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

by Talya Firedancer


Somewhere a clock was ringing. It disturbed his sleep and made his face pucker up in discontent and he fumbled his way free of the bedclothes, trying to put the damned thing out of its misery. The alarm shrilled onward and Roman came back to awareness of himself, faced with the unpleasant slap of first morning light and the fact that he was alone in a single bed littered with clothes and a few miscellaneous crumpled bags from who knew when. Also, he had a hard-on stiff enough to bludgeon someone to death and nothing to do with it.

Cursing under his breath in German for the guttural satisfaction of it, Roman made a long arm for the clock and switched it off, weighing it in his hand. It was touch and go for a moment as to whether he'd hurl it against the wall, but the joy of destruction was offset by the lecture he'd surely get from about three different quarters. He pushed himself up into a cross-legged position and cast a disgusted look around his messy bedroom. He couldn't remember the last time he had awoken alone in his quarters, literally. He was always with someone.

Not so, today.

Roman slumped back onto his bed and took himself in hand, snagging a few tissues to use after. He couldn't walk around like this -- not with a woman standing guard outside his room or whatever Felicia was doing. For all Roman knew she had a cot set up athwart his door. Not to mention, his natural enemy was out there down the hallway taking up his rightful position in Gabriel's bed.

That made his erection flag and Roman lapsed back against the sheets with a sigh. So, too, did the idle thought to call Damon to have a little morning phone sex. He'd left Damon to his own devices the day before, leaning over the front seat for a kiss and blithely telling him goodbye after Damon's inquiry on whether he should stay with them, spend the night.

The thought of Damon staying here in his messy bedroom was a mortifying one. Not that he couldn't use the sex right now, but... No. So he'd kissed him goodbye and walked off, Felicia a palpably disapproving presence beside him, and Damon had driven out of the garage without another word.

It had been a long shoot, and that was Roman's best excuse for his behavior. It had been a strain because Kennedy, Toby, and Aaron were all in the same shoot. Not only was it stressful for what had nearly happened, but once again Roman found himself in the position of comparing their muscular physiques with his own skinny self. He had no illusions so far as looks were concerned. He was gorgeous and he knew it. All the same, he could definitely stand to pack on ten to twenty pounds of muscle.

With a sigh, Roman gathered himself and sat up. His erection was all but gone, leaving only the normal piss hard-on so he might as well get moving. The angle of sun as well as the too-insistent clock informed him that he was in no danger of being late, but it was a good idea to start getting ready for the day.

He grabbed his phone on the way to the bathroom and thumbed through his calendar. There was no work after school so whatever he did was up to him. He opened the door to his room and all but fell against Felicia, who had a hand outstretched to rap on the door.

She collected herself first. "Time to get up," she stated the obvious, cocking a thumb over her shoulder. "Your brother's already gone."

"How industrious of him," Roman drawled, edging past her. "I prefer to arrive on time but never early. It doesn't pay to seem too eager."

Behind him, he heard a muttered, "Could've fooled me," but he kept his head held high and ignored it. That was a cheap crack even if it did happen to be true.

Roman shared a bathroom with his brother Cedric. It was tucked into the hallway in between his and Cedric's bedrooms. Gabriel, with the master suite, possessed his own private bath and there was another full bathroom that was accessible for the spare rooms on the other side of the penthouse near the room Gabriel used as his study. Today as Roman peed and washed his hands and scrubbed his face there was evidence of other people in this bathroom, which weirded him out. He had to pause and think about which toothbrush was his. The towel on the right-hand side was damp and made him shudder as he dried his hands. He wished everyone gone and knew it wouldn't do any good.

The hallway was empty this time as he returned to his room. He flipped the light on there and grimaced at the mess. Yes, Damon had seen his wreck of a room before and would've had no problems staying with him anyhow with it in this condition, but the idea was more distasteful than that; it was a greater invasion of his privacy.

The fact was, Roman was still going to have to make his choice, and for one fleeting instant celibacy looked good. Simply because that was the option that involved the least effort, really.

It was also the most unrealistic. Roman ignored the clutter as he always did and picked his way over piles to the closet, retrieving a fresh uniform and getting himself dressed. It took a moment to find his school things -- they were camouflaged against heaps of clothes and gutted cast-offs from various photo shoots or promotionals. Once he found it, he hauled the door shut behind him, flipped the 'no entry' sign over the doorknob, and went up the hallway whistling.

For the second time already in his short morning, Roman found himself doing an awkward quickstep to avoid running into somebody.

"Oh, sorry," Shemyahza Guile drawled, pausing in his tracks and casting an insultingly superior look down his long nose at Roman.

I hate you, Roman thought instantly, and bit his tongue. The moment he'd set eyes on the demon last night he'd known, he had just known, that the bastard had laid his brother. At least Gabriel had the sense of shame to avoid his eyes at first. Roman opened his mouth to be the better person, whatever that meant.

"Bite me," he said, and gave the insufferable demon a charming, vacant smile. He couldn't quite bring himself to be sorry for saying it, either.

Shemyahza just grinned at him in all his irritating glory and turned to saunter down the hallway, one hand brushing back his long green hair over one shoulder. It was then that Roman realized the demon was half-nude, exposing a muscled torso. The lack of shirt drew Roman's eye down to his tight buttocks. "Good morning to you, too," the demon said cheerfully over his shoulder.

Roman suppressed an automatic retort of fuck off and die as unconscionably social and besides, the bedroom door cracked open again. His brother Gabriel emerged, hovering on the threshold a moment and looking this way then that, alighting on Roman with a nervous kind of entreating look. Shemyahza paused where he was, halfway to the kitchen, and paused to look.

"Not that one," Roman and Shemyahza said in unison, and Roman's head snapped around to glare. Shemyahza gave him a wide unrepentant grin.

Gabriel raised the tomato-red tie and peered at it with scholarly confusion. "Whyever not?" he asked, and the worst part was, he meant it.

"I'll let you deal with this," Roman decided, shouldering his bag and heading for the kitchen. Some days it took actually following Gabriel into his closet, picking out what he had available against what he already had on, and sometimes choosing something else entirely.

Shemyahza's gaze had already gone past Roman and the look in those unnatural silvery eyes made Roman fume all over again. This creature had waltzed in and plucked his brother right out of the palm of his hand and didn't appear to be ready to give him up any time soon.

As Roman entered the kitchen and hunted down and killed his first cup of coffee for the day, noting Felicia reading a news display in the breakfast nook, a thought struck him. The look in Shemyahza's eyes hadn't been unfamiliar and that was what angered Roman most of all. A long, long time ago he could remember his father Carson Vaille looking at his mother Arianna that way, and it just wasn't right. Shemyahza wasn't even human.

"Breakfast?" Felicia prompted him, raising her head from the news display as the adware came on.

"Breakfast is for the weak," Roman scoffed, raising his cup of coffee in an impromptu toast. Besides, he wanted to scuttle out of here before he had to see Shemyahza one more time. Damn if there wasn't a faster way to ruin his day.

"Or those smart enough to wake up earlier than you," Felicia retorted. "I think there's some leftover French toast in the fridge."

Roman lounged against the counter, raising his brows. "Cedric made French toast for his most important person? I'm impressed. We only rate that on special occasions."

"You shouldn't put all that on him, you know," Felicia said. She thumbed off the news display the better to give him her full attention. "He's just a kid."

"He 'just' takes it upon himself," Roman responded, brows still hiked up his forehead. "Look, I know you mean well, but this is our family, not yours. This is the way it works. And if you think I'm up for cooking anything more complicated than cold cereal in the mornings, and that Gabriel is anywhere near competent to be left alone in the kitchen, you haven't been observing our family long enough."

"Hire someone?" Felicia suggested.

Roman snorted. "Well, I guess we could, now." It had occurred to him before. He'd always dismissed it because hiring help that wouldn't be horrified at finding two of the Vaille brothers in bed together was a tricky prospect. Now it looked as if Shemyahza had put an end to that phase of his life. "Let's go, I'll snag something at the coffee shop down the street."

"Pastries? Come on, you're a growing boy."

"I wish," Roman said ruefully. "I'm pretty sure my height has topped out."

"Give it a couple of years," Felicia shot back. "And eat right, kid. Sugar and junk food ain't gonna cut it. It wouldn't kill you to drink some milk instead of coffee."

Roman grinned. "You haven't seen my coffee." He tipped his cup. "You have to admit, it looks more like I take my milk with coffee rather than the other way around."

She wrinkled her nose. "Why even bother, then, is my take on that."

"Come on," Roman urged again, scooping his school bag up from the counter onto his shoulder. "They've got breakfast sandwiches. Some of them even have spinach, I swear. Green-leafed vegetables are good, right? Let's go, let's go."

"What're you in such a fired-up fury over?" Felicia demanded, but she was getting to her feet. From her general commentary it was clear she'd eaten earlier with Humphrey, Cedric and Rukawa.

And weren't those two just precious, Roman snarked to himself, and maybe even the fact that his little brother had a most important person rankled, at least some. Though that brought Roman right back to the point he'd tried to drive home with his brother last week. Whatever talk he'd had with Cedric, it wasn't nearly enough. Roman wasn't out to cloister their baby brother, but perhaps he was going to have to hold a conversation with him about appropriate age brackets for certain things. He was pretty sure Gabriel had been a virgin until well after his majority so imparting that kind of wisdom to Cedric wouldn't have occurred to him.

"Oh, nothing," Roman lied, casting a glance over his shoulder as if he could see through the wall to intuit the location of his brother and the beast. He didn't want to have to see Shemyahza again, let alone be forced into anything approaching conversation.

Felicia was already moving past him. She spread a hand toward his face. "Whatever. Let's go. If you want a stop at the coffee shop, that is."

"I do," Roman assured her fervently.

As they passed through the hallway the door to the master bedroom opened and closed, but they were already good as gone. Roman slipped his shoes on in the foyer and held the door as Felicia took a moment to fasten her heavy combat boots.

"You don't like him," Felicia said straight-out as they stood waiting for the elevator.

Roman grimaced as if she'd offered him a glass of cold undiluted coffee. "I'd call that an understatement." Hated him, despised him, wanted him far away from himself and his family. It ran closer to instinctive than mere dislike. Part of it had to do with association he was sure, the fact that Shemyahza was tied together in his mind with that dreadful afternoon his brother had been kidnapped, but another part might have something to with the fact that he couldn't exercise any influence on Shemyahza. Not that way.

He wasn't used to having absolutely no effect on a man.

The elevator released them onto the first floor, the pressed-marble hallway that glinted at the far end with the golden promise of sunlight. Roman flipped his bag over his shoulder, eager for fresh air on his face. Too bad he was pretty sure someplace like a park would be declared off-limits.

Not two steps out of the Carrack building with the sun caressing his face and the air of freedom around him, Roman Vaille's whole day got derailed yet again.

"Good morning, Roman," a pleasant, friendly tenor spoke up, familiar and horribly out of context.

"What," Roman said in flat disbelief, pivoting.

