After the Rising: The Vaille Brothers Saga
Volume Four - Eye of the Storm
Chapter Two

by Talya Firedancer


Akito Rukawa woke hard with the taste of ash in his mouth, his head aflame in the burnt-out shell of a dream that left him the instant his eyes were finished opening. Sensation came back to him bit by bit, touch first: the comfort of being nestled fetal around warmth and breath, the soft heat of skin against his. Akito's lashes fluttered and it took two blinks for sight to return, puzzling out the image of the top of a pale-haired head tucked against him. Akito gasped as another kind of sensation made itself known, a knife of pleasure that traveled clear through him, turning into a shock of electricity that arced from the base of his thumb on a fast track to his groin. He stirred against the unbearable wonder, shifting in the nest of bedsheet and blankets, confused but aware of aching, realizing at the same time that the paleness of silky lavender-platinum hair tucked under his chin meant that he was in bed with Cedric Vaille. But why were they...

Trying to dredge his memory took second priority to the hot thrill that twanged through him again and he stifled a groan by setting his teeth in his lip hard enough to draw a coppery tang to the surface, every nerve in his body attuned to the fever-hot body tucked against him. His thumb throbbed, inciting another wave of pleasure, and a soft suckling noise reached his ears. Akito connected both at the same time to the pull of a satin-soft mouth clamped around the pad of his abruptly sensitive thumb.

Akito was very much awake now. He was also hard enough to cleave steel if he so much as twitched. He bit his lip again as he realized the engorged length of his shaft was pressed against the sleeping boy's thigh. He had to move now that he realized, he had to ease himself away before Cedric woke and realized the same thing, but it wasn't so easy as that. As Akito began a slow trawl backward through the clinging encumbrance of sheets, Cedric whimpered and snuggled closer, his mouth fastening down in a tight seal over Akito's thumb.

Blood filled Akito's mouth in a soundless burst and he swallowed it, eyes rolling back in his head as Cedric's tongue laved over the ball of his thumb, sucking, nursing determinedly even in the depth of his sleep. He burrowed against Akito's chest in a move of absolute trust and kept suckling on his thumb, pulling away with enough room to smack around it a bit before drawing the thumb all the way into his mouth, murmuring something that sounded contented.

The steady suck of Cedric's mouth on his thumb jolted clear through him, the pulse there matched and outdone by the angry throb of his cock. It took every ounce of Akito's self-control to hold himself still and keep from thrusting against the supple thigh that lay separated from his cock by a length of sheet, but he managed.

Drawing his own lower lip into his mouth again, Akito endured. He tried to work his thumb free of Cedric's determined grasp, but the boy uttered a heartrending little moan of discontent around the imprisoned digit, pushed against him and nipped Rukawa's thumb as if to admonish him to stay still, then licked at the damp skin and eased off into drowsy suckling once more. The head of his thumb now felt every bit as swollen and engorged as his hard cock, so responsive to each nip and suckle. Akito squirmed and the very act of moving was contact, the sweet agony of finally pressing his cock against Cedric's thigh and he pulled away with a rough gasp, furious at himself for taking advantage no matter how inadvertent. Cedric was a child still, and asleep to boot.

He scooted away fast and made it to the edge of the bed before Cedric's upset outcry froze him in place.

"Ru-Rukawa?" Cedric faltered, very much awake now.

Akito clutched the sheet around his waist as Cedric sat up and rubbed his eyes, small and adrift in the sea of rumpled bedclothes.

"I'm here," Akito said, tucking his hand underneath a fold of sheet to hide his thumb. He thought with longing of a cold shower or a few minutes' leisure in the bathroom. It wouldn't take much.

Cedric looked over at him, his huge jade-green eyes sheened over with unshed moisture. "Where are you going? Did I do something wrong?"

"Sleep," Akito enjoined, and hesitated on the edge of the bed as Cedric sniffed, scrubbing in a quick, angry gesture at one eye with the back of his wrist, his lips compressing to a mutinous line. Akito dredged up more encouraging words to continue, "Everything's fine."

"You're bleeding," Cedric stated, frowning up at him. There was a mournful note in his voice that hinted at conviction that he was somehow at fault.

Akito shook his head not to deny the assertion, but the underlying implication that Cedric was responsible. If anyone was at fault here it was himself. He shifted to arrange the sheets in a firm twist around his waist, leaning closer and opening one arm. Cedric clambered out of his nest of bedclothes at once, taking the change in position as the silent invitation that it was. The boy nestled against Akito's side again, his breath slowing and his body relaxing as if he took immediate reassurance from the contact. He calmed as if he'd taken it up through osmosis, pressing against Akito's chest.

Akito, by contrast, was anything but calm. His senses were in full riot, taking in the feel of Cedric's pliant body against his, the scent of tousled-warm hair and peach-soft skin, the trusting throb of his heartbeat easing, all of it crowding around Akito until he wanted to lay the boy flat on the bed and nuzzle at his hair, his throat, to find out if he tasted as good as he smelled.

It wasn't sexual anymore, or not entirely. It was a more encompassing hunger now, a possessive one.

As he puzzled through that one, Cedric's voice unraveled the white noise that had descended on him as he concentrated so hard on each part of the boy pressed against him to the exclusion of thought. "Senpai?"

"Hm."

"Are you okay?"

"Bit my lip," Akito managed, sure he would have to do it again to bring pain blazing hard enough to peel himself away long enough to tend his wounds and stay away from Cedric. He wasn't rational, he didn't know what was happening to him, and he didn't like it.

"I'm sorry," Cedric said in a small, hurt voice, and began to pull away.

The dam broke. Akito was crushed under a veritable flood of recollection, the day before spilling over him in a wash of memory. He remembered wanting to go with Cedric, the desire to protect him overriding everything else, the shot that bit into him with a vicious pinch of pain, and then everything graying, the world losing focus all around him except for Cedric's huge, frightened eyes. I'm sorry, Akito had said to him. That was the only thing he'd wanted to say of everything left to him in that last instant. He had struggled against the urge to close his eyes, afraid of what it meant that he wanted to but they sagged shut anyhow even as he apologized and above all he had been so angry, furious at himself for failing Cedric, for being weak enough to fall when he needed to stand up and fight.

Akito had woken from a brief fall through starry infinity, and when he did there was a fire raging through his veins, galvanizing him, reanimating him. He still wasn't sure what had happened, and he didn't care. All he knew was he had breath and the will to fight and the only thing that mattered was Cedric.

Hearing Cedric apologize to him like that tore down the self-imposed barrier. His instincts overrode everything else and he rolled Cedric onto the bedspread, pinning him with his upper body. He was wrapped up in the quick hitch of Cedric's voice, the way his green eyes went wide and huge and dilated in a fraction of a second. It spoke volumes to him.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," Akito said roughly, looking down at Cedric as he held him down on the spread with one hand. He struggled with words now the way he always had, trying to express what needed saying the most. The entire fulcrum of his world had shifted. A half-dozen sentences formed and unraveled before they reached his tongue. You're too smart to apologize when you know it wasn't your fault. I don't want to hear an apology when there's nothing you have to feel sorry for. How can you apologize when you've set me free and given me the means to protect you? Then he focused on the contrast of his own broad, olive-toned hand dark against Cedric's milk-pale shoulder and muttered an abstract "No, I can't."

Cedric went still and held his breath between his teeth. "But they said I transferred..." He shut his eyes and his brow creased as he continued, reciting as if from rote, "I transferred the core of my power to you?" He opened his eyes again and lucid jade windows looked clear to the depth of him, as if hoping that Rukawa would have a better idea of what it meant for the two of them.

Akito didn't. Things were different now, that much he knew without over-thinking it. He was alive, and he could protect Cedric. That was all that mattered to him. "So?" he said, dipping his shoulder in a half-shrug.

"It's all right?" Cedric prompted with a frown, clearly having just as much trouble articulating the difference that both of them sensed. "You don't mind?"

Akito smiled faintly, and he knew that Cedric could tell the difference in him that would look like no change of expression whatsoever to someone else. I'll take care of you. He'd promised. "It's fine," he said aloud, and rolled off the edge of the bed. He made a clear beeline for the bathroom to render any further questions unnecessary. He had to make himself leave, before Cedric's alluring scent drove him to something he shouldn't.

They could figure out the rest as they went along.

He knew that Cedric was still waiting in the bedroom before he even opened the door of the adjoining bathroom after taking care of little morning ritual things and spending more time washing his hands than was strictly necessary. Akito couldn't hear Cedric's heartbeat, exactly, but he was aware of it. This didn't seem remarkable to him.

"Are you hungry?" Cedric asked him. He was seated on the edge of the big bed now, his legs swinging over the edge. Where before he'd only been dressed in sleeping shorts, now he'd found a thin lavender fleece robe. He cocked his head to one side, waiting for an answer.

Akito nodded, thinking vaguely that didn't quite begin to cover it. He eyed Cedric's robe, looked to his own bare chest, and inspected the room as if clothes would materialize through simple scrutiny.

"In the closet," Cedric told him with a hint of laughter in his voice. "Someone's been busy."

