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

by Talya Firedancer

The sky bled ribbons of black and the streets were crawling with gobbets of shadow.

Gabriel stood atop a precipice, stepped back as he reeled at the great height, and took in the swooping view from New York's tallest, a Vanderbrant holding he'd recognized before only as a landmark. The shadows were oozing over the building's edge, extending long dark tendrils in his direction.

He turned to run, to find the roof's stairwell access and shut the shadows out, and was brought up short against a solid chest. Spidery fingers grasped at his arms, holding him in place.

"No," a deep, velvet voice wrapped tendrils of another kind around him. "You'll turn to face what you've wrought."

Red-within-red eyes flamed with hideous amusement, and Granac Bowen turned him to face the city.

Black death ran through the streets, and that was when the screaming reached his ears.

Gabriel jerked, waking from his light doze and pushing hair out of his eyes, the dark-infested city superimposed for a moment on the outlines of his office. He groaned, slumping back into the cradle of his arms, and fixed his gaze on the blank white wall. A city burning, a city swamped in rotting blackness, and people screaming or going up in flames. He could still see it projected there against the walls. Even when he closed his eyes, it was still there.

"Don't fall asleep at your desk," Shemyahza had warned him, leaving him with the impression of a light touch on his temple he might have imagined. Gabriel hadn't been looking, rapt already in the work before him. He had fallen asleep, though. The insides of his eyelids had been far too compelling.

Spread out on his desk were the remnants of his work. Most of the files having anything to do with the Grimoire were under lock and key back at Cygnus, but Gabriel had taken the one he considered to be the most crucial at this point in time. It was a screen-file with a single cleaned-up scan: the dedication he'd been working on. It wasn't scientific of him to ascribe such expectations to a single page, but Gabriel knew he'd been thinking of it as a Rosetta stone of sorts; a touchstone to align the significance of the rest of the document. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but he preferred to think of it as an educated guess. He couldn't translate this dialect fluently; it was one of the rarer ones. But his subconscious... ah, that was always another story, wasn't it?

Gabriel pushed his chair back and rose to his feet, stretching out his upper back first by bending nearly in half and placing his hands flat on his desk. He arched his back like a cat, then lengthened it out and hissed as muscles drew out under protest. Then he did some twisting to the left and to the right, and straightened out in time to catch sight of Shemyahza ducking his way through the door of Gabriel's inner door.

"I, I'm not done yet," Gabriel faltered, dropping himself back into his chair and clamping his hands onto the arm rests to express his determination to stay. Raising a mutinous expression, he was aware he must appear as a kitten trying to face off with a great sleek panther.

Shemyahza chuckled, skirting the desk. "You've already passed out the one time. You think I'm going to stand guard here for long enough for it to happen again?"

" did you...!?"

As Gabriel was contemplating dire thoughts of mind-reading and making up his mind to purchase some kind of verified charm to protect against such an intrusion, Shemyahza leaned down and swiped a thumb over Gabriel's cheekbone, proffering the digit to show the slick of grease paint on the pad.

"You fell asleep on your plas-film readouts," Shemyahza purred, and there was no real censure in his deep rumbly voice.

"Oh. Well. I suppose I did," Gabriel admitted, rubbing at his cheek with the back of his wrist. He infused a plea in his eyes as he looked up the dark Nephilim leaning over him, silvery gaze capturing his again. He was so very out of practice with begging; even Roy or Roman wasn't so effective at bullying him and Gabriel couldn't remember the last time he'd had to employ 'wiles' of any sort.

Shemyahza laughed at him. "Nice try," he said, without a hint of condescension.

Gabriel bit his lip. "I'm close with this," he said, gesturing to his notes. He had gotten a full night's sleep the night before. There was no reason he should have fallen asleep at his desk like this; in the clear light of day no less.

"Well, I don't like you cooped up in an office with no exits for this long," Shemyahza countered.

"Thirty minutes," Gabriel tried to bargain, dropping his forehead into the palm of his hand.

Shemyahza sighed. "Does it have to be here?"

Gabriel looked around his windowless office. One door. Right. And it exited onto his office, which wasn't exactly an exit, but another room to get trapped in if someone was already in his outer office. "I thought the city was clean?" he said, hoping that this last card would buy him some time. "And you've been standing guard outside the office door all day."

A dark green brow quirked. A lecture was forthcoming. Gabriel was almost ready to accede simply to forestall it.

"I guard your body," Shemyahza began, leaning in even closer, "but there's nothing to say under what conditions I must do so. Now, if you can do this work at home..."

"Wall-to-wall glass?" Gabriel ventured. If that didn't keep them ensconced in his office, then nothing would.

Shemyahza flashed him a positively feral smile. "Oh, I've had a word with Orion about that. It's no longer a problem."

A brief dizzying vision of bricked-up former windows went through Gabriel's mind and he must have looked horrified enough that Shemyahza reached out to grasp his arm, chuckling softly. "My view..." Gabriel managed to get out his concerns.

"Trust me," Shemyahza told him, his full lips curving. "It's not a problem, and we haven't misplaced your view."

His reasoned arguments were crumbling one by one. Even though there was no clear and present danger, his bodyguard wanted him out of here. That bothered him for more reasons than just the obvious. Even though he wasn't teaching classes for the moment and had successfully shuffled off that duty to Roy for the nonce, he still had to keep the class hours he'd always adhered to. Working on his documents had always been a good way to fill the time.

Gabriel's eye fell on the page with its ancient glyphs. He recalled the carbon-dating of the document, which had been a distinct anomaly; that had been one thing to help him identify the tome as a copy rather than the original despite its content. He still hadn't even finished authenticating the document but the fact that Granac Bowen was willing to kidnap and kill for it or send his proxies to do so was a pretty good indication.

He concentrated, and the lines of text filled his vision. The glyphs were all familiar, though not in the dialects that he knew, the more recent ones. He squinted at the first, and ran his mind over all the similar characters that he knew. It fit. There was a pattern.

A hand touched his cheek and Gabriel shook his head. He was looking at the second character, narrowing his field of vision. Then fingers pressed against his temples and he snapped out of it, looking up into Shemyahza's solemn eyes. They were close enough that Gabriel had a clear view of the very crimson red pupils.

"Pull it back, Gabriel," he was saying softly. "You're not ready for that yet."

Gabriel turned his face into one hand and he was hot, Shemyahza's skin cooling his by contrast, and a flood of fatigue welled up out of nowhere. "I need to...learn," he said thickly. He blinked long and hard and now he was ready to take whatever advice Shemyahza had to give him. "It will help, won't it?" Whatever it was he possessed, Shem had already hinted that having better control would only be to his benefit.

"It can, yes. For you, I'm certain." Shemyahza's smile glinted promise. "It's time for a lesson in concentration."

"Right now?" Gabriel said with a frown. He sagged in his chair. The tiredness wasn't bone-deep but it was there. He'd been tired an awful lot over the past few days -- ever since he'd been rescued by Shemyahza, truth be told. Since that moment he had looked outside of himself and saw something gazing back.

"Perhaps not right now," Shemyahza allowed, his fine-boned dark fingers stroking over Gabriel's forehead, combing his hair back again. He seemed to like that activity, he'd been grooming Gabriel often enough over the past few days.

Gabriel wasn't about to tell him to stop, either. That required no great admission of any sort.

"You lost time, you know," Shemyahza told him in a quiet tone, as if trying not to startle Gabriel.

"I did!?" He clutched at the hand that offered support, and stared at the chronometer on his notebook. Fifteen, nearly twenty minutes had passed since he'd first glanced at the characters of the scan called up on his screen. "Be damned. Is that why I'm so tired?"

"Yes," Shemyahza said frankly, urging him up out of his desk chair. "That's one reason. You're probably hungry, too?"

Gabriel gave him a nod and began sweeping his things into his briefcase. They all fit neatly, everything had a place, but he had a sudden urge to be...elsewhere. Perhaps eating a sandwich. "Is that caused by exercising my power?"

"It is," Shemyahza said, and shifted from one foot to the other, tossing the length of his braided hair over one shoulder. "Gabriel. I've done you something of a disservice, one I intend to correct as soon as possible."

