Lovers with Open Minds, Friends with Benefits

Posts tagged ‘Elric’

Chapter 299 – Selective Closets

It really was a stupid thing to get upset over. Derelict kept telling himself so. There were things Brandon needed to be cautious about. That was that. Too bad the scene insisted on playing over and over in his head.

 

Dinner out at a nice restaurant had been Bran’s idea, a little celebration just because. Dressed and pressed, they sat at the intimate little table at the window, chatting and laughing softly, until a couple approached.

 

“Grant! Hey, what’s up?” the man called out and reached for Brandon’s hand.

 

They both rose in deference to the cute little blonde with him.

 

“Oh, hey. Der this is Mike. Same profession, different ladder company, and his wife Lisa. Guys, this is my friend, Der.”

 

His friend.

 

It had felt like Brandon had kicked him in the stomach but he kept the smile frozen in place and kept up the charm long enough for them to go away and for dinner to be over. Once home, he shed the finery and locked himself in the bathroom, unable to lie to Brandon and unable to tell him what was bothering him. It was simply too ridiculous.

 

Brandon didn’t need Der to tell him something was wrong, nor did he need to guess what was wrong. He’d known the moment Der had shut down at the restaurant, and exactly why, although he didn’t know what to do about it now.

 

He sat on the sofa with Smoke on his lap and envied the contented way he purred as if all was fine with the universe. Occasionally he glanced at the closed bathroom door and wondered if he should knock. What was he going to say to Der though? ‘I’m sorry I’m too much of a coward to tell everyone about us’? That was the truth of it really, and it didn’t matter that he had good reason to be afraid.

 

It was more than just a fear of the harassment and hazing he might have to put up with if everyone knew. Being completely out in his line of work was more than just risking his job; it was risking his life. Every firefighter depended on his fellow firefighters. Every one of them would risk his life if another was in trouble. It was almost unimaginable that a firefighter might do less if, say, he did not approve of the other guy’s ‘lifestyle.’ Almost unimaginable, but Brandon could imagine it, and it was not entirely unfounded.

 

Still, he had never felt more ashamed than he did now. To deny what Der meant to him like that… Funny how one little thing could totally fuck up your happiness. He supposed it all came down to choices. He had choices, certainly.

 

Option one was to give up Der and any thought of ever having a relationship with anyone to protect his job. That was never going to happen. He’d rather shoot himself now and get it over with.

 

Option two was to ignore what happened, give Der a bunch of hollow reassurances, live with the guilt and the knowledge that he was a total coward, and of course that little fear in the back of his head that someday someone at work would find out.

 

Option three was to quit. Find a job where it didn’t matter if the world knew he loved another man. As painful as that option was, it was the cleanest. It was also completely unfair, but that was just life.

 

Der sat on the bathroom floor in his boxers, wiping away the occasional silent tear. Any minute now, he was going to get up, go to Brandon, and tell him he was sorry for being such a drama queen. He understood. Truly, he did.

 

It had nothing to do with the fact that everyone Der knew was made to understand that Bran was the love of his life, that even the boys down at the body shop knew, that even the greengrocer down the street knew.

 

No, he couldn’t think like that. Brandon was in a dangerous profession. He’d almost lost him once. If sharing such things would put him at risk, Der didn’t want him to. He could be Brandon’s dirty little secret. He could.

 

At the moment, though, he couldn’t get up off the bathroom floor.

 

A moment later, he heard a soft knock on the door.

 

“Der? Can I come in?” Brandon asked hesitantly.

 

“Yes…no!” Der snagged the towel off the rack to dry his face. “All right.”

 

Der might as well have not bothered. Brandon opened the door slowly, took one look at him and wished more than anything that he could turn back the clock a few hours. Just this once. His gaze dropped to the floor, unable even to look at Der. He felt like the biggest jerk on the planet. “Der, I’m sorry,” he said in an anguished whisper.

 

“No, no, love!” Still on his knees, Der flung himself at Brandon to wrap his arms around his waist. “No…you…you did what you had to. I’m an idiot for getting all worked up over something…like this.”

 

“No, you’re not an idiot. You have every right to be upset. It was a shitty thing to do,” Brandon said, putting his arms gently around Der. “It’s not right, Der. I love you more than anything. I’ve never been more ashamed of anything than what I did tonight. You deserve better.”

 

Der sniffed and buried his face against Brandon’s hard stomach. “I don’t want better. I want you.” Now that hadn’t come out right at all but he was so jumbled and flustered.

 

A short bark of laughter tinged with bitterness around the edges escaped Brandon. “I didn’t mean it like that love. I meant you deserve to be treated better, by me. You’re not getting rid of me that easy.”

He sighed, and since Der didn’t seem to want to get up he lowered himself to his knees and wrapped his arms around Der. “I can’t do this, Der. I don’t ever want to do that to you again. I don’t want to hide who I am, and I certainly don’t want to hide you.” He took an unsteady breath. “I don’t care what the consequences are. I won’t ever do that again. I want everyone to know I love you.”
“You’re just determined to make me cry tonight, aren’t you?” Der got out in a choked whisper. He wrapped his long arms tight around Brandon and tried to get his stupid tears under control. “Gods. I love you so.”

 

He let Brandon soothe him, rocking and shushing him. It felt so good.

 

Finally, he could raise his head to look at Bran again. “Maybe…it’s not as scary as you think. I mean, Chris knows. And he doesn’t think any differently of you.”

 

Bran gave Der a little smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Chris is a good guy. He’s also got a brother that’s gay. He’s more open minded than some, a lot more than others. Der…” He shook his head and sighed again. “Yeah, you’re right. Maybe it won’t be so bad.” He didn’t believe that, but he wanted to. He really wanted to, for Der’s sake as much as his own. He knew some of the guys he worked with would be OK with it if they knew, and he knew which one’s were going to be trouble, maybe in a big way. But, he said it, he’d made his decision, he wasn’t going to go back on it now.

 

“Hon, it’s not like you need to stand atop the ladder truck and shout it to the world.” Der ran his claws through Brandon’s hair. It made him uneasy, that he had driven Brandon to this. “Not like you have to wear a sign or anything.”
A grin that was a little more genuine curled the corner of Brandon’s lips. “What? You mean I don’t have to plaster the back of the truck with rainbow stickers? I don’t have to get ‘Homo’ tattooed on my forehead?” He stopped because he could see his joking was not putting Der at ease.

 

Bran slid his hand to the back of Der’s neck and leaned in until their foreheads touched. “Let’s say a week or two from now we’re out someplace and we run into someone else and I introduce you as my partner. That guy goes to the bar with some buddies and says ‘Guess what? Grant’s a fag’. Those guys go to work and tell their buddies. Then for the next few months, I got to put up with the looks and the whispers and those brave enough, or worried enough, to ask if it’s true. Believe me, middle school girls got nothing on the gossip mill a fire station can generate.”

 

“I don’t want it to be like that. I’d rather just put it all out on the table and that way there’s no question.” He paused for a second and kissed Der. “You should know I don’t do things halfway, love.”

 

Der nodded, putting on a shy smile as he watched one claw trace a pattern in the bathroom rug. “So you are planning on standing atop the ladder truck and shouting?”

 

“Well, maybe something a little more subtle…that is, if…um…well, there’s this picnic coming up. Maybe that’s not a good idea though. I don’t want to put you through any crap if someone gets ugly.”

“Right. And kids. There would probably be kids. Moms get a little freaked out around me.”

 

Now Brandon was confused. He didn’t know how to do this. On the one hand, he wanted to protect Der, on the other he wanted to be sure Der knew he didn’t want to hide him. He sat back on his butt, knees bent and arms draped loosely over them. He tipped his head back until it hit the counter behind him and he sighed. “I don’t know what to do.”

 

Der’s sharp teeth flashed in a little grin. “Wanna throw a party?”

 

Bran thought about it for a moment, trying to picture what it would be like to have their friends mingling together… best not to think on that too much. He looked over at Der. “All right.”

 

“Good.” Der pulled him close again. “You invite the firehouse and I’ll invite a few of my less…extreme friends.” He kissed the side of Brandon’s throat. “And now I think you better take me to bed, hon. I’m exhausted.”

 

#

 

“And this should offend me, it seems?” Elric’s soft voice sounded amused. It was hard to tell.

 

“I just didn’t want you to hear it somewhere else, my Prince, and wonder if I no longer loved you,” Der said into the phone with a soft smile.

 

Ach, no, mein schatz. No need to frighten the nice firemen,” came the dry answer. “Truly. I do understend. This shall be difficult enough for Brandon as it is.”

 

The calls to non-invited guests had been difficult but everyone was in a cooperative mood, more or less. Syren seemed a bit hurt, though she said not, and Chrys explained in a later, whispered phone call that she had a thing for firefighters. Imagine that. And Anthony had sulked but someone had come to distract him during the call, presumably Jerrett since there had been some mention of him needing to use his mouth for other things right then.

 

The night of the party, Der braided his hair back, kept his jewelry small and understated, and dressed in a pair of black slacks and a wine red button-down shirt. Not really his style but for Brandon he was willing to make sartorial sacrifices.

 

Ethan and Quinn arrived first, and Chris and his wife Angie were next. They sat and talked and kept Brandon occupied while they waited. Cody and Victor arrived at the same time as Dave and Xavier. Brandon glanced around the room and had to wonder if this was really such a good idea. The urge to tell everyone to forget it and just go home was eating at him. Not because he was ashamed of Der or them, not because he was worried about what anyone would think, but because he was worried for them.

What if one of the guys from the station started making stupid comments? What would he do? He could not shake the feeling that he had set all his friends up for an ambush, only he wasn’t sure which side was doing the ambushing.

Then it was too late, as some of the guys from the station started arriving, some of them with their girlfriends or wives. Brandon played host, made introductions, and felt like he was a million miles away from reality. He had no idea what he was doing or saying anymore.
Jonathan arrived alone, fashionably late, with apologies. Vincent had managed to pick up some sort of food poisoning from the take-out salad Drew had brought him for lunch. Naturally, Drew felt it was entirely his fault for not protecting Vince from invisible microbes, so he had stayed home as well to play nursemaid.

 

This was perhaps a mixed blessing. After the fire at the condo, Jonathan had sent flowers to the station as a thank you, then went one better and handed out cards to each of the fire fighters so they could send a bouquet of their choice to wives or girlfriends. Most of the people Brandon had invited knew Jonathan and of course, it was no secret that he was gay. That was no problem when he was simply a victim of a nasty arson or the friendly, grateful florist.

 

That he was here though, on a personal level, created a bit of confusion. His professional charm firmly in place, Jonathan had no problem mingling, mostly with those same wives and girlfriends who had been the recipients of his floral creations, and he had them talking and laughing within moments. The atmosphere began to feel more like a party and less like a formal gathering, but a hard to define undercurrent of tension crackled in the air.

 

Brandon stood talking with Chris but he kept an eye and an ear on the rest of the room. He could almost watch it happen, as if Jonathan’s arrival made things click for the straight people. If he were a little more removed from the situation, it would have been funny. Barring Jonathan, most of the gay guys in the room could ‘pass’. Vic worked construction, Ethan was a vet, neither one of them threw off any serious gay vibes. The first thing people noticed about Quinn, other than he was remarkably handsome, was that he was blind, and then they focused on the dog. Der was big and had a lot of other distractions going on. Dave looked like the boy next door. Cody might have raised a flag or two but he was playing it very low key. Xavier was the only one who had ruffled a few feathers, but he seemed to be an equal opportunity flirter and so walked that line of ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he’?

 

Jonathan might as well have walked in and pressed a buzzer that sent the guys racing for their gear and sliding down a pole. Only this pole was more likely to be found at the club Xav worked at than the one these guys were used to. Oh god, he was going to start laughing, he couldn’t help it. Gene, the guy who had been talking to Xavier suddenly got a look on his face like someone had mooned him. Jim was looking around with his brows together like he was working on a particularly difficult puzzle. Al was slowly turning his head, scanning the room, and all he was missing was a cartoon balloon over his head saying “Leaping lizards, Batman! Everyone here is g-a-y!”

 

Brandon started to snort, and coughed to keep the hysterical giggles in check.

 

Chris elbowed him. “Keep it together, Grant.”

 

That did it, sent him right over the edge. With his hand over his mouth, he nearly ran into the kitchen busting up laughing. Just when he got the laughter back under control, Der came in and his arched brow and puzzled look sent Brandon off into another hysterical gale of giggles.

 

Der put his arms around him, grinning. “I’m that funny? I haven’t even told a joke yet.”

 

Brandon wiped his eyes, holding his sides and pressing his cheek to Der’s chest. “Sorry…sorry. It was just so damn funny, watching them figure it out.”

 

“Figure what…?” Der chuckled when he understood. “I see. So apparently, you have to have defective gay-dar to qualify as a firefighter. Interesting. Learn something new every day.”

 

Xavier was simmering slowly but so far he’d managed to be a good boy. Gene, the guy who had been talking to him, needed to shut up. He was acting like Xavier had just sprouted a second head or something.

 

“Hey, are you a fag or what? Cause I’m not into that, so just…” He made a little gesture meant to ward Xav off.

 

Xavier rolled his eyes. As if. “Don’t worry sweetheart, big and stupid isn’t my type.”

 

The comment either went over his head or he chose to ignore it. “Yeah, well, whatever, just stay away from me.”

 

Xavier smiled, he heard Cody draw a sharp little breath and call his name in a soft warning, but he ignored it. He’d had just about all he was gonna take from this asshole. “I wouldn’t fuck you with someone else’s dick,” he said, sugary sweet.

 

Gene curled his lip in disgust. “Ugh! Shut the fuck up, you little faggot pervert!”

 

That might have been the end of it since Xav had pushed the buttons he wanted to and got a spectacular reaction out of it. Unfortunately, Dave stood within earshot. He whirled and stalked over to Gene, aggression oozing from him.

 

“What. Did. You. Call. Him?” He spat out each word as if it were poison but he wasn’t waiting for an answer. Index finger stabbing at Gene with each syllable, he stood nose to nose with the fireman. “You apologize to him or I feed you your own fucking testicles.”

 

Gene backed up a step, but only so he could get a better shot. Brandon, who was coming out of the kitchen at just that moment, caught his arm before he ever got a chance to swing.

Xav had come up behind Dave. He didn’t grab his arm, he knew better than that, but he put his hand on his back lightly. “Let it go, hon. Not worth your time,” he said softly.

 

The growl he got in response told him Dave’s hackles were up way too far for soothing words. His eyes remained locked with Gene’s. “You got a problem, man? You some kinda queer basher? Maybe get your kicks rolling people half your size?”

 

“Fuck you!” Gene spit back. “I don’t give a shit what you diseased homos do, just keep the little fucking fairy away from me! Don’t breathe in my air space unless you want a problem!”

 

If Gene had been looking for the worst possible thing to say at that moment, he managed to do a damn good job. With a fierce cry, Dave launched, swinging with little regard to who might be in the way.

 

“Dave! Oh, for fuck’s sake…” Xavier grabbed him, only because Brandon still had hold of Gene. The shove Dave gave him sent him flying backward until he came up hard against the wall. “Vic!” Xavier shouted. He was probably the only one who could stop Dave at this point.

Now Brandon had a dilemma. He’d grabbed Gene to keep him from swinging, but he wasn’t going to hold him back so Dave could beat the shit out of him, even if he did deserve it. Instead of letting go, he turned, putting himself between Dave’s charge and Gene.

 

Half the room had lunged towards the combatants while the other half scrambled away. Consequently, Victor’s interception of Dave was delayed for a crucial half-second, and Der, closer and terrified Brandon would be injured, hurled himself in harm’s way.

 

In the flurry of fists and flailing limbs, pain became inevitable. Dave got in one good shot at Gene’s jaw before other bodies got in the way. Whose fist slammed into Der’s eye was more difficult to puzzle out. Victor reached them and seized Dave in a hard bear hug from behind, trapping his arms to his body and dragging him backwards, kicking and bellowing.

 

When the proverbial smoke cleared, Victor had Dave sequestered in the bedroom, Brandon and Gene stood glaring daggers at each other, and all six and a half feet of Der lay unconscious on the floor.

 

“Get out!” Brandon snarled at Gene. “Just get the fuck out!”

“Hey, that dude got in my face first!” Gene shot back.

“Oh yeah? And why is that? Because you’re a bigoted asshole? Because Xavier was fine to talk to until you realized he was gay?”

“Bi, actually,” Xavier said with a little cough. “I like girls, too.”

Neither man said anything to that.

“Whatever, Grant. You can hang out with your little queer friends, don’t expect me to be around ’em,” Gene said as he headed toward the door.

“Hey, Gene…” Brandon called after his retreating back. “You better get used to it, cause I’m one of those ‘queers’, too.”

Gene stopped at the door and looked back at him with a glare of shock and disgust, but he said nothing and slammed out.

The room was particularly quiet. Brandon looked down at Der, wanting nothing more than to gather him up in his arms, but Ethan had him already and Brandon had a room brimming with people staring at him. He rubbed the back of his neck with an agitated hand and blew out a breath. “So, uh… that’s my little announcement of the night folks. Anyone else doesn’t like it, well, there’s the door,” he said with a tired sigh.
“Oh, my God!” Jonathan called out from across the room in his best TV drama queen voice, his hands on either side of his face. “Brandon’s gay?”

 

When all eyes turned to him, as he knew they would, he strolled to the center of the room, his most charming smile in place. “Seriously, ladies, who here’s really surprised by that? Show of hands…”

 

One older woman put up a hesitant hand and put it back down with a sheepish look.

 

“Right.” Jonathan held up a finger and prompted. “And that’s because…?”

 

“The nicest, hottest guys always are,” Angie supplied with a shaky grin.

 

“Why, thank you,” Jonathan beamed, hand fluttering over his heart. All the women in the room giggled; they couldn’t help themselves. He knew the sitcom version of gay had its uses, especially with a straight audience.

 

“So, that means Der’s, like, Brandon’s boyfriend and stuff?” One of the blonder girlfriends said with evident disappointment. “Aw, man….”

 

That got a bigger laugh and Jonathan decided the bad moment was over. “All right, let’s get cleaned up here. Everything’s all right, folks.” Go about your business, nothing to see here… He almost had a hysterical fit of giggles himself at the thought of a social traffic cop. “Ethan, maybe Der might like to rest a bit in quiet?” He turned toward the wall. “Xav, you OK?” He got a nod and continued directing as Ethan gathered Derelict‘s long frame up in his arms. “Get some ice, hon, bring it along.”

 

Xavier retrieved the ice cube tray from the freezer and a dish towel and followed Ethan into the bedroom which was where he wanted to be anyway. Brandon came too and as soon as they were through the door Xavier handed him the ice and went to go check on Dave, who seemed to have settled down, though Vic still had a hold of him.

 

“You OK?” he asked.

 

Dave gave a tight-jawed nod, eyes squeezed shut. Settled, yes, but with the fight taken from him, he still had to fight the battle inside. “I’m sorry, sweets…” he got out between clenched teeth. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“He’s just realized what he promised Katya about these sorts of occurrences,” Vic said in a dry tone.

 

“What he promised…?” Xavier’s puzzled expression suddenly cleared. “Oh…oh, that…um, that guy really had it coming though, you know? I mean, we don’t have to tell Kat, do we?” Xav asked, looking hopefully between Vic and Dave.

“Yes. You. Do,” Vic answered sternly. “For David’s peace of mind if nothing else. He could have just had words with the cretin. He didn’t have to go after him. Not as if you were in any physical danger.”

 

Except from Dave himself. Xavier crumpled a bit, but he stopped and tried to blank his expression, caught between wanting to be mad and not wanting to hurt Dave.

 

Despite being in the teeth of adrenaline shakes, Dave didn’t miss it. He pulled loose from Vic and fell to his knees at Xavier’s feet. “Love…I’m sorry…that creep…I couldn’t stand him talking to you like that. Xav…do you wanna slug me?”

 

Xavier put his arms around Dave, leaning into him and holding him. “No. Although, I reserve the right to change my mind after Kat’s done.” He sighed and kissed the top of Dave’s head. “I love you, babe. You didn’t need to go after him like that. It was just words. I’ve been called worse.”

 

“But you shouldn’t have to put up with it…” Dave sighed and nuzzled at his stomach. “I love you, too, sweets. And I’ll give you a free shot when Ms. Kat’s done.”

 

A soft moan came from the bed followed by a muttered phrase that sounded suspiciously like, “Death before dishonor but neither before breakfast.”

 

“I think he’s alright.” Ethan said dryly.

Brandon leaned down from where he sat on the edge of the bed and kissed Der lightly. “How do you feel, sweetheart?”

“Dizzy.” Der reached up to cup Brandon’s face, the eye not covered in ice full of concern. “Are you all right? Did they hurt you?”

 

Brandon smiled. “No, not at all.”

 

“There, see what I told you? This wasn’t so bad.”

 

Brandon gave a small, incredulous laugh. “Oh no, not at all. Just a heap of sneering contempt and an all-out brawl. No problem.” He looked over at Dave and Xavier. “I’m sorry to have put you guys in that situation. I knew Gene has…issues, but I really didn’t think he’d say anything nasty, not out loud, not here in front of everyone. I’m sorry.”

Xavier gave a little shrug. “It’s OK, Brandon. Don’t worry about it. If you go around apologizing for every asshole and his big mouth, you won’t be doing anything else but saying you’re sorry. It’s not your fault.”

“Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” Der raised a finger towards the ceiling. “And it was just one idiot, after all. He’s probably a closet queen anyway.”

 

Not too much longer after that they all rejoined everyone else in the living room. Brandon was somewhat surprised, pleasantly, that no one else had left, and everyone seemed to be getting along just fine. A couple of the guy’s he’d invited looked a little uncomfortable at certain points in the evening, but there were no further hostilities.

 

Edie, the Lt’s wife, a mature woman with grown children of her own, fussed over Der and made certain Dave had ice on his hand as well. “I’m just glad you finally found someone, Brandon,” she said at one point. “And someone so sweet, too. Trying to protect you like that. I was starting to worry that you’d always be alone.”

 

“Well, um, thanks…” Brandon said, blushing just a little bit. He looked over at Der and smiled. “You don’t know how glad I am I found Der.” He said in a soft voice meant for her ears alone. “He is the most incredible person I’ve ever met.”

Der sat on the sofa with his feet up on the coffee table and Electra in his lap, talking to Jim, who was on his fourth beer.

“So, um, can I ask a personal question?” Jim picked at the label on his bottle.

“No, I will not give you the name of my manicurist,” Der said with a mock-offended sniff. He relented with a grin. “Of course. Ask away.”

“Who…I mean which one of you…” Jim rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “God. Which one of you is the guy?”

Der blinked his one visible eye slowly, his expression completely serious as he answered, “We take turns. Brandon has us on a strict schedule. Whoever has on the lace panties that day is the girl.”

“No shit?” Jim breathed out, doing his best impression of a carp.

“Yes, complete bullshit. I was kidding.” Der chuckled. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist. We’re both guys. Not like we can be anything else. I think you mean who takes top.”

His face fire-engine red, Jim ducked his head and nodded.

“Do you always do the same thing in bed with your girlfriend?” Der prompted gently.

“Well, no, but…”

“So it’s not that different. It’s not as if we have to do things one way or another. You just do what strikes your fancy at the time, right? Well, so do we.”

“It’s just kinda, you know…weird. Trying to picture Brandon kissing another dude,” Jim said quietly.

 

Brandon dropped onto the couch beside Der, kissed the corner of his mouth gently, and handed him the drink he brought over for him before turning his attention to Jim. “One man’s weird is another man’s hot,” Bran said. “If you don’t like it you don’t have to picture it.”

 

“Don’t get defensive Brandon, I’m not judging,” Jim said quickly.

 

Brandon wasn’t so sure, but he relented and tried for a reassuring smile. “Nothing’s changed, Jim. I’m still the same person. I don’t ogle the guys in the shower any more than you do. I’m not going to start hitting on everyone over pizza and beer when we go out. What I do in my personal life didn’t make a difference in how I do my job, and it won’t change how I do my job now that you know.”

