The city skyline was on fire.
Gabriel stood on the bridge far from the carnage, the bridge he'd been taken over only days before, and watched it burn. Roaring red-gold flames and the billow of dirty black smoke swallowed up the shattered Wall and the outlines of the tallest buildings as they began to slump into rubble. A savory mouth-watering aroma filled the air, hit his gut, and Gabriel gagged on a mouth of saliva as he realized it was the smell of cooked flesh, an entire city roasted.
Large hands settled on his shoulders. "This was inevitable," the deep voice of a man familiar intoned. "Any time you assume a level playing field for two teams with not only two different sets of rules, but two completely different competing priorities, this will be the outcome." The fingers tightened.
"One will be eliminated."
Gabriel gasped and the inhalation seared him, super-heated air blistering his throat, his lungs. He jerked, his watering eyes fixed on the outline of the burning city, his city, his family, and the world melted away at the sweeping touch of fingers across his brow.
He sucked in another breath, deep and relieved, as the fingers smoothed past his temple and tucked stray hair behind his ear. Gabriel kept his eyes closed a moment longer, relishing not only the touch but the relief of being alive, bizarrely juxtaposed with the image of the fiery skyline that lingered behind his eyelids.
"You're awake," murmured a deep voice, and Gabriel analyzed it, noting the differences. Not the one from his dream. No, that was a man of a different timbre, but one he'd nonetheless recognized.
That had been Granac Bowen.
Dismissing the lingering bad taste of the dream, Gabriel opened his eyes and found himself lifting his head from a crooked arm. "I fell asleep," he said vaguely.
"I noticed," Shemyahza Guile remarked with a note of indulgence in his chocolate-rich voice, his silvery eyes seeking out Gabriel's. He shifted his position until Gabriel met his gaze. "I brought you tea." One large dark hand descended, setting a white mug onto the margin of the table that was not cluttered with plas-film printouts or screen-files.
"Then you are always welcome in my lab," Gabriel said fervently, seizing the mug with both hands and tolerating the touch of Shemyahza's free hand, which had not quite left off stroking the hair at his temple as if he were some big feline found curled asleep at the workstation. "Ahh, the good stuff. Ceylon black...where did you get this?" He regarded the cup in surprise.
Shemyahza leaned against the edge of the workstation, folding his arms. "I have my sources..." he began, and broke eye contact with a grin when Gabriel raised an incredulous brow. "Which are all about Orion keeping their cherished contractors happy."
"Mmm," Gabriel responded, lifting the mug to his lips again and savoring the taste. The Ceylon black was incredibly rare, either imported from one of the astoundingly expensive infrequent trade ships that arrived safely at the harbor, or from even more vanishingly scarce personal family stockpiles from before the Rising. He pulled a long breath, exhaling and ridding himself of a lingering tension, and met Shemyahza's eyes with more of his equanimity than before. "What time is it?"
Shemyahza's generous lips quirked. "Best ask what day it is," he murmured.
"I slept through the night? How could you let--"
"Let, nothing," Shemyahza retorted. "Do you have any idea of how late you worked, Gabriel? Into the early hours, and I left you at your desk working as vigorously as the first time I'd seen you seated there. I stretched out on the sofa because there's no cause for me to sleep-deprive myself, then Roy kindly woke me when he and Kieran left for the upper levels."
Gabriel frowned, casting about the workspace for a chronometer. That didn't answer his question.
"They slept," Shemyahza added judiciously.
"That's nice," Gabriel said, "but how much time did I lose?" He glanced at his wrist and Shemyahza snorted when they both caught sight of the chronometer that circled it.
"Would you like some breakfast?" Shemyahza inquired, pushing himself away from the desk, one long-fingered hand reaching out to grip Gabriel's shoulder. "You should have gotten more sleep yourself, you know."
Gabriel closed his eyes briefly, seeing the remnants of fire swell behind his eyelids again, the shape of familiar buildings crumbling to shadow. For the first time he entertained the fancy that the dream might have larger significance, that his unconscious mind was fitting pieces together, and he joined it up with the conversation with Roy that he'd had the night before. Had there been a reason behind the Rising, and was it significant to their current struggles?
Was the annihilation of either human or Nephilim the only answer?
"Gabriel," Shemyahza's voice effortlessly penetrated his fugue. Gabriel shook his head and focused on the silvery eyes that had appeared in his field of vision with no apparent transition. Shemyahza knelt before him, expression not concerned but concentrating, as if willing that same state of concentration on Gabriel or at least intent on pulling him back. "Where did you go?"
"I had a dream," Gabriel muttered, trying to shake it off. "It's nothing. I was sleeping, long enough to slip into REM sleep and that's not unusual. My unconscious mind was processing events, conversations."
"Tell me what you saw," Shemyahza said, and his injunction had force behind it.
Gabriel scowled at him. He could resist, he knew, but it bothered him more that there was a compulsion at all than the fact that Shem had tried to lay it on him. "New York was burning," he said at last. There was a relief in saying the words, getting them out into the air between them where all it was sounded ridiculous and nothing more. "I was standing on Long Island Bridge and someone was behind me, and put his hands on my shoulders. He lectured me on how it was the inevitable outcome of two groups with such vastly different, competing priorities."
"Bowen," Shemyahza's deep voice twanged, and Gabriel flinched.
"He's still alive, isn't he?" Gabriel voiced, knowing it wasn't a question but confirmation. He didn't need Shemyahza's slow nod.
