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

by Talya Firedancer

It took great lengths to bring Roy Masters to the boiling point. He was a teacher's assistant, and he worked with the hormonal masses on a daily basis; he also had a younger sister, a towering sense of responsibility, and he'd been put in positions of authority dating clear back to elementary school. What patience he hadn't possessed as a part of his natural disposition he had learned over the subsequent years out of self-defense, because to worry and fret when he was constantly in charge of something or other, generally matters of life or death, would be to burn himself up on re-entry once the moment allowed return from the stratosphere.

However, he was willing to make an exception from his typical cool over arriving at the Cygnus building and being shunted from place to place, getting shut out of the infirmary and meetings both. Roy was told he was not family at the one, and not essential personnel at the other. In the meantime he had a bodyguard at his elbow who was the soul of courtesy and helpfulness but couldn't manage to get him access or any kind of detailed information, and a young assistant whose blue eyes got progressively wider the more creative Roy's curses became. It was as if he'd never been exposed to harsh language before, which in turn made Roy feel as if he were bringing about the end of innocence.

His third try at the infirmary, Kellan pulled out her phone and gave it a cursory glance. "Meeting's over," she said helpfully. "We could try the suites again."

"Ah, great." Roy cast his hands up. "No one will even tell me if little Cedric is all right, it's impossible to get information from anyone around here!" They'd had to wait for a car, first off, then had gotten stuck in a cordon around the Cygnus building. After waiting for that to clear, whatever incident having been long since done and cleaned up, by the time Roy and Kieran had gotten inside the building there was no one around to question.

He wasn't particularly a control freak, but it bothered him more than just about anything knowing that something was going down and he was totally out of the loop.

Kieran had waffled between sticking close to him, appearing on the verge of saying something to offer comfort of any kind, and wisely staying out of his way. The one thing keeping Roy from spewing the kind of cursing he knew would leave Kellan unfazed was the fact that Kieran would probably have a breakdown of some sort. Either that or he didn't want the boy picking up any of the choice words, heaven forbid.

The first suite they tried had the privacy lock enabled. He spat a phrase of satisfyingly livid Chinese he had picked up from a former lover as they stalked through the halls. Kellan looked over her shoulder at him, arching a brow.

"What's your problem? At least it's not your suite."

"That's true," Kieran added helpfully.

Roy growled something not fit for polite company, and they trod onward to the next one - the suite Roy was splitting with Kieran, Humphrey, and Cedric. His surrogate little brother wasn't waiting within, either, and that sent Roy into a tailspin. Either the boy had been dismissed from the infirmary or he was wandering the halls - the meeting was over, and no one was to be found.

It was in this state that Roy found himself outside the suite that had been assigned to Gabriel and his bodyguard. "Gabriel?" The privacy lock was on, which meant that someone was inside. He wouldn't interrupt Roman under such circumstances, but bigod, he sure would interrupt his nominal boss. " Gabriel, I've heard some garbled reports of shots fired? I can't find little Cedric or even Roman--what's going on?"

Silence, long enough that Roy thought they were out of luck for the evening. He was about to turn and demand something, anything of Kellan to get them more information so that he could set his mind at ease and go back to work. At last, though, the door snapped aside and Gabriel stood before him, adjusting his glasses with one finger, hair disheveled, his mouth full and moist.

"Sorry," he apologized at once, in all sincerity.

Roy's signature cool was stretched to the snapping point. "Sorry? Gabriel, do you have any idea how inadequate an apology is under these circumstances? We've had no line of communication, your cell has been turned off this entire time, from what information we've had - and there's been precious little - there were shots fired and someone could have been killed for all we know, and no one has been available for hours to tell us anything remotely useful!" He threw up his hands.

Gabriel, whose green eyes had gotten progressively wider during the diatribe, pulled himself upright for a response. "There's no excuse--" he began, face dolorous.

A bare, dark arm snaked around him from outside the door, followed by the entire personage of Shemyahza Guile, filling up the door-frame behind him. "There's no excuse for being incommunicado to be sure, Masters, but you can't hold him responsible for the rest," Shemyahza pronounced, his long, lean face intense. "Gabriel was shot at, too." He didn't even glance sidelong at his charge, but spoke directly to Roy.

Roy stared back, defeated. "Well, this is the kind of data I didn't have," he said, backing down somewhat.

"If he promises not to do it again and set up some sort of arrangements for any potential future incidents, would you accept his conditional apology?" Shemyahza inquired, giving him a grin that held a hint of fang.

Roy looked back and forth between the two of them, confused. Gabriel was transferring his gaze alternately between his toes and the big man beside him, arm draped over his shoulders casually as if it belonged there, and there was a flush to his pale cheeks as though he'd been a naughty schoolboy. "Who's going to enforce that?" he wanted to know. Gabriel was notorious for leaving his cell switched off.

"I will," Shemyahza proclaimed with supreme confidence.

"Sure, for the length of the contract--"

"I can guarantee it, indefinitely," Shemyahza continued as if there had been no interruption.

Gabriel elbowed the Nephilim in the ribs and stepped out into the corridor. "Let's get on with it," he said with more than a typical share of urgency. "We've got an awful lot of work to accomplish in a very tight timeline."

Roy stared over his shoulder as he was hustled along. Shemyahza lounged in the doorway an instant longer, his full lips spreading into a broad smirk, and he sketched a noncommittal salute in their direction.

"Is he--" Roy began, looking over at his mentor, acutely aware that Kieran and bodyguard Kellan were right on their heels. "I mean, you...Gabriel." Gabriel hadn't been involved in a relationship as long as he'd known the man, and considering he had done undergraduate as well as post-graduate work with him, and even some summer programs during high school, that comprised quite a span.

"Later," Gabriel hissed, and there was a confirmed red tinge to his fair skin.


Roy fished out his ident disc to grant them access to the suite where he and Kieran had reconstructed their workstation. "Have you got all the scanning you need for now? I figured you could work on some rough translations, and I could show Kieran how to handle the book, set him to scanning what you hadn't--"

"No, have him clean up the roughs," Gabriel contradicted. "There's plenty I hadn't even started work on, and he'll need to re-image all the slides I haven't even touched yet, or have you been able?"

"No," Roy said, wry. "We've been trying to pull some kind of data, anything, from your files that would be helpful under the current circumstances. Of course, your organizational system--"

Gabriel's laughter cut him off.

"What," Roy said, sullen.

"--you thought, rather she thought, I mean you really harbored an impression that anything in MY files would be useful?" Gabriel chuckled, pressing one hand to his mouth in a vain attempt to quiet the laughter. It sent him off into another peal instead. "Under these circumstances--as if it were conditional..." He dissolved into belly laughs.