To the right of the doors and leaning against sun-warmed concrete below the building's lettering and address was one Kennedy Carlisle, arms folded and golden in the dappling sunlight below his tight muscle tee. He was dressed casual but gorgeous in a shirt that clung to his torso and jeans that had probably taken a shoehorn or twenty minutes of hauling up over his ass and hips. He angled one blue eye at Roman, wearing a partial smile that seemed to say they were friends, or something.

"Oh, no you don't," Roman said, putting out a hand and glancing up one side of the street, then the other before remembering he had a bodyguard at his back. That simply he could've been kidnapped or something. Now he could see how it had happened to Gabriel so easily.

Felicia was at his side, and frowning. "You're the kid who told me Roman slipped his clutch and popped out the back entrance from his dressing room, and was wandering around the floor below!" she exclaimed, leveling an accusing finger at Kennedy.

Roman glanced askance at his bodyguard. "I told you it only had one exit!" he said, exasperated.

"Yeah, and you also lie, too," Felicia said, giving him a look he didn't dare try and return. "You want me to drop him?"

"No!" Roman exclaimed, and Kennedy, who had been shrinking back with the look of a man who'd made a terrible mistake, straightened his posture with relief.

Kennedy held out his hands. "Look, I didn't come here to make trouble," he claimed, turning earnest blue-gray eyes first on Felicia, then on Roman. "I just want to talk to Roman."

"I'm not leaving you alone with Roman," Felicia said at once.

Perversely, that made Roman more inclined to hear what Kennedy had to say. "It doesn't have to be private," he said, sizing up Kennedy, who returned him gaze for gaze and certainly seemed less of a threat in the broad light of day. He was still handsome as ever, and now there was an earnest quality that had been lacking the other day. Maybe this was what he was like without the mob mentality, Roman thought, completely forgetting that he'd already warned himself never to be alone with this man again. Not unless he wanted to follow up on what he'd started.

Felicia folded her arms and gave him a significant look.

Roman pretended not to understand its import. "Can you just...walk behind us? Not enough to lose you, god forbid, I learned my lesson yesterday" -- he shuddered to think that she really would have shot the lock out if he'd spent one moment longer in the bathroom with Arashi -- "but I want to hear him out."

Her nostrils flared. "I'm watching you," she warned him, then transferred the glare and the weight of the warning to Kennedy too, who gave a solemn nod.

"Thanks, ma'am," he told her.

Felicia made a disparaging noise and flapped a hand at them. "Get going. I'm on both your asses. You try anything this time, Roman, I want you to know I have a taser and I'm faster than your skinny white ass."

"I know," Roman said quickly, and turned to resume the walk for school. He hated his voice for breaking, but damn. The woman had a taser.

Kennedy was chuckling as he fell into step with him.

"Oh, you don't get to laugh," Roman said to him fiercely. "You think that's funny? Try--"

"Not that, or not exactly," Kennedy said, casting mirthful eyes his way. He shook his head and tucked his hands into his pockets. "It's just, the dodge I gave her yesterday to get her out of the way wasn't too far off the mark. You'd already tried to lose her once. I was a little surprised that she bought it right away."

Roman smirked, but it was a painful twist of his lips. "Yeah, I guess I shot myself in the foot there," he acknowledged.

"Sure did." They walked in silence for a few steps. Craning for a look over his shoulder, Roman was mollified to note Felicia had given them a good conversational distance, in spite of all the reasons he'd given her to distrust him.

"So what the fuck do you want?" he burst out, swinging an arm wide. "If you think I'm going to try busting your ass with the boss you can forget about that. I don't tattle."

"That's not it," Kennedy said. He kept his gaze fixed forward, handsome profile set in serious lines. "I came by to apologize."

A snort escaped Roman before he could stop it. "Come on."

"I did," Kennedy insisted. "I'm sorry. And you were right, we shouldn't have done it. The right thing to do was take it up with the director. So I did."

"I take it that went well, or you wouldn't be here this morning," Roman said sardonically.

One hand was freed of his pocket to rub over his head. Kennedy was grimacing, glancing at him sidewise, looking pained. "No, I would've come no matter what. Least I could do."

"Right," Roman said, keeping most of the sarcasm out of it. Most.

"I went to the director's office and I got to re-negotiate my contract," Kennedy told him. "So, thank you. I probably wouldn't have done it if you hadn't said so, I probably would've just kept bitching and stayed mad at you. For that I'm sorry. You were right, it wasn't fair to take it out on you."

"And I suppose Toby and Aaron made out with this great new deal, too...?"

"No, they didn't get shit," Kennedy told him, tucking thumbs into the pockets of his jeans. His long legs kept up easily with the pace Roman set, making it look more like ambling. "They didn't have the balls to come with me to the director's office. Too afraid of getting fired or replaced, maybe. Like we were worried you were there to replace us."

"But they had the balls to join you when you were coming after me," Roman muttered, glaring from the corner of his eye.

"No, that wasn't balls, that was wanting to get in on the action," Kennedy said frankly, running a hand over his close-cropped dirty blond hair again and giving Roman a grimace that was somewhere between apologetic smile and cocky grin.

"So who did send the chocolates?" Roman wanted to know.

"Oh, that was Toby, he's actually a total chicken-shit," Kennedy told him, purely grinning now. "I was just gonna rough you up, prank you maybe."

Roman came to a screeching halt a good few meters before the stop light. "Wait. You weren't going to rape me?"

"Uh." Now Kennedy pulled a shamed face on him. "It wasn't my idea. Really, it wasn't. But, uh, well, if you were already willing, hot for it from the aphrodisiacs...you know, you can't--"

"Can't rape the willing," Roman finished, a sick sensation roiling his belly. He had really lucked out when he made a straight line for Damon, then. If those three had showed up on his doorstep he would've ushered them over the threshold, locked the door, and let them do whatever they liked. That had been their whole intent to begin with. "So whose idea was it?"

"Not mine," Kennedy replied immediately, looking straight into his eyes.

"And that's all I'm going to get from you, in case I get the name and decide to press charges later, huh?" Roman said, raking hair back from his face with a trembling hand. He couldn't decide if he was pissed off or scared at how close the call had been. "You're not going to tattle."

Kennedy glanced up the street. "No, I'm not. Look, I said I'm sorry. You don't have to forgive me, that's not why I came. To tell the truth...I was kind of led to believe, uh. That you'd..." He stopped and looked at Roman, flushed, and looked away again. One hand gestured helplessly.

"You were led to believe I'd like it," Roman interpreted. He narrowed his eyes. "Not only that, but that I'd like it rough...that I'd enjoy protesting and being pushed around a little, right?"

Kennedy's deepening flush was answer enough. "I shouldn't have done it."

"No, you shouldn't have," Roman agreed, starting back up the street and jamming his finger on the button for crossing. "I'd think you were smarter than that, Kennedy." He hitched his bag higher on his shoulder and shot an annoyed glance at the young man as he followed, drawing even with him.

"Normally I can be, but I totally let my dick lead me around on this one," Kennedy agreed easily, leaning one hand against the stoplight pillar and peering at him. "Let me buy you coffee."

Roman snorted. "I'm on my way to school."

"Rain check. I'll buy it for you later," Kennedy insisted.

"I'm dating Damon," Roman replied, rounding on him.

Kennedy gave him an appealing little grin. "But you're not married to him," he said, with the air of someone pointing out a significant omission. "Come on, it's just coffee."

"What if I said I don't like you, and I think you should fuck off and die?" Roman replied in his most withering tone.

Kennedy's brows raised. "Well, that's another matter," he said, tone changing abruptly. "See you around, Roman." He turned to go.

"...Wait," Roman said after the man had taken a few steps. He was intrigued by his persistence. And flattered. Kennedy hadn't made his hit-list because he was sure he'd heard the other model had a girlfriend or a live-in or some kind of hetero arrangement. But if he was willing to put up with a certain amount of shit to secure an agreement to go out with him, that was something.

Kennedy turned instantly with a brilliant grin that made Roman's lips tug upward reluctantly. It was the kind of pleased look that told Roman that Kennedy hadn't thought for an instant Roman would let him get out of earshot.

"I'll call you," Roman said, pulling his phone out of its thigh pocket.

Kennedy arched one brow at him. "Oh? How about you give me your number, and I'll call you?" He walked toward him, taking his own phone out of its holder at his waist. He didn't stop until his toes were practically lined up with Roman's, almost within his personal space.

"I don't do that," Roman said uncomfortably, shifting from one foot to the other.

"So it has to be on your terms, huh?" Kennedy said softly.

Roman looked up at him and his immediate appraisal was for Kennedy's lips, the fullness of the lower and sculpted line of the upper and that was dangerous, because he'd kissed that mouth. "All right," he said, and cursed himself for an idiot in the next heartbeat. What was he playing at?

"All right, I can have your number?" Kennedy asked him, bending his head a bit and there was heat in his eyes now, a recklessness that told Roman if he didnít step out in traffic, he'd get himself kissed right here and now.

"My bodyguard has a taser," he reminded the other model.

Another dazzling smile was unleashed on him. "Oh, I haven't forgotten that," Kennedy said, arching the other brow.

Roman marveled at that musculature control. Damn it, he couldn't even raise one brow, no matter how many hours he put in practicing in front of the mirror. "Right." He recited his number, fast before he could change his mind. "It's on silent mode when I'm in classes, and if I'm busy, I'll ignore it," he said, giving fair warning.

"That's okay." Kennedy flashed another smile at him. "If I gave you my number, would you have any intention of using it?"

"I said I'd call, didn't I?" Roman said, annoyed because Kennedy had pegged him. The man cocked his head and gave Roman his number in return, which Roman input into his phone. Then he aimed the small device at Kennedy and clicked a picture, storing it to caller ID right away.

"I would've smiled if you'd warned me," Kennedy complained.

Now Roman gave him one of his own coy smiles. "Ah, but that's why I didn't," he replied, and was well pleased when he turned and found the light was green, the better to walk away. "I'll see you later." How much later was up to how he felt at that particular instant. He checked to make sure Felicia had caught on to the fact that their impromptu conference was over.

Kennedy waved, aiming a look of wry mischief at him from beneath a smooth brow. "Later."

Felicia caught up with him on the far side of the crosswalk, and grabbed his arm below the elbow, squeezing, then she let go. "The hell you think you're doing? He's trouble, Roman."

That was when it hit him. The use of his real name by his bodyguard triggered the recollection of Kennedy's voice in his ear the day before. Hello, Roman. He hadn't called him by the pseudonym, either then or now.

"Hunh," he said aloud, then rubbed at his arm. "Damn it, that hurt! Don't you think I know he's trouble? What do you think I normally do, play it safe? Please."

"You're not gonna be unsafe as long as you're my charge," she said, the line of her mouth implacable.

"And you're not my mother," Roman retorted. "Yeah, I know, she never finished raising me so you figure someone's got to do the job. But you can't protect me that way. If I'm going to fuck up my life and my relationships, that's my business." He strapped his phone back into the side pocket, frowning.

Felicia breathed hard, but said nothing for a moment. Then, true to form, she couldn't seem to stick to the silent bodyguard paradigm. "What about Damon?"