"It would take a great deal more than even Orion's finest technology," Shemyahza said. He tipped his head, silver eyes frank. "He's an old one, like me. The bomb was a good enough distraction to get us out of there. Perhaps good enough to wound him, even, due to his arrogance and the surprise factor. But he is certainly not dead and the continued attempts on you, at least, indicate that the machinery of Long Island is still functioning."
"That wouldn't be the case if Bowen were dead," Gabriel guessed. "Last time there was a void in leadership it was a chaotic time, but there were less...concerted attempts."
"Yes," Shemyahza said. He reached up one hand to capture a length of dark hair that had slithered over one shoulder, and tossed it back. It glinted with subtle peacock-green highlights that fascinated Gabriel. He wanted to lean forward and take a closer look, maybe even capture a lock in his hand and remind himself of the texture.
With a reluctant shake of his head Gabriel pulled himself back to the present, reaching out for his cup of tea and making a long face at the dregs in his mug. "Back to work," he muttered. It was late enough in the morning that he wasn't going to bed, even if he'd only gotten three or four hours. The work was of an urgent enough nature that he could push himself into the long-concentrating mode. It was surprising that he'd fallen asleep at his terminal to begin with.
"I'll get you some more," Shemyahza offered, extending a hand to take the mug from him. Gabriel passed it over, their fingers brushing, and silver eyes glinted at him. "Breakfast?"
"A muffin, and I'll eat it here," Gabriel compromised. "I can't afford to waste a moment."
"It's still going to take time, though, isn't it?" Shemyahza said curiously.
"Of course. Every translation takes time, and I have to start at the beginning, without knowing at this point what might possibly be the most critical passages. Time is something, in this circumstance, we simply do not have enough of."
Shemyahza cocked his head at Gabriel with a look composed of amusement and something pleased, almost smug. "I'll show you something later," he promised. "Not today, because you haven't gotten enough sleep. But soon."
"Mmm," Gabriel verbalized in response, already turning back to his console. His skin still tingled from a brief touch and he most definitely did not want the insufferably self-satisfied demon to register the effects of that. He had enough confidence without any additional ammunition.
His fingers moved over the keys of his console for nearly a full minute before footsteps traced a path out of the impromptu lab, the door shuffing closed behind his guardian. Gabriel threw himself into re-orienting to the work once he felt Shemyahza's presence gone from the room. He had made some progress as he worked past night into early morning, and had left a slew of notes jotted onto plas-film that he was lucky had not ended up on his face, given how careless his positioning had been when he'd woken up.
Gabriel scanned through the passages he'd begun to translate from the second half of the book and his considering scowl deepened. It wasn't right. He was going about it in the wrong order, content without context. The first half of the book contained the histories, if he could believe the rough key he'd pieced together insofar as grimoires went. This wasn't just any grimoire, it was the Fifth. A Grimoire of unspeakable power.
He tapped his stylus on the surface and began skimming through the scanned, cleaned-up copies of the document, stopping when he reached the very first page. It had a short amount of text, only four lines with a couple of stops that were situated on the first half of the page. Gabriel's brows bunched together. It had the appearance, really, of a dedication.
It wouldn't take long to translate, he decided abruptly, and maybe then he could shake off the nagging sense that he was missing something in the broader context by taking a departure from type and skipping over the histories.
A breath of air was his only warning; so deep in concentration again, Gabriel hadn't noticed the door or anything to do with it. Arms slid over his shoulders, clasping around him and pulling him back from where he'd hunched over the console, and Gabriel huffed in surprise. "Shemyahza, the tea....?" He caught himself when he realized the hands clasped together over his chest were pale-skinned rather than dark, and the arms quite skinny, not Shemyahza's forceful embrace.
"Shemyahza, Shemyahza," an irritated, youthful male voice mimicked, and Roman Vaille set his cheek alongside his brother's. "You've already forgotten me, then. I don't mean anything to you anymore, Gabriel?"
Though the tone was light and teasing there was a forlorn thread interwoven, and Gabriel broke Roman's tentative grip on him, turning his chair to face his brother. "I know who you are," Gabriel replied, matching the easygoing banter and taking hold of Roman's wrists, though he didn't lean forward for a kiss as he might have the week before. "You're my beloved younger brother."
"And that's all," Roman said flatly, his jade-green eyes, so similar to Gabriel's own, searching within Gabriel for something he couldn't seem to find. Crushed, he dropped his gaze and whispered, "I need help, Gabriel."
"What's wrong?" Gabriel demanded at once, releasing Roman's wrists and drawing him in close by the shoulders, examining his face, roaming over his body when the face proved flawless. He was so accustomed to Roman's self-sufficiency that an admission like this was beyond shocking.
"I can't...it can't be true," Roman switched tracks mid-sentence. "It can't, I wouldn't...you have to help me, Gabriel, please, prove it isn't me...it wasn't just me." His wide green eyes begged and his body pressed up against Gabriel's, eliminating that final step between them.
Gabriel responded to the desperation, folding his brother into his arms in a sheltering move, if not a possessive one exactly. He could extrapolate reason from the broken sentences and to his dismay, he could offer no genuine assurances. The desire had been real and alive between them, but for Gabriel's part he had never considered connecting with his brother in that way until Roman himself pushed the issue. Then again, that had been the case with all his romances so Gabriel couldn't say either way whether any manipulative power, incubus or no, had been responsible.
Roman inhaled, then his whole body stiffened in Gabriel's arms. He pushed away before Gabriel could prompt him for what he'd done wrong. "You--" he began, and the door to the lab opened with a faint hiss of pressure. Roman shook his head. "You smell like him."