"Fix some tea," Roy said grimly to Kieran. "He's going to giggle over this for a good ten minutes until the hysterics are over. Gabriel, have you eaten?"

Still whooping, Gabriel managed to shake his head. "Conditional data..." That sent him into a fresh gale of laughter.

Roy sighed and looked around for a chair. It would be a while until they could get any sense out of him. Normally even Roy might find the joke funny, but with all the work they had to do, not to mention the past few hours they'd had, his sense of geek humor had taken a vacation. Also, having a mentor who was vital to the project incapacitated with giggling hysteria was no treat, either. At least getting some food into him would probably bring his blood-sugar levels back up to normal.

"Does he do this...often?" Kellan inquired at his shoulder.

"No," Roy said, measuring the length of the laughing Gabriel with a critical eye. "Not often at all, usually when he's been going a couple of days without sleep - which I suppose could almost be the case. I'd say he's had too many shocks in the past few days." He contemplated giving Gabriel a couple of cracks across the cheek, then decided that was too drastic. Also, Roy might enjoy it too much.

"Mind if I go watch the programs? Sounds as if you'll be working all night," Kellan said quietly.

"No, it's fine." Roy watched Gabriel with a clinical eye, contemplating and discarding several potential lines of conversation to calm him down and get him thinking again. It was better to just let this work its way through.

Kieran returned with two mugs of tea, and presented Roy with inquisitive eyes. "Tea?"

"Thanks," Roy said gratefully, handing one over to Gabriel, who had calmed enough to hold it in both hands. He was brimming with mirth, still, but at least he didn't chortle into the tea.

"Roy?" Kieran prompted, looking from the professor to Roy and back again.

"Low blood sugar," Roy said without hesitating. "Let's leave him to his thoughts, shall we? I know it's been some time but I'm pretty well acquainted with the workings of a kitchen and how to cook a decent meal."

"I can help, too," Kieran offered, and pinked when Roy gave him the skeptical arched brow. "No, really. I have a big family, and I just kind of grew up mom and some of my older sibs showed me how."

They rummaged through the kitchen area in companionable silence, then consulted one another on their findings. Someone in the Cygnus building clearly had a regular job ensuring that the makings of nutritious meals were kept in the underground suites. Kieran leaned against the counter beside him and suggested a few recipes, and after they traded a few ideas back and forth on how to cook a stash of beef cuts, onions, mushrooms, and thin string beans, Roy determined it would be best if he left the details to Kieran. It was obvious from his serving suggestion - braised beef with sautéed mushrooms and onions, and pan-fried beans simmered in balsamic vinegar - that Kieran had more experience than he'd let on.

"Then, I'll leave you to it," Roy said, looming close, ruffling at Kieran's auburn hair.

"Stop," Kieran protested, but he looked pleased. He tipped his head back, narrowing his eyes a bit and then putting on a hesitant smile. "...Roy?"

"I'd better go check on the professor," Roy said, and Kieran's smile dimmed. Kicking himself, wondering what was going through the young man's head that exact instant, Roy retreated nonetheless.

Back in the other room, Gabriel had taken a seat and he held his tea cup between both hands, now composed, reflective.

"So," Roy said, approaching with his own tea cup in hand. I come in peace.Nevertheless, he opened with the foremost item of prurience; best to get that out of the way. "What's this about you and that bodyguard of yours?"

Gabriel's head snapped up, his eyes wide in brief startlement, then he averted his face. "I, I'd rather not talk about it," he said hastily.

Roy took a stab anyhow. "Stockholm Syndrome?"

"Don't be ridiculous!" Gabriel said, instant indignance, pinning Roy with one of his unexpectedly forthright stares. "That would be if I'd succumbed to Granac Bowen's advances, not--" He shut his mouth and stood, splashing tea on the carpet.

"--not Shemyahza Guile's?" Roy filled in the blank for him.

Gabriel tossed an angry look in his direction. "Where is the grimoire?"

"Changing the subject, very subtle," Roy said. His emotions had becalmed, leaving him with a center once again - from which he could tease his mentor, because it appeared that for once, there was something substantial afoot. " careful, all right? I've never known you to rush into anything, and under a high-stress situation like this, especially after a dangerous circumstance like yesterday and today, this may not be the best time--"

"You think I don't know that?" Gabriel snarled, turning to prowl past the dining area on through the suite. "I really don't want to talk about it, Roy, now let's get to work."

"Regardless of whether you want to," Roy pressed, "maybe you need to. Shemyahza sounded pretty confident back there and there's got to be something he's basing that from, am I right?"

Gabriel shook his head, not in the negative but an avoidance of the question entirely as he located a door to the rear of the suite, gestured at it, and proceeded through at Roy's resigned nod. Within, he took quick stock of the jumbled materials and groaned softly. "Brought everything we needed to work with, did you? Yes, but left it in utter disarray!"

Roy retorted, "It was in thorough disarray before we laid a hand on any of your files."

"Yes, well, it was in a completely catalogued manner of mess before you sent that assistant of yours through on his raze-and-sweep mission--" Gabriel returned hotly, then widened his eyes.

Roy had a sinking suspicion even before something bumped his elbow. He turned, taking in Kieran and a floral-patterned pot of tea, the boy's mouth elongating and his eyes filling with anxiety. It was enough to make him growl - another reaction that had to be kept to himself for fear of making the boy fret even more. Bad enough that he and Gabriel were coming to verbal blows over this, but for Kieran to be dragged into the ruckus--

"I, I brought more tea!" Kieran said, putting on a cheerful look. "Do either of you need refills? I figure, that and dinner are pretty much the only way I can make myself useful."

He mumbled an addition under his breath, "I'm just a tagalong under these circumstances anyhow."

"Tea, thank you," Gabriel said, casting about for a surface that had some amount of space available to place his cup down. He gave up and held out his cup.

"You didn't do anything wrong," Roy said, now wishing there were some more private venue but at the same time, he preferred at most times not to be alone with Kieran, to cut down on his chances of making a fool of himself.

"No, I only destroyed any trace of organization the professor had imposed on his documents and files," Kieran said, the positive joviality of his tone failing to mask the bitter words. "I dove right in without thinking or even asking--"

"Don’t be ridiculous," Roy said, gentle enough to make the boy stop and blink at him. "If there's any fault accrued, it's mine. And don't let Gabriel fool you into thinking he had some sort of stringent catalogue imposed before you came along -- you saw his office."

"I have an eidetic memory, I know where everything WAS," Gabriel asserted.

"You know where everything was five years ago," Roy shot back. "We could argue about this all afternoon, Gabriel, and you still wouldn't admit you're wrong. Things move all the time in that office and I've seen you pick something up and move it without looking to see what it was dozens of times. And don't think I don't realize for a minute what you're doing; it's not only a weak diversion, it's a senseless one. If Carson expects us to get any kind of useful information out of the untranslated text within a week, we need to quit with this petty bickering, divide up the tasks, and make some progress."