"What about Damon?" Roman turned it back on her, tone slightly mocking. "We're not married, Felicia." Unconsciously he echoed Kennedy's challenge to him. They weren't live-in lovers, they weren't handfasted, they didn't have any kind of contract besides the understanding of a good working relationship. He did love him, but had he made his choice? He'd left one hot guy because it felt wrong and he'd gone straight to Damon but he still didn't... He couldn't accept that.

"Roman, you--"

"Leave off, will you?" he demanded, stepping up his pace. They were close to the school now, and more and more students were turning up on the sidewalk. "I've got to get to my first class." As he was not a particularly avid student, that was more a dodge to avoid conversation than anything else.

Whether she fell for it or not, at least she left off harping on him for the moment, and that was all the result Roman cared about.

They ducked into the coffee shop at the last moment on the last block before Roman's school campus proper. It was crowded with students but most fell back when they got a good look at him, giving precedence. As usual, he took it for his due and crowded up to the front counter to order his sandwich and a light vanilla latte.

"Little prince," Felicia said, snickering at him as they resumed the walk to school.

Roman ignored her and bit down on his hot sandwich. He'd have to wolf it to finish before they got to the front steps. Eating reminded him that he'd forgotten to check the fridge for the bento that Cedric usually prepared for him. He wrinkled his nose and took another big bite. Now there would be a use to put Kennedy - have the man run out and grab him something decent for lunch, because the cafeteria food never was any good.

"River!" a familiar voice squealed, and for once something was going right with his morning.

"It's Charming," Roman drawled a greeting to his friend, saluting her with his sandwich.

She giggled and bounced into step beside him. Charlotte walked like a little girl, both hands clasped on the school bag that she held before her. Her smile was open and friendly like the innocent young thing she was. "Glad to see you're here again today." She winked.

"Yeah, my too-faithful escort makes sure that I get to all of my classes," Roman told her, jerking his head to indicate Felicia on his other side.

Her eyes rounded. "River. That sure must put a damper in your social plans."

Roman scowled and ignored the sound coming Felicia-wise that indicated she was cracking up. So long as he didn't look, it wasn't happening. "Yeah, well...it's temporary." So he hoped, but from everything he'd heard so far, there was no indication that Orion would lessen the precautions until the real threat was neutralized. Since that probably involved some sort of permanent solution that meant a full-scale operation the likes of which he couldn't begin to contemplate, who knew how long that would be.

"What do you do?" she breathed, guileless expression proving she was patently unaware that her words were just turning the screw further and further.

Roman gritted his teeth. "I go to school, I go to work, and I get to bed at a decent hour. It's horrid. I suppose this is what being a teenager is like," he said.

"Yeah, except for the part about working," Charlotte observed. "I mean, most of us don't. Except for some of the scholarship kids or the ones in big families."

As they approached the stairs, Roman caught sight of him. Sun-kissed chestnut hair, icy-perfect profile, Arashi turned his head a moment as if seeking someone in the crowd. He stood there for a moment, hip cocked out and hand set there. His wolf eyes narrowed, then he was pivoting on his heel and entering the school.

Fast as he'd disappeared he had probably seen Roman. He grimaced in frustration, wary of calling out to Arashi but tempted anyhow. It really seemed there was nothing further to say. Arashi didn't want him, and to Roman, Arashi didn't...taste right.

He had turned Shemyahza Guile's words over his head many times. He wasn't sure what it meant, but perhaps there was something like the opposite of knowing when it was his mate. He could rule out all the guys that registered as wrong to his senses, then.

Roman scowled harder. He'd kissed exactly two guys since he had found out. But no, there was something faulty with his logic; according to Shemyahza, Roman had awakened with that marathon sex session. The aphrodisiacs had been the trigger. And he had definitely kissed more than one guy since that had happened.

"Hey, watch where you're going," Charlotte warned him, grasping his elbow and guiding him away from a door. "That's the juniors' class."

"Of course it is," Roman said, absent as either of his brothers could manage. He had to figure this out on his own, because the map Shemyahza had given him wasn't helpful at all. You just know. He snorted at that recollection.

In spite of his absorption, he managed to find his way to class mostly thanks to Charlotte and Felicia's continued steering to get him back on the right course. At their classroom, Roman stood on the threshold until Felicia pushed at his back to keep him moving. Arashi was already there seated at his desk, chin resting on the back of one hand as he gazed out the window, lips moving soundlessly. Roman swaggered over to his own empty seat beside Arashi and dropped into it, sneaking a look out the window in the direction that Arashi was fixed on.

It was a sunny, clear day; beautiful even. Etched beyond the skyline the faint distortion of the Wall cast the glow of a false sunrise. A few wispy clouds rolled high over the dome of primary blue.

More than ever it made Roman wish for a few hours in the park but he didn't dare put that question to Felicia. As he'd dropped into his seat, so she had taken up a watchful position in the back of the classroom, her arms crossed and her stance immobile as a statue.

"Hey," Roman said, leaning over, and Arashi's eyes flicked in his direction. There was a barely perceptible eyeroll which Roman supposed passed for the best invitation he'd get. "Why do you even go to high school? Couldn't you have proficiencied out?"

A faint sigh answered him and now there was an unmistakable roll of the eyes; Roman watched clear storm-cloud eyes go up, then down, then Arashi was actually looking at him. That had to be some kind of accomplishment. "It was my father's idea," Arashi replied. "He thought I should have a normal educational experience to socialize me, in a setting of my peers."

Roman studied the closed-off neutrality that had become Arashi's expression as he spoke. It was the defensive face he presented most of the time. "It's strange what we'll do to satisfy what our family wants of us," he murmured.

Arashi's eyes sharpened on him. "Isn't it," he said, and then his attention was all on taking out screen-files from his bag, lining them on his desk, setting out his notebook.

That made Roman wonder if the other boy ever worked on classified materials here when he was pretending to attend classes. "You're genius-index, aren't you?" he prodded further, keeping his voice low enough that no one else should be able to hear.

Arashi twitched and did not look his way. "I've studied to the levels where the university would probably be happy to offer me a degree or two," he replied, just as quiet, and tapped his notebook to power it on.

"Hm." Roman cast back to his own family. Gabriel had been studying for his master's when he'd been Arashi's age, and the way Cedric was skipping grades he'd be the same. Roman was the only dunce in the family but he wondered, not for the first time, where he'd be if he had poured the lion's share of the dedication into school and education that he had exercised in furthering his career.

Of course, in the academics he wouldn't necessarily have had to sleep with his professors either...which wasn't always a bad thing.

When the teacher came in to start their first class, Roman tuned her out and went back to contemplating his predicament. Based on his reaction to Damon, he certainly couldn't get enough of his body. But was that the incubus side talking, or was there really something there? He supposed that was why he'd kept Kennedy on the hook, attempted rape or whatever it had been, or not.

He needed to be sure. If he really did pour all of his desire into one person and it...and it killed them, he didn't know how he could live with himself.

Roman snuck glances at Arashi throughout the day. As usual, the other teen ignored him. Three periods in, he drifted back to the fact that Arashi said he was still going to high school because of his father. Yet from what he recalled, Arashi was over his majority too. Then again, that was kind of like Roman deciding to stick it out through college because Donough Vanderbrant would have wanted him to. Not for the money -- he didn't really need it -- but to prove to the old man he could, as a gesture of respect.

Four periods in, Roman decided yet again that he hated history with a passion. It had sounded much better the way Arashi had described certain events to him in the student center the other day. Gods, had that only been the other day...? His older brother had been kidnapped, Roman and his little brother had been shanghaied to an underground facility, Gabriel had returned with a...with his own...with whatever the hell Guile was, a pet bounty hunter. Cedric, their baby brother, had been first to use his powers in a demonstrable way. And they all had powers, apparently.

Roman wondered what Gabriel could do. His mouth twisted yet again in an unhappy pout. Well, he wondered what Gabriel could do besides attract trouble and translate ancient demon texts like nobody's business.

They got the cool powers, and Roman got to have sex with someone to death.

Toward the end of fifth period, Roman glanced over at Arashi with the half-formed intention of inviting him to go to lunch somewhere, everything in plain sight with a bodyguard standing over Roman with a taser swear to god, and the words dried up and vanished.

Arashi was twitching. He was more than twitching, his muscles were jumping, he was shaking and as he turned toward Roman and slumped over his desk, his eyes rolled up until only the whites were showing.

"What--!?" Roman exclaimed, jumping to his feet.

That caught the attention of the whole class.

Arashi was sliding out of his chair, convulsing, dark bangs falling to slivered chestnut over his eyes. Roman caught him before he could bang his head on the floor.

"Shit!" Roman yelled, wedging his thighs under Arashi's head, clasping bony hands in his shoulders and casting around frantically for...

"Here," Felicia said, kneeling beside them and jamming a doubled-up strip of leather between Arashi's teeth. His mouth clacked shut over them and he continued to jolt and shudder in the throes of a fit, a low moan issuing from his throat and vibrating out through his nose and clenched teeth.

"Call a doctor," Charming said, her voice thin and frightened.

"Call 911," Roman snapped. A hand seized his arm strong enough to make the bones in his forearm creak and Roman looked down into lucid gray eyes.

Arashi spat the belt out of his mouth. "No doctor, no paramedics," he husked.

"The hell are you talking about? You just had a seizure, you idiot," Roman said more sharply than perhaps one should speak to an invalid.

"No doctor," he repeated, head lolling on Roman's lap until he was glaring at Felicia now. "Report, now."

"Now?" Felicia repeated, bestowing a frown on the teen that indicated maybe she was thinking that Arashi was crazy about the way Roman was sure of right now.

Arashi spasmed again, his back arching and his hands fisting into claws. He lapsed onto Roman's thighs again, eyes closed, panting. "Turlach...shoved the whole damn thing into my head..."

Felicia was reaching for her phone. "I've got it," she called the class. The number that she dialed was definitely longer than 911.

"You've got to be kidding me," Roman muttered at Arashi's now-slack face. "You can't even get up right now, let alone get your ass to Orion."

The softness of Arashi's lips thinned to a determined slash. "I can make it."

"It's your funeral."

The horrified teacher gave them hall passes, as if it were in question that Arashi would be doing anything but leaving the building. Felicia secured them while Roman helped Arashi to his feet, which mainly consisted of standing still while Arashi climbed him like a tree. He stood there for a moment against Roman's shoulder, breathing harsh and irregular and red patches rising hot in his cheeks.

"Don't you say a goddamned word," Arashi gritted near his ear.

"Wasn't even thinking it," Roman lied.

With Arashi upright, more or less, they got him to the front steps braced between the two of them. The hallways were empty with class still in session for another fifteen minutes. Once they reached the outdoors and the wide steps that fanned out toward the drive, there was a car waiting at the curb. It was a beefed-up sedan with blacked out windows, which clued Roman in pretty good that Orion had sent it.

Felicia cracked the door open and Roman manhandled Arashi into the backseat, moving to slide in beside him. He was stopped with a palm in his face and a cold glare.