The things on his desk didn't take long to clear into his briefcase and Gabriel snapped it shut. He fiddled with the double lock on it, keyed by thumbprint and a digital combination, loathe to meet Shemyahza's eyes now. "What do you mean?"

"You've had more power than you suspect for a while now," Shemyahza said, one big hand twitching as if to reach out for him, but the Nephilim remained beside his desk, filling up his office without even trying. The office was small enough to begin with and the presence of two men who were not short by any means did nothing for the already-claustrophobic feel. "If you think about it, I'm sure you can pinpoint how and why. But detecting my presence before we met, and now being around me -- knowing what you are -- it's acted like a trigger."

Gabriel squared his shoulders and caught up his briefcase, taking the other route around his office desk though it brought him flush with the bookcase wedged into the other side and put him in danger of dislodging a few priceless volumes. "Shemyahza, you tell me this as if I should be surprised by it." He pushed his way out of his inner sanctum into the larger office with its stripped-bare work desks and the pile of boxes from Orion he hadn't even begun to dig into. He had taken what he needed and nothing more in the interests of time and his own concentration.

"You're not?"

It was worth it simply to hear that unique note of shock in the unflappable Nephilim's voice, Gabriel thought to himself, a little smug. He knew he probably wouldn't be able to catch Shem by surprise very often.

"I'd guessed," Gabriel replied, turning to face him. He held his briefcase before him like a shield as Shemyahza bore down on him, silvery trench flaring around him. "Don't--!"

"And you don't resent me for it?" Shemyahza asked, tilting his head in a quizzical manner. He stopped short of touching Gabriel and that was a good thing, the professor knew. For their own sakes and that of the work tables around him that had never seen any other use but the scholarly.

"No?" Gabriel replied, a frown forming at the question itself. "Why should I, if you're a catalyst for improving on what I've been able to do before? You said you could show me. Tell me what 'it' really is."

Shemyahza cast a pointed glance around the office, with its door to the far left and the other door to the wall behind him that led to the vacuum chamber where he'd worked on the grimoire. Three doors, and only one led to the hallway outside.

"Tell me," Gabriel insisted, stepping closer to the Nephilim. Tall as he was, Shemyahza towered over him by nearly half a head and he had to look up into his eyes. They weren't hypnotic the way Granac Bowen's had been, but they drew him in -- deeper than Granac, really, because there had been something 'off' about that one, attractive and skin-crawling repulsive all at once.

Shemyahza took a deep breath, and one hand raised to pinch the bridge of his nose. He was nodding, though, even before he opened his eyes again. "You experience everything," he told Gabriel directly. "You probably have for longer than you can rightly remember. Pure humans call it autism. And so you have trouble concentrating, you have trouble narrowing down your attention to just one thing. But when you can, that's the only thing in the world."

Gabriel gave him a partial nod. This was telling him what he already knew, but he confirmed it for Shemyahza.

"You can learn to apply the use of something I, and a former mentor of mine, call 'filters' though that's not precisely the best term for it," Shemyahza continued, sweeping one hand to the side. He looked around the office again as if expecting someone to bust through the door -- or perhaps the wall.

"That's something you'll have to tell me more of, later," Gabriel murmured. "You with a mentor." He had a hard time imagining Shemyahza young enough to need that.

"Later," Shemyahza agreed, baring his teeth a little. "Focus, Gabriel. That's all I'm talking about, really. The filters will allow you to focus on that part of your environment that needs the most immediate attention."

"Like prioritizing," Gabriel said, grasping that concept. It was something he knew he was woefully poor at doing, unless his own priorities happened to align with the ones popular acclaim pressed on him.

Shemyahza paused. "Something like that." His silver eyes made another circuit of the room. "There's more to it, but hold onto that idea. It could help you. At any rate, you know how you've been losing time?"

"All too frequently," Gabriel said with a sigh. It was the story of his life.

The hint of a smile touched Shemyahza's full lower lip. "When you learn to stretch your concentration, the way I can see the potential for it inside you, you'll be even better than I at selective focus. It's one of your gifts, Gabriel. You'll be able to turn it around and stretch your own subjective time sense, experiencing the opposite of what you've had before. Time saved instead of time lost."

Gabriel realized he was gripping his briefcase a little too hard when he started to lose sensation in his fingers. "Is that possible?"

"Entirely possible," Shemyahza assured him. "I can do it -- not nearly so well as you'll be able to. Cal Pierce can do it in spurts, damn him, but only when he doesn't realize what he's doing. Your little brother may have the ability, I'm not sure yet."

That revelation put Gabriel closer to speechless than anything else Shemyahza had disclosed up until now, even warring with the revelation of his blood and the very pointed amorous advances perpetrated on his person. More time...his remark, and Shemyahza's cryptic response, fell into place now. It wasn't creating more time, exactly, but the Nephilim would show him how to make the best use of the time he had available. Already he wondered how far he'd be able to stretch that subjective time for himself, what limits Shemyahza himself had in that direction.

"You'll be able to process things faster," Shemyahza continued, inscribing a circular gesture with one hand. "Right now when you concentrate, it stretches the time out, you lose it because a large share of your attention is still being drained away by processing everything else and deciding to ignore it. You'll pay attention only to those things you decide, and when you're no longer exercising all your concentration, you'll be able to employ the filters and function more...normally in the rest of your life."

"Imagine if I start showing up on time for all of my appointments and commitments," Gabriel joked with a weak smile, and received a lightening of Shemyahza's serious expression in response.

The bounty hunter's gaze sharpened, going to a point beyond his shoulder.

"What is it?" Gabriel gasped, sensing the sudden thrust of Shemyahza's attention, that seeking pressure that moved outside their immediate presence. He half-expected Shemyahza to push him aside and make for the door. The Nephilim's hand had slid to the small of his back where Gabriel knew he kept a weapon, smaller than the broadsword but sure to be lethal enough.

"That lesson will have to wait for later," Shemyahza told him, putting a hand on his shoulder and preceding him to the door. He was already there when the hard, authoritative rap banged through the door like a gunshot.

Gabriel started, perhaps more because he'd been expecting something than out of any genuine fright.

Shemyahza wrenched the door open before the visitor could finish and revealed Richard Vanderbrant on the threshold, one fist upraised. The man was tall, every bit as tall as Gabriel's hereditary height advantage because Donough Vanderbrand, too, had been a big man before age stooped him. Shemyahza still towered over him, though, and it was clear in the way Richard angled his jaw and piercing wolf-blue eyes glittered that he took in the measure of the taller, dark-skinned man and did not like it.

"State your business," Shemyahza said, briskly impersonal as a secretary. This was a side of him Gabriel hadn't seen yet, brusque and unreadable.

"I'm here to see my nephew," Richard stated in a flat voice that contained a fair amount of suppressed rage. His direct gaze went past Shemyahza and he sought out Gabriel, eyes narrowing in that way they had when they had brushed past one another coming and going from elevators.

Gabriel was glad for the foresight he'd had that morning to catch up on all of his messages, mail, and e-mail before attempting to delve into the secrets of his calling once more. After being all but out of commission for so many days, he had suspected there would be business to attend to and he was right. He was in a position of strength now and he knew that if there was anything Richard Vanderbrant hated, it was being in less advantageous ground from which to maneuver.

"I don't recall that we have any business, uncle," Gabriel said, stressing the familial connection between them. "If you're here as a social call, I'm afraid I need advanced notice for that sort of thing, and I'm already aware that you have no need for the consultations of a professional such as myself."

Richard Vanderbrant sneered, started forward, and found himself barred by a substantial trench-coat clad arm. His expression struggled with incredulous rage before dropping into that smooth, sinisterly perfect poker face that he used for public functions. Gabriel had seen it at functions they'd both attended aside from the infrequent newscasts. "You have no right--"

"You already know, I assume, that your attempts to have your platoon of lawyers overturn the bequest given to me and my brothers by our grandfather" -- again he stressed the familial connection, which was surely lost on Richard -- "have been overturned by the judge who heard your motion. My lawyer has informed me of that much." In three high-priority messages, an express-delivered envelope, and a few voicemails, in point of fact. The man was becoming accustomed to Gabriel's heretofore ineffectively-applied selective focus.