He found some of the clothes they'd purchased the night before hanging neatly, and tried to remember when he might have done that. His memory offered no answers. There was also a dressing gown hung up beside some of the other purchases, a heavy long-sleeved black garment embroidered with a golden dragon. He didn't remember that one.

"I think they were delivered while we were having ice cream," Cedric offered. "And I knew I'd want a robe in the morning so I picked out a few for us."

Akito shrugged and slipped the dressing gown off its hanger. It was a thick but surprisingly rich fabric to his fingers, and it settled around his shoulders with a comfortable weight.

"Off in search of food," Cedric said happily, jumping up from the bed and padding over to take him by the hand with a complete lack of self-consciousness.

They emerged from the bedroom to find other people in the darkened suite. Akito's senses were on overdrive, prompting him at first for an assessment of the unknown sources of breath and blood lying at rest on the sofa. He relaxed when he recognized the scents. They knew these people. Cedric flicked on the lights and revealed two figures lying mostly supine on one of the couches in the common area, one of them -- Roy, Professor Vaille's grad assistant -- blinking sleepily at them.

"You should have gone to bed, you know," Cedric informed them, covering his mouth to hide a smile.

"That was the plan," Roy said, palming dark bangs out of his eyes. He looked down at the red-haired boy, whose head was pillowed on his shoulder. "We fell asleep discussing constructs, I suppose. I didn't have the heart to wake him." He extracted himself from his sleeping assistant with the delicate care Akito recognized from personal experience, and draped a throw across the young man.

Beside Akito, Cedric was suppressing a smile. His joy, a pulse of sheer delight, ran across Akito's nerves like sunlight and he looked down at the boy, startled to sense that emotion so clearly, knowing it wasn't his own. Cedric lifted a finger to his lips and tilted his head to indicate the breakfast nook.

Roy followed them, helping Cedric to rummage through cupboards. "Wow," the man uttered softly. "We've only been here a few days but we've totally cleaned out the food supplies. All that with a couple of meals?"

"A few large meals, remember? I imagine they keep everything lightly stocked as these suites are only here for an anticipated siege, not long-term occupancy," Cedric said.

Akito ranged himself against the counter and kept his eyes on Cedric, bemused. The shy, deferent boy of the other day was gone, replaced by this quiet, confident creature. He could attribute part of the change to familiarity, he supposed, but there was more to it than that. He watched a thought work its way across Cedric's face and he could read the intention.

"We could prevail upon one of the others, but I'd rather go upstairs to the mall level," the boy said.

"The coffee shop," Akito agreed.

"S'meone say coffee?" slurred the redhead, rising from the sofa like a mummy still wrapped in his shroud. "Time is it?"

Cedric shared a look of amusement with Roy, then turned it on Akito and warmed his blood all over again. He could get used to this, Akito thought, more than satisfied to feel the play of Cedric's emotions over his own nerves. It certainly didn't bother him as he distantly thought it 'should' have, but should haves were for other people.

"It's tomorrow, Kieran," Roy told him, ruffling at the brightness of red hair when the young man came within range.

Kieran made a face at him but there was a softness to his expression that indicated he didnít mean it. "Um, sorry for falling asleep on your shoulder again. I did, didn't I?"

"Don't worry about it," Roy answered, looking at the young man for a moment with a hesitant expression before breaking eye contact, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "We should go eat." He gathered them all in with a glance.

Akito nodded, setting a hand on Cedric's shoulder. They couldn't go out in these robes, he was thinking.

"Rukawa and I will get dressed," Cedric said aloud, and slanted a glance up at him that had a hint of secretiveness to it.

"That's not a bad idea, I'd rather not wear yesterday's clothes upstairs," Kieran agreed, heading for the bedrooms in the opposite direction. He snagged Roy in passing with what seemed to be an unconscious but nevertheless possessive gesture.

Back in the room he'd shared with Cedric, there were enough clothes in the closet that Rukawa had an actual range to choose from. It was easy to pull a uniform off the hanger every day and get dressed, but whenever it was up to him he had a more difficult time. He stood uncertainly for a moment, eyeing the neat row of hangers.

"This one," Cedric decided, pulling a hoodie with a blazing constellation out of the closet and thrusting it at him.

Akito barely smiled, but Cedric's face lit up. "And jeans," the boy added, and Akito ducked his head in agreement.

By the time they were dressed, Akito in his jeans and navy blue hoodie, Cedric in a smart ensemble of pale lavender shirt that set off his hair beneath a black suede vest, and narrow black pants with gray pin-stripes, their party had been joined in the common area by the enormous bulk of Humphrey, wearing a sling but otherwise fit.

"Humphrey!" Cedric cried happily, flinging himself at the immense Nordic-blond bodyguard, stopping shy of actually clambering onto the man. "You're all right? You're back on duty?"

Humphrey nodded gravely, inscribing a circle in the air with one finger.

"Back as of this morning?" Cedric guessed, and the big bodyguard nodded again.

Akito took up a position behind but not hovering over Cedric, radiating approval for all he was worth. Humphrey had gone down not just in the line of duty, but protecting Cedric with his life. The man's head turned and his eyes glinted at Akito, who gave him the faintest of nods in return. Yes, they were on the same wavelength.

"You've surrounded yourself with silent protectors, Cedric," Roy said with a laugh, getting to his feet and tugging at the hem of his cardigan to straighten it.

On the heels of that statement the boy's stomach gurgled loudly enough to be another person adding to the conversation. Right after it, Rukawa's belly rumbled an answering note and he turned his head away, mortified.

"But they can't protect you from your own appetite," Kieran noted, chuckling as he rose from the couch too. "Come on, let's find that coffee shop, I'm perishing for a cup."

The corridors outside the suite were a veritable maze, identical in every direction one looked. Even though it was only three turns to the elevator, Rukawa was hopelessly lost moments after they'd set foot beyond the door. Fortunately there were other people to guide them as Felicia had the evening before. Cedric remained stuck to his side like a burr, close enough to touch though neither of them did as they walked through the halls.

Upstairs, the mall level was more brightly-lit than ever. The illumination that streamed from the ceiling was bright enough -- and warm enough -- to be on par with the sun and now that he thought about it, Akito considered it was probably the same wavelength to approximate the night and day cycle that went on aboveground. If the holographic blue of the ceiling was any indication, it was a beautiful day up there. They made their way through the walkways, hardly empty but not as crowded with people as the place had been the last time Akito had come through here. He supposed most of the in-house staff had their work shifts during the day.

It was amazing and not a little daunting, realizing that Orion had enclosed an entire city here in the Cygnus building buried deep within the ground. Akito wondered how many other facilities they had, and whether there was enough room for the sum total of New York in all of them.

Probably not, he decided, and the only reason that didn't bother him was because he knew Cedric would be on the list of those ushered in for protection.

They found the coffee shop without any trouble, Kieran leading them to it with unerring sense of direction though the young man hadn't been there before. Akito's nose had told him the coffee shop was somewhere on the level, but he wasn't so good at distinguishing origin. He wondered if practice would improve his discernment.

"No coffee for you, little Cedric," Roy told the boy as they stood in line to place their orders.

Cedric wrinkled his nose up at the man. "Don't be silly, I'm a tea-drinker, Roy."

"Decaf," Roy added, and now Cedric rolled his eyes.

"Fine, I'll order matcha if they have it," he conceded, and Roy nodded as if he knew what Cedric were talking about. Akito did, but that was because his mother always had a wide selection of green tea on hand. He was disinclined to mention that not all matcha was decaffeinated.

Breakfast secured, they adjoined to a large four-cornered table in the corner, one with enough chairs for all of them even if two of them had to share a side. Cedric dragged up a chair to sit beside Akito, gesturing for him to place their food and drinks down before he juggled one onto the floor.

"How goes the work?" Cedric said, taking a neat bite into his Danish after delivering the question.

"Ours is slow," Roy replied, his assessment followed up with a corroborating groan from Kieran.

"Last night Roy showed me how to clean up rough scans and that's how we spent most of the night," Kieran contributed.

"Slow, frustrating, finicky work," Cedric agreed.

"We broke off somewhere around one or two to switch our focus and fell asleep somewhere in the middle of a debate," Roy finished up, gesturing with his breakfast sandwich and taking in a gulp of coffee. His eyes flickered in Kieran's direction, then back to his food.

"Roy did tell me we were going to take a break to sleep no matter what, but I didn't think it would sneak up on us like that," Kieran said, distributing a grin around the table.

Humphrey's eyes were amused, which was that stoic man's equivalent of a chuckle. Akito knew from parallel experience.

"No significant progress yet?" Cedric pressed.

"We'd have to ask Gabriel for an update of substance, he's the one who's been working directly with the manuscript as usual. I can help, given good reference materials. And I will, once we've got the entire document scanned. That's the first priority, really. Preserving and backing up the information. We put that to a brief halt during Gabriel's absence."

A pall fell over the table at mention of that incident. Akito wanted to nudge Cedric, to chase the shadows from his pale green eyes and distract him. It was over, he wanted to tell him; his brother was safe and alive. Cedric looked up and met his inquiring gaze, giving him a little smile. He knew all that, Akito read from his expression like it were the fine print only he had access to. Still, the remembrance made him all too aware that his brother was not the bastion of safety he'd once thought.

