The stars were bright as Cedric Vaille stretched on the tips of his toes, reaching for a screen-file at the top of a stack that was beyond the length of his straining arms. He was too short, his goal exceeding his grasp, too young, the stack mushrooming upward before his eyes. The scattered white pinpricks all around him intensified, hot diamonds flung against a crushing backdrop of velvet. He was drowning in the night.
“This is nothing,” spoke a deep voice.
Cedric blinked, turning within an abruptly cavernous room. The field of stars extended in all directions, and his stomach bottomed as he looked down to the realization that there was no firmament beneath his feet. “No!” he cried, waiting for the lurch that would mark the beginning of his fall.
A large hand came down in front of him, descending on a panel that took shape, square and flat and gray with a shimmer of oily iridescence, the moment it was touched. Cedric stared at the hand. It was broad, the ridges of knuckles strong and defined, hairless olive skin and long fingers that terminated in broad, blunt-clipped nails. “Rukawa?” he uttered, confused.
The room melted around him as if a bucket of paint had been thrown against the stars, but it was light streaking through the darkness, transforming the boundless night into the square delineations of a conference room. Cedric looked at the display panel before him. It had been a holographic projection, then; a spectacular one. He looked up into the older boy’s face.
Rukawa’s long, dark bangs partially obscured his expression. He looked sleepy, not quite aware.
“I was looking for something,” Cedric said in a small voice. “In those screen files. Can you help me?”
Slowly, Rukawa shook his head.
“Why not?” Cedric managed, hurt. He couldn’t have imagined being refused by Rukawa.
“You can’t,” Rukawa said simply, and spread his large hands.
Cedric frowned. There was a hint of struggle in Rukawa’s expression, a flicker of discontent there and gone. “It’s something that I need to find,” Cedric argued. “Or it’ll be lost forever.” Fear rose then, woken inside him by his own words. Lost. Where had those screen files gone? The conference room around them was bare, empty.
Again Rukawa shook his head, eyes adamant.
Cedric ran over to the table, running his hands over it, trying the data display with no results. The gray surface was dead beneath his fingertips. “What did you do?” Cedric cried, whirling to Rukawa with a frantic expression. “If it’s lost…”
“There are some things not meant to be found,” Rukawa said at last, holding his hands out palm-up. Empty. He turned them over, hanging his head briefly, then his dark eyes glimmered and he looked into Cedric’s desperate face. When he turned his hands over, there was a data file in each one.
“Give it to me,” Cedric said anxiously, hurrying toward him.
Rukawa put them behind his back. “It may be too late,” he said, stepping away from Cedric.
“No, wait!” There was an inky smear at the edge of Cedric’s vision. He didn’t want to look, but it was growing larger, swallowing up the corners of the room. The walls were bleeding black, diseased patches of the dark that dropped to the floor and spread. “Please, Rukawa! I just need to know…”
“But you have to make a choice,” Rukawa said, his voice fading. He shuddered, lowering his head.
“What choice?” Cedric demanded, halting and holding still. If Rukawa backed up again, he’d step in a patch of that spreading darkness. He didn’t know what would happen if that came to pass.
Rukawa thrust his hands out toward Cedric, who screamed. The older boy’s hands were charred black, curved into bony, tortured talons, nails obsidian-black and pointed. He gestured eloquently with those burned, hideous hands and lifted his head, fixing Cedric with a reptilian gaze, wholly black with no whites to his eyes anymore.
“Demon inside.” Rukawa’s voice was nothing more than a rasp. “Accept it or forget.”
He plunged his sharp-taloned hand into the center of Cedric’s chest.
Cedric was yelling before his eyes opened. He continued to yell, not quite aware of where he was, not even realizing that he was yelling, until the lights snapped on and a big, broad-shouldered figure dashed into the now-lit bedroom, knelt beside his bed and caught him up in strong arms. Cedric’s wail choked off in surprise and his ears rang. He’d been shouting so loud and he hadn’t known it. The jagged pieces of the dream were still rattling around in his head that it took him a while to realize where he was and that the man holding him was Humphrey, his new bodyguard.
“Orion,” Cedric breathed, and Humphrey nodded. “Humphrey?” The man nodded again.
Cedric sighed and went limp in the big man’s arms. That was right, he was in a sub-level deep in hiding in the Cygnus building, and his brother was gone. He shook for a moment, recalling the dream and the soulless black eyes of the creature that had been Rukawa, an instant before black talons reached into his chest for his heart.
Rukawa would never hurt me, Cedric admonished himself internally, then repeated it to himself, fierce. Rukawa would NEVER.
Humphrey held him until he stopped shaking, then the big bodyguard pulled away, his blunt-featured face tipping this way and that as he examined Cedric, asking without words if he was all right.
"I'm fine," Cedric insisted, if only to convince himself. Bad dreams were nothing compared to what his brother was surely going through, he convinced himself. He tilted his head. "Well...how about some tea?"
Humphrey gave him a grave nod and held out a large hand, which Cedric accepted. After the bottomless black of those eyes from the dream, he needed the warmth of another's touch.
The room was still wreathed in darkness when Roman's eyes snapped open wide. He lay quiescent for a moment, the length of Damon's body creating a line of warmth beside him that connected him solidly to the present. This was real, and he was here in the sub-basement of Orion's Cygnus building. A safehouse. Which was necessary because...
Roman rolled, peeling the flimsy sheet from his body and gawping at the nightstand clock. It was late. Or early. There was little difference. He settled himself beside Damon's inert body, but his mind wouldn't let him ease back into similar restfulness. It worked incessantly, remembering the flash of challenge in that Shemyahza's eyes, the holographic display of the city and its Wall before Alicia passed her hand over it and collapsed it, the scent and tastes of Cedric's cooking, and the swoop of adrenaline as he climbed the mountain on the frame of a machine.
That last reminded him of the thread of Felicia's conversation. If you need it, she'd said, and I guess looking at your skinny ass you've got enough nervous energy so you might, there's an all-hours coffee shop on the third level.
His bedroom wasn't totally dark. Ambient light filtered in below a chink of the door, probably a deliberate design feature. Otherwise, given that everything this far below ground was artificial, there would be an absolute void of light once the panel was powered down for the night. There was also light seeping from behind the curtain, which was definitely a contrivance of the display settings, because there was no moon beyond the window treatment.
Roman leaned to his left, pressing a kiss to Damon's bare shoulder. His lover didn't even murmur or stir, which let him know he was solidly asleep. Roman curled onto his other side, sloughing the sheet off, and got out of bed. He was now vibrantly awake all through his body, a by-product perhaps of too long a sedated nap. If Damon hadn't been so deeply asleep, he might have nibbled him into waking and coaxed him for a midnight bout.
He was nothing if not considerate, letting Damon sleep in.
In the near-dark Roman located his garments by touch and skinned them on. He was suffering from single-outfit syndrome until they brought him more or if by some chance Felicia was allowed to escort him home for changes of clothing. As the thought touched him, it changed in the next instant to a rueful one, himself ambushing Gabriel behind his brother's changing screen. The world wobbled, and Roman threw himself into motion to forget.
His ident chip had been laid in the center of the glass table that dominated the dining space outside the room he shared with Damon. Roman had left it there so that he wouldn't lose it anywhere else. Now he grabbed it up, slipping it into his pocket and hitting the hallway. Superstitiously, he had expected Felicia to show up to dog his steps again but even she had to sleep sometime.
The hall was bright and antiseptic. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been in a hospital but he thought it had been something like this, cheerless and sterile, always bright no matter the hour. Roman huddled in a corner of the wide silver box of the elevator as it hummed up the shaft and wrapped his arms around himself. The closer his arms cinched the more aware he was of the curve of ribs below the subtle pad of muscle on his chest. He was indeed a skinny ass.
The reflective metal doors opened on the third floor, which at first impression was a visual re-creation of any mall, anywhere. Roman stepped off, pausing a moment to orient himself. The corridor was full of people either striding or strolling along the walk-ways as if it weren't the middle of the night. Swing shift, he thought to himself, forcing his arms to his sides out of a defensive posture. Was it so surprising that a building underground would contain every aspect of a twenty-four hour city within itself?
Roman sorted out the blur of signs and found his direction. It was absurd to seek out coffee in the middle of the night, but there would be tea wherever they served coffee and that would do. Charlotte had ragged on him often enough for preferring caffeinated beverages above all other things, and how it would curb the potential of a growing boy. Roman liked to retort on all possible occasions that he was quite sure he was done with upward mobility and the remaining part of him to grow resided in his pants.
