Lovers with Open Minds, Friends with Benefits

Posts tagged ‘Sebastian’

Chapter 297 – Another Birthday

Chapter 243 – His Idiot

Dave had turned down the answering machine’s volume. There was only one voice he wanted to hear and no calls had come in from Vic’s house or from Xav’s cell. He’d called the cell five, no, six times already but Xav must have turned off his phone. The messages he left were disjointed and jumbled, he knew that but couldn’t help it. The anguish left no room for coherent thought.

He was a coward and a moron and a jackass besides. If only he’d just come out and told Xav, no matter what. If only he’d never done it. If only he’d stayed at the fucking morgue where everything was safe and quiet. Then his Xav would be here beside him instead of gone forever.

He tried the cell one more time. “Please…Xav…” he choked out after the message beep sounded and hung up as he burst into tears again. One more time…no, no Xav didn’t need him blubbering into his phone. He’d hurt him enough and he’d been real clear on where Dave stood with him now. Nowhere. He deserved it and he would stop tormenting Xav with his whining.

The fact that he was really gone, that was the part he just couldn’t face. He sat on the couch and turned the TV on, blindly letting the images wash over him. Time passed in a meaningless, empty way, one hour much the same as the next.

The phone had been ringing off and on. When he got up, stiff muscles protesting after hours of inactivity, he checked the numbers, bereft of hope. Vincent’s, his father’s house, Vincent again…no Xavier.

He scrubbed his hands over his face, went to the kitchen, closed the door and sat down with the pad of paper he kept by the fridge. When he finished writing, he folded the note in thirds, put Xav’s name on the outside, and then got up to go to the stove.

The gas stove.

With these older models, one could turn on the gas just enough so it hissed out into the air but no spark lit the burners. He turned them on, one by one, opened the oven and turned that on, too. He sat back down, put his head on the table and went to sleep, fully expecting never to wake up again.

“Dammit,” Sebastian muttered as he put the phone down again. He’d talked to Cody and knew Dave was probably not in a good way. Usually, though, no matter how depressed, Dave still answered the phone. He hadn’t last night and he wasn’t this morning.

“Dad?” he called down the hall. “I’m going over Dave’s…”

He got some angry, muttered response but nothing that sounded like a no, so he hurried out of the house and drove to Dave’s apartment. He told himself Dave probably just wasn’t home. He’d found someplace to go to ground, have a drinking binge and sleep it off. But he wasn’t with Ms Kat. He wasn’t with Vince. And he sure as hell wasn’t with Vic and Cody.

He pounded on the door. “Dave? C’mon, man, answer the door!” Nothing but silence greeted him. Dread lodged in his stomach; he used his key. The smell that hit him when he opened the door sent panic zipping through him. Gas…dammit, dammit, Dave….

He took a deep breath and barreled into the kitchen, turned off the burners and the oven, took Dave under the arms and dragged him out to the living room. He flung open all the windows, turned on the overhead fan and the air conditioning, anything to get the air circulating and the poison out. With a few heaves, he tugged Dave onto the window seat and stuck his head out into the clean air. He still breathed, his heart still beat.

“Christ…you shithead,” Sebastian muttered through his tears. He thought about calling 911. No, they’d lock Dave up in some psych ward like they’d done with Xav. Shuttle him off to some VA institution for broken-down, addict soldiers. God.

“Dave…c’mon dude, wake up.” He patted Dave’s face and got a moan. Good. All right. At least he wasn’t comatose. Dammit he couldn’t do this alone. He put in a call to Vincent.

Vincent hung up the phone, gray and shaking. “My loves,” he told Drew and Jonathan. “We need to go to David’s. He’s tried to kill himself.”

“Dave?” Drew said in disbelief. “What happened? I mean, what… what’d he do?” Drew was having a hard time believing Dave would try and kill himself. Even hurting like he was, Dave seemed like such a survivor.

Vince told them what Sebastian had said while they got into the van.