The silence after his little speech stretched for so long, Roy found himself looking anxiously back and forth between the faces of his colleagues. Gabriel had assumed a pole-axed expression that implied he'd been thwacked in the rear of the head or some equally ignominious assault. Kieran had transferred his undivided attention to Roy and had blinked quite a lot at first; now he was regarding him with something approaching awe.

"What?" Roy said, defensive.

Gabriel adjusted his glasses with one long, elegant finger. "You're right," he said, the ghost of a smile crossing his lips. "Thank you, Roy, for re-ordering our priorities. Kieran, I apologize if I maligned you in any fashion."

"It's no problem," Kieran said with a shrug, approaching Roy with the teapot. Where before he might have fawned a reply, however, now he avoided Gabriel's eye - not that it took much - and refilled the cup Roy held out for him.

"Thanks," Roy murmured, and was rewarded with a brilliant blue-eyed look of appreciation.

"I'll let you two know when dinner is ready," Kieran said, hovering in the doorway in preparation to withdraw.

"After dinner, I'll show you how to clean up the rough scans," Roy told him, and was answered with a quick nod.

Roy turned back to the professor, curious on whether he'd noticed the shift in the balance of power that had just occurred, but Gabriel was sifting through stacks of reference material again - his precious hard-bound books, published before the Rising. He smiled, shook his head, and cast about as Gabriel had earlier for a patch of free space to set down his cup. There was no such thing.

The workstation had a long, central island that was currently strewn with the contents of Gabriel's office, all that they had managed to extract during the evacuation. Roy had played it safe and carted along everything that had remotely classified material or what he recognized as relevant or referent material to the project at hand. One wall of the room was taken up with a couch, that was also currently playing home to several precious hardback books. The other three walls had work surfaces and four free-floating swivel chairs had been pushed this way and that over the past twenty-four hours, mostly kicked out of the way rather than put to use. The work station opposite the couch across from the central island had the grimoire in its sealed chamber, the bulky vacuum-environment equipment and the mechanisms necessary to handle it in total vacuum, the digital transfer equipment that took scans and transferred them to a notebook for clean-up and manipulation. The other two work surfaces had data displays, and were also in use for piles of research material.

It was, Roy reflected, the scholarly equivalent of chaos. As the past twelve-plus hours had proved, they had been unable to retrieve anything useful from Gabriel's files. Then his laughter had informed them that there had been nothing of use in any case. It was grasping at straws to see if anything Gabriel had compiled to date would help them figure out what was going on - mostly, Roy had wanted a confirmation of the grimoire's contents, in case Gabriel had done enough preliminary translation to reveal the subject matter.

Now they knew.

"So, this is really the Fifth?" Roy said, walking over to the vacuum chamber and peering within. It was laid open within, stuck on the page that Gabriel had labored over during his last session. That seemed an eternity ago, from his current standpoint.

"A copy," Gabriel said, setting his cup on a notebook that was balanced precariously on three uneven piles of screen-files. His priorities were reflected by the fact that the other option had been a stack of loose-leaf paper or two hardcover books. Precious, unrecoverable pulp over electronics. "Good enough for our purposes."

"And, apparently, Granac's," Roy said. "What's going on, Gabriel? Why were you shot at today?" He turned from the case and pinned his mentor with an implacable gaze. This time he'd get answers, and no demurring or diversions.

"Oh," Gabriel said, lifting surprised eyes. He scraped his fair hair away from his face with both hands and pulled it back into a low tail. "I'd forgotten. Yes, Ms. Carson and Shemyahza both agreed that it was disgruntled elements at work in the city, acting in a reaction to the fact that Orion simultaneously put out bounties on every unregistered demon in New York."

"What?" Roy yelped. "Why would they do that?" His brow knit. Why would they then attack the Vailles, if that was the case.

"To put pressure on Granac," Gabriel said, waving a hand. "Really, it's not important. They're taking care of the tactical side of things, and we stay here until things are safe again."

Roy looked over his shoulder at the innocuous shape under glass. It had the appearance of any other book. "That could be for the rest of our lives, you know," he said, low enough to keep to himself.

"I have confidence in Orion," Gabriel said, blithe. "Don't you?"

"That's a low blow," Roy said. "It sounds like this Granac is going to have to die or at least go far, far away for us to be safe from what he knows."

Gabriel came around the table to join him, peering into the vacuum chamber. "I've met with him. He seemed sane, of all things. He's quite polite and educated and determined on his course of action. He means to have the Grimoires translated, which will give him--"

"The key to the destruction of the human race," Roy filled in the blank when Gabriel paused, his face taut. Now they both looked to the book, speechless.

"Yes. Well. Sane but from an entirely alien perspective," Gabriel murmured.

"Alien implies extraterrestrial," Roy argued. "I was thinking something along these lines earlier, Gabriel, I think it's something worth pursuing. We've never asked the question because we've been too busy fighting against symptoms. Why do the demons want to destroy us?"

"Why, that's--" Gabriel lifted a finger as if to deliver the authoritative answer, then his mouth twisted.

"Exactly," Roy said, and gestured excitedly. "Why did the Rising happen? They had been living for thousands of years among us, below us, with humankind scarcely aware of their existence except from some evidence that over fifty years of research has uncovered. I think the answer is important."

Gabriel was frowning, then shaking his head. "For once, Roy, I'm not sure I agree. You really think the answer will change things? Treatise with the demons?"

"Shemyahza and the others--"

"Are considered to be blood traitors," Gabriel cut in, still shaking his head. "Amongst his people, Shemyahza is considered to be the one insane, not the other way around."

"One might almost argue..." Roy muttered, but he tacked a teasing grin onto the end of it, trying to transmit the thought that Shemyahza must possess some degree of insanity to fix on Gabriel as a potential partner.

The innuendo sailed over his mentor's head. "Besides, most orders of demon cannot be negotiated with, or reasoned with, or even contained so long as they draw breath - they must be destroyed, outright, because their sole purpose is destruction. Or do you fancy domesticating a Rockbiter?"

Roy shuddered. "No thanks."

"We could ask Shemyahza his opinions on why the Rising occurred in the first place," Gabriel said thoughtfully, tapping his cheek with his index finger. "Though I have a feeling he'd voice the same opinion: focus on the reality before us, because the 'why' of demon assault may have no clear answer in the end. We humans ruled the earth, we had our time while demons lived in the underground where they had been relegated an age ago; when they triggered the Rising, it was with the intention of global dominion, their aim being eventual annihilation of the race that had oppressed them so long ago."

