense.
"G-G-Gabriel." There was a sniff, then another. River sounded as if he was barely holding on.
"Who took him? Gabriel was kidnapped? River, where are you right now?" Damon demanded, already heading for his keys and the door.
"I, uh–" There was a brief silence.
When the line resumed, it wasn't River anymore. A cool, collected voice stated, "This is Arashi, I work for Orion Corporation. You're acquainted with Roman Vaille?"
"Uh, yes," Damon said, pausing beside the hallway counter-top. "Where is he?
There was a short sigh. "Look, this is against procedure but he wants you here," Arashi told him. "Can I give you the address? I think he'd better pull it together before his little brother gets here, and the briefing starts."
Damon scrabbled for one of the pads of paper he kept on almost every likely surface in the house. "Go ahead."
Arashi recited the address. "That's the Cygnus building, so we'll be waiting by the entrance. You'd never get clearance otherwise."
Thanks for that, Damon thought, annoyed. Who was this kid? He sounded like he was about River's age, but he was with Orion Corp?
Damon peeled through the streets fast enough to make good time, just riding the edge of too fast not to ticket. He was frantic. He had never heard or seen River ruffled like the call he'd just received; hysterical and barely capable of speech. It wasn't normal – but then, having a family member kidnapped was hardly a daily occurrence, either. And while he couldn't bring himself to rub elbows peaceably with Gabriel Vaille, he would never have wished ill on the man.
The Cygnus building was a plain, unremarkable gray stone building on a block of the same. He would have missed it completely but for the large-font address tacked to the front. He parked his car nearby and hurried up to the entrance where Arashi had promised to wait. Two teenage boys in uniform waited just within the glass doors, one of them slumped against the inner wall, his face turned away.
One of them shouldered the door open, stepping outside to meet Damon. He was a gorgeous thing, with model-regular features, narrow gray eyes, and chestnut hair shot through with golden streaks.
Damon's brows lowered. "You must be Arashi," he said coolly.
Arashi didn't bother to extend a hand. "That's right." He stood with one hip slightly cocked, his piercing gray eyes taking Damon's measure.
It was instant dislike, just as it had been with Gabriel. "Will you tell me what the hell is going on, or can you?"
Arashi raised a brow. "What I know is inconclusive, and very little, so I don't believe it would be of any help to you – or him." He nodded to the hunched figure just within the doors. "I can't even tell you how long you can stay, that's up to the personnel in charge."
"In charge of what?" Damon demanded.
"He told you, right?" Arashi said. "Professor Gabriel was kidnapped. It may involve demon activity, and that's all I know."
"Oh." The impact of those words stunned him like a one-two punch. He'd traveled outside the Walls enough to know what that meant. "Then...they don't think..."
"'They' don't know anything yet," Arashi stressed. "And that's one of the reasons I was called in."
Damon gestured for the door, indicating he wanted inside. "You're an operative, then."
"No point in denying it." Arashi turned his back on him, pressing an ident disc to the plate console outside the door. He tapped in a sequence and the glass doors slid open on pressure.
It seemed they locked from the outside, but Arashi had been able to push them open from the inside. One-way doors.
Damon headed for his lover's side at once. "River," he said quietly, touching his shoulder.
A jade green eye lifted from the curtain of pale lavender-platinum hair that River had let fall across his face. "Damon," he said hoarsely, and turned. He stumbled against him, tacitly begging for an embrace, and Damon put his arms around him protectively, one hand reaching up to stroke at mussed, fly-away strands of hair. He'd never seen River so disheveled, but it was clear why.
When he looked over River's shoulder, all he could see was Arashi's cool, dispassionate gray gaze observing them. They maintained eye contact until at last Arashi looked away, glancing through the front doors.
"Sorry," River mumbled against his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Damon, I didn't mean to lose it...I just...I thought of Gabriel, and demons, and I've heard what they do, demons with their...their..." He buried his head against Damon again and he simply held him closer while River shivered.
It's going to be okay. Could he even say those words?
"We won't know anything until Ms. Carson's briefing," Arashi's steady voice informed them. "There's no need to jump to conclusions before then.
"Yes, that's very good advice," Damon said, trying to bite down on his sarcasm, not quite able to contain it all. "It's not always possible to contain the way that you feel about bad news."
"As far as I'm concerned we've got no news," Arashi shot back, bracing one hand on a cocked-out hip. "But as soon as we get up to that briefing..."
Roman pushed at his chest, standing on his own. One hand scrubbed at his face, briefly, then he turned up reddened eyes to Damon, ignoring Arashi. "Let's go," he said, voice low.
There seemed to be facilities aboveground, but Arashi took them past the reception desks to a sleek black elevator set in a back wall. It was heavy-duty and looked blast-proof. Most of the numbers on the console were sub-level, and Arashi pressed the button for B20. It was a seriously underground facility, to go that far.
"Funny," Damon said, "I thought regulations prevented anyone from digging a hundred feet below sea level."
Arashi flexed a brow at him. "Obviously there are exceptions."
He was tiring quickly of the smart-ass kid, and the irritated feeling was obviously mutual.
"At any rate, save your questions for Ms. Carson," Arashi said shortly. "She'll tell you whatever you need to know and skip over what you don't."
"Great," Damon said. "Thanks for that."
The elevator opened up onto a gray steel corridor not unlike any other found in reinforced industrial buildings. Arashi led them through a labyrinthine series of hallways, presented his ident chip to a doorway plaque, and the doors slid open onto a wide, broad conference room with a long table with a data surface inset throughout most of it, save for a handspan margin of lacquered pale wood. Squat, triangular black holofixtures were evenly spaced along the perimeter.
Damon didn't have time to really admire the technology. There were several people already present, milling along the side of the room where food and drink had been laid out in abundance. It made him wonder how long they were expected to be cloistered in this 'war room.' The only person he recognized at once in the group was the slight, short figure of–
"Cedric!" River exclaimed, leaving his side and hurrying for the child.
"Aniki!" Cedric cried out, leaving the side of several tall, very fit bodyguards and launching himself at River. "It's a Code 6, Nephilim involvement confirmed."
Damon's brow contracted. Nephilim? Where had he heard that word before?
"Sorry to bother you." A woman in a cream-colored suit with blue accents strode up to him, holding out a manicured hand. Despite her office professional appearance, she had a firm grip and something about the way that she moved warned Damon that she could pull out the stops and fight, if necessary. She had a pretty but solemn face, coiffed blonde hair, and very bright blue eyes. "I'm Alicia Carsons, I'll be heading up the task force. We've got some talent on the way, and then we can really get started with the briefing."
"Talent?" Damon echoed. He had stepped into an entirely different world.
"Contract demon hunters, to be precise," Alicia clarified. "We want to be prepared, and I want all of the principals here for the briefing."