A smile tugged his mouth as he recalled that last. Char always squawked, turned bright red, then shut up -- but usually not before she hit him for the embarrassment. Roman drifted up the walkway, avoiding fleeting contact with other bodies, and sought out the distinctive bright logo of the coffee shop. Even here under who knew how many tons of steel and earth, they had a location for his favorite coffee shop. That was followed by the pragmatic thought that Orion was a corporation, after all, and would manage a profit even in a buried secret facility. Then he wondered if his favorite coffee shop was in fact a subsidiary of the sprawling megalodon that was Orion.
Connections in the strangest places...
The staff behind the counter were every bit as perky and solicitous as any he'd ever been served by. Roman placed his order for a calming blend of herbs and chamomile with a blonde ponytailed young woman who looked at his face closely while she kept a wide smile in place. A fan maybe, the dismissive thought flickered past, or someone who'd seen his pics in magazines. Roman wondered on the heels of his earlier fancies if any of the companies he'd modeled for were owned by Orion. Surely their influence didn't extend that far?
"Need my credit...?" Roman began, wondering why she hadn't read him a total.
"No, gratis!" she said quickly, her smile widening. "It's okay. You're Professor Vaille's brother."
Roman barely managed not to boggle. This was perhaps the first time he was recognizable for his brother's sake, and not the other way around. He summoned up a sickly grin at the reminder for the reason why he was here, and went to the other end of the bar to collect his drink. In doing so, he got a good look at the seating area and his smile hardened into fierce enjoyment.
"Well," Roman drawled, plucking the hot cup from the bar and sauntering over, "we're just destined to keep meeting this way, wouldn't you say?"
Arashi Loire flicked gold-kissed hair out of his eyes and leveled him with a simmering glare.
"And here I was just thinking of how there were connections in the strangest places," Roman continued, putting a hand to the chair-back in front of him. His fingers clasped it loosely, preparing to pull it out for seating.
"Don't sit," Arashi ground out, transferring his glare to the cup in his hands. "Unless you like sitting alone. I'm not staying."
Roman dipped his shoulder in a half-shrug. "Don't feel like you've got to force yourself to leave on my account," he said, perversely hurt though he had no right. He'd tortured this classmate of his, for all intents and purposes. Arashi had seen through him, seen him coming, and still been snared by the force of his passage. For the first time, watching Arashi avoid his eyes, Roman thought to himself that perhaps no one person should possess such a power. He could make anyone want him.
He just couldn't necessarily make them like him, or want to stay.
Arashi shoved his chair back from the table with the force of his rising. "Look," he said roughly, still not making eye contact, "I'm going down to the briefing room. Gabriel's due back any minute."
The words lengthened in the space between them, and Roman stared at Arashi, noting the fine details of the way his nose tapered, then curved, forming the line of his profile that led into a sensual but slightly thin upper lip. These details were more real than the words that had already disappeared on air. "What...?"
Arashi jerked his head. "The retrieval was a success. Professor Vaille is due back any..."
"I heard you," Roman murmured, widening his eyes. He was numb with it. He had expected an attempt, and failure, perhaps another attempt and more failure...he had no conception of what was involved in this sort of operation and had reasoned on some level, why would they move them unless it were a truly serious matter? He set the cup of hot tea on the table before his nerveless fingers could drop it. On some level he was aware that a most undignified grin had probably broken out over his face.
"I could kiss you," he informed Arashi, whose head slewed in his direction; for an instant, his gray eyes were startled before hardening into the more recognizable suspicion.
"I'd kill you first," Arashi replied, toting his cup over to the recycle-tube and pushing it in with unnecessary brutality. The odds were high that he was imagining it was Roman's head he was shoving into the orifice.
Still, despite all the danger signs Roman grabbed up his drink from the table and tagged after Arashi as he left the coffee shop. "When will he be back? Or is he here already? Can I expect to see him? He wasn't hurt, was he? What about..." The function of sound left him abruptly as if a switch had been turned off. The other things that Shemyahza had spoken of, what about that? He'd been rescued by what must be an extraordinarily fast time-table by anyone's standards, did that mean there'd been no time for his captors to brutalize him? Roman nearly fumbled his drink, recovered, and jogged to catch up to his classmate. He more than anyone should know how little time it took to accomplish that.
Arashi stopped so suddenly Roman almost had to make the choice between dumping his drink or crushing it between their bodies. He yelped and backstepped, thanking his quick reflexes. Arashi's gray eyes met him, steady, hard, but not unsympathetic.
"Look. You don't seem like you're going to fall asleep any time soon," Arashi began.
"No shit!" Roman interjected. "My brother's back? You'd better believe I'm waiting up until I see him safe in front of me again!"
Arashi sucked in a breath, eyes flashing at the interruption. "So, follow me. You'll have to wait outside the briefing room until they're done--"
"He just got back from a demon kidnapping, where they took him to fucking Long Island, and your people are going to try to squeeze him dry for information?" Roman said incredulously, unable to bite his tongue even if it cost him tag-along rights.
"For all the essentials, yes," Arashi snapped, finally losing it. "You think this is some normal civilian situation? We've found him, so everything must be okay? These are demons, and they don't play nice, and they don't wait until morning to strike. We need every bit of information all of the principals have, including your brother, to get enough data to determine if we can even afford to relax long enough before launching a response."
Roman rocked back on his heels. "Oh," he said, inanely.
"Whomever sent those demons into the city wanted the Professor really badly," Arashi said, lowering his voice. His eyes blazed. "If the Prince of Long Island is involved, we can't afford to take half-measures. It was risky enough to send only two to retrieve the Professor, but obviously they weren't expecting it. And I am telling you way too much." He bit off that last, looked as if he'd say more, but tabled it.
Roman cradled his cooling drink in his hands and cocked his head to the side. "Who'm I going to tell? Anyhow, you think I'm a fritterhead no matter what, so it's not like you think I'm going to do anything if you slip and say too much," he said, wise to it and relatively free of bitterness.
Arashi grunted, lifted his chin in an infinitesimal gesture, then turned on his heel and headed for the elevator.
After a confusing second, Roman realized that gesture had been an understated invitation to follow, and he did so.
"You can wait outside," Arashi repeated over his shoulder. "If that's all right with you."
Roman slipped into the elevator beside him, giving Arashi a wide, bright smile despite the continued front of sullenness with which he was presented. "I consider it a privilege."
Gabriel was returned to them. He could walk over molten glass shards for the opportunity to see him safely arrived.
"Thank you," Roman murmured under his breath, and the ever-so-slight lift of Arashi's chin indicated he'd heard, and acknowledged.
After the dark coolness of the night air, and the dimmed berths of the underground vehicle facility, Gabriel was turned around from having been ushered from one place to the next with bustling efficiency. A medical bay had been the first stop, where a round-faced, smiling woman in taupe scrubs had looked him over and cleaned his wounds, then another medbay-type area where a white lab coat had taken a blood sample, then a room that reminded him strangely of a decompression chamber. All the while Shemyahza's broad hand had provided an oddly comforting presence on his shoulder or near the small of his back. In that decompression chamber, they had been joined by Shemyahza's compatriots - a tall black man in a leather trench coat, a short woman with towhead-blonde hair that cascaded around her, and Joseph Carselyle, a handsome brown-haired man with braided forelocks of hair who was almost odd in the very ordinariness of his demeanor.
In that place, they'd been scanned over with a visible beam of light, and possibly other things that Gabriel couldn't see or sense. The blonde had gone taut, her face twisting in an expressive grimace before she relaxed. Shemyaza's hand had remained on his shoulder, but there was something in the big man's body that managed to convey a brief state of alert readiness. From there they'd gone directly to the bright sterility of a metal-box elevator car, then up a long corridor dazzled with light, now to a conference room of some sort.
Gabriel had never been to the Cygnus facility before. So far it seemed more or less like the above-ground buildings he had been to during myriad brief trips to discuss things with division heads and shareholders. They had realized fairly quickly, Gabriel thought with something approaching abstract smugness, that it was useless to have him speak directly with shareholders, who needed visual big-picture diagrams and the convenience of bullet points, and thereafter he'd gone through Alicia Carson and her intermediaries or occasionally the more intellectual division heads.
Here, the warmth of Shemyahza's hand left him at last. As Gabriel settled into an unexpectedly cushiony conference room chair, he found himself seeking out his rescuer by sight.
Shemyahza was there directly across from him, settling into his chair with a flip of his abundant dark green hair. He flashed a grin at Gabriel that was unsettlingly white in the backdrop of his handsome, lean dark-skinned face. From the moment Gabriel had laid eyes on him the first impression had been that he was striking - his kind of looks, one couldn't soon forget.