 

Jim’s smile was a bit rueful. “I know that, Brandon, and I’m sure the LT knows that. Not everyone is going to feel the same, though.”

 

“You think I don’t know that?” Brandon asked. “I think we had proof enough tonight that it’s not just going to go smooth as pie.”

 

Jim looked at Brandon seriously. “I wish I could tell you that Gene’s the lone asshole at the station and that’ll be the end of it, but that wouldn’t be doing you any favors.”

 

“I know, Jim.”

 

“Then why did you say anything? I mean, you kept quiet about it before now. Why couldn’t you just keep it to yourself?”

 

Brandon started to bristle but he knew Jim wasn’t trying to be an asshole, he genuinely was concerned and thought Brandon might have been better off keeping his mouth shut. Brandon could hardly blame him when he’d had to think long and hard about it himself.

 

“Don’t ask, don’t tell? That about it?” Bran asked mildly. “What if I told you the same? What if someone made a rule that said you weren’t allowed to talk about your girlfriend or even acknowledge her existence in front of other people? Would that be okay with you? Could you pretend the person you loved didn’t exist?”

 

Jim went quiet, and so did several others who had been not-so-unobtrusively listening to their conversation. In fact, pretty much everyone in the room had gone silent and was now looking at Brandon thoughtfully.

 

Until Xavier slowly started clapping his hands. “Bravo, baby! You tell them, if they don’t like it, they can fuck right off!” He laughed, and suddenly the living room burst into applause.

 

Brandon looked pink around the ears but he lifted his beer and drank to that.

His eyes huge, Der couldn’t recall how to speak. This man had been afraid to introduce him in the restaurant as his lover mere days before. The thought came to him that he had better not ever ask Bran to do any home improvements. The whole building would end up in renovations. When his Bran made up his mind, he sure as hell didn’t do things by halves.

“Sweetheart,” he said in a small voice. “You can’t go around making speeches like that.”

Brandon looked at him in shock. “Why not?”

“Because it’s just about the hottest thing ever, and I don’t think you want me falling on my knees, begging and pleading, in front of company.”

Brandon leaned in and claimed Der’s lips for a longer kiss. “Who says I don’t?” he asked with a teasing smile. He stopped Der before he actually moved to do it, though. “When you’re feeling better, that is.”

 

Der grinned. “And here I thought my sweetheart was such a good boy, bashful and polite.” He rested his head on Bran’s shoulder with a gusty sigh. “What a relief. I don’t have to hide the whips and chains anymore.”

 

Ever the consummate flirt, Xavier leaned over the back of the couch to stage whisper in Der’s ear, “Shh…you’ll scare the straight people.”

 

Der clapped a hand to his cheek in mock horror. “There’s straight people here? Why didn’t somebody tell me?”

 

Jim, so uncomfortable a moment before, convulsed with laughter.

 

Brandon smiled as he looked around at his friends. Despite his uncertainty and hesitation about coming out, he was glad now that he had decided to do this. It was the sort of relief that only came after carrying a secret so long and finally unburdening yourself, the kind of happiness that came when you stopped living a lie and told your truth to the world. He felt wonderful. Whatever else might come, at that moment he didn’t care, he couldn’t be any happier with who he was and whom he loved.

Chapter 295 – Viking Burial

Chapter 293 – The Hazards of Playing Hero (1)

Chapter 291 – Requiems

** Author’s note: This is a longer one, dear readers, but we felt it important to keep the whole thing together. **

“Is it possible? To do vell?”

“Yes, sir, it’s not tough to do with the right equipment.” Cody tamped down on his curiosity. Elric had handed him this marvelous photo of himself as a younger man wrapped in the arms of two gorgeous people who obviously adored him. He asked for a reprint since it was torn but his tone implied he was in no mood for questions.

Cody closed the portfolio and placed it on the table. “Tomorrow afternoon. I’ll bring it by.” He dared to reach out to stroke the white hand lying on the back of the chair. “Are you OK, sir?”

“Soon, my dear,” the Prince answered softly. “Soon I think I shall be.”

Elric arrived home to the quiet of his house and the storm inside him. Something wild brewed in his heart which he didn’t understand and wasn’t entirely sure he trusted. Before he could banish the disorienting turmoil, though, Keit appeared to greet him.

He seized the boy by the upper arms and backed him up to the wall where he captured his lips in a frenzied, searing kiss.

Keit was so shocked he didn’t respond at first. He had no idea what had come over his usually steady, composed Dom. He did not waste much time wondering though, before he let himself melt into the tight hold Elric had on him, his eyes sliding closed and his lips and tongue caressing back against his heated assault. Whatever it was, Keit was putty in Elric’s hands, caught up and willing to flow with his passionate demands.

“Downstairs.” Elric broke off to growl in Keit’s ear. “Strip and present.” He eased his hold and kissed Keit’s forehead gently, the message clear: I need you.

Keit slipped from his embrace with half-closed, smoldering eyes. “Yes, sir,” he breathed out. He managed to keep to an even pace until he was out of sight, then took the stairs two at a time, pulling his clothes off as he went. By the time he stood naked and ready for Elric, he was already standing at attention in more ways than one.

A few slow breaths later, Elric followed. Girded in the armor of his icy calm again, he found the steady center necessary to proceed. To approach Keit with anything less was madness. Passion, yes, that could be shared but uncontrolled ferocity would bring disaster. The boy would push and plead and believe himself in heaven while he drove his Dom to acts of brutality.

He descended the steps and walked slowly around Keit, his fingertips trailing along his skin as he circled. “Mein herz, my beautiful boy,” he murmured. “I give you the choice, as ve used to, vhen you came for sessions.” He leaned in close to Keit’s ear. “Vertical or horizontal?”

Keit shivered as the tip of Elric’s finger traced slowly down his spine. Unfortunately his brain had a short circuit to his mouth at that moment. His breath caught in his throat as a fingertip touched the little dimple at the very top of his ass. Denial definitely was a potent aphrodisiac, he couldn’t even form coherent speech he was so keyed up. “I-I’ll stay standing, sir,” he finally got out in a hoarse whisper.

“I said nothing about stending.” Elric nipped at the top of Keit’s ear. “But vertical it shall be.”

He stripped off his shirt and hung it on one of the hooks, then strolled up and down his equipment wall with slow, deliberate steps. The ritual steadied him, pulled him into the rhythm of the session. He made his selections just as deliberately and placed them on the table while Keit fought his shivers of anticipation.

When he approached again, he held only two items, both intimately familiar. No need for commands. Keit held out his hands for him to buckle on the padded suspension cuffs and spread his feet farther to ease the fastening of the leather cock and ball harness.

Everything proceeded as it would have during one of their client sessions with a few notable exceptions. Elric did not pull on his gloves as he would have then, his bare fingers caressing and petting where he would have refrained before. His lips touched down here and there as well, teasing and leaving trails of heat and when Keit was in harness, he took him into a tender embrace.

Keit trembled with anticipation. He had held things together during Orion’s discovery of who he was and the subsequent traumas and anxieties they had all faced. Even such upsetting, potentially life altering events rarely ruffled him beyond immediate emergencies. He was steady, he was a rock, he didn’t let the stress show…until he was allowed to. The build up behind his emotional walls had been almost at critical mass, and even the simple act of preparation had him shaky with need and giddy with relief. He moaned softly as Elric brushed his lips with his own and his body swayed into his.

“Steady, herzchen,” the Prince murmured gently before he bent to slide an arm under Keit’s knees and sweep him up in his arms. With a soft smile, he repeated the words he had spoken so often, “You are safe vith me. I shall not let you fall.”

He carried Keit over to the suspension rig and held him tight with one arm while he pulled the chains into reach. When the chains had Keit’s weight, he finally let go. Most subs would have needed a warm-up, a slow build to the more serious implements. Keit needed more and his desperation signaled a need to dispense with the preliminaries. Elric reached first for the bamboo switch and laid the first stripe across Keit’s left hip.

Upstairs, Orion wandered in from his workshop. He had finished the second frame as the Prince had requested, this one more suited to something one would find in a child’s room with little horses, sheep and rabbits carved all around. The open basement door stopped him, though, and the sounds…

He thought maybe he should start dinner instead. The frame could wait. Not that he was a gifted, instinctive cook like Sasha or Keit but Sasha had said anyone with a little patience who was able to read could learn to cook. Patience, at least with everyone but himself, he had in abundance now, something he had never had in his previous life. The doctors said it was due to ‘changes in the brain’. They hesitated to say brain damage but he knew they meant it.

Elric switched to a heavy cat. The variety in the pain was almost as important to Keit as the pain itself.

Keit lost track of how many times the flogger fell across his skin. His shoulders were in agony, the skin across his back and buttocks licked in flames. He could have so easily slipped into the calming ecstatic trance that came with this level of pain. He fought it though. He wanted to stay right here, experience every swish and stroke of the cane and the whip.

For the most part he was quiet, only a soft moan occasionally parting his lips. When the flogger wrapped around his thigh from behind and the very tips of two of the braids landed neatly on his balls though he couldn’t help the quick indrawn yelp. His head lolled back and the movement sent ice and fire through his shoulders. He cried out when the flogger landed again and sent more shards though him. He was in such agony and his gently curved cock stood like a flagpole from his body.

He cried out again with the next stroke, like a dam that once broken could not be stopped.

The Prince switched again, to his whip, the final implement he would only use to top off the sensations. He let it flick and kiss across Keit’s skin, starbursts of sharp pain, but he would never truly lay into him with it.

He sensed when Keit had reached the limit of safety and sanity, even though the boy would have begged for more, and he lowered the chains until Keit’s feet touched the floor. The chains still kept him standing as he lowered them a bit more and nudged Keit’s feet more than shoulder-width apart with his boot.

Mein herz,” he whispered as he eased lubed fingers inside Keit’s back door. His harnessed cock twitched and the boy moaned “You vill beg me for release. Plead for it prettily enough and I may grant it.”

Although his feet now touched the floor Keit doubted his ability to stand if the chain had not held him up. His legs trembled and he let out a heated moan as Elric’s fingers breached him. He murmured sweet encouraging things, letting his Dom know how much he enjoyed every touch and stroke, but he did not beg. Not yet.

He waited until Elric was pressed up behind him, his fly opened, the smooth head of his cock pressing into him. He begged for more, and he got it. His lithe body was slicked in sweat, he regained the use of his legs enough to push back and roll his hips, little whimpers and cries of ecstasy wrung from his lips as he built higher and higher.

“Uhh…oh, please sir… please, I’m so close now…please let me come,” he finally panted out.

Elric reached around to unsnap the harness in three swift tugs. The desperate groan he received when the blood rushed back in fully sent shivers of delight through him. He drove in for a few more strokes, letting Keit’s soft pleas wash over him like a cleansing rain.

He wrapped his arms around Keit and rested his head on his shoulder, his own climax imminent. “Now, herzchen,” he whispered. “Now. Give me vhat is mine.”

Keit’s body arched and shuddered on the last word Elric spoke. Molten streaks seemed to flow in his veins he came so hard and the release was so intense black spots danced behind his eyes.

The hard clench and release of Keit’s orgasm hurled Elric over the edge as well. He fastened his teeth onto Keit’s shoulder and clung tight, his soft moans muffled by skin as he rode out the heavy pulses of ecstasy.

He waited until he could draw a full, steady breath again before he eased out, took Keit’s weight more firmly against him, and released the cuffs. Keit slumped, deadweight, and he wondered if the boy had fainted. Ah, well, not the first time.

With a tenderness most people were never allowed to see, he carried Keit to the bed in the little room off the main one and slid in beside him, curling his body around him protectively.

Keit’s breathing slowly returned to normal, yet he did not stir, blissfully content to remain in Elric’s arms. The ache of soreness was starting to set in. Not the same as the sharp bite of pain that stirred his lust, but he would savor it nonetheless for the memory it would bring of this session. He was so happy, feeling absolutely loved and protected.

Herzchen…” Elric paused and lifted his head to sniff. “Ah. Pork chops, I think. Somevone is making us dinner. Do you think you can sit at table, my love, or vould you like to take dinner in bed tonight?”

Keit smiled lazily but said, “If Orion’s gone to the trouble to make dinner for us the least I can do is sit at the table, sir.”

They relaxed a little while longer and then Keit rose to go take a quick shower and dress before heading to the kitchen to see if Orion needed any help with dinner preparations.

Orion’s answer was to take him into a gentle embrace and kiss the top of his head. “It’s almost ready, little one. Is he coming?”

Keit nodded against his chest.

“Was it wonderful?” Orion whispered.

Keit gave a weak little chuckle. “Oh yes, more than wonderful.” He sighed happily and snuggled into Orion’s arms.

Five minutes later, their Dom appeared, showered, perfectly coiffed and pressed, and completely composed, the storm quelled. He settled in one of the kitchen chairs and rested his chin in his hand, watching his boys plate dinner.

“This Saturday,” he said softly. “I need them all here.”

Keit helped Orion carry the plates over and sat gingerly. “All, sir?” he asked, guessing that Elric meant their friends and already mentally creating the guest list and preparations that needed to be completed for such a large gathering on short notice.

Ja, alle,” Elric confirmed. “I shall make the calls myself. I esk only that ve hef enough food and drink on hend. A semi-formal occasion, I think, for vhich I expect you to make yourselves presentable. I shall do the rest.” He glanced over at Orion. “It is ready for me, liebchen?”

“Yes, mein herr.” Orion pointed over to the shelf by the door. “I brought it in to show you.”

Elric rose slowly to examine the picture frame, his fingers running over the little carved animals. “It is lovely. Marvelous. You hef such talent…thenk you.”

Throughout the city and farther up the coast, schedules were shuffled and reshuffled to accommodate the Prince’s request. Some of the invitees owed him, debts that could never be repaid, but all of them felt some strong connection to him and could not resist the call out of love or curiosity.

Leather and lycra left at home, a small horde of well-dressed, beautiful people descended on the house, Vincent a vision in velvet and silk, his boys in their best suits, Katya in a lovely green dress, cut scandalously low in the back, Der in his antique dress uniform jacket and so on. Even Anthony had opted for a suit and tie, things he normally wrinkled his nose at.

They milled about, waiting and speculating, no one quite sure what the occasion meant. Der leaned against the wall outside the dining room, a hand on Brandon’s shoulder. Bran looked so delicious in his double-breasted suit. Too delicious for words. Der pulled him close for a deep, languid kiss, his cock stirring at the barely leashed heat between them, his hand stealing down to…

“There’s my sweet pea!” An all too familiar voice called out beside him. “You could have come to say hello. But I see you’re busy. I suppose this is Brandon.”

“Um… hi, Mom,” Der got out in a sheepish murmur.

Brandon smiled bemusedly at the lovely lady scolding Der. He felt a bit like scolding Der himself for not telling him that his mother might be there. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Schiller, and yes, I’m Brandon,” he introduced himself.

Elisabet shook his hand while she looked him up and down. “Very nice. Much more handsome than some of your choices and much more polite.”

Der hid his face in his hands with a groan and looked like he wanted to sink into the floor.

She stood nearly nose to nose with Brandon, taller than any other woman in the room. “And what are your intentions regarding my son, young man?”

Brandon’s lips twitched. He adored her already. “Is it too cliché to say that I intend to keep him so happy he won’t think about going to find someone else?”

“That…” She smiled at him, her gray eyes twinkling. “Is the wisest answer I have ever gotten to that question.” With a pat to Brandon’s chest, she turned back to Der. “You hang onto this one, sweet pea. Someone with sense.” Then she was off again to greet Vincent and fuss over Drew and Jonathan.

Der raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Someone shoot me now. I’m sorry, Bran. I’d no idea she’d be here, too.”

Brandon smiled, slipped his arms around his waist and tugged him closer. “It’s alright, I’ll let it slide this time…sweet pea.”

“Please don’t call me that,” Der said in a pained voice. “I really don’t want to start thinking of you as my mother.”

Brandon laughed. “No, we wouldn’t want that,” he agreed and kissed him.

Upstairs, Elric knotted his tie for the fourth time. Lillana sat in the chair by the window, patient, silent for the moment, waiting, it seemed to him.

“I don’t seem able to do this today,” he said to her reflection as he undid the knot yet again. “My hends…wie sagt mann? I am entirely thumbs.”

Lilly stood and moved to his side, moving his hands gently out of the way when he turned to her. She deftly tied a crisp Half Windsor knot and smoothed the collar of his shirt. “You tied it perfectly the first time,” she said in her softly musical voice.

He let out a slow breath. “I go to strip the veil from things long hidden. To rip down the shutters and let the light in.” He caught her hand and pressed it to his heart. “And I delay…and think of changing my mind.”

She lifted her eyes to his and held them for a moment, then leaned up on tiptoe and kissed the tip of his nose. “I know, my dear Prince. I know. You shall be ready, when you are ready.”

He chuckled softly at her indulgence and the corner of her lips lifted in a little smile. “Now… should I go announce that you’re very sorry and have changed your mind?”

His forehead wrinkled and it was her turn to chuckle softly. “No? Then, perhaps you should make an appearance?”

“So. Yes.” He settled his jacket, smoothed back an imaginary stray hair, and tucked her dainty hand into the crook of his elbow. “If you valk on my arm, beautiful fairy princess. To give me courage.”

“I would be delighted, sir,” she said, and let him lead her out and down the stairs into the hall below.

Lilly had known, by the low murmur of voices, that there must be many people gathered, but she wasn’t quite prepared for the actual number that greeted them. The Prince’s ‘small gathering’ was a rather large crowd and she was actually glad for the firm arm she held onto now.

They did make quite a stunning entrance, even for such a sober affair. Him with his snow white locks pulled back into a neat single plait and her raven dark tresses floating about her like an inky curtain. Her habit of keeping her eyes lowered when first entering a room made the attention of their arrival fall upon Elric, until she looked up at him as well.

“Oh, dear gods,” Der whispered as he rose from his chair. “He’s reached up and plucked a star from the heavens.”

Several of the young men had followed suit out of instinctive respect for this vision.

“My dear friends,” Elric began in a voice pitched perfectly for the gathering. “This is Lillanna Willows, our counselor and friend who has been assisting in the household’s… recovery.”

Lilly hadn’t expected him to do that either, but she supposed she should have. She only knew Keit and Orion here; it would be easier to introduce her to everyone this way. Elric would have no way of knowing she was painfully shy in crowds and even more so with public speaking. Of course, the fact that her peaches and cream skin suddenly bloomed with pink roses and a whispered “Hello” barely made it past her parted lips only made her more endearing to many in the room at that moment.

Brandon poked Der gently in the ribs. “Wipe the drool off your chin, hon,” he whispered.

In an automatic gesture, Der lifted his hand to do just that and then shot Brandon an amused look. “Sorry.”

Richard leaned close to Katya’s ear. “Where, oh where, do you suppose he found that little gem?”

Kat smiled and patted his cheek. Where, indeed? She was certain the beauty on Elric’s arm had the attention of even the most determinedly ‘male only’ worshipers in the room. She glanced over at Jonathan and hid a small smile. Yes, that expression was just a shade too deliberately cool, even with his eyes transfixed. Not that he was likely to be interested, but certainly he could appreciate the aesthetic beauty. She chuckled as Vincent reached over without looking and closed Drew’s mouth.

Elric leaned in to whisper in Lilly’s ear, “I shall make proper introductions later, vhen all eyes are not cemented to you.” In a gallant gesture, he handed her into the empty chair next to Keit before he strode to the front of the room.

Once there, he swept the cloth off the little table to reveal the picture frames Orion had made. The ornate, inlaid one held the repaired photo of Elric with his Kurt and Annalise. The photo with the children occupied the newer frame with the little animal carvings. Between them sat a bowl full of rose petals and a black pillar candle, which Elric now lit.

Es war einmal ein mann,” he began, his voice steady and calm. “This is how all German fairytales begin. ‘There once was a man.’ But the stories from the Bleck Forest are often gruesome and the endings are not alvays heppy.”

He straightened and stood with one hand resting on the table as if he needed the contact. “In my previous life, I vas Joachim Wilhelm Sebastian Hohenzollern, the last Baron of Edelwald. The last because there are no more kings in Bavaria to name a successor and vhen I left, there vas no male relative remaining to take the title.”

He went on to describe his privileged childhood on the rambling estate, a strictly scheduled childhood filled with tutors and lessons, one which would have been unbearably lonely had it not been for Kurt. It was Kurt who comforted him when his father had been cruel and Kurt who had been there when his parents died, his lifelong friend whose love had blossomed into something more in their teenage years. He described their search for a Baroness, their first enchanted meeting with Annalise, the beautiful bride she had made, how happy the three of them had been.

He told them of his joy at the birth of his son, Johannes, and then the doubling of that joy when his daughter, Kara had been born. He had been a nervous father, afraid he would make mistakes, but his spouses were there to reassure him and calm him, both of them loving, instinctive parents.

“And then the day came vhen it all vas ripped avay,” he said softly, one finger running over the children’s picture frame. His words faltered and slipped now as he came to the day when he had lost them all, the fear, the horror, the numbing grief all crashing back in on him again. When he had finished, he leaned on the table with both hands, eyes shut tight, as if any movement might cause him to shatter.

Lilly noticed that all the people gathered held expressions of sympathy, some looking as if they wanted to go and comfort Elric, especially Keit and Orion, but none moved to do so. Perhaps they simply did not want to intrude on the careful walls he put around himself, or perhaps they were cautious since he was more than likely to lash out rather than accept any ‘coddling’. Well, emotional walls had never been a barrier to her, and she was not afraid of backlash if it helped him. She moved to his side and placed a delicate hand over his.

The curled lip, the beginnings of a snarl, came automatically, but someone began to sob softly. Elric heaved a ragged breath. He turned his hand to take Lilly’s fingers in a gentle grip as he faced his audience again.

“I hef kept them hidden all this time. Denied who they vere and all they meant to me. This vas not right.” He waved his free hand at the pictures, his voice cracking as he went on, “I give them beck. To the vorld, to the light. For all to see, for all to share in the joy there vas. For my new family, the vones who took a foreign stranger to their hearts, I share this, so you vill know. So you might help me remember.”

Keit finally broke, and moved forward. He wrapped his arms around Elric in a fierce hug that let him know he was not only moved by what he said and proud of him for it, but that he was there for him as well. A moment later Orion’s large arms enfolded them both.

It was a near thing. The Prince nearly wept in front of all those gathered. He wrapped an arm around Keit, leaned back against Orion and battled his errant emotions long enough to say, “Please, stay, everyone. Enjoy the night. Enjoy each other. I shall rejoin you soon.”

When he moved to leave the room, head held high, the three people who had dared to touch him went, too, Lilly’s hand tucked back in the crook of his arm, Keit’s hand gripped firmly in his, Orion’s on his shoulder. In the den at the back of the house, he broke and cried in their arms but no one else was there to see.

Drew sank down into Vince’s lap. He needed a bit of holding after that. He felt so bad for Elric; even if it was so long ago, the pain was obviously still raw.

For a moment, Vincent had his hands full. Drew rarely cried in public but he trembled against Vincent’s chest and Jonathan sobbed beside him. He wasn’t the only one, of course. Sasha had climbed into Jerrett’s lap, face hidden against his neck while Anthony knelt at their feet with his head on Jerrett’s thigh. Brandon did his best to comfort Der, though the tears crept down his own cheeks, and Victor rocked Cody in his arms.

“Here now, poor boy.” Elisabet moved her chair beside Jonathan to take him in her arms. Poor motherless boys. She half expected to be pushed away but Jonathan collapsed against her, heaving with wrenching sobs. “Sh, sh…such pretty eyes shouldn’t shed so many tears. Hush, dear.”

Amazingly, Jonathan quieted for her and let her dry his tears.

“Now,” she said more crisply. “Der Prinz has put this evening together for his friends to celebrate the ones he loved, not to have them flood his house and ruin his carpets. Come help me, dear. People need drinks, they need to get up, to talk to each other.”

There was perhaps no better way to pull Jonathan out of hysteria. He got up, kissed Vincent and Drew and followed Elisabet around the room playing host.

Drew pulled in a deep breath to steady himself. “I like Der’s mom,” he said softly in Vince’s ear.