"Get used to it," Shemyahza growled, his tall broad-shouldered frame filling up the door. His hands were empty and the set of his mouth was unfriendly.
Gabriel pushed himself upright from his workstation, suppressing a groan to find himself more stiff and pained than he had realized before at being in one position for so many hours. "Don't--" he began, not quite sure whom he enjoined but determined that neither brother nor...nor whatever Shemyahza was to him would clash over this.
"I wish you'd never shown up in our lives," Roman declared.
Shemyahza tilted his head in response. "Then you'd wish your brother back in Granac Bowen's mercies," he said, and took a step into the lab, keeping himself ranged against the far side.
Allowing Roman an exit path, Gabriel realized.
"No!" the cry sounded torn from Roman, and he put his hands over his face. "That's not...it just, I can't be," he finished with a miserable sniff.
"Wishing me gone doesn't change the fact that you are part Nephilim," Shemyahza said, blunt as ever. "And your powers stem from the incubus persuasion. You can't get rid of it. You can't change it. You--"
With a snarl, Roman launched himself for the door. A startled dark face appeared on the threshold, then quickly withdrew to allow Roman to hurtle past. "You're a real bastard!" Roman flung over his shoulder as a parting shot.
"So I've been told before," Shemyahza said with some bemusement, and glanced to the doorway. Gabriel's eyes followed.
Felicia stepped up to the threshold again, tossing off a gesture more wave than salute. "I'm on it," she promised. "He gave me the slip, but I'll take care of him. Get him the help he needs." After she was gone, the door contracted behind her.
Released from the moment with the departure of his brother, Gabriel slumped back into his chair. "He wants me to help him," he said, staring at his hands and judging himself to be useless.
"He wants you to accept him, still, even though what you know of yourselves has changed somewhat," Shemyahza corrected him.
Gabriel angled one eye up at him, doubtful. "It can't be that easy," he challenged.
"Sometimes it is," Shemyahza said, wide shoulders shrugging. He crossed the room in a few steps, obliterating the distance between them.
"Tea?" Gabriel said hopefully, tracking Shemyahza's empty hands as they settled on him, one to his shoulder and one descending to his hip. Unless Shem were a magician of a different sort, he didn't think either one would be materializing tea any time soon. The nearness between them created a vibrancy that made Gabriel want to close his eyes, sway into it as if he were joining a dance whose steps he'd never known but would be able to follow, with Shemyahza's lead.
The rich voice, when it spoke, was startling-close to his ear and made him realize he had, in fact, closed his eyes. "Change of plans," Shemyahza rumbled. "We're going out for breakfast, because the larder has already been scavenged bare, and it's the closest approximation of fresh air I can manage for you."
"Fresh air is overrated," Gabriel mumbled, but it was a weak protest that was overridden by the presence of Shemyahza so close up in his personal space, and they both knew it.
"Then," Shemyahza continued as if there had been no interruption, "I'm going to tuck you in bed for a few hours' worth of sleep because you're no good to the world in this state."
Gabriel swayed, unprotesting for the moment. He was accustomed to people bossing him around -- Roy, Roman, even Cedric on occasion because he'd proven himself unable to care for himself when he slipped into certain work modes -- but no one did so with the unquestioning authority of Shemyahza. He latched onto that last sentence, and the 'threat' of bed. "Alone?" he wondered, opening his eyes.
Amusement glimmered in Shemyahza's mercurial eyes, so close to his own. Both hands were settling on his hips now, stroking him through layers of fabric and as long as Gabriel kept his hands to himself he could pretend he didn't shudder and feel it as if nothing separated them. "Depends on which you think is the reward for good behavior."
Gabriel shook his head, breaking the fascinating gaze and inspecting the distance between them, which had narrowed to mere centimeters. He wasn't going to cave that easily. As it was, this was...this was perilously close to admitting that what Shem claimed between them was true.
"We'll see how it goes," Shemyahza decided aloud, and stepped back, drawing Gabriel with him. As easy as that, he swept the two of them out of the room. Gabriel tried to remind himself, as they left without powering down the console behind them, to discuss Roy's interesting theories with Shem later.
Perhaps Shemyahza could provide insight where all they had was speculation. Gabriel and Roy were researchers; Shemyahza had lived it.
"Congratulations, you've broken the city and chased out the demons."
The flat, unhappy statement was thrown into the charged atmosphere of the room the way Redhawk had tossed the packet of reimbursement vouchers onto the conference table: militant, bleak.
This was going to take a lot of ruffled feather-smoothing, was the first, unflattering thought that crossed Alicia Carson's mind.
"Please, sit," Division Head Loire said, gesturing and suiting action to words at the same time. "Redhawk, Cal, first and foremost we wanted to extend our apologies."
Cal was clenching his jaw, Alicia noted as she crossed the carpet on pumps that whispered over its plush thickness. That was never a good sign, because the man had an easygoing nature and a seemingly boundless well of patience, unlike his more short-tempered mate whom Alicia dealt with on a more regular basis. After their conversation the other day, she had taken measures to lead to immediate improvements, but even the best-laid plans weren't always as effective as the good intentions behind them. Not that saying so would stretch very far with Redhawk, who was not the same easygoing type that Cal was and his rank was a good deal higher.
"Commander," Alicia began, placating, her hands spread out before her.
"Never," Redhawk talked across her, "never in all my years of service on the Wall - which are stacked up a good sight longer than I'd tell you, young lady - has Orion ever ordered such a purge. You're not just chasing demons out anymore, Carson, there are people leaving the city - people who could die out there."
