After the Rising: The Vaille Brothers Saga
Volume Three - Unbound
Chapter Four

by Talya Firedancer

Shemyahza Guile prowled around the Vaille apartment while his mate took a shower.

So, it had finally happened. He couldn't exactly take a position of surprise; he had been living amongst the humans and mixed-bloods long enough that he'd expected it to happen long before now. He was somewhat surprised it was a male mixed-blood who had captured his attention to that degree, though, even though he had favored males over females for the past few decades. He didn't fancy begetting little half-breeds of his own when the times were so perilous and he couldn't avoid putting himself in near-constant danger. Outside himself, even while on the hunt something within him had clicked and resonated with the eldest Vaille. Setting eyes on him, scenting him, touching him had only confirmed it. He was looking forward to the time when they had space and leisure for a full and thorough getting-to-know-you session.

As he took an unsupervised tour through the Vailles' digs he noted that they had been here, both brothers and their bodyguards, and respective others. Roman had been here more recently than Cedric, who had gotten here first.

Shemyahza returned to the bedroom, a faint grin crossing his face. Some of Professor Vaille's clothing was still scattered across the rumpled bed. He pictured that tall, slim-hipped frame in the shower, long legs and pale skin with the water coursing over him, and had to occupy himself with some other means to prevent from breaking down the door then and there. He was mature enough to recognize the inopportune moment and this was it. Besides, Vaille needed some acclimatization and the time to recognize the truth between them. He was actually looking forward to the slow unfolding of it, the realization, the surrender.

He turned his attention to the furnishings around him. The room was spare but elegant, neatly-kept, as one might expect of a grown professional. His first impression of the room had been positive and it stood up to scrutiny. Four pieces of unvarnished black walnut furniture dominated the room; a towering bureau, a spindly three-legged nightstand, an antique reading desk pushed into one corner, and the long, wide frame of the king-sized bed. The hastily-made coverlet smelt of Roman and Gabriel combined, and Shemyahza supposed that was part of what had driven him to such lengths. He was surprised he hadn't nipped Gabriel's pale skin to see a mark spread blooming over the side of that fair-skinned neck. He had enough control, for now. He could be proprietary all he wanted, later.

The entire western wall of the bedroom was glass, set with a sliding door that opened onto a wide terrace. His first thought for that was how insecure it was, and how he'd kept himself facing that side of the room the entire time they'd been engaged in their brief struggle. In the corner by the door sat a low cream-colored couch with a black lamp beside it. Egyptian art prints ringed the room at regular intervals, and a large Japanese watercolor dominated the space above the bed: Mount Fuji, surrounded in blooming cherry-trees.

Figuring he would expedite matters, Shemyahza made his way around a tri-fold screen painted over like an Egyptian relief. It blocked the closet and provided a dressing area. He located a few suitcases and listened for the sound of the shower stopping. He didn't know the man's preferences but he chucked in several articles that he figured Gabriel would look good in; coordinated suits, casual clothing, and a very nice pair of silk pajamas.

When Gabriel emerged from the bathroom at last, a towel around his hips and another rubbing at his hair, Shemyahza took one look at the lean, mostly-nude length of him and averted his eyes. "I left clean clothes for you on the bed," he said brusquely, striding over to the western window and scanning the nearby buildings, concentrating on that instead.

"Er...thank you." Gabriel was disconcerted.

"Your brothers have been here," he continued, hooking thumbs into his belt loops. For a moment, he had sympathy with the loss of control that had caused an acquaintance of his to bungle his own relationship for a number of years upon first discovering, then summarily claiming his mate.

"What, while I was showering?" Gabriel demanded, sounding shocked. There was a hasty rustle of clothing behind him.

"No, earlier," Shemyahza replied. "Before we got here. So they're both probably at Orion by now."

"I should get back there as soon as possible," Gabriel muttered, as if to himself. "That book, if it truly is the Fifth, well, a replica..."

"The grimoire will wait," Shemyahza said, firm. "There are some things you need to come to terms with, first." He turned. Dressed, Gabriel Vaille was still a vision, as good and delectable as he'd pictured in the moss-colored cardigan over a pale yellow shirt and dark brown slacks. Someone had stocked his closet well and Shemyahza had a good idea whom to thank.

"I told you, I don't have any intention--"

Whatever firm resolve Vaille had promised himself was interrupted by the insistent trill of Shemyahza's phone. He held up a hand and checked the device, noting it was one of the secure lines Orion used when they called on him. He took the call.

"This is Shemyahza."

His face grew progressively grimmer as Alicia Carson answered the line and laid out the situation in terse narrative. He held back an unwanted, flippant response of "some days it doesn't pay to let these boys out of the house, does it?" When at last the woman paused, Shemyahza said, "Just so long as they're all right. I'll get him there as soon as possible."

"Do you need a car?" Alicia asked him.

Shemyahza crooked a finger at Gabriel, who was going over what Shemyahza had packed with a bemused expression. "Gabriel, you have a car?" At the professor's distracted nod, he told Alicia, "We don't need one." She acknowledged and they hung up, neither needing the social nicety of a goodbye.

"Finish getting what you need and toss it in the suitcase," Shemyahza told the professor. "We need to get gone."

Gabriel complied without question or even a raised brow, obeying with a gratifying alacrity. Shemyahza went back to scanning the window, then centered himself and expanded his senses, checking on that plane as well. When he returned fully to himself, Gabriel stood before him with his head tilted, a frown taking hold that he smoothed away once Shemyahza opened his eyes and met that clear jade-green stare.

"I'm ready," Gabriel told him.

"Let's go."

In the basement reaches of the Carrack building, Gabriel kept a clunky, old-fashioned electric car. Seeing it, Shemyahza almost stopped short in dismay. This old piece of junk would be no good if it came down to a chase. He was torn between calling for a car from Orion, and making do. There had certainly been worse he'd had to deal with, but never before had he been burdened with an untrained, civilian-to-the-core mate.

"What's wrong?" Gabriel huffed, looking over his shoulder at last when Shemyahza lagged behind him.

"Your car," Shemyahza began, trying to figure how best to put it.

Pride suffused Gabriel's features. "Yes, isn't she a beauty? I've kept her in prime condition even though it's been so long. Good as the day she was put together or even better, considering the improvements I've made over the years. It's been hard to get hold of the right kind of electric power to keep her balanced, not to mention coming up with the prongs for her outlet was tricky, but she's got another fifty years in her easily if I keep up with regular maintenance..."

Shemyahza blinked at the devotion on the man's face as he prattled on with the details. Damn. "Where's the boot?" he asked at last, resigned.

"You mean trunk," Gabriel corrected, meticulous.

Besides initial misgivings over the car itself, to Shemyahza's intense surprise he was checked when he expressed intention to drive it. "She'll pop out of gear if you even try it," Gabriel warned, and there was an unexpected spark in his eye, one that would brook no opposition. "No one drives this car but me."

Shemyahza sighed and accepted the inevitable. Not only that, but he had to withdraw the length of his sword from its sheath beneath his coat and lay it across the back in plain sight - in case he needed it. He had guns on his person as well, of course, but in the end he never put much stock in such fragile, temperamental weapons.

"Don't you want to know why we must return in such a hurry?" Shemyahza prompted when they were on the road at last, electric car whirring along the street beside the sleeker, modern hydrogen-cell models.

"I supposed that if you needed me to know, you would tell me," Gabriel said, his able hands turning the wheel at Shemyahza's indicator to take a right.

"That's why I mention it," Shemyahza said, wry.

Light green eyes glanced up from the road in a flash of momentary surprise. "Now you'll have to explain what you mean by that," Gabriel said, jaw hardening.

Shemyahza paused for a moment, ordering his thoughts. The acquaintance was still so new that breaking such news would be difficult, and the bond between them might exacerbate rather than ease the situation, when everything was still unsettled between them. "There was an incident," he said at last.

"An incident," Gabriel repeated sharply.

"Yes, from what little Carson divulged even over a secure line, there was an attempt to take Cedric. Watch the road!" Shemyahza barked as the little electric car wavered over the line and provoked a blaring horn in response. "He's fine, he and his guard and a young friend of his are all safe in the depths of Cygnus. Ease your mind."

"What on earth happened? I never should have let him go to school, knowing he was at risk," Gabriel fretted, clenching at the wheel with white-knuckled hands. "Damn it, this is--"

"Granac Bowen's fault, and this is deliberate escalation," Shemyahza interrupted smoothly. "Though of course if you're able to figure a way to retroactively cancel this morning's decision I'm all for it. Seeing as you can't, let's cope with what is before us."

"I'm responsible for him!" Gabriel burst out, then continued with more composure, "And Roman? Is he...?"

"Also safe within Cygnus, and your young assistants are on their way with Kellan," Shemyahza told him. He wanted to touch Gabriel, provide him with tactile reassurance, but right now he would be happy if the professor could keep his eyes on the road. "If I'm not mistaken, that's where everyone will remain until the crisis point is past, from now on, or until all of the unknown elements in the city are rounded up." He knew how that went; he'd been caught in some of the "purges" during the early days before Orion Corporation had asserted control.

Gabriel sighed heavily, and his grip on the wheel slackened for a moment as Shemyahza sat attentively, wondering whether to urge him to pull over. It wasn't too late to call for a car.

"This is my fault," he said soberly. "I put our family in danger like this." He slowed and stopped at a light, resting his hands on the wheel. His glasses were sliding down his nose but he seemed not to notice.

Shemyahza leaned over and tweaked them up to a more secure position on the bridge of Gabriel's nose. "This is Granac Bowen's fault, plain and simple. Leave the blame in the hands where it belongs. Even if you had never worked for Orion, your talents are obvious. You would have been taken, sooner or later. This way, your talents had put you in a position of strength, with an ally to keep you and your family safe."

"I hadn't thought about it that way." Narrowed pale green eyes sought his, and Gabriel looked at him thoughtfully, considering. Then he looked away hastily as if the connection of eyesight had brought him rather more than he bargained for.

Shem looked out the window on his side and smiled obscurely. "Let's get there, and then we can figure out what's going on." Given the middle brother's display of the day before, since Roman had gotten there before them he was picturing hysterics. What he had left out was the other details, shots fired and both the bodyguard and the young friend downed, while Cedric himself had pulled off the inexplicable. Because he didn't have enough information there, he held back from divulging any.

A subtle buzz at his hip distracted him from a tight survey of the nearby street, and Shemyahza checked his phone. Carson was calling him into a meeting once he had reached Cygnus and Gabriel was with his brothers. Shem clamped down on a snort which might make Gabriel question him, abstracted as he was in hazy thoughts of what had happened or not and his own misguided guilt for it. He would join Alicia's conference when he was damned well ready for it, and not a moment before. That meant not only escorting Gabriel to his brothers, but remaining until his mind was at ease, or as much as could be managed.

They were hit at the next stoplight.

Shemyahza had a gun out and sighted before the significance of the noise fully penetrated; a grinning face appeared in the window and a hand splayed against the glass, the other scrabbling to wrench open the door.

"Hold still," Shemyahza thundered, pulling the trigger.

A thick red flower burst open beyond the window, glass raining outward in a hail of destruction as the sodden thump let him know he'd taken care of that one. Someone was running up to the passenger side of the car and there was screaming, people on the sidewalk ducking or going for cover.

"Go," Shemyahza ground out, willing Gabriel not to freeze in the crunch. "Never mind anything but me, just go!"

Gabriel's foot slammed down and the car peeled forward, leaping through the intersection and dodging cross-traffic. Shemyahza got a line into Orion and told them, "I left behind a kill on Fourth and Main. We're headed down Main for Cygnus and we may need back-up." He thanked his lucky listening gods that they didn't have to cycle through any other rings of the city to get there, and leveled a serious look at Gabriel, bent over the wheel in concentration. "Whatever you do, no more stops. They won't pull us over. Just keep going."

This was acknowledged with a taut nod.

Shemyahza kept his gun out and his eyes on the streets and all traffic, pedestrian and otherwise, as they gunned it for the Cygnus building. To his relief and nominal astonishment, there were no other incidents, by which he gauged the incident as a wild card; it had none of Granac Bowen's deliberation or flair. Someone was casting a wide net, perhaps in response to all the bounties that Orion had laid down. They had estimated wrongly, thinking to take what was his.

Getting through the parking security was a matter of formality and then they were there, wrapped in the dimness of the underground garage. Gabriel's hands were still clenched on the wheel. Shemyahza leaned over, pried him loose, and forebore from touching his face. It would be too much.

"It's all right now," he spoke up, and Gabriel started. The man's senses were hyper-extended; the eyes he turned in Shemyahza's direction were wide and dilated. He was trying to focus on everything and it was, of course, too much. "Pull it back, Gabriel." He spoke commandingly, with the assurance of being obeyed.

"I'm sorry," Gabriel said, and closed his eyes. His chest heaved briefly. Without knowing what it was he'd done in the first place he relaxed, calmed himself, and when he opened his eyes there was a distinct improvement. He was all there, distinct, himself.

"That's better," Shemyahza said. "Let's go."

It still took a moment to get Gabriel moving. It was the shock, Shemyahza surmised, and broke Gabriel's immobility at last by leaning over, placing a hand on his arm, peering into his face.

"You killed a man," Gabriel said at last, frowning as he focused on him.

"Not exactly," Shemyahza disagreed, and offered no more specifics. "You want to stay here a moment? You should be composed, when you see Cedric." Gabriel was trembling, a fine spasmodic tremor that the man probably wasn't aware of himself.

"No," Gabriel said, and he wasn't lost anymore. "All right. You know where they are?" He turned the car off, disengaging his keys.

Shemyahza had a few ideas.

Carson would want more details and he was thinking how best to stall her. His priorities had shifted rapidly in the past twenty-four hours, from his current employer's needs and wishes to the mercies of a man of whom he hadn't been aware before that span of time. Now he would do what was best for Gabriel, first, and worry about the repercussions after.

When they rounded the corner for the infirmary Roman Vaille was there, pacing like a tiger.