Nearby, Brandon silently concurred although he hadn’t heard Drew’s whispered sentiment. He got Der to dry his eyes and he stood sniffling with Bran’s arm around him.

Katya and Richard joined Elisabet and Jonathan to help get everyone settled.

In the den things were settling as well. Lilly soothed and comforted all three of the men gathered. She stood next to where Elric sat and kissed the top of his head, smoothing her hand over the white silk of his hair. “You did very well, my Prince.”

There was no sarcasm, no irony in his voice when he answered softly, “So, ja, I am glad you approve.” He leaned his head against the back of the sofa. “I feel so…drained. But so light. As if I am not connected properly. Perheps I am coming down vith something…”

Lilly sat down next to him, a smile lighting her face. “That would be what it feels like when you are healing, sir.”

“Is it?” The corner of his mouth twitched as he took her hand. “It feels rather more like being turned inside out.” With his free hand, he reached down to where Orion knelt at his feet to stroke through his hair. “Are you all right, liebchen? Perheps I should hef prepared you better.”

“I’m all right.” The big man nuzzled Elric’s Armani-clad thigh. “I was worried for you, my Prince. It…it’s hard to see you hurt.” They sat in silence for a few moments and then Orion lifted his head to look up at Lilly. “I think I know what I need to do now, though.”

“I thought you might,” she said, leaving it up to him whether he wanted to share what he wanted to do or not.

Mein herr, I’d like to…think things through first.” Orion came up on his knees to kiss his Dom’s cheek. “Before I say anything.”

“As you vish, my love,” Elric reassured him softly. “Vhatever you need, you shell hef.”

Orion thanked him and was pulled in for a soft, searching kiss, which might have caught fire if footsteps hadn’t sounded in the hall.

“Sir? I don’t want to intrude, I mean, I know I am, but I wanted to make sure you’re OK. Not that you need me, not with all the help you have, and it’s not–” Anthony broke off with a foolish, crooked smile when Lilly looked at him. “Um, hello…”

Elric tamped down on a chuckle. “I’m recovering, thenk you, my dear. You look so hendsome tonight. Even a tie. This is an occasion.”

Anthony ducked his head on a grin. “Jerrett likes it. I think he likes having a leash built into the outfit as much as he likes the look but, well, you know…” He trailed off again, blushing furiously.

Lilly watched the exchange quietly. Privately she was a little surprised. Had she met Anthony on his own she wouldn’t have thought he was a submissive, but then, he wasn’t ultra dominant either. Not with the way he blushed when he looked at her.

After a moment they all rose and left the den to rejoin the rest of the gathering. As they walked down the hall, Lilly braced herself. She avoided crowds usually. Not out of any kind of phobia, but because all the emotions one found in large groups played havoc with her own balance.

A steady, rhythmic thump came from ahead of them and Elric stopped as they rounded the corner to avoid running into Vincent.

“Ah, there you are,” Vincent said softly with a little shake of his head. “Sweet spirits, the things you never told me. You may as well prepare yourself. They will swarm you when you walk back in.”

“I am prepared, brüderlein, never fear.” Elric patted his shoulder and turned to Lilly. “My apologies, my dear. The young gallant to your left is Anthony Dupree, affectionately known to his friends as ‘Mad Anthony’ and this handsome vision is Vincent Lastrada, of whom you have heard me speak so often.”

Lilly inclined her head politely to Vincent in greeting. Anthony took her hand and brushed his lips across the back of her fingers in a courtly gesture.

Vincent’s expression remained unreadable as he studied her. Finally he murmured, “You are hataa’lii. A healer. Which Way do you follow?”

Unblinking blue eyes regarded him steadily, studying him just as he had studied her. A small smile touched her lips. “My training was not the most traditional, but would be considered the red path. My father was Lakota, I learned from him when I was very young.” This small bit of information she knew would actually tell Vincent a lot. The path of the red meant she was an herbalist and spiritualist. The Lakota were one of the eastern nations, so she was probably not from this area originally

Vincent’s smile transformed his face. “Welcome to California, elder sister. I haven’t spoken to one of the People, of any nation, in so long.”

“Thank you.” Lilly said graciously. She glanced at Elric and he inclined his head slightly as if to say she was free to go off if she wished. She walked beside Vincent as he returned to his comfortable high backed chair, talking amiably as they went. Vince had not missed the subtle byplay between them.

He had to wonder how it was that she reached the Prince, made him see that he needed to release this long held grief. He hesitated to ask, it seemed vaguely improper, but his curiosity was stirred and he finally did ask.

“I didn’t reach him. Orion did.” She said simply.

“Oh?” Vincent’s brow creased and then smoothed as realization hit. “Ah. I see. It’s always been one of his favorite teaching points. Never ask those who belong to you to do what you would not.”

He gazed across the room to where Sasha flung himself into Elric’s arms, more open about offering his condolences than some. “How are they doing, the three of them? That first day…oh, sweet gods…I thought my heart would break.”

“They are…healing.” She answered, her head tilted slightly in contemplation as she watched Elric, Orion, and Keit together. She turned her gaze to Vince, cerulean blue eyes seeming to peer right into him, past every shield and barrier he so carefully kept between himself and the world. “And how are you, and your loves doing? Are you better now?”

An automatic evasion was on Vincent’s lips when he stopped himself with a little sigh. “We are…healing,” he echoed softly. One hand rubbed his chest absently, recent memories constricting his lungs. “So many disasters heaped one atop the next. It feels as if we can finally catch our breath again.”

“Mmhm…” Lilly said, and averted her gaze, knowing she had disquieted him. “If you like, I have something that might help you breathe easier… literally, that is. Something that won’t make you jittery and tense and keep you up at night like the inhalers can.”

The long fingered hand stopped its restless motion and he let out a soft laugh. “That obvious, is it? Yes, gods, yes, if you have something that will ease these tight bands around my chest, I’d be eternally grateful.”

She nodded, the silk of her hair falling forward a bit. She lifted a hand to push it back.

“Do you plan on keeping the Prince’s lovely guest to yourself all evening, Vincent?” A deep rich voice with hints of amusement asked. Having been abandoned for the moment by both Anthony and Sasha, Jerrett had wandered over to meet the lovely girl that had more than half the room wondering how long a wait would be polite before making their move.

“It had occurred to me, yes, but I suppose that would be selfish,” Vincent answered softly. “Lilly, this is Jerrett Hawthorn.”

Lilly looked up, and up, at the man standing over them. He was not ‘looming’, or at least she didn’t think he was trying to, but she supposed the impression was from the way he sort of stood so straight and regal and looked down on nearly everyone. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hawthorn,” she said softly.

“The pleasure is mine, and please call me Jerrett.” he said, smiling his most winning smile. Despite the innate arrogance, he was still breathtakingly handsome and charming when he chose to be.

“Hey, handsome, you feeling all right?” A deep voice of a different timbre issued from Vincent’s opposite side. Der crouched by the chair to take Vincent’s hand in his. “I saw you rubbing.”

“I’m quite well, dearheart,” Vincent smiled and kissed his fingers. “And this, Lilly, is the dashing Derelict Schiller.”

Der looked up to meet those incredible eyes. “Hi,” he said eloquently.

A little smile lifted her lips, “Hello.” She replied, and couldn’t help thinking that for all Jerrett Hawthorn’s carefully exuded charm, Der, as she’d already heard his friends calling him, was twice as endearing.

Drew came up behind Jonathan as he handed out a last glass of champagne he’d been circulating with. He slid his arms around him and kissed the nape of his neck, smiling as he turned around to put his own arms around him. “Are you alright?” he asked softly.

Jonathan nodded, “Much better. How ‘bout you, sweetie?”

Drew gave a little shrug, but he nodded reassuringly. “You know, I was thinking… do you remember that episode of South Park, when all the boys started acting like grunting animals beating up on each other because one of the girls in their class had sprouted boobs?” He tilted his head slightly to where Vince, Jerrett, and Der were clustered around Lilly and David and Xavier were making their way over. “I keep having flashes of that every time I glance over there.” He snickered.

Jonathan laughed, causing several people to glance over. He didn’t care. “You’re not gonna get involved in the testosterone rush to piss on her beautiful leg?”

Drew looked almost startled by the question. “Are you kidding me? No way!” He said just a little too vehemently.

A little sound caught in Jonathan’s throat, then another, and he nearly choked on trying to swallow the guffaw that wanted out. He took Drew’s face between his hands and kissed him tenderly. “Christ, I love you. You’ve got to be the sweetest thing on earth.”

Drew unexpectedly felt a flush of heat at the tender kiss and Jonathan’s words. He melted inside and pressed closer, completely forgetting the roomful of people around them. Jonathan just had that effect on him. He kissed him back, just as tender and sweet, but the kiss lingered a bit longer.

A light feminine laugh drifted over to them and Drew glanced at the growing circle again. Lilly had laughed at something Xavier had said, which was not all that unusual. If the dark scowl on Jerrett’s face was any indication it was something at his expense. Drew shook his head, amused. “Do you want to take bets on which one she picks?” he whispered in Jonathan’s ear.

“We should get two choices, since it’s such a broad field,” Jonathan said with a too-serious look of concentration. “Now, if she has any taste at all, she’ll pick Vincent. But he’ll gracefully and regretfully decline, so I have to count him out of the running. Hmm…there’s beauty over there and brains and drop dead, charming dominance, grace and wit and…I bet she picks the goofball.”

Drew was just as carefully going over the selection although silently. Xavier had made her laugh, that tinkling bells sound that was so sweet he nearly heard a collective sigh from the group of admirers. And Xav looked exceedingly hot this evening… ok, stop checking him out. Was Jon right maybe? Der was just as good at coaxing a laugh, but he was more mature than Xav. She was so quiet she might appreciate that. Or was he just being biased because it was Der and Drew couldn’t see anyone resisting Der?

His eyes went to Jerrett and then back to Lilly. She had politely cut her laugh short and she was looking at him, those bright, bright blue eyes still sparkling. The dangerous, arrogant prick? “She’s gonna pick the most dominant, if any of them. I say Jerrett.” Drew said in a hushed voice to Jonathan.

“She’s a fool if she does,” Jonathan growled and then shrugged. “But there’s no accounting for taste, I guess.” They watched a moment longer, Drew’s head nestled on Jonathan’s shoulder, until Jonathan chuckled. “Oh, now, there’s a wrench in the works for you.”

In a black kilt, leggings and dress boots, Chrysalis slid through the larger bodies to claim the chair next to Lilly since all the admirers were standing. Chrys took her hand, obviously making introductions, and lifted Lilly’s fingers to kiss them.

“Shame on you both. Putting bets on a girl like that.” A voice scolded from behind Jonathan and Drew, making them jump a little, although his voice had been as low as their own. “And you’re both wrong.” Keit said, the scolding tone giving way to amusement. “Now, Drew if you would be so kind, go wrap yourself around Der and get him back to Brandon. He’s looking a little bewildered over there. And Jonathan, please go and distract Xavier before Jerrett decides he’d rather have him and we have an all out brawl. I’ll go get Jerrett.”

“Um, ok. But why?” Drew asked.

“Because, honey. She’s going to want to talk to Chrysalis and the others are just going to frustrate her.”

Jonathan’s forehead crinkled in an endearing way. “So the boys are making all that fuss over her and she’s gay? Um, or maybe not…since I still don’t know about Chrys.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Dammit, I’m confused.”

“No, as far as I can tell she prefers men, at least I’ve never seen her with a woman, but then I’ve never asked.” Keit gave a little wave of his hand. “I just think she’ll be interested in Chrys, that’s all. Now scoot.” Keit headed off to gather Jerrett up, which was a bit of a task, but as soon as he discreetly got his attention over to Sasha and Anthony, who were looking awfully cuddly together, it was easier to move him off in that direction.

Drew moved toward Der and got him talking about music, although he definitely seemed distracted during the conversation.

Another silvery sound caressed over the gathering and Drew nudged Der gently, nodding to how Lilly laughed at something Chrys whispered in her ear.

“Oh…um…” he cleared his throat and swept Lilly a courtly bow. “Such a joy meeting you, Ms. Lilly. But I do need to steal Vincent away to hash through some graphics questions.”

Vincent arched a brow. “Now?”

“Yes, now. You know how my sieve brain works. If I don’t talk to you when I’m thinking of it, I’ll forget.”

Then Vincent caught the hint as well and rose to follow Der to a quiet corner across the room while Jonathan wrapped his arms around Xavier and distracted him quite thoroughly.

Lilly noted the tactical scattering of the circle that had formed and silently thanked Keit. She smiled at Chrysalis. “Keit must think highly of you, you’re the only one he didn’t chase away.”

Chrys chuckled. “The Prince is the undisputed master of his house but Keit is what keeps the household running.”

Lilly’s eyes found Keit for a moment and then came back to Chrysalis. “He’s happier now.” Her lovely heart shaped face tilted slight, regarding Chrys intently for a moment. “You have…unusual energy.” She said softly. “You are sensitive to… things, no?”

Chrys looked at their joined hands, then back up with a little smile and a wink, whispering, “I see dead people.”

Lilly smiled softly as if something had just clicked into place. “Ah, you are a Spiritwalker.” She searched her eyes for a moment, trying to determine something else. “One foot in this world, one in another. Neither one or the other…” She blinked and took a breath, looking down as if embarrassed that she might have intruded where she was not welcome. “Do the spirits trouble you?” she asked quietly, hoping she hadn’t offended him.

A long pause followed where Chrys regarded her carefully, that brittle, fragile look Syren knew so well creeping in. The smile returned on a little sigh. “Not…usually. I know they’re there. Most of the time they go about their business and I go about mine. It’s only when there’s a terrible concentration of negative energy. Those frighten me sometimes, when there’s hate and rage and violent intentions. They tell me I’ve had…seizures…”

Across the room, Syren wrapped an arm around Keit. “You’re such a little manipulator, you know that?”

Keit gave her an apologetic look and nodded towards Lilly. “Does this bother you?”

“Watching Chrys courting? Gods, no. It’s not something I get to see often. Lilly’s the first person Chrys has approached in, oh, I can’t even tell you how long.”

Lilly’s brows pulled together in a tiny frown. “You can keep them out, if you want. Do you know how?”

“I do.” Chrys nodded. “But sometimes people come to me. They need help. I…try not to say yes anymore but they can be so desperate, so frightened. It’s hard to turn them away.”

Lilly’s small smile turned rueful. “I know just what you mean.”

Warmth lit up Chrys’ gray-green eyes. “Somehow I knew you would.”

~*~

Xavier followed Jonathan off a ways from the mingling group of people gathered. A glance told him Dave had wandered over to talk to Vic and Cody. When he looked back Jonathan was leaning close and Xavier gave him a soft smile. “You didn’t stay long enough for me to say good morning the other night.”

“You,” Jonathan tapped the end of his nose. “Sleep way too late for me. And besides, I had to go get myself in trouble at home.”

“I do not sleep too late, you just get up way too early.” Xavier said. “I’m almost afraid to ask… what did you get in trouble for?”

Jonathan tried to look serious and contrite. It almost worked. “I surprised the lord of the manor in bed with another lover. I was…caught off guard and he was very annoyed with me. So he gave me to his new lover and forgave me because I’m so beautiful.”

One arm looped lightly around Jonathan’s waist Xav gave him a knowing look. “Mm, so you pitched a hissy fit and Vince figured the best way to shut your mouth was to put a dick in it. Such a smart guy, that Vince.”

Jonathan poked him in the ribs. “So crude.” He tsked.

Xavier grinned and leaned closer to his ear. “You like it, don’t try and pretend.”

“Doesn’t mean you’re not crude. And it wasn’t in my mouth, anyway, so there.” His green eyes danced with amusement, wondering why Xav didn’t ask the obvious question about who it had been.

The answer to that of course was that Xav had already guessed who it must be. Vince wasn’t likely just to pick up a total stranger, and the only one close to them right now that wasn’t already sharing their bed was Der’s new dreamboat.

“Well, I owe you breakfast sometime anyway,” Xav said. “I didn’t want you to have to sleep on the couch.” Which was his way of also saying he was sorry things hadn’t exactly gone as planned with Dave coming home early.

“I know that, babe,” Jonathan said softly. “Don’t worry about it.” He gave Xav a little kiss before he moved off to talk to Elric.

 

Drew stepped out into the hall and looked down toward the end where he saw Xavier step into the bathroom. He walked down the hall and leaned up against the opposite wall, arms crossed and hands cupping his elbows while he waited for Xavier to emerge. A few moments later when the door opened and Xav looked up and smiled at him he almost lost his nerve. He took a deep breath. “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Xavier took in Drew’s stance, noted the slightly nervous tone and determined expression and thought, uh-oh. His smile didn’t fade but his eyes took on a slightly more guarded cast. “Sure, sweetheart. What’s on your mind?”

Drew tilted his head, indicating they should move somewhere more private and Xavier followed him down the hall a ways further. They stepped through an open door into the now empty den.

“Please don’t tell me you’re secretly in love with me and want to run away. That might complicate things,” Xavier joked.

Drew didn’t even crack a smile, and Xavier had to wonder how bad this was going to be.

“Xav…I don’t want to stir up any shit, but can you… couldn’t you just leave Jonathan alone?” There, he said it.

Xavier blinked at him, for once no immediate response coming to mind. Then the surprise settled into confusion. “Um…ok. Drew, what’s this about?”

“Nothing. I just…just don’t want you taking him home again, ok?”

Xavier’s expression softened a bit. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, because he could tell Drew was a little upset, but he couldn’t resist teasing him a little. “Well honey, if you’re jealous I could ask Vince if you can come with us, too.”

Drew rolled his eyes. “I’m not jealous.”

Xav grinned. “Sounds like it to me.”

“I’m not.” Drew said, exasperated. “Look, just don’t, ok? Leave him alone. Don’t you have enough to choose from?”

Xavier arched a brow at him. While he was perfectly willing to grant his request if it was bothering him, now he felt like being contrary. “Drew, what’s the problem? You didn’t mind before.”

Drew stared at him for a moment, wishing now that he hadn’t gotten into this. He sighed. “He came home after being with you and was so upset he started snapping at everyone and was just an emotional mess. I don’t want him upset like that, and I don’t want you to use him like that.”

Xavier went very still, his expression frozen and for a moment they just stared at each other. Drew finally looked away, feeling uneasy. “Xav…”

“Fine.” Xavier cut him off tersely. “I’ll stay away from him. Happy?”

“Xav, I didn’t mean…”

“I said fine.” Xav snapped. “Get lost, Drew.”

Drew looked at him again, thought about saying something more and thought better of it looking at his shuttered eyes and hard expression. “Okay…thanks,” he murmured and turned quickly to leave. He hurried back down the hall.

“Yeah, sure. No fuckin problem,” Xavier muttered to the empty room. Instead of going back out to rejoin the others, he crossed the room to the window and looked out over the back garden. He crossed his arms and leaned against the window enclosure. He hadn’t used Jonathan. Not anymore than Jonathan had used him. They both wanted each other and went off to go fuck like mad and then return to their normally scheduled lives. What was the big deal?

Sitting in the corner with Der and Brandon, Vincent hadn’t missed all the comings and goings. When Drew reappeared, looking fetching in his suit but as if someone had just slipped ice down his back, Vincent waved him over.

“My kestrel.” He waited until Drew’s hand settled in his. “Someone has upset you.”

Not for the first time, not even the hundredth, Drew cursed his inability to keep whatever he was feeling off his face. No matter how hard he tried, if he was angry, or upset, or horny it was like a beacon turned on to broadcast exactly what he was feeling. He leaned close to Vince’s ear, knowing already that saying ‘nothing’ was wrong would not be accepted as an answer. “Can we talk about it later? It’s not a big deal.”

“All right, my love. As you wish.” Vincent pulled Drew into his lap and wrapped his arms around him.

Victor had already had enough of socializing. True, he was fond of almost everyone there but after Elric’s memoriam, he felt raw and emotionally drained. Not really the right state for him to be in to engage people in light conversation. He left Cody chatting with Quinn and wandered down the hall for a few minutes of quiet…

…and came upon a too familiar scene. Xav with his arms wrapped tight around himself, staring out the window.

“Xav? Sweets? What’s wrong?”

“Huh? Oh, hi Vic.” Xavier said, looking up, obviously coming back from somewhere distant. “What’s up?”

“What’s the matter?”

Xav lifted one slender shoulder in a shrug. “Nothing. Just thinking.”

 

“Mm, yes, I see that much.” Vic stepped over to stand beside him and share the view of the garden.

 

This time both shoulders went up, the shrug a little more defensive and his arms still wrapped around him tightly. “Really, Vic. It’s nothing. I don’t want to… I don’t want any kinda problems stirred up, especially not here and not today. Anything like that happens and you know everyone will think it’s all my fault, right?”

 

“Well, it generally is,” Vic answered deadpan. He turned to Xavier and opened his arms when his teasing fell flat. “Come here, sweets. God. Telling me what’s wrong isn’t ‘stirring up’ anything. There’s no one else here. Just you and me.”

 

Xav hesitated only a moment, and then leaned closer, letting Vic’s strong arms close around him. It felt so good he relaxed a little more against him, turning his face to lay his cheek against his chest and suddenly he felt his throat close up like he was about to cry or something. It was ridiculous. There was nothing to cry about.

 

“Drew asked me to stay away from Jonathan, that’s all.” He murmured, feeling like he was six years old tattling on the class bully, which was even more ridiculous because it was Drew, who couldn’t bully his way out of a paper bag if he had to. “He thinks I used him. Dave did, too. And since Drew said he was upset when he went home, Jonathan thinks so, too.”

 

“There now, that wasn’t so hard,” Vic murmured into the top of his head as he held that lean body tight. “Though I do think you’re jumping to conclusions. Evidently so did Drew. Jonathan gets upset about a lot of things. Most of them having to do with things he doesn’t want to remember. It may or may not have had anything to do with you.”

 

He stroked Xavier’s hair. “And this whole ‘using people’ nonsense you keep getting so hung up on…everyone uses other people. To greater or lesser degrees. I think what upsets you is that you’re not always quite sure why.”

 

Xavier frowned slightly but he didn’t pull away. Even if Jonathan hadn’t gotten upset because of him, and even if Drew was making assumptions, that didn’t explain why Dave had questioned his motives for bringing Jonathan home. He remembered Dave quite venomously accusing him of using that guy they’d ended up picking up on the ski trip. He’d pretty much accused him of the same thing again, albeit more gently this time.

 

He lifted his head and looked up at Vic. “Well then why are they all acting like I did something wrong? I didn’t do anything wrong, I followed all the rules, and I still get treated like a fuck up.”

 

Victor took his face between his hands, his dark eyes sad and tired. “Has Jonathan said you upset him?”

 

Xavier shook his head.

 

“And has David implied, said, or acted in any way that makes you think he is anything but concerned for you?”

 

“That’s just it, Vic. He’s concerned.” Xav blinked and the teardrops clinging to his lashes finally fell. He took a ragged breath. “He goes out and finds someone else and it’s a mistake, he just let his libido get in the way. I bring home someone he knows, someone he’s ok with, and it’s gotta be because there something wrong with me. Like I wanna get back at him, or I wanna drown everything out with sex.”

 

“Xav…” Vic pulled him close again and let him cry. The problem was that with Xavier, both of those things were probably true on some level. But that was an issue for his therapist, not for a well-meaning friend. “You might recall that he tried to kill himself over his ‘mistake’, my sweet. It’s not as if he just shrugged it off. And if he worries over your motives, it’s partly because his own can get pretty tangled.”

 

~*~

 

Drew put his head on Vince’s shoulder. He was silent for a while, watching the room. As the minutes started to slip by and Xavier didn’t reappear he thought about getting up and going to find him. He kept thinking about how he looked, eyes slightly hooded, a blank stare. He’d thought Xav had been pissed, but…maybe he’d been hurt. The more he thought about it the more he fidgeted and chewed on his bottom lip and fidgeted some more. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore and heaved a sigh. “I think I hurt Xavier’s feelings,” he blurted out to Vince.

 

“Ah.” Vincent’s hand stroked his back in soothing circles. “And why would you do such a thing, my love?”