"You don't get to come with," Arashi muttered, then lapsed against the back of the seat. "But thanks."

Roman stepped back in time to avoid getting his fingers slammed in the door as it got shut in his face. The car sped away from the curb, pushing the speed limit before it even left the school drive.

"You're welcome," Roman said.

***

For the second day in a row, Cedric was able to wake beside the flame-bright presence of strong arms and the intensity of someone focused on him even in the midst of sleep. He read the murmur of intention off Rukawa while stroking dark bangs back from a wide forehead and it pleased him to have woken before his friend, contentment filling him to overflowing like the first perfect cup of tea in the day. There was no awkwardness to this waking, no sense that he'd been abruptly deprived of something. When Rukawa did wake, jerking from sleep with a start as Cedric eased out of bed and tiptoed toward the door, it was to an alert state that bypassed the awkwardness from the day before. From the vantage point by the door Cedric watched Rukawa run a hand over the empty pillow then twist his upper torso to seek out Cedric with his intent eyes.

After a shower and the other brief morning ablutions to prepare himself for his day, Cedric found himself in the kitchen with plenty of time to make bento for the whole family. It had been awhile, but they had put in a huge grocery order the night before to re-stock the fridge and pantry so Cedric had plenty to work with. He set out to accomplish the task, making up a menu in his head as he pulled ingredients from cupboards and drawers, from fridge and freezer.

Gabriel would spend most of the day in the lab, he knew, so there was more need than ever to ensure that he ate well. Roman would go to school as he did. There were more people to cook for than ever, though, because he couldn't forget the bodyguards and Rukawa.

Halfway through pan-frying vegetables and making omurice with some ground tofu to substitute for beef, Felicia Arks wandered through the kitchen already dressed.

"Coffee?" she prompted, and Cedric gave her a nod to indicate the machine that had already brewed up ten cups' worth.

"Cups are above the coffee maker, cream and milk are in the fridge, sugar and sugar substitute is in the cabinet above and to the left of the sink," Cedric told her.

Her brows arched. "So organized," she proclaimed, impressed.

Cedric's shoulders rose and fell. "Someone has to do it." Some days he was sure Gabriel didn't quite know where the kitchen was, and he was dead certain Roman didn't care. For Roman, cooking involved his index finger and the pad of his cell phone. Beyond that, though, Cedric enjoyed it. He was happy to be useful to his brothers in this way, and he knew it would be good skills to have once he was grown up and ready to leave home.

He'd make a good wife to Rukawa, the blushing thought crossed his mind.

Felicia fixed herself a cup of coffee and took herself out of the way to the breakfast nook, where she manipulated the nearby data display to stream the news. City-wide repairs were still taking place due to the events of the past few days. The general explanations being put forth involved a group of malicious magic-users, with all of the troublemakers having been driven out of the city. It wasn't too far off from the truth and therefore not worth nitpicking.

"Do you like pickles?" Cedric asked his brother's bodyguard, pausing in the act of putting a few double handfuls of rice in the cooker.

"Sure...why?" Felicia replied.

"I'm making lunches for everyone," he said, as if it were a matter of course. Cedric frowned, considering for the first time the fact that Felicia might have alternate arrangements or that she might actually want a cafeteria lunch.

"Goodness, son, you don't have to do that," Felicia exclaimed, setting down her coffee so hard it slopped over the rim.

Cedric reached for some toweling and tossed it at her. "It's fine. I'm up this early, I may as well. It's pretty easy," he said. "So, if you don't mind pickles, I'm going to make onigiri."

A great mountainous shadow loomed at the opening to the kitchen, resolving into the shape of Humphrey scratching at his head of buzzed blond hair. He lifted his hand in greeting.

"Pickles okay?" Cedric asked his bodyguard.

Humphrey nodded and made a straight line for the coffee.

"Pickles are fine," Felicia told him, sounding bemused.

By the time Cedric was folding the hot rice between his hands, Rukawa was out of the shower and hovering in the doorway, taking in the scene. "Need help?" he asked, moving to stand beside the half-assembled bento.

"There are individually-wrapped cookies in the pantry, and strawberries and mint leaves in the fridge," Cedric told him. "If you want to put those in the right-most compartment, that's the last thing that needs to get done. As soon as I'm done with the onigiri each of the bento can be put away." He'd have to leave a note on Gabriel's, or go let him know he had lunch waiting for him.

A glance at the clock told Cedric that it was time to go wake his brothers. He excused himself and left the final assembly touches to Rukawa, who was probably familiar enough with bento even if he didn't have experience with the process start to finish. With a wonderful mother like Kumiko, she probably made meals for her husband and son every day.

From the moment the door handle turned under his hand Cedric sensed that something was different. Not more than a few steps into the master bedroom, his suspicions were borne out. There was a spill of dark hair visible over the edge of the comforter, a shade of dark green so deep it was nearly black. A muscled arm lay over the rise of shoulders beneath the bedclothes, and that rich cinnamon-colored skin didn't belong to either of his brothers.

"Oh," Cedric uttered, and beat a hasty retreat. He spotted a brief glint of luminescent silver from near the head of the bed and pulled the door shut before he attracted any more attention than he already had.

The surprise rooted him to the floor of the hallway for a moment. Cedric had had vague ideas that all the bodyguards were taking up the spare quarters on the other side of the penthouse, perhaps even making use of the living room couch. He might have suspected there was something between his eldest brother and tall dynamic Shemyahza Guile, but there hadn't been much interaction for him to observe. This was an interesting turn. Cedric glanced at Roman's closed door, knowing that his other brother was here because Felicia was still present in the apartment. He was pretty sure Roman would be asleep at this hour, still, but for the first time in ages Cedric was loathe to wake him.

If Shemyahza was sleeping with Gabriel, Roman would be in no mood to deal with.

He forced himself back into action, because the morning was ticking along and there were still things to do.

"Does everyone like waffles?" he inquired, putting on a bright smile as he re-entered the kitchen. Who didn't? Plus, Cedric made fresh whipped cream to go on top.

The four of them had breakfast together in the kitchen, the warm golden light pouring in through the lace curtains hardly obscured by the slight distorting effect of the portable Wall technology that covered their building. Cedric made and served the waffles, Rukawa drank black coffee, Humphrey ate a whole stack by himself, and Felicia watched all of them with a bemused kind of smile on her face.

That scene was to sustain him through the long day of classes.

Today Cedric greeted any of his classmates who approached him. He was trying new things, while still trying for that "new normal" Mr. McCormack had mentioned when he imparted that bit of advice. Samantha, Jon, and a third girl -- Chandra; Cedric had finally gotten a look at the class seating chart -- were friendly enough and their manner easy to get along with. The rest either ignored him or gave curious looks but didn't bother to come forward to interact. Andy and his pals still gave Cedric some evil glances now and then but Cedric was confident those boys could never hurt him. With Humphrey by his side for now, and the continued reassurance of Rukawa in his life, bullies were the least ping on his radar.

Mr. McCormack continued in the same vein as the day before, discoursing on subjects that had probably been handed down by whatever consultant from the City and Wall Defense Force had collaborated with the schools. There was something out of joint, Cedric noticed, in the way that implied a gap of information to Cedric.

Aside from the stir of interest that the homeroom content generated, the morning was largely uneventful. Cedric had missed a few days of class and had not paid attention to his usual standard the day before, so he devoted his full attention to the lessons that day. Part of his attention was on the class material. He hung back before volunteering himself for answers and analyzed on another level whether he was being challenged the way he thought he ought. Though he was sure Gabriel wouldn't consider another grade skip so soon after this most recent one, and it would be a shame to abandon Samantha and Jon, and even Chandra so soon after establishing ties, Cedric was eager to advance his education too.

That morning he wasn't able to come to any firm conclusions. He wasnít bored by any of the lessons, he did have to pay attention to keep up, but then again he had been out for a few days. If he were all caught up would it still be the same case? He made a note to track his progress and whether any classes became boring.

When the bell rang for lunch, Samantha was already gravitating toward him and he answered her unspoken question with a smile. "Ready for lunch?" Cedric asked her, more self-assured than before.

"Yes," she said with obvious relief. "Phew, math is not my best subject. Hey, can Chandra join us today?"

"Of course," Cedric said with some surprise. He wasn't the boss of their little group. "I mean, if she wants to."

"Her dad works with City and Wall Defense," Samantha told him by way of oblique reply.

It was odd that it took something like this for them to find one another, all students with family who were involved in the real struggle with the demons. Cedric popped to his feet and gathered up all his materials as Humphrey hovered near his desk and Jon waited on the other side of the room, school bag clasped in his arms.

Outside the classroom, Rukawa was waiting, as he'd known he would be. They found an empty table with Samantha while Chandra and Jon went through the lunch line. Cedric claimed his seat beside Rukawa, Samantha took up a spot beside them, and Humphrey had one whole side of the square table to himself.

"What nice boxed lunches," Samantha exclaimed as Cedric opened the compartments of his bento.

"Thanks," Cedric said, heat blooming in his cheeks.

Samantha dimpled. "And he cooks, too," she said. "Cedric, you're going to be a real catch." When you're older, the words implied, and Cedric knew that was the case whether it was his own grade or...or anyone older.

"It's time for a reality check," Jon said, dropping into his seat with a tray of assorted mystery meat, vegetables, mashed potatoes, and a pudding cup dessert. "Now, how much of today's first class do you think would be good and useful knowledge in a pinch?"

"Oh, come on Jon, don't start this again," Samantha told him, waving around her club sandwich like a sword. "We're safe for the most part. Otherwise why have the Walls to begin with?" For a moment it was looking as if they would start up the lukewarm argument of the day before.

Jon gulped as Chandra slid onto the bench seat beside him. He dug through various items on his cafeteria tray and changed the subject. "I'm not so sure they should be teaching us old geography from the time before the Rising. I mean, when are we going to need to find Washington D.C. on the map?"

Cedric raised his hand to his mouth to hide a grin. He toyed with the stir-fry in one of his bento compartments. He was glad he'd woken up early enough to make bento for everyone considering the sorry state of the food on Jon and Chandra's trays. Suffering through the mystery meat yesterday was as far as Cedric's tolerance stretched. If he was a snob about anything, it was about the quality of the food he put into his body.

"It was only the capitol of the United States for hundreds of years before the prevalent government lapsed into city-states post-Rising," Cedric said, mild reproof. "And I think that the illusion of safety is as important to the continuance of civilization as the actual security measures that are in place to protect our lives." He said it soft, though, scared to think anyone would believe him to be showing off his intellect.

Samantha nodded, turning a friendly smile on him. "That's it, that's exactly it. You said it much better than I could have, Cedric," she praised him. "It's more than the fact that I think we are safe for the most part. It's that, most people couldn't function every day if we stopped to think all the time about how fragile our safety could be, if the worst scenario came true that very day."

Jon looked as though he might argue, but he turned his attention back to pushing food around his plate. He was making truncheons through the mashed potatoes.