"Where have you been!?" he demanded, hurrying up to his brother. "There's been an attack--" He stopped just short of flinging himself into Gabriel's arms and looked up, puzzled and suddenly suspicious. He glared over his broad shoulder at Shemyahza, who gave him an oblique look, not daring to smile for fear of what it might provoke. The last thing Gabriel needed was...

"How dare you," Roman hissed, rounding on Shemyahza, his nostrils flaring. He growled up into his face, "Our baby brother was in danger and you take advantage of a time like this, when everything's gone to hell, just to take what you want? You bastard, you may not be human but do you have any sense of right or wrong? You should be fired for this, and I'll see if I can manage it!"

...a scene.

"Now, Roman," Gabriel began, pressing forward as if to lay a placating hand on him, and Roman drew back as if stung.

"Don't touch me," Roman snapped, turning on his heel and stalking for the double doors of the infirmary.

There were a few remarks that Shemyahza could have made regarding the scene, but altogether he considered discretion the better part of valor in this instance.

"He's always been somewhat high-strung," Gabriel said, clearly taken aback. "I, er..."

"He knows," Shemyahza corrected with a shake of his head.

Gabriel widened his eyes at him. "Oh no, no."

"He doesn't know his own power," Shemyahza said thoughtfully, "but he knows what we did, because he has all the instincts."


On that sour note, they entered the infirmary.

Within, the air was charged to Shemyahza's keener senses and he lifted his head, pricked to examine the quality of subtle differences. Before he even laid eyes on Cedric Vaille he could tell that power had been unleashed, and once stirred no matter how young or untrained the subject there was no slipping that kind of power back into dormancy once more. There was an odd nuance to the power, though; it didn't read entirely as Cedric's anymore. Shemyahza gripped Gabriel's shoulder and strode past rows of white-curtained medical bays, seeking the one where the youngest Vaille was cloistered. Gabriel hurried after him, urgent but for a different set of reasons.

"What's going on?" Gabriel demanded of his brother, who stood at the foot of a bed further down, arms crossed, determinedly avoiding anyone's eye. The comforting figure of Damon Raine stood beside him in a hands-off attitude, and he viewed their approach with hooded eyes. "Was he hurt? Was anyone hurt, Roman, I've heard barely anything--"

"Yes, and I can imagine just who's responsible for that," Roman interrupted snidely, turning his back to his brother. "You should try turning your cell phone on some time, Gabriel, it's a marvelous invention intended to communicate--"

"We were shot at, as well, during the trip to Cygnus," Shemyahza interrupted, stretching it a bit. He was certain they would have fired first if word on the street wasn't for a capture in Gabriel Vaille's case. "Want to compare notes? Do it later. It's done, everyone is alive, and if the only thing left to do is damage control, consider yourself lucky." He reached the medical bay that Roman was guarding and frowned. Cedric Vaille was propped on a stool beside the bay, leaning over the bed that contained not Humphrey, but an unfamiliar young man with dark hair and handsome Asiatic features, now slackened in sleep or a deep unconscious state.

"What the hell happened here?" he demanded, portioning out glares all around. For the first time today he was well and truly shocked.

"Cedric?" Gabriel exclaimed, rounding the curtain and reaching out for his brother.

The youngest Vaille's face, white with pallor, swiveled in their direction. His eyes were wide and sheened over, and he looked stretched-out, on the verge of collapse, a far cry from the happy boy brimming with enthusiasm who had served out breakfast and smiles only that morning. "He won't wake up," he spoke up, and leaned against Gabriel as his brother caught him up into a tight hug.

"But you're all right," Gabriel prompted, seeking to have his primary concern put to rest.

"I'm not hurt," Cedric mumbled, snuggling into his brother's arms, burying his face against Gabriel's sternum.

Shemyahza noted the distinction. He kept his attention fixed on the dark-haired boy.

"The nurse said that she sedated Rukawa," Roman supplied. "She said...he was getting violent, which surprised all of us. Rukawa's not the type."

Shemyahza studied the unconscious Rukawa, looking back and forth from him to pale, drained Cedric. It wasn't possible, and yet he was looking at the evidence before his very eyes. If he had never seen anything out of the ordinary before with his mixed-blood kin, then he would look for some other explanation, anything. But they did the damnedest things, his human-blood relations; he attributed it to a very human element of self-sacrifice that a Nephilim, no matter how devoted, could never understand or commit to in like manner. He still remembered his shock when Cal Pierce had brought down the Wall single-handedly, shattering bonds of energy and matter and obliterating his full-blood Nephilim opponent, and managing somehow to survive a blast of that magnitude. It was a stupidity he couldn't conceive of, self-sacrifice, and yet it had produced the most amazing and unexpected results. Their kin could accomplish something he never would, because they were willing to plunge themselves into the crucible with no assurance they would emerge from the other side.

"You gave him your power," Shemyahza said softly, coming abreast of the bed and its silent occupant. That explained the change in energy signature; it was Cedric's power, but outside the body, the center of all that made his blood Nephilim now buried in a body that hadn't been meant for it. "Cedric, what have you done?"

Cedric positioned himself in Gabriel's arms enough to fix him with one jade-green eye to glare at him. "He was dying," he said, as if that was reason enough.

He may consider this to be worse, Shemyahza thought, but had the presence of mind not to say it this time. There would be leisure for recrimination later; in the meantime, it was done and all they could do was deal with it and move on. He wanted to look at Cedric's face closely, to lay hands on him and determine the extent of the damage, but Cedric was wrapped in Gabriel's arms and it looked as if the eldest brother wasn't letting go any time soon.

"I'm sorry," Gabriel was murmuring, "I'm so sorry, Cedric, I should have had you remain in Cygnus."

Cedric squirmed, planting a hand against his brother's stomach. "The tactical expert cleared us to leave the building," he said, displaying his uncanny maturity. "If she couldn't have anticipated this, it certainly wasn't your fault."

"What's this about Gabriel getting shot at?" Roman added, apparently having processed that at last.

"Act of random violence," Shemyahza grunted, leaning over Rukawa. He half-expected the boy's eyes to snap open as he examined his face, sniffed the changed quality of the air around him. This was certainly a hybrid that neither heaven nor earth had seen before. There was no predicting how the boy would acclimate -- or if he ever could.

"Oh, it was nothing," Gabriel assured his brother. "Someone tried to jump us at a red light but Shemyahza took him out as if he were nothing."

"Hn," was Roman's irritated response to that. "I don't like you thinking that attempts on your life are nothing."

"We'll be staying here until further notice so there won't be any additional opportunities," Gabriel said, voice sharpening. "Besides, they wouldn't have tried to kill me--"

"Oh, very fine to say, and you like to think you're that special but if one of those things gets careless--"

"Enough," Shemyahza barked, and the quarrelling brothers fell silent. He noted Cedric's relief. He looked at the boy, then his friend insensate on the bed. "Cedric, I understand your reluctance to leave Rukawa's side, but he's been deeply dosed and won't wake for quite some time. A matter of hours. We should adjourn to some place more comfortable, where we can talk." And eat, he added mentally, though it was likely none of the Vailles or the hag-ridden significant other would be up to more than a bite or two.

"Talk," Roman said with an incredulous snort, and Damon Raine closed in on him, taking the teen's shoulders in his hands. Roman attempted to twist out of his grip but Damon held firm, speaking something low and soothing into his ear. River, give it a chance, or you're as bad as he is.

Shemyahza concealed a smile. At least the man knew how to handle his lover, most of the time. Though handling his appetites was another matter entirely.

It took some doing, but they managed to convince Cedric to relocate to one of the suites after first consulting with the nurse to ascertain that Rukawa would indeed not be waking any time soon, and to wrangle assurances that she would have Cedric notified at once if he actually did wake ahead of schedule. Though, looking at the nurse's doting face, it didn't take much to secure that promise. In unspoken agreement, they went to Cedric's suite, to give the boy the high ground during this time of uncertainty as well as the fact that it was neither Roman's nor Gabriel's dwelling during this time.

As they got settled and Cedric fussed over trivial mind-occupying things like getting drinks for everyone, and starting a meal that virtually no one would eat, Shemyahza pondered over how to handle the situation he'd landed himself into. It was clear even without the input of other senses that Roman had an unusually close attachment to Gabriel, and had been accustomed to getting his way on every front for far too long. Combined with his innate powers, which he had likely been exercising on his brother since his awakening, Roman was a force to be reckoned with. Because it was Gabriel, Shemyahza would have a care, but an assertion of the status quo was in order.

If Roman hadn't possessed talents on the order of the incubi, Shemyahza would have taken them both to bed and settled it that way. But Roman did have those powers, and Shemyahza would suffer no control over him in that respect. It was something Roman recognized instinctively and despised him for. Amongst other things.

Not one for unnecessary displays of ownership, Shemyahza took an armchair for himself while Gabriel settled with his little brother on the largest couch after Cedric stopped flitting around. Roman hesitated between joining them and seating himself beside Damon on the loveseat of the set. He took up a place beside Damon, after all, and the man put a hand on his knee, attempting reassurance but seeming as if he had no real sense he belonged there, at least not at such a time. Shemyahza proffered a smile at the man who might become the closest thing he'd have to a brother-in-law and Damon smirked uneasily, looking away.

"We should put up a privacy lock," Shemyahza said, steepling his fingers. It was not quite a suggestion, but not really an order either. "I have things to tell you that you won't want to be heard outside the family."

Cedric bounced up. "I'll do it," he said at once, hurrying over. When he returned from the door, he shook his fair hair back from his face and avoided Roman's outraged stare. "I want to know everything."

"You have the right," Shemyahza agreed, drawing three pairs of nearly-identical green stares. "I made a terrible mistake. Of any who ever laid eyes on you, Cedric, I understood your potential yet I saw no harm in letting you continue" -- unsupervised, unchecked, unwary -- "unawares when Ms. Carson cleared you for limited mobility outside the Cygnus building. If you had never been put in danger, then your abilities would not have been put to the test."

Roman burst out, "If that's true, you bastard, you as good as caused it!" He moved as if to rise up from his seat but Damon laid hands on him, prevailing after a brief struggle. He clamped onto Roman's arms and refused to let go. "Get off me! He's been trouble the second he walked into our lives, he's a Nephilim, I knew he shouldn't be trusted--"

"Thank you," Cedric's quiet but steely words cut through the diatribe, and Roman fell silent, stunned. "I appreciate your honesty, Mr. Guile. I've heard everyone taking responsibility for what happened, and I take my own share, of course, but I choose to believe Mr. Carselyle. The blame resides in the attackers, and that's where we should keep it. Don't you think?"

Shemyahza relaxed without looking at Gabriel. There was some small relief, at least. The professor stroked Cedric's hair and held him against his side, comforting gestures that didn't quite dissipate the tension in either of them.

"That's a very generous view," muttered Roman, and he forbore to say anything further when a sharp look from Gabriel was directed his way.

Gabriel flicked those cool jade eyes at Shemyahza next, a focused look with far more composure than he'd displayed thus far. "I believe you were going to relate some of the tall tales of which you'd given me a sample earlier?"

"Yes. Well." He looked round to all three brothers. This wasn't any joyful revelation under the best of circumstances, but he did think it was a poor time for it. "The three of you have Nephilim blood."

The reaction was not nearly so spectacular as Gabriel's earlier struggles with him in the loft. Cedric appeared not to have heard, resting his head against his brother's arm, and Roman tucked his legs beneath him on the couch and mumbled, "Tell us something we haven't figured out."

Shemyahza's mouth twitched. Well, they were all of a greater intelligence index than any average person, or even a normally gifted person; it was a short leap from discovering the existence of Nephilim to recognizing corresponding traces in themselves.

"I don't know how far you are from the source," he continued, "and there's no real way to determine, because the blood does strange and interesting things when mixed with the human race, or with other part-bloods. There's some doctor on the West coast that came up with what he calls a 'true scale' to measure the actual genetic component. A friend of mine who's thought himself to be a quarter-blood all his life ranked on the Chiba scale as a half-blood. You could do the test some day if you like."

"Does it explain how Cedric can be really fucking powerful, but all I've got is the weird hair?" Roman asked, injecting heavy sarcasm into the query.

Shemyahza laughed. "You don't even know, do you? You don't have a clue. Roman, I think you're the best example I've ever seen of someone who exercises his power so skillfully and intrinsically that even he doesn't know he's doing it."

"Explain that," Roman ordered, and Cedric stirred uneasily.

"Something you don't know?" Shemyahza raised a brow, and Roman met his eyes with fury, looking as if he wanted to tear out of Damon's grip again, even knowing Shemyahza could put him to the floor with little effort involved. "Think. What do you do better than anything? What can you do better than anyone you know?"

Roman shook his head, angry but unable to look away. Shemyahza wouldn't let him.

"Sex, Roman." Shemyahza replied, releasing his gaze at last. He wasn't sure he wanted to see the impact on Damon Raine. "Sex and influence."

"I...I don't understand."

"Don't want to, maybe," Shemyahza said with a shrug, reaching for the drink Cedric had set on the table beside him. No one could stop him drinking on the job and this conversation certainly called for something harder, but he had played it safe and stuck with an electrolyte-replenishing thirst quencher. The way things were going at this rate, Carson would find something else for him to do outside the Wall by the end of the day.

Roman stirred on the couch, rearranging his legs, drawing knees up to his chest in a defensive posture. "I don't," he said in the defiant air of a youngling who'd been told to disgorge a lesson he preferred not to remember. "I'm normal, all right? I'm not like my brothers, there's nothing special. Having sex is just, I mean, what's different about that?" He bit his lip and glanced sidelong at his lover and now Shemyahza wished they could have found some plausible excuse to send Damon off because he was certain on the strength of that one guilty look that there were so many things Roman didn't want his lover to know. There was an interesting one. How could they truly be partners if Roman kept such secrets from him?

Shemyahza locked eyes with Gabriel, who had been casting wary looks his way. You tell him, then, he indicated with a lift of his chin, compressing his lips. It shouldn't come from him, anyhow, because this was Roman and he would resist no matter what.