 

“I-I didn’t mean to.” Drew said, his cheeks heating now with shame. “I just…I asked him to leave Jonathan alone.” He said so softly even Vince had to strain to hear.

 

“Drew, my darling, my own…” Vincent kissed his cheek with a little sigh. “If such a thing were necessary, who do you think would be the most appropriate person to say it?”

 

“I know…I know. But, I wanted him to leave him alone. Jonathan doesn’t think he did anything wrong, and you don’t think he did anything wrong, but I know something wasn’t right, I know Jonathan came home upset and he felt like Xav used him or something. I just didn’t want him to see him upset again.”

 

Vincent wondered if another Dom would have been angry at such a breach of authority. Probably. Most likely. He simply felt…what? A little sad, a bit tired, perhaps. He smoothed a curl out of Drew’s eyes. “I love you,” he murmured. “I love that you want to slay dragons for Jonathan. To protect him and keep his heart safe. But perhaps if Jonathan was hurt by what Xavier did, it should be Jonathan who says so.”

 

Drew slid his arms around Vince’s neck and buried his face at the side of his throat. “I’m sorry, Vince.”

 

“My love, I’m not angry with you. And you’ve done nothing to hurt me.”

 

Drew pulled back to look at him. “Should I go… should I say something to him?”

 

Vincent kissed him softly. “I suppose that depends on what you say.”

 

“I’m sorry? I didn’t mean it? Please don’t be a bitch and snap my head off?” Drew cleared his throat. “Well, not that last part.”

 

“Not a bad start.” Vincent gave him a little smile and a nudge. “Though, the last I looked, I’m not Xavier.”

 

“Thank god,” Drew said under his breath. “Or we’d be in big trouble.” He kissed Vince and rose, taking a deep breath as if girding himself, and headed back out and down the hall where he’d last seen Xav.

 

The door to the den was still open and Drew stepped in, at first only seeing Vic’s broad back and just as he thought he’d ask him if he’d seen Xav, he turned slightly and saw that he had him in his arms. He also saw that Xav had his hand up over his face and his shoulders were hunched and… oh, god, Drew felt about as low as he could get. Damn.

 

His face crumpled and drained of color as he moved closer. Both Vic and Xav heard him and turned at the same time. “Xav… I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

 

Xavier swiped an arm over his eyes and glared back at him. “I told you it was fine, Drew. Just go away.”

 

“No, it’s not fine. I didn’t have any right to speak for Jonathan. I’m really sorry.”

 

“Oh, so the first time you weren’t really sorry?” Xavier said, just to be spiteful.

 

Drew took it in stride, though. “I meant it both times. Please Xav, it was a stupid, shitty thing to say. I was a total jerk to even bring it up. I know you wouldn’t hurt Jonathan on purpose.”

 

There was a tense few moments and then Xavier sighed. “Yeah. You’re a stupid jerk. Aren’t we all.” He lifted his arm and made a beckoning gesture until Drew came over and he put his arm around his shoulders, bringing him into the circle of Vic’s arms as well.

 

Victor heaved a shaky sigh as he wrapped them both close. This better be the end of the drama tonight. I can’t take any more. “Stupid jerks or not, our hearts are in the right place.” He kissed the top of Xavier’s head and then Drew’s. “You’re good boys. There are reasons why people love you that have nothing to do with the physical.”

 

He gave them a few minutes since they both clung to him fiercely. “Now, then. I know several people who might get worried and come looking for the two of you. And here I am with you snuggled in my arms. From a territorial standpoint, how do you think that would look?”

 

“Dave would want to know if anything was going on, then watch, or join.” Xavier said without batting an eye.

 

Drew nodded. “Yep. Jonathan too.”

 

“Hm, four beautiful boys, all for me,” Vic said with a wistful sigh. “Nice thought, maybe another night.” He gave them each a little smack on the butt and sent them on their way.

 

Drew and Xavier walked back in together, but separated almost immediately. Xav, because he wanted to go see Dave, and Drew because he saw Vince and Jonathan talking and walked over to them.

 

Neither one asked if everything was settled since the entrance together said it all. Jonathan wrapped his arms around Drew and pulled him close, though he murmured to Vincent, “Look, Vince, my own knight in shining. Can we keep him?”

 

Dave turned from where he was talking with Ethan. “Hey, sweets! What’s–” He broke off and took Xavier’s face between his hands. “Love? You’ve been…” His eyes hardened as he asked, “Who made you cry?”

 

“Nearly everyone here’s been crying. It was a sad thing.” Xavier evaded.

 

Dave’s eyes told him a storm was brewing and he wasn’t buying it. Xavier sighed. “Not the time or the place, hon. And I’m alright, so please, later. OK?”

 

“I don’t much fucking care about time and place,” Dave growled, so low no one else could hear. “Someone’s hurt you and he’s gonna pay for it.”

 

“Christ, Dave,” Xav muttered under his breath. He looked around at the room full of people. “C’mon then.” He took Dave’s hand and led him out. He headed toward the conservatory where at least it would be private and quiet. They walked and he told him about what Drew had said, and that he’d already apologized.

 

Drew…well, that put a damper on Dave’s fire. He listened, wide-eyed, and slid swiftly from ferocity to pensiveness. He stopped at a bench and sank down, staring at his hands.

 

“Well, I guess I can’t really slug the little guy. I mean, not again.” He looked up at Xavier who still stood, arms wrapped around himself. “Especially since…it wasn’t just Drew who made you cry, was it?”

 

Xav sank down next to him and pulled his heels up onto the edge of the bench, wrapping his arms around his legs so he could rest his chin on his knees. “No. I guess not,” he finally said.

 

“And here I was all set to go after that Hawthorn creep. I was so sure it was him.” Dave rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “And it’s me instead.”

 

He let out a hollow bark of laughter that made Xav wince, surged up and started pacing, his hands scrubbing through his hair. “Fuck, fuck, fuck…dammit, Xav, even when I’m trying to do the right things, I hurt you.”

 

Xavier closed his eyes, suddenly very tired. “Yeah, and you’ll probably do it again. And I’ll probably do something to hurt you again. It’s just how things go.” He opened his eyes again. “It’s not your fault, Dave. Maybe Vic is right. Maybe I get so upset ‘cause you hit too close to the truth and I just don’t see it right away. Or don’t want to see it.” He stayed just as he was, arms wrapped tightly around his up drawn legs. For a moment or two he felt like he was going to cry again but he swallowed it down and blinked any tears back. He didn’t want to upset Dave anymore than he was.

 

“Xav…don’t…” Dave got out in a choked voice and flung himself back onto the bench to wrap Xavier in a fierce embrace. “Don’t shut down, swallow everything whole. I’m here… I’m here… I love you so. I worry…I’m sorry…I can’t help it. I’ve spent most of my life worrying. And sometimes the stuff you do is gonna mean something and sometimes… sometimes a banana is just, you know, a banana.”

 

Xavier put his head on Dave’s shoulder, his face pressed against the side of his throat. He made a strangled sound, half chuckle, half sob, at what Dave said. He took a shuddering breath. When he lifted his head, he brought a hand to Dave’s cheek, fingers caressing lightly. He touched his lips to Dave’s in a tender kiss, and another, softly seeking more.

 

A little moan, as much relief as desire, rose from Dave’s chest. He cupped the back of Xav’s head and tilted for a better angle, tongue caressing Xavier’s lips in a silent plea. Xav opened for him, their tongues caressing slowly. There was no desperation, no guilty, hurried spark of lust. Instead, the tender heat grew slowly, building on soft touches and sweet murmurs.

 

“I love you…” Xav murmured between breathless, heated kisses.

 

Dave pulled back, his eyes wandering over the beauty of Xavier’s face. “And I love you, sweets.” He combed through Xav’s hair. “But you were right about time and place. It does seem kinda…disrespectful to take you here, in his orchid garden, after his eulogy and everything. Maybe we should make it an early evening, though, yeah? And when we get home, you can do whatever you want with me.”

 

“Anything I want, huh?” Xav said, his voice taking on that husky edge that Dave knew so well. He kissed a soft line of kisses down his jaw until his lips touched the base of Dave’s ear. “How about if I strip you naked, tie you down to the bed…” He breathed in a soft whisper. “And then paddle you until you’re brick red with a plug deep inside you…would you like that?”

 

Dave’s head fell back on a dizzy moan as all the blood rushed from his head. “Christ… yes…oh, yes.”

 

Xav took his earlobe between his teeth and nipped him, hard. “Let’s go back then, have to be polite and stay for a while, no?”

 

“Yeah,” Dave managed on a gulped breath and straightened his tie. When he stood, he held out both hands for Xav with that heartbreaking little-boy smile. “Do I get to have the gag, too?”

 

Xavier slow smile was full of seduction and heat as he slipped his hands in Dave’s and stood, but he shook his head slowly from side to side. “Oh, no… I want to hear you scream.”

 

“”K.” Dave laughed. “But you’ll have to explain things to the cops when the neighbors call them.”

 

Xav chuckled. “Well, maybe just a little gag.”

 

“Oh, good,” Dave stage-whispered to the nearest orchid. “He does love me.”

 

Back in the massive dining room, Orion kissed his Dom’s cheek and left his side to wander across the room. Ethan stood talking to Cody, with Quinn tucked under his arm, Cricket lying at their feet. Orion crouched down to pet the pretty dog. He did love dogs, though he knew the Prince would never allow one to live with them. Too messy.

 

Cricket thumped his tail but otherwise stayed where he was, giving Orion’s hand a little nuzzle and a lick of greeting.

 

“Keit told me you hand-carved the frames for the pictures of the Prince’s family, Orion. They are really beautifully done,” Ethan said with the warm appreciation of someone who understood working with their hands and the genuine craftsmanship involved.

 

Orion raised his head, a hint of anxiety lurking in his bright blue eyes. “Thank you, sir. Could I…speak to you a moment?”

 

Ethan’s smile was kindness itself. “Of course. Here, or is it private?”

 

“I…suppose it doesn’t make much difference.” Orion shifted to one knee, his gaze returning to Cricket as he went on, unaware how much the supplicant he looked. “Your house, sir…it has beach access, doesn’t it?”

 

“Yes, it does.”

 

“I’d like to….to use it as a staging point. For…” He heaved a breath. “For Jake’s farewell.”

 

“Sure you can, Orion. Is there anything Quinn and I can do to help?”

 

Orion shook his head, struggling. Just saying Jake’s name still caused him to break down. Dear God, would it always be that way? “Not until then,” he finally forced out. “I may need help…carrying something.”

 

“All right.” Ethan said. “You just let us know when.”

 

The little gathering began to break up around ten. Dave and Xavier had left first, which was a little surprising, but Der had seen the embers smoldering in Dave’s eyes and decided it wasn’t surprising after all.

 

Now he stood in the front hall with his mother, just the two of them, wishing her a good night.

 

“Do you really like him, Mutti?” he asked softly, feeling twelve years old again.

 

“Oh, he’ll do, I suppose,” she said with that too-serious face. When he rolled his eyes, she laughed. “Yes, yes, I like him. He’s able to laugh at himself. And he adores you. Much better than that T–”

 

“Don’t, Mom, please,” Der interrupted softly. “No comparisons.”

 

She leaned in to kiss his cheek. “I’m sorry, sweetpea. If this is more than just a fling, I’m very pleased.”

 

“You think Papa would have liked him?” Der couldn’t help the question.

 

“I think he would have preferred you pick the nice, handsome vet.” She smiled at his exasperated sound. “He would have teased you and grumbled about this and that, but, yes, I think he would have liked Brandon very much.”

 

Der stood at the door and waved as she drove off, a warm glow around his heart.

 

 

 

Chapter 290 – Lilly

Chapter 289 – Balance

Chapter 288 – Thor (2)

They decided it would be better for Vincent to come to Katya’s rather than take Thor to see him.

“Vince, I know you’re only trying to keep me safe, but Orion’s my friend, too. I want to see him,” Drew said.

“My kestrel, I would prefer you stay here. He’s relived a trauma which destroyed him once, and he’s already lashed out at one person. We don’t know what more discovery will do, if he will slip back into being Orion, or if he will snap entirely.”

“He won’t,” Drew said obstinately. “I want to be there for him.”

Vincent sighed. “I know you do, but I do not know if that would be best for either of you. Drew, you remind him of Jake. Your presence might trigger something in him–”

“Or it might not,” Drew interrupted. He came closer, put his hands on Vince’s shoulders and squeezed gently, looking into those dark, fathomless eyes. “Vince, stop treating me like a child. I’m not made out of glass. You can’t protect me from the world. He’s my friend, and he’s hurt, and I want to be there for him.”

“You’re three weeks out of surgery, my love. If you were to hit your head…” He stopped. “Or step off a curb and get hit by a bus, be struck by lightening, attacked by a rabid raccoon…” He sighed. “Are you sure I can’t simply keep you inside forever? I’ll build you a gilded cage, design you outfits made of Kevlar?”

They both chuckled and Drew cupped his face for a soft kiss, then picked up the case off the floor that contained Vince’s laptop and they went to Katya’s.

Naturally, since Drew was going, Jonathan couldn’t be left behind. His arguments had been far more vehement and dramatic than Drew’s but in the end, he got his way as well. Vincent shook his head, wondering where his permissive mood had sprung from.

#

The shaking refused to stop. It was like walking backwards through some strange, gray swamp. The present had become as murky as the past had once been. Thor tried to remember the names of the people around him, where he had been the week or the day before, but it kept sliding sideways out of reach.

The Dragon Prince arrived with his Butterfly and his Coyote. He knew them, was glad to see them, but the familiarity had no connections at the moment. Backwards. He needed to start from the point it had all fallen apart and perhaps he could venture forwards again.

His gaze settled on the white dragon. “How much do you know about neutrinos?”

“A bit,” came the velvet-soft reply. “I’ve read as much as I could find on them.”

Thor picked up a pad of paper and pen from the coffee table and began writing in frantic spurts. “Energy…in vast quantities…just beyond reach…as if they populated a parallel universe…”

The Dragon leaned closer, then pulled himself over to sit beside him on the sofa. Poor dragon, with clipped wings, numbers seemed to help him fly. Thor understood that. He went on, even as he reached the point in the equations where there would be no real solution, only the false one they had forced on him.

“Cerberus…they called it Cerberus…”

“Who did?”

“The government people, the military people…it was their project.” He stopped writing, that terrible point of fracture reached. “An attempt to create…negative space…to harness neutrinos…for what purpose they never said.”

“Probably not to grow food for fluffy bunnies,” Coyote muttered.

Thor looked at Coyote, trying to understand what he meant. “Most likely not. Destruction not growth.”

“Right. You boys play. I’ll be in the kitchen.” Coyote wandered out shaking his head.

#

Jonathan found Katya staring at the open fridge. “Wondering how you’ll feed him, Ms. Kat?”

Her snort was amused but the set of her face, the way she held herself, spring-tight, told him she was angry and tried to hide it. He guessed at the reason. It bugged him a little, too, but having sat there and watched the disconnected way Orion…Thor was processing things, he also thought he understood the why.

“You know,” he began cautiously. “I think he’ll have a really bad moment when he realizes what he’s done. Don’t think he even knows yet he hurt the Prince. Don’t think it’s gotten onto his static-y radar yet. Like he’s trying to think his way back again to join the rest of us and hasn’t made it here.”

Katya selected an apple and turned toward him, letting the door swing closed. “Jonathan, do not try to reason me out of a bad mood.” She scolded him, but without any real heat. She set the apple on the cutting board, drew the largest knife from the block, and hacked it in two. She picked up one half and offered it to him, “Apple?”

He was smart enough not to refuse her, whether he wanted it or not. She took a bite of her own half and chewed thoughtfully. Finally she said, “I know he doesn’t realize yet. Which is why I haven’t said anything about it, and won’t.” Yet, her tone implied. She looked down at the piece of fruit, and although the ire was still there on the surface, a glimmer of something profoundly sad flickered across her face for a moment, and vanished. “How horrible to live with a fear so long, and then have it happen exactly as you’d feared it would,” she said, not adding how her own heart ached for Elric and what he must be suffering.

“Yes, ma’am,” Jonathan agreed softly, and then took a little bite of his apple. “You know I adore the Prince. I’d do anything for him. Doesn’t mean I can’t see both sides. Thing is, just because it’s happened and everybody involved is hurting, doesn’t mean it’s over. That man in your living room…”

He pointed with the apple and fought against swallowing hard at the look Katya had fixed on him. “That man isn’t quite Orion anymore. True. But that’s not Thor Heimdahl on your sofa either.”

“What do you mean?” her eyes narrowed.

“I found video of Heimdahl online. Amazing what you can find on You Tube. Anyway, it was this interview for an online science journal. That man in the video acted like he owned the world. The kind of man who’s always right and knows what he wants and everybody else better get the hell out of the way. Reminded me a little of Vic, actually. The man we have here isn’t him. Or he is, but he’s also Orion and he’s also something new, I think. He’ll have to figure out who. Doesn’t mean he’s stopped loving the Prince all of the sudden, though. Everybody’s made that assumption but it’s way too early to call.”

Katya poked him in the ribs. “And you, my sweet, have made the assumption that ‘everybody’s’ assumed. I know he might have even more regrets soon. If I didn’t think that I would have thrown him out already.”

Jonathan gave her a skeptical look that said she would have done no such thing. Katya composed her features into serious lines and refused to look at him until they both chuckled.

~*~

Drew sat on the chair beside the couch and listened to Orion and Vince discuss stuff that only vaguely made any sense. He wasn’t really listening to the words being said as much as he was observing the conversation. Orion… Thor. No, Orion. he knew him as Orion, he would think of his as Orion, even if he called him by his other name. Orion gestured animatedly and spoke in a quick concise manner even when he wasn’t entirely straight on his thoughts.

It was a little disturbing. Like a Pod Person had taken him over. The Orion he knew hardly gestured at all, when he did it was very precise movements, as if he must think before every action. For such a large man he was soft spoken, and even if he didn’t always make total sense, he was thoughtful. This Orion ran down verbal avenues like a truck out of control, slammed on the brakes and took off in another direction seemingly at random. Drew had heard him speak more in the last twenty minutes than probably the entire time he’d known him.

The changes were more than just speech and mannerisms. It was something harder to define, more a feeling for a person than an actual thing he could put his finger on. There was a lack of…of deference to him. It wasn’t that he spoke forcefully, it was obvious he knew when he was right, impatient if Vincent didn’t immediately understand what he was saying. He’d glanced at Drew once, without warmth or much recognition. His personality was totally different.

A part of him was happy for Orion. This was after all a breakthrough for him, he would have a past, however painful, and an identity that had been denied to him. Another part of him was completely dismayed. This was not Orion, not the Orion he knew, and if this person stayed he would probably never see the Orion he knew again. He was sitting right in front of him, and yet he might as well have died.

At a pause in the conversation Drew finally spoke. “Is it so important that you figure out exactly what went wrong right now?” he asked quietly. “I mean, you know something did go wrong… maybe you should try and remember what happened right after that.”

Thor shot him a look so full of anguish, Drew regretted the question. “I know what happened after that. He died because of the something that went wrong. My Jake died screaming.”

Vincent put a gentle hand on his arm. “We know. We’re so sorry. For your loss. For his terrible pain. You tried to save him, though. You went into the flames to try to bring him out. What happened then?”

“I think…” Tears crept down Thor’s face again. “No…I remember…getting as far as the hall. The rescue workers came. Too late for him. They…I still…they took him from me…”

They had to wait while he broke down completely again, sobbing uncontrollably with his head on his knees.

Drew moved over to the couch, sat on Orion’s other side, and put his arms around him. Changed or not, he was still a friend, and another human being in pain. He rubbed his back in soothing circles and kissed one broad shaking shoulder. “I’m so sorry…” He murmured.

Thor wiped his eyes on his sleeve, his chest heaving, and stared at the beautiful boy beside him. Butterfly… “Drew?” he whispered. Yes, this was Drew, his dear friend, the first face he could focus on clearly that day. He wrapped his arms around Drew’s waist and buried his face in his lap, somehow able to take the comfort in his arms he hadn’t been able to accept from anyone else.

Vincent kept his anxious thoughts to himself. Orion would have died before he could have hurt Drew. He had to trust Thor was still the same man in that respect. So far he behaved and treated Drew gently and the physical contact calmed him, his desperate anguish reverting back to quiet misery.

“What then, Thor?” Vincent asked quietly. “What happened after?”

“After…there was darkness.” Thor’s deep voice drifted up, muffled by Drew’s lap. “A white room…hospital, probably. People asked things. The meaning kept slipping away. Like trying to talk to someone from the bottom of a swamp. I…left. And went somewhere else.”

“Where did you go?”

Thor’s answer came after a heavy silence. “I’m not sure. A bus? Was there a bus? And how did I get on? A city, at some point. I don’t know where. Alleys and garbage and shivering in the cold. I think…I don’t think I had shoes. Men attacked me. The world flooded with red. Someone saw…watched me fight them off. How many, I don’t know.”

Drew continued to stroke his hands soothingly over Orion’s back. His throat felt tight and he had to swallow hard. As hard as it was for Orion to remember what had happened to Jake, he couldn’t imagine that remembering the next part of his life was going to be any easier for him. Elric only had a tiny bit of it, but it was enough to know that what had been done to him, what he’d been forced to do, was beyond inhuman.

“The rage faded. They came to me when I was exhausted. Promised safety and shelter. I went in the back of a van. A long way…it seemed a long way. When we arrived they chained me to the wall…to protect me, they said.” Thor’s voice was hardly a whisper now, hollow and bereft.

“When I did what they said, they fed me. When I refused, they came with whips and clubs. They trained me to the bell. To fight for them. I…don’t remember much from the ring. The bell. The rage. Someone dragged out after the bell rang again.”

Anyone else would have said ‘you don’t have to tell us all this’. Vincent and Drew knew better. They waited through each pause, offering physical comfort but no interruptions.

He heaved a breath. “I must have won most times. Rewards came. Blankets. A cot. Companions. They brought girls until they saw I had no interest. Then they brought a boy. Very pretty. Terrified. They told him the only reason he wasn’t beaten and thrown into the street was he was there to please me. They stood and watched while he came to me, trembling. Touched me. Took me in his mouth. They left when I came. He cried. I never molested him. Never threatened him. Shared my food with him. Soon he slept in my cot instead of on the floor. It was…better. To have someone there.

“But a night came when I was ill and they still put me in the ring. I lost. They came with whips and took the boy away. He cried then, too. I’m not sure why. But the world darkened again. I looked into the eyes of an opponent one night and saw the fear. I didn’t want to hurt anyone else. The rage still came sometimes but I no longer tried to call it up. I wanted an end.

“Then one evening, I looked out into the spectators and saw an angel had come. A shining white angel dressed in black. I knew he’d come for me. I didn’t even put my hands up when the bell rang. It was time to die, I thought.”

A wistful note crept into his voice. “And the angel had come for me. My angel. He whisked me away…”

Thor stiffened suddenly in Drew’s arms, then pulled away abruptly and surged to his feet. “My angel… ohgod…no….”

Drew stood quickly as well. “Orion… Thor, sorry. Don’t run off again, okay? We’ll take you home, if that’s what you want?”

“Home?”

“Yes…well, the home you’ve known for the last couple years anyway. We’ll take you to the Prince, your angel. If you’re ready to see him now.”

“My love,” Vincent broke in, quiet but insistent. “Stay where you are. Give him a moment.”

Horror and confusion warred on Thor’s face. He took a step towards the door, stopped, and turned back with an anguished sound. Vincent held his breath when those tormented eyes turned to him and Thor rushed at him. Violence was not what he had in mind, though.

He dropped to one knee and seized Vincent’s hand in both of his. “How much did he know? All this time? When…and how?”

Vincent considered the questions carefully. There was no good answer here, only the truth. “The Prince has wrestled with the question of your identity from the moment he found you. He only had the bits and hints you could give him, from unfocused memories and fever dreams. He knew something terrible had happened. Guessed you had been in physics. Had learned your first name might have been Thor a few weeks ago when you mentioned it. But not until two nights ago was he able to place all the pieces together and find a person with a history to fit all these things.”