"My mother and father have been discussing whether to tattoo safety glyphs onto all of us," Chandra spoke up matter-of-factly. "Dad already has a few. In his line of work he really has to. But with those demons in the streets lately--"

"--those were conjures from rogue spellcasters--"

Jon snorted loudly. "--and if you believe that I have pieces of the Brooklyn Bridge to sell you," he said, but he too kept his voice quiet so as not to reach beyond their table.

Chandra and Samantha stared at him, aghast.

"He's right," Cedric contributed. "I can't say what caused it, but there were definitely demons in the street."

"Not..." Chandra hesitated, and looked at all of them as if inspecting them for the depth of their knowledge.

They were stuck, all of them, on the barbs of the confidentiality agreement. All of them knew and yet they couldn't have a real discussion about the subject at hand. Cedric eyed the neat rows of handmade onigiri that were still left, and he wanted to trade them away to Humphrey for questions that he was sure the man wouldn't answer even if he had a voice. Cedric knew how easily his brother had been abducted out of the city. He knew, too, that it couldn't be that common of an occurrence -- Gabriel simply had to be exceptional in everything, even the manner in which he caused demons to break convention.

If the part-blood Nephilim were that great of a threat to the security of the city, Cedric reasoned, not only would they not have so many on payroll, but the measures to keep them beyond the Walls would have been enacted long before now. Finding out that he and his family were part-blood factored into his new musings.

Yet at the same time, there had been a lot of damage when Ms. Carson took action to clear the city of any part-blood Nephilim that were not registered and in the city with legitimate purpose.

"My brother has unearthed texts that support the notion that certain, ah, entities can summon demons from that plane from which they Rose," Cedric said, striking from another direction.

"Even here in the city?" Samantha said, sounding horrified.

"Well, think about it," Chandra continued, perfectly reasonable. "If the, ah, entities" -- here she cast a bemused, grateful glance at Cedric -- "are able to come into the city and exercise their powers, then yes, demons here in the city."

"But that's a Wall breach," Samantha exclaimed. "I mean, we'd...we'd hear about that."

Chandra grimaced, throwing a brief glance Cedric's way as if to say, I thought she knew. "Not if they're, um, friendly entities? Or at least assumed neutral until presumed otherwise."

"Oh," Samantha said, her expression clearing. "You're right, I understand. Honestly, I am not normally this dense." She gave a little moue around the table.

Cedric thought he understood. Given Jon and Chandra's parents' respective occupations, there was a high chance those two were part-blood like himself. Samantha, though, was the daughter of a witch and she wouldn't normally be thinking automatically of the Nephilim that were their allies as different from the highest order of demon that opposed humanity.

Humphrey set his hand down hard on the table, not slapping the surface but giving it a jar.

Cedric started. "Sorry," he apologized. "Humphrey's right. We really shouldn't, you know, we're a little too close to breaching...um, well, you know. We can't make certain disclosures."

"I never signed anything," Jon said, frowning around the table.

"No, but Cedric's right," Samantha countered. "Talk about it too much and it will get around. Still, it's not fair. It should be okay if we talk to each other. I mean, obviously we all know."

"We know what's really going on," Chandra agreed. "I don't think anyone else in our grade does. Everyone else ate up all of Mr. McCormack's tips as if they were totally new."

A silence fell over the table. It was what Cedric had been thinking before, but Chandra had articulated it for all of them.

The second half of the day passed quicker than the first. Cedric began to relax back into the groove of enjoying his classes again. After school, his three classmates approached him in a knot. Over the crown of Samantha's golden head Cedric noticed Mr. McCormack smiling in their direction, then bending to his desk.

"Say, Cedric," Samantha said, placing both hands on his desk and leaning forward. "We were thinking of getting together at my house after school today. I noticed you usually go home alone..."

Cedric blinked up at her. She'd noticed that much? He'd never been approached by his classmates so openly before. It had taken this long for him to make friends in his grade...he was possessed with the urge to stick it out with this class, even if that held him back academically. It was a brief stab of mingled loneliness and longing, the desire to be accepted. "I do, normally," he said, finding his voice and putting it to use. "I have Decathlon Club today and we've only started out. I missed a session..."

"Oh," Chandra said, and her disappointment appeared genuine. "It sounds like you know an awful lot, Cedric, we were definitely hoping you'd come too."

"Maybe in a few days?" he ventured. "I have Decathlon Club tomorrow, too. But the day after I'm free in the afternoon, I think."

"Sounds good," Samantha said, taking him up on the offer right away. Her mouth curved in an encouraging smile. "You're a busy guy, Cedric. I've been thinking of taking up the Art Club but I've been too much of a slacker."

"You can come with me tomorrow," Chandra told her, snagging her by the elbow, and Samantha left them with a mock-despairing cry of "oh no" that lingered behind.

Jon sent his grimace-smile in Cedric's direction. "See you tomorrow, then," he said, and Cedric nodded.

He regretted turning them down, but he did enjoy the decathlon club. The other members were more like how Cedric had thought of himself, less than socially adept, focused on facts and numbers and the fine edge of competing, dredging up source information and applying it under pressure. He was valued by the team for his eidetic memory and the wide range of materials he'd read and reviewed.

"Meet me after your club at the kendo practice room," Rukawa had told him after lunch, and that explained the lack of him in the hallway after class. Nevertheless, there was a flicker of discomfort, part of him remarking on the absence even as he understood it.

Humphrey was his silent shadow as he sought out the club room where he and the other team members practiced against one another, devising questions and putting on timed rounds. The club met three afternoons a week and their first match would be in a few weeks against another club from one ring over. If they passed the city-wide tournament, they would go on satellite to compete against other cities. The grand prize was handed out by the Kline media conglomerate every year. Last year, a team from San Francisco had won the nationwide competition.

That day was a quiet one for Cedric as he settled back into his place on the team. There weren't many questions that sparked to his areas of expertise. They practiced for a few rounds, then the club leader discussed potential areas to improve for the last fifteen minutes, recommending different materials for the team to diversify their knowledge in the upcoming weeks.

"Interesting, no?" Cedric chirped up at his big bodyguard as they left the classroom, and Humphrey mimed a snore, eyes twinkling. "Oh, you're mean! And I made you lunch and everything."

Humphrey patted his shoulder.

As they turned to go up the corridor that led to the kendo and other sports clubs, a uniformed figure was already waiting beside the door, back set against the wall and one leg cocked up with a foot planted against the wall too. Rukawa pushed off as he saw them coming, stooping to grab his school bag.

"What about your shinai?" Cedric prompted, obscurely disappointed that he'd missed seeing the kendo team in action. He had thought the decathlon team ended early, but apparently not.

"Stored," Rukawa said succinctly, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. His hair was damp and his olive-toned skin all but glowing. As Cedric looked up, a droplet of water rolled from his wet hair down the length of his cheek, beading and spreading a patch against the pale fabric of his uniform.

With a flush, Cedric was cast back to the afternoon he'd seen everything. Rukawa in the shower had been an amazing sight to behold. That reminded him of his afternoon of research into the field of sexuality, and how there was surely much more to learn. Now there was something that wouldn't net him educational advancement or decathlon accolades, but all of a sudden it seemed like the best thing to do.

Rukawa patted his shoulder in passing, moving past him to draw even with Humphrey.

Right. Time to go. Cedric scrambled to catch up. It was time to go and get dinner started, anyhow. That hooked in with another thought, the vague notion of Shemyahza Guile still trying to resolve itself into his conception of the Vaille household. He wondered if Gabriel's recent...entanglement knew how to cook. He wondered how long Shemyahza intended to stay.

Outside, the honey-golden light was angling in toward twilight. The furthest reaches of the Wall were beginning to reflect purple bands thrown from ocean-side. Students were scattered here and there on campus, a few on the steps listening to portable music players, making phone calls, one of them reading a textbook. A group of boys were playing a game on the lawn that seemed to involve juggling multiple brightly-colored balls between all players. The park was crossed back and forth with people walking at all paces from strolling to jogging, and a few dogs were present on the leash and off. Bracketed in between Humphrey and Rukawa, Cedric knew himself to be protected and he could take his time to enjoy the sights and people-watch.

They arrived at the Carrack building about fifteen minutes after having set out from school and passed through security protocols old and new. There was more involved now than simply swiping a hand over a pad and inputting a code, and Cedric recognized the necessity of it even as he chafed at the extra steps it took to get inside. Even the elevator required more than its former top floor key.

So used was Cedric to returning home alone that he couldn't help the undignified squawk when he was set upon with his foot barely placed inside the door. At this hour, Roman was usually out and about whether on the job or as part of his complicated social schedule, and Gabriel stayed in the lab at all hours whether he was involved with a project or not. Before even getting his shoes off Cedric was beset, long skinny arms wrapping around him and jerking him back against a taller body.

"Save me," Roman croaked, clinging to Cedric like a limpet. "She's trying to get me to clean."

In a flash a taller body was through the door and prying Roman off Cedric with an implacable grip before either of the brothers could say boo.

"It's all right," Cedric said, rocking back to look upside-down into the abruptly fierce eyes of his protector. Rukawa blinked slowly as if realizing only now what he'd done. He stepped to the side, away from Cedric, and a dull flush spread over his cheeks. Cedric grimaced an apology at him and turned his attention to Roman, whose perceptive jade-green eyes had narrowed, passing back and forth between the two of them.

"It would do you some good to clean your room, no one knows that more than I do," Cedric told him, adopting a lecturing pose. "You expect me to protect you from your bodyguard? Roman."

Roman held up his hands palm outward. "Fine, fine... And, you know what? Reserve the after-dinner hour for me, will you? We need to talk and that? That kind of cinches it."

That pierced Cedric's complacency like a ruptured balloon. His composure went the way of that balloon sent speeding by blown helium. "What, what do you mean?"

Roman aimed his index finger like a gun, but didn't shoot. "Later, kidlet."

Cedric was left to flounder in his own apprehension as Roman scrambled away from the foyer and jogged down the hallway, making a panicked noise as Felicia came into view. There was nothing to now but toe his shoes off and contemplate dinner, or his own impending demise. He made way for Rukawa and Humphrey to remove their shoes and stepped into the hallway, still wrapped around the dilemma implied by Roman's bid to secure his time. That could mean one of a few things, of course; Cedric couldn't recall the last time they'd had a "family discussion" but they did happen on occasion. Of course, his imagination went straight to the fact that he'd brought Akito Rukawa home with him last night, and neither of his brothers had commented overmuch at the time which was more of a stay of execution than avoidance of the matter completely.

"Little Cedric," rumbled a deep voice.

Cedric turned, startled, to tilt his head back to meet the eyes of his brother Gabriel's bodyguard. "Shemyahza," he greeted the full-blooded Nephilim with a touch of awe. He couldn't recall speaking with him before, one on one.

The bounty hunter's eyes glinted as they had that morning, a brief silver sheen that came and went. This close, Cedric could discern the amusement in the relaxed lines of his handsome face. "I hear you're the cook of the household."

"I am," Cedric said, cautious, still fixated on Roman's sudden injunction.