Alicia took a breath and Loire inserted himself into that pause.
"We recognize that, Commander Redhawk," he said with that earnestness that only he could manage - in all sincerity; he wasn't pulling an act. "It's a severe undertaking, and it should have been done with more lead time and a briefing for your people of course, if the circumstances had been ideal."
The veins on Redhawk's neck stood out a little more. "Meaning you and your people judged the circumstances didn't allow."
Alicia inclined her head but left her boss to speak for her for now. Though she might criticize certain areas of his performance within the confines of her own head, he really was a people person. She was not. Loire had a manner of soothing, of empathizing with someone whether they were an opponent or ally, and he phrased the situation far more gracefully than Alicia's blunt summary style.
"The circumstances developed not only without warning, but in a critical manner," Loire replied.
"Critical or not, you're driving people out of the city, not just demons. There's widespread paranoia," Cal said, and his jaw muscles jumped when he paused. "You want me out of here, too? I'm dangerous, after all. I could always move back home, Mom and Dad always need more help on the farm, maybe you don't really need me here after all. You want my son out of here? He's only an eighth but you never know--"
"That's enough, Cal," Redhawk said, lifting a hand. He seated himself across from Laguna at last, lowering himself into the chair with the slow, careful movements that bespoke weariness and at least as many hours worked as Alicia had been on duty during the past few days.
Taking a cue from his superior, Cal dropped into the seat beside him, avoiding Alicia's eyes. He was a direct kind of man, and though he wasn't the kind to stay mad long during the course of it he wasn't the type to placate. When he was angry, he didn't like meeting the other party's eyes.
"Only those with contracts were being taken in," Alicia spoke up, somewhat touchy in defensiveness. She was loathe to admit she'd handled it badly, but her own actions had resulted in a veritable explosion of consequence.
"Did you tell that to those who saw their neighbors being taken, and figured they had to leave in case it turned out to be a matter of time before they were taken, too?" Cal demanded.
Redhawk lifted his hand again, fingers spread, and Cal fell silent. "What my overzealous second-in-command is saying, here, is that whatever reason you had, the repercussions are unacceptable. A good number of people who've now fled were being sounded out as potential recruits, or they were refugees."
"There wasn't time," Loire said with palpable regret.
"Then I hope you had a damned good reason for it," Redhawk returned. He leaned back in his chair, steepled his hands, and appeared set to wait an indefinite interval of time. His stern, aquiline features were uncompromising.
Alicia folded her own hands, most carefully not looking at her boss. It wasn't her call to disclose information of this level sensitivity to the City and Wall Defense Corps, not even their commanding staff, even though they typically shared information where it was mutually beneficial or from sheer necessity.
"We found a Grimoire," Loire said, after the merest hesitation.
Redhawk swept a hand through the air. "So? We find grimoires all the time."
For all Loire's powers of oration he hadn't been able to make the capitalization apparent, Alicia thought while keeping any flicker of amusement from her features. Cal still looked ready to snap excuses over his knee like the necks of his enemies.
"No, this was one of *the* Grimoires," Loire clarified, his hands inscribing a great expanse.
Redhawk narrowed his eyes at him, heavy black brows lowering. "Those are less than fairy tales," he scoffed.
Cal, on the other hand, was looking thoughtful. "Rue doesn't think so," he muttered, soft enough to be ignored.
"You're also aware there's a new leader of Long Island?" Alicia prompted, back on the security of operations territory. This piece of information couldn't be news for someone of Redhawk's connections.
"Of course, we've been monitoring attempts for a few weeks now. Sudden rise to power, this one, and there's something...different...about his approach. I'm worried," he admitted.
"So are we," Alicia said, now glancing at Loire from the corner of her eye. He gave the slightest nod and a sketchy smile, letting her know it was okay to continue for now. They had the commanders' attention. "His name is Granac Bowen. He's a petty chieftain from what's left of the British Isles, and he came here to conquer. His approach with the demons is different, too -- he rules them, yet also displays more compassion than one would ever expect of a Nephilim."
"Not crazy, but not sane enough to be on our side?" Cal said, but though the words were light his handsome face was still grim.
"Something like that," Alicia acknowledged.
"So a Grimoire turning up, and a new leader in Long Island was enough to make you pansies flush out the entire city?" Redhawk blazed up sudden and fierce, not rising out of his chair but appearing larger, the strength of his anger inflating his presence.
"Please give us more credit than that," Loire said, pained. "It was a number of circumstances involving the attempted theft of the Grimoire, the successful kidnapping of Professor Gabriel Vaille, only person in the city capable of translation, attempts on the lives of himself and his family, and a successful infiltration of Orion itself." He had laid all their cards out on the table neatly, a bold move Alicia certainly wouldn't have attempted. To admit to the last was to undermine faith in their organization.
Redhawk and Cal were gaping. Redhawk recovered first, pulling his brows together and stabbing a finger in Laguna's direction. "Why didn't you order a lockdown much earlier?"
"By the time Gabriel's kidnapping was discovered, he and his captors had fled. Similarly, we discovered the infiltration at the height of the crisis," Alicia told them. She paused to rub at one brow-bone, where the dull beat of a headache had begun to throb. "We sent operatives to retrieve Professor Vaille, and they were successful against all projected odds."
"Must've been Shemyahza," Cal muttered, knowing the caliber of that operative.
