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

by Talya Firedancer


Back in class, back to the boring parts of his life, back to waiting for the bell to ring as if the past few days had never happened. There was no more normal for him, though, now that he knew what he was. He wanted to set his head down, he wanted to hide under the sheets and pretend that the knot in his belly would go away, and most of all he wanted to avoid dealing with it completely. There were choices, Shemyahza Guile had told him, and for Roman he was pretty sure the time was running out.

So he watched the clock, and he thought of each tick as the seconds passed as one of those options. Tick, he tried to pour all of it into one person. Tock, he got a bigger, better day planner.

Roman laced his fingers together and watched Arashi from the periphery of his vision. If Arashi so much as suspected what he was thinking he'd probably be tossed out the second-story window of their class. And, of course, he'd deserve it. Arashi had already made it amply clear that Roman was not wanted, not by him, and for him to consider it while Roman had a boyfriend was to him beneath contempt.

He was beneath contempt, Roman wanted to tell him. He wanted to tell anyone who'd listen. Damon certainly wouldn't hear a word of it and maybe because he knew it all and still said that, was the reason Roman wanted to push him away most of all.

Damon deserved better. Arashi deserved better too, of course, but... Roman wanted a taste.

He wasn't openly staring, but when the bell rang Arashi hissed "Keep your eyes to yourself or I'll feed them to you," low enough for Roman to hear but no one else.

Before he'd even pushed away from his school desk he was mobbed. Classmates hemmed him in as he reached for his schoolbag, and Charlotte Mead propped herself on the edge of his desk, her skirt perilously close to pushing up beyond the danger line as she leaned in, her long hair brushing Roman's face before he straightened.

"River, where've you been? We've been so worried!"

A general murmur of agreement followed her words. He got to his feet, distributing a flippant smile around the circle of admirers. Of all of them, only Charlotte was anything approaching a friend -- two of the guys were hopefuls, either for a first encounter or repeat performance, and the girls were hanger-on types, circulating in his orbit because they thought it made them look good.

"I'm sure you have been, Charming," Roman drawled, slinging his bag over one shoulder and mirroring her position, leaning against his desk and going shoulder to shoulder with her. She giggled and shoved against him as if determined to knock him askew. "The city's been in an uproar, sure. Even in the well-to-do rings. But why on earth would anyone miss me?" He stretched his neck to glance over the press of surrounding people, searching for Arashi. The boy had already hightailed it, and why bother to stay? He already had a job waiting for him after school hours. Someone like Arashi didn't even seem to need school to begin with, so it was an item of curiosity that he showed up at all.

"So many reasons." The dark-haired boy, Trevor, leaned in to give him a smoldering look. He wasn't on Roman's list because he certainly wasn't the most attractive in Roman's class -- and seemed to think Roman was easy, rather than what Roman preferred to think of as 'available.'

Roman ducked his head and concealed irritation. "It's lovely to hear, then." Was it possible he'd get to the point where he had no choice, where he had to make time for boys that didn't appeal to him like Trevor in order to fit enough sex into his day?

You just know, Shemyahza had told him. How supremely unhelpful. Roman didn't know what pair of shoes he felt like wearing that day, let alone a life-altering item like with whom to spend the rest of his life.

That brought him back to the wretchedly pointless conversation he'd had over the phone with his lover during the lunch break. Even locking himself in the furthest stall of the men's room didn't guarantee privacy with one Felicia Arks on the job, so Roman had sequestered himself on the top floor of the north wing, near the disused Krimsley Student Center. After he'd tucked himself into a corner shielded from casual view behind a pillar, Felicia had given him several feet of room to dig his own grave with Damon.

I'm not going to let you ease me out of your life, Damon had told him. Then he had added with unusual good humor considering the circumstances, you can't, anyhow -- at the very least, professionally we're too entwined.

That had sparked another fight which had consumed the next thirty minutes. After shouting at Damon to stay off his back while he tried to cope with the changes that had been thrust on him, it only degenerated from there. They'd gotten childish. Damon had offered to pick him up, Roman had told him not to bother, and they'd descended into 'I will anyhow,' 'don't bother,' and the like.

Instead of trying to throw his phone through the plate glass window, he'd exercised supreme restraint and dropped it back into its thigh-pocket, then attempted to flee to the nearest bathroom for the last ten minutes of the lunch break. His plan had been to jack off and gain at least a little relief -- it had been over forty-eight hours or more -- and even that was denied him.

Felicia followed him everywhere.

"Do you have a shoot today, River?" Charlotte asked him, rubbing at his arm in a conciliatory gesture.

"Yeah, I do, actually," Roman replied, getting up from his desk and pinching one of her cheeks. Charlotte had a pretty, heart-shaped face, a ready laugh and the biggest chest in their grade and she must've been a fag hag, because she hung around with him. He didn't know how he'd gotten so lucky. Well, she'd sat beside him their first day of junior high and said, 'Hi, I'm Charlotte, you're so pretty!'

Flattery got a body everywhere, with Roman.

"Get going!" she urged him. "Shoo! I'm sure Damon's waiting for you."

Roman grimaced, his hand automatically dropping to the thigh pocket where he kept his phone, though it hadn't rung. He had it on vibrate during the day when class was in session, so keeping it in that pocket was the fastest route to knowing if it was time for a bathroom break hall pass. "I'm sure he is," he temporized, and tried to figure whether Felicia would fall for a ruse to slip out the side door ostensibly to avoid more assassination attempts. That was something no one would expect, after all.

"See you later, River!" Trevor said, stroking his shoulder in passing.

Roman wrenched away from the press of admirers, a little more forceful than strictly necessary. Felicia rolled her head to face him from where she stood beside the classroom door, then made a gesture toward the exit.

"Give me a minute," he told her, grabbing an idea on the fly. "I need to make a trip to the library." He was proud of himself for not stuttering over that.

Her brows rose. "You?"

"Yeah, I'll be right back," he said, all nonchalance. "It's right up the hall here; I'll be within eyeshot the whole time."

She shook her head, arms crossing, but it wasn't a negative. Chuckling, Felicia told him, "That's eyesight, now get goin', boy, I know you've got an after-school shoot."

"And Damon's only called you to remind you three times or so, because he knows he won't get through with me," Roman muttered as he started up the hallway. Vague ill-formed ideas of sneaking out the library's emergency exit or even a window coursed through him, then he spotted Arashi coming out of the faculty advisor's office and was galvanized to keep moving, seizing Arashi by the elbow and wrenching him off-course with him.

As he hustled him up the short stretch of hallway he babbled, "Hey Arashi I need some help for a minute actually more along the lines of an update" -- he dragged his classmate into the single-cubicle handicapped bathroom beyond the faculty advisor's office, and locked the door -- "okay, lies, all of it. Sorry about that."

"What are you doing?" Arashi hissed, bristling and seeming to grow about five inches, though he wasn't much taller than Roman. Not even in his non-regulation combat boots, which didn't add more than an inch to his height but looked the part of beyond cool.

Roman shrugged. "I don't really know?" he offered, then struck.

When last he'd had his chance to ply his wiles on Arashi, he'd been open and direct about his offer and equally forthright about the chance to be turned down. Even then, though, Roman's desires might have played an unconscious part in influencing Arashi, who'd acceded in the student center with much less of a fight than Roman had figured him for.

This time, Roman hooked an arm around Arashi's neck and plastered him with a heavy kiss that begged for his mouth to be opened, for Arashi to help himself at the same time he tried for the first conscious moment to exert his powers. He poured his frustrated sexuality into Arashi like tipping an overflowing kettle over the cup, a tidal wave of scalding heat and thoughts of touching, rubbing, licking his way up and down bare skin and sucking down to the root and tonguing down lower, fingers pressing and the best kind of heat pressing into him, taking, thrusting, fucking him until he couldn't take anymore.

Arashi tensed against him like a live wire and Roman closed his eyes, sucking ever so softly at the fullness of Arashi's lower lip. Arashi was so rigid that Roman was afraid he was about to shatter, or pull back and beat the shit out of him as promised. Still he couldn't stop the thoughts from tumbling through him, pushing Arashi's pale legs open, admiring the view, licking and nipping his way up the femoral artery and enjoying himself from there... In the middle of the kiss, still expecting to get hauled back and punched, Arashi shuddered against him and opened his mouth with a low moan.

Triumphant, Roman slid an arm around Arashi's waist and he was pushed up against the plaster wall of the bathroom, Arashi's hands unbuckling his belt with due urgency. Their mouths were frantic and Arashi appeared determined to make Roman suffocate on his tongue, his response was so enthusiastic.

The flat angry glare of Arashi in the hallway at Cygnus surfaced in Roman's mind, and that look clashed with the Arashi here and now, who pulled away from him only long enough to tear at Roman's shirt with hurried fingers, a thin slash of color rising in his pale cheeks as he raked a heated gray glance over Roman's face, his chest, and down.