"Good," Shemyahza replied, cocking his hip out, one big hand settling on the strip of skin revealed between his sleeveless red-brown leather jerkin and gray cargoes. "Gabriel needs to eat, and as you're the master of the kitchen, I'd like to offer my services."

Cedric cast an appraising eye over the huge bounty hunter. "Really?" he said, a little chagrined when a broad smile spread over Shemyahza's face at the obvious doubt in his tone.

"I can cook," Shemyahza stated with authority. "But it's your kitchen." He executed a partial bow, drawing back to give Cedric the room to enter said kitchen.

"All right, give me a moment," Cedric said. He pursed his lips thoughtfully and ran his mind over his inventory of recipes. "I need to put my things away and we're going to change out of our uniforms."

One of Shemyahza's dark green brows curved upward, possibly at the use of 'we,' but he stepped aside gracefully.

Cedric checked over one shoulder to ensure Rukawa was still on his tail, then hitched his school bag up and hastened down the hallway. This was not anywhere near his concept of normal; there was a full house, for one. Even on his first day of junior high, his brothers hadn't managed to come home anywhere approaching the time Cedric arrived at home. He was a little pleased, he thought, but it was also disconcerting and he beat a retreat to his room, his haven.

Inside, Rukawa closed the door after them and Cedric plopped himself on the bed after casting his book bag aside near to his study station.

"You okay?" Rukawa prompted, leaning there against the door, eyes overshadowed by his bangs.

Cedric bit his lip and summoned up a smile, though putting on any kind of face wouldn't fool his Rukawa. "I'm okay," he claimed. At Rukawa's persisting disbelief, he insisted, "I am. I'm a little worried about what Roman wants to talk about, and I'm a bit flustered at having so many people in one place stirring up what used to be the time I had alone in the evenings, but it's fine. It is." And he'd keep telling himself that. He undid his uniform top and slid it over his shoulders.

There was a spike like a rippling pulse, a quickening, and Cedric glanced up to catch Rukawa's eyes on him.

"Excuse me," Rukawa said, and turned and all but fled the room, dragging the door shut behind him.

"Huh," Cedric said, staring after him. Okay. Perhaps he needed that chat with Roman, after all.

He scrambled into a tee-shirt and shorts and rejoined Shemyahza in the hallway. Rukawa, he knew, had retreated to the bathroom and it was best to leave him there for now.

"Seared salmon with aioli, chanterelles and sauteed green beans, and cavolo nero kale bruschetta," Cedric spoke up as he neared the lounging Nephilim in the hallway.

Cedric blinked. Right. There was a great tall human-shaped demon in his home. Things would never be the same again.

"We have the salmon?" Shemyahza asked him, not batting an eye at the restaurant-quality fare.

"Delivered fresh from the harbor last night," Cedric replied with relish. Yes, he was a food snob, and one advantage of being born into a wealthy family was that he could indulge himself as he liked.

"Then let's go," Shemyahza said. One hand made a rolling motion, gesturing him onward. "Lead on, monsieur le chef."

Cedric summoned up a smile and like that, the afternoon was restored around him.

They spent the next forty-five minutes in the kitchen on food preparation. It was soothing for Cedric, and he was pleased that Shemyahza Guile did, indeed, know his way around a kitchen. After a while, Rukawa joined them having donned light sweats and a black tank tee. He helped with vegetable preparation but stayed mostly to the side. Some time during the searing, which Shemyahza handled with a propane torch, and the last touch of sautee work Roman went scrambling past the kitchen area yelping something about 'help' and 'gonna die.' They ignored him. In spite of the high-flown sound of the dishes, everything was pretty simple which kept prep time to a minimum. Soon they were setting places and unfolding it for an extra leaf to fit everyone around the dining room table, which hadn't been used in ages.

That filled Cedric with a happy glow.

Shemyahza dragged Gabriel up to the table from wherever he'd been. The lure of tempting food smells drew Roman out from wherever he'd been hiding. And the bodyguards gravitated toward the dining room table as Rukawa and Cedric finished transporting dishes from the kitchen. As they all sank into their chairs, Gabriel at the head, Roman taking his place at the foot and shooting Shemyahza a glance layered with defiance and irritation, Cedric was reminded of the old custom of saying grace. He had much to be thankful for at this moment.

"Thanks for dinner, Cedric," Felicia said first, dishing up green beans and passing them along. That started up a chorus of appreciation.

"Shemyahza helped a great deal," Cedric protested, but he was smiling. He had Gabriel on one side and Rukawa on the other and this was quite possibly the best dinner ever. Well, so long as he didn't think about what was possibly to come after.

They fell to the act of eating, and the noises of enjoyment were even better than the thanks. He tasted it himself and was well pleased. Maybe he would make something a bit less fancy the next day, but this was good.

"It's tasty," Rukawa mumbled beside him in between a mouthful of the chanterelle mushrooms and more salmon. Now that was the best compliment of all.

Afterward, Shemyahza and Felicia put Cedric's elder brothers to cleaning up, and Cedric was able to slip around to the hallway in hopes of getting some homework done.

His room was a haven, but hardly sacrosanct. After about twenty minutes of marshaling his classroom assignments and starting in on the first of several assignments, the calm was broken by a knock on the door. Rukawa looked up from the place he'd taken up in the solo chair in the corner, almost as if he were guarding the room in addition to starting his own homework.

"It's okay," Cedric sub-vocalized, knowing that Rukawa would understand him nonetheless. He raised his voice. "Come in!"

The door cracked but it wasn't Roman's head that peered around the corner; it was Gabriel. "Am I interrupting anything?" his brother said timidly.

"Homework," Cedric replied, dangling one leg over his chair.

"Oh, well then..." Gabriel's head began to retract, turtle-like, back around the door. There was a thwack and an exasperated outcry, then Gabriel was being pushed into the room along to the tune of Roman's "he can do it later, dummy."

Gabriel stood awkwardly just inside the door adjusting his glasses. Roman nudged him, shook his head, then spoke up. "C'mon, Cedric. Family convo."

"Ah." Cedric waved a hand to send his notebook to sleep.

"I'll go take a walk," Rukawa muttered, rising from his chair.

Gabriel extended a hand. "Wait, I think it would be best if you were present for this as well, given the circumstances."

Rukawa just stood there, his hands balled up into loose fists.

Roman tsked. "Well, may as well get comfortable, this could take a while." He helped himself to a seat on the bed, then wrapped an arm around his knees and waggled his eyebrows in the professor's direction. "Gabriel."

"I, uh..." Gabriel hesitated in place, looking between Cedric to Rukawa and over to Roman. There wasn't much seating and the obvious place would set him next to Roman.

A hand rapped on the open door frame and Shemyahza stooped to enter Cedric's bedroom. "Room for one more?"

Roman's head jerked up. "Family conversation," he said sharply.

"Er, Roman, I think we need Shemyahza for this one as well," Gabriel said, lowering his head, speech barely audible.

Roman huffed even as Shemyahza entered the room, casting about for a place that wasn't the empty one next to Roman, and ended up folding his arms and propping up the far wall from Cedric. Gabriel sighed and tugged the door shut behind them, casting about for a moment before choosing the other space on the bed, the one spot closest to Cedric.

Cedric, for his part, was holding on tightly to the will to avoid hyperventilation. Bad enough that his brothers were cornering him for what was obviously to be some souped-up version of The Talk; worse that Rukawa, as the most likely culprit, had to sit through it as well but for Shemyahza, a virtual stranger to him, to be invited in as well -- and all that was implied with the Nephilim entering the closed-door auspices of a family conversation -- was beyond humiliation. Throwing himself out the window was seeming to be a viable option and Rukawa sure looked as though he wanted to sink down through the chair into the cracks between the floorboards.

"We need to talk," Gabriel started uneasily, casting a glance around the room that somehow managed to miss catching the gaze of everyone present.

Cedric gulped his heart back into its proper place.

Roman tsked. "I'll start. What exactly happened? I was there when Nara first said it, when building security was challenging Rukawa because they thought they'd found an unregistered demon. Until a few days ago, Rukawa was human as anything -- had to be, or Orion would've had a record otherwise."

Cedric blinked. Whatever he'd expected for the opening sally, this was not it. "We don't know...exactly," he replied. "Not yet. Dr. Franco at Orion started some tests and Nara was there to help calibrate the extent of our attachment, but...I suppose we're not really sure yet."

Roman waved a hand around. "Nara said that you'd shoved the core of your power into Rukawa. Is that, like, permanent?"

"It could be permanent for so long as he wills it," Shemyahza spoke up from beside the far wall. His uncanny eyes were on Cedric, measuring him. "There's still power within Cedric, like the charger or terminal to a mobile device."

"Which means Cedric is the source and Rukawa the recipient subject," Gabriel stated, sounding excited now that he had an analogy to latch onto.

Cedric lifted a hand as if he were back in class. "Talk with me, not around me," he requested. "We know that I've infused Rukawa with...with the Nephilim powers I didnít even know I had. We know that I did it to save his life, and it somehow..." He swallowed harshly and couldn't finish that. Reanimated him. That was an ugly concept.

"Cedric brought me back to life," Rukawa spoke up from his corner. "Now I can protect him with the power he gave me." He shrugged, and for him it was that simple. He didn't need any more tests to tell him what they were.

"So..." Cedric said, feeling his way around it. This was a much different conversation from what he'd envisioned. "You came to talk about what happened the other day with me and Rukawa?"

"Well." Roman balanced elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers together. "That, liebe, and your sudden incontrovertible desire to have Rukawa here on a never-ending sleepover."

That was all it took to bring crimson heat back into Cedric's cheeks. He didn't have to look to know that Rukawa was reddening, too.

"It's safer to keep everyone all together," Cedric said lamely.

Now all eyes were on him except for Rukawa, who was examining the fine grain pattern of the wood in the floorboards.

"O-okay," Cedric faltered. "It's just...uncomfortable to be apart." He shrugged. That was all the answer that he had for them. He watched Gabriel and Roman exchange a glance.

"That's all?" Roman prompted after a moment.

Cedric hunched in his chair. "What else? It hurts when we're too far away from each other. It feels empty, wrong. Bad enough we're in different classes in school, but the morning when he went all the way home, it...it was painful."

Rukawa made a noise of agreement but had nothing else to add.

"That's your power, calling back to the rest of itself," Shemyahza said. "It's not meant to be separated, and so the physical separation causes mental anguish." He shifted, turning his face away from them.

"Huh," Roman said.

Gabriel seemed speechless.

Hands clapped together and Roman began to rub his hands briskly. "All right," he said. "I'll ask it. What happens if Cedric tries to call his powers back?"

"Ooh, I don't know," Cedric uttered, somewhere between a whine and a moan. Over in the corner, Rukawa shuddered.

"It's risky," Shemyahza spoke up. His handsome face turned in their direction again enough to see the bleak expression, but his eyes were lowered. "It could be that Cedric's power, being the source of energy that held Rukawa back from death, could be the only thing keeping Rukawa from returning to that state."

Roman blinked.

Gabriel articulated it. "If Cedric tries to retrieve all his power, Rukawa could die as the result?"