“Maybe it was an accident,” Drew couldn’t help saying, though he knew better.

Jonathan snorted. “One burner left on is an accident. Four? And the oven? Don’t think so, sweetie.”

They helped Sebastian get Dave comfortably settled in bed and then stayed to help as he woke and was ill and groggy. Though mostly unresponsive, he did call out for Xavier from time to time.

“Christ,” Jonathan muttered as he tried to soothe him. “Enough to break a granite heart.”

They stayed that night so Sebastian wouldn’t be alone and then into the next day when Dave developed a spiking fever and a hoarse cough. Three days and nights they took it in shifts, sitting with Dave, trying to ease the physical suffering.

Finally on the fourth morning, he was well enough for Jonathan to coax him into the shower and then out to the sofa.

“You hungry, handsome? I’ll make you whatever you want,” Jonathan said cheerfully as he tucked a blanket around Dave’s lap. He anticipated a request of toast, perhaps.

Dave stared up at him with weary, red-rimmed eyes and said in a hoarse murmur, “Orange juice.”

“Oh.” Jonathan scratched his head. “You don’t have any of that right now, hon. Can I get you something else?”

Dave curled into a ball and shook his head before he started coughing.

Jonathan patted the air with both hands in a placating gesture. “OK, OK, I’ll get you the damn juice. I’m not supposed to leave you alone but I’ll just be a couple, all right? Can I get your promise you’ll be a good boy and sit right there?”

“Promise,” Dave whispered and Jonathan hurried out to the grocery down the street.

~*~

DJ was worried. Beyond worried actually. He’d gotten used to seeing Dave at least a couple times a week, and he talked to him almost every day. But he hadn’t heard anything from him in four days now, his calls went unanswered, and his cell went right to voice mail.

He’d been to Dave’s apartment once, when Xavier was gone, working on the video. Funny, Dave talked about Xavier enough he felt like he almost knew him. Which put even more guilt on him. He didn’t know Xavier, but he hadn’t wanted to hurt him, and he certainly didn’t want to hurt Dave.

Dave kept saying he was going to tell Xavier, come clean about everything. DJ wanted him to, and was afraid at the same time. He didn’t think Xav was going to take it as well as Dave thought he would. He knew their relationship was sort of open, but he couldn’t imagine anyone just shrugging off hearing their boyfriend had another lover.

Maybe Dave had finally told him. It was the only explanation he could think of for Dave dropping off the face of the earth like this. He wasn’t sure what he might do if he was wrong, and Dave had just decided to ignore him, or if Xavier was home, or if he knew and confronted DJ… so many ‘what ifs’, but one thing was sure, he had to at least find out if Dave was all right.

He parked the car and walked up to the apartment. He knocked and got no answer. Knocked again and waited. He thought about trying the door handle, was actually staring at it in indecision when it turned and the door opened. He looked up. “Dave, I’m sorry to just drop in, but… Oh, damn,” he said softly. “You look like hell.” He looked over Dave’s shoulder, trying to see if there was anyone else in the apartment. “Can I come in…or, you want me to go?” He wanted to ask what happened but he thought he knew, and he wanted to take Dave in his arms and hold him tight. He didn’t know if that would make it worse, but it was killing him to stand there and see Dave in such obvious pain.

Dave wandered back to his nest on the couch, letting DJ decide whether to follow or not. Why couldn’t they all just leave him alone? He wasn’t worth anyone’s time and effort and if they went away he could get on with the business of dying instead of lingering like this.

“He left me,” Dave managed in a hoarse whisper when DJ sat next to him. Poor Deej looked so worried, like such a nervous wreck, he had to explain a little. “He saw your text on my cell. Put it together himself. Told me what a shit I am, true enough, and left me.” He shrugged. “Had every right to.”