Then I'll be that for you, Akito directed the intention at him, and Cedric's small smile broadened into a genuine happy look.

"Say," Roy said, breaking the awkward silence. "About yesterday...?" The question trailed off and he was regarding the three of them, bodyguard and Cedric included but the lion's share of his concentration was directed at Akito.

What happened, Roy wanted to know, and that was the hardest thing to answer because Akito wasn't entirely sure. He knew Cedric couldn't articulate it either.

"Hey," another voice intruded on their little circle, and Akito blinked, shaking off the weight of Roy's scrutiny. A tall, olive-skinned woman in a dark gray turtleneck and gray slacks had approached them and stood now beside Roy's shoulder. She had strong, capable hands currently hooked on her belt as she searched their faces, and a handsome, high-cheekboned face bared by the functional ponytail that kept every speck of hair back away from her face. The direct alertness of her constantly roving almond-shaped eyes clued Akito in to her profession.

"Kellan," Roy greeted her. He waved a hand. "Pull up a chair? Sorry, we didn't mean to ditch you, I suppose I should've left a note."

"Don't worry about it, I have other means of tracking you down," Kellan told him without a hint of the humor that might have indicated it was a joke. She remained standing. "I've already breakfasted, but thanks for the offer. Ops Head is talking about clearing you and the Vailles to leave Cygnus."

"Really." Roy's eyes widened. "How soon?"

Beside Akito, Cedric continued to eat with perfect unconcern, demolishing the rest of the Danish in a series of precise bites. Nonetheless, Akito could sense a rising tension in the boy as he listened to the interchange between the adults.

"Tomorrow morning," Kellan replied. "Enough time for you to scrape everything together, I hope."

"Ample, seeing as we don't need to do it in any particular order," Roy replied. "You sure you don't want to sit down...? No? But does that mean we'll be bringing the...document...back to the university campus?"

Kellan gave him a taut nod. "That's being discussed extensively right now. We must make it a secure environment for you and the others and the university campus is not ideal, despite the state of the city right now."

Akito's interest was kindled at that statement, as he realized that beyond their own personal conflicts on the larger scale the city itself must have been affected by everything that had gone on over the past few days. He'd hardly been in a position to catch a newscast. He sensed the ripple of Cedric's interest, too, which only sharpened his attention.

"And what is the state of the city?" Roy said, asking the question for all of them.

"Cleared out," Kellan replied, succinct. "The list of potential threats was defined as the entire roster of unregistered demon-blood individuals within the city, and a bounty was called in for all of them."

"All unregistereds?" Roy echoed.

Kieran looked a little awed. Then again, he also looked a little confused.

"Wait, all unregistered demon-bloods doesn't mean they were all guilty of something," Cedric spoke up at once, and Akito warmed with a flicker of pride that Cedric had cut to the essentials so quickly.

Kellan's quick eyes moved over him, assessing. "It's the best determination we could make with all available data," she replied. "I read the briefs. And this isn't something to be repeated, understand? You have clearance because you're all involved. I expect they'll have you sign something before you leave the building, a non-disclosure agreement. Anyone not registered is someone who came into the city illicitly, outside of the legitimate channels. Any one of those could be likely to strike seeing as they were existing outside of the law to begin with."

"But they could have come unregistered to avoid scrutiny," Cedric protested.

Kellan nodded. "Don't worry about it, Cedric. Orion is already putting steps into effect to reach out to the disenfranchised."

Another protest welled up in Cedric, but this time he held it back. Akito settled one hand on Cedric's knee and was rewarded with a tremulous, but obviously still troubled smile. He understood. Technically, until yesterday Cedric himself had been one of those unregistereds. They hadn't known.

Akito wondered where he qualified.

"So what are the next steps?" Roy was saying, half-twisting in his chair the better to face Kellan.

"Well, get your lengthy collection of scholarly material ready for movement, even if we're not quite sure where it's going quite yet," Kellan replied. "An underground facility with tight security would be best, of course."

"But we're not staying at Cygnus?"

"Nothing's decided yet, even though the city is clear," Kellan replied.

As the two continued conversing, Akito turned to Cedric. The boy gave him a half-shrug and a brilliant smile. "I'd like to go back to school soon," he said, leaning in toward Akito as if divulging a secret.

Akito nodded, understanding if not exactly agreeing. The only things he had to look forward to at school were kendo club and Cedric, not necessarily in that order. He glanced at Humphrey, forming a question with the angle of his eyebrows.

The big man met the silent inquiry with a subtle nod of his own, and passed over a slip of paper. He was tucking a silver-capped pen into his sling.

Akito positioned it so he could share the contents with Cedric. It will take time. They'll probably clear everyone from Cygnus by tomorrow. Today, some of the doctors would like to see you for some simple tests if you're up to it.

The thrill of apprehension that ran through him was only his in part. Akito met Cedric's wide eyes, sensed the shift from reflexive fear to a more reasoning acceptance, and curiosity. As Cedric tugged the note from beneath his fingers, curiosity solidifying to determination, Akito realized that it went both ways. Cedric had been influenced by Akito's own resolve in this instance.

He did want to find out, and he wasn't afraid of doctors. He knew that Orion wouldn't keep him here, whatever else he'd sensed.

"If Rukawa-senpai doesn't mind," Cedric leaned over to tell Humphrey, pressing up against Akito's arm in the process.

Now that just made him want to grab the boy and drag him off to a safe, private place. Akito closed his eyes briefly. He had to get this under control, and most especially had to find out if this was permanent. Not to mention, they had to find out together what had really happened. When he opened his eyes, Humphrey was favoring him with a mild, sympathetic expression.

"Let's go," Akito said quietly.

Humphrey gestured to Cedric's denuded plate, which had been emptied at some point during all the conversations around them, and Rukawa's own half-eaten pastry.

"We're done," Cedric decided, still leaning against Akito. He folded up the note into quarters.

Kellan and Roy were still discussing the relocation in reasonable tones. Kieran was toying with the remnants of a scone and seemed supremely bored.

"Thanks for joining us for breakfast, we're going to go," Cedric said, slipping off his chair. He rubbed a hand through his hair and looked adorably rumpled. "Take some tests, make sure we're all right, all that."

Roy broke off something he was saying mid-sentence to Kellan involving security near campus and appeared torn. "That's right, what did happen yesterday, and how are the both of you?"

"That's partially what we're going to find out," Cedric hedged, giving Roy a reassuring smile. He flapped a hand. "Really, it's all right. See you later? Kieran, could you see about getting the fridge re-stocked?"

The redhead gave an instant nod, said "Huh?" then processed the request. With a smile he replied "Oh, sure!"

After tidying up the evidence of their breakfast, Akito and Cedric followed Humphrey back to a lower-level suite that reminded Akito more of a therapist's office than the stainless steel and plastic and cold ceramic tile of the infirmary from the other day. He looked over his shoulder at Humphrey, who nodded to confirm they were in the right place, a glint of amusement in his eyes.

"What kind of tests?" Cedric murmured, apprehension resurfacing in the quiet of the question Akito had to strain his ears to hear.

Humphrey placed a hand on his shoulder briefly, then moved forward into the reception area of the suite. A young man was seated behind the desk, his hair gelled up in a myriad of spiked crests, and he was buffing his nails. His eyes flicked to Humphrey then he reached forward and pressed something on his desk.

"It'll be a few moments, he's in a consult right now," the young man told them. He had a low, pleasant tenor voice. "Nara is on her way, too."

Akito sensed Cedric relaxing at the mention of the woman.

"You can stay if you like, Humphrey," the man continued, "but if not, I believe Ms. Carson wanted to speak to you along with the other bodyguards assigned to the Vaille detail."

Humphrey nodded, pursing his lips. His gaze shifted thoughtfully from Cedric to Akito and back again.

"It's all right," Cedric said. He gave a tremulous smile that firmed up with Akito's light touch to the back of his shoulder. "If it's Ms. Carson it's probably important, right? Go ahead, I'm sure we'll still be here."

The young man behind the desk added helpfully, "Dr. Franco had me clear his schedule for two hours."

Humphrey lifted a hand to Cedric in farewell, giving Akito a look that didnít need translating. Take care of him, I'll be back soon. Akito put his agreement in his eyes, because like him, Humphrey didn't need the verbal confirmation. The huge blond bodyguard turned to go.

Akito and Cedric sat down to wait.

And wait. Apparently, though the doctor's schedule was cleared the afternoon was not entirely theirs.

"What happened to us?" Cedric murmured, shifting on the waiting chair beside him and running a hand over Akito's arm in a gesture reminiscent of earlier, when he'd leaned against Akito in the coffee shop for the simple fact that he could.

"I died," Akito replied, forthright. He was almost certain of that now. He remembered other pieces of yesterday, including the bullets that had plunked down with bloody finality into a basin beside him as his eyes sagged shut after the forced comfort of needles. They had pulled them from his body and by evening he was up and walking around with no holes in his skin. "You brought me back."

"That's what they said," Cedric said, as if it were an admission of guilt. He stroked down Akito's arm to the back of his wrist as if petting him, a frown puckering his pale brows. "I wasn't sure I could believe it yesterday. But today..." He trailed off, and Akito knew what he meant because the words traveled between them anyhow, spoken or not. Today they were connected and it was Cedric's power that knit them together.