Gabriel wet his lips nervously and spoke. "I was told you might be an incubus," he hedged, leaving out the source of that tidbit of info.

Roman laughed outright. "This is getting ridiculous," he declared. "Demon blood, I guess I'm willing to believe, I mean, it's not like I have any choice, right? But that, I mean, come on! That's something out of a bad fairy tale, right?" He looked around for support but no one else was laughing. Cedric wore a puzzled, thoughtful expression and Gabriel avoided his eyes. Shemyahza made quite a business of sipping at his drink.

The laughter died. "Well, what the hell is that supposed to mean?" Roman lashed out.

Because he had asked, Shemyahza would answer. "You feed off sexual energies," he said directly. "You can use your sexuality to get what you want from those who respond to you, even make them respond, if their inclinations run in that direction."

"That's..." Roman trailed off into silence, wearing a thinking look now. At length, he said incredulously, "That's a power?"

Shemyahza observed the varied reactions with interest. Damon opened his mouth, shut it, frowned, opened his mouth again and simply sighed, keeping a precautionary arm around his lover's shoulders. Gabriel would meet no one's eyes. And Cedric inhaled, then shook his head. No one dared say a word to that.

Once again Shemyahza was left to forge ahead. "Yes, it's a power," he said, passing a hand over his eyes. "You can argue all you like but take a moment to examine your own behavior before you say anything else. Now, who's next off?"

"What am I?" Cedric wanted to know, furrowing his brow. He snuggled into his brother's side and Gabriel dropped a comforting arm around him. Evidently the physical enhancements weren't a part of his make-up, or he wouldn't be able to bear crowding so close to his brother, even after showering and the stink of flight.

"Hard to say," Shemyahza said honestly. "If you truly have given over the core of your power to Rukawa to keep him breathing, we may not know until Rukawa himself manifests abilities. Yet, you shouldn't have been able to manage that much. The power of transference is a power in its own right."

"Oh," Cedric said, deflated.

"You have some of what your brother possesses, most certainly," Shemyahza added, and hastened on, "Gabriel has projection, and he experiences more of reality than most people have access to, yet he hasn't learned the techniques to control it and so frequently he copes by focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all others. It's comparable to the human condition of autism."

"Projection?" Gabriel prompted, with a vague expression of disbelief.

"The ability to see outside yourself," Shemyahza replied. "You do it unconsciously, I've already seen you perform it to enhance memory retrieval."

"Hunh." Gabriel still didn't quite believe him, but he wasn't contesting it. "Anything else?"

Shemyahza arched a brow. He was surprised this had never come up before, but then, the condition you were accustomed to was the one you never questioned. "Have any of you ever been sick?"

"No," Cedric said, echoed by a thoughtful "...No," from Roman.

Gabriel was thinking. He shook his head, slow. "I can't recall."

"That means no, you're just not willing to commit to it," Shemyahza said easily. "And you're all above average intelligence, what they call the "genius" index, I'm willing to bet."

Roman shook his head. "I don't do so well at school--" he began.

"There's all kinds of intelligence," Shemyahza cut him off. "I've no doubt you're smarter than you let yourself realize."

Roman's brows raised at that. "I...this is really hard to swallow. Excuse me." He got to his feet. He had barely cleared the couch when Damon got up and followed, a determined set to his mouth. They left the suite abruptly.

"You have to admit," Gabriel said, palming his hair back with one hand, "it all seems incredible. As for what you've told Roman, well..."

"His is the hardest lot," Shemyahza replied, then his eye fell on Cedric. "Perhaps not, at that. But he will need to come to terms with it--"

"Will he be able to limit himself to one sexual partner, ever?" Gabriel said, putting his hands over both Cedric's ears, as if shutting him out of the conversation would shield him from the reality. The boy squawked protest but the resigned expression indicated this had happened to him on more than one occasion.

"He could," Shemyahza said cautiously. "It would be difficult for both of them, especially if his partner, like Damon, is fully human. Once they pass a certain point Roman's desires would feed into Damon's and become his own, it would be mutual. If Damon's body is physically capable of keeping up." He gave Gabriel a predator's grin. That was why loving an incubus wouldn't be his death by choice. Either way, Damon was in for a harsh dose of reality.

Gabriel uncovered his brother's ears and gave Shemyahza a hard look. Shem held up his hands and put on his best 'you have nothing to worry about from me' expression. Mostly harmless.

The door chime sounded off, and they all looked at it.

"I put the privacy lock on the door," Cedric said, indignant. "I know I did."

"Better check, then," Shemyahza said. He looked at his phone. "It could be an emergency."

Cedric padded over to the door without even looking to Gabriel first.

"There's one that needs a nap, though he'll probably fight tooth and nail against the suggestion," Gabriel said quietly.

"You know this conversation is far from over, right?" Shemyahza asked him.

Gabriel sighed and adjusted his glasses. "I'm sure you have an awful lot of things to tell us," he said, turning a tired smile in Shemyahza's direction. "But as I'm sure you realize, we need some time to absorb those shocks one by one. See? I'm not the only dense one."

Not dense, Shemyahza thought, returning the smile. Stubborn, yes.

"Guile," a new voice snapped, and Arashi entered the scene, that ever-present scowl marring his lovely features. "We have a meeting, and you're really late."

"Oh," Shemyahza said mildly, remaining where he was. "Were you waiting on me?" He drained his drink and set the glass back on the table.

Arashi folded his arms, twiddling the fingers of one hand across the opposite upper arm. "Yes, so they sent me to get you." He was young enough to be ungracious about it.

"There were more pressing matters to attend to," he said, and stood, glancing at Gabriel. "And the Vailles?"

Arashi frowned harder. "If they want to."

"I'm going back to the infirmary," Cedric announced.

"You should eat something," Gabriel protested.

"Will later, when I'm hungry," Cedric said, and ducked out the door. One had to admire how the boy got the last word and staged his retreat.

Shemyahza and Gabriel shared a glance. Neither of them wanted to disturb Roman, and since he had left the suite, he could be anywhere, or they could be in the suite with a privacy lock of their own enabled. Gabriel gave him a nod.

"So, let's go," Shemyahza said, and offered his hand in a gallant, entirely unnecessary gesture.

Gabriel measured him, read into his intentions, and the corner of his mouth turned up, resigned, accepting. He put his hand into Shemyahza's and they stood together for a moment in silence.

"Come on," Arashi's voice interjected, "this should have started about forty minutes ago."

"It starts when we get there," Shemyahza said with assurance. When Arashi glared, it was Gabriel who got caught smiling.

With that established, they left the suite to join the others.


It already had all the earmarks of the meeting from hell even before a few of the key participants were tardy, then beyond and into inexcusably late. Alicia Carson had intended for the meeting to start a good forty minutes before she finally sent Arashi, breaking him from the absorption of one of his analyses to find the wayward Guile. She'd had time to look over the data streams from the day, including the most recent incident outside Cygnus itself and snap reports from the clean-up crew and the City Defense Corps.

She had called the Wynne brothers in, not only for their participation that afternoon but because she hoped they could be of use to the team she was putting together in response. Kyle had filed a prompt report on their involvement in the action that had taken Humphrey out of commission for a couple of hours, and his cool head and Kory's intuitive risk-taking had made them a valuable asset to the roster of contractors. They sat at the far end of the conference table now, flanking Humphrey who had been released on the condition that he didn't enter any firefights for at least twelve hours. On the other side of the table, Reims sprawled out beside Nara, who was massaging her temples and avoiding eye contact with everyone. Jo Carselyle had been one of the first to arrive, and he had seated himself by the far end of the table, checking himself from propping his boots on the conference table surface upon receiving a hard look from Alicia. Felicia Ark had seated herself not long after, rolling her eyes and thanking Alicia in ironic tones for such a plum assignment. Arashi had rounded out the smaller team -- Alicia had other staff who reported to her, but for brevity's sake she kept it limited to those personnel that she considered essential.

Of course, that litany now included Shemyahza, and the meeting couldn't start without him. Much as it galled Alicia to hinge it on a single participant - as had the other meeting, but at least in that instance the division head had been holding him up. Alicia gritted her teeth and wondered after several moments whether she shouldn't have gone personally, though Arashi's ire at having his "real work" interrupted should have been enough of a spur. Besides, right now she was testing the boy's limits.

Guile could certainly test anyone's limits.

A spread had been laid out along the back wall by unobtrusive catering staff that had long since departed. Kory and Jo had partaken, putting together a platter for Humphrey that they pressed on the older man, not giving him opportunity to refuse. Felicia had grabbed a water, and Reims had taken drinks and sandwiches for himself and Nara. The psychic had nibbled and pushed food away, which Reims had pushed right back in her direction.

"So," Alicia began, drawing in Felicia's attention with her glance. "Is Roman...?" She trailed off inquisitively, leaving it for the bodyguard to fill in the rest of that sentence with whatever she might.

"Oh, lord, the boy needs someone to finish raising him," Felicia responded, rolling her eyes. "Thanks so much."

Alicia raised a brow. "You think I should have given him another bodyguard?" she prompted. She had made an instinctive choice considering the limited options available, the background check on Roman hovering at the back of her mind.

"Nah, he already tried something on me," Felicia said with a shrug. "Shut him down faster than a frozen pipe. If you'd given the kid a guy for his bodyguard, poor bastard wouldn't have stood a chance."

Alicia covered a smirk with her hand; it wouldn't do her professional image any good to be seen either impugning contracted bodyguards or maligning a client - technically the relation of a contract worker, but still. She coughed and Felicia's amber-hazel eyes laughed along with her, not fooled by the pretense.

When the door slid open at last, Alicia swiveled halfway, crossing her legs and fixing the entrants with a frosty glance. Shemyahza Guile was in the forefront and he met it with acknowledgment and unconcern. Gabriel Vaille followed him closely, rubbing at one arm in a nervous gesture. Arashi brought up the tail end of the party, distributing glares all around before sliding into his seat and calling up a data feed that lit up before him at a three-quarter holographic tilt. He called up two additional screens to either side of him, making Alicia wonder if he really was that busy or if it was a put-on. She dismissed that thought after observing him for a moment while Shemyahza and Gabriel circled the table, settling into a pair of open seats between herself and Kory Wynne.

"You want anything to eat or drink?" she heard the Nephilim murmur to his seat-mate, who shook his head and crossed his arms and sat more or less at attention.

"Let's get started," Alicia said crisply. "Apparently, a lot has happened while I've been going over reports and putting together analyses. Let's get a quick summary for the benefit of all present. Jo?"

The man sat up and rubbed at his chin with an easy 'what, me?' face, the abrupt straightening of shoulders and long torso implying astonishment. "All right, well...I filed my report this morning and decided to stick around because you gave me a reply that said there'd be a meeting later. So I checked up on bounties, dithered around a bit and found Nara and Reims at a café on third level, then they get a notification that shots had been fired outside the building, tactical wanted a scan of the entire block.

"When we hit the lobby, the Wynne brothers," he continued, giving them a nod, which Kory returned with a wink, "were ready to tackle the street and assess the threat, which turned out to be a Code 6, a Nephilim or like as much to full blood to be no different in appearance."

"Took 'em out too easy," Kyle grunted.

"Yeah, they went down without a serious fight or too much damage," Kory elaborated, looking around for support. He gave Jo an engaging grin. "Assessment gave us the full bounty, by the way. Said we were due because we'd eliminated a threat so close to operations."

Nara picked up the thread. "The Code 6 was targeting Cedric Vaille," she said, her voice thin and tightly controlled.

Alicia could tell there would be no more assignments for Nara tonight; she was strung out too far, probably hadn't rested enough between last night's foray and whatever influence today's events had exerted on her. She was surprised Reims hadn't escorted her out already with firm apologies.

"Humphrey says the shooter got off a round that would have taken Cedric through the shoulder, effectively disabling him to make him easier to capture, but he took the bullet instead and had the classmate, Rukawa, take him to Cygnus."

"Only that's not what happened," Shemyahza's deep voice boomed out, neither angry nor censorious but matter-of-fact. "Cedric's classmate was shot trying to protect him, and Cedric gave up a part of himself in order to save him."

All eyes were fixed on Shemyahza now. It was quiet enough to hear a pin's reverb.

"The demon part," he finished, not quite a whisper, but low enough for those with human hearing to lean forward to catch it.

"How--" began Kory, part-demon himself, and shook his head.

Nara shook white-blonde hair over her shoulders. "We don't know," she said.

"I've never seen anything like it," Shemyahza added. His silver eyes traveled around the table. "Never in my life."

"And the effects to Rukawa?" Alicia said sharply. She had read Kyle's prompt report -- one thing she greatly appreciated about him, the man filed a quick testimony -- and heard Nara's account first-hand already, and she still wasn't sure that she understood. The boy's parents had to be called, because the incident had happened in Orion's jurisdiction, and because it involved so many delicate and confidential factors. They weren't even sure how much to tell yet at this point, not even knowing if the transfer would be permanent. She had delegated that matter to one of her more diplomatic staff, and she was fairly certain money was involved to encourage silence at the very least.

"Unknown at this time," Shemyahza said, as she had expected. Nara was shaking her head. "When he wakes up, perhaps we'll know more."

Alicia placed her hands flat on the conference table. She sighed, surveying the assorted grim, worried, or neutral expressions, then landed on Arashi, his marble brow creased faintly in concentration, his fingers moving fast over his console. The holo-screens he'd called up around him were one-way, so she had no idea what bits and bytes he was processing, but he was probably recording the conversation or had an auto-transcribe on it.

"That was one attack," she said, settling on Shemyahza now until the Nephilim looked her way. Gabriel was already looking unsettled. "And the other?"

"Beneath notice," Shemyahza declared. "They didn't get a shot off, I took them out and called for clean-up, no other wild cards caught up with us or surprised us on the way to Cygnus."

"Beneath notice," Alicia repeated, "but they made an attempt on Gabriel."

Shemyahza lifted a dark hand, sweeping a wing of dark green hair back over one shoulder. "And who laid down a simultaneous bounty on ALL the unregistered Nephilim blood in the city?"