Thor knelt rigid and trembling for one heart-pounding moment. Then his expression crumpled and he dashed off, not outside but down the hall to the bathroom. The door slammed and miserable retching came from behind it.

Katya and Jonathan stepped into the room and Vincent filled them in on the parts they had missed.

“And the regret comes sooner rather than later.” Katya commented with a glance in Jonathan’s direction. “Maybe that’s a good thing. Should I call Elric, do you think?”

“I’m not certain yet,” Vincent said with a little shake of his head. “I don’t think Elric will be in any condition to leave his bed and I’m unsure whether Thor will be calm enough to transport home.”

“Well, only one way to find out, right?” Jonathan went to the bathroom door and put his ear to it. “Hey, big guy, you OK?”

No answer.

“Getting a little tired of pounding on bathroom doors,” Jonathan muttered.

He tried the handle, though, and found it unlocked. Thor lay curled on the floor, head buried in his arms, back heaving with his shuddering breaths.

“Beloved…please be careful.”

Jonathan shot Vincent a crooked smile. “Hey, who knows better how to deal with this kind of thing than me?”

He stepped in and wrinkled his nose while he closed the lid and flushed. Poor man obviously hadn’t eaten much over the last few days. Probably wasn’t helping his short-circuiting brain.

“Hey.” He put a gentle hand on Thor’s shoulder. “Look, I know the Porcelain Goddess is good company sometimes but I gotta tell you, she sucks to sleep with.” When he didn’t get a reaction, he reached down and gently moved one of Thor’s arms from his face. Blue eyes stared out onto some distant landscape. “Great. Ms. Kat, I don’t think it’s a good idea to move him anywhere today or try to get him to make any more decisions.”

Katya nodded her head in agreement. “Richard?”

Richard came forward as Jonathan stood and moved out of the way. He knelt beside Thor, taking up where Jonathan had just been, and murmured soothingly to him. With Richard’s help, Thor got up and Richard took him upstairs to the guest room.

“I’d like to stay with him.” Drew said softly to Vince. “He shouldn’t be left alone.”

Vincent nodded. “Of course, my love. He has recognized you and I am convinced now you will be safe.”

#

With the thick, velvet drapes pulled shut, the single, dim lamp in the corner of the bedroom only emphasized the gloom. Keit didn’t dare risk any more light for fear of bringing on one of the headaches that made the Prince so ill. His poor, battered head hurt enough.

Evening drew near and soon the hated sun would set. In the meantime, Keit sat on the edge of the bed trying to coax his highness into taking some tea and crackers. The tea he sipped, the crackers he waved away before he slipped back into his brooding.

Beyond bringing ice and staying beside him, Keit had no idea what else to do for him. He had fallen into melancholy brooding of his own when Elric’s voice startled him.

“I do not know vhat possessed me thet evening,” he began softly, ice blues eyes staring into memory. “I despise blood sports. But an aquvaintance needed an escort. She said it vould be exciting. Horrifying vas closer to the truth. These fighters vere so brutal, so intent on causing as much pain as possible. Two metches and I vished to go.”

He placed the teacup down on the nightstand. “But then they led out the most magnificent creature I hed ever seen. Led, because he vas in chains vhich they unlocked vhen they put him in the ring. The announcer called him ‘Beast’ and tried to convince the crowd he vas a vicious, vild animal. Our eyes met. I saw the anguished, lost soul there. And I could not leave until I hed been able to extrect him from his jailers. It vas expensive but how does vone put a price on a man’s life?”

“Easily, my Prince.” Keit said with more cynicism than he usually showed. “People have been doing it throughout history and in all cultures. The things humans will do to one another has always… astonished me.”

One white brow crept up, Elric’s only sign of emotion. “Perheps I should hef rephrased. I meant to say thet for me no price vould hef been too dear.” He reached out to take Keit’s hand. “Herzchen…are you all right?”

Keit lifted his eyes. “I was speaking of those men, my Prince. Not you. And no, I’m not exactly alright, but I’ll be okay.” He brought Elric’s hand up to rub his cheek across the back. He blinked back the moisture in his eyes and swallowed the lump in his throat. He would not voice the question, but he couldn’t help thinking, what would happen if Orion didn’t want to come back to them?

Elric turned his hand to cup Keit’s cheek. “Oh, my heart…please don’t cry. Please.”

Keit closed his eyes and pulled in a deep breath. It wasn’t fair of him to cry now, when Elric most needed him. He could wait until later. “Yes, sir,” he said in a husky, but steady voice.

“I did not mean it as a command,” Elric whispered. “I simply feel so…useless. I see you hurt and I cannot think vhat to do. My ections hef caused his anguish and yours. Immer das selber…alvays the same. Those who come close to me come to grief.”

Keit made a sound that was half chuckle and half sob. “My Prince, everyone comes to grief. If anything, you make the grief less.” He turned and slid down next to Elric, careful not to jostle him too much as he put his arms around him. “You don’t know what to do for me, and I don’t know what to do for you… but at least we can muddle through together. Ich liebe dich.”

“So, ja, zusammen.” Elric kissed the top of his head. “I love you, too, my heart.”

#

Drew settled on the bed beside Thor and pulled the covers up around his shoulders. For a long time he simply sat with him, watching him lie there and drift. Eventually he talked to him, little things, he told him about the Japanese garden Vince had take him to, and the latest piece of music he was working on, and when he planned to go back to school. When he got tired he lay down next to him and held his hand.

Thor’s fingers closed gently over his, though otherwise he remained still. “Drew? I…I’ve hurt him. I said terrible things to him. How could I have done such a thing?”

“You were in shock…grief makes us not think right. He knows that. Ms. Katya spoke to him already. He knows you’re here and safe. He loves you, has already forgiven you, Thor.”

“I’m not so sure I can forgive myself. What if…what if I’m really a monster? Selfish. Bad-tempered. Violent. What if I hurt someone again?”

“I hurt people I loved, too. It doesn’t mean we’re bad, it just means we have to try again, try harder.”

Thor held Drew’s hand up, straightened his fingers out, and then placed their palms together. His hand dwarfed Drew’s slender fingers. “Except when I hurt someone, I might kill them by mistake.”

Drew lifted his eyes from their hands to peer into Thor’s. “All the more reason for you to try harder. Orion… Thor, you hurt him yes, don’t destroy him by turning your back on him for good because you’re afraid you might hurt him again.”

A long silence hung between them, then, “You can call me Orion if you want. I’m not…sure Thor was someone you would’ve liked.”

Over the next two days, Thor spent most of his time in bed, eyes closed. Whether he actually slept or not was debatable but he only stumbled out now and again to use the bathroom and then crawled back under the covers.

Suggestions that he go see Elric were only met with a shake of his head while a suggestion that he call him received a wordless look of anguished guilt. Apparently, Thor couldn’t muster enough forgiveness for himself to face the Prince. Eventually, though, it was gently hinted that Katya was not kindly disposed towards long-term sloth, so he rose and showered and began to putter about the house.

Like many scientists, who often had to rig equipment and invent their own mechanical solutions, Thor had a deep-rooted practical side. He tightened down a loose toilet, fixed a slow drip in the downstairs faucet, repaired the switch for the back patio light, changed the oil in all three cars, and hung a set of shelves in the garage no one had managed to get around to. He went about all his tasks in a serious, silent way, as if he engaged in some solemn ritual rather than home repair. Perhaps if Katya had needed a handyman with a broken heart, it might have been nice to keep him.

Jonathan watched him through the window a few days later while Thor trimmed the hedges. He’d come by to see how things were and wasn’t terribly encouraged. ‘So does he talk about it? About going home?”

Katya shook her head on a sip of coffee.

“That is one big mountain of guilt out there.”

“Mm,” Katya crossed to the window to stand beside him and look out. “Well, you know that old saying about how if the mountain won’t come to the man…”

“Yes, well, been working on that,” Jonathan said and took a long sip from his own coffee. Katya poked him when he didn’t elaborate right away. “Ow. Sorry. His highness hasn’t been in much better shape, is the problem. Hardly leaves his room. Won’t see clients. Of course, I understand him not wanting to see clients with a bruised face. But he’s…eaten up inside. You can tell he blames himself even though he speaks in that same calm voice he always does.”

“But I’m working on it.” He gave her a kiss on the cheek. “How do you feel about hosting a little private, intimate dinner party?”

“You know I would do anything to help right things, my dear. However, if your cajoling does not pan out soon, I will take… stronger measures myself.” Which meant her patience was just about at an end, and one or the other of these stubborn males would soon reap the result of that impatience.

Jonathan sighed. “You’ve been so tolerant, Katya. I know you have. I hope you don’t have to.” Thing was, he feared that a Katya dressing-down would drive Thor further into himself or raise Elric’s hackles to the point where he couldn’t listen to reason. “I’ll do the best I can. And you know I’m very good.”

“Yes, you are sweetheart. Like how you just tried to placate me so I wouldn’t go and bully either one of them and ruin all your finely finessed plans.”

She had to laugh softly at the way he suddenly tried to widen his eyes innocently. She patted his arm. “I would not try to bully Elric. But if your considerable charm and wit fail to produce the desired results, we shall have to examine other options. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He gave her a soft smile and leaned his head on her shoulder. Maybe it was all they had been through together, maybe it was some other strange connection but Katya was the only woman who could see straight through him. His own mother certainly never had. He loved her for it.

#

In the dark sanctuary of Elric’s bedroom, blue eyes opened to a whispered argument outside his door.

“Please, Jonathan, he’s been very clear about–”

“I know what he’s been clear on and it’s too freaking bad. His brain isn’t operating on all its cylinders.”

Keit’s desperate defense of the door having failed, the knob turned and Jonathan poked his head in. “Sir? I know you don’t feel well but could I talk to you? Please?”

The headache was better today. He truly should have been out of bed except that he had no energy, no appetite, and no interest in getting up. He hitched up against the headboard and waved Jonathan inside. “Vhat is it, junge? Hes something heppened at home?”

Jonathan winced. Not a good start when Elric called a person ‘boy’ instead of one of his pet names. “No, sir, everything’s fine at home. Except that we’re all worried about you. How are you?”

“Splendid. Never better,” came the softly ironic response.

“Sorry, sir. Stupid question.” Jonathan came to perch on the edge of the bed, his look of anxious concern not one he had to conjure up. He spoke for a while about Vincent and Drew, always coming back to the worry that nagged at them all. “Keit doesn’t look so good either, sir, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“It pleases me so thet you feel you must remind me of these things.”

Honestly, did the man have to hide behind sarcasm when he was miserable? Jonathan bit back a heated response. “Katya would like the pleasure of your company tomorrow night. For dinner. What should I tell her?”

“Tell her she should issue her own invitations instead of sending a manipulative little messenger boy.”

Jonathan hung his head, bottom lip between his teeth. The tears stinging the backs of his eyes weren’t show either. He had expected an initial refusal but not such a harsh one.

A white hand reached out to cover his. “Süsselein, I am sorry. Thet vas uncalled for. Please forgive me.”

“Yes, sir,” Jonathan whispered but a tear still fell.

“Please understand. I cannot see him this vay. So hideous.”

“Sir, you‘re exaggerating. Sorry. But your nose is back to normal and the bruises hardly make you hideous. You’re still beautiful. What’s he going to think if you don’t come? That you’re afraid of him now?”

“I do not fear any man,” Elric said in a low growl.

“Then come to dinner. Please. A chaperoned, supervised dinner–”

Elric sighed. “Tell her I vill come.”

#

“Of course he wants to see you, Orion.” Katya told him as she smoothed the collar of his shirt. “Why else would he agree to come tonight?”

He looked at his shoes, his deep voice soft with misery. “To tell me it’s done. He wouldn’t do it any other way than face to face.”

“Mm, you are correct; he would not end a relationship any other way. However, I seriously doubt that is his intention tonight.” She paused. “He wishes to talk to you, he loves you, and he’s missed you. Accept that, at least, and listen to what he has to say before you jump to any conclusions. Alright?”

He nodded, his huge barrel chest expanding in a sigh. Orion. He had insisted they call him by the name the Prince had given him and he wasn’t entirely sure why. What was he to say to this man? The man who had saved him, nurtured him, nursed him, and, yes, had loved him? What if he saw him again and felt…nothing?

“I’m scared, Ms. Kat. I’m sorry.”

Katya cupped her hand to his cheek. “It’s okay, to be scared. It’s normal. Courage comes when we face those fears anyway, no?”

“So I’ve heard.” His forehead creased. “Maybe I’ve never been brave.”

#

Keit paused on the stairs when he heard an anguished sound from his Dom’s room. He rushed to Elric’s door only to find him standing in his dressing gown, staring at his closet.

“Sir?”

“I cannot do this,” Elric said, running a hand over the side of his face. “How am I to face him vhen I cannot even think how to dress?”

“You can’t be that cruel, sir,” Keit said gently. “He is expecting you now. What will he think if you cancel?” he asked, coming forward to help him pick out clothes to wear.

“It is paralysis, not sadism,” Elric muttered. His heart gave a painful thud as his words brought to mind Orion’s last shouted epithets. “Am I cruel, herzchen? Are there times vhen you thought me so?”

Keit had never seen Elric so uncertain of himself, his confidence so shaken. It broke his heart nearly as much as it had when Orion left. “No, my Prince. You have never been cruel. Here…” Keit withdrew a dark emerald silk shirt. Not blue, which might seem cold on him, or red, which might be overwhelming right now. The green would be soothing. He took out fitted trousers in a dark charcoal as well. Very nice yet casual enough for a dinner party.

Elric let out a long breath and seemed to recover himself a little when he shooed Keit back out to let him dress. Why he had to dress in private, he couldn’t explain but it had been that way for a long time. Perhaps because he did it so deliberately, an audience would have destroyed the feeling of ritual.

He let the dressing gown fall from him and stood naked at the mirror. The bruise on his hip was the only sign his body carried from that day while his face…he sighed. Green and purple ran along the left side of his jaw while the skin around his right eye was still distinctly blue. At least I have some color in my face… He choked back a laugh, unwilling to give into nervous hysteria.

He pulled on the clothes Keit had set out for him and searched his shoe shelves for the right boots, black ankle boots with a relatively low heel, then sat down at his dressing table to brush out his hair. He tied it back, grimaced at the severe effect on his bruised face, then teased out the front just a bit and left the back alone. His hands shook as he placed the single emerald in his ear. He supposed it would do.

Appearances. Even when one was miserable and uncertain, one had to keep up appearances. He strode out and down the stairs where Keit waited with his coat in hand.

Keit handed it to him and kissed his cheek, then stood discretely to the side of the front window, watching until Elric was gone. Part of him had hoped he would be invited as well, and that part was sorely disappointed to be left behind, this meeting was so important. He reined those thoughts in, though. Orion and Elric needed their time and space to reconnect, if there was to be any hope of a future together.

When Elric arrived, Richard answered the door, much to his relief. He greeted everyone as he came in and spotted Thor…Orion…Gott im Himmel, what was he supposed to call the man? He hovered in the doorway to the dining room. Their eyes met briefly and Orion’s slid away to a spot on the floor.

Elric very nearly turned and walked out. Only Katya’s glare held him in place.

As if she wasn’t sure if even that would hold him long, Katya came forward and took his arm, leading him inside while Richard took his coat. “I’m so glad you came, Elric,” she murmured softly. “I’m sure there are things that you and Orion would like to discuss.” She took Orion’s arm as well as she glided past. Dwarfed between the two of them, she nonetheless was definitely the one in control of the situation here, in her domain.

In the dining room, a carafe of coffee waited, along with two place settings on the table, one at the head, and one on the immediate right. “I thought it might be better for you to speak privately. Dinner isn’t quite ready yet.” With that said, she kissed Elric’s cheek, and Orion bent when she turned to him so she could place one on his cheek as well, and then she left them.

Elric took the chair at the head of the table, straight and outwardly cool. He poured for them both, as he had always done, and when the big man still stood staring at the floor, he said softly, “If you do not vish to be here, no vone vill force you to stay.”

With a creak, the other chair accepted his weight, eyes still unable to lift from his lap.

“Thor.” Elric pronounced it as it should have been, ‘Tor’. “Do I call you this now?”

The big hands spread and then clasped together tightly. “I don’t know. If you want.”

Elric leaned an elbow on the table and put his chin in his hand. He supposed he hadn’t expected the boy to rush into his arms but this chilly reception threatened to snap his heart in two. “Am I so horrid, then? So revolting you cannot look at me?”

Thor shook his head. “No…it’s not…I mean, I can’t…” With a soft cry, he buried his face in his hands. “I can’t do this! God, I can’t! Please…it’s too much!”

“I vill go,” Elric said softly. “I hef upset you, Thor. It is obvious you no longer feel the same. I shall not torment you vith my presence.” He started to rise. A huge hand shot out and clamped onto his wrist, preventing further movement.

“No…you don’t understand,” the deep voice trembled with the earthquakes rolling through his chest. “Please don’t call me that. I can’t…it’s not…” He reached out his free hand to trace a finger along Elric’s jaw. “I…hurt you. I could’ve killed you.”

“But you did not.” Elric swallowed hard despite himself. “You could hef. But even in your darkest moment, in your rage and grief, you pulled the blows. The physical hurts vill mend.”

“But not the emotional? I said terrible things to you.”

“Orion,” Elric whispered. “Do you still love me?”

Orion withdrew his hands, chest heaving. He lifted his head and finally looked, truly looked, at the man next to him, his Eagle Prince, his angel… “Yes. God help you, yes.”

Elric turned in his chair and opened his arms. “Come here.”

With a strangled sound, Orion flung himself to his knees and buried his head against Elric’s chest, sobbing as if his heart had been torn from him.

Katya walked into the kitchen and a little smile curled her lips. Richard gave her a questioning look and she bestowed upon him one of her full dazzling smiles that made his knees weak. “I’d say things will work out just fine.”

“I hef missed you so,” Elric whispered into the mane of honey-blond hair.

“You don’t even know who I am anymore,” Orion hiccoughed. “I don’t know who I am…”

“You are the same man. There is simply…more of you now.” Elric stroked a hand over his broad back. “Although there vas certainly an awful lot of you to begin vith.”

Orion managed a strained laugh. The sound seemed to surprise him into a larger one. It felt as if an iron cage around Elric’s heart shattered and it beat freely again.

Chapter 287 – Thor (1)

“There, do you see?” Elric pointed a shaking finger at his computer screen.

Keit leaned in closer. The article had some incomprehensible title about aggregate anomalies of something or other. The picture, however, drew his gaze and could not have been clearer. A large man, obviously the scientist presenting the article, stood behind a lectern. The hair was shorter, the eyes focused and sharp, but Orion’s face and frame were unmistakable.

“I must tell him,” Elric said in an anguished whisper. “It is wrong, morally, ethically, to keep this from him.”

Keit slipped his arms around him, offering his solid comfort. “My Prince…” He shook his head and bit his bottom lip, then let out a soft breath. “Not right this minute you don’t. It will make no difference if it is today, tomorrow, or in a week. Give yourself at least a day to think before you tell him.”

So cool and distant with everyone else, Elric wrapped his arms around Keit and held him close, trembling. “I am about to lose him, mein herz. And I cannot bear it.” He clung for a moment before he went on more reasonably. “Not right this moment, no. He sleeps and I vould not rip him from his peace. Come. Ve shall both go up to him and hold him.”

He tugged Keit with him, the afterimage of Thor Heimdahl still on the computer screen as they left.

Keit let himself be led, but before they went in he stopped Elric and slid his arms around him once more. He was upset, both for Elric and for himself…but he was also a reasonable and practical man, and if he could offer his Prince any comfort, he needed to. Cupping his hand to the side or Elric’s face, he kissed him lightly. “Sir, you know it may make no difference to him. It doesn’t mean you…we, have to lose him.”

“It is true,” Elric whispered, his fingers combing through Keit’s hair. “The demage may be too great for him to recall this other life.” He drew in a deep breath and pulled Keit close. “I hef a terrible feeling, though, and I hope it is only my own fears.”

He took Keit by the hand again and led him to the canopied bed where Orion’s giant frame lay curled. They each took a side and Orion rolled onto his back to wrap them in his arms and settle them against his chest, though he never woke.

The next morning over breakfast, Elric decided he could not wait. The guilt caused by silence, however brief, would eat his heart from the inside. “Liebchen,” he began softly. “I know now vhat your name vas. Before. I know, in part, who you vere.”

Orion looked up from his eggs, head cocked to one side. “Who was I, mein herr?”

“You vere a scientist.” Elric took his large hand in both of his. “A physicist of some reputation, come to this country as child from Scandinavia. You…vorked for the government, it seems. Perhaps. Thor Heimdahl’s career becomes cloudy after he…you left MIT.”

Orion finished his orange juice, brows furrowed. “Thor. Yes. The shadows whispered that name to me. But what it means…” He shook his head. “I do not know this man.”

He stared at the table for a few minutes as if the wood might hold answers. Finally he heaved a huge sigh and rose. “Mein herr, I am tired today. Could I go back to bed?”

“Of course, liebchen.” Elric kissed his cheek and watched him wander out, an anxious cloud over his heart.

Keit pushed his fork around aimlessly on his plate watching Orion go. He no longer felt hungry. Last night he’d been sort of optimistic. After all, just because Orion knew who he was didn’t mean he remembered it, or that it would automatically change him… But now, now he was worried.

It was a rather long day. The Prince cancelled his appointments and stayed in his study. Orion did not reemerge from his room. Keit told Sasha and Caroline to go home. After fretting about in the kitchen, debating if he should make lunch or not, he finally decided to go upstairs and check on Orion.

He slept, a deep, unnatural sleep from which even Keit’s gentle touch did not wake him. His brow furrowed and he mumbled, “Let me sleep, sweetness,” but his eyes remained closed and who he thought he spoke to was unclear.

At dinnertime he came back downstairs, walking as if he trod on glass. He smiled and kissed them both but his eyes were shadowed and the little he ate was probably more to please his companions than out of hunger.

Liebchen, you do not feel vell?” Elric asked softly.

“There is an ache, mein herr. Behind my eyes. It claws at me and will not let go.”

Elric put him back to bed with aspirin and a backrub, hoping to ease whatever gnawed at him. Orion went back to sleep and still slept when it was time for Keit to go to work the next morning.

“Go, herzchen,” the Prince told him with a gentle hug. “I vill call the doctor if he is not better by noon.”

Reluctant and worried sick, Keit did as he was told, a terrible feeling of abandoning them when they needed him nagging him all the way to work.

Elric sat on the top step staring out into space. It had been years since he felt so lost, so helpless, and he hated the feeling. Perhaps he should show Orion the articles he had found, tell him more, try to fill in the gaps with him.

The first scream yanked him to his feet. The second had him barreling down the hall and through Orion’s door.

“Oh, God! Jake! Nononono!” Orion knelt on the floor, head clutched in his hands as he rocked, keening.

Elric knelt with him and touched his shoulder softly. “I am here, liebchen. Tell me vhat you see.”

“I told him not to! But they made him start without me!” He let out a bellow of rage and anguish. “How could they be so stupid? I warned them and warned them it would go wrong. God, oh, god! Half his body was black with char…half his face had melted…oh, fuck…oh, my poor Jake…”

“You are certain, in the smoke and the dark, that it vas him?” Elric asked in a spare whisper.

“My goddamned ring was still on his finger!” Orion/Thor roared. “Of course I’m sure!” He surged up and stalked out.

Elric swallowed hard and followed though he had no idea if Orion still knew him. The big man stood in the front hallway, chest heaving, tears streaming down his face.

Liebchen, I’m so sorry,” he began. “I know vhat it is to lose–”

“No! No you don’t!” Orion whirled and seized him by the shirtfront. “Your spouses died whole and quickly! Mine died in agony, a twisted, malformed parody of himself!” He hauled Elric up, his feet dangling six inches off the floor. “You have no idea!”

“No, I suppose no one could.” Elric knew he should be terrified but he couldn’t muster any fear. His heart was breaking for this man, both men, the one he loved and the one he had been.

Orion’s eyes narrowed. “And you. How long have you known? How long have you kept this all from me?”