Gabriel flushed, looking away from Shemyahza's unsettling crimson gaze and finding a neutral point of the room. He thought he might have been out of his head at the time but he had...made a contact with the man, for lack of a better word. No, the Nephilim. He was the third that Gabriel had ever seen in the flesh, and a full-blood. That must be where the fascination lay, Gabriel mused. It was a scholarly unraveling.
He looked back to the table, caught a glimpse of long, dark green hair spilling over the chair arm, and recalled the feel of it streaming along with the wind across his face, the way his arms had tightened instinctively around his rescuer and the growling thunder of the hydro-bike as it shot forward. There was something intimate in Shemyahza's gaze, and he couldn't meet it again. As if the man knew what lay behind the very sinew and flesh of his body and could see to the substance of him beyond.
Gabriel was so busy concentrating on not looking at Shemyahza that he barely noticed when Alicia Carson slid into a position at the head of the table, followed by a boy of Roman's approximate peer group with gold-brown hair and a scowl that looked permanent. The boy settled further down the table beyond the small blonde woman.
"Gabriel," Alicia said, passing her hand over the nearest data surface and activating it, twirling a silver stylus between her slender manicured fingers. "Welcome back. We went into overdrive to retrieve you safely."
"I appreciate that very much," Gabriel said slowly, adjusting his glasses with thumb and forefinger. It gave him a minute pause for thought. "And my brothers?"
"We implemented the full terms of the emergency incident clause of our contract," Alicia said mildly. "We brought your brothers into the safety of Cygnus as soon as we found out."
"Good," Gabriel said, relieved. He cast a vague glance around the table. The tall black man was cleaning his nails with a knife, the tiny blonde was interlacing her fingers in a pattern as complex as it seemed intensely interesting to her, and Joseph had his face turned attentively in Alicia's direction. The boy had his gaze fixed on whatever information was passing over the data surface at his station. Again, Gabriel failed to meet Shemyahza's dark gaze. "And…and the Grimoire?"
"Secured," Alicia said instantly, banishing his last fear. She favored him with a brief smile. "That's so like you, Professor, to have the item of scholarly interest be your second concern."
"Was there…was there something else I should have asked after?" Gabriel backpedaled with faint alarm.
"No, don't let me rattle you, I'm teasing in my way," Alicia said, her fingers beginning to move over the data surface. Her eyes tracked scrolling lists and points only she could see from her angle. "Professor, did you realize you're the first to ever be rescued from Long Island since its new leadership?"
"I…well, no, I didn't," Gabriel blinked. How was he to know? He cast another glance round the table. "Thank you, everyone. Truly well done. I…I didn't expect…were there any, well, casualties?"
"None," the teenaged boy said without looking up from his station.
Gabriel frowned as he fixed the greater share of his attention upon the boy at last. There was something familiar about him, recognition in angles of bone and the way he held his head. "I'm sorry, you are…?"
"Arashi," the boy replied, and palmed bangs out of a pair of intense gray eyes that met his briefly, then returned to the data surface. "Arashi Loire." The surname was tacked on like an afterthought.
"Ah," Gabriel said, enlightened. "Director Loire's so--"
"Thanks to operatives Carselyle and Guile, this was Orion's most successful retrieval ever," Arashi cut him off curtly.
"Like Nara didn't do a bit of it," the black man put in, his accented baritone mildly censorious.
"Hush, Reims, I get paid even without compliments." The woman settled back in her chair, resting her hands on the arms and closing her eyes.
"And Nara's expert spotting," Arashi acknowledged, looking to Alicia.
Gabriel looked at his acquaintance of old, Joseph, who was nodding in a friendly manner, then his eyes couldn't help but steal in the direction he'd been avoiding.
Shemyahza was looking him full in the face, his dark red eyes intent. The beginnings of a smile curved up one corner of his generous mouth.
Gabriel hastily transferred his attentions to Alicia. The Nephilim had rescued him, and he was truly grateful. He had tendered his thanks, now that was the end of it…right? Yet the rabidly scholarly part of him clamored to bend Shemyahza's ear for a good long interval, ask all the questions for things he'd only pieced together before now. He could have asked, if not for that particular look in the Nephilim's eyes.
It was akin to Roman's lowered eyes before the pounce, honed and multiplied by an unknown number of years of experience. There was a calculated waiting in that look.
"Please, Gabriel, we would let you go immediately to an apartment that's been prepared for you but there are some factors involved in your abduction that we'd like to get clarified, if possible," Alicia said. "As well as the fact that you're the first to see this new leader of Long Island and return to speak of it."
"Oh. Yes," Gabriel said, beginning to feel as if the vagueness was not simply due to his general state of being but was, in fact, related to the fact that he'd been awake for a considerably long period of time with no rest or real substance to speak of. He still didn't quite feel tired, though his surroundings save for Shemyahza Guile had a dreamlike quality. It hadn't even occurred to him really until Alicia mentioned it that not everyone knew what had gone on between him and the leading Nephilim of Long Island. That was still locked away in his head. "Of course. Granac Bowen."
Alicia and Arashi's fingers flashed over their data surfaces. Shemyahza bared his teeth ever so slightly, the glint enough to catch and draw Gabriel's eyes back to him.
Gabriel looked away, scraping hair away from his face. The tie that normally secured it was long since gone. "He has the Third."
Alicia's fingers stopped moving. For the first time ever, he was seeing her discomposed. Her mouth was open in startlement, her eyes wavering between shock and concentration.
"That's why he needed me," Gabriel continued. "He cannot translate it. He doesn't have the knowledge, nor I believe do any of his people. But if he could translate its spells and cantrips…"
The rumble of Shemyahza's voice punctuated the room. "He could blow New York City apart with a chain of phrases, Wall or no Wall."
Gabriel drew in a breath. He'd never really believed in the true power of the grimoires. Of course, it had previously been the realm of scholarly speculation. If Shemyahza was saying it, though, it had to be believed. He didn't strike Gabriel as the type to make frivolous claims. Perhaps…perhaps he'd even seen… Gabriel shut off that line of thought and the attending squirm of joy at the prospect of interviewing the Nephilim in-depth.
Though if the man could answer all of his questions there was no real need for Gabriel as a scholar, was there? Granac Bowen proved that Nephilim as a whole had forgotten the larger share of their own culture.
"So what do we have?" Alicia said sharply.
"A copy of the Fifth," Gabriel said reverently. It was still safe within this building. He still had the greater body of work before him…in his mind's eye he was already calling up a page, projecting it against the table, surveying its intricate symbols.
"Gabriel. Focus," Alicia commanded, snapping her fingers briefly.
Shemyahza's head jerked up, and once again Gabriel found himself meeting a probing stare. This time he was the subject of an intense scrutiny that leveled a greater share of concentration rather than casual lust. The Nephilim's crimson eyes bored into him, and Gabriel couldn't even blink. Then Shemyahza released him from the weight of his eyes, looking down at the table and his dusky, broad folded hands. The gaze he directed at his hands was equally intense and thoughtful and Gabriel was relieved to be released from it.
"Yes?" Gabriel said in belated answer to Alicia's directive. He was staggered, part of him still wavering from the thrall of those eyes.
Alicia's tough demeanor thawed a bit. "Forgive me, do you want to take a break? Need something to eat, or drink? I can have refreshments here in an instant."
"No, I'd rather get this over with," Gabriel said. He reflected on the jumbled-up events of the long day and night. Somewhere in there he'd taken a bit of food, but his stomach was a sour mess now, no good to him whatsoever. "Granac took me to translate for him. He was--" Gabriel hesitated. How could he convey it without having it seem terribly strange? The whole episode seemed more like a surreal dream-loop rather than something that had actually occurred. "He treated me well, I must say. The ones who took me out there were rough, but once I'd reached the complex--"
"He may have seemed polite but he was simply doing what was expedient," Shemyahza interrupted brutally. "He was burning off a control drug that's proven effective on humans." For a hovering instant it looked as though he might say more, but perhaps it was only Gabriel who had that expectation.
"The incense?" Gabriel hazarded.
Not even looking up from his terminal, Arashi interjected, "Preliminary blood test results are back and support that analysis." His scowl deepened. "It looks like it wasn't completely effective."
"Well, I wasn't there for that long," Gabriel protested, and the heaviness of Shemyahza's eyes was on him again. He refused to look.
"Never mind that," Alicia said briskly, dismissing that line of inquiry with a sweep of her hand. "I need to know what kind of threat this Granac poses. Let's go at this differently, in sequence. I've seen the feeds of the extraction mission, but what we're missing here is an overall sense of Bowen's temperament, what he's capable of, what he'll do next. Gabriel, give me your first-hand account, then Shemyahza, I'll expect you to file a report by morning of any info you have on him."