Richard's nostrils flared and he made a small movement, expensive imported loafers scuffling over tile floor.

"Try it," Shemyahza invited in a low voice that barely carried, but Gabriel still heard.

Richard blinked, slanting a partial look from beneath heavy black bangs that didn't quite commit any of his attention to the bodyguard that loomed above him. His wide mouth had firmed in that stubborn expression Gabriel recalled from countless past encounters. "What were you doing at the Cygnus building this morning?" he demanded, concentrating his formidable gaze on Gabriel once more.

It was a pity no one had ever taught Richard that it was easier to trap flies with, well, anything really as opposed to vinegar. Recalling his grandfather's ways, Gabriel knew Richard had had plenty of opportunity to learn that at his father's side but it had never stuck.

"I could ask you the same," Gabriel countered coolly, clenching his hand around his briefcase. It was a good thing Roman was never put often in the path of their uncle, because he would react one of two ways: by trying to 'coax' him into a better mood, and that was an image he never needed in his head ever again please dear Aphrodite; or by going toe to toe with him like an angry feline. They'd nearly gotten into a fight the last time they had been in the same place at the same time and that had been at a very public function. Roman had a way of hissing, and Richard of barking, that made them sound like a cat-and-dog fight.

"What's your tie with Orion?" Richard asked bluntly. "Cygnus is a secure facility, I know because it's on my evacuation plan. You were there during the interim of a major crisis. What are your ties to Orion such that you'd be there while the most serious crisis point for the past five years was going on?"

Gabriel was incensed. Though Richard was betting on Gabriel himself to have intimate knowledge of all he spoke of because of his own security clearances, if he'd been speaking to someone of lesser clearance -- or if someone wandered down this section of the hall -- the potential confidentiality breach was inexcusable.

"You said yourself, what was it? I'd 'cultured a rather impressive corporate tie.' That's all the reason you need, I think." Gabriel had both hands on his briefcase now, because if he were to relax for even a moment he was in danger of tossing it in Richard's face, taking Shem by the elbow, and rushing them out of there. Dealing with Richard was a trial at best and now Gabriel had been strung out tightly over the course of several days; he knew he wasn't at his best to handle this right now. "I'm surprised you came yourself all this way for something so trivial."

Richard's eyes narrowed in on him as if he had Gabriel in cross-hairs. "You're serious." He started forward again, shoes scraping on tile as he re-discovered the fact that he was barred from entry. "You're a Vaille, and now you're this heavily involved with Orion. You can't possibly--"

"You're done," Shemyahza said, and with a brief flex he seemed to swell, now looming over Richard Vanderbrant.

Richard's dark head tipped and he took a step back, examining the great tall length of Shemyahza as though seeing him for the first time. "And you're a...contractor." He drew out the statement, assessing all near-seven feet of Shemyahza Guile like a business proposition.

"I'm going home," Gabriel stated. He flicked an angry glance at his uncle. Those intimations of knowing more about the Vailles than he himself had known were a deep discomfort. "You can stay here if you like, office hours go until six and my TA will be here later, but I doubt you came in a professional capacity anyhow. Good day."

Richard Vanderbrant gave him a look that managed to be closed off and triumphant at the same time. He turned on his heel and strode up the hall, his hard dress shoes clacking sharp staccato the entire way.

The doorway remained blocked by Shemyahza for a long moment before the Nephilim finally turned to him, handsome face etched with a fearsome scowl.

"They should have killed all the lawyers," Shemyahza muttered with overtones of what sounded like genuine regret.

Gabriel blinked up at him. "Excuse me?"

Shemyahza shook his sleek dark head. "Forget it," he said, and he glared again over his shoulder at the hall, returning his attention to Gabriel a moment later with a brooding look. His eyebrows had slanted into angry peaks and they seemed to be in danger of not subsiding any time soon. "I don't like it."

Gabriel gave him a weary chuckle. "He's my uncle, and I don't like it one bit," he confessed. "He's never gotten on with my branch of the family, and I suspect his dislike for my father had a great deal to do with it. That saying about blood being thicker than water...?"

"I don't think blood runs through his veins," Shemyahza observed, the full line of his mouth compressing. "Things I've heard about Richard Vanderbrant..." He trailed into silence, still bristling in the direction of the departed CEO.

"I know," Gabriel said, quiet as he considered it. "I've known him all my life; he's never been..." He sighed. He'd known his grandfather very well, and he'd known Richard. While he couldn't say Richard was not the son Donough had wanted for himself, he was sure his grandfather had taken joy in what time he'd ever been able to spend with his daughter Arianna and her family. Richard had seemed to prefer his sister and her family didn't exist, and when called to his attention, had certainly never acted as though they were related.

Also, isolated and focused as he tended to be, he'd heard the occasional newsbyte of the ruthless business dealings of Vanderbrant. It never came as a surprise.

"I think that may be why my grandfather willed the trust of the university and educational holdings to me and my brothers," Gabriel concluded.

Shemyahza loomed in the doorway still, dark as a thundercloud. Gabriel shifted his briefcase from one hand to the other and looked to his work behind him, the boxes he hadn't touched, and came to a decision helped along by the focus he was becoming attuned to; that of the pulse that beat through Shemyahza's throat.

"There's no one home right now," he blurted. "That is, if the contractors are done with my floor."

A slow, heated smile turned in his direction. "Gabriel. Are you coming on to me?" Tall, dark and sexy left his post at the door to reel him in with one arm. It wasn't difficult.

"Let's say I'm no longer resisting," he suggested, and was rewarded with a wider, anticipatory grin.


The holographic display was full-color, three-dimensional, and displayed an overabundance of information that scrolled past on vertical display and was captured on smaller screens that ringed the conference table, recording everything for the data analysts. Three shifts of those were working around the clock in Orion's Cassandra facility, an underground tower in the innermost ring of the city. Alicia Carson had been watching the display for so long that her vision had started to blur, and she might not have noticed the disappearance of yet another amber dot if its loss hadn't been accompanied with a discreet blip.

She straightened in her chair with a soft curse. "Who was that?" she demanded of the room at large.

Arashi, who had joined their vigil shortly after his school hours looking more ill-tempered than usual, spoke up even while his fingers moved over the keyboard. "Janis Blackgard," he said.

"Double-damn," she reinforced the curse subvocally. One of theirs; not a contractor or a plant but a direct employee.

The young man continued without being asked, "That brings the total to twelve including unknowing plants." He tapped something else and an additional display began to stream through the air, centered over the Long Island Bridge. It was two columns, one made up of words and the other of numbers, all varying. "We purge them and they purge us, huh?"

Alicia crossed her arms over her chest tight enough to squeeze. They had operatives in the field in varying levels of cover, from the willing to the oblivious, some with implants and some without as they had revealed to Professor Vaille earlier. It didn't seem to make a difference. Their psychics were the final trace on all of them, and one by one they were all being sussed out and killed.

"You're not going to like this," Arashi said into the dim room after a long moment of silence.

"Then it's better if you get it out quickly," Alicia said, extracting a hand to wave him on with it. She rubbed it against one brow bone, either tired or tired of this -- it was becoming hard to make distinctions. At least she was nearing the end of her shift. This time, she would make use of the down-time.

"They've all been shut down too quickly to flash-download anything their implants recorded except for this last one." Arashi stabbed a button and the entire intricate matrix of the holographic display collapsed, replaced with a single video feed. "I managed to re-route it. Damned bugger is good." That last was spat out with grudging admiration.

Alicia stood, slipping out of her heels and bracing herself against the back of her chair, stretching. "Play it," she ordered.

The window crackled with white static in mid-air, striped and dotted with blots and lines of black that flickered over its surface before disappearing into the general haze of whiteness. A picture formed, dark and hazy. The field of view widened into broken-backed and crumbling buildings, hollowed-out hulks that had been the shells of cars and were now less than scrap metal. A general pall dimmed the atmosphere to a clinging perpetual gray.

"Long Island," Alicia said aloud, and sensed rather than saw Arashi's nod on the other side of the display.