“I only discovered who you vere the night before I told you,” Elric answered calmly.

“Liar!” Orion bellowed and backhanded him hard across the face. “You sick, twisted little sadist!” He tore the leather collar from around his throat and flung it to the floor. “You just wanted to keep me captive here for as long as you could! Your private sex toy!”

“I hef tried to do only vhat vas best for you, liebchen,” Elric whispered, dizzy and nauseous from the blow.

Orion hit him again, the fist connecting with his jaw like a wrecking ball. “How long have you known?”

He struck again and again. By the fourth blow Elric hung like a broken doll from his grip. With an anguished cry, Orion dropped him and stalked out of the house in nothing but a pair of jeans. The scene he left behind had a surreal quality, Elric sprawled face first on the white tiles, his alabaster hair pooled around him, covering his face and offering a strange counterpoint to the thin rivulets of carnelian creeping across the floor.

Keit pulled up in the driveway and cut the engine. He hadn’t been able to concentrate at work, and his anxiety was only growing worse the longer he stayed. So he called it a day at lunch time and went home early to see if Orion was feeling any better.

As he stepped out of his car the front door flew open and Orion strode out. The tense, aggressive set of his body, the determined, anguished look on his handsome face, and the lack of collar told him more than any words that something was gravely wrong here.

Keit slammed the car door and rushed over to him. “Orion? Are you alright?” As he drew closer he notice one other thing that set his racing heart into full blown panic. There was blood on his hands. “What happened?”

Orion paused and looked at him in a puzzled way as if trying to recall his face. “I don’t blame you,” he muttered, half to himself. “You came after.”

He shoved past Keit and strode on, down the drive and onto the street, heedless of gravel underfoot and Keit’s frantic calls after him.

 

Keit ran after Orion a few paces, calling after him.

 

“Fuck fuck fuck!” He turned around and ran back toward the house. Much as he was worried that he needed to follow the big guy, he couldn’t keep chasing him not knowing what was inside the house, and why Elric wasn’t out there already.

 

Taking the steps two at a time he dashed inside and stopped cold for a heartbeat when he saw Elric lying unmoving and the blood on the floor. “Oh god…oh shit!”

 

Oddly enough, as he knelt beside Elric to examine him gently, the thought of calling Jerrett popped into his head. He was the last person on Earth he should have been thinking of for help, almost anyone else would have been a better first choice, but that was who came to mind. “Oh, my Prince… oh, shit…” he murmured frantically as he lifted his hair and checked for damage, afraid to move him.

 

Elric stirred with a soft moan. He pulled his hands in and pushed up far enough to drag himself three feet towards the door. “My love…” he whispered before he collapsed again.

 

Orion wandered from one neighborhood to the next, one street much the same as the last. Orion…what a strange name to give someone. A giant hunter. Maybe not so strange. To be named after the god of thunder was little better.

 

God…Jake… The memories were too sharp, too horrible, too overwhelming. He clutched his head and cried out in his agony. A woman across the street picked up her child and ran away. “Jake…my beautiful Jake…”

 

His feet took him onward when he no longer saw the world around him. A blanket of gray horror wrapped around him and he could no longer recall if he had begun walking with a destination. At one point, he looked up and his brow furrowed at the house in front of him. He knew this house. He had been here. Maybe the people were friends.

 

Exhausted, aching, chest burning with too many tears, he made his way to the door and rang the bell.

 

“Please.” He spread his hands and tried to get his shaking voice under control. “Please… do you know me? I…I’m so lost…”

 

Richard opened the door and his usual calm composure was hard pressed to remain in place. “Orion?” He stepped out and put a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder. “How did you get here?” he asked, looking around and not seeing Elric or Keit or any type of car in the driveway. “Did you walk all the way here?”

 

“Walked…I guess I did.” Orion looked into the man’s face and knew he could trust him. “I know you, I think. I don’t know what to do…”

 

“Come in, come in and sit down.” Richard guided him gently inside. “Are you alright? What happened? Where is Elric?”

 

Elric…the name skittered across his thoughts and slid away, his mind too full of past horrors to contain the present. He shook his head, unsure which question he answered, and sank onto the offered sofa. One of his feet bled. He must have stepped on something. Strange bloody footprints trailed in his wake, blood following him since that day…

 

“How long has it been?” Orion asked softly as he stared at the floor. “Since the accident?”

 

Richard pieced some things together quickly and wondered who was with him. “No one really knows. At least two years.”

 

Years?” Orion cried out in anguish. “Two years…god…I couldn’t even bury him. I don’t know if there was a funeral. I don’t even know where he is…damn…oh, damn…Jake…” The weight of despair crushed him. He buried his head in his hands and began to sob again.

 

Katya stepped into the room at the same time Richard put his arm around Orion’s broad shoulders. He looked over at her with a deeply concerned expression. “He’s remembering,” he explained simply.

 

The questioning look softened and then became troubled. Oh, dear. “Liam, go and get some bandages, please,” she murmured to the man who had come up behind her. She came closer and took a seat opposite Richard and Orion, uncertain if he would accept comfort right now, although he seemed to accept Richard’s steadying presence.

 

“My dear, we will help in whatever way we can,” she offered gently, not at all certain how that would be yet. She needed to call Elric as soon as she could, but she wanted to make sure he was stable before she left to do so.

 

Liam returned quickly with the first aid kit, clean cloths, and water. He knelt beside Orion and hesitated briefly, but Orion was cooperative and let him have his foot to look at. The gash fortunately wasn’t too long or too deep and Liam had it cleaned and bandaged in short order.

 

“Would you like to lie down and rest?” Katya asked.

 

“I’m…not sure I can.” But he let Richard and Liam help him lie down and cover him anyway. Shivers hit him hard and another blanket settled on him. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to steady himself. Nothing felt better but at least he felt less afraid now, less alone. “Thank you.”

 

Katya touched Richard’s arm and kissed his cheek. “I’ll be back,” she said softly, not having to tell him what she was going to do or to stay with him.

 

She went into her office and closed the door before calling Elric to tell him where Orion was.

 

Elric heard the phone through a haze of pain. He wanted to get up to answer it but couldn’t puzzle out which direction up might be.

 

He heard Keit answer and his end of the conversation as he walked into the bedroom with the phone still clutched in his hand.

 

Keit had been out to look around the neighborhood twice after he’d gotten Elric into bed, and he was more than relieved to hear Katya’s voice telling him Orion was at her place now. “He’s at Katya’s house, Sir,” he informed Elric, in case he hadn’t gotten that from his end.

 

Elric tried to hold out his hand for the phone. His arm fell over the side of the bed. Keit obligingly placed the phone in his hand, closed his fingers over it, and lifted the arm back up to his ear.

 

“Katya?” His voice came out a hoarse whisper. The bed would insist on pitching at a hard gallop. “He knows who he is. His name is Thor. Thor Heimdahl. Take care, please. It is as if the loss of his beloved has only just occurred and he is…in agony.”

 

“And so are you, my dear,” she said softly, knowing how much this must be tearing him apart. “I will take care of him, never fear. Until he decides what he would like to do. And I will keep you apprised.” She paused. “Elric, let Keit take care of you. I’ll call the moment anything changes.”

 

“He blames me…” His voice slurred a bit before he could catch himself. “He believes I hef lied to him.”

 

Katya bit her bottom lip lightly and shook her head. “It’s the grief that makes him think such things, Elric. Give him some time,” she said gently.

 

A sigh hitched in his chest. No one else would have been privy to such weakness, but this was Katya. “All that he needs…anything. Please let me know.”

 

She promised and Keit took the phone from his uncooperative fingers. “Süsselein…” Elric’s breath caught again, his lack of control perhaps due to the disorienting pain in his head. “The room spins. I cannot think. I hef ected foolishly…”

 

Keit sat on the edge of the bed and smoothed his hand over Elric’s hair. “No, my Prince. How could you have done anything differently? You did exactly what you had to do, for him, despite what it would mean for you.”

 

“I should hef stayed vith him. Guided him through this. Showed him the articles. Explained all thet ve knew. Instead I throw the information in his face and vait to see vhat he might do vith it. If he hates me now, I cannot blame him.”

 

“Sir… you don’t know if easing him into it would have resulted in anything different. He doesn’t hate you. How can he? He’s confused and angry and grief ridden… he doesn’t understand anything yet. I think Ms. Katya’s right, you need to give him some time.” He slid down from the bed to kneel beside it so he could look into Elric’s eyes and hold his hand. He kissed the backs of his fingers. “I’m so sorry…” He laid his cheek on the back of his hand. “So sorry. I wish there was something I could do.”

 

“Come hold me,” Elric whispered. “I need you.”

 

Keit gladly complied, sliding next to him and gently folding his arms around him. Elric pulled him closer, and Keit kissed the top of his head. His heart ached not only for Elric, but for Orion as well. Somewhere along the line, he’d fallen in love with the big man as well, and he felt just as abandoned. He kissed him again, stroking a soothing hand over his hair.

 

Elric steadied in those beloved arms. His heart felt no less battered but it was possible to think again. “If ve hef lost him ve shall mourn but he must be allowed to find his own vay again now.” He sighed and stroked Keit’s back. “I think I need some ice.”

 

“At least he’s in safe hands for now, sir.” Keit tried to reassure him before slipping back out from his arms to go and fetch some ice.

 

~*~

 

Katya returned to the living room where Orion still lay on the couch and Richard sat with him, a comforting hand stroking his back. As large as he was he looked like a child lying there with the blanket tucked up around his shoulders. He lay there, but his eyes were open and he shuddered as he stared off into the past.

 

Kat sighed inwardly. Why oh why did it have to be her door he came to? Not that she wasn’t glad he was safe with her, or minded having him, but she was probably the worst person to help him with his grief. She cared, she was sympathetic, but she was better with the realms of logic and reason than comfort and nurture.

 

“Orion…” She called softly, since he was awake. “Or, would you rather I call you Thor now?”

 

“I’m…not certain what my name should be.” He scrubbed at his face with both hands. “Thor, I think.”

 

“All right.” She paused. “I imagine you must have a lot of questions…I want you to know that you can ask them, or just talk to me, if you need to. If you’d rather have time to think first, that’s alright, too. Whenever you are ready, my dear.”

 

“Thank you.” He whispered. Older memories crept in on soft feet. He had never been able to sit still, always the one who had to make things happen. His first time asking Jake out had been more a demand than a question. Jake had laughed and then said, all right, since he didn’t have a choice. Decisive…demanding…maybe a little arrogant, he had been these things.

 

He sat up and looked at her, this beautiful woman who always seemed much larger than her physical frame. “I need to know what happened to Jake. Please. Jacob Moyers.”

 

“Okay.” She said gently, and leaned over to put a kind hand over his. “We will find out, together. I know… I know you must feel awfully alone right now, but you do have friends…people who care about you. We will help you find your way.” She patted his hand. “Let’s start looking.”

 

The search took no more than twenty minutes. Most newspapers kept obituaries online, many archived for a number of years. Finding Jacob Sterling Moyers, dead at age twenty-four, proved heartbreakingly easy. The face looking back at Katya was model perfect but so honest and cheerful one couldn’t help be drawn to it. Jake’s picture had a little smile, as if he held some secret he would be pleased to share if asked nicely.

 

Jake’s remains had been taken back home to his family in Portland where the funeral had been held, four years before, not two. The obit made no mention of Thor.

 

He sat next to Katya, hands clasped tight between his knees to curtail their trembling. It did no good. His whole body shook. “Jake…” he whispered and reached a hand towards the screen. “God…”

 

Tears blurred his vision again. “How do I go on without you now?” he asked softly. “Why didn’t I die with you that day?”

 

Katya laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “As painful as it is, you will find a way to go on. Four years ago, apparently, your way of dealing with that pain was to forget everything. What had happened, who he was… who you were.” She paused. “I don’t think you want to forget him this time, do you?”

 

“No…no…” Thor shook his head, trying to keep the sobs in check. “Never again…I need… I need to remember. All I can…”

 

He had to give in to the pain for a few moments again, unable to speak. The horror of that day, of finding Jake’s mangled, burned body in the lab, would be with him the rest of his days, shake him from sleep years later, but the mind cannot look at horror unceasingly.

 

“I need to make sense of it,” he finally whispered. “To understand what happened. Or at least how.” He took a deep shuddering breath. “The Dragon Prince…he could help…”

 

Katya thought he meant Elric for a moment, and then remembered Orion had referred to Vincent as a ‘dragon’. “I’m sure Vincent will be happy to help you in any way he can.” She said, and then added, “Elric as well, would give you anything you need.” She said it evenly, trying to keep any hint of rebuke from her tone. Now was not the time to chastise him for attacking and abandoning the man who had taken him in and loved him dearly, although it took a heaping helping of her willpower not to do so. The thought of him hitting Elric and leaving him on the floor bleeding made her furious, but for now, she kept that fury in check, for everyone’s sake. “I’ll call Vincent.”

Chapter 283 – Welcome Home

“You sure you’re up to this, babes?” Jonathan stopped his whirlwind progress through the condo to crouch by Vincent. “You still look kinda…”

Vincent arched a brow at him. “Kind of what? Dreadful? Like death riding in from a late night carnival?”

“Um, no. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘tired’.”

“Ah.” Vincent lay back against the sofa cushions. “Well, since I have you as my personal event manager, I have no need to even get off the sofa, do I?”

“Ducking the question, oh Prince of Dragons,” Jonathan said in a dry tone.

“I’m fine, beloved. Yes, I’m still tired but the need for ceremony outweighs such things. And we’ve only invited family.”

Jonathan chuckled and returned to his preparations for Drew‘s homecoming. ‘Family’ ended up at about twenty-five people but he knew what Vincent meant. Everyone coming was someone they felt close to, all comfortable, old friends along with Drew’s actual kin since his mother would be coming, too. Der actually got the honor of bringing Drew home from the hospital. Jonathan was a little irritated about that but it couldn’t be helped. Too much to do.

#

Drew finished tying the bandana in place at the back of his head. Looking in the mirror he didn’t think anyone was going to mistake it for a simple fashion accessory. He’d dropped a few pounds and his normally pale complexion looked almost translucent. With his hair gone he looked like a cancer patient. He actually felt better, but he still looked sick. He was going to have a hard time convincing Jonathan not to mother him. He stepped out of the bathroom, switched off the light and found he had company.

“Hey tiger, I hear the warden granted you a pardon,” Phil said.

“Yeah. Going home today,” Drew confirmed. “What are you doing down here? Don’t you have some nut cases to take care of?”

“Like I said, I heard you were getting a pass, so I came to say goodbye. The inmates can hold their own for a few minutes,” Phil said. “Vincent coming to get you?”

“No, Der is. I’ll see Vince and Jonathan when I get home.”

“You take care of yourself now. Don’t go doing too much right away.”

Drew rolled his eyes. “As if Jonathan would let me.”

Phil chuckled. “Right, right. Not much chance there.”

Drew smoothed the blanket on the bed and sat on the edge. It felt a little strange to be dressed in regular clothes again. “Phil…I, um… I just wanted to say, I’m sorry. You know, for trying to…” He made a little gesture toward the bathroom, remembering how he’d stepped out of the shower and got down on his knees in front of Phil because Josh had told him to.

“Now don’t go doing that. We both know you couldn’t help yourself. I’m just that damn sexy, you couldn’t resist,” Phil said, puffing up his broad chest and doing a little strut.

Drew laughed. “OK. Well, thanks for understanding.”

The sound of chain-festooned jackboots rang in the hall, no mistaking to whom they could belong. Der’s sharp-toothed grin was so bright it got there before the rest of him. “Hey, sugar bear! Ready to blow this pop stand? Hey, Phil! Are you our official escort or do we have to wait for someone else?”

“I’m here unofficially,” Phil said.

“I already signed the release papers.” Drew bounced up to kiss Der’s cheek. “Did you bring the bike?”

“’Fraid not, sugar bear. I like my head attached to my shoulders, and I’m pretty sure Jon would take it right off if I drove you up from the hospital on my chopper.”

Drew sighed dramatically but he was smiling. He gave Phil a hug, which the big man accepted a bit awkwardly at first and then settled on a warmly paternal hug in return. They said their goodbyes and Drew and Der were on their way.

As they got close to the condo, Drew suddenly asked Der if they could stop at the park.

“I promised I’d bring you right home. People coming over and all that.”

“I know… just, can we stop for a few minutes? Please?”

Der took the next corner and eased the hearse over to the curb next to the park. “All right. Couple minutes.” He got out and jogged around to the passenger side to hand Drew out. Yes, yes, the boy said he was fine but he looked like a soft breeze would blow him away.

Drew walked slowly next to Der across the grass and to the little trail that ran around the duck pond. It was late afternoon, almost evening. The shadows were long under the trees and the temperature was cooling. They walked past the bench they had once shared when Drew had spotted Der feeding the waddlers and feeling melancholy. A little further on, they passed the place where Jonathan had found him after he’d had a bad day and almost slipped back into an old life.

He didn’t know what he was doing here, why he wasn’t rushing home to see Vince and Jonathan. He should have been overjoyed, but he felt a little anxious. He knew he was making Der a little worried, too.

He supposed he just wanted to stretch his legs a little, breathe in fresh air not tainted with hospital smells. He had joked about being an ‘inmate’, but he really had felt like that at some points. Trapped. Caged.

Der was getting antsy, Drew could tell. They’d walked quite a way already and still had to turn around and go back. Drew stopped at the other end of the pond. Hands in his pockets he stood looking down into the water. The sweater he was wearing was enough to keep off the chill, but the wind went right though it and he shivered. He saw Der about to say something and Drew beat him to it.

“What do you think happens when we die, Der?”

Der blinked and had to regroup before he could answer. Ah. So it was that kind of mood. He put a gentle arm around Drew’s shoulders to offer his solid warmth. “Well, if we’re talking about me, I’m going straight to the devil since I’ve been such a bad, bad boy.”

No little laugh came from Drew, not even a smile. Not the time for bad jokes, obviously, you idiot. Der cleared his throat and began in a pensive tone. “I’ve never died, love, so I don’t know for sure. I used to believe in heaven and hell, when I was little. But those things didn’t make sense to me as I got older.”

He curled down to kiss the top of Drew’s head. “Vincent’s theory is that spiritual matter is like physical matter. It can neither be created nor destroyed. So there is no end. Only another beginning when you die. A new start. I suppose that’s closer to what I think happens. Not like I’m one of those people who claim to remember past lives. But I think we probably had them.”

Drew gave a single small nod, but didn’t look up. “What if there’s nothing? What if this is all we get? We know we’re here, and then we’re dead, and that’s it. Nothing. We’re just…” Drew shrugged. “Worm food.”

“Drew…” Der said softly.

Drew looked up at him. “I’m sorry, Der, I’m not trying to, you know, bum you out. Really.” He took a deep breath and put his arm around Der’s waist. He started slowly walking again, back the way they’d come. “Sometimes I think people just tell themselves there’s something after this, so they don’t get depressed or scared. I want to believe there’s something. I want to think that Angela and Vince’s mom…that they got another chance…even Josh…”

Drew took another breath. Maybe he shouldn’t have walked so far after all, he was tired.

“Nobody can say for sure, you know,” Der said softly. “And anyone who says they can is either deluded or selling snake oil. But if this really is it, a one shot deal, all the more reason to make the most of it, isn’t it?”

Der swept him up in his arms when he felt Drew’s steps falter. “There’s no reason we should be here at all. It’s magic, life, that it happens in the first place. And while we’re here, there’s beauty and there’s love and sometimes people even find a little happiness.” He gave Drew a soft kiss when they reached the hearse again. “I’d say that makes it worth the price of admission.”

Drew didn’t say anything more, but he returned Der’s soft kiss before they got in and finished the ride home.

#

“What the hell is taking Schiller so long?” Jonathan asked with a scowl.

“Patience, my coyote,” Vincent said and patted his arm. “You know how hospitals can be. Discharge is not always a swift and efficient procedure. They’ll be here soon.” His voice was calm but he understood Jonathan’s mood. Everyone else had arrived except the guest of honor and there had been no call to say they would be delayed.

“I’ll just go see if I can spot them, shall I?” Anthony offered on a bright smile and dashed out the front door. Various odd thumps and thuds followed and then booted footsteps overhead.

“Vince, that lunatic’s gone up–”

“Yes, beloved, I know.” Vincent pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “Just let him go.”

The hearse slid up to the curb a mere five minutes later and once again Der came around to help Drew out. Not that he truly needed it but it made Der feel better.

From up above somewhere, a voice belted out, “Oh, Valencia! With you blood still warm on the ground…”

Der’s gaze traveled up and spotted Mad Anthony, balanced on the roof beam. He flung one arm up and answered, “Valencia, I swear by the stars, we’ll burn this whole city down… What are you doing up there, you muttonhead?”

“Looking for you, of course. Mr. Kemp’s having kittens.”

Der sighed. “Oh, fabulous. Come down from there and guard my back.”

“For you, big guy, anything,” Anthony said with a bright grin. He half-ran, half-slid down the roof, stopped himself just short of the edge, leaped off and caught himself one handed on the eaves before he landed as gracefully as any cat.

It was probably a testament to the strangeness of his life, but Drew wasn’t at all fazed to come home to people jumping off his roof. “Hi, Anthony,” he said as they walked up to the door.

“Hey, cutie! How’re you feeling? You need anything? Nice bandana. I like the blue. Good with your eyes. Jonathan’s got lots of food. You’re probably hungry. Hospital food sucks big time–”

“Dear gods, what’s Jon been feeding you?” Der muttered. “Bowls of sugar?” He peered more closely at Anthony who grinned and ducked his head. “No, wait. I haven’t seen you this perky in weeks. You’ve been getting some…”

Any further interrogation had to wait, though, as Jonathan flung open the door. “Drew! Are you all right?”

Guilt assailed Drew for the extra half hour he’d taken before getting home, but he smiled for Jonathan and slid his arms around him. “I’m fine, sorry we took so long.”

Jonathan hugged him close and kissed his cheek, but Drew noticed he was looking at him now in almost the exact same way Der had just scrutinized Anthony. Drew grinned. “No, we didn’t make a pit stop for a quickie.” He chuckled and nuzzled under Jonathan’s chin.

“Hmph. I would hope not. Just out of surgery and all.” Jonathan turned with an arm around Drew and led him inside, pointedly leaving Der on the doorstep.

Their progress was soon blocked by people wanting to see Drew, to hug him, to tell him welcome home, Jonathan put two fingers in his mouth and whistled sharply. “Hold on, ladies and gentlemen, and make a path, please. There’s someone Drew needs to get to first.”

The little crowd parted to form a friend-lined path, opening to reveal Vincent waiting on the sofa. He held his arms out and whispered, “Drew.”

As much as Drew would have liked to fling himself into Vince’s arms, he knew it was probably not a wise idea, and Jonathan would probably faint. He settled for a modest rush and wrapped his arms tightly around his neck as he dropped into Vince’s lap.

There was a soft ‘aww’ that lasted all of two seconds before Xavier rolled his eyes and commented, “Jeez, it’s like watching puppies snuggle or something.” Which got a few chuckles and giggles and diverted enough attention that Vince and Drew could have a semi private moment or two.

“Hello, my love,” Vincent whispered, their foreheads pressed together. “It’s so good to have you home.”

In the kitchen, Der had gone to help Jonathan carry things out and found himself backed into a corner.

“You said you’d bring him right home!” Jonathan stabbed a finger at his chest. “You promised! What the hell is wrong with you? Where the hell have you been?”

A hundred smart ass things occurred to Der but something about this little assault felt off. Jonathan had been treating him like…well, like he used to, when they’d first met, ever since Drew went to the hospital.

“He wanted to stop at the park,” Der answered softly. “He was having one of those ‘what’s the meaning of life’ moments. It wasn’t more than a few minutes. Jon? What have I done to make you hate me again?”

“Don’t be stupid. I don’t hate you.”

“I take you in ‘cause you’re too scared to go home, make sure you and Vince are looked after, and you haven’t done anything but snap and snarl at me since.”