Alicia inclined her head. "Shortly after that, more attempts were made. At that time, to ensure the Vailles' safety we ordered all bounties called in." She strengthened her voice, projecting against Redhawk's expression of lingering distaste. "Gabriel Vaille is the only person we have who can translate the Grimoire with speed and accuracy. If any of Granac Bowen's operatives were to get hold of the Grimoire and Gabriel, or even simply Gabriel himself, he would have the means to destroy our city more thoroughly than any assault that's ever come close to caving in the Walls."
Redhawk shook his head, pressing his face briefly into the cradle of one hand. "They say the Second was involved in the destruction of D.C., back in the day," he said, so quiet Alicia had to lean forward and frown over his words for a moment before understanding what she heard.
"This is one of that kind," Loire said, placing his hands flat on the table. "You see why it's so important? We've upped the stakes, and he's upped the stakes. All he needs is Professor Vaille, Redhawk. Not only does the man have an eidetic memory, meaning he retains each page of the Grimoire he's looked at, but he's certainly capable of translating what is put before him."
Alicia glanced at him sharply. She wasn't prepared to reveal the other item from the report -- the fact that Gabriel had told them that Bowen had the Third.
"So you had to purge the city of all potential threats, because anyone on the bounty list might try to hit Gabriel or get the Fifth from Orion," Cal said slowly, puzzling through it. He was quite bright but astoundingly slow, Shemyahza Guile had remarked once within Alicia's hearing. She'd been amused by the comment, knowing Cal to be quick-witted but simultaneously dense over the most amazing things.
"That's right," Alicia said, relieved that her boss hadn't revealed any more potentially demoralizing secrets. "We're sorry it caused so much unexpected damage and disruption..."
Redhawk waved a hand, though he was scowling. "That's what these are for," he informed her, patting the sheaf of vouchers. Those would go to Claims, and it was a relief those were someone else's purview. Ostensibly the city paid for damages, because the public was not aware that a large number of operations were actually carried out by a private corporation with full city cooperation. Orion paid for everything damaged as a result of their operations, but they paid the city and that money was publicly disbursed. It was a set-up that had been established long before Alicia had come on board, and it worked. It helped to keep Orion's low profile -- hardly anyone would believe that a research and development corporation was the primary offensive against the demons, just as they would panic to realize that demons, the biggest baddest class of demons, could walk amongst them undetected.
"And we'll pay them," Loire said promptly with a sheepish, conciliatory smile.
Redhawk snorted. "That's not at issue," he said.
"What's the status?" Alicia said, though she had a good handle on it from consuming reports from the moment she'd woken until right before this meeting.
"Your sweep and clear went through the night and if there was a demon city, it would be a ghost town right now," Cal said irreverently. "I've checked the bounty list myself. It's all zeroed out."
Redhawk added darkly, "We're going to have some bored, unhappy contractors around here for a few weeks."
Alicia shrugged. "They'll have money to spend; they won't get too bored."
Redhawk's eyes bugged and she knew right away she'd said something wrong. She had no idea what, but it had been a bad one.
"Setting that aside for the moment," Loire said hastily, leaping in to cover for whatever faux pas she'd committed, "how about the rest?"
"Public opinion is unsettled, worried, paranoid, you name it," Cal said, glancing uneasily at his commander. "The ones that do know what's going on are scared shitless by the purge, and the ones that don't know what's going on are scared that cars are getting thrown around their neighborhood streets and men with flamethrowers are showing up to dispose of garden-variety demons that don't normally pop up in the twelfth Ring of the city."
"It's been chaotic, in the sense that chaos is an understatement," Redhawk said wryly, once his complexion had faded from mottled red back to its typical dark tan shade. "But as of this morning, quiet. It's all over but the clean-up, and the rebuilding period. Significant swathes of the city were thrashed, so it would look rather cavalier for your contractors to go around celebrating their hefty balances," he added pointedly.
Ah, Alicia thought, containing the urge to let her brows raise. "You mentioned cars getting thrown around...?" she trailed off, hoping against hope that Cal wasn't one of those people. After being with the tempering influence of Rue Pierce for nearly eight or nine years, one would think his car-throwing days were over. He'd become vastly more responsible since she had first known him, rising from a solo Wall patrolman through the years to captain of the Defense Corps.
"Well, when it's down to that or watching someone die, it's going to happen," Cal said blandly, neither confirming nor denying the oblique question. "The standard explanations being handed out by your Communications division to the Kline media are a little harder to swallow than normal, I think, but it's holding up. Still, everyone's getting nervous. I'm not used to getting dirty looks on the way to work." His dark eyes turned large and woeful.
"The Wall defenses have been strengthened, and we're in the process of making them even tighter," Redhawk continued, casting an opaque look in Cal's direction. "We're also improving the screening process at the Gate checkpoints, but I could use all the help you feel like providing."
He managed to make a plea for assistance sound like a simple statement, Alicia marveled. She was comfortable in speaking up on this point, after Rex's visit the other day. "We can loan a couple of psychics to you for each Gate, enough to comfortably cover three shifts," she said with a nod. "We don't want anyone burning out. Also, if you wouldn't mind some arcane assistance, by way of Wards?"
Cal gave her a questioning look and Alicia inclined her head. Yes, Rue would be getting more work from her division. Some days she entertained the notion of offering to put him on payroll, because he was actually more expensive contracted to her than otherwise, but Cal would probably convince his mate not to sign on principle - she'd been trying to recruit Cal for years, after all.
"Anything to make us all that much safer," Redhawk replied, brooding at his hands now.