Arashi hated him. Arashi was going to screw him now with all the rough tenderness of a devoted lover.

Roman recoiled. "This is wrong," he muttered. He shoved at Arashi's chest to gain the distance he needed. He could do it, he could take what he wanted and make Arashi enjoy it too, even if he'd hate him later. That wasn't much deterrent when he knew that Arashi would hate him later no matter what.

Arashi's storm-gray eyes flashed at him, and he stumbled back away from him, sense resurfacing. That was the look Roman remembered now, hotness replaced by horror. "You're telling me? What about your boyfriend, Roman!? We already had this conversation." He surveyed Roman's disheveled clothing, and scrubbed the back of a hand across his lips. "What the hell did you do to me?"

Someone was pounding on the door.

"Open the door, or I will shoot the lock off!" Felicia shouted, and Arashi reached past him, exaggerated in his movements to avoid touching or brushing up against Roman in any way. He unlocked the door and stopped before he was entirely through.

"Don't you ever try that again or you won't be capable with another man afterward," Arashi warned him. His gray eyes were savage, frosty as the ice storm Roman had originally thought for which he should be named.

He meant it, Roman thought, morose over it. And maybe that would be doing him a favor.

Felicia began the familiar indignity of the frog-march up the hallway and Roman wrenched out of her grip. It made her eyes round and that caused him fleeting satisfaction. She hadn't thought he had the strength.

"I know the way, thanks," he snapped, heading for the front entrance and counting on her to shadow him as she did everywhere. Even the bathroom.

"What the hell did you think you were doing?" Felicia demanded, quiet so it wouldn't carry but intense nonetheless.

"Dunno," Roman replied after a few paces, touching his own mouth with the tips of his fingers. He compressed his lips, wrinkling his nose, then scrubbed at his mouth with the back of his hand, mirroring Arashi's disgusted gesture. "It didn't feel right."

There was silence, then a surprised snort. "I didn't mean tryin' it with the division head's son, though I suppose I may as well have," she allowed. "I mean dodging me and locking yourself in the bathroom. We already had this talk, I thought."

"Right. I know," Roman said dully. "I get no privacy until we're safe for good. Which means no sex for the rest of my life. And according to Guile, that will make me hell on wheels for everyone around me, you know, though I won't die...but I'd be technically better off dead."

Felicia drew even with him, putting a hand on his arm and the concern in her features went through him like a knife.

"Don't," he warned her, allergic to sympathy. "I mean it, don't say a damned thing."

She shook her head, but respecting his wishes for once she didn't utter a word.

There were cars lined up along the drive. Roman wasn't the only rich or at least well-to-do student who got picked up from high school in the afternoons. Some, with kids in the junior as well as secondary schools, had their youngest walk over to the high school, which had the bigger, wider drive, and took the whole family home from there. Roman searched up the drive without thinking twice about it and caught his breath when he caught sight of Damon's luxury sedan.

"He waited," Roman said, and fretted his lower lip between his teeth. Lucky for him a body couldn't smell shame on a person.

"C'mon," Felicia said, and bumped his elbow to urge him along but didn't take hold of him this time.

The door was shoved open before Roman reached the curb, and he leaned in, catching hold of the passenger-side door to stop it before it reached the apex of its swing. Damon was still half-sprawled over the seat, and he peered up at Roman from beneath dark bangs tumbled over his eyes.

Roman's self-control caved under the flood of sensual imagery that sight provoked. He half-fell over himself stumbling into the sedan, hauling the door shut behind him and draping himself over the gear shift column to stop just short of offering his face up. Damon stroked his cheek, hazel eyes heavy-lidded, a little sad, but he kissed him.

Heat flared between them and in seconds Roman was whimpering into his mouth, cupping the base of Damon's neck and wordlessly urging more. He wanted Damon to consume him until he was gone.

When he tore himself away for a breath of air the door was slamming shut and Felicia was muttering "oh please" and Damon was petting him with apologetic fingers to let him know he wouldn't continue.

"Five minutes," Roman begged his bodyguard.

"No," Felicia said equably.

"Please, five minutes," Roman pressed, using his best manners.

"Uh-uh," Felicia returned.

"Come on, five minutes, it's been DAYS, and I'm going to die!" Roman whined, and it was pathetic and he knew it and he was fully prepared to unleash more than just a whine to get his way on this thing. "Just leave us alone in the car" -- he ignored Damon's hasty denial -- "or his apartment or a love hotel or a gas station bathroom, for crying out loud, I don't care! I need sex!"

"Spare me," Felicia told him, and she was sincere enough in her request that it appeared the Roman Vaille whine had reached new heights of success.

A quick glance over the back of the seat revealed she had her head in her hands.

"There's a usenet booth on the corner of Houghten and Blake," Damon suggested, and gulped as if he meant to take back his words. They were too late to swallow.

Roman grinned and twisted himself in his seat to face his bodyguard.

Felicia groaned. "Will you quit pestering me if I let the two of you make use of that booth for fifteen minutes?"

"Twenty," Roman negotiated.

"And you stop asking for any private time for twenty-four hours," Felicia countered.

Roman parried, "Agreed, with the exception of private time with Damon." Sex with his lover was better than no sex at all, choice or no choice. Either way, sex with Damon should be okay, for a while at least.

"Done," Felicia said with a shudder, and batted his hand away when he offered to shake on it.

"Twenty minutes," Roman reminded her, because there hadn't been an actual verbal agreement to that part. "You can, uh, cover us from the car, right?"

He saw the white flash that heralded the eye-roll before he dropped back into the passenger seat, sizing up Damon's reaction in passing. His lover kept his gaze on the road as he guided the sedan through the streets. Roman kicked back in his seat, scanning the streets. Beyond the humps of tall buildings, the distorted shimmer of the Wall flickered in the distance. Keeping the city safe, tucked inside those protections of concrete and steel and the most powerful techno-magic Orion put forth, and it was all an illusion.

Damon bent a smile on them as they turned a corner. It was something, that Damon could still smile at him and mean it. Then again, Roman could see him and want him, drunk on the mere sight of him. He gave Damon his best heavy-lidded sex look in return, promising everything, withholding nothing.

The car surged forward and Roman grinned, keeping that to himself. He sure had it. Maybe Shemyahza was wrong. It seemed with the aberration of Arashi, boys and men were responding to him as they always had. They fell at his feet, he didn't have to compel.

When they pulled to the curb, Damon put the car in park and leaned in to him, mouth to his ear and Roman writhed, prepared to respond however Damon wanted him and damn what Felicia thought. Instead his lover was murmuring, "Are we really going to do this?"

Roman gave him incredulous wide eyes. "Come on," he uttered it, low and throaty and he wasn't going to beg for it, damn it, he didn't want Damon to have any part of the desperation rolling off him. He needed it. God, it had been days, he couldn't wait any longer.

"Yeah, but in a usenet booth?" Damon said, lowering his head and putting himself in range of kissing any part of Roman that would do him some good.

"It was all your idea," Roman reminded him. He tipped his head back, baring his throat just enough, watching the dilation of Damon's eyes herald the flare of desire. "C'mon, let's go." He fumbled with the door and caught himself, dizziness overtaking him.

"Roman."

Before he could steady himself, hands were there on him, keeping him upright. Damon was giving him the concerned face, his lips shaping the first of syllables that would tell him he should take it easy, they would go right to the shoot, or get him some food on the way if it were blood sugar, but it wasn't. "Come on," Roman said again, snaking an arm around Damon's neck and hauling himself to his feet. "You know what I really need?" He slammed the car door shut behind him.

"If you're sure." There was credit in the hesitance, the lingering touch that whispered nothing of sex over his skin.

God, if he was getting these emotions off Damon and they weren't even fucking, what was wrong with him? "Let's go, lover boy," Roman told him, and if Damon had been wearing a tie, he would've dragged him into the usenet booth. He was fumbling with Damon's shirt and Damon was trying to find his wallet, plastering him to the far wall of the cubicle, mouth seeking the sweet spot on his neck, between ear and the join of neck and shoulder.

"Wait...wait, not until I pay," Damon panted, locating a card and jamming it into the slot.

"Mmm...twenty minutes," Roman reminded him.

"Worth every second," Damon vowed, and hauled the door shut. He crowded Roman close, mouth on his throat and delving into his pants.

Roman wanted to peel Damon's clothes off but this was cubicle sex; best if they both remained mostly-clothed and god he'd never had it in a place like this before, almost but not quite as public as car sex, locker room sex, the possibility of getting caught out a little less because they had a lock on the booth for the next twenty minutes but anyone passing on the street could hear. He was hot for it. He wanted Damon now and he wanted to draw it out and damn but if he was an incubus, couldn't he have both?