"I can do the things that you were afraid to do," Akito said with certainty. In exchange, Cedric had given him the power to protect what was most precious. It was all he wanted.

"And that's okay." Cedric said it like a statement, but there was a question there nonetheless.

In response, Akito turned a fierce look on him. He'd already said it was fine. He might not have known everything when he was assuring Cedric of that this morning, and in fact he didn't have a firm grasp of everything up until now, but his answer wouldn't change.

"All right, all right," Cedric murmured, chuckling. "I'll stop asking, okay?"

Akito turned his hand over, palm-up beneath Cedric's light stroking touch.

Cedric interlaced their fingers together, and that stopped the restless motion of his hand. "Okay then."

They waited perhaps another fifteen minutes when the reception door slid open and a diminutive blonde woman walked through the door. She was nearly half the height of the black man who entered the room on her heels moving like a jaguar, casing out the room. The woman was small, her face smooth, neither pretty nor unattractive but her eyes were restless and older, the one clue that distinguished her from girl to woman because otherwise she appeared quite youthful.

"Cedric," Nara said with a smile, and it brightened her face, highlighting the contrast with fatigue that had been there before the smile. "And your friend is awake, now. It's good to see you both." Her restless eyes probed over them both, going over their faces, the joined hands between them.

"You wanted to see how we were?" Cedric ventured.

"Yes, definitely," Nara said, nodding to the young man behind the reception desk. He lifted a hand in greeting and leaned forward to punch the button on his console once more. "It's not every day I see something amazing, you know." She graced them with another smile.

"Nara here begged off on relocation to Gate duty on the grounds she would have the best insight into your case, boys," the dark-skinned man added, very white teeth flashing at them as he grinned.

"Reims, you donít need to tell them that," Nara said in mild reproof.

"Great, we're a case now," Cedric muttered, thrusting his lip out in the very picture of petulance. There was no sense from him other than amusement, though. "You think it was amazing?"

Akito thought very privately that it was more a case of being lucky to be alive.

Nara turned her gaze on him thoughtfully. "To be honest, don't expect much from evaluations. At least not right away. I saw you both yesterday, and today. Whatever you've managed, it has forged a bond between you. And you, Rukawa, undeniably bear the traces of power that has Cedric's signature. Beyond that, we may not be able to tell you much."

"It's a unique circumstance, therefore amazing?" Cedric guessed.

"Indeed." Nara flashed another smile, then her face grew serious again.

"That's all right." Cedric's hand squeezed down on his. "If all we know is everything we know already, then it's enough. I'm sure we can figure the rest as we go along."

Nara glanced between the two of them and this time she did not smile. Reims guided her further into the room and the suite door contracted shut behind them.

The young man looked up from his reception desk, setting aside his emory board and waving a hand to secure their attention. "Dr. Franco can see you all now, thank you for waiting."

There were certain essential truths to this world, and Akito knew one thing. He didn't need science to confirm the changes in his.

***

The subtle perfume of Arashi's new boss preceded her as she leaned in, looking over his shoulder at the figures scrolling over his console. "So what do you think?" Alicia Carson challenged him.

Arashi pushed sideways from his console to give her more room. "I don't know," he replied with a shrug. "I'm just an analyst."

Alicia gave him a cool look from the corner of her eye. "I don't pay you to be 'just an analyst,'" she retorted. "I want your opinion. You know the decision doesn't hinge on what you say, but I want everyone's input."

Arashi frowned. He'd been looking at the data all day. He wasn't sure that had given him the kind of perspective she was looking for. "Well, as far as clearing the Vailles to go aboveground, I can't see the issue. The city is buttoned up tight. They'll retain bodyguard coverage. So far as security for working on the Grimoire, though... my best recommendation would be to retro-fit a place on or near campus. There are a few facilities that could do."

With a brief touch to his shoulder, she moved on, going around the table to other stations, other analysts.

"I donít like it," Shemyahza Guile spoke up from his station near the head of the long conference table.

"Yes, Shemyahza, you've gone on record several times already speaking out against the clearance, thank you," Alicia said. "Unless you can give me more reliable data than your gut feeling this time, I'm going to continue based on other criteria."

The Nephilim regarded Alicia with hooded eyes as she continued her circuit of the room.

"Your ops team thought it was safe last time..." Shemyahza began.

"That was also when the city was full of unregistereds. The bounty on all of them was called in, and the city was swept--" Kellan interrupted him.

"And before the increased patrols and safeguards on Wall security," Arashi added. "The breach incidents have gone down to zero. Nothing's getting through."

Shemyahza said nothing to that, kicking back his chair and crooking one leg high over the other, propping one heavy bootheel on the lacquered edge of the table.

"The only thing I have lingering concern for is the state of security for the Grimoire, while Professor Vaille and his colleagues are working on it. Arashi, key up the facilities on the central display, please," Alicia said, picking up a stylus and tapping something at her assistant's console.

"So it's settled, then?" Felicia Arks spoke from her position beside Humphrey, crossing her glyph-inscribed arms. They glowed faintly against the backdrop of her dark skin. "We're clearing our charges and taking them top-side?"

"Back to their homes, yes," Alicia agreed. She waved her stylus in Shemyahza's direction as though it were a conducting baton. "With more security measures. Tracers, extra staff in unobtrusive places, even for secondary potential targets like Damon Raine and Kieran O'Bannon. Panic buttons."

"Oh, yes, panic buttons will do a marvelous job keeping them safe if we put them in the position where they can be targets again," Shemyahza drawled, his deep voice rich with contempt. "The safest option is to keep them here until the crisis point is over."

Arashi keyed up the latest figures from the Wall and Defense Corps again, and their own cameras and fail-safes. That was the deciding factor that had convinced him to throw in his opinion in favor of clearing the Vailles and their companions and colleagues. Still zero breaches, and all potential risk targets been taken in by bounty hunters and contractors. With no identifiable risks in the city, and a tightened defense perimeter, he couldn't see any reason to recommend the Vailles stay in lockdown.

Plus, he had to admit that getting Roman as far away from his workspace as possible could be nothing less than a good thing. Bad enough he had to go to school with the insufferable tool.

"We've judged the crisis point to be over. This particular crisis point," Alicia amended. "Really, Shemyahza, I think everyone would agree we responded to the kidnapping and the subsequent attempts on the Vailles with more than adequate aggression. I had the Wall and City Defense Corps breathing down my neck for going too far! My boss, the most easygoing guy in all Orion's branches, wants me to answer to Vanderbrant and Kline for the city's panic due to our recent operations, and you still think it's not enough?"

"It's not a matter of degree--" Shemyahza began, his silver eyes flashing.

"Really?" Arashi spoke up. "The CEOs of Vanderbrant and Kline?"

"Yes, tomorrow," Alicia replied, her tone subdued. She set her stylus down and took in a sharp breath, exhaling it slowly. Her blonde head dipped as she regarded something on her console for a moment, then she looked around the table. "If any of you can prove me wrong, I'm more than happy to reconsider this decision. I am. I've heard all of you and looked at the analysis myself. Last time I judged based on instinct, and I was wrong. This time I've relied on reports and analysis. This is a data-backed decision to clear the Vailles, and in doing so we'll still take every precaution."

"I'm fine with it," Felicia Arks said, uncrossing her arms and leaning forward to set elbows onto the table in front of her.

Beside her, Humphrey hesitated. Of all the bodyguards he'd seen the most direct action of that second wave. He had every reason to set his opinion against the clearance, even if he weren't going on gut instinct. His arm was still in a sling, testament to the fact that his repair factor wasn't nearly so good as part-bloods like Kellan, let alone Shemyahza's full-blooded repair factor. After a long moment, though, the immense blond man extended his fist, then gave a thumb's up.

"I'm going to take that to mean in favor of clearing," Alicia said dryly.

"It does," Felicia told her, patting the big man on the arm.

"Go for it, but do I have to guard O'Bannon, too?" Kellan inquired.

Alicia shrugged, tapping her stylus across the surface of the data console. "Just keep them together, O'Bannon is a secondary target. That's where the extra staff will come in handy."

Shemyahza extended one big hand, giving the thumb's-down.

"Yes, Shemyahza, we already know how you feel," Alicia said. She was holding the stylus rather like someone would hold an instrument they'd use to stab someone.

He shrugged broad shoulders and subsided back into his chair to glower over the proceedings.

"Let's review the facilities, then, if no one has any further objections?" Alicia said. She twirled the stylus around her fingers, but kept her eyes fixed on her own console now.

Arashi tapped a few keys and brought up the first facility: the Carrack building itself. It had some underground levels that could be expanded, their security heightened.

"This one is the Carrack building, where the Vailles live already. They own the building, which is a plus. On the negative side, security is negligible..."

***

Something was sifting through his hair, parting the strands and teasing it out of his eyes. Gabriel became conscious of light falling across his face, painting the insides of his eyelids a molten red. He turned into the touch, enjoying the sensation of that hand finger-combing through his overlong bangs.

"You need a trim," Shemyahza's voice rumbled, but he sounded pleased about it.