Jonathan turned his back, hands flat on the counter. “I…I didn’t…”

“Yes. Yes, you did.” Der reached out a hand and pulled it back again since he wasn’t sure how even a gentle touch would be received. “Jonathan?”

“You…he…when Vince was so sick,” Jonathan began in a low voice. “I…I slept on the floor next to him. I wanted to be near if he needed me. But I wanted…I wanted to go to you, too. And I couldn’t. Because…because…”

“Because Brandon was in the bed with me?” Now Der put a hand on his shoulder and turned him.

Jonathan nodded, bottom lip caught between his teeth. “I miss you sometimes, you dork.”

“Jon…sweetheart…I’m sorry.” He folded Jonathan into his embrace and held him tight, though he had no idea how to make it better.

Brandon paused in the hall just outside the kitchen. He’d been about to see if they needed any more help. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop…but in a way he was glad he’d overheard before they knew he was there. Now would probably not be the best time to pop his head in. Feeling a little strange he quietly went back the way he’d come with Jon and Der none the wiser.

Shouldn’t he be upset that his boyfriend was trying to comfort his lover for not paying enough attention to him? Instead of being angry though, he felt bad for keeping Jonathan away. God, sometimes this was just so fucking confusing.

Jonathan heaved a breath and pushed back gently. “Christ, I’m sorry. You finally have someone who makes you happy and Drew’s home and everyone should be happy and I act like a bitch.” He waved a hand fretfully. “Don’t pay any attention to me. Too much stress.”

Though Der didn’t think it would help to just let things go at that, Jonathan was right about one thing. This was Drew’s day. He picked up a tray in either hand and let Jonathan put on his charming host face and pretend nothing had happened.

Out in the living room, Vincent trailed gentle fingers over Drew’s cheek. “Are there headaches, my kestrel? Are you feeling relatively well?”

“The headaches aren’t bad,” Drew said. “Dr. Lassiter says they’re normal. My head is sore though, like I clunked it on something and got the biggest goose egg in the world.”

“I suppose it’s a small price to pay for being able to see the world as it is again,” Vincent said softly. “I like being me in your eyes again and not someone else.”

Der put the trays down and was about to go over to Anthony to find out who he’d been seeing. Cold waves of panic washed over him when he saw Anthony lean down to whisper in Sasha’s ear and kiss his cheek. Jerrett was standing right there, for gods’ sakes. Anthony was trying to get his handsome nose bashed in.

With every intent of preventing a tragedy, Der started across the room, and then stopped in confusion. Jerrett had seen the interaction, leaned over to put an arm around Anthony’s shoulders with a sensual smile, and pulled MA in for a searing kiss.

“The things people don’t tell me,” Der grumbled to himself and went to find Brandon instead.

He found Bran off to the side a bit with Xavier in a seemingly intimate conversation.

They had their heads together a little too close to be engaged in just friendly chatting, which was almost more alarming than seeing Anthony with Sasha a moment ago. A quick scan of the room placed Dave preoccupied talking with Jonathan. Worse, when Der walked up they both clammed up for a second, and then got nearly identical expressions of nervous innocence.

“Hey big guy, watcha up to?” Xav asked with a smile.

“About two meters or so on a good day,” Der answered, his forehead creasing. “You know, I’m beginning to feel like the man who fell to Earth today. I don’t seem to quite be making the right communication connections anymore. You think maybe something might be broken? Signals not getting through?”

“It happens sometimes.” Xav said. “I’m sure it’ll work itself out. I’ll see you guys later.”

Brandon watched him go. He knew Der was waiting for him to say something, but he really didn’t want to get into it. Xav and him had been talking about some of the difficulties of making open relationships work. It wasn’t that he didn’t want Der to know what they’d been talking about, he’d just wanted another person’s perspective.

Brandon slipped his hand in Der’s and kissed his cheek. “You okay?”

“No, by all the gods, no I’m not,” Der growled, though his fingers tightened around Brandon’s. “Drew wants me to tell him where we go when we die and then Anthony looks like he’s swallowed a whole flock of canaries and doesn’t tell me anything and then Jonathan tells me he doesn’t hate me after all, he misses me and why isn’t anyone talking to me in sensible sentences anymore?”

Brandon sighed, but it was directed at himself. “I’m sorry Der, I wasn’t trying to keep anything from you, sweetheart. I just needed a few minutes to think. I overheard you and Jonathan in the kitchen…” He paused. “I didn’t want to make anything worse, by walking in.” He paused again. “Maybe…maybe you should stay here tonight?”

Der flung up his hands in a gesture of helpless frustration and in an uncharacteristic moment of pique, stalked out to the patio to be alone. No one, but no one, not even his sensible, solid Brandon was making any damn sense. He flung himself into a chair, pulled a beer out of the cooler, flicked the top off with a claw and sulked.

Brandon sighed again, but didn’t go after him. He was still sensible enough to know when a man needed some space.

“What did you do?”

Xavier looked at Jonathan with wide eyes and put an offended hand to his chest. “Me? What makes you think I did something?”

“You were talking to Brandon, now Der’s out on the patio pouting.”

“Jonathan, I swear, I didn’t start anything. I didn’t even give Brandon any advice. Didn’t have time to. If Der’s upset it’s not anything I did.”

“Right. Such an innocent. Even if you didn’t do it yourself, your fingers are so in it,” Jonathan said with a little snort. For a moment Jonathan debated going out after Der himself. Something about that didn’t seem like a good idea, though.

He glanced over at the sofa. Drew and Vincent were still wrapped in each others’ arms, sharing a moment of soft laughter. Oh, that did his heart good to see the two of them smiling. They needed their peace for a moment more, too.

Instead, he sauntered over to Brandon. “Hey.” He nodded towards the lanky figure sprawled in the patio chair. “Big guy all right?”

Brandon opened his mouth, seemed to switch whatever he’d been about to say, and said, “I don’t know.” He sagged a bit with worry. “He’s mad because nobody’s making sense to him today.”

“Oh. Crap.” Jonathan took a long drink of water. “Here I am trying to blame Xav and I’m probably the one who upset him, huh?”

Brandon cleared his throat. “Well, it’s probably not just one thing. I think he’s had a tough day.” He glanced out and watched Der studiously not looking inside. “I suggested he stay here tonight and he acted like I suggested he move out or something. I didn’t mean it as a bad thing.”

Jonathan gave him an odd, sideways look. So that was it. “OK, let’s see if I got what happened here. You have Der all to yourself for, what? Two nights? And then you hear me whining to him in the kitchen, right? So you get all confused and think you’re doing a good thing and he feels like you’re shoving him away when he needs you to unconfuse him. Sound about right?”

“No.” Brandon said, although it was obvious Jonathan hit it on the head. “Shouldn’t you go apologize to Xavier?” he suggested.

“Oh, hell, no. I’m sure he did something he needs to be blamed for today.” But Jonathan took the hint and moved off in that direction anyway.

Brandon stepped out onto the patio, snagged a bottle of beer from the cooler and sat down next to Der. “Hey there,” he said hesitantly. “I, uh, didn’t mean to chase you off, hon.”

Der waved a clawed hand in his general direction, his moment of anger quickly sinking into melancholy. “S’alright, hon. I know…what you were trying to do. I think. And I should be really happy today, shouldn’t I? It just feels like I’ve made a mess of everything right now. I can’t seem to piece things together. Maybe I’m just tired.”

“Luckily I know the perfect remedy for too much tension,” Brandon said with a far too serious expression, which he then ruined with a lecherous grin.

Der managed half a smile though he didn’t exactly rise to the bait. “You are, without a doubt, the best remedy for relieving all sorts of things. Stress. Tension. Headaches. Bouts of depression. But it doesn’t help me solve what I’m wrestling with right now.”

He took a pull from his beer, then stared down into it. “Bran? How do you feel about Jonathan?”

Brandon’s eyes lifted, sort of a casual glance around to make sure they weren’t being overheard. “He, um, reminds me of one of my ex’s,” he answered, perhaps a bit too honestly. “It’s the fussiness.” He cleared his throat. “I like Jonathan, though.” He paused. “It made me feel bad for him, that he misses you.”

A little chuckle rumbled in Der’s chest. “The fussiness…yes, well. It’s partly a front, when he doesn’t want to deal with something and it’s partly a way of keeping his world in order. It’s no secret; Jonathan was an addict before he met Vincent. Rushing down a long, dark hallway to horror and oblivion. Keeping things in order helps him…keep on track, if you like.”

He reached over for Brandon’s hand. “I don’t want him to miss me. And I don’t want you to feel bad. And I don’t want you to miss me. What I want…” What did he want? His problem had always been that he wanted everything. Which flavor? Yes. Red or blue? Both. “I’d like you to be comfortable with each other. Enough that one doesn’t feel like they have to leave the room for the other.”

Brandon blinked. “You think I’m… I’m not uncomfortable around him. Do I seem that way?” he asked, genuinely surprised. “Or, do you mean he’s not comfortable with me? That, I can see. I don’t know how to fix that, Der. I thought when they were staying with us that…that he’d get used to me, but it didn’t seem to happen.”

Actually Brandon got the impression that Jonathan had to suppress a flinch every time he talked to him. He had no idea why. He didn’t consider himself all that intimidating, and he’d gone out of his way to try and be casual and friendly with Jonathan.

“Ah. Now, as to that.” Der heaved a slow breath. “That has more to do with history than it does with you, love. You’re tall, dark and handsome, and, no, I’m not kissing up. You are. Broad-shouldered. Strong. Unfortunately, Jonathan suffered long-term abuse and finally a kidnapping and near deadly beating at the hands of someone who shares many of your physical features. Now, never mind that you don’t share any other damned thing with this bastard, Pretty Jon can’t help the twitch. It’s almost hardwired.”

Der’s fingers drummed restlessly on his bottle. “He doesn’t react that way around Vic. But he’s known Victor for years and through a lot of shit. I think it’s a matter of…familiarity. Of having other associations. And he really has always kept a polite distance with you. Maybe the three of us should have dinner later in the week. And we’ll see if we can’t make things better.”

“Sure, Der. Although, I don’t think there’s going to be a sudden change of heart on his part, you know? If you’re right, I think it might just take time. I meant what I said, though. If you want to stay, spend some time with them… I do understand.”

Of course, by ‘dinner’ Der was hoping there might be more than just going out to eat but he kept that to himself for the moment. “Not tonight, love.” He lifted Brandon’s hand to kiss his fingers. “They need their time tonight. Drew needs his rest and his Dom and his Jonathan and they don’t need any interference, even from me.”

Brandon saw the logic of that, and he couldn’t say he was unhappy about it at all.

“Hey, sweetie.” Jonathan slid onto the sofa on Drew’s other side and wrapped his arms around him gently. “What can I get for you?”

Drew leaned back into him and closed his eyes, resting his head on Jonathan’s shoulder. “I got everything I need.” Which was a corny as hell thing to say, but Drew didn’t care. It was true.

Jonathan drew in an uneven breath. It felt so damn good to hold the boy again. “You say the sweetest damn things,” he murmured and kissed the top of Drew’s ear. “But you have to be starving. You need to eat some real food.”

“Don’t move, J, you stay right where you are.” Cody appeared before them with a huge plate of carefully selected items, little sandwiches, cucumber and carrot slices, and the bacon wrapped scallops Drew liked. He set the plate on the coffee table in front of them. “Drew looks so comfy, so sit still for once in your life and enjoy the moment.”

“Thanks, Codes,” Jonathan said with a soft smile. Family, yes, it was nice to have family around at a time like this.

Drew ate, but more because it made Jonathan happy than because he had any real appetite. Although, it was certainly worlds better than hospital food. Filling his belly had an unwanted side effect. He was yawning by the time he finished. They had a house full of people who had come to see him, to wish him well, and he could hardly keep his eyes open.

Victor and Elric had their heads together across the room. Katya soon joined them in low, earnest conversation. Victor snagged Ethan as he wandered by, Elric beckoned Jerrett over and Der was flagged down as he came back inside. It all looked rather official and ominous, this heads-of-household conference.

Finally, Elric broke from the group and approached the sofa. He placed a hand over his heart and offered Vincent a little bow of courtesy. “Brüderlein, ve are honored thet you chose us to be here vith you on this joyful day. But ve are in agreement and vill not be persuaded othervise.” He waved towards the group of Doms, who formed a steadfast and unanimous wall. “Ve hef decided not to overstay our velcome so thet you may hef the rest of your evening in peace and privacy.”

“Oh, sir, you don’t have to,” Jonathan protested. “I mean, I could put Drew to bed and–”

“I don’t believe I invited debate,” Elric said with a chill smile. He looked over at the group. “Did I?”

They all shook their heads as one, far too stern and serious, the lot of them.

Vincent chuckled. “Very well then, we surrender to such a well-coordinated conspiracy. And we’ll have a proper party at some later date when everyone feels better rested.” He gathered his crutches and rose to make the rounds, to thank everyone for coming.

Drew was uncomfortably embarrassed that he’d lasted only an hour before looking like he might keel over, but way down he was relieved that this little gathering was being cut short. He was more exhausted than he’d thought he would be.

Everyone came to wish Drew well before they left with lots of hugs and kisses, even a quick peck from Jerrett, which raised a few eyebrows. Der and Brandon waited until last and Der came down on one knee by the sofa to gather Drew close.

“You’re home, safe and sound, sugar bear,” he said softly. “You feel a little better now?”

Drew had his arms wrapped around Der, his face nuzzled up to the crook of his neck. He breathed in his scent, warm skin and the leather smell of his jacket. “Yeah, I feel better.”

“Good.” Der pulled back to give him a soft kiss. “Me, too. You sleep tight, sugar bear. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He turned to kiss Vincent goodnight as well and then rose, swept Jonathan up in his arms and planted a ravenous kiss on his lips. “You hold onto that, pretty Jon. We’ll talk later.”

He put a stunned Jonathan down, took Brandon’s hand and left.

“Dammit, why does he have to be so weird sometimes?” Jonathan grumbled.

“Maybe he misses you.” Drew said, completely unaware of the irony of this statement. He yawned again. “I think I’m gonna go lay down.” He said, because it was really way to early to say he was ‘going to bed’. He kissed Jonathan and Vince and got up, heading for the bedroom.

“Would you mind terribly if I did as well, beloved?” Vincent asked as he watched Drew walk away.

“Go on, babes, you’re barely keeping your feet,” Jonathan said softly. “I’ll just put the food away and finish cleaning up in the morning.”

“Don’t be long.” A hint of a smile tugged at Vincent’s mouth and he followed Drew down the hall.

They hadn’t discussed it, but Drew instinctively headed for the master bedroom rather than his own. Vincent followed slowly, one crutch at a time, too tired to swing himself along as he normally would. “You don’t mind, my kestrel, if I lie down with you?”

Drew smiled as he pulled his clothes off and threw them in the hamper. “I was hoping you would, but it’s so early I didn’t want to ask.” He pulled back the covers and slid between the sheets.

“I’m afraid I’ve been spending almost as much time in bed as you have lately,” Vincent said as he eased down onto the mattress with a sigh. “Though it’s much better to have company.”

He toed off his slippers, glad he hadn’t bothered with socks, pulled his shirt off over his head without undoing the buttons and hoisted himself up on the bed to shimmy out of his jeans. He left the boxer briefs on, a wave of heated impatience taking hold of him. He simply had to have his skin against Drew’s without another moment’s delay.

Drew was only too happy to snuggle close. He was so tired of sleeping alone in an uncomfortable hospital bed. He tried to think of the last time he’d slept with Vince and couldn’t remember, he’d been so…weird before he’d finally freaked out and went into the hospital. The thought suddenly hit him that it had been quite a while since he’d had any sort of intimate contact.

He breathed Vince in, holding him close as his hand drifted over his skin. He had been so tired, he was still tired, but his body was responding to Vince’s warmth and closeness anyway.

Vincent’s throat tightened. He had been so afraid he would never have this again. The times when Drew’s eyes had radiated such unreasoning rage or looked at him with dread and panic had nearly made his heart shatter. He buried his face against Drew’s shoulder, his hand stealing up the back of his neck to stroke his scalp where just the slightest hint of fuzz had begun to grow.

He lifted his head, trying to control the hitch in his breath, and pressed his lips to Drew’s in a tender, searching kiss.

Drew returned the kiss with tender warmth, his lips moved softly over Vince’s, his graceful fingers stroking lightly along Vince’s chest. He thought he knew why Vince’s breath was catching in his throat, and he did not need to ask what was wrong. Instead he concentrated on making sure Vince knew he was here with him wholly and reconnecting with him after they’d been through so much. “I love you,” he whispered between slow kisses.

“Drew…my Drew…” Vincent murmured against his skin as he moved his kisses down his jaw. “I love you so.”

He turned to press them closer, chest to chest, thigh to thigh. His hands wandered down the contours of Drew’s back to cup his lovely butt, pulling him in tighter so their shafts rubbed together. The heat was only beginning to rise, a comfortable warmth, but Vincent knew it wouldn’t take long.

“Hey,” Jonathan’s voice came from the doorway. “Oh, so not fair starting without me.”

“We were just keeping the bed warm.” Drew said, placating. “Come join us,” he suggested, sliding his hand down Vince’s body to stroke the stiffening member rising under his touch.

The way Vincent moaned in response almost made Jonathan faint as the blood all did a sprint from his head. His hands shook as he tore off his clothes, which he draped over the chair but didn’t bother to fold for once. His stomach trembled with need and desire too long denied as he slipped in under the sheets behind Drew.

“So hot,” he whispered against Drew’s shoulders as he licked and kissed. Straight from the hospital, Drew didn’t quite smell like Drew yet but he didn’t care. He rubbed against Drew’s ass, Vincent’s hand finding his cock in the bargain. “Oh…god…missed you so much…”

Drew groaned and pressed back into Jonathan. “I missed you, too,” he whispered heatedly. The slow and tender warmth he and Vince had been building suddenly seemed as if they’d just been waiting for the third in their triad to set the spark to such carefully laid and ready tinder. Drew bent his head to lick and suck at Vince’s nipple, his fingers curling around his erection and stroking more firmly.

Vincent’s hips rocked in time with the strokes. “Drew…oh…” he gasped out.

“Tsk.” Jonathan reached over and stilled Drew’s fingers. “Getting Vince all out of breath. You know he hasn’t been well.”

He rolled Drew onto his back and pulled him down until his head was almost level with Vincent’s crotch.

“Beloved, what are you thinking of?” Vincent asked with a chuckle.

Jonathan leaned over Drew to give him a scorching kiss. “I want to please you both at once. I’ll do all the work. You two can lie back and relax. Please?”

“All right, since you’ve asked so politely,” Vincent said as he rolled to his back.

“Oh, good.” Jonathan began by running his hands over both bodies laid out before him, kissing and licking here and there. He spread Drew’s thighs and dove between to lick at his balls while he reached in the nightstand drawer for the lube.

Drew shivered under Jonathan’s caresses and spread his legs farther in invitation. “God, I want you…” Drew said in a needy murmur. His hand moved to his own cock for a few sensual strokes, both because it felt good, and because he knew Jonathan liked the view.

“Mmm,” Jonathan purred, his eyes, full of heat and tender mischief, traveling up to meet Drew’s. He licked along Drew’s fingers while his own lube coated finger teased at Drew’s back door.

Vincent shoved pillows behind his head, content to watch, knowing he wouldn’t be forgotten.

Drew hissed a little breath and a heated moan escaped him as Jonathan slid his fingers into his tight passage. Oh yes, it had been awhile. Jonathan’s two fingers were squeezed tightly and Drew thought he was going to melt with the pleasure of it. His head turned and he nuzzled at Vince’s hip, despite Jonathan wanting him to just lie back and relax. He was so stimulated he had to do something.

Though he wanted desperately to rush forward, Jonathan took his time. Drew was so tight and tense with need, it took a little coaxing before he relaxed properly and opened enough to take another finger. He reached up and stroked his forefinger up and down Vincent’s shaft in the meantime, just to keep him warmed up.

When he felt Drew was ready, he exchanged fingers for the head of his aching erection. “Christ, sweetheart…so tight…” he panted out as Drew’s puckered entrance practically pulled him in. He had to stay still and concentrate on breathing for a moment so he wouldn’t go over too soon.

Drew bent his knees up farther with a needy little whimper and Jonathan sank farther in. Now he was in position where he could complete the circuit. With his cock buried deep inside Drew’s tight heat, he leaned over and swallowed Vincent’s waiting erection down to the root.

“Jonathan…oh, so good…” Drew murmured as he kissed and licked the side of his throat. His fingers found Jonathan’s nipples to pinch and tease while he eased in and out of him. He nipped his skin and sucked the spot into his hot mouth.

Vincent’s fingers sank into Jonathan’s curls, urging his head up and down. Jonathan’s cheeks hollowed as he increased the suction and Vincent didn’t care how long he held out. It simply felt too damn good. He guided Jonathan’s still-lubed fingers down between his own cheeks and cried out when he was breached, molten pleasure surging through him.

“Beloved…faster…harder…gods, you’re so wonderful,” Vincent got out on heavy gasps.

Naturally Jonathan obliged, keeping the same rhythm for both of them, hips, mouth, fingers, all dancing to the same heavy, thumping beat.

Drew eagerly stroked his achingly hard cock as Jonathan bucked hard between his thighs. The muscles of his abdomen tightened down as the pressure built. He panted, hips rocking in time with Jonathan until he couldn’t take any more. “Ohhh…I’m gonna come!” He got out in a desperate rush. “Gonna…uhhhh Jonathan…yesss…” His tight little hole clamped and spasmed around Jonathan, and he moaned with pleasure.

Jonathan groaned hard around Vincent and drove his fingers in a little harder. Vincent cried out and gripped his head so tight, he couldn’t move. The little, gasping cries came closer and closer together and Jonathan had his second reward when Vincent came hard, hot seed spilling across his tongue.

The taste, the sounds, the hard squeeze of Drew’s orgasm clamping around him and the hard hold Vincent had on him flung him up and over, a tsunami-crash of a climax roaring through him. His hips bucked and jerked through the first spasms and then he lay still, moaning around Vincent’s cock while he rode the last spasms deep inside Drew.

Drew lay unmoving as Jonathan’s weight settled on him. For a moment he wasn’t sure if he was going to stay conscious. There was a fine tremor in his muscles that was partly from the pleasure of release and partly sheer exhaustion. He couldn’t have moved if his life depended on it. He felt Jonathan’s soft lips press to his. He couldn’t open his eyes, but he did respond, his lips caressing back and tasting Vince’s flavor on Jonathan’s mouth.

The tremors telegraphed to Jonathan and he eased back carefully. “Poor sweetheart,” he murmured and settled at Drew’s side so they could hold him between them. He snagged the blankets from the foot of the bed and covered them all for good measure, afraid Drew would get chilled.

Vincent snuggled close and settled Drew’s head on his shoulder, a weight he had missed more than he could have imagined.

Drew fell asleep almost immediately, feeling safe and secure for the first time in weeks.

“Welcome home, my love,” Vincent whispered and kissed the top of his shaved head. “Welcome home.”

Chapter 282 – Never Alone (3)

Two hours later Dr. Lassiter came into the waiting room, clipboard in hand. She was not smiling, but her expression was triumphant nonetheless. “We’ve got something, Vincent. The first MRI didn’t show it, but there is an arachnoidal cyst presenting on the left middle cranial fossa.” She took a breath. “This is good news, it’s a very real possibility that this is the cause of all of Drew’s symptoms, and it’s operable.” She held up the clipboard. “If I can have your autograph, I have a neurosurgeon waiting.”

Vincent reached out with trembling hands and signed as if his own life depended on it. He managed to hand the board back before he buried his face in his hands. “Thank the gods…oh, please, please, let this be it,” he whispered as tears stung the backs of his eyes.

“You may want to go home,” Dr. Lassiter suggested. “It’s going to be a few hours.”

“No. No, I won’t leave him.” Vincent shook his head as he fumbled in his pocket. All this time he had managed without an attack and now his chest began to tighten.

Alone again, he sank back into brooding, wanting to reach for hope, no longer certain he could find it. People came and went. No one spoke to him. He might have been a marble statue or perhaps he had achieved invisibility.