Forget that, get rid of that thought and drown it. The only thing that mattered right now was skin and heat and getting off.

"Just pull my pants down and fuck me," he hissed, and bit Damon's ear. The man growled at him, pushing him against the wall again and mouthing his neck, the juncture of neck and shoulder, lips sampling him before he bit. "Damn it, Damon, no biting!" His lover -- his photographer -- knew better than to mark him up.

Damon rubbed against him. "You have lube?"

"Uh..." Roman let his head fall against Damon's shoulder. This was a usenet booth, not a public bathroom, so it wasn't as if there were soap or anything they could use. "You carrying?"

Damon snorted, and it turned into a chuckle. Roman shook with it, and laughed against Damon's shoulder, puncturing the tensions of the day even better than the deepest sigh. They laughed hard enough to rock the damned usenet booth, and after they were done collapsing on one another's shoulders, Roman was still hard enough to go benchpress something with his dick when it was over.

"God, I want sex so bad," he muttered into the crook of Damon's neck, and his lover's hand was there, easing between his thighs.

"I'm not kneeling on this floor," Damon informed him. "But I will give you the best hand-job of your life to date."

"Mmm, lover, you can try," Roman enticed him. And with twenty minutes he most certainly had enough time to return the favor on his knees. He didn't care about the state of the floor or his uniform pants.

It would satisfy him, for now.

And after he'd come hard enough to feel his toenails, he groped and licked and nuzzled his way down Damon's belly and further and wondered if he'd made his choice, somewhere between the time the school bell rang and the moment sex overdrive hit his brain.

He just didn't know what it was.

***

Start to finish, the morning had gone out of joint the moment Cedric's car had dropped Akito Rukawa off at his front door. The axis of his world had spun and his equilibrium was gone. That was why he'd pestered at Roman on their way up to their floor, and pretty much why he had flung himself at Gabriel upon returning home. Bereft, he could only trade one kind of comfort for the other. Returning home reminded him, bizarrely, of the way their world had cracked apart when Gabriel had been kidnapped and they hadn't been home since.

Coming home now to Gabriel in the foyer was a comfort and herald of all the things that had changed at the same time. Beside his brother now was someone else, a tall dark someone who wouldn't be leaving their lives any time soon -- ever, if the looks Shemyahza cast in his brother's direction were indicative of anything. So Cedric hugged his brother but he was able to gather himself when he was disengaged. The larger part of Gabriel's attention was elsewhere, and for Cedric it was the same.

Mention of school made him perk up where from Roman it provoked only groans. School meant classes, and distraction, and Rukawa's presence nearby in the building. If that last gave him the greatest sense of relief, he tried not to pay it too much attention.

His room was still the same as ever when he flung the door open and that familiarity embraced him, tempting him to throw himself on the spread of his comforter and try to shut out the world. He went so far as to climb onto the spread and luxuriate in the sensation of being prone, home, with things returning to a semblance of normal. Cedric hitched himself up by the elbows as a tall, broad figure swelled in the doorway, head stooping to accommodate.

"This is my room," he said unnecessarily, as Humphrey examined the simple but understated elegance of the green room -- green by virtue of a wash of the palest green hue that gave it a faint pastel-grassy tint. It wasn't a childish room by any means, having been decorated by Cedric's mother while he was still a child, but Cedric had always liked its mature, classy lines so he'd left it as it was. He liked the wallpaper that bordered the ceiling and baseboard, golden-chased paper that twisted green and ivory vines around the entire room. He liked the uniqueness of his claw-footed bed, its posts made of real walnut. The foresty green comforter and three fat down-filled ivory pillows suited him just fine.

There wasn't much furniture; besides the bed, he had a dark mahogany desk, a pair of bookcases, and a plush reading chair in the corner with its own lamp. Roman had an elaborate suite that was filled with tons of junk that he never used in any case, either sleeping with Gabriel or out and about most nights.

Humphrey gave him a faint smile and a thumb's up.

"You like it?" Cedric cocked his head to the side, strands of hair falling into his eyes. He grinned. "I'm fond of it." Now he was aware he sounded something like a spoiled rich brat. He made himself roll off the bed and rummaged about his things. Most of his school things were probably in the utility vehicle down in the garage.

A hand grasped his shoulder and Cedric glanced over it into Humphrey's eyes. The big man pointed down, as if through the floorboards, and Cedric nodded, blowing hair out of his eyes with exasperation.

"That's what I thought; my school things are still downstairs, aren't they? Are we taking the car to school, then?"

A solemn nod answered him, and Cedric grasped the fact in the next moment that they were probably safer in the car; less of a slow-moving target, at any rate.

"Well, I don't have anything I need here," he said, patting Humphrey's arm and belying his own words by making a detour at his closet to change into fresh shoes. He'd already donned a clean uniform that morning, unlike Roman anticipating a timely return to school. He, like Gabriel, thought it only natural that they were being released so early in the day in order to go back to their daily activities and a semblance of normal life.

On the way out his eye fell on the chess set he'd left out on one of his wide, deep bookcases, board propped against one side, playing pieces stowed in their velvet-lined cases, and a wince crossed his features. It hadn't been so very long, had it?

Rukawa-senpai had told him it was fine, so it had to be. That couldn't stop him from the guilt that came over him. Cedric considered Dr. Franco's words of the day before.

"We don't know what exactly you've done, Cedric, because we have no real way of measuring it," the doctor had spoken honestly, sincerity made evident in his posture and direct, open gaze. He'd had a way of measuring words with his hands as he spoke, gesturing expansively for the large words and making smaller choppy motions with shorter concepts. "We can't quite tell if this is a temporary situation, or a permanent one.

"No one has ever done what you've done before. You possess a fair degree of power, and you appear to have shoved a large share of it directly into Rukawa in order to save his life."

That much, Cedric and Rukawa had intuited together. What went unspoken was whether Rukawa would suddenly drop dead because the power snapped back into Cedric like a taut rubber band returning to its point of origin. That was what Cedric feared most. He was okay with the overwhelming desire to be with his friend at all times. He could handle the separation anxiety when he couldn't sense Rukawa near him. However, knowing that his power had saved Rukawa... well, if it could suddenly revert back some day, did that mean the restoration of his life would be withdrawn abruptly as the support had been given?

There had been more tests, most of which Dr. Franco explained he wouldn't have the results of right away. Nara had measured what she termed their "empathy" and "sensitivity" to one another. They'd also established pretty much right away that when Cedric couldn't see Rukawa, or vice versa, that wasn't so much a problem as being completely deprived of one another's presence. Even a room away wasn't bad, but...when they'd led Rukawa into a shielded, soundproofed booth, Cedric had been thrown headlong into what he was experiencing now.

He was cut loose, yawing empty, deprived. Worse, he couldn't really talk about it with his brothers, because he already had a face-full of the worry rolling off Gabriel earlier, and Roman would either tell him to 'go for it' or 'wait until you're older,' neither of which really applied in his situation. How could he explain to either that he wanted Rukawa to move in with them so that he could sleep well at night?

That was what the bodyguard was for. He knew it, and it would be spelled out to him if he tried.

That wasn't the kind of comfort that Cedric needed.

Humphrey was waiting for him at the door, and Cedric pried himself free of his woolgathering to give the man a bright smile that covered up the empty spaces. The man patted his shoulder in passing, so he knew his attempt hadn't fooled him.

They waited in the foyer for another fifteen minutes while Roman dithered, his indignant cries reaching them even from his room, which was furthest down the hallway. That ended in recrimination and another perp-walk as his bodyguard realized what Humphrey had known from the start, that all their school things were still in the car because that was the place from which they'd been taken to begin with.

"Honestly, boyo, I've never seen a kid so reluctant to go to school," Felicia said, locking Roman into step with her as their party progressed for the elevator.

"I'm not a kid!" Roman squeaked. "I've hit my majority already!"

"Yeah, well, the way you act you've got another ten years to go."

That silenced his brother for a little bit.

Felicia drove the car again, piloting it out of the Carrack building garage, which was brimful of men and women wearing the Orion logo blazoned prominently across their chests. The contractors had arrived to begin the alterations on the basement level. Cedric had heard a little bit of the conversation over breakfast; they weren't going to keep his brother's latest project in Cygnus, but they did want to keep up a high level of security to enable Gabriel's work to continue relatively unimpeded.

As they drove up the familiar streets along which he'd walked almost every day for a good portion of his life, Cedric spotted a tall, dark-haired figure in a Vanderbrant uniform. His stomach lurched and he jabbered something, he wasn't even quite sure what, but even to his own ears it sounded quite desperate. Even Roman turned to give him a peculiar look, making a motion with one hand as if to intimate, 'what the hell!?' or maybe 'we'll take this up later,' which was worse.

"I'm stopping, I'm stopping," Felicia said, a laugh in her voice, and Cedric cinched his mouth shut and imitated a clam. "It's been what, twenty minutes since you've seen your friend?"