"What's going to happen to those boys?" Damon questioned, nodding to the reunited Vaille brothers, who were clinging together as if it had been an age since the last time they'd seen one another. Damon had only seen Cedric on a few occasions, but he was sure from hearing River talk about his brother that they weren't usually so physically demonstrative.
"They'll be held in protective custody until we know more, Mr. Raine," Alicia said with a frown.
It didn't surprise him in the slightest that this woman knew his name. Damon had already known that Gabriel worked now and again for Orion Corporation. They would have, of course, done background checks on him and his entire family. That should make him nervous, but he sensed that this woman wouldn't use any information she might have uncovered against him. She wouldn't see any advantage. Without being told, he recognized that Alicia Carson had grown up outside of the Walls.
"Once we do know more," she continued, "they'll be assigned bodyguards and allowed to continue with normal life, more or less."
That was something, at least. He gave her a slow nod. "And how do I fit into this whole thing?" With a sweep of his hand he indicated the conference room.
Her penetrating blue eyes returned to him. "Mr. Raine, he may be fine now, but Roman has some...volatile elements in his personality. I think that it would be best if you stayed with him for the duration of the protective custody. He'll need...a support figure." She hesitated over the term, then gave him a querying roll of the head.
"I can stay as long as he wants me here," Damon said quietly.
Alicia gave him a brisk nod. "Good, I'll make arrangements."
"I appreciate that." Without even having to ask, the team leader had arranged for Damon's priorities to get taken care it. He was impressed by her take-charge attitude. It boded well for Gabriel's chances of recovery, he mused.
While Cedric and River held one another and communed in a language that was partly recognizable, part sibling shorthand, Damon turned an eye around the room. There was a number of incredibly fit people who looked as if they were bodyguards or hunters. He hoped that they would be going through introductions. He drifted over to the sideboard, which was loaded with food and drink, and poured himself a glass of water, wishing he could lay hands on the snifter of bourbon instead. He would probably need that later.
There was a tall, broad-shouldered man beside him stacking cheese and crackers on a plate, creating a precarious tower with absent-minded concentration. Though he had a powerful build he looked the academic type, white collared shirt and nice dress slacks, neat dark hair and tired blue eyes. He turned, plate in one hand, and tracked the progress of a slender redhead boy as the young man moved around the room.
"Hello, pardon me," Damon said, proferring a hand. "Damon Raine, I'm..."
"I've heard of you," the dark-haired man said shortly. He glanced around, then accepted his hand. He had a firm shake, powerful but not overly dominating. "Roy Masters. I'm Professor Gabriel's associate."
"Oh, yes, of course," Damon said with a slight frown. He might have heard of this man before, but in passing. River didn't talk too much about his brother's work. "Sorry...I'm sorry to hear your colleague–"
"Yes, thank you," Roy cut him off. "Excuse me." He moved off toward a black-garbed woman with a long chestnut ponytail, asking her something in a low, terse tone. He had left his plate behind him.
"Nice to meet you," Damon muttered, but didn't bother taking offense. He cast about the room, noting the mountain of bodyguard leaning against the very end. That one was tall, Nordic blond, and looked as if he could pop heads. There was a lot of impressive muscle in the room.
"No, we're waiting for two more, and the division head might drop in," the dark-haired woman said, her voice clear but carrying. "Then they'll ask for your statement and recon can begin."
"I thought we didn't have much time!" Roy burst out, becoming the focus of the room's attention for a moment.
Alicia Carson regarded him for a moment, met Damon's eyes briefly, then walked over to the table, manicured fingers tapping over the data surface. A shrill warble announced an open line, then a cheerful male voice said "Yes?"
"We're waiting on the hunters, sir," Alicia rapped out.
"Oh...oh, are you!? Sorry about that, Alicia, I've got Shemyahza with me, I must have been keeping him–"
"Doubt that, sir," Alicia said in an undertone, low enough for the line to miss.
"We'll be right down!" the man exclaimed. "Sorry to hold you up!"
Alicia closed the line, crossed her arms, and sighed. Arashi was shaking his head as he crossed the room and took a seat. The brothers had broken apart, but River had a protective hand on Cedric's shoulder.
"Let's sit, everyone, please," Alicia raised her voice to request. "Mr. Loire has held up one of our principals, but they should be here any minute."
The door opened as a rustle went through the room while chairs were pulled out and those present followed Ms. Carson's directive and seated themselves. A man with dark brown hair in a long brown duster-jacket entered unobtrusively, shut the door behind him, and made his way to a seat in the shuffle while everyone took a seat. Damon pulled out a chair for River, seated himself, and noted that the redhead took a place beside Roy.
The latecomer bent a head to a diminutive blonde girl beside him, who had tapped her hands on the wood margin of the table to get his attention. "We're waiting for Guile, as usual." Expressionless, the man nodded.
On the other side of the blonde girl, a tall black man chuckled as he slipped into the seat next to her. "Don't you mean, we're waiting for Loire? Again?"
Across the table, Arashi put a hand to his forehead as if he were in great pain.
Damon puzzled over that for all of five minutes. Alicia was tapping away at the data surface with both hands, seated at the head of the table with an open space on one side of her and Arashi on the other. Cedric was seated on the other side of River, and the mountainous Nordic-featured man had flanked the boy on the other side. The woman with the long tail of chestnut hair had slipped into place beside Damon, and on her other side was the latecomer in the duster jacket. The oval of the table curved around from there, with the slight blonde girl, her dark-skinned friend, then the redhead, Roy, and a golden-tattooed black woman with glyph-inscribed silver arm clasps.
Opposite him was a light-wall, a patterned holographic display that was keyed to simulate a sunlight afternoon vista. It gave the impression of being aboveground. Damon wondered how many people lived and worked underground in this complex over long stretches of time.
The doors to Damon's left slid open with a smooth pressurized hiss. A handsome man of medium height entered, hands in the pockets of his casual slacks, wearing a T-shirt with a logo that Damon didn't recognize, subtitled "Battlestar Galactica." One hand emerged to sketch a brief, sheepish wave, then went to the base of his neck where he tugged at a tail of dark hair.
"Hi, everyone," the man said. "Sorry to hold up your hunter. Hadn't seen Shemyahza in a while, so we were, uh, debriefing. Hey, Arashi! Haven't seen you in...what was it, two days?" He lifted his hand again, waving at the young man who had now buried his face in both hands. "Hey...Arashi?"
"Hello, dad," Arashi said, flipping his hand as if to strongly encourage the man to get on with it and stop embarrassing him.
"Thank you for your hospitality as usual, Division Head Loire," said an utterly deep, dark-timbred voice. A hand settled on Mr. Loire's shoulder, and Damon looked up - and up, at a man impossibly tall, perhaps seven feet or more, with cinnamon-colored skin displayed to good advantage by a crimson sleeveless vest. That wasn't his most striking point, even; his hair was long, flowing well down his back, and a vivid shade of dark green. "And many thanks for showing me the way to the conference room, without you I'm sure I would have gotten lost and been even later to the briefing, now, I'm sure you've got a great deal of official business such as that rather large stack of papers you left off signing to greet me."