"An interesting theory," Roy said, folding his arms. "You have data to support it?"

"Only anecdotal," Gabriel replied. He waved a dismissive hand. "That's beside the point, though."

"I don't think so," Roy said. "I think the 'why' of it matters. What if it's more complex than we've assumed, caught up as the human race has been in its fight for survival? And most of the half-bloods or less are on our side..." He trailed off, trying to grasp the tail end of a thought appended to that one. It eluded him.

"Are they?" Gabriel countered. "You don't have any data on that whatsoever."

"Well, let's ask and find out," Roy said, nettled. "You work for Orion. Nephilim are very much a reality. Your bodyguard happens to be one."

Gabriel turned away, cheeks blooming with sudden color. "I don't want to ask him," he said in turn.

"Oh, and just a moment before you were saying we could ask him his opinion," Roy dragged him straight back to it. "Come on, Gabriel. What's going on? Don't make me worry about you."

Now the man turned and gave him a jade-cool stare, a distancing tactic. "It's none of your concern, Roy. It's personal, not work-related, and I don't care to discuss it."

Roy sighed and threw up his hands. "I'm going to ask Arashi if he can pull some statistics for us, or if there's any known data on it."

"Fine," Gabriel said, turning his back. "I'm going to get started on translations; try not to get hung up on useless queries."

Casting a dirty look at his mentor from beneath lowered lashes, Roy sought out the nearest workstation terminal and composed his questions before those flitting thoughts could scamper out of reach. How many part-blood Nephilim worked for Orion? How many were on the side of the humans, versus that of the demons beyond the Walls? For that matter...those Nephilim that chose to ally with them at all, why did they... Roy's train of thought came to a swift and shocking pile-up of conclusion. He sent off the query to Arashi before he could forget - they were on Orion's network, so it was only a matter of a quick search to find him and send it off.

"Gabriel," Roy said, swiveling in his chair. He was loud enough that Gabriel paused from his scrutiny of a particular pile of materials, trying to locate something or perhaps still engaged in a stubborn catalogue of the disorder that had been wreaked. "The Nephilim form breeding pairs with human men and women."

Gabriel's brow contracted. "Yes, of course, there's ample evidence--"

"All of the half-bloods have power, right?" Roy pressed.

"To the best of our knowledge," Gabriel said, waving a hand to prompt him to continue.

"What if it's not just ancient grudges that drive the Nephilim to seek our destruction?" Roy demanded, riding the crest of inspiration now. "What if the more they interbreed with humans, and the more those part-bloods interbreed with humans, the more powerful a strain they produce? The human race has power, that much is true, just look at Nara and psionics like her -- but it's grown thin, not like the power we possessed in so many ancient stories. Humans are weak and fragile, as the demons proved when they annihilated so many. Our rogue Nephilim are producing half-breeds with power to rival the demons themselves."

"That's very thin if it's your theory and you've got no evidence at all," Gabriel said, but his interest had been piqued; it showed in the sharpening of his gaze, and he picked up a screen file and twiddled it between his fingers.

"It's worth looking into," Roy stated. The excitement that had brewed in the pit of his stomach when he'd first thought of it was growing.

Gabriel favored him with a gentle smile. "Too bad you can't pursue it for your doctorate, Roy."

"Why not?" Roy said, fired up with indignance for a couple of seconds before he deflated. "Ah. Nephilim are classified."

"Yes," Gabriel said. He put his screen-file down. "I suppose I ought to tell you before you hear it from someone else. Shemyahza says that I and my brothers are all mixed-bloods, ourselves."

Roy slumped back into his chair, resting his hands on the arms and surveying his mentor with hooded eyes. The way he'd said it, so quietly and without drama, it could have been a joke but Gabriel wasn't prone to that sort of humor. He looked with new eyes at Gabriel's fine, pale lavender-hued head of hair. Natural, he'd professed from the first, though his legion of fans and even Roy had been convinced he used an exotic, hard-to-find shade of perma-tint. Some of the intellectual feats he'd pulled off, too -- he pulled all-nighters sometimes when Roy couldn't, and Roy would come in the next day to an inhuman pile of completed work. It had to be work that interested Gabriel, though, or he procrastinated endlessly.

"All right," Roy said, steepling his fingers.

Gabriel gave a slow blink. "That's all? Just 'all right?'" he echoed.

Roy smiled at him. "What do you want me to say? I've known you for about ten years, worked with you for six. Am I supposed to curse you out for something you didn't know, yourself?"

"Thanks," Gabriel muttered, and he sought out one of the other swivel chairs. As a kind of afterthought he added, "Roman's an incubus."

That made him sit up straighter, a bolt of unease taking hold of him. "Now, there's a worrisome thought," he said, thinking back on his own impressions of the middle Vaille. There had been a definite pull of attraction there once Roman had hit maturity that Roy was mighty glad he'd resisted; he had never considered Roman to be truly interested in any case, though he might have been tempted if he hadn't thought an encounter would just be another notch on Roman's record of sexual exploits. Plus, poor form to sleep with one's professor's brother. "And...Cedric?" He was almost afraid to ask.

A stricken look crossed Gabriel's features. "We don't really know," he hedged. "Whatever else he can do, he healed his school friend today, who was shot in the incident outside Cygnus, and he, er, transferred his core of Nephilim power over to Rukawa. So I am reliably informed."

Roy had assumed a look of blank incomprehension during that last. "I have no clue what you just said," he informed his mentor, restrained from springing to his feet nonetheless because Gabriel was so calm about it. If Cedric were still hurt or in any distress, neither of them would be here right now. "As long as Cedric is all right...?"

Gabriel gave a curt nod. "Seems to be, aside from some understandable mental anxiety," he said. "Cedric is quite resilient. After Shemyahza revealed the secrets of our family heritage, we were called into the tactical meeting and Cedric went right back to the infirmary to wait for his friend to wake up."

"He must have," Roy said, wry. "By the second time I got back to the infirmary, the receptionist was telling us there was no one to visit, everyone had checked out."

"Oh, good."

They sat for a moment, companionable silence mending the sometime clashes that had come up during the course of their evening. For the most part, Roy and his mentor understood one another, and worked well together, complementing strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, though, when they were at cross purposes their respective stubborn dispositions tended to lock horns.

That reminded him...

Roy recovered the tail end of an earlier thought. "Say, has Shemyahza Guile claimed you as his mate?"

"What!?" Gabriel exclaimed, leaping to his feet. His fair skin was a surefire giveaway, however. He was already suffused with brick red.

"That's it, isn't it?" Roy said triumphantly. "Come on, Gabriel, it's no use holding out - or trying to sidetrack me, or trying to stonewall me by claiming it's too personal, you know I'm going to find out anyhow sooner or later."