The view switched around abruptly as the screen seemed to swing around in a one-eighty, the operative pivoting to get a full view of the opposite side of the street. Then the entire frame jogged, trembled, and the viewpoint swiveled into an over-the-shoulder perspective. The feed collapsed into darkness, dwindling on a single point of light until that, too, was gone.

"Did you see it?" Arashi prompted, cool and emotionless.

"Yes," Alicia returned, and laced her arms over her breast again. She drew in a deep breath and let it out, slow and easy. "Get a print of that, Arashi, will you? This... gods. I don't know what to think of this."

Arashi backed up the feed to return to that single image, the split second before Janis Blackgard's death. She had gotten a last look at her attacker, and it had been Wolfe. "Turlach finds the plants and Wolfe gets rid of them?" Arashi supplied, and his fingers moved steadily, capturing the image and reproducing it.

"Maybe," Alicia said, frowning at that unmistakable image. It was Wolfe, no doubt of it. But this could be a loyalty test and the only means of getting deeper into the bowels of the beast. Bowen was a canny opponent. "They're either very, very good at getting themselves exactly where we've told them to go and they don't give a damn how many of our operatives are expended in the process, or they've turned on us in spite of the up-front money."

Arashi's pale face was painted in blue from his displays and green-shadowed backlighting from the holographic feed. "Money means nothing to demons if the world really is going to shit," he commented.

"Our world," Alicia amended.

Arashi's eyes lifted briefly from his absorption in the display. "Of course." His fingers kept moving, eliciting that ceaseless tap-tap noise as he switched between displays, worked on analyses, and sent messages between colleagues. He paused. "If New York is destroyed, though, most important financial data would be backed up immediately on redundant servers in other major cities. The economy wouldn't be shattered the way it might have been in the last century if New York took the hit."

Alicia acknowledged the point with a lift of her chin. "True, but someone like Wolfe wouldn't really be interested in money at that point." He was doing what he needed to ensure his own survival.

She wished she knew which side that meant he'd planted himself on.

"How many of our people are left in the field?" she inquired. Their families would have to be seen to, for those that had them.

Arashi keyed that figure up, and his hands slapped the flat of the conference table. "Sixteen," he exclaimed, displeased. He swiveled his chair from the table and swore.

Alicia raised an eyebrow at that inventive string of curses, which he certainly hadn't learned from his father. That was a large enough number still remaining in the field that she was going to have to authorize some kind of action. "They're good," she said, referring to Wolfe and Turlach. "I need to call in another contractor to work on those implants, don't I?"

She leaned over the conference table and surveyed the holographic display, which had resumed after Arashi had captured the feed. One readout indicated that the numbers of demons were swelling, which meant that they had at least one summoner. Across the table, Arashi sat up straighter in his chair and rocked his head from side to side, causing a couple of painful-sounding cracks but he grunted satisfaction.

"Yeah," he said after he was done wracking his neck. "You should. There's only so much I can do from an electronic standpoint, but perhaps you've got someone who can prolong the feed."

He left unsaid the fact that the implant feeds currently chopped off at the point of death.

"I'll see what I can do," Alicia replied, and stepped back from the conference table. There was still an immense amount of work to do before she finished her shift. "Don't stay here all night, and don't forget to take breaks. Especially for dinner, you're thin enough."

"Fine," Arashi said dryly. "Programming a reminder."

The door irised open noiselessly and Alicia straightened, dropping her arms to her sides in a less defensive posture.

"How's everything going?" The amiable question preceded Division Head Loire. As per his usual, he strolled through the doorway with his hands in his pockets, casting a friendly smile around the place.

Arashi sank down in his chair as if seeking to escape detection.

"Nothing new to report," Alicia replied, keeping her tone even. It had been several hours since her near-disaster with the heads of the Vanderbrant and Kline empires, and this had to be a discreet check on her operations management. At that ill-fated meeting, the public relations head had been detained due to a security false alarm and anyone with sense should have known better than to leave Alicia Carson in a room with major moguls and no intermediary. She was prone to delivering direct answers, or none at all.

Thanks to the division head's intercession the meeting hadn't ended a complete disaster, but Alicia vividly recalled the searing gaze of Richard Vanderbrant and his palpable disgust in her refusal as operations coordinator to give him a more detailed extent of what had happened over the past few days.

He'd shown a notable interest in Professor Vaille's connection to their operations as well, and finally after repeated questions Alicia had snapped, 'You're his uncle; why don't you ask him yourself?' That had sure impressed Silvia Kline, too, the way the woman had rolled her eyes and fanned herself with her binder as if bored beyond all reason.

The fact that they were both major powers in the city on their own rights did not mean they were entitled to all the information she had at hand.

"How goes it?" Loire inquired, his affable eyes scanning the room, noting Arashi slumped in his seat, and twinkling with amusement as they returned to her.

"Uh..." Alicia looked down to her ivory pumps. "Another operative dead, sir. Recent evidence points to it being the half-blood pair we approached to infiltrate Granac Bowen's operations during the purge."

"Hmm," Loire verbalized, rocking back on his heels. He rarely looked grim, but sometimes managed vague worry. "Could he have turned?"

"Either he's turned or he's still doing his job, sir. Time will tell," Alicia said with another brief sigh. She had been noticing a lot of those lately. "Now I'm faced with the decision to pull them back or leave them in the field to face being potentially slaughtered."

Arashi's head lifted in interest at that.

"Pull them back, Alicia," Loire said, firm and unhesitating. "If you know it's this half-blood pair that you seeded, they'll just have to keep killing the remaining operatives to keep infiltrating. It's not worth the risk of having one of the remainders capturing something essential."

Alicia dipped her head in acquiescence. "Yes, I will." She'd needed to hear that continued efforts would be futile. "If you'll excuse me, I need to make an immediate call to Revel." The pale, thin young man was their best long-distance telempath, capable of projecting and receiving as far as the opposite coast. He wasn't capable of much else, though, and had to remain in shielded quarters at all times. It was he who'd been monitoring their network over the past few days and the death of each 'voice' he listened to had to be a severe shock. He'd be overjoyed to order them out of there.

"Arashi, got time for your old dad?" she heard the division head saying as she left the room for an adjacent operations center.

"Look, do we have to--" The door dilated shut and Alicia was alone with blessed silence.

As she had expected, Revel was grateful to receive her call to transmit the order to pull back and return to New York City. He actually thanked her.

"I'm having trouble holding out," he said hoarsely. "Nen keeps me anchored, but even she has to sleep sometimes."

"Sorry to put you through this," Alicia told him.

"What about the mules, the ones who don't know we were monitoring them? You think it'll stop once I'm no longer marking them?" Revel questioned her.

Alicia palmed her forehead. No headache yet, for which she was grateful. Twelve hours later and she was still thinking with the clarity she needed on the job. "That's a good thing to ask, Revel, thanks for catching that. Can you embed a strong desire to return to the city and try re-entry through normal channels?"

The ear-path's connection caught the whuff of air, implying a nod on Revel's end. "Yeah. Yeah, I can do that. I will. And after I'm done with all of them I'm going to sleep for about two days, to let you know."

She let the smile flow through her voice. "Understood. Get some rest, and I'll log bonuses for you and Nen. Good work."

"Not much work to do, when everyone keeps dying," he said sadly, then disconnected.

Another sigh hovered on her tongue and she held this one in, dropping into the chair nearest the central console. The configuration was similar enough to the one she'd been using at Cygnus that she didn't have to really think about it. Within moments she was immersed in reports; going through the uneventful check-ins for all of the bodyguards on the Vaille detail, noting with satisfaction that the upgrades to the Carrack building had been completed in record time, and getting pissed off that the remainder of their contractors and payroll staff were out on the street shoring up defenses or cleaning up damage that their own bounty hunters had caused.

This was not good. Kline, at least, had been fully within her rights to demand greater disclosure. It looked as though they were covering up for a series of horrible mistakes. And what the hell were P.R. and marketing doing, sitting back and diddling themselves? She composed a couple of curt, to-the-point messages then minimized them, promising herself to finish and send when she was in a less angry frame of mind.