"Yes...I suppose so." The division head gave them all another wave. "Well, I'll leave you to it, Ms. Carson."
"Thank you, sir," Alicia Carson said, somehow managing to make it sound like 'as well you'd better.' "Shemyahza, please sit – we'll do introductions and get down to particulars."
The immensely tall man gave her a nod. "Ah, of course I didn't miss the boring part."
"Arse, we waited for you!" the tiny blonde burst out.
Shemyahza slid into his seat beside Ms. Carson, lifting one hand in an apologetic gesture. "Profound apologies," he said, baring his teeth in an unnerving grin. Damon found himself wondering if he'd used a barrelsful of green dye on black hair to achieve that amazing color. But why would a demon hunter bother with a petty vanity?
Alicia's hands stilled on the data surface and she eyed the tall hunter. "Everyone here knows me," she said. "So, Guile..."
"If I must." Shemyahza gave a bow from his seat. "Shemyahza Guile, contract demon hunter. Sorry to keep you waiting, I was summoned from out-Wall. Did speed limits drop sharply while I was away?"
"Limit the side remarks, please," Alicia gave him mild reproof. "On your other side is Humphrey Platt, bounty hunter and currently bodyguard to the Vailles. He doesn't talk much." She nodded gently to the boy on the other side of Platt.
"Cedric Vaille," the boy said, looking as if he might say more, then pressed his lips together and sat stiffly upright at the edge of his chair.
Beneath the table, River's hand sought Damon's. "I'm Roman Vaille, brother to the abducted. Can we hurry this along?"
"We're already compiling the data necessary to take informed action, Roman," Alicia told him with a slight frown. "I understand your feelings, and believe me, we're acting swiftly on this. Professor Vaille is important to us, too."
"As your translation guru–" River said bitterly, and fell silent as Damon squeezed his hand hard, warning.
"Damon Raine," Damon spoke up, considered adding, 'I'm with Roman,' and thought better of it. "Family support, right now." He nodded to the woman beside him.
"Kellan Raye," the woman with the chestnut ponytail introduced herself. She was olive-complected and lean, and reminded Damon somewhat of his own sister. "I'll be hunter support this mission."
Roman's fingers convulsed in his, but there was no way for him to lean over now and ask what was bothering him.
The man on her other side, the latecomer, had dusky chestnut hair that was short at the nape and long at his brow, falling into two braided forelocks to either side of his face. He was either tanned or had darker blood in him. "Joseph Carselyle," he introduced himself. "I'm recon ops, contract hunter - I suppose you'll tell me which it is this time as we get into the details."
Beside him, the small blonde woman said "Nara," crisply, then looked to her left.
"I am Reims," the man with jet skin spoke up, his speech lightly accented. "Bodyguard, hunter support. Nara's partner."
There was a brief silence, then Reims leaned and poked the redhead lightly in the shoulder. "You are next."
"Oh! Oh, sorry," the redhead stammered, his fair skin flushing. "I'm Keiran, Keiran O'Bannon, I'm just the Professor's assistant, I don't know why I'm here..."
"Keiran, it's okay," Roy interrupted, touching the boy's shoulder. The boy nodded and bit his lip, looking as if he might burst into tears at a harsh word.
"Roy Masters, I'm Gabriel Vaille's associate. I, ah, I saw him snatched from the street this morning, and...ahh..." It was Roy's turn to stammer. He looked around the table blindly.
Damon felt a twinge of sympathy. No wonder the man had been so abrupt earlier; he'd seen his friend and colleague taken right in front of his eyes.
"We'll get to that soon," Alicia cut in. "Thanks, Roy."
The black woman beside him spoke up as Alicia nodded, keeping the intros moving. "Felicia Ark, bounty hunter. This time around I guess I'm a bodyguard."
Gorgeous Arashi spoke next, uncovering his face. His voice was tired. "Arashi, most unfortunate son of Division Head Loire. I do translation, programming, field ops, and tactics." He looked around the room, his gaze defiant.
Damon was impressed. A boy his age that deeply involved with operations? From the look on his face, he'd had his expertise challenged before, but Damon for one was in no mood to do so.
"Thank you," Alicia said, drawing all eyes forward again. "In summation, since most of you are probably not familiar with the details, earlier this week at great cost to Orion a very old book was discovered by an independent team of out-Wall archaeologists. I delivered it personally to Professor Gabriel Vaille, our premiere translator and demonology historian."
Damon raised a brow at that, thinking privately that it was small wonder the man always seemed as if he was in a different world.
"We thought it was an important book, perhaps pivotal, and according to Mr. Masters, Professor Vaille agreed. He undertook to translate and localize the grimoire. Earlier today, the professor was kidnapped from the street. The book was where he left it in the safe - now here in the Cygnus building, Orion's most secure facility. We intend to retrieve the Professor as soon as possible, and now all of us are gathered here to that effect. Arashi?" Alicia finished, lacing her slender fingers at the wood margin of the conference table.
With a nod, Arashi set a hand to the data surface, bringing up a three-dimensional holographic display of the city. "This is the Wall surrounding New York," he said, pressing part of the console on his side. A red pinpoint of light began to glow on the land side of the city. "I was tracking a breach in the Wall that occurred a few days ago. It's significant now in context–"
"A breach in the Wall?" Damon interrupted. "What do you mean? Isn't that fairly significant by itself? I mean, wouldn't we hear about it on the news if such a thing happened?"
Arashi gave him a pitying look that made the words die on his tongue. "Actually, breaches happen all the time. They're not general public knowledge; publicizing them would only cause trouble. When you think of a breach, it's a big event, like the 2074 Wall Breach of Chicago – in reality, they are typically single points of entry allowing for a single demon."
Damon scowled at him and reached for his water. "Well, if demons are entering the city even singly, wouldn't people notice?"
Arashi gave him a cool little smile as if to say 'thank you for displaying your ignorance so that I might elaborate.' "What do you think of our hunter, Shemyahza Guile? Do you think he's very remarkable?"
"I...I'm not sure what you mean–" Damon foundered, thrown off-course by the change of subject.
"Arashi," Alicia reprimanded.
"No, what does he mean by that?" Damon insisted.
"What he means," Shemyahza's deep voice interjected, "is that I am, myself, what you'd call a demon."
Damon tore his gaze away from Arashi's annoying smirk and transferred it to Shemyahza, who leaned forward in his chair and placed both tanned hands on the conference table. He brushed a handful of long green hair over his shoulder, as if emphasizing its unnatural color.
"I'm Nephilim," Shemyahza said simply, "and aside from exotic coloring, we are...human-shaped in most respects." His generous mouth quirked.
Damon opened his mouth.
"Shut up, let them finish," River hissed, nails digging into his hand.