" know, it's just not, it's not appropriate," Gabriel stammered, holding up hands in a vain attempt to disguise his flush, blinkering his face and half-turning away.

"I've heard about it, well, I mean, read about pair-bonding amongst demons in some of your reference material but I never imagined, I mean, wow!"

"Don't be ridiculous," Gabriel said, but the protest was too feeble. "Roy, what's gotten you stuck on this? We have a lot of work to do...I have translation work, and you--"

"Okay, okay," Roy said, spreading his hands in a placating gesture. His mouth curved in an unbidden grin. "Just tell me yes or no."

Gabriel snapped at last, bringing his hands down on the countertop and overturning a stack of precious books. "Yes, all right!? The answer is yes, now stop bothering me."

Roy grinned and lapsed back into his chair, wedging a foot against the base and using it as a lever to spin himself around. A swell of giddy sensation puffed his chest outward; past his earlier trepidation he was buoyed by an unexpected conviction that this was for the best, in more ways than the obvious. That 'obvious' being a certain unavailability on any sort of market - not that Gabriel had made himself available before. Still.

A quick knock on the door preceded Kieran's entry to the room once more. "Did I come at a bad time?" he remarked, looking between Roy, who was spinning around in his swivel chair, and Gabriel, who had covered his face in his hands.

"Not at all, we've just been kicking around some wild theories," Roy covered for his mentor, getting to his feet. "What's going on?" He checked the workstation he had been using. No response yet from Arashi, though with the kind of numbers he'd asked for, the request had probably been forwarded to Ms. Carson first for approval.

Kieran offered a brief smile. "Dinner's ready. Anyone up for it?"

"Yeah, come on." Roy snagged Gabriel's elbow on the way to the door. "Let's go, we're going to need our strength. Besides, it would be an insult to Kieran's hard work if we didn't give his meal due appreciation."

They may not have made any serious breakthroughs tonight, Roy mused on the way toward the common room and its enticing smells. Even so, he was sure that they were on the right path.


Arashi drummed his fingers over the console as he waited on three different data pulls to cycle. This was his favorite part of a given project: in between serious crises, when he was in his element in the thick of situation analysis, pulling together the data to analyze the broader picture, making recommendations, seeing hunches and projections proved right. Alicia worked at the other console in the conference room, wholly absorbed and leaving him to his work. Eventually they would interface to discuss knowns and unknowns, and Arashi might even take a break before pulling in more data for analysis. He wasn't hungry yet but he probably should be.

At length, Alicia looked up from her console, waving a hand to catch his eye. "Are you up for a briefing project?"

"What have you got in mind?" Arashi replied, wary.

Alicia gave him a measuring look, her mouth compressing. "You've worked with Rex before, I assume?"

"Of course," Arashi said. She had his attention now. He passed a hand over his console and collapsed all three of its displays; the computer would continue compiling its retrievals but he didn't need to monitor its progress. "I've been working at this level of classification for two years now, and I've seen Rex on more than one occasion." That immediately raised the level of the current project to a serious threat in Arashi's mind. Where Rex was involved, chaos preceded or followed. It seemed to be the nature of his work as an operative.

"I've had contact with him," Alicia continued.

Arashi nodded, lacing his fingers on the table before him. During the tactical meeting, he thought. When she had taken that call, she had come back with her mind already made up rather than exploring any alternatives. Knowing Rex, the pinch of budgetary issues was a thing of the past.

"He was receptive to the idea of sending out a few operatives with the rest of the demons fleeing the city, and had a pair of dossiers to recommend," she said. She brushed aside a wisp of blonde hair that had come free of the chignon and glanced down at her own data display. "I've looked them over and they profile as perfect for this kind of work. Score another one for Rex. Now I need someone to approach them with the details of the job."

After a moment, Arashi nodded again. This was the other kind of work he did, covert offers and limited field scouting, though his father preferred to hold him back from any job that had a chance of going sour or having shots fired. "You need someone not publicly associated with Orion."

"Yes," Alicia confirmed. "As the newest member of my team, your face hasn't been on any newscasts and I think we want to keep it that way."

"Fine by me." Arashi kicked back in his chair, eyes unfocused on the far wall. He preferred to work in the background anyhow, cloistered away with his computers and the analytical life. He didn't enjoy being 'social' as his father and all his peers urged him; he'd always been an introvert, and the only way to cope with the constant pressure of the extroverts around him had been to withdraw. His mother, at least, seemed to understand him and left him alone but for her rare, heartfelt but not showy displays of affection -- now she was gone, and it would probably be another year at least before she returned to them. Contracting was a lucrative business but if it were just the money, Elaine wouldn't have gone; it was the research opportunities that she had weighed against the needs of her family. He and his father supported her, and because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with potential benefits not only for Orion but the human race, she had gone.

Such was the nature of their work.

In Alicia, Arashi believed he had finally found an ally on the order of his mother, who had kept his father from pushing him into any number of activities that Arashi deemed frivolous and unnecessary. The elder Loire was a gregarious, outgoing man, effusive to a fault, and it was a wonder in his son's eyes that the man managed to get any work done for all the socializing that he did. At any rate, it was a relief to have a direct superior who seemed to have an understanding of how best to employ him. He'd had a few bad ones back West and had toughed it out, despising the prospect of using his father's name to pull different assignments when one didn't work out for him. Arashi Loire did not cut and run.

"I'll send you the dossiers, then," Alicia said, her elegant manicured nails dancing over her workstation. "This should be done as soon as possible, so they can leave the city as part of the purge."

"Understood," Arashi replied, and called up the info when his inbox pinged him. He didn't need to ask her any more questions until after he'd scanned through the info.

He brought up one holographic screen at a comfortable tilt. The picture made the first impression on him when he opened the file: a man with a lean, bearded face framed in long, dark hair, the crest at his hairline forming a suggestion of a widow's peak. The dark, deep-set eyes dominated the otherwise well-formed but almost average face; they were intense, a direct and challenging stare at whatever device had captured his image. This was a man accustomed to fighting, and winning. His name was listed as simply 'Wolfe.' The first few lines of the dossier made it clear why he'd been forwarded for consideration from Rex. Born outside the Wall, a quarter-Nephilim, Wolfe had defended his turf against all comers, demon and human alike.

The door chime sounded a soft alert, shaking him loose from his contemplation. Arashi looked up, raising a brow at Alicia Carson, who shrugged.

"It could be your father wanting an update," she said, her mouth twitching. "Although I filed a report shortly after the meeting."

"My father still believes that electronic mail is an ineffective means of communication," Arashi said dryly. "You'd think he was born in the last century before the technological revolution, the way he acts."

Alicia responded with a chuckle and rose to get the door.