Twenty minutes too long, the retort teetered on the tip of his tongue, but clams didn't talk and so Cedric was silent. He pawed the door open as the SUV paused by the curb and a vast tingle went through him, somewhat like a pulse of electricity but stronger, something like recognition but a good deal more vital.

"Rukawa," he spoke it like a benediction, and the young man turned and his dark eyes were on him, and Cedric caught his breath as he watched the newly-crimson pupils dilate. There was a fire in his eyes, his fire. "Come with us." He spoke with the assurance that he wouldn't be refused.

His friend climbed into the backseat beside him, and Cedric was relieved of the urge to reach out and touch because the bench seat was so close, the only place for the big teen was pressed up against him.

"Have a good day," Felicia told them all with a wave, as they piled out at the drive that let out at the junior high. Cedric waved and faced the front steps of the school and he had to squish down the urge to grab Rukawa's hand on the way in; he had to throttle it and contain it in a very small compartment. He still wanted to touch Rukawa, not in a sexual way but in a possessive one, and he knew the difference now and he wondered if it should bother him that he knew.

Cedric imagined trying to explain that to Gabriel and watching him turn tomato-red like the soup Cedric liked to prepare in winter. I'm not sure if I want to have sex with him but I may want to some day and I definitely want to keep him forever.

No, that wouldn't go over well.

He slanted a worried look at Rukawa from the corner of his eyelashes, convinced all over again that he would drop dead or maybe disappear as completely as death if Cedric took his eyes off him even for an instant. That was what happened. Could happen, in any city on any part of what was left of Earth. Cedric had a few classmates, he knew, whose parents or loved ones had died that sudden but not quite like this.

Even if Rukawa was 'okay' with it, it was still his fault.

Warm fingers curled around his, startling him out of his fierce introspection. He looked up at Rukawa, who was unselfconsciously holding his hand, and it was another kind of jolt to realize his friend was glaring at him.

Oh, right.

He could sense the wash of disapproval now, the calm acceptance that things had gone the course because this was how it had to be. And a distinct overtone at the end to 'drop it.'

"I'll try," he said under his breath, and had the impression that much as he'd been able to finish his friend's sentences before, now he could do so before they'd even been verbalized.

Rukawa all but dragged him up the wide, shallow stairs of the front school then, not accepting any further delays. The older boy escorted him to his classroom along with Humphrey, who gave Rukawa a nod as if they'd planned this together. Then he took his leave, a brief "see you later" that promised he would be back for him.

Heaving a great sigh, Cedric squared his shoulders and prepared to face his classroom. Like that first, ill-fated day he had attended classes, Humphrey remained at his back, a silent living wall. Cedric's classroom had windows, so Humphrey stayed with him even there.

Not three steps through the doorway Cedric was mobbed with a number of classmates that surprised him, and distracted him from the wrench he was already feeling at the absence by his side. His pretty seat-neighbor spearheaded a wedge of kids, two other girls and a boy, who clustered around him and showered him with polite questions, not too forward or eager but concerned, inclusive.

"Cedric, I kept your assignments for you," his pretty neighbor told him, biting her lip then giving him a sort of shy half-smile.

"Wicked cool bodyguard, Cedric." That was the boy, a classmate whom Cedric thought was named Art or Dart or something like that.

"We missed you," one of the girls in back, dark-haired and self-assured, spoke up. "Because McCormack assigned Danny as your back-up while you've been out and he's really a loss at class leader."

"Um, thank you?" Cedric ventured, rather at a loss himself as to what he should do in his role as class leader. He smiled and looked around and was so wrapped up figuring how to deal with the anxiety that he barely registered the fact there was none, for a change.

"You're okay now, Cedric?" the other girl asked, and if the tone was a bit pat, then at least it was well-meant.

"Fine," Cedric grasped onto that most recent question. They'd all signed things before they left Orion, confidentiality agreements to prevent them from spilling details of all that had gone on recently, from the extent of his family's involvement to the nature of the demons that looked just like any other person -- he supposed he qualified there, though he hadn't known it before. He couldn't say much about why they'd been out, but everyone knew that his family was rich. "My brother thought we would all be safer if we stayed in for a few days."

"Of course, who could blame you!" his seat-mate told him, traces of glimmering moisture all but ready to start in the corners of her eyes. "School was going to be let out early two days ago, then they kept us late... a lot of us were wondering if they'd cancel today."

"They got matters in hand pretty quickly," Cedric said, speaking with authority. He ducked his head when they all murmured, mixing in various tidbits of information that were way off the mark. Then again, few people knew how dangerous the situation really had been. He'd tried the media on and off over the past couple of days and he'd gotten better information nosing around the bodyguards and listening in at meals, when they were at Cygnus.

It wasn't quite eight-thirty but Mr. McCormack had come in some time after Cedric had blocked the door with his impromptu party. Cedric noted this at last and gave his classmates a sheepish smile. "We should get to our seats, I think. Thanks...thank you."

"Maybe we can sit together at lunch!" his pretty neighbor piped up, and they broke it up to find their own seats.

No way.

He slid behind his own desk and patted its slick lacquered faux-wood surface. It was another kind of coming home, right down to the nicks and banged-up corner and the initials someone had carved in the upper left-hand corner.

The bell rang; Cedric led the class in the little opening ritual for the morning, and they were off.

Throughout the homeroom period Cedric evaluated his teacher, Alistair McCormack, with new eyes. As was the case with Rukawa, it had taken more than just 'The Talk' and his amazing research discoveries afterward. He had a whole new awareness. In this instance, it was telling him quite plainly that he didn't simply idolize his teacher. He had a nicely-proportioned crush on him, and more or less liked the way he looked.

Had he actually been formulating some primitive plans to get closer to his teacher by way of tutoring or some such, even earlier that week?

Cedric wasnít as conniving as Roman -- or as successful at being sly, he recognized -- so he knew there was little chance of getting anywhere. Besides, he was smart enough to have already evaluated that he was too young for that sort of thing. But, but if his brother had given him 'The Talk' then there was a reason after all, wasn't there? And that made him wonder what age Roman had been when he'd first started fooling around. Young enough for Gabriel to start casting a nervous eye over him, he supposed.

McCormack was something to keep filed away in his mind for later, another part of him suggested. And the long-term nature of that thought as well as any implied unfaithfulness to Rukawa, even though they didn't have a lock on anything besides co-dependence, made him cringe inside.

Mr. McCormack wrote something out on the data wall, and Cedric knew he was going to pay attention to that day's lesson. Demons and your safety.

Whatever they had to offer, it wasn't nearly the curriculum that was needed.

Cedric shifted in his seat to assess the classroom's reaction, and wasn't disappointed. A series of mutters and worried whispers swept through the class, and Cedric's nearest neighbor pressed a hand against her mouth.

"Today in homeroom," Mr. McCormack said, finishing the last word with a flourish, "all levels are going through basic safety tips in light of recent events in the city. This curriculum was put together with the help of a consultant from the City and Wall Defense Corps."

Cedric straightened in his seat. In that case, there was a greater chance the information was real. Then again, in the interests of public safety he didn't think anyone involved in their defense would feed bogus safety tips to students.

"How many of you have parents or family that purchased wards within the past two days?" Mr. McCormack cast the question out into his silent assemblage of students like a fishing line.

Several hands raised in the air. Turning discreetly to get a better view of his classmates, Cedric caught sight of Andy, his erstwhile bully, his hand raised and face drawn taut with worry.

"Now, how many of you are certain that the wards were purchased from a licensed Wiccan practitioner?"

It was a telling question. Most of the hands sagged, and after a moment only two hands remained thrust into the air. One of them was Cedric's pretty neighbor, and he was really going to have to remember her name one of these days. Samantha? He thought that must be it, that fit in his recollections.

"That's the first lesson," Mr. McCormack pronounced, turning to write it on the wall beside a neatly-lettered number one. "Never buy wards intended to safeguard your family, or anything for that matter if you can help it, from any Wiccan but one licensed by the Wiccan practitioner's guild. The guild ensures that the person you're dealing with is reputable, fully trained, and most importantly, one affiliated with the right kind of forces." He turned with a grim smile.

Cedric pulled out his phone to make a note of the fact that he should ask Shemyahza Guile whether there were wards in place on the Carrack building and if not, perhaps there should be. He was certain that the bodyguard detail Ms. Carson had placed in charge of their safety was fully competent but it never hurt to ask. And if Shemyahza assumed there were wards in place, that might be a bad idea because Cedric knew his brother Gabriel didn't remember half the work that had been done on the building so he'd be no help there.

"This next one might be a little harder," Mr. McCormack was saying. "But it's important, especially for kids your age. How would you recognize the signs of possession in a friend or family member?"