"Well." Shemyahza uncrossed his arms, scratched at the base of one ear, and re-crossed his arms. "It really is impossible to say. As I've noted before, I have never heard of a case like this. It's unheard of for Nephilim to dispose of their powers, so to speak, in such a manner. You half-bloods, you do the craziest, most unexpected things." His generous mouth curved up.

"So..." Gabriel trailed off, summoning up a smile for Cedric. "We do nothing."

A welter of relief swamped Cedric. His brothers weren't as shocked as he had been, that first day. It hadn't really registered -- not even a few mornings ago when he'd awoken with someone else's emotions pressing frantically against his brain. "Dr. Franco is still up for running more tests, I think," he said hesitantly. "But I have the feeling that this is, well, permanent. And...that's okay." He straightened and met Rukawa's gaze, which was boring into him. Those dark intense eyes were his now, down to the fire that sparked in their newly crimson depths.

"Let's not be too hasty," Roman drawled. "If there's still tests to be run, yeah, go with that. If I understand what you're saying, though, this means we pretty-much have another live-in."

Cedric caught the dirty glance that Roman threw in Shemyahza's direction with that. Ah. Oh dear. Well, it was time for a family discussion of another sort, apparently. Gabriel and Roman were going to have to clear the air, but that talk should take place between the two of them.

"If you don't mind," Rukawa muttered, leaning over with arms bent on his knees.

"Your parents--" Gabriel started.

"Already said it was all right," Cedric said smugly. "So long as we spend some time there, too, of course. I...I'm not sure how much they understand, but they're okay with this arrangement for now. It's best if all of us stay here for now until...everything is taken care of." Never mind that could be for a very long time. It was easier, safer, for all of them to stay together and it drew attention away from Rukawa's parents, if there was in fact anyone left in the city to notice.

"Right. Until everything is taken care of," Roman echoed. He slapped his thighs and climbed off the bed. "Well, I got all of the answers I need. I'll talk to you later, Cedric." He crooked his finger at him and the quirk of his mouth, the knowing not-quite-wink let Cedric know the most difficult conversation was probably still before him.

"Let us know if anything further manifests," Shemyahza cautioned, and he waited until Gabriel climbed off the bed before taking the professor by the arm as if to escort him on the way out. The bounty hunter added over his shoulder, "And be good, boys. It's early yet."

Cedric turned a fiercer shade of crimson. That was almost worse than Roman's promise of a talk still to come.

"Okay," he said, and took deep breaths until the bedroom door closed. "Okay. This is...going to be all right." His gaze alighted on Rukawa across the room, and his friend smiled.

"It's fine," Rukawa reconfirmed.

"All right," Cedric repeated, and he matched him smile for smile. "Now I think I can actually concentrate on my homework."

Somewhere in there, he would also try to get in contact with Dr. Franco. It would help build a case for their arrangements if they had solid proof that the link between he and Rukawa was permanent.

***

Not three steps outside Cedric's bedroom Gabriel found himself pinned to the wall, crowded by the bulk of a tall strong body and hands tracing a path low over his belly down to his hips. "Wha--" he began, and his mouth was crushed under the onslaught of Shemyahza's hungry mouth.

He took it for a long moment, immobile beneath the hands and lips that roamed over him, then Gabriel inhaled through his nose and tentatively moved his hands up to the vest that covered Shemyahza's stripped-down, irresistible abdomen.

"Holy swadhisthana, get the hell out of the hallway and find a room," Roman's voice punctured the sexual haze that Gabriel had fallen into along with the sway of Shemyahza's hips.

"Sorry..." Gabriel broke away from Shemyahza's loosened grip, ducking out from under one arm.

Roman was already beating a fast retreat down the hallway toward his room. His glare shot over one narrow shoulder before the door slammed shut. The 'Do Not Disturb' was already flipped to face outward.

"You should go talk to him," Shemyahza rumbled, one hand still gripping at the juncture of Gabriel's neck and shoulder.

"Can't," Gabriel said, palming bangs away from his forehead and sighing. "Damn it. If I go in there now, he'll bite my head off."

Both Shemyahza's brows arched. "Well, that's not the outcome we want," he stated blandly, managing to make it sound dirty in spite of the neutral tone. "Gabriel. No matter how difficult it's going to be, you have to initiate the conversation."

Gabriel's head was shaking before the sentence was fully formed. "No, you don't understand. I can't go in there now, it's off-limits. Roman doesn't usually set much stock by his own privacy, but when he has that sign set up, we're bound to respect it. It's..." He grimaced.

"All right, all right," Shemyahza told him, leaning into him with a grin. He made a movement as if to reel Gabriel back in.

Gabriel slipped deftly free and backed up the hallway, hands outstretched to defend himself if necessary. "Oh no. It's back to the lab for me, I have more than just a backlog, I face the wrath of Alicia Carson if I don't begin producing text worth its weight in bullion, it's more than bad dreams of Granac Bowen we're up against."

"You have a point." Shemyahza followed him up the hallway and a broad hand grasped his wrist. "You've had dreams of Granac."

Halfway to the freedom of the front door, Gabriel was hauled to a stop. "I...no, I... It was like an example..."

Shemyahza gripped his upper arm, holding him in place. "Tell me."

"It's nothing," Gabriel said dismissively, but he was growing restive with all of Shemyahza's formidable attention focused on him. "I just, well yes, I've had a few dreams. More like nightmares. The city burning, the streets bleeding, standing atop the highest building with shadows crawling up to engulf anything. It's just the overactive subconscious."

Silver eyes searched over his, stayed on him. Gabriel held it, until those eyes dipped down to Gabriel's lips and Shemyahza's own mouth quirked.

"If you say so," Shemyahza said softly, reaching up to feather a hand through the hair at his temple in an already-familiar gesture. He leaned in and Gabriel jerked back.

"Not now," Gabriel told him, placing fingers over Shemyahza's lips to protect himself from the searing effect. Those lips twitched against his fingers in an impromptu kiss, then curved in a smile. "I have to get back to work."

"Fine," Shemyahza sighed. "I never should have told you it was ready this morning."

Gabriel grinned like an excited kid and adjusted his glasses. "Oh, come on, let's go." That morning they had been issued their ident discs for the newly-retrofitted lab, and underwent the calibration for fingerprinting, retinal scan, voice-print confirmation, and the last protocol - a full-body scan match. That was a minor annoyance to allow him access to the brand new lab that had been packed full of all the latest technology Orion had to offer in assisting him in his studies. Someone had also thoughtfully stocked the kitchenette with plenty of tea, including his favorite brand of Ceylon black.

He had happily spent the whole day on scans before turning back to the dedication that had captured his interest a few days ago. He was almost done with the rough translation and had only the final sentence and some verbiage adjustment to go. Shemyahza had practically had to tear him away from the work-table to get him to come to dinner.

"What amuses me the most," Shemyahza said into his ear, sticking to his side like glue as they moved toward the elevator, "is the fact that you wear your suit into the lab even though we haven't left the building proper all day."

Gabriel turned an arch look on him as he reached to tag the elevator call button. "You'd rather I work the scans in my bathrobe?"

"Oh, not at all," Shemyahza purred. "I definitely wouldn't let you get any work done under those circumstances. I'm not sure, I expected you to work from home in sweats or casual clothes, not suits."

"Casual clothes," Gabriel said, wrinkling his nose. "I think I have those...somewhere. Roman usually buys those for me."

"You are going to have to do something about Roman," Shemyahza reminded him. They boarded the elevator and a broad hand guided Gabriel at the small of his back.

"I know," Gabriel allowed. He sighed and snuck a glance over at Shemyahza. Did his lover suspect? He had to, given how Roman had been behaving the past few days. He supposed it wouldn't hurt anything to say, because this was Shemyahza. He was to become a permanent fixture in his life because, after all, Nephilim mated for life. "It was inevitable, really; I think he must have known as I did that we'd have to stop sleeping together sooner or later but I'm sure Roman always expected he would be making that decision, not having it thrust upon him."

Shemyahza's eyes enlarged to truly phenomenal lengths, such that Gabriel could imagine his reflection in those crimson pupils.

"Y-you hadn't guessed?" Gabriel stammered.

"You and Roman were sleeping together?" Shemyahza said, a smile of Cheshire proportions eclipsing his previous expression of shock.

"Er..." This pleased reaction wasn't quite what he'd expected. "Um, yes, for a few years now. I kind of figured he'd grow out of it..."

"Hmm, we could always solve part of Roman's current dilemma by taking him in a threesome," Shemyahza said reflectively, rubbing at his chin.

Gabriel threw a shocked hand out and struck Shemyahza's solid arm before he quite realized. "Don't be ridiculous," he exclaimed. "As if Roman would be willing to share, even if you are."

Shemyahza laughed outright. "Fine, fine... We could set it up so you could have good closure sex and I could watch, maybe?"

"Oh my god," Gabriel uttered, rocked to his foundations. His possessive Nephilim lover, who had twined around him and glowered and held off all comers, was not only willing but actively interested in sharing Gabriel with his own brother. "You're...not joking."

"I never joke about incest," Shemyahza assured him, nuzzling at his ear. "It's a bit of a kink."

"All right, I'll say it once and you're never going to bring it up again--"

"...don't try to make promises for me that I won't keep."

"--we're not going to have a three-way, you're not going to watch us together, and Roman would never let you within a meter of him anyhow," Gabriel rode right over his words. The elevator reached the basement floor and released them with a polite ding. "End of discussion."

Gabriel strode forward and clapped his hands over his ears when Shemyahza started to mutter something low and throaty that promised to be absolutely filthy. "Not doing that either."

They passed through the layers of security that evening to find that Roy and Kieran had been configured to all the protocols. Roy raised a hand in a cheery wave that turned into a swipe at his over-long bangs; he had been bent over the rough scans again, projected on a large data display that magnified his work and made it somewhat easier to control with the added zoom features. Kieran pushed back from the surface of the lab bench with a sigh, but he tossed a smile their way.

"Long time no see," Roy greeted him.

"Sorry," Gabriel murmured, a pang of guilt plucking away at his conscience. Here was Roy, essentially pulling a double shift back to back from his long day of classes both taught and taken, and Gabriel was fresh off a very restful break. In fact, Shemyahza made him take those regularly.

Roy made a dismissive gesture. "Part of the job. You've got the lion's share of the work, we're here in the support roles to do whatever we can. Let me know when you need me for reference work and other research; I think Kieran has a good grasp of how to clean up the roughs now."

"Great," Gabriel said, and he meant it, but the greater portion of his attention had already turned to the translation at his work station, mostly complete and awaiting his focus on that final sentence.

Amused and somewhat resigned smiles were exchanged in his wake, and Gabriel got himself situated. One of the great improvements of his new lab was a contoured chair that supported him better than any ergonomic option he'd ever known. It adjusted to his position and made him improve his posture no matter how he slumped. It was also, paradoxically, the most comfortable chair ever.

Everything else faded into the background as Gabriel powered on his notebook and scanned over the notes he had been working on earlier that day. He concentrated on the first line he had roughly translated. Sometimes even proper translation was impossible to fathom without the right context.

