Qhuinn led the way through the tunnel that ran underground from the Brotherhood's mansion to the training center's office. Blay stayed behind him, and the only sound was their boots. The meal they'd shared had been the same, only silverware on silverware and an occasional, Could you please pass the salt?

Dinner's great conversational drought had been broken only by a rainstorm of some kind of drama upstairs. When they'd heard shouting, they'd both put their forks down and run into the foyer, but Rhage had looked over the balcony and shaken his head, telling them to stay out of it.

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Which was cool. The two of them had plenty of their own shit to deal with.

When they got to the door that led into the office closet, Qhuinn punched 1914 into the security pad so Blay could see the numbers.

"Year the house was built, evidently." As they stepped through the closet and came out next to the desk, he shook his head. "I always wondered how they got here."

Blay made a noise that could have been anything from "Me, too," to "Fuck you with a chain saw, you rat bastard."

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The route to the PT suite didn't require a leader, and once they got into the gym, it was hard not to count the yards Blay put between them as soon as he could.

"You can go now," Blay said as they came up to the door marked EQUIPMENT ROOM/PT. "I'll manage the cut on my back."

"It's between your shoulder blades."

Blay gripped the knob and went again with the noise in the back of his throat. And this time it was definitely not a me-too kind of thing.

"Be reasonable," Qhuinn said.

Blay's eyes stared straight ahead. After a moment, he opened the door. "Wash your hands first. Before you touch me, I want you to wash your hands."

As they went in, the guy made a beeline for the gurney that Qhuinn had been operated on the night before last.

"We should get a time-share on this bitch," Qhuinn said as he glanced around the tiled room with its stainless-steel cabinets and medical equipment.

Blay popped himself up on the table, shrugged out of his shirt, and winced as he looked down at the barely closed bleeders on his chest. "Shit."

Qhuinn let out all the breath in his lungs and just stared at his friend. The guy's head hung off his neck as he examined where he'd been cut, and he was beautiful like that, his shoulders wide, the pads of his pecs thick, his arms corded with muscle. What made him all the more appealing, though, was his self-contained reserve.

Hard not to wonder what was underneath all that modesty. Qhuinn got on with the nurse shit, grabbing some gauze, tape, and antiseptic wash from the cabinets, then putting it all on a push tray and scooting the lot over to the gurney.

With the supplies gathered, he went over to the stainless-steel sink and pressed the foot pedal to get the water running.

While he washed his hands, he said quietly, "If I could, I would."

"Excuse me?"

Qhuinn pumped some suds into his palms and scrubbed all the way up his forearms. Which was overkill, but if Blay wanted him superclean, then that was what he was going to be. "If I could love a guy like that, it would be you."

"Yeah, on second thought, I'll work on myself and to hell with my back¡ª"

"I'm serious." He released the pedal to stop the water running, and shook his hands over the sink. "You think I haven't thought about it? Being with you, that is. And not just for the sex shit."

"You have?" Blay whispered above the dripping.

Qhuinn dried his hands on a stack of blue surgical towels to the left and took one with him as he went over to Blay. "Yeah, I have. Hold this under the wounds, would you?"

Blay did as he was told, and Qhuinn squeezed some wash over the gash on the guy's sternum.

"I didn't know¡ª Motherfucker!"

"Stings, huh." Qhuinn went around the table, to his buddy 's back. "I'm going to do this one now, and I think you'd better brace yourself. It's even deeper."

Qhuinn put another towel under the wound and hit it with shit that smelled like Lysol. As Blay hissed, he winced. "It'll be over in a second."

"Bet you say that to all the¡ª" Blay stopped right there.

"Nah. I don't say that to anyone. They take me as I come. They can't handle it, it's their problem."

Picking up a sterile pack of gauze, Qhuinn tore the thing open and pressed the white weave against the wound between Blay's shoulder blades. "I've absolutely thought about us... but I see myself with a female long-term. I can't explain it. It's just the way it's going to be."