Alicia's mouth thinned. "Are you challenging my tactics?" she demanded, tone hardening. It was bad enough she had cleared the Vailles to leave the building and two of them had ended up in the line of fire.

"No, I'm saying that calling contract on all the mixed-bloods was a drastic maneuver, and though it will probably get the results you're looking for you flushed out a bit more than you can handle all at once," Shemyahza said, his voice low and persuasive, non-confrontational. "Of course there were still some in the city that had dealings with Granac Bowen, and knew where to find or track down the Vailles. It's obvious now, it should have been last night, and I should have thought of it. But it's done."

"Right," Alicia said. "Well, aside from those brought down by yourself, Jo, the Wynnes and Platt we haven't had a lot of response on the soft captures yet."

Kory inclined his head. "Soft captures are a hell of a lot harder," he noted. "You'll have to give it some time."

"And we don't know how much of that we have," Alicia capped. She opened her mouth to change tracks and the door shushed open behind her. Scowling, she half-swiveled her chair again, checking to see what foolhardy soul with access permissions had actually interrupted her meeting.

Roman Vaille entered the conference room, round-shouldered, lifting defensive green eyes and crossing his arms protectively over his skinny chest. He was pale, hollow-eyed in appearance and not quite sullen but not hysterical, not distraught. Behind him was Damon Raine, the lover; he seemed shell-shocked, accompanying Roman but not all there, walking beside him and thinking about something else very hard.

"Please sit," Alicia said succinctly, and they did, splitting up to take available seating. When Roman moved past Nara to take the seat on the far side of Reims, she halted him with a word and gesture and offered to switch seats, allowing him the place next to Damon. The young model and his lover looked askance as if the distance had been a welcome thing, at least for that span of time, but sank into the seats offered.

"Gabriel, what do you think about the tome you've discovered?" Alicia prompted, after sizing up Arashi and determining that he wasn't yet ready with his results and recommendations.

"Oh, er..." Gabriel, like Jo, seemed surprised to be called on. "Well, I just got back, you know, and my team and I haven't had sufficient time to look it over. I told you when you delivered it that it will take some time."

Alicia gave him a razor's edge of a smile. "If all your classes are canceled indefinitely and you're cloistered in the Cygnus building, do you think you'll be able to give your undivided attention?"

Gabriel was nodding; unlike his brother across the table, he was cheered by the prospect. It was probably just about his idea of heaven. "Yes, we can make significant strides. Perhaps...with Shemyahza's assistance..." He took a cautious sidewise glance at his seat-mate.

Shemyahza flashed Gabriel a hint of fang. "You're the expert on the dead language; I'm merely the living relic."

That provoked a smile from the professor in spite of himself.

One item crossed off her list; the book, if it truly was a replica of a fabled Nephilim grimoire, would provide them with no immediate help or answers. "All right," Alicia said, gathering the attention of those at the table once more. "We're here this afternoon to discuss options, as you might have imagined. Using anything recovered from the book is out."

"Wait, I don't understand," Roman broke in, frowning this way and that. "What's this deal about the book? I mean, it's just a book, right? My brother is translating it. But how can it be helpful fighting back against them?"

Gabriel spoke directly to his brother, "I was abducted by the leader of Long Island, Granac Bowen. During my brief audience with him, he spoke of his possession of the Third, and outright said that the copy that Orion unearthed is a perfect reproduction of the Fifth."

Roman, Damon, and the Wynne brothers pulled blank expressions.

"Come again?" Kory said, waving a hand in a 'keep going' gesture.

"Oh!" Gabriel brightened and assumed that particular look Alicia had come to recognize as 'scholar mode.' "The Nephilim, we have discovered, through hints of their own artifacts and documents retained or preserved throughout the ages have pointed to the existence of six tomes, the Great Grimoires. From what I've been able to discover, the ultimate repository of demon-lore, sum total of their power, was broken up into six tomes, the Six Great Grimoires. Nephilim are fractious, territorial, and do not pass along their power lightly."

"Sounds like psyche-masters," Kory injected with sarcasm.

Gabriel frowned and pushed his glasses up his nose. "No, not exactly. Psyche-masters can suffer the presence of no other beings of power; when they rule, they rule alone. Nephilim rule by the order of the strongest, and they have traditionally settled into loose clans save for the occasional alpha male. lions, or some other predator with a hierarchical structure. At any rate, when the Nephilim population grew, when they began to split along clan lines - and all this is ancient history, only the best I can extrapolate from my limited sources - they set down their power, and their history, in the six Great Grimoires that were given to the six major clans."

"It's like a genesis myth," Jo observed.

"In a way it is," Gabriel said softly, his eyes losing focus, fixing on a far point. "It's the beginning of a race, the end of prominence, when they lost parts of the power that had given them dominion before." He trailed off into silence and Shemyahza leaned over to nudge him, muttering something into the man's ear. Gabriel started and looked around, lost as if he'd been out of it for longer than a couple of seconds.

Used to this, Alicia continued with her meeting. "The book is out," she repeated, "at least until Gabriel can examine it to determine if it possesses anything useful."

"It may not have anything we can use," Kyle spoke up, his voice harsh. "If it has Nephilim spells, for example, who knows the affect of a half-blood trying to use such a thing?"

"Who knows if even I will be able to understand their use?" Shemyahza picked up the thread. "You want options. I say, wait and see. It's clear that the actions within the city that day were the isolated response of extremists sensing the noose closing tight; a concerted effort by Granac would have had more impact, because they were careless and relaxed their guard too soon."

Alicia tapped her cheek with a finger. That was the recommendation she wanted to go with, but she needed more support than Shemyahza's instinct, however sound.

"I recommend whatever allows us time for further analysis," Arashi spoke up at last, lifting his cool gray eyes to join the conversation. He favored her with a direct look. "We don't even have a firm grasp of what we don't know. We definitely haven't had the leisure to process all of the data we have to hand."

Alicia nodded, scanning the table. Her non-combatants looked noncommittal, and so did Reims.

"You know," Kory said, leaning back in a pose that spelled trouble. "Now would be the perfect time to slip a mole into those half-bloods leaving the city."

That stiffened her spine. "Keep talking," she ordered.

"Well," Kory continued amiably, flashing her that ladykiller grin of his and leaning his elbows on the table. "It's a purge, right? They know all the bounties got called in and all the unregistereds will be trying to get out. So we send out someone like Nara, a half-blood with psionic abilities, some back-up to protect them, and we can gather more info on what's going on."

Alicia frowned. "We know what's going on, Granac Bowen wants to flatten any human resistance and rule the entire region."

Kory twirled a finger in the air. "Does he really?" His golden eyes gleamed at her and he looked away, smirking in his brother's direction. "That it?"

"He wants to get his hands on the Fifth, that much I know," Gabriel said with confidence. He had heard it from Bowen's own mouth.

"Then we need to know what's in that tome," Arashi spoke up. "It might give us a clearer reading on his intentions."

Alicia frowned, caught on that suggestion of Kory's. Although it often seemed as if he were shooting off the cuff, she had been in a position before to see his wild ideas take shape and produce good outcomes. "Kory, you might have something there, as well."

"Nara's not going." Reims spoke up for the first time, kicking back in his chair and lacing his hands over his stomach.

"No," Alicia said at once, "it has to be Nephilim, or at least those with as strong a part-blood strain as possible, those without visible ties to us...we'll need volunteers. I need to send someone who can do the job and come back, without question."

There was a pause, while that sunk in. Her portable unit began to buzz. She sighed, leaned back, and examined the display.

"Excuse me," Alicia said, getting to her feet. "I have to take this. Please, feel free to have more of that food, discuss our options some more...I want to make sure everything's laid out on the table."

There was an adjoining prep room. Alicia let herself in and heard a low buzz of conversation start up behind her, several threads starting at once. She answered the line, keeping the surprise out of her voice.

"This is Carson, sir. What can I do for you?"

"Carson," the smooth, golden tones of the operative known to her only as 'Rex' filled the ear-path she had affixed while crossing the threshold. "I've been monitoring the data stream from your team."

"Oh," Alicia said, at a rare loss. She paused. "Sir...?" She had met Rex in person some time ago and still wasn't completely certain of his position within the Orion Corporation structure, only that he was highly placed and never divulged his title -- a parallel that was not lost on her, because she did much the same. When people considered her to be some kind of executive secretary or lesser functionary, the honest reactions that she could provoke, or the ability to remain unseen to a degree, were invaluable. Rex had clearance higher than her own, he was above the division and even the corporate branch heads, and Alicia suspected he worked for their even more elusive employer. Not a member of the board of directors - Orion's ostensible, public leader - but someone even more highly placed; Alicia had no real confirmation that such an individual existed, but Orion was a corporation with a firm direction, and any deviations from that path were nudged back into line by operatives like Rex.

"Don't worry," Rex said with a warm, personable chuckle. His voice was like rich honey, and could be deceptive in its portrayal of sympathy, but Alicia sensed this was a genuine assurance. "I'm not trying to micro-manage your unit, you run it capably and I wouldn't dream of interfering. The name of Granac Bowen raised a red flag in certain quarters."

"I see," Alicia murmured, and now she did. The reports and analyses she and Arashi had been working on hadn't even been passed onto her division head yet; she was saving that for her action recommendation. Or lack of one, rather. All of the information was stored in a confidential conduit that she and her team had access to, and those with special clearance. Of course, Rex seemed to have universal clearance and for whatever reason he'd retrieved and scanned the data. It was possible he had a script running that would alert him to certain pre-determined keywords, if Granac Bowen was on a list of known or potential threats. Shemyahza Guile had prior knowledge of him, at least.

"Have you made any decisions yet?" Rex asked her.

That lessened some of Alicia's tension, wondering if he had some kind of access to surveillance of her war room or the conference area. The thought occurred to her that Rex might already know the answer and was prompting her as a courtesy, but he didn't seem the type to play coy simply to ease her paranoia. "No, sir, we've been discussing our options. So far we've come up with putting off an action resolution until we've gathered more information, and seeing if we can slip someone on the inside with the latest city-wide purge that a simultaneous bounty has caused."

There was silence on the other end of the line for a moment. As Alicia waited, she realized another thing that added to the enigma of Rex. There was no background noise on the other end of the line; either he was using something to filter out ambient sound, or he was enclosed in a soundproofed room or similar. She wondered what kind of office space he worked from, or even if he had an office space. Rex was the kind of person who was friendly, congenial, accommodating, and yet somehow absolutely chilling in person. He was tall, with short golden-blond hair, crystal blue eyes, and classic good looks, so there was no ostensible reason for it other than Alicia's gut feeling. When she met his eyes, even she felt the impact of someone who looked at the world from a strict analytical standpoint to the expense of everything, yet was capable of putting up such a front that most people were drawn in by the image he projected.

Alicia could recognize what he was doing because she did it herself, to an extent. She made hard choices almost every day. Yet at the end of the day, she dissociated. She had friends and outside interests, limited as they were. Rex was the type one couldn't picture socializing, no matter how friendly he acted toward others.

"Good," Rex said at last. "I thought you might be reaching the point where you approached Division Head Loire with budgetary estimates for action proposals."

"Dead right, sir," Alicia replied. "Even 'doing nothing' has its costs. We need to collect information, after all." They also needed to continue to pay bodyguards, send out scouts, pay informants who were on the fence about whose side they were really on, and so forth.

Rex continued, "Don't worry about the budget."

Alicia blinked. "Excuse me?"

"I'm transferring discretionary funds into your unit. I'll have your accountant notified through the usual means."

The usual means meant through a network of corporate administrative staff; Rex himself didn't notify accountants of anything. They would probably try to check into his clearance and faint at the number of bars on it. It was on the tip of her tongue to question the source of the funding, but then, she didn't have that much curiosity in her. Orion Corporation had a lot of divisions, many of them affiliates under different names and branding, and Alicia had been aware for some time that money got funneled from profitable ventures into research and development, improving and refining the Wall technology, building better weapons to take out demons from a distance to the maximum relief of human life, and more. This was the third time she'd had a diversion of funds. The last time had been the full-scale assault of a Nephilim on the City Wall, which had culminated in some loss of life, hazard bonuses paid out, and round-the-clock protection shifts while repair crews had worked to shore up the damage caused by one of their defenders. She had really needed the money every time she had gotten a diversion, so she wasn't about to question it now. If that was Rex's function amongst other things, he was welcome to it.

"You prophesy a hard time of it?" she said lightly, neglecting to thank him on purpose. Rex wasn't the kind of man who appreciated gratitude; he wanted results, so she delivered them.

"Yes," he said simply, with no answering touch of humor as was his wont. "It's good that you're in charge, Alicia. May I make a suggestion?"

"I'm listening," Alicia replied, instead of kowtowing with an 'of course.' He had just given her what was undoubtedly a phenomenal amount of money, she wouldn't say thanks, and she would listen to what he said and do exactly what she determined best in the end - she was certain Rex approved. Just as he didn't appreciate thanks, neither did he respect submissive subordinates so she never bothered presenting that kind of face to him. She was certain, though, from her measure of character that if he truly thought she was about to commit a misstep he would intervene.

That made her wonder, yet again second-guessing her decision to clear the Vailles to leave the building under supervision. Had Rex been aware of the situation even back then? Knowing, had he thought she was making the right decision? It was the kind of question she would normally ask Loire and he would respond to her unvoiced distress, reassuring her of his faith in her. But he wasn't a tactical expert, he was a division head, good at politics and management with a real insight for people. Rex frequented her playing field, he was qualified to judge. Or withhold judgment.

"Wait and see for now," Rex advised. "Collect your information. Trust your instincts. What kind of personnel were you thinking of sending outside the City undercover?"

"We had begun to discuss it, but no names were tossed around yet," Alicia replied.

"What kind of people do you need?"

Alicia tilted her head, circling the prep room and dropping into a chair beside one of the room's two workstations. "I need someone who has no visible ties to us, or to authority organizations like the police or Defense Corps," she began. "There are some people on my normal roster that rules out. I need someone with either the demon equivalent of psionic gifts, or an ability to uncover facts. And, of course, they'll need to be mixed-blood, as close to full as possible, or they'll never pass." She felt as if she were already presenting the action request. Rex could probably have those approved for her without going through her usual chain of command, but she was pretty sure he wouldn't smooth her path that way. He was supplying her with the funds that she needed, but everything else was still up to her. No, he probably had something else in mind, prompting her for the details.