Damon shut up.
"It was an ordinary trace, an unregistered half-Nephilim," Arashi continued, and his gray eyes raked over Damon briefly. "For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a Nephilim is the highest order of demon. They don't generally make themselves known to humans. Most are what we class as psychotic–"
"Oi," Shemyahza said mildly.
"–But a surprisingly large number have chosen to affiliate themselves with human-kind, and apparently were living normal 'human' lives before the Rising," Arashi continued. "I'm sorry, I digress. One of my jobs is to trace unregistered Nephilim, determine their intent, and provide that info to an action prevention unit or approach and offer them amnesty negotiation. This entry, tagged 'Fenrir,' was scheduled for a bounty just this morning." His finger tapped a pressure-catch on the data surface.
A flat image replaced the map of New York, rotating so all present at the table could take a look. It was a strong-featured man with high cheekbones, his face surrounded by a flag of wavy gold hair. There was something distorted about the way his lips came together. His eyes were obscured with wrap-around sunglasses.
"Fenrir," Arashi stated. "Real name unknown."
"He kidnapped Gabriel," Roy exclaimed. "That's the one, I saw him!"
Arashi tapped his button again and the image disappeared. "That's what I was afraid of."
"We have a positive ident," Alicia stated. "The snatcher was the Nephilim who made entry a few days ago."
River burst out, "Why didn't anyone think this was remarkable before, huh? Well? You get this all-important book, something big enough to pay for a rush translation from the best, and a Nephilim makes entry the same time–"
"It wasn't the same time," Arashi cut him off, gesturing sharply. "I tailed him from the other coast when I was relocating. Also, we had three other entries around the same time. They were all being monitored–"
"Obviously not well enough!" River shouted, banging a fist on the table. "You people knew! A demon came inside our Walls and you just...you let him run around for days, and do nothing!" Damon squeezed down on River's hand again, and had to hold on for dear life as River's fingers jumped and began to pull out of his grasp.
Again, Shemyahza's deep, smooth voice was an interruption. "Boy, there are demons inside the Walls every day. You simply don't hear about it because of the kind of reaction you're displaying right now. Do you want to finish this briefing some time this afternoon, or not?"
River stiffened beside him as if he'd been slapped.
"Please," Cedric piped up. "Please continue."
Arashi shrugged, casting a low-key glare around the table.
"Thanks for that," Alicia said. "Roman, you're understandably agitated, but I'm going to have to ask you not to interrupt the briefing anymore. You're here as a courtesy, I have no problems proceeding without you."
River inhaled beside him.
Damon squeezed down warning-tight on River's fingers, enough to probably cause him pain. River turned a hot look on him that he ignored, but remained silent.
"Arashi?" Alicia prompted again.
"Sorry," Arashi said, keying something on the data surface again. "Roy gave you a license number when he called. It's been run, and the car was stolen. There was an assist in that car, and the driver was never identified. But entry Glory has also gone missing, and she had also been tagged for bounty this morning. Division Head Loire signed off on both bounties at 4 a.m."
"So they may have known they were scheduled for a contract, and made their move fast," Alicia said.
Another map of the city was projected above the table, and Arashi highlighted a part in red. "They breached here, off-road. That's all we know for now."
"Thank you," Alicia said, placing her hands flat on the table. She looked around. "The research must continue, and for safety's sake we've extracted the key contents of the professor's office, as well as Roy and his assistant. I'm assigning Kellan to the two of you."
Kellan gave a nod.
"We need to move fast in recovering Professor Gabriel, so we brought in the best on the East Coast - Shemyahza Guile–"
"The best," Shemyahza interrupted.
"Excuse me?" Alicia said coolly.
"The best, period," the hunter corrected her.
Alicia flicked a hand as if to say 'fine,' and continued. "You'll be working with Joseph on this one."
Shemyahza stared along the length of the table. "You're human," he stated.
"Nice of you to notice," Joseph said with a shrug.
Shemyahza smiled that unsettling smile again, displaying teeth. "You'd better be able to keep up."
"If you two are done measuring your egos," Alicia snapped. "You'll be supported in the field by Nara and Reims, you can discuss details later. And Arashi, you'll be their data go-to."
The teenager nodded.
"As per contract and the demands of the situation, Roman, Cedric, we've taken you into protective custody. You'll stay in Cygnus until we can determine the extent of the situation, then return to school with a guard for each of you," Alicia continued. "Humphrey, you'll be guarding Cedric. Felicia, you'll look after Roman."
"A woman? Nn...what, no – wait!"
"Non-negotiable," Alicia said in a steely tone that dared further protest. "Shemyahza?"
The big hunter nodded. "I have enough to work with," Shemyahza replied. "Men...and gentle lady...is there a place we can coordinate the hunt?"
"Right here," Alicia said, pushing her chair back and standing. "The rest of us will adjourn to my office and go over the mundane housekeeping details you don't need to deal with."
"Thank you, Ms. Carson," Shemyaza said, once again giving the impression of a bow from his chair.
River stood, pulling his hand out of Damon's. "You'd better bring him back...you had better..." His voice was shaking.
"Or you'll what?" Shemyahza questioned, rising from his chair and towering over everyone. He sounded genuinely interested.
"What...you..." River sputtered, also pushing back from the table and popping to his feet. "You say you're the best! So can you back that up, huh?? If you can't bring him back...if you...well, I'll make sure everyone knows, won't I!?"
Damon grabbed his lover by the shoulder. This had gone far enough, but River once on a tirade was hard to shut down - and this time he had more reason than normal to break down. River tried to shake him off; he seized both shoulders, and picked out Alicia Carson with his eyes. She had one hand on the data surface and was regarding River with a neutral expression.
Shemyahza laughed and River squirmed in Damon's hands, enraged.
"Boy, every moment that you delay me with your empty threats, that's another moment added to the balance the Nephilim already have," Shemyahza told him, folding his arms. "Do you know what they do to their captives? Have you heard the stories?"
River struggled against Damon's hands again, though where he would go if he got free was anyone's guess. "You..."
Shemyahza turned his back, twitching a length of long green hair over his shoulder. It was a dismissive gesture. "Arashi, bring up the breach point. I'll strike out from that sector of the Wall, seeing what traces I can pick up, and Joseph..."
"Let me go," River said sullenly, trying to shake him off.
Damon turned River toward him forcibly, retaining his lover's shoulders in both hands. "River. Just what is your damage? This man has been hired to–"
"He's NOT a man!" River said hotly, jerking out of Damon's grasp, turning to face off with a Shemyahza who had turned with the demeanor of a predator poised. This much closer to the man, Damon realized with a jerk of unreality that Shemyahza's eyes were distinctly unnatural - crimson irises, and irises that looked dark until he blinked or moved - then they gleamed silver. He wondered if the other Nephilim, Fenrir, had had eyes so abnormal; it would certainly explain the sunglasses.