Gabriel could sense, rather than see, the ironic bow inclined at her from across the table. He fussed at his hair with one hand, raking it out of order then combing it back into place, a nervous gesture he rarely indulged in for Roman's rages that it made him look so rumpled and untidy. "Let's see…beginning with my abduction this morning?"
Alicia favored him with a slightly weary smile. "Yesterday morning. Sorry for the correction."
"I'm sure we're all sorry we're still here," Shemyahza's deep tones rolled over them. "The sooner you recount it all, Vaille, the sooner we can escort you to bed." Never had the "we" been intimately rendered, meant, perhaps, in the sense of a royal plural.
Gabriel disguised a shiver with another nervous fidget, sure he wasn't fooling the Nephilim whatsoever. He folded his hands in his lap and began with that first deliberate bump of what he'd thought at the time to be an ill-mannered pedestrian.
They related all the particulars in turn. Once Gabriel had spoken his piece, Nara took up her accounting, then Reims put in his brief, succinct observations. Joseph was quick and to the point as usual, his deep voice reciting the events of that evening and the afternoon before as calm as if it were simply a checklist instead of a retelling of a succession of extremely dangerous events. Then Shemyahza spoke his tale, and it was storytelling in his hands, a vivid tapestry of action that practically conjured the scenes for which Gabriel had not been present.
At last, when everyone was silent, Gabriel fidgeted in his seat and avoided looking at anyone in particular. "He wanted me to translate the Third," he repeated. "I…he must know I'm the only one in this part of the world with that kind of knowledge. As far as I know. I-If not for Shemyahza…" He trailed off, lowering his eyes. He had been so horribly tempted, even though there was a subtle corruption that had gazed at him with amusement from behind Granac Bowen's urbane demeanor. Nothing good could come of what that creature offered. And yet, the sheer knowledge at his fingertips…
Without thinking, Gabriel looked up and full into Shemyahza's knowing crimson eyes. Though no words passed between them, the acknowledgment was unmistakable. Guile knew what he'd wrestled with. For some reason, that was almost reassuring.
"Good," Alicia said at last, tapping manicured nails on the table beside her data surface. "Thank you. The question foremost on our minds is perhaps the one only Shemyahza can answer. Is Bowen likely to launch a counterstrike at once?"
"No," Shemyahza replied without hesitation. "He's calculating and thorough. He'll know that Orion will be on the defensive, and Wall security will be correspondingly tight. He'll test and probe and send out feelers, and be certain of a weakness he can exploit before he acts again."
"But he'll do all that right away," Arashi spoke up.
Shemyahza inclined his head. "He'll launch his spies and lower-levels in full force. If he has any half-bloods he can exploit, he'll send them with a group of out-Wallers into the city, so you'll want to lean on Immigration. Losing Gabriel will be a tremendous blow; he'll want to recover him, or capture the copy of the Fifth, as soon as possible."
Alicia lifted her eyes from the data screen, her fingers still flashing over the surface. "The Vailles are still in danger," she pronounced. "Gabriel, I'd like to keep you and your family in Cygnus until we know the critical juncture is past. Also, anyone else involved in the translation - Roy and your assistant - must remain under protection as well."
"What about classes?" Gabriel protested. "With myself and my teaching assistant out, the university would have to shut down all my courses…"
Alicia stopped her typing and pressed her fingertips together. "Well, Gabriel, I certainly can't stop you from leaving the building. Technically I have the authority but that would be an abuse of power. I'll give you and your entourage ident-discs with the appropriate clearance -- the rest of your party has them, actually -- and you're free to come and go but the bodyguards are non-negotiable. Does that suit?"
"Very much," Gabriel said gratefully.
Alicia's pale blue eyes pierced through him. "Listen to me, Gabriel. This is still a high risk situation. Whatever your bodyguard tells you, I don't want to hear there's been any arguments from you. Just do it. Whether it means cutting a day of classes short or staying in for the day, I'll be asking for regular reports on your compliance and I want to hear that you've been cooperative."
"I understand." Gabriel furrowed his brows, wounded. Did she think he was a child? Of course one listened to his bodyguards. "And my brothers will be able to attend school?"
"Yes, under the same conditions," Alicia replied. Her mouth twitched. "I expect to hear nothing but reports of good behavior from Cedric, at least."
Gabriel frowned, wondering if Roman had been assigned a male bodyguard. That would be a bad idea, given his proclivities. He loved the boy but he wasn't blind to his vices -- it was probably Gabriel's fault and the periods of relative inattention that he had inflicted him with, but there was no helping Roman's nature now.
"How soon will we be able to return home?" Gabriel questioned.
"A number of factors go into determining the critical juncture--" Arashi began, but Shemyahza cut him off with, "When your bodyguard deems it safe."
The boy frowned at the Nephilim down the table.
"Your contract is over," Alicia said mildly. "Professor Vaille has returned safely and we haven't offered you any new missions."
Shemyahza raised his dark green brows at the project leader. "Isn't it obvious?" he said, equally mild. "I'm the best Orion has to offer. One of your current highest-priority assets is at risk. I'll be Professor Vaille's bodyguard."
Gabriel looked incredulously from the Nephilim to Alicia Carson. She couldn't possibly accede…
Alicia's mouth twitched. "Fine," she decided. "But we won't pay you above going rate."
"I'm a Nephilim," Shemyahza protested delicately.
"Five percent differential, take it or leave it."
"You're a hard woman," the Nephilim accused.
Alicia gave him a thin smile. "I look out for the interests of my employer."
Looking back and forth between them, Gabriel settled at last on Shemyahza's complacent expression. When the Nephilim inevitably looked his way, he averted his own gaze yet again.
The insistent blurting repeater of an alarm penetrated through the fog of Kieran O'Bannon's hazy half-formed dream images, and he blinked shreds of sleep from his eyes. It took him a moment to orient himself, and his most immediate realization was that he was on an unfamiliar couch, then the fact that he was lifting his head from his teacher-assistant's shoulder, on which he'd left a few particularly damp coin-sized patches of drool. Kieran leaped up from the couch, mortified. He had fallen asleep all over Roy Masters.
He crossed the room in a few quick strides, taking care of the search retrieval that had been beeping for perhaps the last several minutes, long enough to wake him from his light doze but not loud enough apparently to rouse his sleeping companion.
It was a null retrieval, and Kieran sighed and wrung his hands for a moment. If only Professor Vaille's archiving methods weren't so esoteric. Even with Cedric's help earlier, they'd come up with precious few keywords that had proved useful. Kieran's cleaning a few days ago had proved especially disadvantageous in the long run, because whatever methods Professor Vaille had employed in his own haphazard style of organization were lost between Kieran's re-shelving and the move from campus to Cygnus.
Kieran returned to the sofa, shaking open the blanket that had been left folded over one arm, and stood beside Roy in contemplation. He was nowhere near strong enough to leverage the taller, solidly-built man from couch to the bed in the nearby room. He bent over the man, brushing slivers of long black bangs out of his face and finger-combing them over his forehead, then snatched his hand back, embarrassed. If Roy were to awake right now--
He really was quite handsome, the thought caught Kieran off-guard. In this moment of calm, with nothing but Roy before him, he was confronted with the pleasing regularity of his features, an aquiline, almost classic profile and firm mouth with a full lower lip. With his eyes always fixed on Professor Gabriel whether the man was in the room or not, Kieran had never really noticed that the teacher assistant was so good-looking -- though not in the sense of brilliant beauty that the Professor possessed.
Roy had always been encouraging him, Kieran thought absently, lifting his hand to touch a stubborn strand of hair that had fallen over the man's high forehead again. He froze as Roy stirred, and Kieran stepped away from him, warmth rushing into his cheeks. What was he thinking? Fussing over his mentor like a hen with one chick…Roy would probably chuckle at him in that warm good-natured way he had if he were awake. Kieran shifted his weight uneasily, torn between settling on the couch beside him for another nap and seeking out the empty bed in the other room. The simple human warmth was what decided him, and he had barely taken half a step when the door hissed open.
"He's back!" A slight body hurtled through the door. Cedric Vaille burst into the room, his huge jade-green eyes glowing with delight. "He's back, my brother is back. Gabriel is back!"
Roy surged to his feet at once, nearly clocking skulls with Kieran and catching himself by throwing his arm out, one hand on Kieran's shoulder, the other at his waist. "What? What is it?" Roy demanded, blurry, eyes still half-closed as he cast about for his answers.
"Uh..." Kieran said, heat rising in his face fast as if he'd been cursed. He couldn't move for fear of putting his hands someplace inappropriate.
"Oh," Roy said, eyes settling on him. "Sorry."
"Not at all. Um. Well," Kieran said, his throat squeezed tight, voice emerging low and husky and he was close enough that he could see Roy's eyes opening fully, his pupils dilated. "We'd better go see that the professor's returned safely."