"Good criteria," Rex said. "Would it suit you if I sent over two dossiers for your consideration?"

"Contractors?" Alicia inquired, cautious. She needed people that none of the mixed-bloods knew. Bounty hunters were right out.

"Of course not," Rex shot back, scornful. "No, the people I have in mind have never worked for Orion. Both were living outside the Wall until very recently, as a matter of fact, which makes them perfect. I can put you in touch but you'd need an intermediary."

"That's not an issue," Alicia replied, thinking of shadowy Reims. He could, on occasion, be persuaded to leave Nara's side for quick odd jobs. "I'll take a look, sir. Just because you're advancing them doesn't mean I'll automatically use them." She was skirting the line of impertinence.

Rex laughed, as she had half-expected he would. "If Orion needed automatons, you would have seen full-scale production of robots by now," he told her. "I, at least, expect you to think for yourself and I'm sure your division head is the same."

"Thanks," Alicia said, ironic, and Rex growled a response that let her know exactly where he stood on that particular expression of gratitude.

"I've kept you long enough," Rex said, brisk as ever. "Carson, a pleasure. I'll be in touch."

"Until then," Alicia acknowledged, and with no further fanfare the call terminated. She looked at the display for a long moment, weighing the device in her hands. Every time he called, it always flashed 'Rex' as if pre-programmed into her registry, but she had checked through her call log before and done comparisons. It was a different number every time.

Dismissing the minor mysteries of Rex, Orion's golden boy who moved through the shadows, Alicia left the prep room for the larger conference room again to give out the final verdict. They would wait and see.

And she would look over those recommendations from Rex. Then, she thought, she would have her plan.


It had been the longest of days but there was no rest to be had for Cedric Vaille. By proclamation from Roman when he was younger, Cedric was not allowed to drink coffee or other overly-caffeinated beverages. The order had been handed down by Roman because their own mother had imposed it on him, Roman was convinced that violating the ordinance had resulted in his own stunted growth compared to Gabriel, and because Gabriel himself would have absently bottle-fed Cedric with café au lait if not for outside intervention. Even though it was tempting to visit the third level of the underground with its purported array of coffee and tea shops, Cedric resisted the urge. He had a self-imposed bedside vigil to maintain. Besides, a lingering kernel of paranoia was convinced that Roman would have managed to get notice to all the shops that the short fair-haired boy with green eyes was not to have caffeine of any variety.

Having some might have helped when his eyes began to droop as he seated himself beside the medical bay near Rukawa's unconscious figure. There was a conforming chair affixed that could be swung out from a recess in the wall, presumably for just such bedside watches or visits. Beyond Rukawa on the headboard a number of displays kept track in steady, regular peaks or numbers of various assurances of continued function.

Though it was a great liberty with an unconscious individual, Cedric circled Rukawa's wrist with one hand, keeping his fingers on the pulse of the veins beneath the skin there. They throbbed against the pads of his fingertips in the comfort of a constant beat. It was the calm certainty of that pulse, perhaps, that allowed Cedric to relax until the weight on his eyelids took precedence over his need to monitor the motion of Rukawa's eyes beneath his lids or the pulse under his encircling hand. He fought sleep for a moment longer, twitching in his seat on the verge, then in that half-daze between the conscious world and dreaming he forgot his point of resistance. His eyes fluttered shut over a view of Rukawa's profile and he slid into a dreamless state.

It seemed only a moment, then he jerked awake.

Cedric's first waking thought was, thank goodness there had been no dreams. He jerked upright, closing his hand around white sheet and looking up the length of the empty, rumpled bed. Rukawa was gone.

He could have cried with frustration. Cedric glanced at the displays above the headboard; they had all been switched off. He had no way of knowing if the nurse had done it, or if Rukawa had somehow managed it himself. He got to his feet, rubbing his eyes; first order of business was to find a nurse, or Rukawa, or at least the time.

The last on his list proved to be the easiest to manage. Cedric passed a clock on the way to the reception desk, and it read past six o'clock. A flock of questions welled up in his mind, but there was no one to ask -- had his brothers come by, was anyone doing something about dinner, had Rukawa's parents been notified and was he staying here with them until further notice. An enormous frustration welled up inside him and he wondered most of all why Rukawa had left, or why someone had taken him away, without waking him up.

The reception area was deserted, leaving Cedric with dwindling options. He stood for a moment eyeing the empty chair, shifting from foot to foot with a blank expression as he evaluated the circumstances. There had to be someone around, a nurse or an adult of any stripe. Professional staff wouldn't just leave someone alone in the infirmary, would they?

He had no idea how the infirmary was staffed or run, so his only option was to keep exploring. Cedric took the other direction this time, walking beyond Humphrey's equally empty former bed and the rumpled spread of sheets that marked the former presence of Rukawa. If everyone had left the infirmary, why hadn't he been notified or woken? It didn't make sense, so he ventured past the rows of white-curtained bays to the far end of the infirmary, locating an open closet of supplies, a few locked-down crash carts, and marked doors, one of which was a men's room.

Cedric tried the men's room door, and it pushed open under his touch. Inside was a neat row of communal stalls, opposite them a line of mirror-topped sinks and beyond them, stainless steel wall-mounted urinals. He cocked his head and heard the sound of water sprinkling down in the distance. "Hello?" he called out cautiously, his own voice coming out as barely more than a squeak. He stepped inside and the door swung shut behind him, revealing a door to his right. Past that was the sound of a shower running, and that explained the mystery, but was it Rukawa or Humphrey? Perhaps something had happened and no one wanted to notify him.

With that blithe explanation, Cedric padded across the few steps that separated him from the shower room door. This one, too, was unlocked and it retracted into the wall beside him, releasing a cloud of steam into his face. Cedric blinked the hot, wet air from his eyes before the scene took shape before him.

He gaped.

Beneath the spray was a tall, black-haired young man, turned three-quarters away from him and bare, totally nude from the soles of his feet on up. Cedric looked at Rukawa under the shower and every detail was burned into his indelible memory as he looked, from the way the water coursed over olive-toned skin to the muscular line of his broad shoulders and the stripped, spare lines of his hipbone. Ridges of muscle made a track down his stomach. Cedric was immobilized as the steam met him in a heated kiss and Rukawa's naked body turned beneath the shower, hands going up into his slicked-down hair. The rest of him came into view now. Eyes closed, Rukawa stood beneath the direct spray thrumming over him with his hips shot, water trickling over the washboard of his stomach and thatch of damp hair at his groin. He was perfect, the thought rang through his mind clear as a bell. Every part of him was exactly as a man should be.

When thought intruded, bringing with it the impulse to touch what he saw, Cedric was shocked into recollection of his scattered wits. Before Rukawa could turn and see him, before he sensed or heard Cedric's presence, Cedric hastily pressed the catch beside the door that snapped the panel back into place. He turned and made a beeline for the infirmary proper.

Trembling, Cedric returned to his seat beside Rukawa's bed. He could try to forget what he'd seen, he could close his eyes and pretend to lapse into a shallow sleep until someone laid hands on him at last, but one thing would replay in his mind with no recourse. The glorious sight of the naked body had awakened more than awe and admiration, Cedric knew. He pressed his thighs together and contemplated desire for the first time. It was a frightening ache that made him yearn, full-body, and recognize fear at the same time. This was new, and different, and he already hated for things to change with all his being.

He leaned against the back of the seat and pulled his legs up to his chest, wrapping his arms around narrow knees. He wished for Humphrey now, his solid, silent understanding; or Roman, much as he would fuss, to talk with him and tell him everything was all right even if there was a lingering shadow in his eyes. He wanted Gabriel to sit him down and share a pot of tea and fumble over explanations in that awkward way of his, too terribly earnest. He thought of Rukawa at last, and the thought of those dark eyes on him made Cedric fill up to the hairline with flushing heat.

"Thought you might be here still," commented a low female voice with a slight drawl, one he recognized.

Felicia Ark approached the empty medical bay, looking around and crooking her forefinger at him. She stood there with one hand on her hip, golden tattoos giving off a subtle glow against the background of her dusky skin even down here in the artificial overhead light. "You've been in here way too long, child. You've turned a whiter shade of pale."

Cedric rubbed at his eyes, giving her a deliberate fretful look as if he'd just woken. "Long enough, if Rukawa just woke up."

Her generous mouth tilted in a faint smile. "Well. As may be. I figured with your brothers occupied they'd done the stupid thing and left you here to watch over him alone, neglecting to tell y'all the arrangements that have been made."

Cedric sat up straighter, pulling an anxious face. "What's going on?"

Felicia gave her chin a brief lift, hazel eyes going beyond him. "You should hear this too, kid. How are you doing?"

It was a matter of gathering up nerve to will himself to turn around. Cedric was riveted to the spot, but somehow in that dreadful long pause he screwed up the courage to do it. He pushed a hand against the bed, swiveling the chair outward, keeping his knees drawn up protectively close. Overpowering the earlier flush of seeing Rukawa's nude body was the sudden crash of fear that chilled him to the bone, bringing with it the thought that Rukawa had every right to hate him for what he'd done -- whatever he had done. In fact, Rukawa might know better than Cedric himself even now.

Cedric couldn't meet Rukawa's eyes in one fell swoop like that, so he met Rukawa's navel squarely. His older schoolmate was dressed -- barely. He was wearing his black uniform pants, but aside from that his feet were bare, the stretch of golden stomach was bare, and as he made his eyes track upward the length of that chest with its spare defined lines was bare, too. Cedric managed an audible gulp as he looked up to Rukawa's face, at last, meeting his eyes and bracing himself for recrimination.

There was none.

A jolt traveled through him, though, when their eyes locked; it was like a shock of heat lightning, or recognition, but a dozen times more powerful while not being either. Cedric gasped. There was heat there, a warmth kindling in the eyes that met and held his. It was banked now, a smoldering hint of the dilated crimson that had shone through earlier. It was his power, and it was inside Rukawa, and it pulled on him strongly.

"I feel fine," Rukawa said, not breaking eye contact with Cedric.

"Mm-hmm." Felicia did not sound one hundred percent convinced. "Well. One of you boys has got to be hungry, and it seems no one's thought to cover that outside the meeting we had earlier."

"So we're not having dinner together?" Cedric spoke up, torn between disappointment and relief. On the one hand, he enjoyed having everyone together, and he desperately wanted to see his brothers. He might not need it immediately, but he had a feeling he was going to be seeking Roman's advice soon, or Gabriel's, or perhaps both to balance them out. On the other shoe, the prospect of Roman and Shemyahza at the same table was an even more cheerless prospect than Roman and Arashi had been the night before. Juggle the wrong elbow and the table might explode.

Felicia laughed; a short, entirely non-condescending peal of mirth. "Oh, no, sweetheart, after Ms. Carson's strategy meeting, everyone scattered. Reims dragged off that psychic girl of his in order to give her a break, Arashi ignored us all until we left, Ms. Carson had another meeting, and your brothers went off for their separate suites. I didn't get the vibe either set wanted company, uh..." She trailed off as if wondering if she'd said something she shouldn't have.

"Roman was with his boyfriend?" Cedric supplied. His words were glib but he couldn't tear the lion's share of his attention from Rukawa, who was approaching him soft-footed, intent as if creeping up on him for the purpose of catching him unawares. There was no way he couldn't be aware of the eyes on him, prickling all over the line of his body.

"So let's grab some dinner on the third floor," Felicia said easily, ignoring the tension in the room.

Rukawa tilted his head as if asking Cedric to have the final say.

"All right," Cedric said, and released the death-grip on his knees at last, hopping out of the chair and standing beside Rukawa, near close enough to touch. He wanted to, and thought of clasping his hands behind his back until the older boy reached out, engulfed a hand in his larger one, and tugged him into step beside him as he strode forward. "Oh -- your clothes!"

Rukawa paused, looking at Felicia now. "Will there be a problem?"

For some reason Felicia gave the impression of being unflappable, and even now she fielded the question with no surprise. "You mean, going as you are?" she parried. At Rukawa's nod, she continued. "Nah, it's no problem."

"Okay." Rukawa set off, a body in motion drawing Cedric into his pace. His hand was warm, callused, infinitely gentle. Cedric shuddered. This was Rukawa, and yet something pivotal had changed. He wasn't sure he was ready yet, even though he'd set things into motion himself.

He realized as they passed the medical bay again why Rukawa was so insistent on wandering around in his half-dressed state. Cedric spotted a crumpled, stiffened white shirt in a heap partly beneath the uniform jacket of their school in the chair on the other side of Rukawa's bed. It was stained red with crusting blood. Rukawa's blood, spilled protecting Cedric, and he hadn't mentioned that to spare him in some respect.

Thank you, he wanted to say, but the words wouldn't leave him. It was too much. So instead he squeezed the hand that held his, and Rukawa looked down briefly with a glint in his eye, and Cedric knew that he was understood.

"First off, Rukawa, I'm pretty sure no one has talked to you about your situation," Felicia said, starting right into it as they set off down the hall toward the elevator. The gleaming corridors were empty, the light-strip overhead dimmer than it had been during the peak of the day, approximating circadian rhythms.

Rukawa shook his head. He kept a grip on Cedric's hand but seemed content to follow wherever the two of them led him.

"It's Ms. Carson's place, but she's busy - and to be honest, I don't think anyone expected you to wake up so soon," Felicia said. "That nurse...I was coming to check on Cedric, you know, so it was kind of a surprise to find you up and about. The nurse said something about the dose lasting several hours."

"It has been several hours," Cedric told her. His own internal clock was about as good as his older brother's, and like their eidetic memory, it was hard to put him off when it came to something like that.

"No shit?" Felicia blinked. "Sorry. I guess you're right. Rukawa -- your parents have been talked to by now, not with much detail on what happened of course 'cause we don't know the full extent of it, but enough to know you're staying here in Cygnus for now."