Gabriel opened his eyes to a very great deal of naked, dark flesh. He sucked in a startled gasp and scooted back until he was pressed against the headboard, clutching sheets to his chest like an indignant virgin. "What...what are you doing here!?" he demanded, casting hastily through his memories of the previous evening. He didn't get much further than an afternoon nap and working at his console again. He vaguely remembered masticating something around the approximate time of the dinner-hour.

"Relax," Shemyahza instructed, picking something off the nightstand and handing it to him.

It was Gabriel's glasses, and he donned them with a sense of relief - then pulled the sheet tight again, glaring suspiciously at the Nephilim now that he could see him clearly. "You didn't ravish me last night, did you?" He got distracted, gaze dipping from the intense eyes down below collarbones to the well-muscled chest and stripped-down abs. Oh. Well, Shemyahza was wearing briefs, a skimpy black pair. He dragged his eyes up again.

"Wasn't time, in between meetings, making sure you ate, meetings, and putting you to bed to get a good night's sleep," Shemyahza admitted blandly, leaning back and stretching.

Oh. He was definitely wearing nothing but the briefs. And that long, long hair. Gabriel's grip on the sheet loosened. "Oh, well, I suppose if that's the case...that's not really sunlight, is it?"

Shemyahza stopped stretching and circulatory function returned to Gabriel's brain. "No, we're still underground. You're cleared to leave the building today, remember?" The smile left his bodyguard's face.

"Right," Gabriel said vaguely. For some reason, Shemyahza was acting as though that were a bad thing. "So nothing happened last night." Now that he'd verified it, there shouldn't be a slight feeling of let-down.

Shem paused in the act of reaching for a shirt. "Oh?" he said, tone arch. "Disappointed after all, Gabriel?"

"Only in that if it had, I really would hope I'd remember," Gabriel said sharply, pushing down the sheet once and for all. He'd been stripped, after all, but only down to his white Y-fronts. He thought of Shemyahza's big hands on him, skimming his clothes off his unresisting body, and he couldn't meet the Nephilim's eyes.

"Gabriel." The dark man leaned in toward him, close but not touching, body heat thrumming against him. "Trust me, when something happens, you will be awake, and aware, and very much participating. There'd be no fun in it, otherwise."

He turned his head and Shemyahza was there, separated from him only by breath. Gabriel began to shake his head and bumped against Shemyahza's chin, his cheekbone, then their features aligned properly and their mouths found the right fit. Stillness. Shemyahza's mouth was still and unresponsive beneath his, and Gabriel pressed against him and tried again, kissing the fullness of Shemyahza's mouth until lips opened beneath his. He slid his tongue in, and Shemyahza's arm went around his neck, his fingers working into the hair at Gabriel's nape as their lips and tongues chased each other's heat. They kissed and worked deeper, closer, the sheet tangling between them until Gabriel was struggling to breathe through his nose and he felt surrounded by Shem's hand, his mouth and tongue taking the measure of him and his hair spilling around their faces, a curtain that glimmered green in the not-sunlight.

Shem broke first, hand cupping his face. "We have to go," he said, not ragged but not neutral, either.

He wants to lay me, came the thought to Gabriel and for the first time the thought didn't frighten him. He wouldn't - he would not - glance down. Shit, he was glancing down.

"I, bathroom, brush my teeth," Gabriel sputtered, rolling out of bed. He was not fleeing.

Those bikini briefs concealed nothing. At least, not with Shemyahza so happy to see him. Oh god. What had he gotten into? He hadn't asked for this.

Gabriel took his time brushing his teeth and combing his hair and washing up, and if his morning ablutions took a little longer than usual then at least he was sufficiently calm by the time he was done. He squared off with his reflection in the mirror and noted with some surprise there was more color in his face than usual, though he wasn't flushed.

"It was one kiss," he told himself sternly. "And you are not a teenager anymore."

No, he'd never been this taken in by someone even when he had been a teenager, he appended in his thoughts. Still, he had to get a hold of himself. He was a professional, there was a job to be done, and how mortifying was it to get caught making it with one's own bodyguard, anyhow? Though Shemyahza had essentially indicated the arrangement was permanent whether he was being paid or not...

Professional, he had to keep himself on professional footing so long as he was working on this contract, because of its immediate urgency. Not to mention the potential effects on the lives of himself and his family... still, Shemyahza was going to make it difficult if he insisted on treating him like, well, a spouse.

"You can do this," he told his reflection, lifting a stern finger, but if 'do this' meant hold out against Shemyahza's advances indefinitely, he wasn't sure that was an injunction he could follow.

Gabriel wasn't sure what he'd expected to find when he returned to the bedroom; perhaps Shemyahza, still lounging like a jungle cat in the disarray of white sheets that formed a perfect background to his cinnamon-colored skin, a hand dropped to his thigh and those briefs stretched to the breaking point. Reason fled when confronted with that sort of sight and he wasn't sure he could be responsible for his actions if exposed.

Instead, he was brought up short by the sight of Shemyahza, his back to Gabriel as he tucked in the last fold of comforter on a bed made up to precision specs. His long dark hair snaked down his back in a tightly-bound braid made up of multiple strands, more than five at first count. He was wearing his crimson vest already and black leather pants tight enough to admire the rear view; he straightened to his full impossible height and gave Gabriel an arch look.

"I can only assume you're not going to join Ms. Carson in consult wearing your underwear," Shemyahza teased him. He reached for the long silver-gray trench coat that had been left folded over a chair on the other side of the nightstand. Beside it, balanced against the wall and the chair, was the broadsword that was at least as tall as Gabriel's little brother Cedric. Maybe taller.

"I've been called for a consult? Why didn't you tell me?" Gabriel demanded, striding to the dresser and rummaging through drawers for his clothing.

"Closet," Shemyahza corrected him. "And I just told you."

"Am I late?" Gabriel said anxiously, pivoting for the closet and finding his suits had been hung neatly, grouped by color. He definitely hadn't done that himself. He frowned and his hand hesitated over a dark green jacket that would go well with Shemyahza's hair, then moved for a different one, the patterned old-gold brocade that went over a blood-red silk shirt.

"I like the green one," Shemyahza offered his input, no longer halfway across the room but over his shoulder.

"Of course you do," Gabriel said, shaking his head as if ridding himself of a particularly persistent fly. He pulled out a dark navy suit jacket instead, with a matching gold-striped navy dress shirt below.

"Now you look like you're going to a funeral," Shemyahza told him. "You didn't purchase your own wardrobe, did you?"

"How did you know?" Gabriel wondered, turning with a tie in his hand, tugging charcoal gray slacks up over his hips.

Shemyahza raised his brows and took the tie from his hand, stepping past to secure it on the tie tree that the closet must have had already, because Gabriel certainly couldn't remember packing that along with the few belongings he'd taken with him the other day. "Lucky guess," he replied, a smile tipping the corner of his mouth up as he handed a different tie over to Gabriel. "You obviously can't be left in your closet alone."

"What's wrong with the one I picked?" Gabriel demanded, slinging the jacket over one arm as he buttoned one cuff.

Shemyahza leaned in, and began to button Gabriel's shirt up for him. "Nothing. But if you were trying to wear the goldenrod with green fleur-de-lis with your navy and gray, you had to be stopped."

Gabriel drew himself up tall, but the Nephilim still towered over him by several inches. Shemyahza finished with the button below his collarbone, fingers dipping into the hollow of sensitive flesh there, and his eyes moved from Gabriel's eyes on down to his lips.

"Go on, I think you can finish the rest yourself," Shemyahza told him, flicking hair out of Gabriel's face with a deft movement. "I'll pack your things while you consult."

Gabriel finished his cuffs as he left the bedroom and entered the suite proper. He wondered what Ms. Carson could want him to consult on, when he hadn't finished work on any of the documents he'd been translating yesterday. He had been working on that short dedication when his translation skills had been called on for something else that had come in from Ms. Carson's operations team, a message found in the field. That had been translated and turned over yesterday evening, and it was a fairly standard communiquť, scrawled out in one of the recent, common dialects. It wouldn't even have needed his attention if they hadn't needed the translation fast. He was done with that, though -- unless they'd found another high-priority message.

Having gotten in after everyone else situated in Cygnus, he had his own suite with Shemyahza. Roy and his littlest brother were next door, but still, alone in a suite was a dangerous place to be with the Nephilim bounty hunter. So he'd thought, but so far the level of gentlemanly behavior exercised -- and, no doubt, restraint -- had surprised him. He still kept expecting to get ambushed and raped, he supposed. That was what he hadn't expected of Granac, amazingly enough, and now that he'd found himself rescued, it had seemed there was greater risk of it in safety. All his jitters and misgivings aside, the behavior Shem had shown him was making him believe that the Nephilim meant to keep his implicit promise. He wouldn't go faster than Gabriel could handle, until he'd accepted their...what was the term he'd used? Arranged marriage.

You do know that Nephilim mate for life, right?

Gabriel tucked a wing of hair behind his ear and hurried out of the suite. He had a consult to get to, after all. There definitely wasn't time to go mooning about over the will-we-won't-we of the past few days and his own ambivalence of what he still hadn't yet admitted to himself was the inevitable.