Blay's rib cage expanded and compressed. "Maybe because you don't want another defect?"

Qhuinn frowned. "No."

"You sure about that."

"Look, if I cared what people thought, do you think I'd do what I do already?" He went around and blotted the slice on Blay's chest, then tended to the wound on his shoulder. "Besides, my family's dead. Who've I got to impress anymore?"

"Why were you so cruel?" Blay asked in a dignified voice. "Back in the tunnel at my place."

Qhuinn picked up a tube of neomycin and went around to his buddy's back again. "I was pretty sure I wasn't coming back, and I didn't want you ruining your life over me. Figured it was better for you to hate me than miss me."

Blay laughed for real, and the sound was nice. "You are so arrogant."

"Duh. But it's true, isn't it." Qhuinn smoothed the milky ointment onto the break in Blay's skin. "You would have."

As he came back around in front, Blay lifted his head and his eyes. Their stares met, and Qhuinn reached out and put his palm on his friend's cheek.

Rubbing his thumb gently back and forth, he whispered, "I want you with someone who's going to be worthy of you.

Treat you right. Be only with you. I'm not that guy. Even if I settled with a female... shit, I tell myself I could be with just her, but in my heart of hearts, I don't really believe that."

The yearning in the blue eyes staring up at him broke his heart. It totally did. And he couldn't imagine what it was that Blay saw in him that made him so special.

"What is wrong with you," he whispered, "that you care so much about me?"

Blay's sad smile added about a million years to his age, lining his face with the kind of knowledge that came only after life kicked you in the nuts a number of times. "What is wrong with you that you can't see why I would?"

"We're going to have to agree to disagree on that."

"Promise me something?"

"Anything."

"Leave me if you want, but don't do it for my own good. I'm not a child, and I don't break easily, and what I feel is none of your goddamned business."

"I thought I was doing the right thing."

"You weren't. So promise me?"

Qhuinn exhaled hard. "Fine, I promise. As long as you swear you'll look for someone real, okay?"

"You're real to me."

"Swear to it. Or I'm going to do that I-am-an-island bit again. I want you open to meeting someone you can really have."

Blay's hand crept up Qhuinn's forearm and squeezed his wrist, the pact becoming solid on both sides. "Okay... all right. But it's going to be a guy. I've tried females, and it just doesn't feel right."

"As long as you're happy. Whatever makes you happy."

As the tension eased between them, Qhuinn wrapped his arms around his friend and held him close, trying to absorb the male's sadness, wishing there were another way for them.

"I suppose this is for the best," Blay said into his shoulder. "You can't cook."

"See? I'm so not Prince Charming."

Qhuinn could have sworn Blay whispered, "Yes, you are," but he wasn't sure.

They pulled apart, looked into each other's eyes... and something shifted. In the silence of the whole training center, in the vast privacy of the moment, something changed.

"Just once," Blay said softly. "Do it just once. So I'll know what it's like."

Qhuinn started to shake his head. "No... I don't think¡ª"

"Yes."

After a moment, Qhuinn slid both his hands up Blay's thick neck and captured the male's sturdy jaw in his palms. "You sure?"

When Blay nodded, Qhuinn tilted his friend's head back and to the side and held it in place as he slowly closed the distance. Just before their mouths touched, Blay's eyelashes fluttered down and he trembled and¡ª

Oh, it was sweet. Blay's lips were incredibly sweet and soft.

The tongue probably wasn't supposed to be part of it, but there was no helping that. Qhuinn licked inside and then sank deep as his arms slipped around Blay and held him hard. When he finally lifted his head, the look in Blay's eyes said he would let anything happen between them. Let it all happen.

They could take this spark between them all the way home until they were both naked and Qhuinn was doing what he did best to his buddy.

But things would never be the same after that, and that was what stopped him, in spite of the fact that he suddenly wanted exactly what Blay did. "You're too important to me," he said roughly. "You're too good for the kind of sex I have."