"Ah," Roy said, gaze dipping from Kieran's eyes to his mouth. "Of course." He stepped away and looked at Cedric, giving the little boy a nod.
Kieran wondered about that, rubbing at his neck. There was a patch of skin near his waist that felt cold now after the warmth of Roy's fingers, even through his clothes. He smiled at the sheer excitement in Cedric's upturned face.
"Well, what are we waiting for?"
When Arashi had told him he could wait, the limits on that invitation hadn't seemed quite so important at first.
Roman paced in the hallway with tigrish restlessness, flicking angry eyes at the closed portal every half-lap or so, wrestling with whatever might be keeping them in there so long when he didn't know whether his brother was hurt, if he'd been tortured, only knowing that it was past two in the morning and they'd all been on high alert since yesterday morning. All he wanted was to touch his brother and assure himself that Gabriel was okay, such a simple thing. The door had slid shut on Arashi's heels and Roman hadn't even gotten a look at his brother, still closeted up in that top-secret briefing with no regard for family or Gabriel's needs. Roman fulminated over this and more, winding himself up like a spring with no recoil. He didn't have a chronometer on his wrist so he had no clear idea of the passage of time, only that it went on long enough for him to get pissed off plus forever.
At last the door opened, and Roman strode over to it, all set to harangue someone or throw himself at Gabriel, part reassurance and part sheer thankfulness at his brother's return. He hauled up short, staring up past a broad chest into a pair of amused, watchful crimson eyes.
"You," Roman uttered in disgust. There was no denying the demon hunter was tall and intense and undoubtedly competent, if he'd actually been instrumental in ensuring Gabriel's safe return. Nonetheless there was a deep-rooted instinct in him to distrust the creature, even more at his earlier revelation that he was a full-blooded Nephilim. Roman functioned more or less on an emotional basis and he promptly gave himself over to his impulse to dislike Shemyahza Guile.
"Well?" Shemyahza challenged him, stepping forward and forcing Roman to retreat in order to give him room. "Think you can trust me now?"
Roman stiffened, the blood surging into his ears. All his angry restlessness at cooling his heels for so long was suddenly given a focus. This sneering creature was making fun of him, and Roman bristled with the desire to fight back, even knowing he'd probably be swatted into the wall as something less than a mere insect. Then he glanced to the side of the tall bounty hunter and his eyes widened, a thread of sense - and utter relief - winding through his affront, quenching the suicidal impulse to match more than heated words to the over-muscled mutant.
"Gabriel!" he uttered, and his brother met him halfway, gripping him by the arms and looking at him quizzically.
"Roman, were you about to--?" Gabriel began questioningly, and Shemyahza's deep voice punctuated the half-formed query with a rolling laugh.
Roman burned, his desire flaring up once again to throw a punch or something equally stupid.
"I'm back," Gabriel said simply, and then it was all right.
"You're all right?" Roman demanded, hugging him fiercely, the tenseness in him dissipating somewhat as his brother returned the hug, pulling him in close. He couldn't let himself remain in the comfort of Gabriel's embrace for long, though, loosening his grip to look him over, scrutinizing Gabriel's face, his body, posture and coming up satisfied though slightly unnerved. There was a difference he couldn't quite put his finger on.
"I'm fine," Gabriel replied, with a chuckle. "Surprisingly so, given the events of what hasn't even been twenty-four hours."
Roman shook his head in disbelief. Surely it had been far longer.
"You're holding up the line," a caustic voice informed them from within the room.
Stung, Roman shuffled sideways and clung to his brother's hand, forcing Gabriel to follow. Arashi emerged from the conference room, cool gray eyes flicking over him in brief dismissal before the handsome young man took the corridor that would lead him back to the elevator. After him, the blonde Ms. Carson met his eyes, gave him a slight nod, and followed Arashi. There was a parade of people that Roman vaguely recognized from the conference room earlier, probably Orion staff involved in the retrieval, and Roman sighed as he squeezed his brother's hand. That wasn't needed anymore.
"I want to go home," Roman said in a small voice, wanting it now, though he was pretty sure it wouldn't happen at least until morning. He glanced sideways, wondering very hard and with any luck within perceptible range for their gangling interloper why Shemyahza was still standing there beside them, hands clasped behind his back and smooth cinnamon-skinned face calmly alert.
Gabriel sighed, raking a hand through his pale hair. "That I can't manage. Not yet." His brother looked...awake, Roman realized. That was part of the difference. It wasn't often that something got Gabriel Vaille's full attention and he supposed an abduction would do it. It was more than that, Roman considered, peering at Gabriel more closely. Something was different.
"We're still at risk," Gabriel continued, also glancing at Shemyahza, then away so quickly it was as if he was trying to pretend their oversized intruder wasn't there. Roman could hardly blame him. "This is one of the most secure facilities Orion has to offer, being underground and all that, so Ms. Carson has asked that we stay here temporarily until they assess the situation."
"Oh," was all Roman could manage, blinking. "So we're not getting out tomorrow." His first thought was that he would have to call his staff and have them make arrangements so that he wouldn't lose any contracts. It astonished him; Damon was usually the sort to think of that for him.
Shemyahza's deep laugh underscored the moment yet again and Roman inhaled, ready to launch a blistering tirade, when his younger brother came barreling up the hallway.
"Gabriel! Gabriel, Gabriel!" Cedric sobbed in relief, throwing himself at their older brother. Roman had to retreat hastily, then he arranged himself at the opposite wall, watching his older and younger siblings commune. Gabriel swept Cedric up into his arms for all the boy was in middle school, holding him close as Cedric babbled a number of questions, most having to do with the conditions in which he'd been held, had he been rescued without any damages, and the like. Watching them, Roman was stricken again with how similar the two of them were, though separated by nearly two decades; apart from the coloration and features that the three of them more-or-less shared, their speech patterns and mannerisms were very alike. Their very thought patterns, on more than one occasion. He watched the outpouring of Cedric's relief and it shamed him. He'd been so very selfish, indulging in his own collapse. Again, the thought tagged after: what could he do?
He was aware even before he looked that Shemyahza was watching him, and Roman turned a frown on the horrible creature. Knowing crimson eyes met his, and in the end it was Roman who had to look away. Guile looked at him as if he really could read his thoughts, and Roman hated him for being here - sticking around at what should be a private family reunion.
"What--" he began, intending to ask why he had lingered, when his brother's staff came into view.
"Gabriel, thank the kindly ones," Roy said fervently. The auburn-haired boy, some kind of research assistant, was hard on his heels, face shining as he caught sight of Gabriel. Behind the two of them was the bulk of the tall muscle-bound man Ms. Carson had assigned to guard Cedric. Was it necessary after all, if they would just be staying here? Or was the guard supposed to follow them at all times, in which case he honestly feared for Felicia Arks' wrath when she discovered him disappeared from the suite.
"I saw you snatched," Roy said, drawing even with his colleague and putting a hand on his shoulder as if to reassure himself, as Roman and Cedric had before him, that his eyes weren't playing tricks and Gabriel was indeed present in the flesh. "I was on my way to work when I caught sight of you, I was actually about to cross over and tease you for coming in so early--"
"On time, you mean," Gabriel interjected with a faint smile.
"--then I saw him hit you, and drag you over to his car," Roy continued. He was pale, reliving it. "God, it wasn't even a day ago, was it? Feels like so much longer. Anyhow, I called Orion at once and they went right into top gear. How are you? What happened?"
Gabriel shifted Cedric in his arms and frowned as if considering his reply. "I'm all right," he said at last, casting a surprised look around the crowded hallway as if astonished to find so many concerned for his welfare. The vague professor had made a reappearance. "It's late..." Cedric squirmed and patted his brother's shoulder, indicating it was past time to be set down. Gabriel put his little brother back down, palming his head briefly and stroking his pale hair.
"Of course," Roy said, clasping his shoulder. "Sorry. What am I thinking? I'm just so relieved."
"That makes all of us," Gabriel said, smiling again. "I got out of it with scrapes and bruises, no more than that, I think."
Arms crossed, leaning against the opposite wall as he surveyed the people monopolizing his brother, it occurred to Roman that he wasn't going to get the tactile reassurance of sleeping with his brother tonight. What excuse could he come up with to manage it? Unless he made it a family thing, and dragged Cedric along, but then they wouldn't get to... He broke off that thought and glanced Shemyahza's way again. The tall broad-shouldered demon hunter hadn't budged from his spot by Gabriel's side, close enough to constitute hovering. His eyes met Roman's instantly, and Roman had to conquer the childish urge to stick out his tongue in defiance.