Cedric's chair scraped back away from his desk as he held himself at arm's length from his desk, a thrill of fear jetting through him. He stared at his teacher with wide, disbelieving eyes. Possession. That was basically what he'd done to Rukawa, wasn't it?

Mr. McCormack turned in his direction, mistaking the movement for readiness to answer the question. "Cedric?" he prompted.

Cedric was still, a damp clamminess springing to life in his palms, buried beneath his clenched fingers. He shook his head and half-expected the gentle touch of Humphrey's large hand on his shoulder, but it didn't happen.

"Well, that's easy," drawled a sarcastic voice two rows behind him. "Your friend or family would be goin' for some demon-bait like Cedric here." Andy's voice, loud enough to reach every corner of the classroom.

The hot flush that jolted through him from head to toe galvanized him to his feet, and Cedric couldn't even see for the red that filled his vision. He had no right, he had no idea; he didn't know what it was like to watch his only friend die right beside him, then open eyes that were filled with the crimson burn of his own power.

"That's enough!" The whip-crack of Mr. McCormack's voice cut through Cedric's rage, grounding him to the here and now. "Andy, you'll see me after class. Cedric..." There was soft entreaty in the way that Mr. McCormack said his voice.

Acknowledging that, and the implied kindness behind it, Cedric dropped back into his chair. He avoided Samantha's eyes. He couldn't bring himself to look to the front of the class. He knew the answer, though. How could he not? He'd grown up with Gabriel's reference materials.

"Anyone," Mr. McCormack entreated the class. "Come on, this is important."

Demonic possession was possible, though very rare. So far as Cedric knew -- and he hadn't had the chance to revisit some of those old tomes in a very long while, so he could be mixing up cues with his more recent knowledge of demonic lore -- the actual demonic possession wasn't a tool that the Nephilim employed. His own "possession" of Rukawa was something of a different order entirely. Rather, those people that became possessed were taken up with a sort of spirit, albeit a demonic one.

Sullen, Cedric cast a glance around his class. No hands were raised; in fact, every head was tilted toward each of their respective desks but for two. Andy, who shot a glare at him that caused Cedric to raise his brows. He was no longer worried about the small-souled bully. There was also blonde Samantha, whose concerned look melted into one of encouragement as she gave him a small 'go on' gesture that indicated she knew he had the answer, and was withholding.

With a tiny sigh through his nose, Cedric raised his hand.

Mr. McCormack seized on it like a lifeline. "Cedric?"

"Bargaining, sir," Cedric said. "The most obvious answer is speaking in tongues, of course, but that usually comes later -- when the parasitic spirit feels itself in danger. If approached by a friend or family member who is possessed, they will try to get you to agree to something -- it may seem small and unimportant, but agreeing to the possessed person's bargaining is the first step to placing yourself in its power."

"Correct," Mr. McCormack said, and his smile fell on Cedric like summer sun. "Anyone else?"

A spindly boy whose dark hair flopped over his eyes raised a hand, seeming emboldened by Cedric's answer. "Spastic movement, triggered especially by a word or phrase that the person who utters it believes to be sacred, or by powerful emotion."

"Very good," Mr. McCormack approved, and turned to write on the board. Number two, recognize the signs of demonic possession.

Of course, Cedric thought, that wouldn't help anyone recognize an unregistered part-blood Nephilim coming for them, but he supposed those who were in a position to be in that situation were already protected in their own right, or had enough Nephilim blood to protect themselves. His brother had been seized on a street in broad daylight on his way to work.

That was an exception, though, right?

As a class they went through a few more signs of recognizing someone possessed by a demonic spirit, then a few ways to keep safe long enough to find a professional to deal with the creature. Samantha spoke up with another of the more rare, difficult to recognize signs -- a sigil of raised flesh somewhere on the possessed person's body, usually the neck or wrist or above the heart. Cedric flashed her a glance of surprised approval and she grinned shyly at him.

They managed to get through another few safety tips, how to lay down a line that would stop most demons long enough to flee to the nearest building, and how to recognize the types of demon that were motion-blind, so that if you remained still they would pass over you, from those that sensed infrared and would try to claw their way even into buildings or sound structures. It was all very comforting. Cedric realized somewhere in the middle of it that these survival tips were probably the ones that kids outside the Wall learned at their parents' knee, or nearest surrogate if both parents had been killed.

When the bell rang, Andy was called up to the front desk as promised. He went stalking, breathing heavily enough through his nose for even Cedric to hear him from two rows over. Samantha was turning in his direction, giving him an admiring look of which he knew he wasn't worthy.

"You know a lot about this stuff," she said.

Cedric shrugged, favoring her with a half-wary glance in return. "My oldest brother is a professor at the university," he said, and there was no need to say which university because he was sure everyone in his class already knew. "This is kind of his specialty." That was so much the understatement. Even now, his professor brother was so deeply involved that he'd acquired a Nephilim of his very own, besides being a part-blood himself.

"That's pretty neat," Samantha said, encouraging.

Dreams of blackness that swallowed up his life, crackling darkness, burned and broken hands plunging into his own chest...neat. The horrible sight of his friend collapsing beside him, blood seeping and bubbling under his hands that were too small and inadequate to stem the tide. Gabriel kidnapped for his knowledge, and all of them threatened because if it. His mouth folded in a small, bitter smile. "Neat," he echoed, and shook his head. "Not exactly. You knew a fair bit yourself, Samantha..." He let it trail off like a question.

"Oh," Samantha said, and one hand went up to smooth a shining gold strand of hair behind her ear. "Well, my mom works for Orion. She tells us what she can." She met Cedric's eyes openly.

Cedric responded with a slow nod. Was that the sudden interest, or had she been wanting to make friends with him all along? "I understand," he replied. And it explained why her family had purchased wards from a licensed Wiccan. They'd probably had some in place already.

The rest of the morning classes revolved in a slow haze for Cedric. He knew all the subject matter so he let everything roll past him as he lapsed into a state of inattention, doodling or keying random phrases on his notebook. At one point his cell phone vibrated and he extracted it from his pocket, surprised by a text from his brother. What's up with you and that ridiculously tall third year? He hadn't thought Roman was that aware of Rukawa that he'd pegged his friend for any particular grade.

He tapped back a quick reply, holding his phone under his desk in hopes the teacher wouldn't notice. Later. Family conference. It would have to be done sooner or later. This time things wouldn't go exactly as his brothers expected, he knew.

By the time morning classes were over and it was time for lunch, Cedric's stomach was rumbling and the empty feeling penetrated beyond his gullet. He stood, shouldering his bag, and threw an invitation Humphrey's way that the man was already following, falling in behind him as he edged his way between the cramped rows of desks.

Today he was self-possessed enough to risk the public arena of the school cafeteria. Rukawa met him in the hallway, dark eyes lighting on him with palpable relief that Cedric matched with a small but incredulous smile. His own rapture at their reunion was transmitted between them, clear as a spoken word. If it was going to be this way every time they reconnected after a separation, Cedric was going to be an emotional wreck. Deprivation cycling between exhilaration. If only there was a way they could remain together, without eschewing classes.

On normal days, Cedric packed a bento for himself and his brothers. Lately he had been making Japanese bento, which made his new acquaintanceship with Rukawa all the more precious to him. Of course, today hadn't been a normal day and he had woken up elsewhere, curled around a bigger, stronger body with his ear pressed to the steady reassurance of that heartbeat.

Rukawa looked a question at him.

"I have to buy my lunch," Cedric said, grumbling over it.

"Me too," Rukawa said, touching a hand to his pocket.

At least the Vanderbrant cafeteria was nothing to mourn over, though the fare wasn't the standard to which Cedric was accustomed. They took their lunch trays and Humphrey did, too, the immense blond man cutting a figure that was comic amongst the far smaller junior high students.

They retrieved food from the line-up and paid at the end, then Cedric scanned the cafeteria before finding a round, empty one that they could populate. As usual, he sought out a solo place but today he had people at his elbow. Their presence was wrapped around him like a permanent thing. See, his instincts told him, you don't have to be by yourself all the time.

With Humphrey and Rukawa settled to either side of him, he was going to have a comfortable lunch -- but a quiet one.

"Can I sit?" Samantha approached their table with a hesitant smile, lunch tray held tight in both hands. Just behind her, the skinny boy with dark hair flopping into his eyes was edging up on her elbow, aiming a questioning look in their table's direction without quite meeting anyone's eyes.

Cedric regarded their approach with surprise. He vaguely recalled Rukawa mentioning something to him the other day about classmates who watched him and at the time it had sounded a little overwhelming to him. Now it impacted him with a pleasant realization that he wasn't so isolated as he'd thought. They wanted to be friends.

"Please join us," Cedric invited, not only to be polite and that was another kind of surprise to him. Samantha and the other boy slipped onto the bench across from him. "Rukawa, Humphrey, these are my classmates, Samantha and..." He trailed off, glancing at the other boy. This was disgraceful; if he was going to be class leader he'd have to get hold of the seating chart at Mr. McCormack's desk to memorize it.