Blay's eyes lingered on Qhuinn's mouth. "At this moment, I would so disagree with that."

As Qhuinn let go of the guy and stepped back, he realized it was the first and only time he'd ever turned someone down. "No, I'm right. I'm so fucking right about this."

Blay took a deep breath, then braced his arms against the gurney and seemed to try to collect himself. He laughed a little. "I can't feel my feet or my hands."

"I'd offer to rub them, but..."

Blay's glance under his lashes was damned sexy. "You'd be tempted to rub something else of mine?"

Qhuinn grinned. "Fucker."

"Fine, fine. Be that way." Blay reached over for the antiseptic, put some on his chest, then covered the wound with gauze, which he taped in place. "Will you take care of covering up the one in back?"

"Yeah."

As he hit the raw patch with some gauze, Qhuinn imagined someone touching Blay's skin... running their hands over him, easing the kind of ache a male got between his thighs.

"One thing, though," Qhuinn murmured.

"What?"

The voice that came out of his throat was unlike anything he'd ever heard from himself before. "If any guy breaks your heart or treats you like shit, I will bust him apart with my bare hands and leave his broken, bloody body for the sun."

Blay's laughter rumbled around the tiled walls. "Of course you will¡ª"

"I'm dead fucking serious."

Blay's blue eyes shot over his shoulder.

"If there are any who dare to hurt you," Qhuinn growled in the Old Language, "I shall see them staked afore me and shall leave their bodies in ruin."

At his great camp in the Adirondacks, Rehvenge was desperately trying to get warm. Bundled in a thick terry cloth robe, with a mink blanket over his body, he was stretched out on a couch a mere five feet from the flames of a crackling fire.

The room was among his favorites in the huge, barny house, its grumpy Victorian d¨¦cor of garnet and gold and deep blue often suiting his mood. Funny, he'd always thought a dog would look good by the massive stone fireplace. A retriever of some sort. God, maybe he would get a dog. Bella had always liked dogs. Their mother hadn't, though, so there had never been one in the family house in Caldwell.

Rehv frowned and thought of his mother, who was staying at another of the family homes about a hundred and fifty miles away. She hadn't recovered yet from Bella's abduction. Probably never would. Even all these months later, she didn't want to leave the country, although given the state of Caldwell, that wasn't a bad thing.

She was going to die in the house she was in now, he thought. Likely within the next couple years. Old age was upon her, her biological clock starting to race to the finish line, her hair already having gone white.

"Got more wood," Trez said as he came in with an arm-load of logs. The Moor went over to the fireplace, moved the screen out of the way, and stoked the blaze until it roared even brighter.

Which was pretty whacked for August.

Ah, but this was August in the Adirondacks. Plus he was double-loaded on dopamine, so he had about the same sensory perception and core temperature as petrified wood.

Trez put the screen back in place and looked over his shoulder. "Your lips are blue. You want me to make you some coffee?"

"You're a bodyguard, not a butler."

"And we've got how many people standing around here with silver trays?"

"I can get it." Rehv went to sit up, and his stomach lurched. "Fuck."

"Lie back down before I knock you out."

As the guy left, Rehv resettled against the cushions, hating the aftermath of what he did to the Princess. Hating it. He just wanted to forget the whole thing, at least until next month. Unfortunately, the shit was on an endless play loop in his head. He saw what he'd done in that cabin tonight over and over again, saw himself jerk off to seduce the Princess and then fuck her at that windowsill.

Variations on that perversion had been his sex life for how long now? Shit...

He wondered briefly what it would be like to have someone he cared about but he shelved that fantasy pretty damn quick. The only way he could have sex was if he was off his meds¡ªso the only person he could be with was a symphath , and there was no way in hell he was going to warm up to one of those females. Sure, he and Xhex had tried it out, but that had been a disaster on a lot of levels.

A coffee mug was shoved under his nose. "Drink this."