"After I've slept for a good six hours we can go over the details," Gabriel promised, passing a hand through his hair again. "Ms. Carson has asked that we live at Cygnus for now--"
"What about school?" Cedric piped up, all instant indignation over the prospect of missing his education now that his brother was recovered.
Roman smirked, it was a pure Cedric moment. For his part, he was rid of the pretense of going to school. His grades would be the same whether he missed or went.
"We can leave the building for school and work," Gabriel replied, and Roman's smile disappeared. "So long as our bodyguards remain with us at all times."
Roman's eyes widened. That was going to put a serious crimp in his social life. No, that was no good, he'd have to figure some way around it or wangle a loophole.
"We should get back to our suites, then," Roy said, gesturing in the direction of the elevator, taking the lead.
The redhead, who hadn't managed to get a word in edgewise during the fervent welcomes, now said shyly, "Professor, it's so good to have you back."
"Thanks, Kieran," Gabriel said kindly, ushering Cedric along with a hand on the boy's shoulder-blade.
Roman pushed away from the wall, prepared to drift after them when he glared sidewise at Shemyahza. "You're still here," he commented, wondering what role this overconfident bastard had played after all in his brother's recovery. He was arrogant enough, but how much of it had been him, and how much credit belonged to the rest of the team?
Shemyahza Guile put a hand to one hip, crimson eyes flicking over him in a dismissive appraisal. "By the way, I'm going to be guarding his body," he informed Roman, glancing over at Gabriel, already half-way down the hall with his cluster of relieved protégés and family.
Roman clenched his fists, wondering how, somehow or other, he could make this creature suffer. Preferably some sort of crushing defeat while Roman got to watch, but really, he'd settle for anything that got Shemyahza away from his family.
With a smirk, the infuriating Nephilim turned his back to Roman, sauntering up the hall. And because Roman didn't know any other pathways out of the place, he had no choice but to follow, seething every step of the way.
It was oh-dark-a.m. when Alicia Carson strode up the hallway toward the field ops coordination center, dressed in a crisply-pressed suit with pants creases so sharp and a jacket tailored neatly enough to pass for a uniform. Her golden hair was caught up in her signature twist and her wolf-blue eyes were clear, betraying no strain or fatigue from recent events or a night short on sleep. She thrived on crisis, and could remain up and working at full capacity through crises lasting seventy-two hours, though after that she could crash for a day or two. Alicia had been born outside the Wall, lived there for her first twelve years, and been recruited young by Orion for her uncanny grasp of tactics at such a tender age. She had been working for them ever since, doing what she did best: make war and win battles.
The Vailles had extended an invitation to breakfast, and for a change of her usual non-breakfast of a single cup of black coffee she thought it might be nice to join them. Sociable, at the least; and it would be good to have an update to give them, any kind of update.
The halls were dimmer than daylight-strength illumination to reflect the circadian rhythms of the world above. While Alicia understood the design theory behind it, she would have preferred the normal brightness of the overheads even at such an early hour. The door to the "war room" whooshed open at her touch. She wasn't quite surprised to find the room had an occupant even at this prohibitively early hour.
"Good morning," Alicia said, and Arashi Loire's head lifted, his handsome young face unsurprised at her sudden early appearance. "Did you sleep at all?"
Arashi lifted a hand by way of greeting. "Did you?" he returned skeptically.
"This particular crisis is past," she said wryly. "Because Guile assured us that Bowen wouldn't make an immediate strike without knowing the extent of our defenses, I'm taking every opportunity." She made a mental note to call Redhawk, Commander of the City and Wall Defense Corps, before her next meeting. He'd appreciate being warned to expect some extra action and with any luck they could stop most of the probes simply by being more alert.
Arashi nodded, his attention returning to the data display beneath his hands. The boy lived for information and electronics and seemed uncomfortable only when he had to return to the world where people were flesh and not statistics, Alicia noted. She would wonder at that if she weren't familiar herself with how genius-index children tended to avoid their less intelligent peers. She knew both of his parents and despite all appearances the division head was a man of exceptional intelligence himself, if some irregularity as well; Arashi's mother was a gifted woman as well, considering she was in high enough demand to merit a heavy armed escort to India for contract work.
She crossed over to the conference-style table and seated herself, locating a console and pulling it closer to see if more preliminary reports had come in. Alicia's mortal certainty that Shemyahza hadn't filed a report was confirmed; he was one who didn't do it until he was badgered and she'd even taken to making it a payment clause in his contracts.
"I have something for you," Arashi said after a moment, lifting his head. He sorted through a haphazard stack of screen-files, pushing aside a mostly-empty cup from one of the beverage shops from the third level, and located a red one, sending it skittering across the table in her direction.
Alicia trapped it with a manicured nail and raised an eyebrow at Arashi. "Is this what I think it is?"
Arashi lifted his chin. "It's enough info to narrow it down," he replied. "I flagged the ones I consider to be the highest risk. I have to get going, I need to stop by my apartment on the way to school."
It was such an innocuous little device. Holding it up, Alicia was quite certain he'd keyed it to something very specific, maybe even her ident chip. This was damaging enough information to get someone exiled from the city.
"I put a fingerprint lock on it," Arashi said, surprising her. "So use a terminal with that protocol when you read it." He stood and lifted a bag that had been on the chair beside him, hidden by the conference table's sleek dark lines. His school bag, no doubt.
Alicia raised her head and gave him a slow smile. Of course he'd have access to that database, she'd given him the clearance herself. "Thank you," she told him. "By the way, you've been reassigned to my unit. You'll be working directly under me, now."
Arashi acknowledged this with a slight bow. "That's all I can do, Ms. Carson. I can't give you proof on anyone, and I know you'll need it."
"Don't worry about it," Alicia replied, waving a hand. "I'll want to hire an outside contractor for this anyhow, to dispel any flavor of bias. Really, I appreciate this much, it's what I need to take swift and decisive action. We can't have any leaks, especially during this crucial project." Even now she was inclined to speak in half-coded euphemistic terms, as if the place were bugged. And who knew? If someone was passing information knowing it was Granac Bowen to whom they sold, they would have to get a sweeper team in here.
"All right." Arashi shifted his bag onto his shoulder and dipped his head briefly, brows knit. "I'll see you after school, then. Please page me if something comes up?"
"Count on it," Alicia said, suppressing a smile. She remembered being his age, with all of that fierce young pride. Arashi was very bright, and very good at what he did, and young enough that he had to be handled carefully. She could recognize from his attitude and some of the other signs that he'd been put to work before for superiors who had either mishandled him or badly underestimated him. The boy was a work-horse, and she intended to make the best use of him.
The door hissed shut behind him quietly, and Alicia hunted down a terminal in the room that possessed the ability to scan her prints. She wanted a look at what she was up against before she decided what to do next, or who to call. Within moments she was looking at a simple file with names, IP addresses, access times, and other data she didn't immediately recognize.
"Ah, damn," Alicia said, expelling a soft sigh and laying her hands flat on the table. Reims's name was on the list. So was a co-worker's whom she considered to be a friend, though not ever to the point of exchanging classified information. Alicia didn't just like her job; it was her life. Losing it was unthinkable. Another name was that of Loire's personal assistant, and that made her frown very hard - her division head typically had an infallible instinct in choosing his staff. That same assistant had failed to give Arashi alpha clearance when he reported to this branch, and Alicia had wondered about that.
Someone was getting fired, possibly exiled depending on the extent as well as the intentions of the information breach, and this called for a professional. Alicia had her list of favorites, but it was a matter of finding which one was free - the best were expensive, and much in demand. She pulled out her phone, scrolling down the list and remembering one particular name by spectacular association.
"Ah, Pierce, is it too early?" Alicia asked, preparing an apology. She forgot some people didn't keep her kind of schedule. The man on the other end denied it, sounding alert as if he'd been up as long as she had. "Are you free for a discreet rush job?"
It was a sunny, cloudless day, warm enough to cause perspiration in anyone unwise enough to wear an autumn uniform but otherwise fair. Breakfast had been more than just a family affair, it had meant a packed table and dozens of different threads of conversation, a full house that was somehow comforting even as it overwhelmed. Cedric had seen his brother get out of the sleek Orion-owned, logo-less van with his bodyguard, Roy, the college-age protégé, and yet another bodyguard but even so there was an unsettled tilt to his morning. The world was a little less secure than it had been the day before.
Cedric balked for a moment as he stared up at the broad brick façade of Vanderbrant Junior High. Humphrey's hand landed on his shoulder, inquiring. Cedric turned his gaze up to the huge Nordic man who'd chosen him for an assignment. "I don't know," Cedric said in reply to the unspoken question. Another thought sparked, one of the bullies waiting within but beyond that, the stares he would get for being different - moreso than usual. "You're sure it's okay for you to be here?"