"How can we trust you?" River demanded, speaking directly to the Nephilim. "You're not human, why should you care? Why go against your own kind and risk your neck for even one human life?"
"Roman," Alicia said, her heels clicking as she moved away from the conference table.
Shemyahza made a brush-off motion. "No, Ms. Carson, I don't need help, nor does the boy need shushing." He bared his teeth at River, and Damon was possessed of the urge to snatch River and drag him forcibly from the room. He didn't like that look, nor all it implied. "Your answer, Roman Vaille, in part – I get a big, fat payday. Now, for most of us that's enough."
River squared off, his stance defiant. "So–"
"So, little boy, you don't know anything about the Nephilim. You don't know what that world is like, do you?" Shemyahza cut him off, his deep voice silky, commanding silence. "I don't like my fellow Nephilim, and I never have. It's a constant struggle of pain, mental games, and politics every instant – and that's between Nephilim who like one another; I far prefer the human world. It's no skin off my back to kill those whom I know are richly deserving. And lastly, our friend Nara here–" he jerked his thumb in the direction of the small white-blonde woman "–would be screaming her head off if I were within three meters of her, and possessed the psyche of a typical Nephilim."
"What makes you so good?" River blustered, but he was crumbling under the onslaught of Shemyahza's low-volume but passionate words.
A dark, rich chuckle curled around them, crawled up Damon's spine and made him shudder.
"I never said that I was 'good' in that sense," Shemyahza disclaimed. "But more importantly as far as everyone here is concerned, I am not psychotic."
Nara piped up, "It's true." It was a lame effort to dispel the tension.
Damon latched onto River's wrist, determined now to drag him from the room if he wouldn't come willingly. This had gone on long enough.
"No!" River burst out, fighting him. "I need to know...I need to be sure that he can, and will rescue my brother!"
"Little boy," Shemyahza growled angrily, stepping up. His crimson eyes were cold fire. "Obviously I need to repeat it, and make it real clear to you. Every second of my time that you waste, the greater his chances are of being tortured, raped, or killed."
That statement dropped into the pit of an abruptly silent room.
"You bastard!" River cried hoarsely, tearing himself out of Damon's grip and throwing himself at the huge Nephilim. Damon lunged for him, but the shirt of River's uniform slipped just out of his fingertip's reach.
River had been in fights before, but he was no match for this one. Shemyahza backed up a step as River rushed him, fists flailing, measured the length of his opponent with a glance, then cold-cocked him with one powerful blow. With a blinding display of reflex, he caught River as he crumpled, then held him out for Damon in the span of about two seconds.
"You'll accept custody of this?" Shemyahza inquired, lifting a brow.
"Yes," Damon said, and hesitated, letting River sag against his shoulder and looking down at his beautiful face, irritable still even in the dazed state of not-quite-passed out. He said quietly, knowing the hunter would hear, "Thank you."
Alicia drew even with them. "Now that we're quite finished with that display," she said, not bothering to hide her exasperation.
"Do you have any sedatives?" Damon asked, cupping River's face, then checking his pulse. Beyond his brother's limp frame, Cedric was looking up with wide and worried eyes, silent as a stone.
"Good idea, and a doctor is already on the way," Alicia responded.
Beyond her, Shemyahza made a derisive noise as he turned to rejoin his newly-assigned team.
"Don't you start," Alicia warned fiercely, taking River's other arm and helping Damon to hustle him out of the room. "Let's go, before he regains enough sense to give it another go."
They exited the conference room, and the pressure doors hissed shut softly behind them.
Cedric stood in the middle of the hallway, looking after his brother and the two adults who had Roman loosely draped between them. His mouth gaped open and he scrunched his face up, but not a sound came out of him.
In a way it was like losing his entire family in the same day; one brother gone physically, the other here but gone in another sense. He was entirely bereft of his support structure, and the worst of it was that Rukawa might wait for him after school, and had no idea where he was.
A hand rested on his shoulder. Cedric blinked and looked up, his gaze climbing the entire length of the very tall Roy Masters.
"How you holding up, kiddo?" Roy asked in a hoarse but unbelievably gentle voice.
Cedric's face worked. Then, to his absolute horror, a tear spilled from his right eye, followed almost instantly by one from the left.
"Oh...baby, no..." In a rush Roy knelt, scooping him into his broad arms. "Cedric, it's going to be all right."
He pressed Cedric to the front of his white dress shirt, which Cedric wetted liberally by the blotting of his face. Cedric shook his head, throat convulsing, then he managed, "You can't promise that."
"Tell that to Shemyahza," Roy said with a rough laugh. "Come on, kiddo. No crying, all right? We'll get settled here in the dorms, or whatever living quarters that they have, then we'll talk about it and I'll show you how it's going to be just fine."
Cedric sniffed as they separated, and the tall red-haired teen, Keiran, offered him a folded blue slip of handkerchief. He wiped his nose. "Thank you," he said politely, tucking the used scrap of cloth into his pocket. "I'll return it later."
"Don't worry about it," Keiran told him, giving him a brief smile. He couldn't hold the expression long.
Cedric had paid thorough attention to the briefing, and he had noticed how none of the hunters or support staff had said anything conclusive. They didn't know much. The demon abductors had a head start. If they ran Gabriel's chances of a successful rescue through one of their state-of-the art computers, what would his chances be?
Roy held out his hand, and Cedric accepted it. He was a little less dolorous, but wished he could stop thinking.
A man in a white lab coat was waiting for them by the elevators. He held out a hypo syringe to Ms. Carson, who nodded, then the doctor applied the hypo nozzle to Roman's arm.
"Fucking ow," Roman complained, rousing off Damon's shoulder. "Hey...what the hell was in that...err." He slumped back against Damon again, mumbling "feels...kinda happy..."
Roy squeezed Cedric's hand. "It's just a mild sedative, to calm his nerves."
"I know," Cedric said forthrightly. "He can use it, right? He was awfully nasty to Mr. Guile."
Roy covered his mouth, but a noise like "pfft" came out despite his efforts.
Cedric watched him with interest. "You thought he was hysterical, didn't you? It's not doing anyone any good, least of all my big brother, though I know he's worried about him."
"How old are you?" Keiran, the redhead, blurted out.
"I'm in sixth grade," Cedric hedged, sidestepping the question. He looked over his shoulder, and met Humphrey Platt's solemn gaze. Then, without his granite face changing expression, the big man winked at him.
They took two separate elevators to a different floor. Cedric twisted to see, but he supposed it didn't matter. They were on one sub-level out of many, in a place he didn't recognize that might have been another planet, for all that it was far from home.
The halls on this new level were carpeted in a plush taupe. Ms. Carson led them up the length of hallway until they reached a door, one along a line of widely-spaced white pressure doors. She stopped, then faced them with her arms crossed.