Returning his gaze to the screen, he paged through the few details on Wolfe that were actually known. The man was something of an enigma, but Rex outlined a few terse reasons for why he could be entrusted with such a mission. Wolfe acted out of self-serving interests first, and possessed very little altruism. Aiding the demons wouldn't occur to him unless he were offered something very tempting indeed--

"Cal," Alicia exclaimed, taking a step back from the door. "What on earth are you doing here?"

Arashi glanced up. In the doorway, a tall broad-shouldered man made the entry seem small. He stood more than a head taller than Alicia, who was not a short woman and wore heels, but he was well-proportioned. Cal wore a heavy black flak vest over a form-fitting black shirt, both splashed with drying blood. He was handsome, though in a somewhat generic fashion -- short dark hair, spiked up somewhat into tufts, a strong nose, solid brown eyes and a lean, long face with a cleft chin. He was not smiling.

"I came to dump a few of your kills, Ms. Carson," Cal told her, his voice perfectly respectful but thrumming with suppressed anger.

Alicia was cool in response. "Oh?" Her spine had stiffened. "Have you finally decided to contract for us at last?"

"No, I haven't - and they were killed by your men, and left behind!" Cal snapped. "What are you playing at, Ms. Carson? There's been chaos all through the city, I got called in because there have been some heavy players on the street and your contractors are all over the place like wingnuts! Redhawk asked me to stop by with the latest kills to try and talk some sense into you!"

Arashi noted a flinch in Alicia's shoulders, though from the way she continued there was no hint of strain. "I did warn Redhawk to expect a stepped-up offense," she said, crossing her arms. "We're within our rights--"

"What the hell did you do?" Cal demanded, now having dropped his more formal, polite mode of speech. "Call in every bounty in the city all at once?"

"Yes," Alicia said candidly.

Cal exhaled, his threatening bulk giving the visual impression of having deflated somewhat. "Oh," he said. Then his dark eyes blazed and he roared, "What in the blazing shards of Hades did you do that for? Have you turned on a newscast lately? There's shooting in the streets on almost every city ring of New York!"

Alicia stood her ground. "Redhawk was informed," she said stubbornly. "Our contractors--"

"Are stirring up almost as much of a mess as the damned creatures that they're hunting," Cal pronounced in disgust. "Was this really necessary? People have been shot, they're getting sent to the hospital. Are you going to take responsibility?"

"If necessary, yes," Alicia told him. "If victims are destitute or don't have the means. This is an unfortunate casualty of war, Cal. You don't know what we're facing right now - and Rue has made it clear that you don't care to."

Arashi had dropped all pretense of reading the dossiers. He was watching the confrontation from beneath veiling lashes, ostensibly pointed in the direction of his screen. He recognized this man, now; it was Cal Pierce, and he was one of the most visible members of New York's City and Wall Defense Corps. Arashi had seen him on some newscasts before.

Cal's handsome features suffused with angry red, and his dark eyes flashed. "That's low, Alicia," he said, his voice dropping, controlled even in anger. "You know I have a son, and a mate, and I've promised--"

"I know you have, Cal, and I'm sorry to keep pushing the issue but you have a lot of power, you realize," Alicia cut in, and she seemed angry now too, as much as her composure would permit her to reveal. "Ten of our best can't match up to you, with the exception of Shemyahza Guile."

Arashi's ears pricked. The way Cal spoke, referring to his partner in that manner, implied a fair amount of Nephilim blood. Combined with the feats he'd accomplished outside the Wall, that made him a powerful ally for the humans.

"You have power enough to keep the city safe, and you're practically indestructible besides," Alicia continued. "Well, indestructible so far--"

"Yes, so far," Cal cut in, his voice contrastingly quiet to her ringing tones. "And there was one time everyone thought I wasn't coming home, and he's never forgotten it, though he hasn't mentioned it since."

Alicia sighed and dropped her arms to her sides. Her hands clenched. "Fine, Cal, I do understand your position. And you do an excellent job."

"I know," Cal said, tilting his head and dissolving into a cocky grin. "Otherwise you wouldn't keep trying to scout me, right?"

"Right," Alicia said, and both of them appeared to relax. "And you just got another five percent pay raise, didn't you?"

Cal's grin slid into smug territory. "Every time you make me an offer," he said. "So, thanks. Jayce is outgrowing his clothes faster than we can re-outfit him."

"How's your son?" Alicia asked, and Cal said almost before the words were out of her mouth, "Don't even think about hiring him, he's too young."

"Arashi, there, started working for us when he was thirteen," Alicia commented.

"Well, you'll have to wait until Jayce is legal, because Rue and I want him to graduate at least before he starts working," Cal replied pleasantly enough.

They shared a laugh, but Arashi intuited from their respective postures that they were both serious. He decided now was not the time to speak up and confess he'd been working in a limited capacity since he was eleven when his father's colleagues had discovered the fact that he'd mastered one of the major demon dialects. Translators were always in short supply; for some reason, most humans in a position to learn that much ended up dead before they could leverage their knowledge.

"You going to give the word to cool things off?" Cal asked, returning to the subject of concern with an adamant compression of his mouth.

"No, I want all unregistereds out of the city," Alicia said, crossing her arms again. "It's a purge, Cal. Zero tolerance."

Cal sighed, his brows coming together in a fearsome scowl. "You're sure about this."

"It's necessary," Alicia told him. "Trust me."

"All right." His big shoulders twitched in a shrug. "I'll tell Redhawk you're serious. He's not happy with you right now, Alicia, the contractors aren't exactly conforming to the typical standards of behavior or operating procedure. Like I said - I had to drag two kills here because your people just left 'em in the street, and no one would touch them."

"Oh?" Alicia said, concern tingeing her voice. "What were they?"

"Well, one of them turned out to be a Galapagos - how they even got that into the city, I don't know--"

"Better start checking the sewers!" Alicia said, sharp with alarm. "Cal, if they've breached any underground tunnels - and no wonder no one would touch it, Cal, damn it. The thing is over twelve feet tall and has teeth the size of my arm."

"Yeah, well." Cal shrugged again. "It was dead. No big deal, right?"

"For you," Alicia said, amusement resurfacing. "You have no sense of perspective, Cal."

That engaging smile touched his lips again. "So Rue tells me. Well, I'd better get back to the upper streets before they ring me again. Could you do us a favor, though, and remind your contractors that there are standards they're expected to comply to? And if they can't finish the kill cycle, including bringing it in, they should call for back-up."

"They're getting greedy?" Alicia supplied, tone chilly - and this time, the ice blast was not directed at Cal.

Cal gave a taut nod. "That's what Redhawk thinks. If they call in for back-up they have to split the bounty, and sharing with payrolled Defense Corps doesn't sit well with them."