The increased security at the Gates had done some immediate good, at least. There was a good return on investment. Redhawk had sent a note of thanks that she read and replied to quickly. She read Shemyahza Guile's report last, half-fearing it would be full of recriminations and dire warnings.

"Huh," she said aloud. It seemed Richard Vanderbrant had taken her up on her advice. She wondered if she should send a bonus to Vaille by way of apology.

There wasn't a single sound to give warning, but Alicia sensed the change in air pressure, already reaching for her concealed firearm as she swiveled her chair to face the room's new occupant.

"Stand down," the honeyed golden tone filled the room, followed by a resonant chuckle. "It's just me."

"Hardly 'just' you," Alicia found herself answering, rising to her feet.

Rex stood in the center of the operations center, hands clasped behind his back, strands of golden hair falling into his face to partly obscure true-blue eyes. He was clad in the impeccable white suit she'd taken for his trademark, a sapphire silk shirt underneath the white jacket, no tie circling his throat. The color of the shirt changed occasionally, but never the white. "Please," Rex said, shaking his head ever so slightly. "I'm just another operative like yourself. My sphere of influence may be a little greater, but that's all."

"Right," Alicia agreed, and turned far enough to keep her console in view as well as Rex himself. She was sure he'd stopped by for an update, and his would be somewhat more productive than her division head's. She had been half-expecting a visit from Rex, given that he'd contacted her so recently to authorize the release of discretionary funds to her unit. Now she recalled something that had gotten buried in the avalanche of data she'd consumed over the past few days; Rex had been the one to forward Wolfe and Turlach to her consideration to begin with. "Sir?"

His keen eyes were moving over the screens she'd left open. He had access to her data streams, though, so none of it could be news to him. She'd put even money that he knew the exact number of people who had already died in the field, and the number of the ones she'd ordered Revel to give the order to pull back. Rex's clearance was higher than her own and she was certain he had access to any report she could touch. At her prompting, his eyes flicked from the screens to hers, concentrating and throwing back an odd reflective glow for a moment. "Did it help?" he asked her.

Without asking, she knew he meant the money. "Oh, yes," she said, then gave a rueful shake of her head for all the wasteful spending involving repairs and compensation. Ruined property, wasted lives.

"There was a lot of damage," Rex noted.

"That's what I'm shaking my head over," Alicia said wryly. "We sent out some harshly worded reprimands and pay sanctions over that, but I'm not sure how much of it helped."

"Obviously there were a few summoners in the city. Local news reports hinted that there had been Wall breaches," Rex continued.

"Which made the City and Wall Defense Corps come to us, fuming," Alicia filled in the rest of the sentence. "They didn't appreciate being pinned for the blame. I've never seen Redhawk so angry with us before. It was, as he put it so nicely, a--" She hesitated in the presence of this man she didn't know very well.

"Total clusterfuck," Rex supplied with no hint of a smile. "I heard."

That made her wonder if he'd read a transcript, talked with Division Head Loire, or if he'd actually been pulling a feed off that circuit. It was always safe to assume a public room in an Orion safe house was being monitored as opposed to not.

"Yes. Well." She cleared her throat. He looked at her. Was he expecting her to apologize?

"Don't worry about it." His eyes glinted now with what she recognized as his own brand of dry amusement and she raised her eyebrows as she realized that Rex was laughing at her, in his way. "It's bound to happen in the aftermath of drastic action -- which was required, and I'm pleased Division Head Loire supported you on that."

He wouldn't have interceded for her if Loire hadn't, Alicia realized as she watched him watch her reactions to what he'd said. She had to be able to stand on her own merits, or she'd be replaced with an operations head that could.

"As I'm sure you already know," Alicia continued, "entry incidents regressed to zero since the purge and increase in security. But we've been losing people in the field as we've sought to get someone close to Granac Bowen. Wolfe and Turlach have been finding and killing them, sir."

"Ah," Rex said softly. His hands were still clasped behind his back, which made her nervous but not enough to note it constantly. "And you think they may have turned."

"It's one of the options," Alicia replied, cautious. His voice was inflectionless and hard to read.

"Stop worrying. Bowen doesn't know it -- he doesn't know them -- but Wolfe despises Bowen and all he stands for," Rex assured her. "He'd prefer an honest melee to the creeping rot. Unfortunately, in this instance killing your operatives is part of his job."

"And Granac Bowen stands in for creeping rot?" Alicia said, unable to quite control the incredulous laugh. Your operatives, he'd said. Not our operatives. She wondered if Rex considered anything to be his. Or, like the king, everything he surveyed was part of his empire thus rendering it unnecessary to remark on any one thing in particular.

"Yes," Rex said simply. "One we must eliminate, before he takes over any more territory."

Emboldened, Alicia stepped up her questioning. "What do you know of Bowen, sir? I've gotten depositions from Guile and Vaille, but any knowledge you have--"

"I don't," he interrupted her with a shake of his head. He wore his smooth unreadable face now, the neutral mask and not the polite expression of interest. "I have no first-hand knowledge of Granac Bowen. The intelligence I do have available indicated that Orion would do best to eliminate him with all due haste; assassinate, if necessary." Now he raised his brows and the look of polite inquiry was back.

"Fine," Alicia said, crossing her arms. She recognized when someone was withholding. That meant that whatever knowledge Rex could give her was tied up with something else, some essential secret or other information he couldn't -- wouldn't -- divulge. "What else, sir?"

"So you're waiting for more reliable data on Bowen's motives," Rex said, not shifting one bit from his rock-steady stance, hands clasped behind his back, head tilting a degree to one side. "What's your next move?"

"Gabriel Vaille's translations," she said, and hoped he wasn't going to laugh in her face. It was a long shot.

Rex's left eyebrow twitched.

Alicia held him stare for stare.

"Yes, he has a copy of the Third Key Grimoire," Rex said after a moment. "That would be more than useful; it could be fatal to whomever uses it."

"Any weapon we can employ against them, sir. Even their own," Alicia said stubbornly. "You believe the legends?"

Rex hesitated, mouth lengthening but no answers forthcoming.

Behind him, the door dilated and an even taller man stepped through the door, topping Rex's six-four by more than a few inches. As Rex was dressed in white, this man was the inverse in a black three-piece suit and a patterned charcoal gray and silver silk shirt beneath it. Like Rex, he wore no tie. He was handsome and angular where Rex was gorgeous. He had a length of black hair that was always caught back at his nape, and it was so dark it had no highlights, reflecting nothing.

"Sir, it's time to go," he spoke up, his voice a ringing tenor that could probably call armies to attention.

Rex's head turned. "Understood, Shion."

Rather than withdrawing, Shion waited behind him on the threshold.

Rex focused his attention on Alicia again and as she had so many times, she had the sense she was staging her final exams before him. "The Professor's work could be crucial. He has the right help for it. Keep it up, Alicia." His eyes bored into her for a long moment.

Now she recognized that if she had any other questions, now was the time. The answer she wanted most was the one she wasn't sure she would have gotten, right before the door had opened for Shion. She gave him a brief shake of the head, knowing better than to tender a thanks that would make him snap a hasty demurral.

"Until next time, then." He turned and with a flourish of white, he was gone. When the door had finished closing she was still staring speculatively in their direction. Shion never had looked up long enough for her to get a look into his eyes. Demeanor of the servant, or something else? He was more than a butler and perhaps beyond bodyguard, that was for sure.

Once she was sure they both had to be well on their way up the hallway to the elevator, Alicia eased out a long breath that she'd been holding. The man was intense, and made her feel under greater scrutiny than Richard Vanderbrant, bless his flabby black heart, ever could make her stand to attention.

She kicked her pumps into the corner and dropped into the console chair again, determined to finish the most important reports then pass off bulk analysis to Arashi and her other assistant for the next few hours. By god, if the pot was going to boil again, she would get eight hours of sleep tonight.


"I can't."

The words were laid out with cold finality in the car between them and Roman's nape hairs prickled. Bad enough that they had started arguing almost the instant they had set foot in the car again but for his bodyguard to be listening in on a very personal argument? Gave him the willies. "I can't believe you would even ask that right now," Roman continued furiously. What he really meant was, I can't believe you'd ask again. "Damon, having sex in that usenet booth didn't resolve anything, okay? We still have all the same issues."