He remembered the route to the operations room that Ms. Carson and her team were using, fortunately enough for him. It would be somewhat galling to set out in all confidence and find that he needed his keeper, after all. Not that Shemyahza was...or that he needed...or that it really implied...oh well. He was on his way. He had a feeling that one reason Shem had opted to stay behind doing something so menial as packing involved his disagreement over Ms. Carson clearing them to leave the building.

The conference room-cum-operations center was much the same as he'd left it before, including the same players. Arashi Loire was slumped at one terminal that had three consoles, tapping away at one then the other, getting output from one and switching to the next. Alicia's other assistant, whose name he couldn't recall, was crumpled over another switched-off console, head buried in folded arms. Alicia herself was circling, her entire concentration given over to a holographic display projected over the center of the table: a map of the city and the surrounding terrain outside the Wall, including Long Island.

"Good morning, Gabriel," she greeted him as he stood diffidently beyond the threshold, waiting.

"Did the three of you even sleep?" he inquired by way of response, though he noted that all three were in different clothing. Arashi was wearing a Vanderbrant High uniform, even.

"We're not back to the point where we need to pulling double shifts yet," Alicia replied. It wasn't a responsive answer, but it wasnít any of his business, anyhow.

"I slept," Arashi muttered, sounding resentful about it. His fingers danced over one of his consoles, and the projection in the center of the table changed, map zooming in on Long Island. Amber-colored pinpricks began to appear, intermixed with a number of crimson red ones that vastly outnumbered the amber.

"What's going on?" Gabriel asked, crossing over to the edge of the conference table and laying his hands flat on it, leaning over to examine the high-quality hologram.

"We're going over data pieced together from various moles we sent out into the field along with the purge," Alicia said, straightening and folding her arms. She spared him a brief glance then looked back to the holographic projection. "I wondered if you could spare an opinion, having been recently in Granac Bowen's company yourself."

"Oh?" Gabriel said cautiously, unwilling to commit himself. He was hardly an expert on all things Granac Bowen. He'd given his report on the time he'd spent as a hostage. Wasnít that enough?

"Ms. Carson says you're good at seeing patterns in data," Arashi spoke up, keying something else on his console. "The amber dots here are the moles. Most of them knew what they were, some didn't." He pressed another button, and the amber buttons began to vanish.

"They're disappearing," Gabriel noted.

"Someone's killing them," Alicia said.

He glanced in her direction, then peered at the map again. "Most of your amber dots haven't even made it to the fortress," he observed. "Where are they getting picked off?"

"I knew he'd say that," Arashi muttered, keying something else that made the map go zooming in.

"Yes, but we needed corroboration," Alicia replied, sounding absent about it. She uncrossed her arms and pointed, at the same moment a section was highlighted in green. "Right here, between the bridge and the outer layer of defenses."

"You think Granac is ordering them to be killed?" Gabriel asked, head turning sharply in her direction.

"That's what I wish I could find out," Alicia said, her frustration palpable.

"How are you getting this data?" Gabriel asked them, leaning back from the display. "Remote pick-ups? Please tell me it's not implants, you might as well have killed them yourselves."

"Give us some credit," Arashi uttered scornfully. "The Nephilim wouldn't think to scan for implants."

"Most might not, but Granac Bowen isn't your average Nephilim. I don't know whether he has the equipment, but I wouldn't be surprised. He certainly has the know-how. He was quite sophisticated."

"You sound admiring." Somehow she managed to convey the impression of a raised brow though Gabriel wasn't even looking.

"His methods are different." Gabriel brushed the tabletop with the very tips of his fingers. "That's all I meant. This isn't what you've dealt with before. Is it implants?"

The room was quiet for long enough that Gabriel thought he'd have to put forth the question again.

"A combination of implants and psychics," Alicia admitted at length, hands on her hips now. "You think he's taking them out."

Killing them, she meant.

What else was there to say to that? Gabriel walked until he reached an empty chair and tipped himself into it. "Someone certainly is."

The sound of Arashi's typing filled the conference room for a moment. "The only one we can't get a bead on whatsoever is Turlach. Well, Wolfe or Turlach. It's as if they don't exist. We've even had Nara do the scan, but at this distance..." He pushed away from the table and threw his hands up.

"For what reason exactly did you call me in here?" Gabriel wondered. Rude question, but neither of the two conscious people in this room were likely to take offense. "You sent out someone with Nephilim blood to infiltrate, I can only assume, and now you're getting upset that you can't track him. If he's good enough to be tracked by your people, don't you think Bowen would ferret him out within moments of making contact with him?"

Neither Orion operative answered him. Gabriel, not particularly big on eye contact, noted that neither was meeting his eye.

"I'll be of better use to you translating the Fifth Grimoire," he decided. "I can't give you any great insights into Bowen's personality, only what I've given you in my report so far. Surely Shemyahza told you everything he knew, as well? Now, since you've cleared us, I have classes to get back to and translation--"

An inadvertent movement disturbed the other side of the holograph, creating a distorting ripple effect as Alicia shifted. Her pale face was smudged over green and sprinkled with red freckling points of light. "You can't cancel them, or have Roy handle them instead?"

"You're not counting on me to find something useful, are you?" Gabriel said in surprise.

She shook her head, spreading her hands palm-up. "If he wants it that badly, Gabriel, I want to know as soon as possible. If there's any chance that there's something, anything in there that we can use to take out Long Island for good... well, I'm not above using it."

Gabriel examined the black lacquer of the conference table before setting his hands on a powered-down console, skimming the subtle texture of its surface. He rubbed over it a moment, in his mind calling up the image of the first page, its dedication he hadnít yet had time to translate, and recalling the earliest myths. Six clans, six great powers, six grimoires. He was sure it was a dedication, but to what?

Hands settled on his shoulders and Gabriel lifted his head, blinking the vagueness from his eyes.

"Gabriel!" Alicia was saying sharply.

One of the hands rubbed against his neck, skin touching skin there. "I should've known I'd find you in some fugue," the familiar deep of Shemyahza's voice rumbled.

"What's wrong with him?" Alicia demanded.

Shemyahza gripped at his arm, urging him to rise. Gabriel did so on steady legs, but wondered nonetheless if it were some kind of low blood sugar attack. "He's fine," Shem told her. "All he needs is some training and he'll have a better handle on it."

Anyone who knew Alicia Carson couldn't fail to realize she would persist with her line of questioning. "But what happened?"

There was a discernable glint in Shemyahza's eye as Gabriel turned his head to seek an explanation himself. "You've cleared him, I've come to collect. Are we done?"

"Fine," she gave up, dropping a hand to one skirt-clad thigh. "Gabriel. The upshot is that I need those spells, if there are any. We've bought ourselves some time for analysis by clearing out the city, but I can't help but think he'll hit the Wall harder than it's ever been hit, if he really wants that tome. If ever there was a time to find something new and powerful, I think we've found it."

"No," Gabriel murmured, at the same time Shemyahza said in a louder, stronger voice, "That's not his way - a direct assault. Better to guard your Gates."

"With psychics and science," Alicia affirmed, as his own personal bounty hunter guided Gabriel out of the room. "Arashi, I've got my appointment with the CEOs... Oh, thank you, Gabriel. Remember, I need you to translate whatever essential texts you can."

"I will..." Gabriel said, furrowing his brow at Shem, whose mouth was set in that grim, flattened line he'd seen a few times already during the short course of their acquaintance. He knew that was the goal; he'd already started on the spell-work section the other night prior to returning to that dedication. He knew, too, that it was urgent. As for classes, well, Roy was perfectly capable...

Roy was probably going to get mad.

Before the door had quite hissed shut behind them, Gabriel tugged his arm from Shemyahza's loose grasp. "What are you on about?" he demanded. "There's something you're not telling me. Is it about the Fifth?"

"I'd just as soon destroy it," Shemyahza said unexpectedly. "Come on, we're all packed, your things have been loaded into one of the transports we're taking."

"You don't want us to go." Gabriel grasped at the sleeve of his silvery-gray trench coat. It was, indeed, as soft as its visual texture hinted, not suede but some kind of microfiber. "Then why are we going?"

In a whirl of that lovely silver-gray fiber and dark hands, Gabriel was pinned to the wall of the corridor. There was a large hand to either side of his face, not touching him but close. "What do you want, Gabriel?" It was a low growl, but not menacing.

A shiver worked up over his skin, and Gabriel turned his face away. There were many answers, because that question could take him many places. And Shem knew where he went when he wasn't 'here.' "I want to go home," he answered, honest as he had to be. Shemyahza would smell a lie.

He was released, and Shemyahza strode up the corridor without him, trench coat snapping at his heels. "Then we return to the Carrack Building," the Nephilim replied.

"As simple as that." Gabriel staggered away from the wall. His knees weren't weak, so the unsteadiness was caused by something else.

"Because you want it," Shemyahza said. It was that simple. He waited in the hallway then until Gabriel reached his side. They continued from that point in silence until reaching the elevator. Something might have happened, then, a humbleness kindled in him from the acquiescence Shemyahza had given leading to something else, but Gabriel recalled a certainty from the bounty hunter that clung to him, bothered him.