“Babe, I’m so sorry,” DJ said softly. He still didn’t know if he should touch him, but he couldn’t stand it any longer. He took Dave’s hand and when he didn’t shrug him off or push him away he put an arm around him. “God, I’m sorry.” The guilt was crushing. He’d made Dave go through the exact same pain he had. He should have left him alone, should have backed off… should’ve, could’ve, would’ve and it all was useless now. He stroked his back and eventually Dave bent enough to put his head on his shoulder and DJ wrapped his arms around him.

He knew exactly the place Dave was at, where he didn’t want to be comforted and yet needed it so desperately. He said none of the stupid drivel people normally said at such times. No one wanted to hear how it was not the end and things would look better soon when their heart was broken. He swallowed hard around the knot in his throat. “I know it will never be enough to say I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I am. I’m here for you…”

“Not your fault. Don’t even try it. Told you from go it was my problem.” Dave’s tone remained flat and even. Nothing really mattered anyway. Not anymore. Nothing for DJ to be sorry about.

DJ picked his head up when he heard the door close, and a second later a very hot guy with the prettiest green eyes he’d ever seen walked into the living room.

“OK, so this isn‘t awkward or anything. I go out to get you groceries and you invite boys over.” Jonathan looked from Dave to the gorgeous hunk wrapped around him. “So, lemme guess. This must be whatshisname…DJ?”

DJ had the grace to look slightly embarrassed, but he did manage a smile. “Yes, I’m whatshisname DJ. And you’re not blond, or trying to kill me, so you’re not Xavier…”

Jonathan had wanted to dislike DJ, intensely. He knew Dave felt otherwise but it sounded to him like the other man had walked in with open eyes and had willfully pursued when he could’ve bowed out. Problem was, the soft-spoken, somewhat wounded reality was much different than the hussy he’d built in his imagination.

“Right on all three counts. Such a smart man,” he said and put a palm to his chest. “Jonathan. Friend of the family. ‘Scuse me a moment.” He disappeared into the kitchen to put things away, then returned with half a glass of juice. “Here you are, hon, as ordered and don’t you think for a minute I’m not gonna stand here and watch you drink it all.”

~*~

“Xavier, get up!”

Cody was badgering him again. Xavier pulled the blanket tighter around his head.

“I mean it, get your butt out of that bed. You haven’t left this room in four days.”

Xav didn’t answer, didn’t even open his eyes.

“Cripes, Xav! Vic says I’m not allowed to bring you any more food. You have to come down to eat.” Not that Xav had eaten much anyway. “And you smell like crud. Have pity on us and take a freaking shower.”

Still no response. Cody grabbed the blanket and yanked at it. He pulled it off but Xavier curled into a ball. Cody sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed his back.

“C’mon, Xav. If you don’t get up Vic said he’ll come up and throw your little butt in the shower himself.”

Xavier rolled over and put his head in Cody’s lap. “I can’t, Cody.”

Cody relented and gathered Xavier up. “Oh, sweetie…I hate to see you like this.” He rocked Xav in his arms since the tears had started again. “I’ll help you if you want. Wash your hair. Scrub your back. Maybe a bath instead? That might be nice…”

Xavier sobbed harder and Cody fought not to roll his eyes. Everything, but everything reminded him of Dave and the most innocent reference could cause these crying jags.

He pulled Xav up to take his head in his hands. “Don’t you think it might be worth it to just try and talk to him? At least get some of this out of your system?”

“He’s probably already making plans with DJ,” Xavier said miserably.

“Xav, you’re putting stuff in your way for no good reason. Why? You don’t hate him, I know you don’t. Do you really never want to see him again?”

“No.”

“Do you want him to just get over you and move on?”

“If that’s what he wants.”

“I didn’t ask what he wants, I asked what you want. You either figure out how to forgive him or get over him. Which do you want?”

“I can forgive him, Cody, I already have. I just don’t know if I can trust him again. I never thought he’d lie to me, not like this.”

Cody didn’t have anything to say to that. He knew trust didn’t come easy for Xav, and this breach would take more than an apology and promises to fix. “Do you want to talk to him, or not?”