Humphrey nodded, his crystal-clear blue gaze unconcerned. He headed toward the school without a backward glance, expecting Cedric to follow.
Cedric gnawed at his lip, hitching his book-bag higher onto his shoulder. It was prone to sliding off, because he was too skinny to have proper shoulders like Gabriel or even his middle brother Roman. He'd refused to let Humphrey carry it for him, though, because the man was a professional, not a servant. Even if Humphrey didn't mind, it mattered to him.
He followed his bodyguard into the school, casting his thoughts back to the night before - well, early morning, really. It might be in his favor that Humphrey couldn't, or wouldn't, speak his mind and probably had the discretion not to even if he had other means of communication. When he had woken up from that nightmare, he and Humphrey had adjourned to the kitchen for a cup of tea or, unexpectedly in Humphrey's case, hot chocolate.
No one had told him that Gabriel had returned. Though that was what one might expect in such a situation, there had been no word via bodyguards or electronic means. Maybe Ms. Carson had been waiting for the end of that briefing she'd talked about over breakfast. Whatever the case, they hadn't been notified when Gabriel had returned, but through the course of finishing his tea Cedric had relaxed more and more, until he snapped upright in his seat upon realizing why he felt so safe and reassured. His brother was back. Humphrey had followed him upstairs, selecting the floor for their destination, and Cedric had made a straight line for his brother from the elevator.
It wasn't normal, and it worried him. That coupled with the dream and their whole precarious situation made Cedric anxious that things would never be normal again. He wanted someone to tell him his fears were baseless, but he thought they were too silly to share and so he was caught in a loop with no reassurance forthcoming.
As expected they were the recipients of a lot of double-takes and staring as Cedric moved through the hallways with Humphrey Platt by his side. He was fairly sure that a call had been made, either by Orion or Gabriel - knowing his brother's memory capacity for the mundane, it had probably been Orion. They would have explained to his principal and possibly the teachers why little Cedric Vaille needed a bodyguard during all of his classes, school security not being good enough for what the Vailles were up against. That didn't armor him any against the curious stares of the other students as Cedric made a straight line first for his locker, to exchange books, then for his classroom. He kept his head lowered, but his cheeks stayed hot with the prickle of so many eyes on him.
They reached class without incident, of course. Cedric had been steeling himself for an encounter of some sort. By the time he'd passed through nearly the whole school with everyone looking at him, he'd been ready to welcome a demonic kidnapping attempt with open arms. He hesitated on the threshold of the classroom and considered looking over his shoulder and asking Humphrey if it would be all right if he waited in the lounge, or something, already sure of getting the negative.
"Cedric, I'm so relieved you were able to come back so soon after leaving like that," Mr. McCormack said quietly, reaching his side and pausing a beat before patting his shoulder. "What would we do without our class leader? Well, I'd be at a loss." He gave Cedric a warm smile, and Cedric had to blink back tears - he wasn't sure why. Speaking over his head, he said in that same low tone, "There's a desk in back for you, Mr. Platt, if you don't mind waiting out of the way."
Humphrey nodded and slipped past them, tracing a careful path through child-sized workstations on his way to the back. Heads turned as he passed and Cedric knew a sudden blush was rising in his cheeks again.
"It's all right, Cedric," Mr. McCormack assured him, patting him on the shoulder once more. "If it's for your safety a little inconvenience should be worth it, no? To be honest if things are that dangerous I thought you should remain in that secure location to which they spirited you off, but I heard you insisted on not missing classes." Now he bestowed the full glow of that marvelous smile of his on Cedric again, making him forget his blushes and embarrassment. If Mr. McCormack was his only teacher all the day long and he never had to deal with anyone else, he'd be happy.
With a nod the teacher directed him toward his desk and Cedric sought it out, fumbling with his book-bag, trying to keep it from banging against desks or fellow classmates as he took his place. Rivers of whispering coursed through the class and Cedric averted his face, meeting no one's eyes. If he'd thought it was bad before simply to be a Vaille, this was another level entirely.
His seat-mate gave him a friendly smile, though, as he slid into place. The blonde girl with large, steady brown eyes was the same person who had congratulated him after he won class leader by popular ballot, an occurrence that still stunned him when he thought on it.
The bell hadn't rung yet, but their teacher lifted his voice. "I'm sure you've all noticed our classroom addition," Mr. McCormack said. "The Vailles have levied permission from the school to have Cedric accompanied by a consultant for the next few days. He won't be interfering with any classes, he's strictly in observation mode."
Cedric lifted his head, trying not to gape at the teacher. Why use such a transparent lie? If the school was attacked, then Humphrey would be protecting him with all the skill he possessed. Cedric had been wondering how they'd explain away the presence of the hulking giant at his side, and this had to be the least plausible one they could have come up with. At least Humphrey didn't have any visible weapons on him.
Aside from that, the morning classes went smoothly. Once the bell rang, a veil of blessed normality descended onto the classroom. Humphrey Platt had faded into the background as if he weren't even there. The classes were moderately interesting, as usual, but not particularly challenging. Cedric rested his chin on his hand, trading his attention between the data display at his desk and the view of outdoors. Soon the leaves would begin to change, but for now everything was a vibrant shade of green. He was thirsty, and more than a little tired. Toward mid-morning the pace of the class crawled even more, especially as everyone else was working on fractions and he was well past algebraic equations. With a sigh, Cedric wondered if he shouldn't beg his brother again for home tutoring, or even skipping a few more grades even though Gabriel had hesitated to skip him as much as he had, having gone through the same thing himself.
It caused social developmental problems, Gabriel had argued when Cedric first brought up the topic of advancing. How could there be a problem when he was already outside the pale so far as normal was concerned in that respect, Cedric shot back. Making such an impassioned and articulate argument at eight had convinced his brother, at least temporarily.
When the lunch bell rang, he dithered at his desk while the rest of his class put away their things and filed out of the room. His seat-mate gave him a sweet smile and a little wave, but skipped over to join her friends when they beckoned. Cedric dawdled until the classroom was empty and even the math teacher had departed, then took his book-bag and made his way to the back, where Humphrey was seated at a man-sized desk with an ankle crossed over the opposite knee. He had pulled out a portable palm-sized display and was reading something that scrolled over his screen, set to a relatively slow speed.
"Time for lunch," Cedric said, glancing over his shoulder at the empty classroom. He wished for food that would just appear at their convenience, so he wouldn't have to face the cafeteria and the sea of faces. More speculation awaited him there; it had only begun. The story of Cedric Vaille and his 'consultant' was undoubtedly already spreading through the ranks like acid through tissue paper.
Humphrey nodded, stowing his portable display and rising to his feet. He really was a mountain of a man, Cedric thought, craning his head back to meet the solemn giant's eyes. How anyone could mistake him for anything other than a bodyguard was a mystery. He hadn't looked over at Andy and his friends today at all, preferring to avoid that nastiness completely, but he was sure those ones would be starting rumors all over the place that he and his friends were so badass, it necessitated the rich boy to hire muscle to keep the punks off him. Cedric didn't even want to think about the heckling that would follow when Humphrey was no longer shadowing him.
He was brought up short at the door by a wall of black; again, Cedric craned his head upward. "Sorry!" he apologized at once. "I didn't mean -- oh, Rukawa-senpai!"
The big senior took a step back as if worried he had almost inadvertently steamrolled Cedric, or something like that. "You're back," Rukawa said, face impassive for the most part. Nevertheless Cedric thought he detected a hint of relief in those dark eyes.
"I am," Cedric pronounced with satisfaction. "My brother has been recovered already, isn't that wonderful? We're all so relieved, I was worried it would take so much longer. Orion said it was all right if we resumed our normal daily activities and they assigned Humphrey to guard me while I'm outside." Humphrey's large hand landed on his shoulder, and Cedric started. Maybe he wasn't supposed to say all that. It was amazing he had gotten out that much; Rukawa seemed to prompt two settings when he was in his presence, inane babbling or dumbstruck silence.
"Good," Rukawa said after a moment, his brow creasing faintly. It wasn't that he didn't want to talk, Cedric thought, but more along the lines of that he was so unused to engaging in conversation with people that he wasn't always sure what to say, if anything - just like Cedric.
"It's all right to tell him," Cedric said, looking over his shoulder at his bodyguard. "He's my friend, I called him from Orion last night."
Humphrey cocked his head briefly, then gave him a short, not entirely approving nod.
Cedric stifled a blurt of laughter. He was in an uncommonly ironic position, being the most garrulous member of their party. Between his laconic friend and silent bodyguard he might end up holding all three ends of the conversation. "We should go get lunch," he said, then looked between Rukawa and Humphrey. Oh, this surely wouldn't get any extra attention.