"They're going to have to get over it," Alicia pronounced, and from the deadly tone she meant it.

"Thanks," Cal said, and flashed a grin that made him positively charming, conveying a harmless impression at odds with what Arashi knew him to be capable of, from watching newscasts from years back.

"It's not like your people get their share of the bounties anyhow," Alicia continued in annoyance. "Redhawk set up that charity for widowed and orphaned families years ago to avoid this very squabble."

"Then someone needs a reminder. We appreciate what your guys do, Ms. Carson, we really do - and the occasional hazard bonuses are very nice. But this is tearing up the streets and we can't have it."

"Understood. I'll put out the word to Marketing and Operations," Alicia assured him. "Stay safe."

"I intend to," Cal said, touching his fingers to his forehead in a perfunctory salute, then he was gone.

When the doors slid shut, Alicia turned, straightening her shoulders and cutting loose with a long sigh. Arashi had already ducked his head to the files he was reviewing. "Great," Alicia muttered under her breath, "more complications." She resumed her position at the workstation and her fingers flashed over the console.

Arashi turned his attention back to the dossiers. If things were that bad outside, he'd have to get out of the building and accomplish his errand before the division head got wind of the fact that Alicia intended to send him through those dangerous streets.

"Will you take it?" Alicia asked him, looking up.

"Yes," Arashi replied, still absently scanning through the other profile, a young man of around his age with flaming red hair that touched his shoulders. Ostensibly human, he had piercing eyes that appeared light gray in the image. They could have been silver like Shemyahza's in person. He supposed he'd find out. His name was listed simply as 'Turlach' and he, too, was from one of the motley communities outside the Wall.

"Good. Reims will attend you on this one."

Arashi opened his mouth to protest and Alicia silenced him with a steely look.

"If it's as dangerous as Cal says out there, you're lucky I'm only sending you with one - but I can't afford either of you to draw too much notice," she clarified.

"Thanks," Arashi said, only a bit ironic. He could protect himself, but even though he was of age he still had to rely on the older adults around him. It was galling, even though he understood the reasons and the fact that being arrogant about his own self-defense could result in a tragic accident. "Have Wolfe and Turlach been notified?"

"Rex said he would," was all Alicia had to say on that score. "If he hadn't, I would have assumed based on their profiles that they'd left the city already, even though they're registered. They both look human enough - which is a strike against them, so far as this mission is concerned - but with the tension this high they seem to be the type to leave rather than rally. Still, Wolfe reads as ruthless enough to get the job done, and Rex's judgment is impeccable."

That paralleled with Arashi's own thoughts after reading the dossiers. "Then I'd better get to it."

Alicia nodded and unclipped her cell from the slim, tailored belt that encircled her trim waist. "I'll have Reims meet you in the first-level garage."

"Will do."

He transferred the details, including the address included in Wolfe's dossier, to his portable unit and stowed it inside his uniform jacket. Very inconspicuous, he looked like every other student from Vanderbrant High. Arashi supposed that there were worse disguises; after all, very few people, even their own, would suspect a teenager of working for Orion Corporation.

Alicia was on the phone by the time he left the conference room. She gave him a lift of her chin, her cool blue eyes expressing confidence. She hadn't once questioned him on whether he could do the job; she had told him what it was, and he'd accepted.

The first-level garage was empty aside from parked cars. Arashi loitered near the elevators, wondering what to expect of Reims. He'd been the most silent member of their meetings so far, and he usually performed bodyguard duty for Nara.

When Reims emerged from the elevator, he was still dressed up in his monochromatic style of earlier - black trench coat, black clothing beneath it, and his skin and hair were both that shade approaching dark chocolate. First thing out of his mouth was, "You licensed?"

Arashi nodded.

"You know where we're going?"

Another nod.

"Good. You drive, I'll ride shotgun." Keys made a glittering arc in his direction.

Surprised, Arashi followed the man as he led the way to a car several rows down. It was blocky, not sleek like most of the refurbished models on the street; it probably had body armor and all that. Built to withstand all kinds of hits, but nothing short of a modern tank would ride well outside the Wall. Reims withdrew a shotgun-type of weapon from his coat as he cracked open the passenger door. He laid the weapon across his lap.

"You expecting trouble?" Arashi asked as he slid behind the wheel.

Reims' dark brows rose in tandem. "You haven't been watching the newscasts." It wasn't a question.

"No, but I got an inkling," Arashi replied, considering Cal Pierce's appearance. At the time he had thought the man must have been exaggerating at least somewhat. Now he was wondering why the bodyguard had put him in charge of driving, but he supposed it was either that or shooting out the window, and he'd really hear it from his father later.

Despite their best preparations, the streets outside were busy with normal traffic and pedestrian fare. Above, the sky deepened into twilight, the distortion from the Wall reflecting the light in zinging rays overhead, casting beams of color across the city like part of a rainbow torn loose and run amok. Objectively he knew from the report that nearby blocks had been cordoned off after the incident outside Cygnus earlier, but there was no telling now.

They had to travel through five city rings to get there and it took the better part of an hour. It was a big city that the Wall surrounded, even accounting for parts lost and destroyed after the Rising. Wolfe and Turlach lived in one of the outermost rings, poverty level or bounty hunter territory for most. Rich people and businesses took up space in the innermost, ostensibly best-defended ring; the first ring, sandwiched between the buffer zone and the rest of the city, took the most hits on a regular basis even though altruistic businesses attempted periodic redevelopment of the worst buildings.

Reims didn't have to shoot anyone, though they saw their fare share of shooting or fighting on the streets, and at one point it looked as though someone had loosed a flock of Garude. The bounty hunters had their work cut out for them today and he could definitely see the point of Cal's complaint.

They left the car on the street and approached the building on foot, though Arashi hesitated over that. "The car can't be stolen," Reims assured him in his faintly-accented voice. Arashi's trained ear had been laboring to place that accent and he had settled on 'definitely not French,' and was now waffling between Haitian or African. Not much was known about most of the Central American countries from during and after the Rising, and though it would make an interesting topic of conversation, Arashi made a mental note to do some discreet electronic queries later rather than ask outright. Reims would probably tell him and make no bones about it, but if the truth was uncomfortable, Arashi didn't want to hear it and place them both in that awkward situation.

What if he's not here? The thought ran through his head again as they climbed the rickety stairs of a moldering old apartment complex, one that any other ring of the city would have long since torn down. The streets were teeming with bounty and anyone with half a brain - or without it, given the chaos - was out there trying to pull in payday. Living in a place like this, would Wolfe be any different? Shelving his internal monologue, he found number 23 and knocked. Reims arranged himself in a deliberate, casual pose beside the banister, no longer visibly armed.