Reaching for the thing, he said, "Thanks¡ª"

"Oh, shit, check you out."

Rehv quickly switched hands, tucking his bad forearm back under the blankets. "Like I said, thank you."

"So that's why Xhex made you go to the clinic, huh." Trez parked it in an oxblood club chair. "And, no, I won't be holding my breath for a confirm on that. I'll just take it as self-evident."

As Trez crossed his legs, he looked like a perfect gentleman, a real example of royalty: In spite of the fact that he was wearing black cargo pants, combat boots, and a muscle shirt¡ªand was fully capable of tearing a male's head off and using it as a soccer ball¡ªyou'd have sworn he was just one visit to the closet away from ermine robes and a crown.

Which, actually, just happened to be true.

"Good coffee," Rehv murmured.

"Just don't ask me to bake. How's the antivenom doing?"

"Jim-dandy."

"So your stomach's still off."

"You should be a symphath."

"I work with two of them. That's close enough, fuck you very much."

Rehv smiled and took another monster drag from the mug's lip. The lining of his mouth was probably getting burned given how much steam was rising from what was inside, but he didn't feel a thing.

On the other hand, he was all too conscious of Trez's unwavering black stare. Which meant the Moor was about to say something Rehv wasn't going to like. As opposed to most people, when the guy told you what you didn't want to hear, he looked right into you.

Rehv rolled his eyes. "Just get it over with, why don't you."

"You're worse each time you're with her."

True. Back when it started, he could be with the Princess and go back to work right away. After a couple years had passed, he'd needed a quick lie-down. Then a nap for a couple of hours. Now he was on his ass for a good twenty-four hours. Thing was, he was developing an allergic reaction to the venom. Sure, the antivenom serum Trez pumped into him afterward kept him from going into shock, but he wasn't recovering well anymore.

Maybe one day he wouldn't recover at all.

As he considered the number of medications he needed to have regularly, he thought, Shit, better living through chemistry. Kind of.

Trez was still looking at him, so he took another drink and said, "Quitting with her is not an option."

"You could blow out of Caldwell, though. Find another place to live. If she doesn't know how to find you, she can't turn you in."

"If I leave town, she'd just go after my mother. Who won't relocate because of Bella and the young."

"This is going to kill you."

"She's too addicted to risk that, though."

"Then you need to tell her to cut the shit with that scorpion rubdown she gives herself. I understand your wanting to look strong, but she's going to be fucking a cadaver if she doesn't give that up."

"Knowing her, necrophilia would be a turn-on."

Behind Trez, a lovely glow pierced the horizon.

"Oh, shit, is it that late," Rehv said, diving for the remote that closed the steel shutters on the house.

Except it wasn't the sun. At least, not the sun that pin-wheeled in the sky.

A figure of light was coming up the lawn toward the house, walking with a saunter.

There was only one thing that Rehv could think of that could get that effect.

"Fan-fucking-tastic," he muttered, sitting up. "Man, is this night over yet?"

Trez was already on his feet. "You want me to let him in?"

"Might as well. He'd just walk through the glass anyway. "

The Moor slid one of the doors back and stood to the side as Lassiter came into the den. The guy's gliding walk was the physical manifestation of a drawl, all smooth and slow and insolent.

"Long time, no see," the angel said.

"Not long enough."

"Always with the hospitality."

"Listen, GE," Rehv blinked hard. "Mind if you dim your disco ball?"

The brillant glow drifted away until Lassiter appeared normal. Well, normal for someone with a serious-ass piercing fetish and aspirations for being some country's gold currency standard.

Trez shut the door and stood behind it, a wall of youfuck -with-my-boy-and-angel-or-not-ima-show-your-ass-a-beatdown.

"What brings you onto my property?" Rehv said, cradling his mug with both hands and trying to absorb its warmth.

"Got a problem."

"I can't fix your personality, sorry."

Lassiter laughed, the sound ringing through the house like church bells. "No. I like myself just as I am, thank you."