The chairs creaked as a large body settled beside him. “Hello, there.”

Vincent’s head snapped around at the deep voice. “Victor?”

“Well, yes. I had a rather unhappy call from Jonathan who said you were down here by yourself and had forbidden him to come,” Vic said, his forehead creased with worry.

“He hasn’t been well. I didn’t want to upset him more.”

“In that you’ve failed, my friend. He’s upset and demonstrating true drama queen anxiety.” Vic took him by the arm. “You really should give him more credit, though. He’ll have his moments but he has deeper reserves of strength than most of us can imagine.”

Vincent nodded and turned to lean his head on Vic’s shoulder. “Soon. I’ll call him down here soon. Thank you for coming.”

“You’ve always been there for me. Of course I came.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes until two more familiar figures rounded the corner.

“Hey, bud, how’re you holding up?” Dave settled on Vincent’s other side, Sebastian next to him. “Der said you sounded really strange when he talked to you. Big guy’s worried sick, so I said we’d come down and check things out.”

“I’m…all right. They’ve taken Drew to surgery to remove a cyst pressing on his brain. They think it’s the cause.”

“That’s good, right?” Sebastian spoke up. “I mean, they can cure him and shit now.”

“One hopes,” Vincent murmured.

Dave handed him a pack of crackers. “Knew you wouldn’t be eating. Gotta keep your strength up, yeah?”

“Thank you, David. That’s very thoughtful.” Vincent opened the package and even managed to choke down a few bites to please him.

On the heels of their arrival, another small group wheeled around the corner. The Prince, flanked by Orion and Keit, swept in, every head turning as he passed. He’d pulled out all the stops, dressed in eighteenth century finery with a ruffled white shirt, tight velvet trousers of midnight blue, a gentleman’s coat in the French style and his best black riding boots. Only Elric could pull off such outlandish outfits in public and escape appearing ridiculous.

“So.” He settled across from Vincent, left ankle propped on his right knee. “I hef hed two unheppy calls today, brüderlein, from Jonathan and Derelict. They seemed to think you vere no longer reasonable.” He tented his fingers, red eyes watching Vincent closely. “You seem reasonable to me but I must take you to tesk.”

“Why would that be?” Vincent asked softly, not certain he wanted the answer.

“You still seem to think you must face every terrible turn in life alone. Responsibility is vone thing, my dear, trying to shoulder the troubles of the entire vorld alone is medness.” Long white fingers waved at Vincent’s companions. “Though I see others of your friends hef already reached the same conclusion.”

Vincent nodded, unable to speak for a few breaths. “They will shave his head. All of his beautiful hair…”

“It vill grow beck,” Elric said with a snort. “And they save his life. I believe thet is more than compensation for a few veeks lost vanity.”

~*~

Drew opened his eyes slowly, blinking as the world came into focus. His throat hurt. Nothing else hurt yet as far as he could tell. There was an oxygen tube up his nose, various other wires and tubing running out from under the blanket covering him, a steady soft beeping came from one of the monitors beside the bed.

He swallowed and winced. His throat really hurt, and he wanted something to drink desperately. He tried to lift his arm and found he was restrained. If he’d had the strength he would have snorted. He could hardly move. Honestly, what did they think he might do? His head rolled to the side and there was Vince. Drew smiled. “Hi,” he whispered in a cracked voice he barely recognized.

“Hello, love.” Vincent unfastened the nearer wrist despite what he had promised so he could press Drew’s fingers to his lips. “Do you see me now? Only me?”

“Who else?” Drew said and licked his dry lips. “You took it off.” He indicated the restraint. “Aren’t you going to get in trouble?”

“I don’t think so, not now,” Vincent said with as much of a smile as he could muster. “My darling kestrel, you had a terrible episode. You thought I was someone else. They took you back to the MRI and found a cyst, a large, fluid-filled sac, pressing against your brain. You have been in surgery, love. They removed it.”

“Oh.” Drew blinked again, still in a groggy post-anesthesia fog. “In my brain?” It took a moment or two but the magnitude began to sink in. “Th-they… operated on my brain?” He took his hand from Vince’s and reached up, feeling carefully, and found his head wrapped in gauze. He didn’t have the energy or lucidity yet to panic, but he was a little worried. No, a lot worried. No one wanted to hear about some doctor having to mess around in his brain.

“So… so, they figured out what was wrong? They fixed it?” he asked, still processing. “A cyst? Does that mean… like, cancer or something?”

Vincent took a tighter grip on his hand. “Not in your brain, love, perched on top of it. They went in with tiny surgical tools and removed it. Some cysts are cancerous. This one was not. But it was causing you considerable discomfort. I wish you had told me about the constant headaches earlier.”

He laid his head next to Drew’s shoulder, still not entirely convinced he should be relieved, too exhausted to think things all the way through. “You must lie still, love, and lie flat. Things need to restabilize. If you sit up too fast or too soon, you will have a terrible, blinding headache. But the disturbances should be at an end. You should get well now.”

Drew brought his arm down behind Vince, his elbow still bent so his hand rested on Vince’s hair. He looked so drawn and gray; he probably hadn’t slept or eaten much. “I’m sorry I worried you, Vince,” he said softly. “You should get some sleep…how is Jonathan? And Der?”

“Worried,” Vincent said on a strangled chuckle. “They were in to see you but you are only allowed one visitor at a time.” So typical of Drew, to be concerned about his loves when he’d just come off the operating table.

Vincent lifted his head and waved a hand around the room. “I think everyone you know has been here to see you. I asked them not to bring flowers since the scent might make you nauseous.”

Around the edges of the room, along every inch of wall, floated mylar balloons in various shapes and hues.

“That beautiful black and silver group.” Vincent pointed to the one in the near corner. “Is from the Prince. The rather exuberant bunch of butterflies.” He indicated the neon-bright ones farther on. “Is from Anthony. The bear-shaped one, of course, is from Derelict. The more tasteful group in shades of blue and green to match your eyes are the ones Jonathan brought. The musical notes are from Victor and Cody. The cheerful little ‘get well’ balloons are from David and Xavier. Ethan and Quinn brought you a little stuffed dog to watch over you.”

He nodded to the nightstand. “Even Orion wanted to leave something for you.” Perched on the nightstand were three more stuffed animals, a gray coyote, a black wolf pup and a shimmering white dragon.

Drew tried to reach for them, remembered his other wrist was still restrained, and undid the cuff. He lifted the coyote. “This is for Jonathan, of course.” He picked up the wolf pup. “And this is Der.” He traced his fingers along the spinal ridge of the dragon. “This must be you. He’s never said before what he thought you were. He’s always just called you my velvet prince. He must have figured out what you were finally,” Drew said with a little smile.

“Yes.” Vincent took a slow breath. It was so good to see that smile. Drew’s normal, everyday smile. “He says I am the child of wind and stars. So one must assume his view of dragons does not include the mindless, virgin devouring sort.”

He leaned in to give Drew a soft kiss. “Would you like me to send Jonathan in now? He’s promised to be calm.”

Drew brightened. “Yes. I want him to see I’m OK. He’s probably been driving everyone nuts.”

“Off and on, yes,” Vincent admitted in a dry voice as he rose. “Though Der and Brandon’s apartment has probably never been cleaner. And he has made them some elaborate dinners. I‘ll be back soon, my love. They have said I‘m to go to bed now, though, whether I‘m willing or not.”

Within seconds of Vincent’s departure, Jonathan arrived. He hesitated at the door, took a step in, and then hurried to the bed. “Hey, sweetie. Christ…oh, it’s good to see you.” He reached out as if he would take Drew in his arms, then recalled instructions and took his hand instead.

Bottom lip caught between his teeth, he met Drew’s gaze. Those big, hazel eyes seemed to take up his whole face since he’d dropped weight and all his hair was gone. He looked like some lost elfin child, out of place in the sterile hospital bed. “How do you…how do you feel?”

Drew smiled for him, truly glad to see his unlikely paladin. “I’m good.” He brought Jonathan’s hand up to his lips to kiss his fingertips. “Vince said I’m not supposed to sit up yet. I’ve missed you, so much.”

“I’ve missed you, too.” Jonathan hitched a breath and shook his head. “You just don’t know.” He slid the rail down so he could lean on the bed with his arm across Drew. “I told them and told them you weren’t crazy. Nobody ever listens to me.”

His fingers traced over Drew’s cheek. “Do you remember all that stuff? The visions? Or is it all gone now?”

“I remember…some.” Drew hedged. He didn’t know if he remembered everything, but he remembered a lot of things in vivid detail. Jonathan didn’t need to know that. His pretty hazel eyes grew serious. “I remember I said some…not good things to you. I’m sorry, Jonathan,” he breathed, his fingers tightening around Jonathan’s.

“You said some pretty awful things, sweetie,” Jonathan murmured. “But I know it wasn’t me you saw sometimes and sometimes it was but you were seeing…different. It’s not your fault.” He kissed Drew’s cheek and gave him a wink. “And, you know, I won’t mind too much if you want to make it up to me when you feel better.”

Drew smiled at him. “I feel good now…and I’m not supposed to get up anyway. You could get naked and slide in next to me.” He picked up the edge of the blanket and made a show of moving some of the wires and crap out of the way. “Plenty of room, I won’t tell if you don’t.” He grinned cheekily.

Of course, the sight of all the tubes and wires bled the mischief from Jonathan’s eyes. “Stop that,” he snapped and tucked Drew back under his blankets. “You need to behave yourself until you’re well again. And don’t you let Schiller talk you into anything either.”

He was trying much too hard for irritated but the way his black lashes stuck together as he blinked gave him away. “Just…please don’t do anything like that to me again. I was so sure we were losing you. Sure that horrible girl was trying to kill you or something. I was so…scared…”

Drew’s knuckles pressed to his forehead, he fought to keep his promise. He had told Vincent he wasn’t going to cry.

“I love you, Jonathan. It’s OK,” Drew whispered, his fingers caressing where they touched Jonathan’s skin. “You can cry, I won’t tell.”

Jonathan didn’t burst into tears but he let them go, put his head on Drew’s shoulder and sobbed quietly. All the terrible days and nights of fear and uncertainty, then all the worse ones of waiting and being told he couldn’t see his Drew, all this had been hard. To have Vincent sick and lost on top of it all had been unbearable.

“I love you, too,” he managed in hiccoughing breaths. “I’m so glad…hell, I’m delirious to have you back.”

Drew stroked Jonathan’s hair and soothed him. “It’s ok, Jon…I’m ok.” He lifted his other shoulder as if he would sit up to wrap his arms around him and Jonathan immediately pressed his shoulders back down.

“Don’t you dare,” he warned.

Drew took a breath and relaxed back on the bed. “OK.” He stroked his long graceful fingers over Jonathan’s cheeks and brushed the tears away.

“Seriously, hon. Twenty-four hours you gotta stay flat for all that cerebrummy-spinally stuff to come up to pressure again.” Jonathan smiled when he got a little chuckle. He kissed Drew’s fingers, the inside of his wrist, the bend of his elbow and finally his lips. “I guess I better send the big goofball in, huh? He’s pouting ‘cause we left him till last.”

“Der’s still here?” Drew said with a little smile.

Jonathan snorted. “Yes, he’s still here. You think he’d take someone else’s word that you’re OK?” He stroked a finger down Drew’s nose. “I’ll see you tomorrow, sweetie. It’s getting late, I need to get Vince home and you need some real, non-drugged-up sleep.”

He smiled and waved in the doorway and then stalked down the hall to the waiting room. “’Is Der still here?’ he asks,” he fumed at the man in question. “Like you haven’t been prowling around this hospital for days while some of us weren’t even allowed to talk about coming down here!”

“Um…well. I’ll take that as permission to go see him, then?” Der edged around Jonathan, out of range of those swift, little fists.

Jonathan glowered at Vincent when Der had left. “What? What’s that look for?”

“I’m sorry, beloved. I know it was hard–”

“No, you don’t! You’ve got no clue or you would’ve let me come see Drew before now!”

Vincent’s gaze was far from cold as he met Jonathan’s. “But I couldn’t come for days, either. And I needed you.”

“Oh.” Jonathan huffed a breath and held out his hands to help Vincent up. “Well, why didn’t you say so?”

“I didn’t think I needed to.”

Der didn’t run to Drew’s room but with his long stride, he got there faster than some could have sprinted. “Hey, sugar bear!” He flung himself into the chair next to Drew’s bed. “You ready to go dancing?”

“Sure.” Drew smiled and reached for Der’s hand, though he didn’t try to sit up. He was sure Der had his orders, too. “How do you like the new look? I’m thinking I should get flames or lightning tattooed on the sides of my head.”

Der nodded. “It’s very streamlined. Very space age. But I think the glare from the lights will blind people when you’re onstage. Maybe you better work on growing the hair back.” He nuzzled at Drew’s fingers when he got a little laugh. “Oh, it was a joke. See, I forgot that you knew how to make jokes. It’s been awhile.”

 

He sat back so he could look at Drew. “It’s so good to have you back, sugar bear. When you get out of here, we have to have a few champagne toasts. To your recovery. To the fact that the condo does not house ghosts. And to pretty Jon not killing me before I got to see you again.”

“That sounds good, Der.” Drew squeezed his fingers. “How’s Brandon? Vince said him and Jon had been staying at your place for a little while.” Which was Drew’s very PC way of asking if Brandon was getting tired of guests and drama and Der spending so much time worrying over his other lovers.

Der chuckled. “Brandon is…a very patient man. But tonight we have our place to ourselves and I think he’s pleased to have our space back.”

Drew grinned. “Code for ‘I’ll be wearing leather and swinging from the chandeliers in a few hours’.”

“Leather, yes.” Der tried to look serious. “Though I’m not sure if I’ll need the knee pads or the riding crop yet…”

“Now you’re just trying to tempt me to go home with you,” Drew teased. Although, at this point he honestly didn’t think he could get up if he wanted to. He felt like sandbags were tied to his eyelids and he yawned.

Der leaned in and kissed his forehead. “You know I’d like nothing better. But you need your beauty sleep. You’ve had a busy day.” Der moved lower to kiss the bridge of his nose and his lips, gently since they were so dry. “It’s so good to talk to you again and not get my head snapped off.”

He rested his cheek against Drew’s for a moment. “I love you, sugar bear. Did you want me to sing you to sleep?”

Drew’s eyes were already closed but he nodded. “That would be so nice,” he said softly. “Der, I love you, too…make sure Vince and Jon are ok.”

“I will, hon. I’ll call to make sure they got home but I think they need their alone time tonight, too.” He held Drew’s hand, his bass rumbling softly as he began to sing, “Motherland, cradle me, Close my eyes, Lullaby me to sleep, Keep me safe, Lie with me, Stay beside me, Don’t go...”

He sang on until Drew’s breathing evened out and deepened. With a smile, he put Drew’s hand under the blankets, put the rail back up without a sound and managed to walk out without a single metallic jingle. He had to stop in the hall to wipe his eyes. Hospital disinfectants made his eyes water, yes, that was it.

He drove home whistling, feeling lighter than he had in weeks, and called Vincent as he pulled the hearse into the apartment garage. It sounded like Jonathan was making up for lost time, so he said goodnight and left them in peace.

The stairs only took a few bounds, the door already stood open a crack in anticipation of his return. He swept in and hollered, “Lucy! I’m hooo-oome!”

Smoke came tearing down the hallway, ears pinned back flat, back bristled. He hopped twice, flipped around on his back while ferociously attacking a piece of carpet fuzz, then streaked back off in the direction he’d come. Life was never dull with a kitten in the house.

“Hey Ricky.” Bran said as he nearly tripped on Smoke. He shook his head and kissed Der hello. “That cat is a menace. He pounced on Elektra’s tail earlier and I thought she was going to eat his liver. How’s Drew?”

Der pulled him close for the solid feel of that hard-packed body in his arms. “I will try not to remind you that you were the one who wanted to keep the menace.” He nuzzled at Brandon’s neck. “Drew’s very tired. Poor thing could barely keep his eyes open. But he was Drew again, entirely, wholly, without any additives, thank the gods.”

He pushed back so he could see Brandon’s face. “And how are you, love?”

Brandon gave him a smile, slid his hand around the back of his neck and pulled him in for a warm kiss before answering. “I’m good, and I’m glad Drew is doing better. As much as I felt bad for him, it was tearing me up to watch you suffering.”

Der opened his mouth to answer and snapped it shut, then shook his head on a little laugh. “Now, see, here I am worried you’d be ticked at me for neglecting you. I should know better. Good gods, you are the most wonderful, selfless person I have ever met.”

He took Brandon’s hands and sank to one knee. “But I’m still hoping you’ll let me make it up to you.”

Brandon smoothed his fingers along Der’s cheek and let his fingers slide into his hair in a gentle caress. “Oh, I think that sounds like a perfect idea.”

A little shiver of delight skittered down Der’s back. “Mmm, and what flavor would you like?” He kissed along the inside of Brandon’s wrist. “And would you prefer being the spoon or the ice cream?”

Brandon chuckled. “Have I told you I love your euphemisms? Although, ice cream is way too cold for what I’m feeling right now,” he said, his tone dropping to a husky murmur. He leaned down to kiss Der’s lips, drawing it out with sensual heat. “Why don’t you take top tonight?”

Grinning, Der leaped to his feet, hand over his heart. “I live to fulfill your every desire.”

He shed his coat and hung it on its hook by the door, then took Brandon by the hand and led him to the bedroom. He gestured for Brandon to stay where he was, disappeared into the closet, and emerged wearing nothing but black leather pants that looked like he needed a shoehorn to get on, the waist riding so low most of his black jewel line was visible.

He walked back towards Brandon slowly, one foot crossing over the other with each step, his gaze smoldering with the banked passion of many nights’ abstinence. For once he didn’t want anything too elaborate. He just wanted Brandon, Brandon, the name thudding in time to his heartbeat.

His hands slid under the hem of Brandon’s t-shirt and slid it off over his head. He closed in for a soft kiss but pulled back before it could gain heat, his fingers busy with Brandon’s fly. The jeans fell to the floor under the weight of change and keys in the pockets and the boxers followed.

Der turned them and put a hand flat on Brandon’s chest, pushing gently until he sat down on the bed. In four swift tugs he removed everything the rest of the way, Bran’s beautiful, sculpted body completely exposed, his erection already standing ramrod straight.

He waited while Brandon scooted up on the bed a little, then with a soft growl he crawled up from the foot of the bed, parting Brandon’s thighs so he could crawl between them. He stretched out atop him, devouring his lips with a searing kiss, grinding his leather-clad lower half against Brandon’s skin.

Brandon lifted his hips, rubbing his erection against the soft leather of Der’s pants. His fingers sank into his hair as he kissed him back hot and hard for several long, tongue tangling minutes. “God, I want you…” he whispered heatedly between kisses. “So damn much…”

“I’ve missed this,” Der whispered as he kissed along his jaw. “Missed your hands all over me…missed your gorgeous body…” He moaned as Brandon’s hands slid down his back to cup his butt. Oh, hells gates, yes, he’d missed those hands.

He planted a searing line of kisses down Brandon’s throat, unable to get enough of the taste of his skin. And, oh, such joy, when he took Brandon’s nipple in his mouth for a hard suck and got a hiss and an arching of that incredible body.

“Der…” Brandon whispered his name like a caress. He was so damn ready for this he was dizzy with lust, his body aching for his lover. “You are so damn sexy.”

The only answer he got was a soft growl. Der moved Brandon’s hands to the laces at the back of his leathers. Barely legal, these were his favorite clubbing pants, guaranteed to make heads turn, especially when he wore little in the way of a shirt. Brandon’s clever fingers undid the knot and parted the laces while Der reached over to the nightstand drawer for the lube and his claw sheaths.

He rolled his hips on a needy moan as Brandon’s hands slipped inside to stroke his skin. He nuzzled at Brandon’s throat and wriggled to help peel the leather down. When his erection leaped free, he moved down, kissing and nipping along the way over ribs and hard-packed abs. His hands parted Brandon’s legs further and bent his knees up while he licked along the insides of his thighs.

His breath caressed over Brandon’s rigid cock while he squeezed out a good dollop of lube on his fingers. His eyes lifted to Brandon’s face to watch as his lips closed over the head of his erection and his sheathed forefinger slid inside at the same moment.

“Ohhh…yesss.” Brandon’s neck arched, his head pressing back into the pillows. “Oh, baby, that feels so good.”

“Mmm,” Der hummed in agreement as he savored the taste of Brandon’s excitement. He sucked gently, taking more and more of Brandon’s thick erection in his mouth with each dip of his head while a second finger joined the first inside.

He waited until Brandon was squirming and then lifted his head to shift back up. Soft kisses rained along Brandon’s scarred side while Der withdrew his fingers and replaced them with his aching cock. He sank in by slow degrees, in little thrusts and forays, until he was almost swallowed to the balls.

He took Brandon’s face between his hands and went completely still, gazing down into his eyes. “I love you so.”

“I love you, too.” Brandon breathed across his lips. He wrapped his arms tight around Der and pulled him close for a kiss that was both sweetly tender and full of heat and longing.

Der’s long arms slid under Brandon to hold him tight as well, his body moving in slow rolls and undulations, his lips and tongue never ceasing their renewed exploration. He had always loved women as well as men and always would but there was something about having a hard set of muscles beneath him, a strong pair of arms around him, that took his breath away.

Brandon let himself sink wholly into the moment, the rest of the world fading completely as he lost himself in Der. Brandon had been in love a time or two, but he’d always secretly snickered at the idea of ‘making love’. Hot steamy sex, playful sex, wild sex, he’d had all those things before but only with Der could it be hot and wild and tender and sweet all at the same time.

Their bodies moved together, slow and sensual, for a long time. They got hot and heavy, and then slowed again until one or the other started edging their way back up. Finally Brandon could not resist the pull and went one step beyond the point where he could hold back and cool down again. The orgasm welled up uncontrollably and shook him to the core. His head arched back as he cried out with the sheer pleasure of his release.

The sunburst beauty of Brandon’s climax rushed up through Der’s body. He held out for two precious seconds of tortured delight so he could watch his lover’s face in the throes of ecstasy.

“Brandon, gods, Brandon,” he whispered as his hips sped in quick, hard thrusts. “So perfect…so…oh…” He followed Brandon over with a hard groan, his head cradled on Brandon’s broad shoulder.

Brandon lay, boneless and sated with his arms wrapped lightly around Der and just drifted. This was bliss, and if they could only stay like this forever things would be perfect. He had no desire to move, and Der’s weight was satisfying, not heavy.

The same not-moving thought had occurred to Der. Wrapped up in Brandon, the little silver balls on his shaft causing tiny aftershocks as his erection moved as it softened, he regretted the moment had to end at some point.

When Brandon heaved a soft contented sigh, Der lifted his head. “You know, maybe we should have abstinence weeks more often. That was Vesuvius hot.”

Brandon murmured a halfhearted little chuckle. “You want me to get a little cage for you like Vince has for Drew?” He knew about this particular little device when Der explained how Vince had punished Drew after they had been together without his permission. Brandon had been uneasy and worried about what had been done to him until Der told him.

“Now hold on, there.” Der tried for a wounded expression. “Are you saying I don’t have enough self control to last without one?” He grinned when he got another little laugh. “Actually, no, I don’t think I could wear one long term. Vince put the thing on me once to try it out and I thought I’d pass out. Come to think of it, I think I did. Way, way too much stimulation for an excitable boy like me.”

“Hmm… maybe you’re right.” Brandon agreed. “Shall we set a date then? Or just see who breaks first?” he asked, only half teasing. The idea of denying themselves for a time to build up the sexual tension was kind of hot.

“Hmm, lemme think about it,” Der lowered his head to nuzzle Brandon’s throat. “Right now I need a few good nights of this first before we start talking about who has more will power.”

“Oh, that definitely sounds like a better plan,” Brandon murmured and kissed the top of Der’s head. A few seconds went by and Brandon asked, “Maybe we should get started on this new plan right now?” He caressed Der’s back all the way down to the base of his spine.

He got a murmur and a little chuckle from Der, which he took as agreement. Their second inning was every bit as sensual and hot as the first. Making up for lost time was a wonderful thing.