"Jon," the dark-haired boy disclosed with a nervous bob of his head, waving off Cedric's little apology and grimacing in a manner that appeared to be a variety of smile.

Across the cafeteria, Andy was glowering from his group of hunched cronies, and it was laughable. Petty, even.

Cedric wondered what Mr. McCormack's disciplinary tactic had involved. Probably detention, and Andy deserved no less.

"How did you like the lesson?" Cedric said at last, after a few silent moments of everyone digging into lunch. He'd expected it from his two companions, but Samantha at least had seemed reasonably possessed of speech earlier. Jon was probably much like Cedric himself, not much inclined toward speech unless it involved answering questions.

Cedric had been changing, though. He thought his new companionship would more or less force him to take up a more active role in conversations. Perhaps he didn't especially mind.

"It was okay," Samantha said noncommittally, twisting her mouth downward in a manner that indicated her true opinion might be less positive.

"It was a load of bull," Jon muttered while poking his pile of green beans. He glanced briefly to Cedric, then back down to his food. "You know, right?"

Cedric supposed a nod didn't violate any confidentiality agreements. "It wasn't quite adequate," he allowed. "What would you expect? They have to make the gesture." Now Samantha's interest in him was becoming a little less obscure. Maybe less a crush than a realization of a deeper camaraderie. He leaned forward, nearly putting an elbow in his mashed potatoes.

"Right, Jon, it's not like they can distribute pamphlets about how useless most measures are in a demon incursion unless you're a trained professional," Samantha said with a lift of her brows. "My parents have been honest."

"We're safe in the city for the most part. But when things happen like the other day, well..." Jon mumbled, then gulped convulsively and looked to Humphrey. "You're one of the bounty hunters?"

Humphrey shrugged and kept making inroads on his food.

Jon shrank in on himself a little.

Rukawa's elbow bumped Cedric, and Cedric glanced over at his friend. There was a faint quirk to his mouth and a wash of encouragement rippled over Cedric.

"Humphrey is my bodyguard, Jon," Cedric answered for the man. "He can't use his voice. He's a contractor with Orion, right now assigned to me." And he hoped that wasn't giving away too much. He didn't want to get another nudge from the other side.

They chatted through lunch after smoothing that one awkward hump, and though all three of them spoke in a guarded manner Cedric realized for the first time he had a great deal more in common with his classmates than he'd ever suspected. Samantha, for example, freely admitted that her mother was one of those licensed Wiccan practitioners that Mr. McCormack had spoken of, and both of Jon's parents worked for the City and Wall Defense Corps, which meant there was a better than average chance that Samantha would have gifts herself, and Jon was probably part-blood himself...like Cedric. All he really revealed of himself was that his professor brother worked in the demonology field, so he had soaked up a lot of reference materials over the years.

It was strange. They couldn't outright address it because officially, none of them knew that the others knew. Cedric thought there should be some sort of release for kids his age, just so they could figure out who to connect with for solidarity's sake.

"We'd better get back to class," Samantha spoke up a few minutes before the bell would ring.

Rukawa's hand squeezed his arm. "See you after class," his friend told him, and he knew he could be sure of it. A faint shift crossed his face and Cedric intuited the barest smile for him.

The rest of the afternoon passed in the same dreamlike haze of the morning. The only class he was really interested in was Mr. McCormack's, because this one teacher stretched him to go beyond what he'd learned. Aside from that one class, he rested his chin on his hand and gazed out the window or jotted down things on his notebook computer, ready to be done with the day. He wondered if Gabriel would consider advancing him another grade and knew that the answer would surely be no, especially when he was just settling into the class he'd been advanced to.

After school Cedric decided to try and stretch his luck with his bodyguard and his other un-appointed protector. He was going to ask for a favor.

"See you tomorrow," Samantha told him when the last bell of the day released all of the students to their feet. She already had her notebook and the day's screen-files tucked away in her school bag.

"See you tomorrow," Cedric echoed. He wondered how long it would take her to begin suggesting other activities like study groups. Maybe he would have a semblance of a normal school experience after all. He arranged all of his things and kept a thoughtful eye on Mr. McCormack, who was tidying up his things for the day, too.

The teacher looked up and offered a smile. "Things seem better today," he threw out the line as he had to the homeroom class much earlier that day.

It was up to Cedric to grasp it.

"Thanks," he replied, zipping up his bag and hitching it over his shoulder. Humphrey was at his back, a silent, solid presence that he appreciated. Without Rukawa he was all nerves. He couldn't concentrate. He considered how to break the news to Gabriel that he wanted a private tutor who could pitch things to his level and Rukawa's so that they could both be home-schooled. Yes. Proverbial lead balloon, an outdated concept that survived to this day.

"I don't know," he added, giving his teacher the big eyes. "I mean, it's hard to concentrate."

Mr. McCormack's smile deepened, still gentle, encompassing him in shades of understanding. "You just got back," he acknowledged. "If you've had any involvement in the events of the past few days, Cedric, it's got to have affected you somehow. Give it time. Talk to someone who will listen. Myself, your siblings, a friend, another teacher. Allow yourself the time to adjust to what's happened, and you may find things getting back to normal -- or a new normal."

Cedric digested that concept for a moment. A 'new normal.' He hoped so. He gave his teacher a nod and forced his expression into a more positive mien. "I appreciate it, Mr. McCormack. I'll see you tomorrow, all right?" When he thought of a confidante, why did Felicia Arks come to mind? He dismissed the thought, because he knew his brother's bodyguard had enough to deal with -- namely, Roman himself.

When he and Humphrey emerged from the classroom, Rukawa was waiting there for him.

"What about kendo practice?" he asked, anxious. He didn't want to be keeping Rukawa from his extra-curriculars even if he was pleased they were together for whatever reason.

"Cancelled," was Rukawa's succinct reply.

"Ah, that's all right, then," Cedric said. He was relieved of the potential guilt for at least one thing. Now he was going to propose a Grand Journey. "Can we get some ice cream? There's an ice cream parlor not far from the Carrack building. Is Felicia picking us up?"

Humphrey held out his phone, displaying a recent text message. Pick up the SUV at the high school parking lot. Damon picking us up after last class. Keys in usual place.

Cedric clasped his hands together and aimed sparkling eyes in Humphrey's direction. The man had taken a bullet for him, he was certain that he had enough leverage for ice cream.

A silent look passed between Humphrey and Rukawa, and the bigger man cocked his head. Rukawa gave a nod, then touched Cedric's shoulder.

"We can do it on the way home from my place," the older boy said simply.

"Oh really?" Cedric said with interest. "Why are we stopping at your place? Then going to ice cream at my place..." He trailed off and examined Rukawa's face, a swell of embarrassment reaching him without word.

Rukawa's shoulder dipped. "Should stay with you," he said, and looked down the corridor, tucking big hands in his pockets. "At least for now, until..." He broke off and his brow knit, and Cedric knew the embarrassment had deepened.

He understood. Until we figure things out.

"That could work," Cedric said, and started up the hallway. He tugged Rukawa's sleeve in passing, and distributed smiles all around. They were getting the car, so he assumed the ice cream venture to be approved then and there. And without putting forth a single word or begging his brother, he'd gotten what he wanted.

This could work indeed.

***

"Wake up. Kieran, wake up."

Roy bent over the slumbering form of his assistant, who had found his weary way to the couch in the office he shared with Gabriel Vaille and had lain curled there in an awkward position, most likely since the last class he'd had up until now.

"Wake up, you're going to get an awful crick in your neck like that," Roy said, kneeling beside him and grasping his shoulder to shake gently. "Come on, you can't be done with classes for the day." He wanted to brush rumpled auburn hair out of those closed eyes.

"Mmm...m'done," Kieran mumbled, twisting under his hand and slitting his eyes open. He made a long arm and reached out for Roy, finding him and hooking around his neck. "Join me for a few?"

"Whoa, Kieran," Roy cautioned, bracing himself on the sofa with both hands. Flushed, tousled, and still heavy-lidded from sleep, Kieran was undoubtedly not quite aware of his surroundings and what he seemed to be offering. "Come on, I came to wake you up, not--" Not take advantage of you. There was steady pressure coming from the arm that Kieran had slung around his neck, urging him to join in as his words had invited, and why was he suddenly thinking about taking Kieran home to introduce him all around to the family? That brought the corresponding thought of Kieran's large family and surely one of them could produce a shotgun from somewhere, so better if not... Ethics. He had to get a firm grasp on his ethics, not to mention his libido.

"Just a few more minutes," Kieran repeated in a monotone, wriggling and exerting a sudden force that toppled Roy off his feet.