"Because you say they're issues!" Damon exclaimed in frustration, his knuckles popping white around his grip on the steering wheel. "Riv--Roman, nothing that you're saying is anything that I perceive as an obstacle, really. I want you to be with me, I want you to move in right now. We don't need to wait, I'm not going to stop you going to school, I just. I want you with me."

From the back issued an amused voice, "Sure would make our job easier. One operative for two instead of involving a part-timer."

"Peanut gallery stays out of this," Roman said in a growl, making his seat belt tighten around him as he swiveled to jab a finger at Felicia. He subsided into his seat and groaned, dropping his face into his hands. "Look. I'm not leaving my family right now, okay? Can you at least accept that?"

There was silence, and when Roman sneaked a glance across the Lexus he saw why. Damon was clenching his jaw, the muscles there standing out in rigid relief. "Fine. Yes, I can accept that. I think you're using them as an excuse to stop an argument, but I can accept it."

"You--! I can't believe you, you..." Roman trailed off, speechless with rage. Using his family as a shield? That was the most contemptible accusation yet. "I'm not dodging you, Damon, I think we--"

I think we shouldn't have sex on a continual basis because I could kill you, Roman's brain helpfully supplied the remainder, and he told that part of himself to shut up, shut up as savage as he'd turned on everyone else. Not fifteen minutes from release he was already thinking about the next time he could manage it. He'd have time in his dressing room while he was getting ready. And that necessarily precluded Damon, because his lover would be doing the technical set-up for the shoot.

"Then why, Roman? It's not like I can stop you from doing anything you like, I learned that a long time ago," Damon said. "And I wouldn't, I already told you that."

"Don't start this with me right now, Damon, I am in no mood," Roman said, his temper flaring. "Leave off. I told you, I needed some time--"

"Which doesn't count when you need a quickie in the usenet booth?" Damon sniped back, and it was the truth, only the truth, but that was the last straw.

The car came to a halt at the next stoplight. Roman jerked the door open and stepped out of the car, unsnapping his seatbelt and scrambling for the curb. They were close enough to the Psyblade building he knew that he could walk the rest of the way.

"Roman, don't you--!" Damon bellowed after him before Roman slammed the car door.

Another door shut behind him and Roman knew it was his bodyguard rather than lover. The engine was still purring. He hitched his bag higher on his shoulder and kept walking.

"Boy, you are testing my last nerve," Felicia tore into him as she drew even with him. One hand snapped up as if to grab hold of his ear, but she shook her head and kept walking beside him. "Look. You want to push him away but you want to have him whenever you want him? That's why he's still arguing with you. You're hot and cold, Roman. Make up--"

"You tell me to make up my mind and I'm going to get real childish on you and put my hands over my ears," Roman drawled. Choices, it was all about making choices and he had such a good track record with that. "Besides, it's one thing to have sex with my lover and another thing entirely to agree to move in with him, don't you think?"

"You asked him for more space," Felicia pointed out. "Not five minutes after dragging him into that booth, and it was not the other way around, may I remind you?"

"As long as you're asking, no," Roman said. He went through a reflexive check anyhow to make sure Damon was pulling the car around and not getting pissed enough at him to hose the shoot. It was an unworthy thought. Damon was more of a professional than he was, after all. One thing he could count on for sure, though, was that whatever argument they got into right before, they would keep it out of their work.

Felicia snorted. "Brat. Get in the damned building. You know you're making me violate my operating principles right now, splitting up with no one else on hand to cover Damon?"

"Sorry," Roman apologized. "I'm good at disappointing everyone."

She swatted him while they cycled through to the inner foyer of Psyblade's main floor. He yelped and danced out of her reach. "What now, genius child?"

"Leave me alone?" Roman suggested, and had to keep moving in order to avoid her long arm. "No, seriously, I have to get ready for my photo shoot. I suppose you can stand outside the dressing room door, but it's only got one entry and no windows, I swear. And all the staff have had background checks so I hardly think the makeup artist is going to try to stab me in the eye with a blush brush."

"We'll see," she grumbled.

They took the elevator to the advertising department with its permanent stable of dressing rooms and photo-op accommodations. Felicia remained at his elbow and when they reached the one door labeled 'River,' she steered him in and dragged the door shut behind them.

"Whoa, whoa, wait!" Roman protested. "This is not part of the plan, I am not undressing in front of you!"

"Please," Felicia said, spreading a hand in front of his face. "As if I want to see your pasty, skinny white ass. I only have one thing to say then I'll go guard the door like you asked. That man loves you, and you are basically telling him to cram it. Why won't you choose him?"

Roman winced. "Okay, well, you know what, Felicia? I don't have a lot of options. Let me list them out for you so that you can hear how equally bad they all are." He'd referred to them vaguely before, but she wanted to get up close and personal, he'd let her have it.

The dressing room labeled 'River' was one of the more luxurious accommodations, and it had been outfitted to his demand list before he'd ever set foot in the place. It was as big as a studio apartment. To the left, there was not a mini-bar but a full-sized fridge, then the make-up and hair station. Beyond the station there were a few racks of clothing on wheels that blocked the view of the bathroom in the far left corner. At the far end of the dressing room was affixed a window-sized flat plasma display that could be tuned to a data wall setting, a broadcast or on-demand setting, or a holographic background setting. On the right-hand side of the room beside the plasma screen in the far corner stood a tall, elaborately painted four-panel dressing screen. Pushed up against the right-hand wall were a couple of comfortable suede couches and a coffee table arranged on a thick plush rug. What was a dressing room for him would surely be called an apartment by the less fortunate.

Roman dropped his school bag on one of the empty single-serving couches and retrieved a bottled water from the fridge, waving one in Felicia's direction.

She waved a hand to dismiss the offer, folded her arms, and remained standing there, conveying expectance in every line of her body.

"My life sucks, all right?" Roman began conversationally. "I had it out with Shemyahza yesterday. I'm an incubus. I feed off of, and amplify, sexual energies."

"I got that part," Felicia said dryly. "Though I take it that your power only works on those of your orientation."

"I guess that's a good way to put it," Roman said with a shrug, dropping onto the supple comfort of the suede couch. "I never tried putting the make on a girl, I'm just not attracted to them. Anyhow, my powers were awakened recently. And now I have three choices: I can screw around to keep my, uh, desires well-satisfied, in which I can't be with Damon because he knows now, and I just can't screw around on him. Or, I could try to screw around with everything including Damon."

Felicia unbent enough to approach the solo couch and prop herself on the back of it. "I don't think that's a good option."

"Yeah. I know." Roman brooded over his cuticles for a moment. They were starting to look ragged and he hadn't been keeping up his best grooming habits over the past several days. "Makes me sick to think he knew all this time and didn't say anything."

"He loves you," Felicia said. Maybe it was that simple. "And he probably hoped you'd grow out of it." She folded her arms again, and those vivid golden glyphs stood out on her dark skin with the movement.

"Ha!" Roman shook his head, and reached for his bottle of water again. "I mean, that's putting a lot of trust in me. Next option, total celibacy. I'd die."

"Or implode within three days," Felicia added, generous mouth quirking.

Roman tipped his head back and groaned. "Don't I know it." Already he was replaying the scene from the usenet booth in his head and trying to figure out when he could get more. A quickie in his dressing room, that would be great...

That was, he was sure, why they employed female make-up and hair stylists for him. Come to think of it, in retrospect he was sure either Damon or his agent had had a hand in that.

He heaved a sigh and pulled himself upright again, hitching his legs onto the sofa beneath him. Later, he could think about his body's needs later. "Then there's the option where I could limit myself to one person and pour all my sexual energy into them, and if they respond to me and, er, rise to the occasion, then they're my mate." He was still trying to figure out the sexual metaphysics of that. Was it like bio-feedback? But looping sexual energy would probably make him never want to leave the bedroom and then they'd just die anyhow. Starvation and lack of fluids were not a pretty way to go.

"How do you know if someone's your mate?" Felicia asked him, cocking her head.