"Can't help your delusional nature, either."

"I need to find an address."

"Do I look like the phone book?"

"You look like shit, as a matter of fact."

"And you with the compliments." Rehv finished his coffee. "What makes you think I'd help you?"

"Because."

"You want to toss in a couple of nouns and verbs there? I'm lost."

Lassiter grew serious, his ethereal beauty losing its SOP fuck-yourself smirk. "I'm here on official business."

Rehv frowned. "No offense, but I thought your boss pink-slipped your ass."

"I've got one last shot at being a good boy." The angel looked hard at the coffee mug between Rehv's hands. "If you help me, I can pay you back."

"Can you."

When Lassiter tried to take a step forward, Trez was on him like paint. "No, you don't."

"I'll heal him. If you let me touch him, I'll heal him."

Trez's brows came down, and he opened his mouth like he was about to tell the angel to heal himself right out of the goddamn house.

"Hold up," Rehv said.

Shit, he was so tired and achy and miserable, it was hard not to imagine himself feeling like this when night fell. A week from tomorrow.

"Just what kind of address is it."

"The Brotherhood's."

"Ha. Even if I knew it¡ªand I don't¡ªI couldn't tell you that."

"I have something they've lost."

Rehv was about to laugh again when his symphath side fired up. The angel was an asshole, but he was totally serious. And, shit... could it be true? Could he have found¡ª

"Yes, I have," Lassiter said. "Now, are you going to help me help them? And in return, 'cause I'm a stand-up guy, I'll take care of your little problem."

"And what problem would that be?"

"The MRSA infection in your forearm. And the fact that, at the moment, you're about two more exposures away from anaphylaxis with that scorpion venom." Lassiter shook his head. "I'm not going to ask any questions. On either account."

"You feeling okay? Usually you're nosier than that."

"Hey, if you want to share¡ª"

"Whatever. Rock out if you want." Rehv extended his gutted forearm. "I'll do what I can for you, but I can't make any promises."

Lassiter shot Trez a smile. "So, big guy, you going to take a breather and step aside? Because your boss has consented¡ª"

"He's not my boss."

"I'm not his boss."

Lassiter inclined his head. "Your colleague, then. Now, you mind getting out of my way?"

Trez bared his fangs and clapped his jaws together twice, the Shadow way of telling someone they were walking a thin trail on the edge of a very tall cliff. But he did step back.

Lassiter came forward, his glow resurfacing.

Rehv met the guy's sterling-silver, pupil-less eyes. "You fuck with me, and Trez will damage you till your packaging can't even be taped back together. You know what he is."

"I know, but he's wasting his hard-on. I can do no harm to the righteous, so you're safe."

Rehv barked a laugh. "He should still be worried, then."

When Lassiter reached out and made contact, current licked into Rehv's arm, making him gasp. As a wondrous healing started to pour into him, he shuddered and lay back in his nest of blankets. Oh, God... His exhaustion was lifting. Which meant the pain he didn't feel was backing off.

In that gorgeous voice of his, Lassiter murmured, "You've got nothing to worry about. The righteous do not always do right, but their souls remain pure. You are untainted at your core. Now close your eyes, numb nuts, I'm about to light up like a bonfire."

Rehv squinted and had to look away as a blast of pure energy slammed through his body. It was like an orgasm on steroids, a huge rush that carried him away, splintering him apart until he drifted down in a shower of stars.

When he came back into his body, he sighed long and hard.

Lassiter let go and rubbed his hand on the low-slung jeans he wore. "And now for what I need from you."

"It's not going to be easy to get to them."

"Tell me something I don't know."

"I'm going to have to verify what you have first."

"He's not in his happy place."

"Well, of course not, he's hanging with you. But I don't fly the flag until I see the sights."

There was a pause. And then Lassiter inclined his head. "Fine. I'll come back at nightfall and take you to him."

"Fair enough, angel, fair enough."

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