Xavier lowered his head to Cody’s shoulder again and wrapped his arms around him. “Yeah. I do.”

Xavier got up and took a shower and shaved. He put on the scent Dave liked best (next to just plain skin), and blow-dried his hair. He went through his clothes and put on a thin skintight t-shirt and jeans low enough they clung to his hipbones within an inch of their life.

His eyes were still hollow and red-rimmed, but otherwise he looked pretty damn good. Cody agreed and kissed his cheek before he left.

On the ride over he chewed his thumbnail and fidgeted. A tight knot formed in his stomach. He didn’t know what he would do if Dave wasn’t glad to see him. If he told him to leave. If he didn’t want him anymore.

Dave lied to him, had been lying to him, and broke his heart, but even broken he still loved him with everything he had. If he wanted a relationship with this DJ guy it was going to be a bitter pill to swallow… but, he supposed he could accept it, if that’s what Dave needed.

He parked and noticed Jonathan’s car. Ah well, it was good someone was looking after him. Xav went up the stairs and unlocked the door.

Jonathan head snapped around when he heard the key turn. Sebastian wasn’t due back until after dinner and the only other person with a key was…

“Oh. Holy. Shit.” The urge to retreat to the kitchen and hide under the table was nearly overwhelming. But he stood his ground, unwilling to desert Dave.

DJ would have hidden under the table with him, but only to spare Dave having to explain. It was already too late though; the few seconds warning was all they got. Xavier came around the corner of the living room and under any other circumstance DJ would’ve melted into the carpet. Fuckin’ gorgeous. What a beautiful little angel. An angel who took one look at him and looked like he’d been kicked in the stomach. Fuck.

Xav had thought he’d been prepared. Thought he’d geared himself up enough to be able to handle it if DJ was there. But he’d clung to the hope he wouldn’t be there. To know Dave had replaced him so quickly… he felt it like physical blow. The pain and humiliation was enough to scorch him where he stood and he wanted to turn right back around and walk out… but… he couldn’t live without Dave. Didn’t want to live without him.

He took a deep breath and lifted his head again to look at DJ. “Get out.”

Dave had no thought for anyone else in the room. It didn’t even register what Xavier said. He only heard that beloved voice he thought he’d never hear again. He’d twisted around on the couch, one hand reaching out hesitantly. “Xav?”

DJ picked himself up. As much as he wanted neither of them to be hurt, as much as he wanted them to work things out because it was so obvious how much they loved each other, it still cut him to know Dave probably wasn’t aware he was still in the room. With as much dignity as he could he headed toward the door and stopped himself from even saying good-bye.

Xavier ignored him and moved to Dave. He slid down into his lap, wrapped his arms around him, and put his head on his shoulder. It was just about the most wonderful feeling he could think of when Dave’s arms wrapped around him tight. “You stupid fucking jerk,” Xavier said on the heels of a strangled sob.

Hard not to have some of the darkness lift when he held his angel in his arms. Dave nodded against his hair, unable to refute it. He was a stupid fucking jerk.

“Are you–” He turned his head for a short fit of wracking coughs. “Visiting or staying?”

“Do you want me to stay?” Xav asked.

“Oh, hell, yes.”

“Then, I’m staying.” He stroked a gentle hand over Dave’s hair, trying to get a hold of his hitching breath as a little worried frown formed on his face. “You sick babe? You sound awful…”

Jonathan chewed on the side of his thumbnail. Now would probably be the time to retreat to the kitchen. Certain things nagged at him, though, things he knew Dave wouldn’t bother to mention in his current state.

“Xav, hon?” he interrupted softly when both sobs and coughs quieted. “Could I see you for just a sec?” He nodded towards the kitchen. “There’s some stuff…well, just come on. I won’t take long.”