"You said you'd destroy it," Gabriel called that phrase up as the elevator ascended.

The dark sleek head bent. "So I would," Shemyahza agreed. "All of them, if I could. Some knowledge has no place being preserved."

"How can you say that?" Gabriel said, appalled. "The knowledge in those books, the weight of the ages--"

"Even now, they destroy things," Shemyahza said matter-of-factly. "When no one understands a damned word, people die and the demons go killing. Even if the tome had the secrets of the universe, I wouldn't want it."

"Not even if it has the means to keep us all safe?"

"It does so by killing all of our enemies, you know," Shemyahza said, taking Gabriel's chin and turning him to align their gazes. "It may not even unleash the reactions you expect. The other tomes were lost when Washington D.C. and Los Angeles were leveled. There's no precision in a weapon that dwarfs nuclear fission."

"And there's a reason the knowledge was split into six tomes," Gabriel murmured. "I wonder what two together might do?"

Shemyahza chuckled. "You could spend a lifetime on them," he guessed.

The doors parted, and Shemyahza was at his elbow as they emerged, not touching him but guiding nonetheless. They came out onto a different corridor, the slate gray of stone, a narrow entryway crowded with other bodies. Gabriel halted mid-step and would have stopped there if not for Shemyahza, reaching out to actually take his arm as he hesitated.

Richard Vanderbrant lifted his dark head, fixing Gabriel with a direct look from those piercing lapis-blue eyes. His handsome face tightened, eyes narrowing, and a gentleman in an impeccable suit was ushering the Vanderbrant onto the elevator Gabriel himself had just exited.

"What--" Gabriel uttered, shock depriving his outcry of any force. The doors of the elevator slid shut on his uncle Richard's glare, seeking him out even beyond the broad shoulder Shemyahza had interposed.

"He's here for a briefing," Shemyahza said, keeping him on track with a hand at the back of his neck.

"Briefing on what? Oh..."

The bounty hunter led him to one of the vehicles parked near the end of a long row, a utility vehicle big enough for five or six and their luggage. They were the last ones to arrive, as evidenced by the crowd of people around two cars. With an infinitesimal squeeze, Shem released his neck and made for one of the two utility vehicles with open doors, brimful of luggage.

"Gabriel!" Cedric called out, hurrying to his side. "Did you see? Did you...?"

"Uncle Richard?" Gabriel filled in the blank. He ruffled fine strands of his brother's hair as Cedric bumped into his side, twisting his hands together and trying to convey something with wide anxious eyes. "Yes, I saw." What it meant was, in essence, that his uncle was a power in the city, and that drove home the fact that either way things went, the lawsuit over control of Vanderbrant assets would bring unpleasantness to his family.

He was not without resources of his own, but calling them in had always been something he was uncomfortable enacting.

"Let's go," called Kellan, tapping a hand on the roof of one of the cars. "Come on, folks, let's split up into two units. Roy, Kieran."

Gabriel petted his brother's head, then nudged him toward the other car, where Rukawa was already slipping into the backseat. "Go, I'll see you later."

"But what does he want, what's he doing here?" Cedric wanted to know.

"Talk about it later," Gabriel said with a shake of his head. He went to join Shemyahza, who had taken up a position beside the shotgun door of Kellan's car.

Gabriel slipped into the larger of the two sports utility vehicles, the big black one that Kellan had claimed that had tinted windows and two bench seats behind the driver and shotgun seats. He took the row behind Roy and Kieran, casting about reflexively for his briefcase, even twisting to inspect the cargo area behind the back row. He was all but upended over the bench seat when Shemyahza's deep voice informed him, "It's secured on top." Gabriel flipped back onto the seat and dashed hair out of his face, making a mental note to either cut his hair or start carrying a hair-tie around with him again.

"You don't even know what I'm looking for--" Gabriel started, and the Nephilim leaned in through the open side door, braced on the top of the car.

"Your briefcase," Shemyahza stated, silver eyes sheened over with luminescence in the low light like a cat's.

"How..." He trailed off as Shemyahza climbed into the shotgun position, cranking the window down. The great sword was out and resting beside the front passenger's seat, sheathed but its very presence a reminder of the possible violence, the reason they were surrounded by bodyguards to begin with.

Over at the other car, Roman made a face at him through the window, catching sight of him through the utility vehicle's open door. Gabriel watched their little brother pile in beside him, then Rukawa slid in and the large blond bodyguard was sliding the door shut on their van. "Room for one more?" Damon Raine asked, coming to a stop by the open door of their vehicle. His mouth was pinched, his face pale and marked with shadows prominent beneath his eyes. He wasnít so much the very picture of the crisp, well-dressed young professional Gabriel had been at odds with for years.

"Climb aboard," Kellan told him. She had already taken her seat and was buckling her crash harness. "I want to see crash harness lights for everyone or I don't move this beast out of park. Damon, please slide the door shut after you."

Even with all that accomplished in short order, they were pulling out of the garage behind the yellow SUV that held Gabriel's brothers, their bodyguard, and the young man who'd attached himself to little Cedric. Through the tinted windows he watched the rows of cars and hydro bikes scroll past, then empty lot spaces. There was a bump and the tilt of revving up a ramp, then open air: tall buildings, cloud-hazed blue sky.

He turned his attention from the slice of city available from his window, which was so deeply tinted that visibility was restricted somewhat even from the inside. To Gabriel's other side, Damon Raine was slumped in his crash harness, rubbing at an unshaven chin and in danger of burning a hole through the SUV's floorboards. Gabriel racked his brains for something to say to the man beyond bland pleasantries, which he had never really understood or engaged in, or reassurances which would be ridiculous coming from him given the near-blatant enmity between them over the past few years. In fact, Gabriel realized, he had never had a real conversation with the man.

Well. This was awkward.

"Can you drop me off at my own apartment?" Damon raised his voice all of a sudden. He pressed flattened hands to both sides of his face, fingers rotating at his temples. "I don't think... I mean, this isn't going to work out. My equipment is all at home." He tacked on the last sentence hurriedly.

"That's fine," Kellan said. "I'm going to radio for ancillary staff, all right? We'll have someone watch your building, and you'll be fitted with a tracer and a panic button."

"Fine," Damon said dully, and went back to staring at the floor of the SUV. He caught sight of Gabriel watching him with all the inquisitiveness he would turn on a newly unearthed specimen, and his gaze hardened. The man straightened his shoulders and turned toward the opposite window.

Don't show your enemy your weakness, Gabriel understood that to mean. It was early enough that Damon could recover his life if he chose not to remain with Roman. Then again, the decision might not entirely be his. Judging from Roman's behavior that morning, Gabriel's brother might not be in control of his actions. He wondered what Shemyahza had told him in their session, and while curiosity was a big motivator with him, in this case he'd chosen discretion.

He could wait for Roman, or for Shemyahza, to tell him. Damon, on the other hand, could use the manual if there was one.

They made a brief stop in front of a high-rise and Kellan kept the SUV idling at the curb, glancing over her shoulder and in all the vehicle mirrors. Shemyahza got out and extracted something from the top of the SUV, his height making it an easy reach for him. Then he helped Damon from the vehicle and leaned in, clasping the man's arm and saying something that Gabriel couldn't hear over the engine and the distance. Whatever it was, the angry lines of Damon's face eased, though not disappearing.

"Let's go," Kellan urged as Shemyahza slid the side door shut, reclaiming his seat as shotgun. "I'll drop you two off at the Carrack building and take Roy and Kieran to campus, all right? They have classes."

"That leaves only one bodyguards for two people," Gabriel spoke up. If Orion thought they were going to leave Kieran unguarded, even though he was technically unimportant in the scheme of campus hierarchy, he was going to have to have words with Alicia.

"It's all right," Kieran said, and there was color rising in the back of his neck, flushing up to his ears. "I'm, uh, going to stay at Roy's for now because it's right near campus and Kellan said she could guard us both."

"You have different classes..." Gabriel argued, because that didn't cover it by a long shot, and why was Shemyahza craning around in his seat to give him that look?

"We have ancillary staff, one of whom will be tailing Kieran as he attends classes while I keep an eye on Roy," Kellan responded. "Don't worry, Gabriel, we're in full compliance of the protection clause of your contract."

Shemyahza gave a slight nod to emphasize that and resettled himself in his chair.

Gabriel scowled at the back of the sleek dark green head. What was all that about, then?

"Carrack building coming up," Shemyahza said, one hand going to the hilt of his huge broadsword.

Everyone tensed, ratcheting up the atmosphere in the SUV another notch. Gabriel hadn't before realized that he had been holding his shoulders so stiffly. Kieran had edged closer to Roy on the forward bench, and Kellan was slipping a weapon back into the holster.

"Don't do that, Guile," she was saying, "not if you're not going to use it."

Shemyahza bared his teeth at her. "I'm going to wear it, as soon as I get out of the car."

"So grab it right before you get out of the car."

The matter was rendered academic as they pulled into the gateway for the underground parking to the Carrack building. Gabriel leaned forward to give the password to Kellan, then closed his eyes with relief as they reached "safety" once more. For now, home was still safe to him, no matter how much of an illusion that might be.