Roman sighed, leaning his head into his hands and messing up his hair. He should take a quick shower before the stylists ambushed him. He had maybe fifteen minutes before they were due. "See, that's the thing. I don't know. Shemyahza was not very helpful on that score, he said I'd just...I'd just know. I don't know anything. And if I'm wrong, and try to hook up with one person, they'll die."

"Ah," Felicia said, and there was enough sympathy, enough horrible understanding injected in that one syllable to make him snap his head up and glare at her.

"Anyhow you know how long it's been since my last fix; about fifteen, twenty minutes. And already I have these cravings." He wrapped his arms around his knees to contain a shiver. It was like last week when that chocolate or whatever else he'd eaten had triggered a flood of sexual desire that swept him away, making him force Damon right along with him.

"Cravings for anyone, or cravings for Damon?" Felicia prodded.

"I don't know, all right!?" Roman shouted, glaring at her over his knees. "I'm trying not to think about the whole thing."

"All right, all right." She raised both hands.

He uncrossed his legs and got to his feet, taking the water bottle with him and drinking half of it down in a few quick pulls. "Look, I have to get going. I've got to shower before the stylists get here. I'll be fine, so why don't you, I don't know, check out the perimeter or something?"

Felicia stayed where she was, her hazel eyes staying with him until Roman shifted where he stood, uncomfortable. "I'll be out in the hallway," she said at last. "You've got your panic button."

Right, she had slipped that to him when the lunch period had started. Roman patted his pocket. "Yeah, it's here." Not that it would do him any good in the shower, but no one was going to come into his dressing room and attack him. That was poor form.

She left, the door clicking shut behind her and Roman heaved a huge sigh, alone for the first time in days. Truly alone. He cast his arms wide, spun around the studio in giddy relief, and plopped down on the couch for a moment. He propped his cheek on one hand and looked around. There was no fan mail or pile of packages as he'd been accustomed. Either his agent was screening things again -- maybe Damon had had a word in spite of Roman's promise to deal with the issue himself -- or the mail service had been that badly disrupted over the past few days.

He got up and stripped off his uniform jacket, tossing it to the solo chair on top of his school things. As he began to undo his uniform dress shirt, a knock sounded on the door.

"Hunh," Roman uttered, squinting at the clock. It was too early for Ladonna and Stacey to put in an appearance. Maybe Damon had come to apologize, or come expecting one from him?

A sensual smirk crossed his face as he sauntered over to the door. If that was the case, Damon was going to get a big surprise, or not so much so considering that Roman liked to apologize with sex. Actions spoke louder than words, after all.

He opened the door on an unexpected sight: a trio of three men, other models. He recognized Kennedy in the lead, a tall dirty-blond guy in his mid-twenties, ripped down to delicious muscle and sinew and stripped-down hipbones; Toby, a big sleek twenty-one year old black man with a shaven scalp and pouty, sensual lips; and there was Aaron hanging out in the background, his head hanging until dark hair fell over his eyes, big hands shoved in the pockets of his baggy cargoes.

"Guys," Roman greeted them pleasantly enough. "Been awhile. Is there something I can do for you?" He tried to glance around the jamb to see where Felicia was, but by themselves Kennedy and Toby were big enough to block his view.

Kennedy hustled through the door and bore Roman back away from it, one hand flat on Roman's chest beneath his collarbone, the other arm hooking around his neck in a loose kind of wrestling move.

"Hey, wait--" Roman managed to get out, his eyes widening as the other two models bustled through the door, Toby easing it shut and flipping the lock. "What's going on here?" His voice raised in panic but he knew it wouldn't do too much good. A soundproofed dressing room had been on his list of requirements when he accepted the Psyblade contract.

"Hi, Roman," Kennedy said into his ear, friendly and cheerful enough but the arm that tightened around his neck bore only menace. "You sure do think a lot of yourself, don't you? Nice dressing room." His breath was hot on Roman's neck and his arm squeezed to the point where Roman thought it would begin to restrict his breathing until he was released, spun away and staggering against the nearest chair.

"Nice dressing room," Toby echoed with a smirk, padding over to the fridge and inspecting the contents. "Wow, this shit's better than what they keep for us in the break room, that's for sure."

Roman narrowed his eyes. "You're getting bitchy over my extras?" he said, incredulous. "Is that what this is?"

Kennedy tipped his lean, rangy form into the other solo chair on the other side of the coffee table. He was wearing a skin-tight maroon tee and track pants that showed off every feature of his well-muscled body.

The sight of him evoked two reactions; it stirred up the banked smolder of desire that had been residing in Roman's belly since about five minutes after the usenet booth, and it made him woefully aware of the comparison between Kennedy's fit, active physique and his own rather skinny body. Kennedy, Toby, and Aaron had obviously been chosen to fit the profile of sports enthusiasts the better to market Psyblade products. Roman had been picked for his reputation and popularity.

"Let me tell you something, Roman," Kennedy said in conversational tones. "Look at it from our point of view."

Roman glanced over his shoulder where Aaron was hovering by the door, not meeting his eyes. God, the guy had been an incredible fuck; he still remembered the tall pale-skinned length of him, trailing his hands over well-defined abdominal ridges and holding onto strong shoulders as Aaron pounded into him. He had the perfect white skin that was typically paired with the very dark hair he had, and even more of a turn-on, the smooth expanse of his body was unmarked by anything more than the faintest trail of belly hair that blended into the thatch at his groin.

Aaron looked up as if reading his thoughts and his eyes burned into Roman. He could read the rise of desire off him as if it were a neon billboard but there was an ugly undertone to it this time, the will to drag more than having it off out of his body.

This wasn't going to end well.

Roman turned back to Kennedy and slipped a hand into his pocket.

"Ah, ah..." Now it was Toby's voice curling into his ear as a broad hand seized his wrist, wrenching Roman's hand out of his pocket without effort. "What's this?" He pried the tiny circular device out of Roman's hand, held it up, and tossed it at Kennedy who caught it with a look somewhere between delight and the wolf who'd found his way into the hen-house.

Kennedy's sharp blue-gray eyes turned on him and his sudden smile was predatory. "A panic button, Roman? That's so rude." He chucked it onto the coffee table and tipped out of the solo chair, landing on his feet like a cougar.

"Way we see it, if Psyblade wants to keep its models, there's gotta be some leveling of the playing fields," Toby rumbled behind him, catching at Roman's other wrist and holding him in place as Roman writhed, trying to break free of the hand that gripped him.

"Take it up with them, not me!" Roman spat, heaving his skinny body to try and get free of Toby's implacable hands.

Kennedy's wide shark-like grin promised rug burn or worse as he moved in close and caught at Roman's jaw, holding his face still with painful fingers. "It would be so much easier if you weren't here, though."

Roman quieted, forcing himself to be limp and quiescent between the two men. Someone would have to come sooner or later; they couldn't just get away with this. He was too well-protected. And where the hell was Felicia?

Strong fingers squeezed his jaw and Kennedy looked straight into his eyes, a faint smile touching his mouth. Roman couldn’t put away the thought that under other circumstances, he would be happy to belly-up for Kennedy and let him do what he wanted. As if hearing the thought, Kennedy smirked at him and the tip of his tongue tucked into the corner of his mouth as he parted his lips.

"Figured you'd get the message earlier even if Toby and I didn't get there before we could take advantage of your little present," Kennedy said. He released Roman's chin and Roman tested Toby's grip on him again. The man laughed and held him in place without any effort whatsoever.

"You prick! You're the one who sent those chocolates, aren't you?"

"Fast on the uptake, isn't he?" Kennedy said over Roman's head with a lift of his chin, and Toby snickered.

"So, you can cooperate or we can hold you down, pretty much," Kennedy said casually, stepping into him again and bending to nuzzle his way up Roman's neck.

He jerked and Toby's fingers tightened on him.

"You don't have to do this!" Roman said, aware as he cast the words out that he sounded idiotic. They weren't the kind of guys who would be stopped if they'd gone this far.

"But it's so satisfying," Kennedy said, eye to eye with him and giving him a feral little grin. "Consider it another kind of compensation. We get the shaft because of your nice little contract perks; so we give you the shaft. Let him go."