"Good," Rukawa said at last. "I'm staying here with Cedric."

Cedric was glad it was Felicia who had come for them. Ms. Carson might have been just as good, Humphrey definitely -- but Humphrey couldn't talk, not without Nara. The bodyguard let that adamant statement roll by without comment. Then again, Cedric reconsidered, perhaps it wasn't anything unusual. He wasn't accustomed to having friends, let alone people around him who would, and did, take a bullet for him. After being in such a position, wasn't it natural for that person to want to stay with him until they were sure the crisis was past? The hand-holding was probably at least a little unusual, though.

"You might want to call 'em later, though, just so they can see your face and know you're doing all right," she continued. "Okay?"

"How's Humphrey?" Cedric hastily inserted into the gap when Felicia finished her querying prod and it seemed Rukawa would take a long time to respond, if at all. "Where is he now? I was so worried..."

"Aw, sweetheart, he's doin' fine," Felicia said, turning to face him, her expression softening. "He was at the tactical meeting and after, the Wynne brothers asked him to help them finish up some business from that time."

Cedric considered this. "All right," he said, and couldn't help but flash back to that awful moment, the spray of red, the moment Humphrey had crossed in front of him. The crackled ruin of his voice shouting for them to get down. It was difficult to think of all that horror as business as usual, according to some.

Rukawa's hand clamped down on his and Cedric gasped, looking up. Had he been so obvious?

The third floor underground was packed with activity at his late hour. Shift change, Cedric realized as they entered the ebb and flow of foot traffic; there were men with loosened ties and women dressed in a mix of business casual and informal wear all throughout the walk-ways. It was after the work day for some, before it for others, and right in the middle -- the dinner hour -- for the rest. The place was large enough to be a mall, though mostly what was available were eateries and beverage shops, interspersed with the odd specialty shop or niche goods.

"We'll get you something else to wear before we go back down," Felicia said, giving Rukawa a piercing look.

Those eyes didn't miss anything, Cedric noted.

True to what she had said earlier, no one looked askance as they made their way through the complex and paused at a nook that was set apart from the other pedestrians. "What are you in the mood for?" Felicia prompted, surveying them with hands on her hips.

"Japanese?" Cedric said hopefully, glancing at Rukawa, who nodded with no change of expression.

"We've got a noodle shop," Felicia tossed back, a crease appearing between her arched brows.

"Good enough," Cedric said.

The 'noodle shop' turned out to be a yakisoba place, that had all kinds from udon to plain soba to chow mein to those thin rice noodles prepared in Thai fashion. It had enough of a selection that all three of them were satisfied, picking out dishes of their choice and settling in a far corner that allowed for some privacy.

"What else aren't you telling us?" Cedric asked directly once they were seated. The warm solid length of Rukawa was beside him, and it went a long way toward setting Cedric's unease to rest. There was no blame, not from this most important of sources, and Rukawa seemed more than just determined as ever to protect him. The long line of his thigh was beside him, radiating heat. They weren't touching but they might as well have been.

"Sharp one, ain't you," Felicia said with no rancor. "Some decisions were made while you were out. It's not a big deal. Basically, we sit tight for now here in the Cygnus building while your brother Gabriel tries to translate the book with his team. And..." She hesitated, not through uncertainty but to look both of them in the eye, visibly making a decision to continue. "There needs to be some time to figure out what's happened with you two."

Now Cedric looked up at Rukawa, too, hoping that his friend could articulate what he could not. Rukawa simply shrugged, not seeming interested in exploring it just now. Or at least, not with an audience.

He, Cedric, did not feel any different. No. That wasn't quite true. When Rukawa had...when he'd faded, Cedric had been so scared, and so aware of another's heartbeat for the first time in his life. Then it had stopped, and he'd panicked, and reached out the only way he knew how -- which turned out to be turning on power like a faucet, nothing he'd ever done before but it had come from a place deep inside of him. The difference between now and then was that he had a constant awareness of the steady heartbeat beside him, even at this very moment. He didn't have to touch Rukawa to hear it. The echo of it was imbued in his very blood, now. And when Rukawa looked him in the eye, Cedric knew the rush of power again.

"All right," Felicia said, taking the silence as a lack of response. It was, at that -- Rukawa wouldn't and Cedric wasn't sure he could, not yet anyhow. "The other piece that has Ms. Carson tied up right now is she's doing quick work to get someone into the field to find out what's going on."

Cedric cast a curious glance around the noodle shop. "Is this okay to say here?"

"It's all right," Felicia said with a wave of her hand. "I ain't saying nothing that wouldn't need a decoder ring and higher level clearance to figure out."

Cedric puzzled his way through the nested, layered negatives. "Oh. Well, what about my brothers?"

Their noodles arrived, and the flow of conversation was interrupted in favor of the arrangement of the food, and adjustments to sample, sigh happily, and chow down. Cedric had picked a dish of kitsune udon, the thick floury noodles with a mild broth sprinkled through with bits of tempura batter. He slurped, blew on mouthfuls to cool it, and realized with the delicious scents that hit him from three sides that he really was hungry. He rediscovered his stomach and forgot the question until Felicia answered after getting far enough into her kake soba to take a break.

"I think Roman has other arrangements in mind," Felicia said, wry. "He disappeared into his suite with that boyfriend of his and hit the privacy lock, so y'know, I don't think we'll be seeing him any time soon."

Cedric pursed his mouth to puff on another spoonful. "He did receive quite a shock today," he said, generous.

Felicia coughed into her noodles then wiped at her mouth with a napkin, meticulous. "Uh, yeah. What?"

"Oh!" Cedric said, waving a hand, avoiding a clatter of spoon into bowl by a narrow margin. That was a good thing, because he didn't fancy hot broth all over his lap. "That's right, you missed it...Shemyahza Guile told us a little bit about our powers. Except we don't know much about mine yet." He glanced sidelong at Rukawa, who was sipping at his soup with a single-minded concentration.

"Oh?" Felicia said with interest.

"Yes, Roman is an incubus," Cedric pronounced with relish.

Felicia looked at him, cupped her green tea in both hands, and slowly blinked. "Huh. Well, that just makes perfect sense."

"Mm." Cedric slurped at his noodles with relish now. Eventually, he decided, he was going to have to work up the courage to ask where Rukawa was going to sleep. At the moment it was enough to have the presence beside him, that awareness of warmth, the heartbeat he knew like his own.

It was enough, for now.


"I don't want to fight," Damon began when the door closed behind them, the very words a discomfort that presaged a brewing fight.

Roman reached around him to hit the privacy lock, knowing it wouldn't keep out their suite-mates that possessed an ident key but figuring it would be a deterrent, more or less. Of course, seeing it might cause certain parties to get a particular idea of what was going on in the suite when quite the opposite was the case. Or at least...maybe not the wrong impression later, if they survived until the make-up sex.

"Then let's not talk at all," Roman said, waving a hand. He had a pressing urge to shed his clothes, top first, strip-tease the rest, toss a sultry glance over his shoulder and then he remembered Guile's certainty as he pronounced a sentence of power upon him. "You feed off sexual energies." "That's a power?" "...take a moment to examine your own behavior." He didn't need to. The moment he started to do it, he knew.

"River..." Damon began his protest, looking away. "Don't tell me you really believe what that man was saying. And he actually got your brother in on it, too, Gabriel should be ashamed--"

"Stop," Roman said, raking a hand through his hair, tangling it up, torn between the argument ahead of him and the urgency bubbling up from within, need that had gone denied too long. It was a symptom, this argument. He was losing control. "You put me up on a pedestal, Damon. I'm not the cute little schoolboy that you think I am, I'm not...I'm not fragile, or delicate, I'm not a nice person, you don'" He trailed off as hands landed on his shoulders, turning him around with a firm inexorable touch.

"Roman," Damon said, and the name on his lover's lips laid silence on him. It was a geas. "You may not be delicate or nice, but to me you're fragile and I consider it my job to protect you. I can't claim to understand what's going on, entirely; in fact I'm pretty sure that most of what's been going on is above my head, but to me you're the same person. You're the one I fell in love with. I don't care what line of bullshit they're spouting, or if Guile has convinced your brother to play along with it--"

"You don't get it," Roman said, overwhelmed with a sudden, bone-deep fatigue. The sleep he'd managed to get the night before hadn't been quality in any way, shape, or form. He was stricken with the knowledge that from the start, he'd reeled Damon in. He had wanted him, and made Damon want him in return. Had Damon ever really seen the real him, without the sexual veil he'd cast over his eyes?

"Then explain it to me," Damon said, lowering his face, trying to meet his eyes.

Roman turned away, ducking out of the grip of those hands on his shoulders. He was afraid to do it. Everyone wanted someone beside them, didn't they? He didn't want anyone to see the 'real' him. He had thought, for a long time, that he did let Damon into that part of him only to discover what he really was. Now the past four to five years were cast into doubt. His entire career, even... "I'm going to go take a shower."

"Don't do this," Damon said, the defeated tone worse than being countered with anger. "River, please."

"You don't even know who I am!" Roman burst out, reminded anew of the gap between them. There was the age difference, their misaligned priorities, the fact that Damon wanted him to move in and Roman hadn't been faithful to him, even the inequities of their working relationship. "How can you love me, how can you be with me, if you don't really know me?"

Damon pinned him down with nothing more than his gaze. "I love all those parts of you that you'll give to me, you know. And the rest, I let you keep from me, because that's how you want it. If that's not how to love, tell me what you're expecting."

Roman was speechless. Those words, well-meaning and tender though they were, forced him into a corner. "That's a lovely thing to say," he murmured, putting distance between them, wrapping his arms across his chest in an unconscious posture of defense. "But you don't understand."

"Then give me a chance!" Damon chopped his hand to the side in a vehement gesture. "River, you don't--"

"River, River," Roman mocked, face twisting; he knew he was being childish and he couldn't bring himself to stop, or even care. The recklessness had welled up in him, an urge to self-destruct everything he'd built up in the past few years because it wasn't real, not really. Damon had told him upon more than one occasion that he'd loved him since the first moment he laid eyes on him, and whose fault was that? "How can you know me when you can't even pick a name to call me by?" He retreated around the couch, increasing the distance between their bodies because it was safer. Using the other route to escape his dilemma, turning on the sex, would only prove he was as worthless as he suspected.

Damon's hazel eyes darkened and he started for him, halting in his tracks with a hurt look as Roman backed up like a spooked creature. "That's not fair," he protested. "You know that's only because I knew you by the one name for so long. I'm not doing it to hurt you. I know you."

Roman was shaking his head slowly as Damon made the pronouncement. "Try being apart from me for a while and see if you still feel the same," he said, despair roiling his stomach. "I'm no good, Damon, didn't you hear him? I get whatever I want because I use...I use sex..." He thought back to their brief tussle after Gabriel and Shemyahza first revealed the truth, and it confirmed everything. He had stormed out, Damon had followed, and before he'd gotten more than a few words of comfort out Roman had twined up against him and pulled him to the couch and they'd had it right there, not more than a few steps from where he was right now.

"All right." Damon had his hands out, placating, fingers spread. "Does that make you any different?"

"It means the person I've been all along is rotten to the core!" Roman shouted, and the self-loathing burst from him at last, the corrupt, oozing part of himself that he'd always hated but hadn't been able to restrain. "Don't you get it? You don't don't know half of what I've done, who I've done, when and where I've had it, if you knew, you -- you wouldn't want to touch me anymore, be with me, you couldn't because no one could! And I can't stop!" It rushed out of him in equal parts catharsis and a desire to lash out, to wipe that understanding expression from his lover's face, to really bring him to his level. And that more than anything made him hate himself even more.

Damon froze in his tracks, his long, handsome face immobile.

Do I have your attention? Roman thought bitterly. "I thought, I hoped that if we moved in together I could do it. I could be everything that you wanted. I could s-stop screwing around like a kid because I'd be ready to move to the next step," he said, lowering his head. He couldn't meet those intense eyes anymore, it was a sharp pain bordering on the physical. "Only they told me what I am now, and it makes sense, and I hate it. And I can't stop, I know I can't, I'm always going to need...too much, I'm sorry. I-If you knew..." He squeezed himself and trailed off, miserable, looking at the rug, his arms crossed over his chest, anything but Damon.

"You think I didn't?" The quiet pronouncement lashed out with all the force of thunder.

Roman lifted his head but still couldn't quite meet his lover's eye. He focused on the mouth instead, the generous swell of the lower lip, not for the sexual thrill for a change but watching the words take shape, letting the import sink in.

"How could I not know?" Damon continued, still dreadfully quiet, the total calm that Roman didn't possess, but envied. "I work with you side by side for three years, do you really think I could be that blind and deaf? I work with the same models you do, Roman. I hear the locker-room talk, the gossip at the catering table, the whispers near the make-up chairs. I know the difference between someone who's admiring you and someone who's had you, believe it or not, and I can see the oh-so-covert looks. I'm a photographer, it's been my only career for ten years, give me some credit for a little insight into human nature."

Roman shook his head, not denying it but working his way through some severe adjustments. Another piece of the veil was tearing away.

"I could see what a strain it was on you, how damned worried you were that it would make me leave you, so I didn't say anything at all," Damon said, tone rough now. "Because it's what you wanted, right? Or should I have been mean? Should I have tried to pin you down and clip your wings?" He strode around the couch and Roman skittered back, but he wasn't fast enough. Skirting the furniture as Roman darted to the side, Damon reached him in a couple of strides and seized him by the arms again.

"What good is being understanding if it's only going to make you leave me in the end?" Damon said, giving him a little shake. His hazel eyes were blazing now.

Again the urge boiled up inside him; with the slightest tilt of his head, Roman could unleash the sex. They could be doing it right now, channeling the ferocious hurt of this argument into a passionate climax. He knew it, and recognized all the instances where he'd done it before -- most recent example, Arashi, until the boy got wise to him and kept him at a distance. It horrified him. He had to be the most manipulative son of a bitch alive.