They were all quiet for a moment, and Alicia recalled his hoarse utterance remarking over the destruction of Washington, D.C. It was likely both the former capitol and Los Angeles had been lost to the actions of the Grimoires, tools formerly of legend that had come back to light like the demons themselves, rising from the depths.
New York could be next, if they didn't strike first and strike hard.
"Anyhow, you'd better do something about those half-bloods that fled the city who weren't tagged as bounties," Redhawk warned, rousing from his pensive state. "We can't afford to alienate anyone who could be a potential ally."
"You're right," Loire said soothingly, even as Alicia was thinking behind her most flawless poker face that neither could they afford to harbor potential enemies. "You're absolutely right, Redhawk. We'll have another division initiate an effort to repair the damage that was done in the purge."
"Good," Redhawk grunted. "Otherwise I didn't know how long Cal was gonna sulk. It's like kicking a damned puppy, people."
"Hey!" Cal protested, and they all relaxed enough to permit smiles all around. Even Cal grinned, without reluctance. His anger had evaporated under the force of their explanations.
"There's another thing I came to tell you about," Redhawk said, when the moment had passed and Loire had stopped chuckling. "The city powers are demanding an explanation, and I don't think I should have to be the party that delivers it."
"What, the mayor?" Alicia asked facetiously.
Redhawk gave her a withering look. Well, there was a reason she wasn't in PR and he knew that. "I mean Vanderbrant and Kline. Specifically their CEOs, Richard Vanderbrant and Silvia Kline."
"That's a good point," Loire nodded beside her. "Because both are valuable allies, Vanderbrant as a contractor, Kline as the family that controls most media, they are owed an explanation."
"Even if it's not the exact truth all lined up in that order?" Alicia said suspiciously. She was afraid with the panic of a woman who'd been surprised before by her unpredictable supervisor into handing out admissions she, personally, thought were a risk to their organization.
"You can give them a revised version, but confidential enough to make them feel they have our trust," Loire said, magnanimous. His hands splayed assurance of her judgment in this matter.
"Fine," Alicia conceded with a sigh. "I'll have my assistant schedule an appointment."
"You're kidding," Roman said flatly, gathering himself to spring up off his chair. He was so outraged he barely registered the fact that a woman, albeit a woman bodyguard, was able to keep him in his seat with one hand. "You have got to be fucking kidding me. I am SO out of here."
Lured by the promise of really good coffee, Roman had followed Felicia like a trusting and stupid lamb into one of the training rooms. She had also promised him someone who could help him with his peculiar situation. He figured someone else must have told her about that, because he certainly hadn't spilled forth the whole sordid tale.
Shemyahza Guile had entered the room not five minutes after, and with a flirt of green hair seated himself across from Roman as if it were a matter of course. All near-seven feet of him, dark corded arms bared by the crimson red vest that set off his skin and impossible hair so well.
"No fucking way," Roman said, adamant. He'd cut his own throat first before doing anything with him.
"How many incubi do you think are local, kid?" Shemyahza challenged him, raising one infuriatingly dark green brow.
In fact, Roman seethed, there wasn't a single feature of Shemyahza's that didn't infuriate him, from the set of his broad shoulders to the mocking tilt of his full lips. He was handsome, utterly gorgeous, and he knew it, and that made it so much worse. Then that statement penetrated, and Roman's jaw sagged.
"Wait, you're not..." He trailed off, horrified. Was that how his brother had been snared?
"I'm not," Shemyahza clarified, and there wasn't much of a change in expression but he conveyed the swell of amusement nonetheless. "I know the basics, however, and I can give you an orientation, as it were." His mouth quirked and it was the equivalent of anyone else laughing outright in his face.
Roman flinched. "That's a bad joke," he said reproachfully.
"I know," Shemyahza admitted. "But see? We could get along, if you didn't hate me so much. Which is instinctive, by the way, so don't feel too badly over it."
"I don't," Roman gritted. "Trust me. I won't lose any sleep over it."
"Hmm. Well, we're going to have a long acquaintance, so I hope you can see your way to go easy on me," Shemyahza said, and through the polite words lurked a thread of pure facetiousness.
Roman shot him a look filled with all the loathing he could top off into a single glance.
"I can give you the short course of what you need to know," Shemyahza said, leaning back in his chair and measuring him visually until Roman crimsoned to the earlobes. "As I said already, of all you three Vailles you have the best grasp of your ability, unconscious as it's been."
"Not from you," he stated, shaking off Felicia's hand and getting to his feet. The woman, so imperturbable up until now, took a step back when she caught sight of Roman's red, angry face.
"Hold it!" Shemyahza barked, and Roman found himself frozen, unable to take another step. The demon continued in a normal tone, "It's me, or Cal Pierce. And that man cannot teach subtleties, you'd have a better chance trying to fumble on as you have."
Roman wheeled, the implications of that statement galling, firing up his righteous anger once more.
Shemyahza rose from his chair, such a towering presence that Roman had to look up, and up, to meet his eyes and that made him hate the demon even more. "It's me, or you can tear through the people you love like tissue paper," Shemyahza told him, so calm and matter-of-fact over it that he left Roman standing there bleeding all over again, as he had from the initial shock of knowing in his bones that it wasn't native talent that had them all begging at his feet for more. He continued, silver eyes flashing as they fixed Roman in place, "I saw you try it with your brother this morning. You may not have known what you were doing before, but you'd damned well better know now. I've seen incubi ruin their own lives before, Roman, draining everything they cared about until nothing was left. I'm not leaving you alone with Gabriel until you stabilize."