Toby's fingers dug into his arms, grinding muscle to bone like a warning, then he was shoving him into Kennedy. Kennedy's arms closed around him and the older guy laughed softly, pressing a kiss with mock gentleness to his forehead.

"So let's go."

Roman twisted in Kennedy's arms and the man grabbed him by the arms above the elbows hard enough to bruise. "Aaron," Roman pleaded, and his erstwhile lover twitched. He shook his head and said nothing at all.

"Why do you think he's here?" Kennedy asked him, hooking Roman close with one arm and gripping his jaw again with the other, wrenching his head around to press a hard kiss to the corner of his mouth. "To partake. C'mere."

Kennedy was holding him still and released his jaw to secure Roman with both hands now, biting down on his lower lip and bumping noses. Roman tried to turn his face away and Kennedy's teeth sank into his lip enough to let him know the guy was serious.

Roman's eyes slid shut and he gave into the inevitable. He opened his mouth to Kennedy and the man softened the kiss right away, releasing teeth from his lip and delving into him with tongue. If he was going to do it, he was damned well going to enjoy it. His hands were pressed up against Kennedy's stomach muscles and he spread his fingers over them, feathering over exposed ribs and trailing down, settling on stripped-down hipbones.

Kennedy sucked on his lip and then nibbled, plunged his tongue in again, and made a satisfied grunt as Roman met him and surrendered, twined his tongue with his.

For his part, Roman stroked Kennedy's hipbones with his thumbs, and sent his tongue chasing back, curling wet heat, biting the full lower lip at the brief pause. He wasn't hard yet but he knew Kennedy was as the man hauled him closer and slanted his mouth over Roman's, possessive, demanding. Kennedy's grip transferred from keeping him in place to cradling, smoothing down the line of his back to take his ass in both hands.

The sensuality was a direct line connecting both their bodies and Roman could thrust it into him, he knew as the kiss went on and on and Toby swore softly from somewhere behind them. Kennedy's hand squeezed his ass and his mouth was desperate now, seeking. He could fan that flame until Kennedy lost it completely.

They parted and Kennedy looked down at him with lust-hazed stormcloud eyes.

Roman knew that he could make him beg for it.

"Nice," Kennedy husked, and Roman realized that the man wasn't thinking of raping him anymore. Rough, sure, but it wasn't a power trip; he was lost to Roman's touch.

"C'mon, hurry up," Toby urged from behind him, and shifted restlessly. "That stall we worked on the bodyguard will only hold off for so long."

Roman slanted a glance up through his lashes at Kennedy and with a slight push, rubbing up against Kennedy's thigh, he knew he could set him against Toby. He could make him try to beat the man bloody until one of them fell. He could set them all against each other, because they wanted him.

It sickened him, and he pushed at Kennedy's chest, gaining room with surprise and wriggling out of the man's embrace.

"I can't," he choked out, and Kennedy grabbed at his wrist, expression turning ugly.

"You'd better," he said, face dark. "You're not a cock-tease, are you now Roman? Not from what I've heard."

A key scraped in the lock and the door swung open fast. It banged against the wall and Aaron jumped, folding his arms over his breast and backing away. Toby swung toward the door, his fists clenched. Kennedy was still clutching Roman's wrist and he squeezed a little, grinding the bones and pulling Roman a step toward him.

Damon dropped his keys onto the stand to the right of the door and surveyed the scene, his eyes traveling to the Roman-Kennedy tableau and past them to the other guys, Toby clearly ready for a fight, Aaron hanging back and looking sullen.

It looked bad, Roman knew. Especially after he and Damon had been arguing over...everything they'd been fighting about. As Damon kept looking, not meeting Roman's eyes, Roman had a moment of fright that Damon would leave them to it.

Which was bad. Because he didn't want this, and he'd probably end up setting all three guys against one another and feeling even worse after.

"Get out of here," Damon said at last, looking to Kennedy first. "You should be getting ready for the shoot."

Kennedy opened his mouth and Roman could sense his resistance, his lingering desire to have Roman for himself. He'd fight Damon, even though everyone knew that Roman and Damon were together.

"Like I told you," Roman said, freeing himself by wrenching his wrist out of Kennedy's grasp, "if you want to improve your contracts, do it yourself. I can't help you."

Damon stepped into the dressing room, gesturing for the door. Aaron went first, slouching the whole way, followed by Toby, who rather looked as if he'd turn and throw a punch at any moment. Kennedy was last to go, he who'd been closest -- who'd gotten a taste -- and he threw a glance over his shoulder that connected with Roman.

The lust was still there, and the will to possess shone clear in Kennedy's blue-gray eyes.

Yet another person to add to Roman's list of don't ever be alone with him again, unless he wanted Kennedy to finish up with what he started.

Roman sagged against the back of the solo couch, frozen and scared now at the opaque expression his lover wore as he watched the three models file out of his dressing room. This was so much worse than it would have been a few days ago, before everything came tumbling down. Damon knew. So what could he be thinking of him right now?

He looked away as Damon lashed out and shoved the door shut with a quick, angry kick. He flinched as the door banged shut, and contemplated the blank matte surface of the plasma display on the far wall as Damon crossed over the intervening space.

What he wasn't expecting was for Damon to take his wrist and lift it up, his larger hand cradling the joint. Fingers caressed the red marks there and Roman looked up, startled. Damon's green eyes were fixed on the livid evidence of Kennedy's manhandling.

"I could quite happily kill all three of them and blame it on a rogue demon attack," Damon murmured.

Roman surprised them both with a bark of laughter. "Is that supposed to make me relax?" he demanded quixotically.

Damon released him and scrubbed at his face with both hands, turning a ragged expression on him. "That's why I didn't want you to have to deal with it yourself."

Roman frowned, then peered at him as if looking at the familiar features of Damon's face would tell him anything more than he already knew. "You...know."

A grimace tugged at Damon's mouth. "I've had some suspicions confirmed," he said, and now he looked tired.

Roman took a step back, shaking his head. "You can't..." he began. You can't be okay with this.

"I'm not asking you to change, Roman. I'm not asking you to be anything less than yourself. I couldn't, you know? I just want to be with you as much as I can through everything," Damon told him.

He knew. He knew everything. Roman had thought it before, but this was a gut-shot. Damon knew he'd been screwing around with other models, other guys, maybe even... "It's no worse than other stuff that's happened before," Roman muttered. The stuff he'd wanted, that was one thing. When the kind of thing that had shaped up this afternoon had happened before his powers, there was no choice involved.

Damon made a face at him, caught between agony and a deprecating look, trying to ease his nerves, make him laugh, and it was so very Damon of him that Roman was surprised into a sob that was more laugh than anything. He was the first to step forward, and Damon was there with him, arms enclosing him. He buried his head in the familiar-smelling comfort of the crook of his neck, against his chest, inhaling skin-scent and the trace remnants of cologne and easing, his nerves unstringing.

"What's it going to take for you to believe me?" Damon wanted to know.

Roman gave a brittle laugh. "A miracle?" he offered. "I am, after all, very dense."

They remained like that until the soft rap came on the door. Roman started and Damon's arms tightened around him, not hard but firm enough to bear comfort and intent.

"Makeup," Ladonna's voice reached them faintly through the door.

"I'll ask them to postpone the shoot," Damon offered.

Roman pulled away and scrubbed at his eyes with one wrist. "Don't be an idiot, we've already postponed enough. Any more and we'll be in breach of contract and you don't get ahead in this industry by coming across as hard to work with."

Damon cupped his face between his hands and those fingers were gentle on his skin, touching him where Kennedy had squeezed and hurt him. The sensation was wiped out under Damon's light touch. Roman knew he wouldn’t bruise, because in spite of his pale skin he never bruised easily.

That was one thing that would've made proving brutalization a hard claim, always.

"You'll be okay," Damon said, and Roman gave him an edgy grin.

"That's what I'm talking about," he purred, and stretched to give his lover a kiss on the mouth. "Go finish getting ready and let Ladonna in on your way out, all right?"

Damon nodded and released him after one last half-hug and a brief kiss planted on his cheekbone.

I love you, Roman thought, but those were always words that he didn't dare say. "See you out there."

Now with his makeup artist coming his way, it was time to shine.



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