"For the people of my wife, power to equal the devils that beset them."

The next few symbols were structural, the old dialect's equivalent of 'To my...' and beginning the shape of the sentence, and he bent his attention to the symbol beside it that would hopefully shed some light on things...and justify his decision not to translate the section that presumably contained the spell-work first.

As his notebook powered on he called up the original scan, highlighting the section he was working on and magnifying the zoom until one symbol filled the whole screen. It seemed familiar. The dialect was a cross between several of the more recent languages with which Gabriel was familiar or at least had a passing acquaintance, as though this were the far older, pure strain of language. It made Gabriel truly regret that Granac Bowen had not shown him the manuscript in his possession during Gabriel's brief time at his fortress. He would love to know whether the two had been written out of the same dialect, given that the document he now examined was a copy rather than the original. It fired up his scholarly curiosity.

The next symbol reminded him of the word for ephemeral in one dialect, mortal in another. There were nuances of meaning that English possessed that made spanning the gap a troublesome proposition sometimes.

He labored on the sentence until he had a full translation spread out before him. Pages of notes cluttered up the work surface at his right elbow; he could use those to reference his work later, if he needed to nitpick any part of the entire dedication.

Gabriel's eyes widened as he read the rough translation.

For the people of my wife, power to equal the devils that beset them. To my mortal wife, for her care and the sons she has given, to make certain that power always protects. For in the joining is the conflagration, and never should any sacrifice but the willing go forth.

"He was a sane one," Gabriel spoke aloud, and blinked as a hand settled on his shoulder.

"Drink this," Shemyahza rumbled beside him, and it was only then that Gabriel realized his throat was indeed dry.

He seized the cup of tea and wheeled his chair to face his own 'devil.' "I know what this is," he claimed excitedly, taking a quick gulp to moisten his throat and grimacing as it burned its way down his throat.

"Silly, that's why you wait for it to cool first," Shemyahza chided him, taking the cup from his hand before Gabriel could wave it about in his exhilaration.

"I've cracked it, this one dedication solves the mystery...why was this book made so much later than the dating that we have on the estimated timeline for the other tomes?" Gabriel got to his feet and Shemyahza gripped his arm for steadiness as Gabriel stumbled over nothing.

"You tell me," the Nephilim prompted, bemused. Beyond him, Kieran and Roy's heads rose from where they were half-slumped over their magnified rough scans. Roy got to his feet, too, slow-dawning anticipation sketched over his face.

"It was created by a Nephilim, one who must have seen one of the original Gran Grimoires, and re-created that to protect the tribe of the woman he married. A human woman," Gabriel finished triumphantly.

"But what does that mean...?" Roy asked, and his brow creased.

"The dedication makes a point of mentioning his mortal wife -- human, in other words -- and the sons she bore him. Sons that would have been part Nephilim."

"Wait, we were just speaking about the significance of part-bloods the other day," Roy said, excitement picking up speed.

"That's right," Gabriel said, "and it may have more of an import than we'd previously guessed." He was still turning over the last ominous sentence in his head, trying to fit it in to decide if it had something to do with the Rising or if it were a more general warning to those who possessed the grimoire. Perhaps it referred to some other danger entirely? For in the joining is the conflagration, and never should any sacrifice but the willing go forth.

"Shemyahza," Gabriel spoke, touching his lover's arm and guiding his attention to the screen. He dialed back the magnification factor to encompass the entire sentence. "Does this mean anything to you?"

The dark brows swooped as Shemyahza bent to study the sentence. "For in the joining is the conflagration," he uttered aloud.

"Say, what do the Nephilim think of cross-breeding?" Roy spoke up, circling around his work bench in order to join them.

"It's encouraged, actually," the tall bounty hunter replied, his tone absent as he frowned at the full sentence. "Mating with powerful psychics can produce talented offspring that, if kept under the parental thumb, may possess abilities that can be wielded to advantage."

"Abilities that no human or demon possesses," Roy concluded triumphantly, joining Gabriel on his other side. "What's this...?" He, too, leaned in to get a good look at the most cryptic sentence of the translation.

"It's like a cipher," Shemyahza declared, straightening. "It could mean many things, honestly, Gabriel. In terms of magic, it could mean the joining of wills. The second part of the sentence, though, is unfathomable. Perhaps you'll find more clues in the rest of the text?"

Roy stood up, too, unkinking his spine in the manner of a man who'd been hours at his work. "It's got to do with the grimoire, otherwise why include it in the dedication like that? A cautionary guide to its usage, perhaps."

Gabriel sighed. "And translating the rest of the text could take months, and we don't know if we have months," he said, sweeping his hair back from his face with one hand and catching sight of the chronometer on his wrist as he did so. It was later than he'd thought and that startled him. He really had lost time again. No wonder Shemyahza kept bringing him food and drink.

Though Shemyahza said it would be getting worse now that he'd been "triggered," so to speak, realistically Gabriel knew he had been losing time as a casualty to scholarly fixation for years now. This time it had been over an hour as opposed to the twenty minutes or so he'd thought had passed.

"So the grimoire was created by a demon, a Nephilim, who lived amongst a tribe of humans. This demon loved a human woman and sought a way to protect her and their children from other 'devils,' as he put it," Gabriel summarized, trying to synthesize all the parts into something greater that would lead to a key for the third sentence.

"Why didnít you translate that as demons?" Shemyahza wondered.

"Oh...it's the inflection of the word," Gabriel explained. "There is a specific order of words in the old demonic dialect to indicate the hierarchy of otherworldly creatures, from the lowest order of Rockbiter to the highest order of Nephilim. The word used in the text was one that indicated something higher than Nephilim, which has a more neutral connotation; this word implied something truly evil. Hence, devil."

Roy was absorbed in this, his thoughts off and running.

"That's another thing," Shemyahza mused. "If he made this copy of the Fifth for a human tribe, why re-create it in the old demon language?"

"That question is a bit easier to answer," Gabriel told him with a half-smile. "It could be a couple of things, or both, actually. The demon might not have been able to do a good translation despite knowing both languages. More like, though, that he didn't want the text to fall in the wrong hands and so he taught his wife and their sons the language, and perhaps one other trusted member of the tribe. That option makes a great deal of sense given how paranoid demons are."

"Yes, quite," Shemyahza murmured, sardonic amusement lighting his silver eyes.

"Something greater and more evil than the Nephilim, could that foreshadow the Rising?" Roy prompted, slapping a fist into his open palm.

"Reaching," Gabriel cautioned him. "That's a shaky hypothesis at best. We don't even know at this date what caused the Rising. Shemyahza?" He looked hopefully to his lover. Was there a chance that one of the highest order of demons, who had been present in the human world since before the Rising, might have clues as to its cause?

Shemyahza looked back and forth between them, his long handsome face solemn. "To conquer."

"That's it?" Roy protested, sounding disappointed. "That's the only reason? There was so much chaos and destruction! So many people, more than half the world's human population, was killed off in such a short time..."

"That was simply blundering," Shemyahza said curtly. "Many factions are at war as much with each other as they are invested in conquering the human world. Demons like Granac Bowen want to conquer and rule. Their methods clash with the truly mad and powerful, such as Lucien." The bounty hunter's nostrils flared.

No one needed to ask 'Lucien who.' Mad Lucien, demon overlord of the West Coast, was a plague unto himself. Anyone who followed the news knew of Mad Lucien, against whom the best the human resistance could do was fight a holding action

"It's the last sentence that worries me," Gabriel said, turning to frown down on it. Many of the key words had several different connotations in the original language, which was why he had several plas-film sheets of notes fanned out at the work station. Joining, conflagration, sacrifice, and willing. All of those had given him trouble and all of them had a crucial grounding in the right context. He leaned over the table and his eyes flicked between the last sentence and the top-most page of his notes. Joining... as Shemyahza had mentioned, given the place in the dedication it could reference the use of spell-work...

Hands gripped his shoulders tight and Gabriel blinked, shook his head, and re-oriented as he was turned from the work-station.

"Focus," Shemyahza told him, a smile accompanying the words, then a kiss was pressed to his lips. "Focus on the here and now, first."

"Un," Gabriel responded, gravitating into Shemyahza's touch as hands ran over his breastbone and stomach on down toward his hips. He opened his lips and the lower was captured neatly by Shemyahza, sucked into his possession and then outlined with an active tongue. He pushed at Shemyahza's ribs to gain space, but their mouths parted more leisurely. "Amazing how focus seems to involve kissing."

Shemyahza favored him with an unrepentant grin. "Hm, fancy that."

As they separated Gabriel turned his head to avoid Shemyahza's continued advances; at least, those of his lips, and was confronted with Roy's shocked gape.

The slack oval of his mouth was replaced with a knowing, somewhat bemused expression. "I thought so. And for all your professed reluctance, Gabriel, you certainly seem to have fallen in with it."

"Er...yes, well...we..." Gabriel wasn't quite turning red. He had been claimed, after all. It had been a few days since he'd protested so vehemently to his grad assistant and things had gone topsy-turvy since than and all told, it wasn't a bad thing. He had responded to Shemyahza as to no other before. "That's, well, none of your business, Roy."

"Cute," Roy told them. "You kind of make it your business when you start playing tonsil-hockey here in the lab right in front of me and Kieran, though."

"Umm..." Gabriel stalled out, unsure whether to apologize or forge onward as if nothing had happened.

Roy saved him the necessity of deciding. "Going back to something that was said earlier, Shemyahza, you mentioned that cross-breeding was encouraged? But how does that fall in with the Nephilim goal of destruction?" Roy asked him, taking a seat at the next workstation over.

"We can talk more on this later," Shemyahza told him. He placed a proprietary hand on Gabriel's arm and began steering him toward another area of the retro-fitted lab. "For now, Gabriel and I have some unfinished business to attend to."

Over at his work station Kieran winced. "I don't need to know that!"

Gabriel, fixated on the strong profile and the mouth that had been so-recently kissing him, could hardly blame Kieran for the protest. "Yes, really Shemyahza, it's not--"

"Not that," the Nephilim clarified, casting a bemused, good-natured eye on them. "Gabriel needs some lessons in concentration."

Thinking of the kiss and the way Shem had tuned him in to the here and now with that injunction, capturing his mouth, Gabriel's frown deepened. "Not...?"

"Filters," Shemyahza said. He exerted the slight pressure necessary to draw Gabriel along with him. "Only that. It's important, given the circumstances, that you stop losing time this way."

To that Gabriel could only respond with a nod. There was a quiet room in the corner of the lab, a place outfitted like a combination break/sick room with a table and chairs, a deep-seated single chair, and a long chaise lounge. This was the direction Shemyahza steered him with a purposeful hand.

"I'll hold you to that promise of later," Roy called, returning to his own work station and sharing a grin with Kieran.

As Shemyahza took him into the quiet room and shut the door, Gabriel couldnít help but spare a lingering thought for the most cryptic part of the translation. The joining, a conflagration, and the necessity for a willing sacrifice. He would have to devote everything he had to putting that into proper context before the grimoire was to be used again.



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