"What about the basement level conversion?" Gabriel inquired hopefully. One of the release contingencies, he'd been told the day before, was that his building was to be retro-fitted with top security technology to enable he, Roy, and Kieran to work in a new underground lab. As the basement level had been used for storage, and it was a simple matter to transfer those goods to another property and compensate the others using the space, Gabriel had agreed to the condition at once. Now he was eager to get back to work because it had been quite long enough since he'd put his work on halt for another project.

"Not yet," Shemyahza replied. "There's workers on it even now, but we don't expect the tome to be transported here until this evening at the earliest."

Gabriel wilted against the bench's armrest as Roy laughed.

"That's the quickest way to make the professor pout," his traitorous grad student declared. "Dangle a project out there for him to work on, and keep him physically separated from it."

Kieran began to twist around in his seat. "He's pouting? I can't picture the professor pouting..."

"That's all right," Shemyahza's deep voice overrode other threads of conversation. "There are other things to do in the meantime, Gabriel."

From the rich promise of that voice Gabriel postulated that could mean the training he'd mentioned earlier, or...best not to let his imagination fill in the blank.

The SUV pulled to a halt directly beside the elevator nook, and Shemyahza was climbing out and unhooking luggage from the top before the tires stopped moving. Gabriel waited until he had Kellan's nod before untangling himself from the crash harness, tripping over the tight fit between the other bench and his own, too much of himself folded up in too little space as he went flailing out the door.

He hadn't expected to hit concrete with Shemyahza outside the door and he wasn't disappointed. He was caught neatly in strong arms and lifted upright, his lapels brushed off, briefcase handed to him and only then did Gabriel pull himself straight to meet his rescuer's eyes.

"Thank you," he said with dignity, ignoring Shemyahza's low chuckle to scoop up his other case. Everything else, rare precious papers and screen-files and hard copy would be hauled to the new, secure facility in the Carrack building basement, but that was later. He would be notified. "See you later, Roy, Kieran." He inferred their waves as the door of the SUV was already sliding shut.

Gabriel did not wonder why Shemyahza didn't offer to help him with briefcase and clothing case. The bounty hunter did not hover, but there was a sharpness to his movements, to his gaze that skimmed over everything as he gestured for Gabriel to precede him. The elevator ride was longer than any he cared to recall as Shemyahza mused aloud how they should have taken the stairs, because an elevator was an obvious place to hit.

"But the city has been purged?" Gabriel ventured, and received a dirty look in response.

"I don't trust all the data in the world that they could produce to tell me the city is safe," Shemyahza replied. He leaned against the panel and eyed the old-fashioned pointer that aimed at floor numbers as they passed as if his glare would make it spin faster, or break it off entirely. "So long as Granac Bowen is out there and he wants you, you and your family aren't safe."

But you said we could return, Gabriel thought, and kept it to himself. He hadn't, not really. He had agreed to it because Gabriel wanted to. Even now he wouldn't take it back. He believed in the data more than the instant dread of the unknown enemy.

The Vailles' suite in the Carrack building was old-fashioned; it was keyed to their touch, the door sampling their DNA and scanning the retina. He was going to have to add a voiceprint again, to appease Shemyahza's views on safety, and probably a hidden ident disc of some sort. That was inconvenient, because Gabriel had always had trouble keeping track of his keys. Some days he couldn't drive because he couldn't picture where he'd last left them.

"Hold on," Shemyahza told him as Gabriel cracked open the door. The Nephilim went through first, one hand on the weapon at the small of his back.

"Welcome to my home," Gabriel said, fighting to keep the ironic note from his voice. He wasn't sure where the obscure flood of disappointment had come from, but he wasn't some child; he knew what Shemyahza was after and what his first job was for. He toed his shoes off in the foyer and cocked his head as Shemyahza stood at the edge of the first rug and...something. Gabriel shook his head. A pulse washed over his senses, a soundless, invisible burst of energy that he could nonetheless intuit like a shiver or crackle of electricity over his skin.

Either he was getting better at this, or more attuned.

Shemyahza turned to him, intense eyes sweeping away the tattered remains of Gabriel's unreasonable disappointment, and descended on him like a dark green-maned dragon, arms coiling around him and drawing him close.

"Welcome home," Gabriel amended, and that was what he really wanted to say. Idiotic expectations of rape dissolved as Shem simply hovered over him, looking at him. Waiting. He wants me to be ready; he's waiting for my sign. All at once the heaviness of desire hit him like a sucker-punch, like the sudden breathless grasping of the other day with Shem everywhere, hands on his skin and thighs against his and hardness, the implacability of his touch and teeth and the rising tide between them. Some hint of that must have showed in his face because Shemyahza released a noise, a rough and hungry noise, but held him and did not lower his face.

Gabriel reached up and clasped the rise of elegant cheekbones in both hands, tugging him down. He was impatient for everything all at once. He wanted skin, but he surrendered for now to the desire for this kiss. Shemyahza's mouth was firm on his, then the wet line of his tongue came between them, sealed them together.

"The place is empty," Shemyahza offered, his voice scraping raw with need.

"Let's go to my bedroom," Gabriel answered the implied question, not sounding much more socially presentable himself.

Shemyahza pulled away enough to crane his head over his shoulder, as if analyzing the bedroom from a distance. "Your bedroom has a wall of glass for a window," he told him, smoky, low. He bent in toward Gabriel's temple as if to press his lips there, nuzzle, but held himself back at the last minute. "That's hardly secure." Now his lips hovered and Gabriel turned his face up blindly.

"Oh, what does it matter..."

The door unlatched and they spun away from one another, Shemyahza beyond swift with his hand going to the small of his back and the weapon cached there. Gabriel was left to blink myopically at the doorway as his brothers spilled through it, Roman in the lead and jabbing out a leg to trip his brother, Cedric foiling that attempt by clinging limpet-like to his brother's side.

"We're home!" Cedric announced, detaching himself from Roman and flinging himself onto Gabriel, who knelt at the last second in order to allow his brother to impact against his chest rather than other, potentially more painful things. "I didn't like dropping off Rukawa-senpai." He said it into Gabriel's ear, a secret imparted.

Gabriel tensed an arm around his littlest brother. They would have to have another talk soon, bigger than the sex talk, he could tell. It scared him and his eyes met Shemyahza's over the crown of Cedric's fair head.

The bounty hunter shifted, his hand released from the small of his back, inscribing a brief discreet motion. Later, the message came across, even if the method wasn't entirely accessible.

What had happened between his brother and Rukawa? He'd only gotten enough information while they were in Cygnus to provoke further questions. But Shemyahza was right -- later.

"Put your things away, boys, and scramble into your uniforms," Gabriel said.

"Shit, we're going to school this morning?" Roman exclaimed.

"Of course!" Gabriel said irritably, taking a swipe at Roman's head now. "Why do you think they released us so early? Yes, get ready, you've got just enough time." He backed away from the foyer into the hall as Felicia peeped around the doorway, then pushing it open as they made more room. And the great Nordic man did, indeed, need a lot of room.

"I think I'll stay home today," Roman said, patting Cedric's head then peeling him away from Gabriel, walking them backwards. He bumped into his bodyguard and startled.

"We'll take it from here," Felicia assured him, setting a suitcase by the door, side-stepping Cedric, and taking hold of Roman's ear. She then frog-marched him up the hall while Gabriel gaped.

"Never thought of handling him that directly, did you?" Shem's voice curled darkly in his ear.

"I, I can't, I'm his brother," Gabriel said, but his protest lacked force. When he turned to frown, Shemyahza was removed from him by several paces again.

Cedric stood at the edge of the foyer, similarly gaping. Then he kicked off his shoes and hurried up the hall to his own bedroom, the door slamming shut behind him.

"Make yourself at home," Gabriel told Humphrey, making a sweeping gesture that could include the kitchen or the living room, wherever he felt most comfortable.

They had come and gone so quickly that Gabriel had been turned over thoroughly as a whirlwind tossing him. Then Shemyahza was there beside him, setting a hand on his shoulder.

"What do you want?" he asked him, and Gabriel closed his eyes.

That moment, uncharitably, he wanted his brothers away at school and no longer participating in the bad timing awards. Business before pleasure. It was a timely reminder that he had too much to do, and not enough time. Hadn't Shem promised to show him something after Gabriel had made a remark about that?

"An empty apartment..." he said, speculative.

His one consolation was that, for sure, both younger Vailles would move out some day. They had to.

"There's still all that glass in your bedroom, we're going to have to do something about that," Shemyahza rumbled.

Of all things, it distressed Gabriel to contemplate the loss of his beautiful view. He wondered if Orion had a technological solution for that.

"It'll take time," Gabriel decided, hesitating between his shoes and heading for the kitchen and another cup of tea. He opted for the shoes, grabbing his briefcase and making for the door with the confidence of someone who'd never been impeded on his way out before. He regarded the hand anchoring his arm with some surprise. "What are you doing?" His brothers were home; they couldn't...

"What do you think you're doing?" Shemyahza turned it back on him, giving a nod to the door.

Leaving...? "Going to campus, I have classes to teach," Gabriel replied, hanging onto his briefcase. Shield, or battering ram?

"Wrong," Shemyahza said. "You're going nowhere, without me."



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