"You want me to be a tyrant? You want me to tell you to stop screwing around, I won't tolerate anyone with you but me?" Damon demanded, shaking him again, shouting now. "You want me to say it's okay, I know about it, as long as you come back to me I don't care? What do you want!?"

Roman sagged. "I want you to let me go," he said dully, lowering his face. He wouldn't do it. He wouldn't nudge Damon into going the way he wanted. It wasn't fair to either of them, and it was an insult to Damon who professed to love him so faithfully. Since Roman had done it to him in the first place, though, it wasn't exactly as if he had a choice.

With a curse, Damon released him. He snapped out one hand in a quick, violent gesture, nowhere near Roman but still making him flinch. Then he clenched his fists and strode off, standing beside the couch with his back turned to Roman, the line of his body stiff and unyielding.

"I'm not going to give up on you, no matter what you say," Damon told him. "I love you. I really love you, but I'm not that accommodating. I have my limits, you know. And I'm not--"

"I think we need to be apart for a while," Roman interrupted. He bit his lip over the trite, ubiquitous 'it's not you, it's me.' Unless he was using his so-called power, it seemed, all he could bring to Damon was pain.

"That's bullshit," Damon challenged. "What's that going to--"

"Fine," Roman cut him off again. "I need to be alone for a while, all right? I need to...get things sorted."

Damon swung around, his eyes bright. "Don't you go to Gabriel with this instead of me," he ordered, fists still taut at his sides.

That tore it.

Roman stumbled back, eyes wide. "Wh-what!?" Did Damon know about that, too? If that was the case, how could he know and honestly think he still loved him? It was a construct. It wasn't real. He'd willed it into existence and helped it along ever since by keeping him set up with a regular 'fix.' "I need to get out of here." He made for the door, stumbling again as he made his way around the couch and took the corner too close, graceless in his urgency. He glanced over his shoulder once on his way out, and almost stayed for the sight of Damon watching him with hooded, angry eyes. He had never seen that kind of look directed at him before.

"Trust me," Roman flung out, his parting shot. "This is for your own good, Damon."

"How--" The statement was cut off by the shutting door, leaving him with the larger impression of outrage that infused it.

Shaking, Roman leaned against the door for a split second, going over his options. Damon thought he was going to go running straight to his older brother -- that he had a brother complex, he knew from having been teased over it on multiple occasions. But the mere implication that Damon knew about his more intimate relationship with Gabriel, might have known about it all along, formed a lump of dread in his stomach. It had no real basis, he didn't have time to think it through and try to figure out why, but it made him sick and he found himself running. For Damon to know something about him that went so deeply against the grain of what was normal and accepted, it had to change things. He wasn't touching anything deeper than the surface of matters right now, and he fled.

There was a chance Damon would come after him, so he took off in the opposite direction, the corridor that wouldn't take him back to the rest of the suites. He hung a right, then a left, then wandered through the corridors and ended up in a four-way junction with wall displays along each of the four corners. They were simulating a spectacular sunset. He hung suspended there in the middle of the junction, watching the brilliance sink below the line of horizon-chasing clouds. It was gorgeous, and it wasn't real. He pressed his hands to his temples and wanted to melt away like the sun vanishing over the illusion of the city skyline.

Roman stood until the sun had set. It was the most marvelous holographic fool-the-eye he had ever seen, but like the past few years of his life, it didn't matter. He tried to remember all the faces of the men and boys he'd slept with, and ended up shaking his head. Only one of them stood out. Only Damon had ever mattered to him, and he'd hooked him under false pretenses.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. Then he buried his hands in his pockets and picked a direction. One was the same as another; it made no difference.

The crucial element of this whole sordid mess was his lack of control, Roman pondered as he walked through the corridors, taking an ambling route because he had no direction, and didn't care. Despite Shemyahza's almost insulting words over how Roman had the most control over a power he hadn't even realized he possessed, Roman was certain a fair share of his problems stemmed over his absolute void of restraint. He wanted sex, it so happened sex was his power, so he let it rule his life and soften his brains. He had been proud of how he could get it when and however he liked and now it turned out that was no great accomplishment after all.

He had to know more about his power, but the one person he could ask right now was the person he hated and distrusted more than anyone he'd met in his short life. Shemyahza's broad smirk spread across his mind's eye and Roman's nails dug into his palms. He found he was gritting his teeth and had to force himself to relax.

The "sun" had set along all of the wall displays, and the hall was correspondingly more dim, though the overhead strip still projected the same amount of brilliance. After a measureless interval of time wandering through the corridors, he found an elevator. Roman shrugged and boarded it. He wondered if an alarm would sound if he tried to go outside, or if he'd be able to make it out unhindered. He entertained a brief flight of fancy, convincing Ms. Carson to send him outside the Wall into the enemy camp. He could fuck his way to the heart of the enemy and figure out what kind of designs they had on the city. Then again, if they all had Shemyahza's immunity, it was more likely he'd get himself gang-banged. They were demons, after all.

And he was the 'demon-bait.'

The elevator took him up to the third level. Roman had vague thoughts of going to work out his aggressions on a stair-climber before the first stomach-cramp hit. He was hungry, really hungry, and it didn't matter if his world was falling to pieces around him, he was a creature of the flesh after all. He was no good at doing without.

He passed a concourse of shops and did a double-take.

"Cedric?" Roman said aloud, incredulous, and wandered over to the store front. He had been pretty certain that his little brother was going to park it beside his friend until the unconscious young man awoke; at least, that was the impression that Gabriel had given after the tactical meeting broke up.

It was no apparition. Cedric was inside a clothing shop, laughing and looking up to the taller Rukawa beside him. Rukawa had a large pullover on instead of the uniform clothes he'd been wearing in the infirmary; it was black, long-sleeved and high-necked with a constellation blazed over the front.

"I think your little bro has a bit of a school-boy crush going on," commented a pleasant low contralto.

"You think?" Roman responded, wry, and was unsurprised to find Felicia Ark beside him.

His bodyguard peered into his face, making Roman take a step back. "What?" he said, assuming the defensive.

"Oh, lord," Felicia muttered, rolling her eyes. "Give me the patience. So, how did you screw it up?"

Roman boiled up at once, "What do you mean, how did I screw up? Why am I the one--"

"Hold up," Felicia said, putting up a hand palm-outward to stop the flow of his diatribe. "Just a sec." With that, she turned and left him, entering the shop. Cedric's face swiveled, attentive, and Rukawa faced her with a slow blink. Then Cedric was nodding vigorously, and Felicia gave them a little wave and departed as fast as she'd come.

Roman opened his mouth to object over the prospect of leaving Cedric alone with the older upperclassman -- as he knew full well, a little crush could degenerate into something far less innocent with the slightest of pushes -- but Felicia seized his arm in a pincer grip and frog-marched him up the causeway.

"Ow---ow, ow..." Roman protested, casting a feeble glance at passersby. No one was meeting his eye, though; in fact, they all acted as if he and Felicia weren't there.

"No one's going to help you," Felicia said candidly. "I'm on payroll at Orion, if I'm manhandling someone they know it to be part of my job."

"Ah, great."

Roman gave up and went with the flow.

"You hungry?" she prompted at length when they'd gotten a goodly distance away from the shop where they had left Cedric and Rukawa to their own devices.

"Starved," Roman said after an instant's reflection. He kept getting distracted.

"All right." Her tone was soft but her grip didn't loosen as she took charge.

It was liberating, Roman realized after a while. For a little while, he could give up the reins to someone who had a better idea than he of what to do or at least, what not to do. It wasn't as if he'd been doing such a bang-up job making his own decisions up until now.


After the tactical meeting had ended and most everyone had gone their separate ways, Gabriel had malingered at the conference table with the specter of Shemyahza hovering at the door until finally Arashi had chased him out, uncommonly brusque for a teen speaking to someone so much the elder. Alicia Carson had backed him up with an apology and a cool smile.

"But, what about Roy?" he had protested. "And Kieran?"

"Kellan reported in before the meeting began," Alicia had told him, backing him out the door as she advanced. "So, I'd check the work area that they set up if I were you. They were trying in vain to puzzle through your system of organization--"

"I don't have one, anymore," Gabriel had answered with a disgruntled scowl. He still wasn't over Kieran's redistribution of the years' worth accumulation of scholarly wealth. At the time, it had been small revenge for Roy, being maneuvered into taking on the one boy in the college he was infatuated with who in turn seemed to have no clear idea of his existence. It was certain his protégé was regretting that now, and Gabriel would be doubly unable to find his files and scattered notes, dissertations, and reference material now that it was parceled out after having been transplanted from office to a new work area.

"Then you'd best get on it," Alicia had said, and the door slid shut.

After gaping a moment, Shemyahza had taken his elbow and attempted to escort him along. Burned by touch, Gabriel yanked away and stalked down the hallway. "I can find it myself."

But he couldn't after all. He had a picture-perfect memory...if he had been paying attention at the time. Shemyahza had followed at a discreet distance until finally Gabriel hauled himself short and demanded, in something of a foul temper, to be shown the way back to the suites they were occupying. To his credit, Shemyahza did so without a word or cracking a single infuriating smile.

"I need to get started, there's a lot of work to do," he muttered as he held his ident-chip up to the panel, disengaging the locks. He glanced around. "Where are they?"

"At the workstation, I'd imagine," Shemyahza supplied, arching dark green brows at him as if the question, rather than the answer, were at fault.

"I figured that!" Gabriel said, looking away from the handsome face, the broad planes of pectoral beneath clinging red vest; he couldn't afford to get caught up in that again. There wasn't time. "So where is the workstation?"

"In their suite," Shemyahza said without a trace of a smile, though the amusement behind it still transmitted loud and clear.

Gabriel huffed. "I figured that--" he began, frustration rising.

"This is our suite," Shemyahza interrupted.

"Oh," Gabriel said, pulled up short. He looked around. "I wouldn't know the difference."

"Relax," Shemyahza advised, turning and putting a hand behind his head, his fingers wrapping around the hilt of the sword that had been hidden by the way the coat fell as well as the long, dark river of hair. He adjusted something that made an audible click, then shrugged the coat over his shoulders, slipping out of it without taking the sword from its sheath or hiding place.

"What do you mean, relax? I need to get to work as soon as possible," Gabriel said. He cast an uneasy glance around the suite. Once again they were alone, the precise situation he had been planning on avoiding. He was still befuddled by the layered shocks of the day, just returned from his abduction by the major Nephilim power that constituted the greatest threat to the city right now, having his own heritage revealed, lying with Shemyahza while a hand pumped him, straining, until he couldn't stand it anymore and lips seared his nape... and the knowledge that he had powers, too, of a nature he didn't fully understand or comprehend.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to attack you," Shemyahza said, turning and pinning him with a knowing stare. "What happened earlier was something that couldn't wait any longer. Now there's a little time for us to get to know one another, and for you to accept it."

"There's nothing to accept!" Gabriel burst out, convinced that whatever he'd said or done had led him badly awry until he was at this impasse, here and now. "I..." He trailed off, eyes roaming over the muscled line of Shemyahza's arm, bared to advantage now that the red vest was all that clothed his upper body. Selective focus, yes, he possessed it in spades, and now he was caught up in taking in the muscle that moved smoothly beneath dusky skin until Shemyahza was close enough for him to lay hands on him, surprising him out of his fugue.

Gabriel started, trying to recover his chain of thought. There hadn't been one, had there? With reluctance he dragged his gaze upward from the bare arm so near to him and met Shemyahza's quicksilver eyes with a frown.

A finger pressed his mouth closed.

"Keep that up," Shemyahza told him, his full lower lip near close enough to eye level. "And I might get ideas, you know?"

Gabriel shook his head, controlling the urge to back away because he didn't want to respond to Shemyahza's pace and get caught retreating. Instead he lifted his chin, freeing himself of the finger that Shem had laid against his skin and unthinkingly bringing himself into kiss range. "That's enough," he said, but wasn't even sure himself if he meant it anymore. His thought had been disengaged most thoroughly from its original track, which might have had to do with Roy and research and the body of work ahead of him. When he gave something his concentration he gave it the greater share of his attention, and in spite of his best efforts Shemyahza had captured it.

"Why me?" Gabriel murmured, no longer disposed to the coy behavior of earlier which had done him no good in any case. A part of him had already acceded to recognition of the fact that if Shemyahza Guile wanted him again, they would be in bed no matter the level of exertion he applied to resisting all efforts. He could be pragmatic when it suited him.

Shemyahza glanced down, dark lids veiling those uncanny silver eyes. He didn't play coy, either; he knew exactly to what the question referred. "You know, I've been asking myself that question as well." He turned, relieving Gabriel of the unbearable pressure of close proximity.

There was only so much of it that Gabriel could take and he suspected that Shemyahza was well aware of that.

"Tea?" the Nephilim offered, casting an intent glance over his shoulder, striking right to the heart of him.

"Oh..." Gabriel trailed off, then his resolve firmed. "No, you'll not reel me in that way. Last time we had tea, it ended with you taking me right to bed. And we hadn't even kissed, let alone enjoyed an acquaintance for more than twenty-four hours!"

Shemyahza's full and generous mouth broke into an unrestrained smile. "Point," he acknowledged. "Still, it would relax you -- and you should, you know, before you delve head-first into those musty tomes of yours."

Gabriel arched a fine brow; a turn of expression his younger brother envied and had struggled in vain to emulate despite hours of practice in the mirror. He employed it for those truly credulous moments. "I still find it hard to believe that you, a full-blood Nephilim young before the Rising, can't be of any assistance in translation."

That bark of laughter again, a short, barely amused sound, though Shemyahza's eyes were twinkling in his direction. "You give me more credit than I deserve, really," he rumbled. "How ancient do you think I am? Don't answer that." A long-fingered hand rose to stop the nascent reply Gabriel hadn't offered.

"You were born before the Rising," Gabriel ventured. The remarks he'd heard thus far all pointed in that direction.

"Yes, I was," Shemyahza said with amusement. "Certain you don't want tea? If we're not going to fuck right away this promises to be a long discussion."