Roman pulled himself upright, shaped his shoulders into good posture and let the rest of his body follow that alignment, and moved forward, never breaking eye contact with Shemyahza. The demon watched him and there was wariness hidden there now that Roman could sense under the calculated projection of easy superiority. He smoldered for a moment, that one crack in the faÁade giving him a rush of inner power, and Shemyahza's liquid gaze hardened to steel.
With a sigh, Roman dropped into the chair, the practice of three years' training as a model preventing him from slumping in a defeated heap. Shemyahza Guile couldn't be pushed, couldn't be coerced or manipulated, and there was no other help for him in sight. "All right," he said, and he wasn't giving in. He was bending to the inevitable, or he'd break. "What do I have to do to stabilize?"
Shemyahza looked over Roman's shoulder, lifting his chin to Felicia Arks, who had been so uncharacteristically quiet during the entire exchange.
"I'll be back later," she told them, her voice neutral. The perfect discreet bodyguard.
He was not going to thank her for this later. When she'd assured him she would get him the help he needed, turning him over to the tender whims of his mortal enemy was not anywhere close to his list of 'ways to help Roman cope with unnatural sexed-up demon powers.'
"You said earlier that you weren't leaving me alone with Gabriel," Roman said, turning it over in his head and frowning at the big demon. "Does that mean I would have been okay with Cedric?"
"Not on your life," Shemyahza replied at once. "But Cedric has his own protection now, if I'm not mistaken. And that's the other reason you need to get a handle on your power, Roman -- to prevent yourself from getting gutted."
"Great," Roman sighed, and considered putting his head in his hands before deeming it overly dramatic even for him. "Okay. So there's a way for me to stabilize. How do I do it?"
Shemyahza leaned forward, his silver eyes glittering. "You have to make a choice."
Roman frowned at him. "You're joking, right? I thought you said there were subtleties involved."
"There are," Shemyahza assured him. "We'll get to that. Either way, though, you're at a crossroads."
"You've been talking with Felicia," Roman said, a sick sensation jolting through him as if his stomach had taken the ride all the way up to ground level without him.
"I've been observing you since I first met you," Shemyahza corrected. "I've seen you with Damon, and I've seen you with other men. Their reaction to you, yours to them."
"What has choice got to do with anything?" Roman said bitterly. "If I'm an incubus, I'm feeding off all their sexual energy, aren't I? And using mine to get them all right where I want them. Including Damon. Including my br--" He shut his mouth with an audible clack of teeth.
Shemyahza smiled, an expression so unexpectedly warm and devoid of mocking that it stirred instant distrust in the pit of Roman's belly.
"I knew you'd be worried about that," Shemyahza murmured.
"Worried, that's a good way to put it," Roman sneered. "It only shattered my perception of the most important relationships in my life." He compressed his lips and turned his head away, angry enough to want Shemyahza's eyes off him.
"If I'm not mistaken, and I will fully admit there's margin for error in this area, today was the first time you exerted the influence of your powers on Gabriel," Shemyahza said, his tone thoughtful.
"Wait, what!?" Roman's head jerked around at that. "No, I thought for sure..."
"What I saw this morning was desperation," Shemyahza continued as if he couldn't hear Roman. "There's an unconscious control to your power even when it's not fully invoked. In fact, I have every reason to believe that your full awakening hasn't occurred until very recently. Can you think of any particular instance, recently, that stands out in your mind?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Roman said stiffly, his mind already grasping on the afternoon he'd sought out Damon, and his lover had called him in 'sick' for the shoot, and he'd wanted it more and harder and right now, and not only had he been up for repeat performances but he'd dragged Damon along with him each time. That was something that shouldn't have been possible; Damon was hardly seventeen although he had plenty of stamina.
"A marathon sex session?" Shemyahza prompted, and now Roman was certain the damned demon was laughing at him with his uncanny silver eyes. "One where you kept rising to the occasion, and your partner did too in spite of physical limitations?"
"Yes," Roman admitted. He sighed and raked his pale hair back with both hands. "Last week."
Shemyahza's eyes widened. "That recently?"
Roman bristled. "Is there something wrong with my timing?" he demanded acerbically. No, he'd managed to surprise Shemyahza somehow, and that couldn't be a bad thing.
"It's later than I would have expected," Shemyahza said candidly. His eyes took Roman's measure again. "Given your obvious precocity."
"Now you're just being insulting," Roman drawled, but he wasn't irked by that particular observation. It was true, and so far as he was concerned, a compliment in its own way. "So...so I wasn't... I mean, I wasn't hooking them in with my power when I was fourteen?"
The quick lift of Shemyahza's brow let Roman know the demon had guessed twelve or thirteen would be closer to the mark, even if he wouldn't say so. "No," he said at last, while Roman sweated bullets and agonized internally over the horrid things he'd flung in Damon's face. Damon, their argument of the night before surfaced in his muddled thoughts, he'd done his lover a horrible disservice, he'd thought the man couldn't possibly have chosen him without the exertion of his newly-discovered power and how insulting was that?
The force of someone loving him that much for himself was enough to humble him; it was heavy enough to flatten him utterly.
"No, you would have had a certain allure, of course, but you're attractive enough for that to have no special import by itself," Shemyahza said, handing out the compliment as impersonally as if he'd checked Roman's dental records and pronounced them flawless. "If you didn't awaken until last week, you didn't have the raw power to pull someone in regardless of their will."