Arashi sucked in a breath and waited. He was about to knock again when the door swung open before his fist could make contact.

The dark-haired, lean man from the dossier stood on the threshold, pinning him with those intense eyes. They darted from Arashi to Reims behind him. In person, he was shorter than Arashi had expected - nearly eye level with him, though Arashi hadn't reached his full growth - and radiated an aura of personal force.

"I've been expecting you," the man said with restrained urgency. "Took you long enough." He stepped back, opening the door wide and indicating they should pass with a sweep of one arm. He wore a shirt of outmoded design, Renaissance-era blouse, dark blue fabric of a type that stood up to wear and tear, his sleeves wide and cinching into snug cuffs at the wrist. His hair, which had been loose around his shoulders in the dossier picture, was now caught up in a tight, functional braid.

"You live quite aways from where I come from," Arashi said matter-of-factly, not offering excuses but a reason. He edged past Wolfe's sinewy frame and the hairs prickled on the back of his neck. Reims, too, passed without challenge.

Within, the hallway from the door led to a cramped living room area, rendered smaller by the absence of windows on all but one wall, which opened onto the brick façade of the building next door. A small kitchen was attached to one side, opening onto the living room through a bar-type area. Another hallway faced the front corridor, which presumably led to the living quarters. The apartment was spare, and the sole adornments of the living room were a battered, gashed couch that had seen better days in years gone past, and a television display that had been hung on the stark white wall.

Lounging on the couch was the redhead from the dossier, his bare feet up and crossed over one arm of the couch, laying full length while he manipulated a hand-held device, his gray eyes never wavering from it even with the entrance of new people. His fingers moved over the buttons, either playing some game or typing out text. His red hair fanned out around his face in a fiery corona.

"I'm Wolfe," the man said simply, coming up beside the sofa and resting a hand on the back. "This is Turlach. What do you want?"

Arashi took a breath. From the way Alicia had talked, he'd half-expected someone, Rex perhaps, to have already given them the basic details of what was needed. For the first time, having met Wolfe and looking into his polite, yet very wary eyes, he wondered if someone with a touch more diplomacy might not have been better. Then he recalled his thorough scan of the dossier and decided that honesty was best with this man, after all.

"There's a purge," he began.

"I am aware of that," Wolfe said, an edge to his urbanity now. He favored Arashi with a tight, close-lipped smile.

"We need someone to go to Long Island and scan their intentions," Arashi summarized. "They have a new leader. We need to know what he's going to do next, and how far he's willing to go."

Wolfe inclined his head. "And I can pass," he said, and his hand dipped over the back of the couch, near enough to touch Turlach's flaming red locks but falling short by a millimeter or so. "And Turlach can scan them."

"Can you do it?" Arashi prompted. He appreciated Wolfe's forthrightness; it made all this that much easier.

Wolfe folded his arms, rocking back on his heels. "Oh, it's not a question of whether we can do it," he said with assurance. "The question is, what's going to make it worth my while?"

"If he succeeds," Arashi said softly, "Granac Bowen will take the city, and it will fall. Everything after that point is unknown but your way of life will be disrupted along with everyone else's."

There was no sound in the room but the faint tapping of buttons on Turlach's portable display. Wolfe continued to meet his eyes with pleasant detachment.

"Also, we're going to pay you quite a lot of money," Arashi added, having set up what he felt was needed before doling out that tidbit. It would be enough to set up their household in a ring much further away from the buffer zone, if that was what Wolfe desired.

"Ah," Wolfe said, his mouth widening in a spontaneous smile. His lips peeled back from his teeth and he bared canines that were more elongated and pronounced than a normal human's; not actual sharp fangs but close. "That's the clincher."

"So, what else do you need to know?" Arashi asked.

Turlach sat up on the couch with a sudden flurry of movement, legs swiveling over the edge. He thumped his feet down and tipped his head against the back of the couch, looking upside-down at the older man. His eyes really were silver, Arashi noted; it was as pronounced as Shemyahza's, in person. Whatever percentage his lineage, this boy wasn't a human psychic like Nara. Wolfe bent to meet the boy's gaze squarely, then they broke eye contact and Turlach leaped off the sofa, bare feet thudding over the floorboards as he dashed into the back hallway.

"We've got it," Wolfe told him. "We will contact you, Arashi, when we get back."

Arashi frowned. "He's got it? All the details?" He was suddenly, thoroughly unsettled at the thought of that boy - his own age, and every bit as withdrawn by the looks of it - picking through his thoughts and taking everything he needed.

"When Turlach tells me he's got it," Wolfe said, maintaining an urbane smile, "I don't ask anything more. By the way, we'll want half up front, and the rest when we return."

"Oh," Arashi said. Of course. It was a standard contract, and why hadn't he thought of it? "Excuse me, I have to make a quick phone call." No one used much cash anymore, so he hadn't thought to ask Alicia for a lump sum.

Wolfe supplied helpfully as he dialed, "I have an account, I'll provide the number when you need it."

Somehow that, amongst all the other details, was the sticking point that caused Arashi to question it. Why wouldn't people in the slums have accounts? Wolfe and his boy would be moving out soon; even without a job shunted his way from Rex, he was clearly a man possessed of the resources to move up in the world. Arashi recalled the part of the dossier that indicated Wolfe had held his own territory outside the Wall. It wasn't just personal charisma he would possess, then; it was an incredibly strong will, and the charge to act upon it.

"Of course," Alicia said when Arashi explained the last hold-out. "I had a draft waiting for him. Just give me his account, or hand him over."

He loaned his phone to Wolfe, and that much was taken care of. Wolfe escorted them to the door; Turlach had disappeared into the back half of the apartment and showed no signs of emerging.

"That was fast," Arashi remarked on the way back to the car.

"They need to get out there, and make a convincing show of fleeing the city," Reims responded. "That one doesn't cut and run. It would be interesting to stick around and see what he has in mind. But, we'll be going back to the Cygnus building now."

Arashi hesitated once they reached the armored car. It would be interesting, he was sure, but it would also run the risk of hurting Wolfe and Turlach's chances with convincing the outside forces that they'd gone afoul of the purges as well. Besides, he had analyses of his own to get back to and the night was young.

"You think they'll make it?" he asked the bodyguard as he started the car and guided it down the street.

"I think they had better have to," Reims responded, offsetting the grim words with a broad grin. "Else we run out of options for finding out Bowen's plan."

Arashi wondered at that. There was so much riding on such fragile pieces of the larger puzzle; the success of these newly-installed spies in the field, the translation of the book of which most would deny its very existence. There was more than lives at stake, he got a sense of that much from what they had been involved in so far.

He only hoped that he, that all of them, were up to the task.