Gabriel drew himself up, chest puffed in all indignance, and had his breath stolen in the next instant as Shemyahza moved forward with the speed of a striking snake and took his lips, that full dark mouth dwelling over his with unhurried intent. They stood like that through the rushing elongation of an endless heartbeat before Shemyahza tilted his head, moving to capture Gabriel's lower lip in a side-sawing gentle kiss to urge his mouth open.

When Gabriel's lips parted, Shemyahza stepped away.

He blinked several times before drifting out of his haze to realize he stood alone. Shemyahza was at the border of kitchen-area and living room, one hand resting on the corner, turned to display his fine strong profile. "Now you can't say you haven't been kissed." He continued into the kitchen, switching the length of his green hair over one shoulder and displaying tantalizing glimpses of leather-clad ass as the abundance of it parted with each step. "Are you coming? I'll put the kettle on."

There was a distinct fascination there, Gabriel couldn't deny it. Whether he believed this 'mate' nonsense Shemyahza was trying to sell him was another matter entirely but the desire to lay hands on him was so visceral he couldn't think of any other explanation but the one Shemyahza offered. He had never been subject to something so quick, so powerful and beyond his control, and perhaps there was another reason he was in denial. That, and his admitted tendency to be hard to shake from his particular rut. All of his relationships in college had been started at the instigation of the other person, and they had all ended summarily with Gabriel's inattention given as the prime source of dissatisfaction.

He had come to accept long ago that no one but a blood relative would put up with his inability to commit his attention scarcely long enough to consummate; his long hours, his passion for the scholarly taking precedence to pleasures of the flesh.

Then again, he had never been warmed over so utterly from the mere sight of another person before.

All it took was the flash of one strong, bare arm to make his knees week... He surrendered to the inevitable and followed Shemyahza's trail into the kitchen. He cast up a minor devotional of thanks that at least the Nephilim hadn't chosen to press the issue for now, and seemed content to adhere to his pace.

"Are you hungry?" Shemyahza asked as Gabriel joined him, turning from the stove-top and breaking Gabriel's fervent gaze upon the line of his throat as it descended from strong jaw down to the triangle of flesh above the first button of his crimson vest. Noticing this, the Nephilim grinned at him, displaying a hint of canine that was both larger and more pointed than a human's. This display of the extraordinary didn't faze Gabriel in the least.

Rather he found himself wondering with scholarly curiosity if Nephilim were like them, the humans, or if they had developed from a different phylum entirely. If he asked, would Shemyahza be offended? Would he even have the answer?

"There's something churning in that too-active brain of yours," Shemyahza said, as if aware that Gabriel's brain had jumped a track or two since he'd been caught staring.

"How old are you?" Gabriel blurted, then shook his head. "I -- I'm sorry, it's just--"

Shemyahza shrugged; it was a graceful, leonine gesture and he leaned against the counter, adjusting the fall of his hair again. Now that he wasn't wearing the long coat, Gabriel noticed his hair even more. It was so dark it could almost be mistaken for chestnut in the right lighting, but here in the soft white radiance of the kitchen it had green undertones like a glossy mallard's stripes of authority. It was long and sleek and draped over bared arms and shoulders, ever-shifting to give a glimpse of cinnamon-colored skin. It kept drawing his eye with the slightest movement. "It's natural to be curious," Shemyahza said. "I was born before your Industrial revolution, but I'm quite young by Nephilim standards, you know."

Gabriel tried twice to find his voice, then finally had to break eye contact. "I know," he said, and it begged the question of how long he himself would live. He had never harbored a cross thought toward Carson Vaille in his life but now he found himself in the position of despising his father for leaving him so unprepared. Carson must have known. He must. If he cast himself into the past of a hundred conversations with his tall, awkward father, who'd been possessed of the same odd fair coloration as Gabriel and his brothers, would he find the clues that indicated his father had been on the verge of revealing something important a dozen times over? Or would he only be disappointed, finding that his father was the same retiring, benevolent but distant parental figure more inclined to handing out puzzles to solve than sitting down for a heart-to-heart with his eldest son?

Some of this must have shown on his face, for Shemyahza made a movement as if to take his hand, then his fingers curled to a fist that dropped to his side. Boot-heels thumping, the Nephilim took to the kitchen nook that held a breakfast-style table with chairs for four -- the presumed maximum occupancy of the suite. Since Gabriel had come to Cygnus after the others, he'd been assigned a new suite and they weren't sharing with anyone. Last night he had been left alone to sleep after his ordeal and it occurred to him for the first time that Shemyahza might not have slept, either through the principle of standing guard or thinking over the suddenness of their proposed attachment. "Tell me what's on your mind," Shemyahza invited.

"You don't know how strong our blood is, do you?" he inquired.

"That wasn't the question that just occurred to you," Shemyahza said mildly.

Gabriel struggled to keep the surprise from his face. In addition to other talents, Shemyahza was either an unconfessed mind-reader or he was a very good gauge of body language. Given his purported age, Gabriel was prone to think the latter -- though if it turned out Shemyahza could read his mind, and his only, he almost wouldn't be inclined to question it.

"No, but it's the question I asked," he said, tone chiding. The lip of the kettle began to chatter, presaging its whistle, and Gabriel took it off the heat, finding cups already prepared with tea within. He poured the hot water over both, and carried them to the table. It was a soothing ritual, as it was meant to be, as he took his seat and cradled the cup in both hands, warming his hands through before taking a sip.

"I don't know by looking at you," Shemyahza acknowledged. "Given the powers the three of you possess, though, it's quite likely to be strong. If your mother had any power of the human persuasion that might explain it. That Cedric of yours..." He trailed off, brow creasing.

"Will it be a problem?" Gabriel inquired directly. He ran a tongue over his lip, catching the flavor of tea and closing his eyes as he recalled the feel of Shemyahza's mouth nudging his open. He would taste of tea right now. There were questions he wanted answered right now, however, and he was possessed of a single-mindedness powerful enough that Shemyahza appeared willing to honor it.

Shemyahza bared his teeth in a not-quite-smile. "Depends on what you mean by 'problem,'" he replied, frank in return. "There are many things that could happen. I'd never seen such a power transfer. It could be the self-sacrificing human in him, or something more psionic in nature. By all accounts that Rukawa boy died. What sustains him now at least temporarily is the core of Nephilim power within him now. It could be temporary, or he could reject it. He could die if the power sears him from the inside - he is human, though I don't know what he was like before his current transition. Nara didn't seem overly concerned but the boy was unconscious most of the time she could have had contact with his mind."

"All of that is bad!" Gabriel said, appalled. "Are there any alternatives?"

"Oh, of course," Shemyahza was quick to assure. "He could acclimate to Cedric's power with no difficulty. From the account, at least half Rukawa's revival was accomplished by his desire to protect your brother. With that as his motivation, and if Cedric continues to sustain him...but we'll have to keep an eye on the pair. We'll have to test them, Nara and I. And until we're sure it won't kill him, Rukawa should be kept from any extreme displays of power."

Gabriel absorbed all of this. "His parents--"

"Will have been informed by Carson's people already," Shemyahza filled in for him. "No worries there. This sort of thing happens more often than you'd think -- the manifestation of powers, I mean; not the transfer, that's unique. But Orion has to pick up part-Nephilim teenagers on a more or less regular basis, then acclimate them to the reality and powers they had no knowledge of before. There's an entire division devoted to those activities, so far as I know."

Gabriel nodded, sipping at his tea again. "That's good." He was quiet for a long moment, trying to figure how to frame his next question. The heat of the porcelain on his mouth again reminded him of what he was trying to avoid, as if every sensation herded him back in that direction. "Shemyahza? What makes you so certain I'm your...your..." He couldn't even manage to voice the possibility he was still steadfastly denying.

"Mate?" Shemyahza supplied, the solemn set of his mouth dissolving into one of those wide, engaging smiles again. "Have I been a bit of a bastard? I'll tell you a story some time. Tell me first, Gabriel, what do you know of Nephilim sexual culture?"

"Probably not nearly so much as yourself," Gabriel responded, cautious. He wouldn't be drawn into any traps.

"Quite. Well, indulge me."

Gabriel heaved a small sigh and concentrated on his tea for a moment, calling up the limited lines of speculation that had only generated further questioning. "Because there is little difference in the gender roles between male and female of the Nephilim species, it seems that all Nephilim of both sexes are of the persuasion known as bisexual, in that mating behavior is primarily a dominance exercise and secondarily a breeding activity," he began, brows knitting as he began a recitation of his limited knowledge. He watched Shemyahza's expression like a hawk, keenly aware of the slightest facial tic for fear of having his theories ridiculed. Having no proof, everything of which he spoke was essentially a theory that this creature could pop easily as a soap bubble floating between them. "Marriage had no function in Nephilim society for economic and social purposes, though it did seem to serve as a tool to forge alliances from what I've been able to determine, but aside from that was not widely emulated. Pair-bonding occurred whenever a Nephilim took an exclusive partner, and that relationship continued for life."

"For life," Shemyahza echoed, eerie silver eyes capturing and holding his. "Very good, Gabriel, you've undertaken a thorough understanding of the culture."

"It's all extrapolation," Gabriel muttered, ducking his head. He was flustered by the unexpected praise in a way he hadn't been since the days presenting a series of failed theses to Orion, which had generated the scholastic equivalent of a frenzy. All of them had received dismal reception at his university, and he'd been on the verge of abandoning his line of study until Orion had entered the equation.

Shemyahza sat back, straightening his spine and shoulders and stretching, drawing Gabriel's eyes back to dark skin and the play of muscle. "You're not like anyone I've ever been attracted to before," he said out of the blue, tilting his head this way and that, wringing a couple of sharp cracks from his neck before favoring him with a candid gaze again. "In fact, I hope you won't be offended if I make it known you're nothing like what's been my 'type' for the past fifty years or so."

"No offense taken," Gabriel said, but he was frowning. "If that's so, then how--"

"It was a jolt, seeing you first incorporeal then laying eyes on you in the flesh," Shemyahza continued easily, as if there'd been no interruption. "And you are extremely attractive, though I can tell you're not aware of that as you should be. It was more than that, though. Not knowing you, but wanting you. It wasn't only that. The extent of the desire, it nothing else. Having experienced all that I have during my time, you have to realize that's saying a great deal." He quirked a brow, a flawless execution of Gabriel's earlier expression.

"So it's..." Gabriel paused, brow creasing. He wanted to say, so it's just the attraction, but that could be misconstrued. That marginalized something he was coming to recognize as overwhelming, actually compelling enough it constituted another dimension of the senses. He finished his tea, and rubbed at the back of his mouth. Absently he was still comparing it to the warmth of that mouth against his.

"It's an instinct," Shemyahza said, frowning just as much. "I can't explain it better than that, Gabriel, I wish I could. The fact is, I've never been mated before either, you know. For life, remember?"

"Ah," Gabriel said, now thinking on a dozen possibilities. Instead of pursuing any of them, however, he stood, intending to refill his cup and offer Shemyahza a fresh one as well. His wrist was seized, anchoring him into place. He was drawn to contemplation of the strong fingers around the bones of his wrist, the contrast in their skin tones, the paler olive ovals of Shemyahza's nails and he hesitated, recalling the touch of searing lips to the meat of his palm. He leaned in, and in the most natural motion in the world, Shemyahza met him half-way. The press of their lips together was easy, comfortable, and he questioned his own resistance.

There was room in his life for desire, after all.

When Shemyahza's tongue slid between his parted lips, a hand closed over his, taking the tea cup from him and setting it on the table with a soft chink. Shemyahza took his face between both of his hands, slanting in and deepening the kiss. Now Gabriel met him in kind, pressing close and exploring the warm tea- and spice-flavored interior with a thoroughness he might devote to a favorite novel. This was new territory and he found himself enraptured. He leaned in until the rim of his glasses pressed against his brow.

Shemyahza broke first, licking over Gabriel's lips and pulling to a distance where their eyes could meet. He was serious now in a way that coursed a shiver through the depths of him.

Gabriel forgot his hesitance, trampled over his resistance, and stepped to the edge of the seat, moving in when Shemyahza turned sidewise to accommodate. He eased to stand between strong thighs and buried his hands in the shining glossy length of his hair and let instinct overrule reason for once, nudging at parted lips, shuddering as Shemyahza's teeth closed ever so lightly over his bottom lip. Shemyahza closed those thighs on him, trapping him in place. Eyes closed, Gabriel bent in the sway of the kiss and found Shemyahza's nape in all that long hair. Firm hands stroked down his back. They'd barely gotten pants off one another before and now Gabriel was possessed of the sudden desire to have this man take him to bed...and make it last.

The suite's door-chime rang loud and clear.

Shemyahza's teeth and lips clamped down on him, threatening to hold him in place as Gabriel stiffened. "Ignore it," the Nephilim rumbled, unspoken threats rippling an undercurrent that Gabriel found himself inclined to obey.

"Gabriel?" the desperate voice of his assistant, Roy, intruded even through the door. The chime sounded again, and Roy projected his voice strongly enough to reach even the kitchen area. "Gabriel, I've heard some garbled reports of shots fired? I can't find little Cedric or even Roman--what's going on?"

Shemyahza huffed sharply against his mouth.

"I am sorry," Gabriel murmured, straightening as Shemyahza released him. He wasn't sure who was more surprised at his sudden compliance, the Nephilim giving him bemused silver eyes, or his own self. "Truly, I...but I've been so thoughtless, no one's told Roy anything, and there is a great deal of work to be done."

"It can wait," Shemyahza said, opening his legs wide enough for Gabriel to stumble back a step, off-balance. It wasn't the eyes or the sudden release but the ghost imprint of those hands on his face, yet. The tongue that had traced over and inside his mouth, and he could fathom its intent. When Gabriel widened his eyes at him, the demon clarified, "This. It's worth waiting for." A knowing smile was crooked his way and Gabriel found himself flushing, in the throes of retreat yet again.

"Then...then I'll go and answer that..." he offered, not quite willing to turn his back on the unpredictable Shemyahza but risking it for now.

He had gotten into a great deal more than he'd bargained for.