The bulk of him landed solidly on Kieran, chest to chest and the breath whuffed out of them both as they tangled. Now Kieran's eyes opened wide, the flash of surprised blue clueing Roy in on the fact that perhaps Kieran hadn't gotten what he'd thought he was angling for.

"Sorry!" Roy blurted at once, and in his rush to disentangle himself from the lanky young man he fell right off the narrow couch. Unfortunately for him, he still had a leg that had gotten wrapped some how around Kieran's calf, and between that and the strong grip Kieran retained on Roy's collar, he made Kieran come tumbling after.

Now their positions were reversed, and Roy found himself nose to nose with the redhead, who grinned all over his freckled face as if he were pleased they'd ended up on the floor. He tried not to dwell on the breath on his lips, the distance of only millimeters that separated him from...

"You awake now?" Roy forced the query out in a growly register as though he were supremely put out. While it was true his back was aching, he gripped Kieran's thin arms in possessive hands and was glad he'd managed not to hurt him. "We've got a lot of work to do." He tilted his head to the side, where several boxes had been delivered from Orion.

"You...they...I...oh," Kieran concluded, pushing himself up from Roy's chest, hands pressing firmly into his pectorals.

Roy released Kieran as though he'd been singed by skin-contact. "You going to climb off me anytime this semester?" He kept his tone light, teasing. He was the teacher's assistant. He was not an object of lust. More to the point, Kieran's affections had been most recently oriented on Gabriel and if there had been a shift -- Roy wasn't convinced of that -- then it was too sudden. From the ethical standpoint, not only was Kieran a student but technically he was Roy's assistant and not so much Gabriel's.

And Kieran was so terribly young.

There was only a span of five years between them but it was a yawing gap. Roy lived on his own, he worked for his living, he was almost done with his master's dissertation and he juggled academics with real life and now the intrusion of very real danger in their lives. Kieran might be coming onto him, but it was a way of seeking stability in an unfamiliar situation.

Kieran's blue eyes darkened. "Sorry, Roy," he said, his mouth flattening, and he rose to his feet with a lithe grace that Roy admired, partly envied, and knew he hadn't possessed even at fourteen. Roy wasn't limber like that.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Roy continued, climbing to his feet with the leverage of Kieran's offered hand. He dusted his pants off -- when was the last time the office had been cleaned, not simply organized as Kieran had done the other week but actually swept? It was a mystery for the ages. The cleaning staff that the university employed knew better than to come into any office that hadn't signed a direct release for anything besides emptying trash. Sometimes even that much was risky with absent-minded professor types (including but not limited to Gabriel) crumpling up plas-film printouts that they tossed only to decide days later must be desperately vital.

"I'm done with classes," Kieran said, dusting off the seat of his jeans and sneaking a sidelong glance at Roy.

Roy tried not to think too hard about that. "Then you're back with us for the rest of the day?"

"Um, yeah. Kellan already dismissed the guy that was tailing me. Not that anything more exciting happened today than the cafeteria putting mayonnaise on my sandwich when I asked for mustard." Kieran smirked.

"Constant vigilance isn't a bad idea," Roy said, aware that the statement was a little vague but not particularly caring as he drifted over to the top-most box. He wasn't sure what would cause more damage, unpacking and trying to restore things to a semblance of order -- thereby truly obliterating whatever haphazard system Gabriel had employed to begin with -- or waiting until Gabriel was available to help them sift through all of these non-essential materials.

The only things being transported to the new, more secure facility in the Carrack building would be the tome itself, and the files that they'd made scanning and working on it. The tome had its own airtight safe and the files fit into a single carry-sack.

"I'm not sure where to start," Roy admitted after a long moment, turning to survey the depredated shelves, the pile of hard-copy that had been left on one desk, and the boxes. The top-most one was filled with lighter things, a notebook computer, screen-files and a few pens. It was like processing the evidence of a crime, they were going to have to sift through all of it and decide what to do.

Kieran had snuck up behind him quietly enough that Roy jumped when he spoke. "That's when it's time to start with the very edges and work your way in," he said, and gave a breathless little laugh at Roy's flinch. "Sorry!"

"No, it's...I suppose I'm still a little jumpy after what's been happening the past few days," Roy confessed. And it had been a long day for him, plowing through class material that he knew but hadn't had much time to review corresponding lesson plans. All of those classes he normally would have attended as support had been dumped on him after a phone call from Gabriel that morning. Besides those which Gabriel taught, Roy had his own classes to attend.

"Who can blame you?" Kieran moved toward the boxes, laying hands on one of the others in the top-most layer and skimming hands over its cardboard surface. "A lot has happened. You've held everything together really well, Roy, even...even Professor Vaille's family while he was gone." He turned his head toward Roy then and wet his lips, blue eyes all but shining sincerity.

Roy turned his inspection on the rest of the office again. Another box lay on a table off to the side, apart from the rest. It was open and he suspected it had been cannibalized by Gabriel already, to do as much work as possible before that secure facility was available. Starting at the edges was starting to sound like a good idea.

There was a soft huff of breath behind him, and Roy ignored it, heading for a closet on the far side of the room that held little-used cleaning supplies. Dust was not so much a hazard of the profession except for that precious, cherished hoard of genuine pulp-paper books in Gabriel's collection. That was kept dust-free and meticulous, the shelving that housed it rubbed with sterile swabbing every other day. Nevertheless, hazard or not the room's dust had reached an unbearable pitch.

"Grab a broom with me, Kieran, and let's start cleaning," Roy invited. Behind him Kieran had remained beside the boxes as if either unsure of what they would be doing, or hesitating over what to say. He accepted the challenge without a word, joining Roy at the broom closet and rooting around until he came up red-faced but triumphant with a dustpan.

"Are we going to get back to cleaning those roughs?" Kieran asked, when they had more than half the room swept on their own and had met up again more or less in the middle. Kieran got to his knees with the dustpan, holding it deftly for Roy to sweep the last of his pile into the wide-mouthed tray.

"I think those are still at Cygnus," Roy replied. "So, getting the office back in order is the extent of what we can expect to do today, I think. Unless we're notified by Kellan or Gabriel that the additions to the Carrack building's security are in place."

"Professor Vaille lives in the entire building?" Kieran put the question with curiosity, but not quite the shining level of almost stalkerish adoration he would have evidenced the week before.

"He owns the building." Roy leaned on his broom as Kieran got to his feet with the full dustpan. "He and his brothers live on the entire top floor, like a penthouse suite."

"Nice," Kieran commented without avarice.

"It is pretty nice," Roy acknowledged. "It's...rich, but understated." He'd been to enough Vanderbrant charity functions to know the difference. There was still money in the city, mostly in the inner rings, and while it wasn't thrown around with the casual overwhelming pomp of the previous century there was a great deal of difference between how he and most city inhabitants fared, and how the upper crust lived. Gabriel and his family didn't live the way the aggressively wealthy lived. He wasn't anything like his uncle.

"So you've been there before?" Kieran questioned, again still curious but the question not sparking. It was more as if he wanted to keep Roy talking with him than anything else.

"Several times," Roy said. "Professor Vaille is more than my colleague and mentor, I consider him to be my friend." The two of them, wrapped in their work as they both were, had precious few friends as it was. There were people in the department and out of it that he sent Christmas cards to, there were people in his life that he'd work his ass off for and go the extra mile, and then there were people that made him want to do his best, and do anything he could for them. Gabriel was one of those. They'd been working together for so long, they were in sync. And Roy, at least, was relieved that there had never been a hint of anything more. He'd used to think that Gabriel was far too work-absorbed to ever be that with any special person, but recent events were disproving that theory.

And this was the point at which Kieran would normally have pressed Roy for a flood of details about the professor, if he still harbored the same feelings he'd been crushing over since enrolling in Gabriel's class. Instead, the blue eyes were focused on him as if Kieran were considering what question to prompt Roy with next.

Roy cleared his throat. "Come on, we should unpack," he said, a little unsteady as he moved off to stow the brooms away. "Do as much as we can here, because once they release the tome and its materials to move, we'll be busy enough to make the past few days look like a vacation."

Kieran met him at the broom closet with an empty dustpan, wrinkling his nose. "You've got to be joking."

"Oh, I wish," Roy replied, recalling the caffeinated haze of double shifts pulled to get certain critical materials translated. His all-time record was three shifts in a row and he didn't have proof but he'd always suspected Gabriel had pulled four, then had slept for twenty-four hours in his office chair. Small wonder Roman thought him unreliable.

Kieran was chewing on his lip now, and it made Roy want to trap the boy's face between his hands and tell him to stop it. Or some less altruistic reaction. "Roy? Where are we going to stay?" He wasn't frightened, exactly, but the question was forlorn.

"My place," Roy said, transferring his attention to the boxes. At the very least they could make headway by unpacking the books. "I've got a nice apartment tucked in the middle of a boxy, secure residential building not too far from campus."