"We do keep prepared for contingencies," she said mildly. "This hallway is residential quarters. Some of our staff both live and work in the Cygnus building. Even for those who don't, the facility is large enough to hold all Orion's staff and collateral personnel and families in the event of emergencies."
"So it's kind of like evacuating," Cedric spoke up.
"That's right," Ms. Carson said, and extracted a colored ident disc from a slim breast pocket. "You'll be given these chips during the length of your stay in Cygnus. Now, until we get approval from our data team, I want you all to stay within the building. Everything that you need should be in the facility. If it's not here, ask and our personnel will do their best." She held the door up to the data console, and the door slid open obediently.
Ms. Carson led them into a wide, high room that reminded Cedric somewhat of the living room back home. He wasn't sure what he had been expecting, but this seemed too spacious to be considered a dormitory. Roy squeezed his hand as if he'd release him, and Cedric clung to the man's side, turning up big eyes to him, silently pleading. Roy was the only familiar fixture in his surroundings right now, and he was horrified at the thought of crying again. The warm hand engulfing his was insurance against that.
Beside him Roy nodded as if answering a silent question, and let Cedric lead them over to a sofa.
"Everyone can choose their room, ah, circumstances," Ms. Carson said, laying out eight ident chips on the coffee table that was the center focus of a circle of chairs and couches. "There are several suites on this same block, and they're all the same - large central room like this one, kitchenette area, two bedrooms, an entertainment room, a study room, and a couple of full-service bathrooms."
"Unexpectedly luxurious," Damon commented.
Cedric glanced over at his brother's boyfriend. Damon was a big, handsome man, but right now he seemed powerless, or at least very worried, as he held Roman settled against his shoulder and one hand toyed with his pale lavender hair. Roman's eyes were open but not really focusing on anything.
Ms. Carson gave him a faintly twisted smile. "They're meant to last for a very long shut-in," she said. "Orion Corporation designed the building very carefully. A sense of claustrophobia, of being confined, is one of the greatest dangers in a shelter built for this sort of thing. Also, attention to the niceties helps."
"I'm sure it does," Roy said. "Ms. Carson, where's my safe? Those two gentlemen..."
"Ah, thank you, Roy," Ms. Carson said, turning her direct blue gaze back to him. "I was about to get to that. Mannon and Aberlaide brought your safe to this suite, which is why I came here first. The ident discs are unkeyed right now, so if you use one on a suite's door, that suite becomes yours." She held up the one she had used, and tossed it in their direction.
Roy caught it one-handed.
"So think about your room arrangements before you use them," she finished. She stood, her trim hands going to the bottom of her suit jacket and tugging it straight, though it was already crease-free and spotless. "If you use any of the display surfaces and select Assistance, you have the option of getting network AI help, or live assistance. Our bodyguards can help you out with the finer points."
"That's it, then?" Roy asked.
"That's all for now," Ms. Carson confirmed. "I'll keep everyone updated on the team's progress in recovering Professor Vaille. In the meantime, if you would be able to continue..." She paused discreetly.
"Yes, of course," Roy said quietly. His fingers squeezed now in what Cedric thought was probably an unconscious reflex. "This was very important to Gabriel. I'm committed to finishing his work."
"He's not dead!" Cedric burst out, then wanted to smother his face against Roy's arm or otherwise hide his shame. All eyes turned on him. He continued with a more modulated tone, "Please, he's not dead, so don't talk as if he's gone for good."
"He's dreaming roses," Roman said suddenly. "But the path is fanged and he has to come up against heavy...a heavy opposition." He turned his face into Damon's palm, muttering.
"What exactly did you give him?" Damon asked, looking to Ms. Carson. "How long is he going to be out of it?"
"That's a matter of opinion," Roy mumbled, low enough so that no one but Cedric and perhaps Keiran could hear him.
Cedric smothered a smirk. It wasn't funny, really it wasn't, and he didn't want to worry over Roman too...but under normal circumstances he would have scored that one for Roy, and laughed over the minor gibe at Roman's expense.
"Nothing major, it's somewhat like sleeping, it's Lethe. It induces tranquility and sometimes a light doze, which he seems to be experiencing," Ms. Carson replied. "Now. Are there any questions? Rest assured, I'll be back once I know more, or I'll dispatch someone with updates. This is my top priority."
The way she said that with such confidence made Cedric perk up.
"How long–" Keiran began, and Roy shushed him, placing a hand on the boy's thigh.
"There's no way to know that right now," Roy said. "Hours, days?"
Ms. Carson gave him a nod. "Correct. We don't know...and we don't know when we will. I'm sorry, I know it's frustrating."
Keiran sighed. "What about my things?" he said, plaintive.
The words conjured up Cedric's own sense of want, for the comfort of his room and the chess set that he'd played with since he was barely old enough to lift the pieces, the touch-system of music at his fingertips, already loaded with his most soothing favorites, the data display at his desk synched together with his school notebook and maybe the smell of simmering food in the air as he waited for his brothers to return. He looked over at Roman, mostly insensible on the opposing sofa next to Damon, then thought of Gabriel lax and out of it, passed out like this but in the hands of rough beings, tall like Shemyahza but brutal and strong, tossing him about like he was nothing.
Cedric shivered, and Roy squeezed his hand. He could feel the man's eyes on him, his concern.
"You can notify your families that you're here," Ms. Carson said, and her tone was not without sympathy. "But you can't leave, and we can't spare any guards to go collect belongings. I'm terribly sorry for the inconvenience. If you ask Assistance, whatever it is, you can probably have a similar item brought here."
"Oh." Keiran lapsed back on the sofa, looking stunned.
Cedric thought he knew how he felt. There was no family for him to call, but he'd want to get in touch with Rukawa. He didn't know his family code, though, so he had no way of getting through. He supposed he could call the school and leverage his position as a Vaille son, but that seemed unfair. Maybe if he messaged Mr. McCormack...yes, that would do.
"Anything else?" Ms. Carson said, clasping her arms in front of her. The smile that she gave them was slightly on edge.
It made Cedric wonder how many projects she was leading right now. This couldn't be the only one. But...'top priority,' she'd said. That impressed him with how important his brother seemed to be, given that the resources of a formidable organization were being marshaled for his recovery. It gave him a spark of hope. Ms. Carson was this good, and if Shemyahza Guile was as good as he claimed.
Roy spoke up after glancing around at the others. "No, please don't let us keep you."
She nodded and withdrew.
They sat for a moment, weighted down with nothing left to say. It was a relief of sorts. Cedric sat quietly with his hand in Roy's, looking at the red ident discs scattered over the coffee table. It would be nice if he could push himself off the couch and out of a dream, breaking the surface of sleep to find it had never happened, he'd napped briefly at his desk and Gabriel was at the door...
He blinked, and shook himself from fantasy. That wasn't going to happen.
"...like sweets in the summertime, you are..." Roman mumbled against Damon's shoulder.