But he had with Arashi, Roman thought miserably, and hadn't fate saved him just in time? Arashi had fought him hard enough that Roman knew that his classmate's sudden acquiescence the other day had probably been beneath the bludgeon of his newfound irresistible sexual wiles. And he'd been almost there, too... even knowing everything he did now, Roman couldn't help the twinge of wistfulness for an encounter unfulfilled. Forever, given the way Arashi was prone to eyeing him now as though he were a particularly vile variety of insect.
"So what do I do now?" Roman asked, surfacing from recall, dredging up one of the worst he could remember from Arashi's repertoire and trying it out on Shemyahza.
The big bastard looked as though he were trying not to laugh, damn him and his abnormal tinfoil eyes.
"Well, you have a choice to make," Shemyahza replied, his mouth twitching suspiciously as he leaned forward and laced his fingers together over one knee. "But wait, Roman. Give yourself some time. You've just discovered something that reordered your identity for the second time in barely more than twelve hours, if I'm not mistaken."
His tone implied he rarely was and Roman filled up red with another angry flush.
"That's fine," Shemyahza said equably.
"I'd rather get on with this without you pretending you care about me in any way," Roman said, though he wasn't incensed as he had been earlier. It was a discomfiting flush of another sort for Shemyahza to pinion him so easily. "Yes, I was upset. Yes, this changes things for me. It's none of your business, now just tell me how I can be normal again."
Shemyahza shook his head, a wealth of dark green hair rippling with the movement. It was unbound today, laying loose against the darkness of his bared neck and arms. "There is no 'normal,' don't you realize? There will be a new normal, for you, but you're going to have to adjust to the awakened power. You were desperate this morning, and you're getting hungry now. It will only increase."
No 'normal.' All right. Roman furrowed his brow and tried not to fight against Shemyahza's words simply because they were coming from him. He knew they were true because the demon had called it, over and over again. He'd known about the awakening. He knew about the desire that was rising up inside of him, choking even the doubts he'd had about himself earlier -- last night and this morning. And he was right, it was relief great enough to make him want to take flight, knowing that he hadnít done what he'd feared the most. He hadn't entrapped Gabriel, he hadn't lured in Damon against his better judgment.
And that meant that Damon might... Well, he actually could...
"That's what I mean by adjusting," Shemyahza said. He rubbed at his chin, pinning Roman with another thoughtful look, one devoid of that often-lurking sense of mockery. "We can end our session now, if you like, and continue later."
Roman looked away from that scrutiny, focusing instead on the featureless room. A training room, Felicia had called it, but it looked more like one of the windowless white cubicles where one might take a final exam. It was like a sensory deprivation tank, maybe, or a prison. And he was trapped here with Shemyahza in some kind of "Sex Talk from Hell" paradigm. Oh, Shemyahza had not uttered the phrase 'marathon sex session' to him. He was so scrubbing that from his brain.
"That won't do me any good," he muttered, finally returning to Shemyahza and his conspicuous lack of smirk. "I can't be trusted right now, after all. You said so yourself. So if I don't get 'normal,' then how do I control myself? I am getting hungry, for lack of a better term." He added that last part grudgingly. So far as he was concerned pretty much anyone short of Shemyahza was on the menu.
Somewhat intrigued and partly horrified, Roman realized his little brother was on that list, together with his hunky new acquisition Rukawa. Yes. This could be bad. Even Roman recognized there were places he wasn't allowed to go.
"All right," Shemyahza said, and seemed obscurely pleased.
Roman rotated his hand, indicating for him to get on with it. "Back to the crossroads?" He tried not to make it sound too ironic.
"Indeed." There was not a hint of sarcasm in Shemyahza's voice. "You have a choice, Roman, and one of them is to fuck around. And believe me, what came before will be the rainstorm before the hurricane."
He couldn't be serious.
Shemyahza raised an eyebrow at him.
"Moving on...?" Roman prompted, lowering his voice to keep it from emerging as an unmanly squeak. He'd already been getting quite a healthy amount of sex for a teenage boy. Anything above that would pretty much be non-stop sex. Divide that by the hours in the day, the average stamina of a vigorous teens-to-twenties male, subtract some time for a refractory period and sufficient quantities of sleep, food, and time in between acquiring partners, and that was...a stunning amount of willing bodies he'd have to fit into his weekly appointment calendar.
"Another option is complete and total celibacy," Shemyahza said, and somehow managed to maintain a complete lack of expression while saying it. "You wouldn't die. You'd just be unbearable to live with, and you'd need to eat -- a lot -- to substitute for other cravings."
"That one's not an option," Roman dismissed it, narrowing his eyes at Shemyahza and daring him to laugh.
The man was made of sterner stuff, after all. He didn't even crack a smile. "Your third choice is to pour all your sexual energy into one person," Shemyahza told him.
Now Roman gaped. "You're kidding, right? You have got to be trying to pull one over on me now. If everything else you've told me is true, and I have the horrible plummeting sensation that only the truth can strike in me that it is, then I'd kill anyone I tried to have sex with repeatedly." He frowned.
"Not quite. If you pour everything you have into one person, one...mate--" he drew the word out deliberately "--then they can acclimate to your power if they are truly your mate."
Roman's scowl deepened. "There's a catch," he declared. Nothing was that simple.
Shemyahza waved a languid hand. "If the person isnít your true mate, then you'll kill him. You really will wear him out."
Fantastic. "So how will I know the difference?"
Shemyahza's shoulders inscribed the most unhelpful shrug. "You just know."
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