"And I'll be sleeping on the couch," Kieran said, facing off with him across the boxes. He widened his true-blue eyes as if challenging him.

"It's likely that Kellan will be, actually," Roy said, surprising him and enjoying the way Kieran's eyes widened at that. Just because he wasn't going to act on it didn't mean he wasn't allowed to have his fun.

Kieran's mouth formed the word more than he actually put sound into it. "Oh."

"I have a futon I can drag out of the closet," Roy admitted, taking pity on the boy. Surely he didn't think Roy was going to take advantage of the situation?

"Oh..." And there was a disappointed note and how was he supposed to ignore that? By burying himself in work, he knew. "Come on, let's get going on this. I've got my own workload apart from this and I know you do, too, boyo--"

"Don't call me that." The flash in Kieran's fierce blue eyes surprised him, and Roy hesitated over stripping the top off the nearest box. "I'm not. Not a boy, I mean."

Roy tensed, allowing himself to turn his full attention on his assistant for perhaps the first time since they'd fallen off the couch, entangled. "I didn't mean anything by it," he said softly.

"Maybe not," Kieran allowed, "but I don't want you to treat me like a boy." I'm capable, his fierce blue eyes said what his words hinted at.

"Do you think I have been?" Roy said earnestly.

Kieran frowned. "Maybe not exactly," he said, puzzling over it as a faint crease appeared in the smooth pale skin between his strawberry-gold brows. "But you haven't been giving me anything hard to do, you know? I don't want you to treat me like I need to be wrapped in glass. I know that...there's more to it than this." He waved his hand vaguely around the office as if to reference the cleaning jobs he'd carried out so far.

Roy gave him the feral grin. "Ah, Kieran, if you want the low man on the totem pole jobs, just wait a little bit longer. It's coming." He could recall slogging through quite a bit of painstaking, abysmally repetitive, occasionally stomach-churning work while Gabriel worked on the job of translating. Roy had processed books that had been inked on skin, after all. Sometimes skin that had not been particularly well-preserved.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Kieran said hastily, waving a hand. "Just...depend on me a little more, okay?"

Roy favored him with a long, even glance that Kieran returned without a hint of wavering. "I'll remember that," he promised at length. "And feel free to let me know if I pick another off-hand nickname that bothers you. But for now, I know it's not particularly glamorous but this is work that needs to get done, all right? You organized shortly before the sweep-and-clear but whatever order you imposed on it has probably vanished during the course of two moves in seventy-two hours."

Kieran's determined expression dissolved into chagrin. "Of course! Yes, of course, I didn't mean to imply--"

"I know you didn't," Roy interrupted, to prevent further self-recrimination. "Let's sort these boxes into their source contents, then concentrate on packing away the books. If anything looks remotely sensitive, we lock that in the bolted-down safe."

"Got it," Keiran said, opening the box nearest to him and delving into the contents. "You're going to have to show me the combination to the safe, though."

"It's easy, it's a mnemonic..."

They worked steadily through the better part of an hour until Kellan pushed open the office door without knocking, coming in bearing a tray of cups embossed with the logo of the local campus coffee shop. "I sent someone out for coffee while I got some updates," she announced, navigating a path through the office to a place where there was table space free to set down the drinks.

"Bless you," Roy said with feeling, rubbing his dry hands on his corduroys and trying to remember where he or Gabriel had last left the bottle of hand lotion. The materials that they worked with tended to dry out the skin, sucking up moisture from any surface that handled it.

"I haven't sneezed," Kellan said dryly. "But you're welcome."

"What's the status update?" Kieran inquired, changing his trajectory from carrying an armful of old-fashioned book-pad files, the first generation of replacements for outlawed paper material books. He set down his armful and snagged a cup of coffee, cradling it between his hands before taking a sip. His expression pronounced it blissful.

And Roy was watching him a little bit too long, Roy realized, shifting his attention to Kellan, who was casting her constantly-moving, penetrating dark gaze around the office.

"Hmm. It's a lot neater than the last time I was here," she murmured, and gave them both a bland smile.

"Thatís not what he meant and you know it," Roy chided.

"The city is quiet," Kellan replied. "Too quiet, Guile says. Just about as quiet as it should be following a purge, the analysts say. It seems we're in the eye of the hurricane for now."

"That's not exactly a safe place to be," Roy said, rifling through his limited knowledge of meteorology.

Kellan inclined her head, neither disagreement nor the nod. "The suggestion has gone up from more than one quarter as to whether you'd be inclined to get protective glyphs."

"Tattooes?" Kieran asked, somewhere between intrigued and appalled.

"Absolutely not," Roy said at the same time. "I'm not getting anything permanent drilled into my body with tiny needles." Not that he especially had a problem with needles but...he shuddered. He couldn't do it. No, he wouldn't, even if he could.

"It's not a bad idea," Kellan told them with a half-shrug that indicated she didn't care either way. "You can get them done in places that wouldn't show unless you wanted them exposed."

"Yeah, I know, I've seen a few," Roy mumbled, remembering a few occasions when he'd hooked up either with one of Orion's contractors, through his contacts there, or someone from the City and Wall Defense Corps that he'd met at a club. On the rare occasions he clubbed, which was when he was going out to get laid, which was hardly ever. The various protective patterns and symbols had a certain mesmerizing aspect to them, and certainly the spelled ink that gave off a soft perpetual glow was fascinating, but it was...beyond permanent. For him, it would be a reminder for the rest of his life that he wasn't safe, even if the intended effect was meant for his safety.

"Think about it," Kellan suggested. "It's not a bad idea. No one's going to force you to go under the needle, Roy."

Kieran still seemed trapped between sickly absorption and revolt. He'd gone a paler hue of milk-white and his freckles seemed to have turned...green?

"Anything else?" Roy asked briskly, ready to divert the conversation elsewhere.

"No, it really has been quiet today," Kellan said, resting her butt against the edge of a work-table and lifting coffee to her lips. Her dark eyes dwelled on him for a moment, then Kieran. "I trust we'll have a peaceful night at home."

"In my apartment," Roy confirmed. "Unless the facilities are ready in the Carrack building."

"Hmm, not for another twelve hours at least," Kellan guessed. "Ms. Carson wants her best contractor to seal the security with his best wards when the physical security upgrades are finished. And this contractor keeps regular business hours unless it's an emergency, so that won't be until tomorrow morning."

Roy nodded and circumvented the maze of boxes to grab his own cup of coffee. "Makes sense to me." He glanced back to Kieran, whose face was re-acquiring what passed for color in his cheeks, and wondered if that look had been for the thought of needles. He probably didn't know what it was like to press his mouth to the dusky smolder of color inscribed low on someone's belly, protecting their vitals.

Now that was definitely a thought to be filed away in the realm of inappropriate, and never aired again with Kieran near him.

"Are we done here for the day?" Kellan asked, shifting his thought-train to a different track.

Thank goodness.

"I'm done with classes," Roy replied, twitching his eyebrows in Kieran's direction.

"Me too," Kieran said, rubbing at his head and giving them a wide, sheepish grin. "That's why I crashed on the office sofa here waiting for the professor or Roy to come tell me what to do."

Kellan acknowledged this with a nod and set down her coffee cup. "Is it feasible to relocate to your apartment for the rest of the evening?"

Roy ran himself through a quick list, decided that all the work left could be done at home, then thanked Frigg briefly that he'd cleaned his apartment the other day. It was in a fit shape for visitors. "Yeah, let's go."

"With a stop to the grocery store on the way over?" Kieran prompted with a puckish grin.

"Of course!" Roy returned. "If little Cedric isn't going to cook for us tonight, we're going to have to figure something out for ourselves." He was teasing, of course; he already had a good idea from Kieran's previous endeavors that they would eat well tonight.

"Then let's get out of here, this university really does have terrible security," Kellan told them.

"Thanks for putting that in perspective, Kellan." Roy set down his own cup and ran fingers through his hair in a quick frustrated gesture. He was ready for a shower too, one with the comfort of his own shower-fixture and a lock of which he was certain. "Grab your things, let's get out of here."

Kieran pulled a long face and set his own coffee back in the cardboard tray. "What about the work?"

"We've got enough to handle with the catch-up work for classes, don't you think?" Roy told him, quashing the ridiculous urge to ruffle a hand through the teen's bright hair, already tousled from the boxes and books they'd shifted.

Kieran pursed his lips. "I suppose." Of course, the invitation to immerse himself in his school studies was probably somewhat lack-luster after the excitement of the past few days.

"Don't worry," Roy assured him, bending to retrieve a mostly-empty box so he could pack away whatever materials in the office might be of use to him in the next twenty-four hours or so. "I'm sure we'll dig back into the confidential work soon enough."

They had to get that work done soon, after all. The fate of the city was at stake.



next

previous

back to index