"Shh," Damon urged him, one hand cupping the base of Roman's neck. "Come on, I should get you to bed." He leaned over the coffee table, snagging two discs and looking everyone over carefully. "We'll take one suite, if that's okay with everyone?"
Felicia, the fascinatingly-tattooed female bodyguard, spoke up. "You gonna be using both rooms?"
"I don't see how that's any of your–" Damon began coolly.
"'Cause if you're not," she cut in, without batting an eye, "I'll take the other. I'm your bodyguard. If it won't inconvenience you, that is."
"No, that..." Damon seemed to shake himself. "That would be fine. Thank you." He urged Roman carefully to his feet, and stood supporting his shoulders.
Felicia shrugged, reached for her own chip, and followed them from the suite.
The far wall was a window into an outside world that had never existed. Cedric gazed at it, raptly fascinated. The pitch of light was exactly like the level of sun one might see at this hour of the day. He felt as if he were looking out at a city-scape, not confined whatsoever. And that, he supposed, was the whole point.
"Since the safe and all of our work is here in this suite, I'll stay here," Roy stated. He squeezed Cedric's fingers.
"Well, I'll stay, too," Keiran said hastily. "I can be close to the work. Um." He reached for a red ident disc, flinching back from hand contact as Roy picked up the one that he'd set down there, the disc Alicia had tossed to him earlier.
"Can I stay here, with the two of you?" Cedric spoke up, surprised when his voice came out barely a whisper. Was he holding it all in? It was like the tears that had stunned him, he wasn't completely in touch with himself right now.
Roy turned a considering look on him. "Cedric, there's only two rooms."
"It's okay," Cedric insisted. "I'll be quiet, and good, I just...I don't want to be alone..."
"I don't doubt that, kiddo," Roy told him in that gentle voice, the treading-eggshells one. "Okay, that would be fine, I guess. I'm sure their beds are big enough and I won't be sleeping much in mine, anyhow."
Cedric wasn't quite sure what he meant by that remark, but it was okay. As long as Roy let him stay nearby, he wouldn't complain. He'd be good and cook their meals, keep the quarters clean, and be so silent and unobtrusive they would scarcely notice that he was there. While they were busy decoding the secrets of whatever project Gabriel had been working on, he would keep current on his studies.
"I'll take the next suite over, then," Kellan said with a nod, reaching for her own ident disc. "Humphrey, man, you willing to be a roommate?" She gave him a firm professional smile.
Humprey hesitated, meeting Cedric's eyes, then nodded.
Cedric was stricken with the impression that Humphrey understood, that he had seen and felt worse pain, been in this kind of situation, and it made him wish the big man would speak. 'He doesn't talk much,' Alicia had said. Did that mean he was actually mute, or just preferred, like Rukawa, not to speak?
"We'll go to get settled," Kellan said diplomatically. "If you need anything..." She trailed off.
"Right," Roy said, inspecting the red ident disc. "There's you, the AI, and the assistance staff."
"Yep." Kellan retreated, and the door contracted behind the two bodyguards. The last Cedric saw of them was a brief wave from Humphrey that he interpreted as 'later.'
That left the three of them staring into space, momentarily suffering loss of momentum for what to do next. Cedric eyed the redhead assistant, confused by his totally irrational resentment. He didn't need to have Roy "all to himself," so why did he wish Keiran had chosen another room? The arrangements had all worked out neatly. Still, the babyish part of him that he had rarely ever indulged – even when he was a 'baby' – was thinking that he could curl up at Roy's side if it weren't for the loss of face he'd suffer in front of this stranger. He almost wanted to do it anyway, but he was not a little boy.
"Well," Keiran said, pushing himself up from the couch, "I'll, uh, go find a private console, I've got to talk to my parents."
Roy lifted his head. "Don't you stay in the dorm?" he questioned.
"Oh!" Keiran's hand went to his head. "I didn't, um...didn't realize it was that obvious, I must've been babbling again... Well, yes, but my family's really close, one of my brothers will realize I'm gone, then the whole family will start to worry. I'd better head this one off at the pass."
"Yes, good idea," Roy said, patting Cedric's hand.
Cedric eyed the remaining ident disc that was still resting on the coffee table. The whole situation felt unreal.
"Cedric?" The voice came from faraway.
He gave a start, and tried to focus his attention. He had kind of drifted away but hadn't gone anywhere in particular, just zoned out. "Sorry," he apologized.
"It's okay." The awful gentleness was back, the brand that made Cedric want to give up and sob, cry his eyes out, play out his worst fears against the starched white surface of Roy's clean shirt. "You all right, Cedric? I know it's a lot to deal with."
He couldn't allow himself to be a burden.
"We could all eat dinner together," Cedric suggested, changing the subject. "That would be nice. I...I'd like to hear more about Orion." He'd like to hear about success rates, he meant. He wanted to hear about the things that had gone right, the situations when there truly was nothing to worry about. Then he would know more and he could judge for himself.
"Sure," Roy said, but his eyes were faraway.
"Hey," Cedric said, tugging at his hand. He recognized that look quite well. It was the one Gabriel got when he was bringing home projects that made him shut himself up in his study for days on end. "You must eat dinner with us. Got it? Please promise me that you will!"
Roy laughed, tugging his hand away and bending awkwardly to give Cedric a hug. "I will, I will." He petted Cedric's hair. "I'm sorry, you've probably gotten enough of that from your brother, haven't you?"
"It's okay," Cedric said quietly. "I'm used to it. I know what it's like, I get caught up in things too. It's Roman that it really bothers."
"Yeah, he is a bit of an attention who–hog."
"Gabriel said it's 'cause he's not like us, he's got abandonment issues," Cedric confided. He didn't need to apologize for his brother's earlier behavior, but it helped to clarify. "And now Gabriel's gone..." He sniffed experimentally, but he felt okay. He wondered if he was going into shock or just adjusting for now.
Roy released him and stood. "Well, for now I want to take another look at our current little project." He was frowning, one hand cocked to his hip. "I know I'm not as good as Gabriel, it wasn't as much my area of speciality, but if I go through the notes he had so far...I just have to figure out why this was so important. There must be something that we missed. Gabriel was so excited yesterday, he was sure this was a major breakthrough."
Tugging at his uniform jacket, Cedric climbed off the couch too. "Then I'll go message my teacher," he said. He took the last ident chip in passing and paused as he rounded the curve of couch. "Roy? Thank you."
Roy gave him a tired but very sincere smile. "Anything for little Cedric. Maybe I've got no right, but I think of you as the little brother that I never had."
Cedric thought about that, then favored him with a brief smile. "Thank you," he said softly. He retrieved the school bag that he had dropped by the suite's door and sought out the privacy of a single room. Gabriel liked and trusted Roy, and Cedric knew that he could feel the same.
He wondered if Ms. Carson would come to dinner, if asked.