"I'll get box lunches," Rukawa volunteered. "We can meet in the art room."
"Oh, that's a great idea, thank you!" Cedric said effusively. "But will it be empty?"
Rukawa shrugged. "Was yesterday."
Perfect. There was another problem solved, and it was nice to know Rukawa shared his desire for avoidance. There were always too many people in the cafeteria, and he didn't fancy being so conspicuous.
As promised, the art room was empty and dark when Cedric sought it out with Humphrey in tow. They settled at one of the long, low tables. When Rukawa arrived with lunches for the three of them, it was the most idyllic lunch period Cedric remembered since the time he'd volunteered his time for a group project and his teammates hadn't shown up. This time was much more fun to boot, even if the three of them weren't so inclined toward conversation.
Toward the end of the period, Cedric crumpled up his sandwich wrappings and eyed his bodyguard reflectively. "Would it be all right if Rukawa came to Cygnus for a visit?"
Humphrey looked at him, then Rukawa, who gave the big man a slow blink.
"He's my friend," Cedric repeated. "And he was worried yesterday. Just for a tour, you know--" Cedric waved his hand to indicate he really meant the parts of the Cygnus building that anyone could access.
Humphrey inhaled, sighed through his nose, and pulled out his portable display. He held up a finger to indicate Cedric needed to wait a moment for the answer, then began to type into it. His hands were so big he was only able to use his thumbs, which made Cedric want to giggle, but instead he looked at Rukawa and his urge to laugh dissipated.
"Oh! Do you have kendo?" he asked anxiously, and was relieved at Rukawa's slight shake of the head.
"I'd like to see," Rukawa said after a beat. "Where you're staying must be a top secret facility. Will you be there long?"
Cedric was pleased at his senior's insight. "I think it is, which is why Humphrey looks like he's going to thump me whenever I talk about it," he confided, and Humphrey paused in his typing long enough to shake his head reproachfully at him. "I don't know how long we'll be there. Until my brother is out of danger, I suppose. He's working on a very important project--" He cut off as Humphrey shook his head far more vigorously this time.
"I don't think I'm supposed to talk about that at all," Cedric said, lowering his voice. "So don't tell anyone what I've said."
Rukawa shrugged his big shoulders, the faintest of tiny smiles twitching at his mouth. "Who would I tell?"
After Cedric got up to dispose of their trash, when he returned Humphrey had received a discreet beep from his portable. The bodyguard pointed at Rukawa, looked at Cedric, and gave him a brief nod, but still didn't look thrilled. Well, he supposed that was what bodyguards were for: to be suspicious by nature.
"Great!" Cedric enthused, jumping to his feet. He looked around for his book-bag. "We should get back to class, I suppose."
"Everything all right?" Rukawa said suddenly, a non sequitur from any previous conversation.
Cedric wondered if it had taken his senior the entire lunch period to work up to the question, and smiled. "Everything's much better now," he said, brushing off his lingering thoughts of the dream and his lingering, non-specific unease. "I was worried. I was really, really scared. But Gabriel's back and everything should be okay, you know?" He tipped his head up to gaze at his taller schoolmate as Rukawa came around the table to stand beside him.
"Good," Rukawa said, and looked as if he hesitated to say something more. His brow knit, then cleared, and he glanced at Humphrey, then away. "I'll meet you after class."
"Okay," Cedric said, wondering what words had lain in that tense, unspoken space. It had been something personal, he figured, and maybe if Humphrey had gone to the bathroom or left to wash his hands or something... Well, no use thinking on it now.
When they returned to the classroom Humphrey assumed his vantage point at the back of the room again, and Cedric slid behind his desk again. The class was mostly full and the teacher was already there, which was fortunate for him because it meant he could avoid all the pestery questions from his classmates, whose faces still brimmed with curiosity and speculation.
"Hey, Cedric." His pretty seat-mate leaned over, giving him another friendly smile.
"Hello," Cedric said cautiously, trying again to remember her name. It was very poor form if he got drawn into a conversation and was put into a position where he'd have to confess he'd forgotten it. Maybe he could snatch a glance at Mr. McCormack's seating chart later.
"Is that guy really a consultant?" she asked him, her wide eyes darting in Humphrey's direction before settling back on him, curious.
"Oh, er. I don't know what his actual job title is," Cedric said with perfect honesty. "He reports to my brother's boss, that's all I know."
"Hmm. Your brother works for the university, right?" she asked him, tilting her head to the side.
Cedric concealed a snicker. It was a logical conclusion, and it certainly wasn't common knowledge of any sort that Professor Vaille did contract work for one of the biggest defense corporations. "Um, yes."
"Okay, thanks," she said with a puzzled frown. She turned to whisper something to the girl on the other side of her.
Cedric paid strict attention to his display as the teacher called the classroom to order. He hadn't lied, and yet he had managed to provide information that fell in line with that ridiculous consultant story someone had come up with. He bet himself that it was the principal, because Ms. Carson would have come right out and said she was sending a bodyguard with him, and left it up to them to decide how to explain it.
Lunch had left him sleepy and full, and Cedric leaned on his elbows, keeping his head down as if absorbed in his data display as class began. He had underestimated how tired he was, and post-imbibing satiety left him drowsy and susceptible to his lack of sleep. Before he knew it, his eyes were drifting shut. He fought a losing battle to keep his attention fixed on the lesson. It was rudimentary chemistry, something he was already beyond familiar with, and he soon found himself nodding off to the shapes of formulas, their numbers taking meaning and voice, tromping through his head and enlarging, spinning wide until they formed a galaxy around him. Words coursed through the air like comets, their fiery tails near enough for him to reach out and grasp the ends. He could pluck at comet-tails and ride off into the blackening sky.
Cedric jerked up, startled to find himself alone in a darkened classroom. He must have slept away the afternoon. He shifted in his seat, preparing to stow away his screen-files and sundries, and the shape of a hand moved over his hair, tender. He looked up into Rukawa's face.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, slow fog still rolling over his brain. He wasn't sharp, or ready for this conversation.
Rukawa ignored the question. "Did you find it?" he addressed him directly.
Cedric frowned. "I don't--"
"You're running out of time," Rukawa said. His voice was man-deep. His eyes were all but veiled by slivers of dark bang that fringed his eyes.
All at once Cedric was mortally certain he didn't want to look into Rukawa's eyes, didn't want to see what was there. "Then help me understand," he cried, frustrated. "Stop talking in riddles. I don't get it."
Rukawa lifted a finger to tap Cedric's forehead. The tip of his finger smarted against Cedric's skin and only then did Cedric notice the blackened skin, a curl of smoke roiling off the digit.
"Your demon." Rukawa abruptly lowered his face and thrust it forward, forcing himself into Cedric's immediate field of vision. "It's inside." His eyes were red, swelling worse than bloodshot; they weren’t really eyes anymore but pits of fire, and a fat trail of blood welled up over one eyelid and spilled down his cheek.
Cedric screamed and leapt to his feet, every fiber of his being shrinking away from that horrible touch, the stink of burnt flesh, and the terror of his friend transformed. He snapped his mouth shut and looked around in abject mortification at the faces of his classmates. He had fallen asleep in the middle of science class, and woken himself yelling like a baby in the middle of a bad dream. Humphrey Platt materialized by his side, knelt to hunker down to Cedric's eye level, and checked him over.
"I'm fine," Cedric whispered, hoarse. He wanted to fold up into his seat like an elaborate construction of origami and then turn at right angles to disappear. "Really. I just..."
"Vaille," said the teacher, Mrs. Blaine. "Cedric Vaille. You can leave if you'd like to go home, Mr. McCormack had a word with us this morning."
"It's okay," Cedric said, raising his voice. "Really. I'm very sorry, Mrs. Blaine, I...I don't know what happened--"
"All right," the teacher said, her voice gentling. "If you want to tough out the day it's fine, Vaille. Try to get more sleep tonight, all right?"
Flushing fit to put ripe tomatoes to shame, Cedric resumed his seat. He was going to get through the day, he vowed, even if he had to pinch his legs black and blue to stay awake. This had long since assumed the status of worst day ever, and if he could get past this, he could weather anything.
At that, a ghosting remembrance of the dream touched him. Cedric recalled the charred flesh of Rukawa's hands and shuddered. He didn't put much stock in dream analysis but he was ready to believe that whatever his psyche had conjured, it was his failing and his alone. He couldn't inflict this on anyone else.
By the end of the day Cedric had managed to convince himself that only two dreams didn't constitute 'recurring,' only coincidence. At any rate there was no stock in blaming Rukawa for the grisly imaginings of his overwrought subconscious. After school they'd meet up and Cedric would prove to himself that he could hold up his end of a friendship, and not let any hang-ups get in the way.