Someone had modified the wall displays after Alicia Carson and her group left the conference room; probably the kid, since he was still at the table's data surface. Joseph Carselyle meandered away from the table toward the side-board that was laden with food and drink. All of it looked barely touched, and a few plates had been left on the counter stacked with food, but it was all plentiful and looked good. Ah, this was why Jo liked working for Orion Corp; or at least, it was a nice fringe benefit. They took care of all the niceties and they almost never fucked up the big shit when it mattered.
He shucked off his long, heavy brown duster, slinging it over the back of his chair and going for a glass of water. While he sipped, he leaned against the counter and eyed his new temporary teammates.
Nara and Reims, he had worked with before. He trusted them as much as he trusted anyone other than himself – not much, but enough. The diminutive blonde psychic had seated herself again, and her tall, dark and handsome protector leaned over the back of her chair, seeming at ease. They were solid, so Jo wouldn't expend too much skull sweat worrying over them. He let his eyes drift in a nonchalant manner over the tall, green-haired hunter with dusky cinnamon-dark skin. This wasn't the first Nephilim or half-blood he'd worked with, and certainly wouldn't be the last, but it was possible he would vie for most annoying. Shemyahza Guile was arrogant as hell, and undoubtedly competent – if the stringent Alicia Carson was giving him the title of 'best' – but his edgy grin rubbed Jo the wrong way. And by that, he mused, he really did mean in an irreconcilable sort of way, not a mildly irritating, get over it later and engage in hard dirty sex kind of way. Jo downed his water and skimmed over the last member, their data support.
He had been working with Orion for a while so he'd heard of Arashi Loire, but never worked with him before. The boy had lived on the West coast for most of his life, and he was supposedly some kind of prodigy. Then Division Head Loire had moved out here to take charge of the anti-demon tactics and action prevention unit, and his wife and son had remained in San Francisco. His son was here now, Jo had heard the water cooler rumor, because Loire's wife had taken a very lucrative contract overseas and sent the son to New York to be nominally under supervision of the father.
"Arashi, have you got any more data on that exit breach?" Shemyahza asked, bringing a fist up to his face, thumbnail pressed against very white teeth.
"Working on it, but there's not much to go on," the teen replied, a furrow settling on his smooth pale brow.
He might be Jo's type if he weren't so young, Jo mused – even though he was legal, Jo preferred the more mature ones. And he probably wouldn't even be thinking it if he weren't somewhat hard up at the moment. He'd been cloistered at Orion for too long. Perhaps it was time to get a side job, just for a change of pace. He dismissed those thoughts with a slight shake of the head, leaving his glass on the sideboard. It was time to get his game face on. After all, he couldn't afford to let Shemyahza outclass him on the hunt.
"Damn it, I hate going in blind," Shemyahza complained. "What kind of info can you give us, kid?"
"My name," Arashi said pointedly, "is Arashi. Not kid, or son, or boy, or hey you. Got it?"
"Sure," Shemyahza said, showing teeth. "What kind of info do you have for us, Arashi?"
He was polite, at least. With a shrug Joseph rejoined the table, spinning a chair on its single axel and seating himself with his arms draped over the back.
"A trajectory," Arashi said, his fingers tapping over the data surface. The holo projectors flickered, and a section of the map of the city appeared, flickering red embers indicating the projected point of breach. From that point, a fine red line sped out and the wall collapsed behind it as the line drew close to the holograph of...
"Long Island," Jo said aloud, concerned. Of all the nearby demon bastions, of course it would be the worst, the least tactically approachable.
"We move fast, then," Shemyahza said with a nod. "They're covering rough terrain, so there's a chance we can reach them before they get Gabriel to the demon base. How many hydro bikes are available?"
As Arashi tapped out a query, Nara spoke up. "Thought you rode in on your own, Guile?"
Shemyahza flashed her a reckless smile. "Are you joking? Where we're going, I can't guarantee I'll bring the bike back, it's probably getting trashed. So you and Reims will have to take a truck, as we'll need to get our lovely captive back in one piece."
At least he was confident of Gabriel's safe return, Jo mused, or he was acting the part, regardless of what he'd said earlier to clear the room.
"Now listen up," Shemyahza said, drawing them all in with a commanding gaze. Even Jo, used to working as a free agent, found himself straightening his spine. "We're none of us a military unit, but we have to be tight or we'll have a tough go of it, bringing the payday home. And I, for one, am bringing him home." His crimson eyes speared through Jo briefly, then moved on to Nara and Reims.
"Plenty of bikes available," Arashi announced. "And an armored."
"Book them," Shemyahza commanded. He leaned a booted foot against the chair he had been seated in earlier, and looked around their small group again. "Everyone knows how the first part works. We all tune our ear-paths to Arashi's proprietary frequency, and set up. Joseph–"
"Call me 'Jo,' " Joseph interrupted, holding out a hand.
Shemyahza's eyes flicked over him. "Right. I couldn't help but notice that impressive protective rune on your back."
"Oh," Jo said. He hardly thought of it anymore until someone called it to his attention. It had been years since his best friend had carved the tattoo in blood-red, protective symbols on his back, and disappeared – kidnapped by the Nephilim, as best he could determine. With the death of his family, Jo had taken advantage of all the protection that the rune offered, which turned out to be quite formidable, and taken up the hunt in a search for his friend that he was fairly certain would prove fruitless.
Shemyahza hiked a green brow in his direction. "You comfortable taking point, Jo? No offense, but a human hunter out there is more likely to attract attention, and challengers, if you know what I mean."
"No offense taken," Jo said comfortably. Earlier, Alicia had admonished them to behave, but this one-up-manship was more Shemyahza's doing, not his. Jo didn't consider that he had much that needed proving. "I've done my share of point work. I can handle myself." Better to understate it, he thought, than to overstate the capabilities of the rune. He had more physical tricks up his sleeve than just his protective glyph, but the powers of it still occasionally took him by surprise.
"So we set out," Shemyahza declared, laying a hand on the wooden margin of the conference table, leaning forward. "I'll lay the plan out by relay as we travel. Right now, speed is needed, because time certainly isn't on our side."
What plan? Jo thought with amusement. They were going to ride out like cowboys, see if they could find the bad guys or get Nara to scan for them, beat the crap out of the kidnappers and seize the captive. Of course, the devil was in the details. If the Nephilim kidnappers made it over the bridge, they were truly in the shit.
"Next stop, Armory," Shemyahza said, and now a truly evil grin crept over his dark, handsome features.
"Oh," Arashi said, clearing the display with a sweep of his hand and standing. "I heard that they finished testing that new explosive polymer. Dad thought you might be interested."
Shemyahza's eyes lit up with unholy glee.
This was going to be an interesting mission. It made Jo glad he hadn't moved out West as he had begun to plan. New York still had plenty of problems that needed cleaning up. If rumor was right, this Gabriel person – if they managed to locate him – would be able to help translate the key that could truly give them something with which to fight back.
Orion had unearthed a one-of-a-kind grimoire.