Xavier sighed and reluctantly stood. He didn’t want to get up, but he followed Jonathan into the kitchen. “I’m sorry about your dinner, Jon, don’t yell at me, ok? I haven’t had the best week.”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that.” Jonathan waved one hand over the other in negation. “Real quick, two things. No three. First, I’m so fucking glad you’re here. You just don’t know. Second, just want you to know, that other guy? The one that just left? He wasn’t here but a few minutes before you came. It’s not like he’s been hanging out here and I’d know because I have.”

He ran his hands back through his curls in a fretful gesture. “The third thing’s kinda harder. Dave…was in a bad place after Saturday. He tried to snuff himself. Closed that door, turned on the gas and sat down to wait. Sebastian found him before it got to the point of no return. He’s been sick ever since.”

Xavier stared at him hard for a minute. “He did what?” He didn’t really need it repeated but he was having a hard time processing this. He turned around and walked back out into the living room. “God, Brooks, you really are an idiot sometimes,” he grumbled. Dave had lain down on the couch so Xav sat on the floor in front of him and took his hand, kissed the palm. “What if Sebastian hadn’t come over? Then where would I be? What would I do without you? Don’t you ever do anything like that again.”

“Xav…I’m…” Dave’s throat closed over and he squeezed his eyes shut against the sting of tears. It took three deep breaths before he could go on. “I can’t ever tell you how sorry I am. I’m supposed to be the one to protect you, to be your shelter. And instead I can’t tell you something’s going on, never mind the excuses and the reasons. I didn’t. And I hurt you. And you’ll never trust me again.”

He was too exhausted to sob but the tears leaked out anyway. “I thought I’d lost you. For good. And dammit if I don’t deserve to…”

Xavier sighed and shifted around so his back leaned against the couch. He pulled his knees up and rested his chin on them. “Yeah, you hurt me. Hurt me bad…I can’t just stop loving you though, Dave.” He turned his head to look back at him. “I’m sorry I’m not…everything you need. Why didn’t you just tell me?”

A strangled sound escaped Dave’s chest, half sob, half hysterical laugh. “What do you think I’ve been asking myself all this time? Why, why, why didn’t I just tell you?” His fist beat against the sofa frame with every word until Xav took his hand again to stop him.

“I…didn’t go out looking,” he began again on a long, uneven breath. “He was hurting and he ended up sobbing in my arms one day and things…got away from me. I tried to call you, right then and there, but you were at rehearsal. I guess you can check your phone logs if you need to.” He stopped to cough for a while and Xav’s hand ended up stroking his chest to soothe him. It felt like bands of bright sunlight stroked up and down his sternum.

“I came home and that was the night you told me about the video. And I was so excited for you…I didn’t want to ruin your moment. And then it was this or that and it just got harder and harder. I wanted to tell you, love. And you are everything I could ever want. Or need.” His fingers closed around Xav’s, though he stared at the ceiling. “I’m just an idiot.”

“Yeah, you’re an idiot…but you’re my idiot.” That got the little smile from Dave he was hoping for. He wished he could leave it at that, but he didn’t want any shit between them that would come up later, better to get it all out now. “So… the first time was just… one of those things. But, it wasn’t just once… you went back to him, so, he must’ve done something for you.” He was trying hard not to sound angry and bitter, it came through a little anyway and he took a deep breath and blew it out before he went on. “What now? You gonna keep seeing him?”

“What? No…Christ…” The shocked denial started him coughing again and Xav had to sit him up so he could catch his breath. Dave wheezed out, “After what seeing him did to you? How could I do that?” Now he buried his head in his hands and started to sob on the realization that Xavier was back beside him but might never believe in him again.

Xavier moved up onto the couch and took Dave in his arms. He held him and looked helplessly over his heaving shoulders at Jonathan, who was trying to stay as unobtrusive and silent as possible. He had the feeling Jonathan didn’t leave only because he was afraid they would screw this up again if he did.

When Dave quieted, Xavier took his face in his hands and made him look at him. “You know, I’m not going to push you toward someone else, sweetheart… but I wasn’t pissed because I was jealous. Well, that wasn’t the main thing anyway. I was pissed because you hid it from me. Just don’t do that again, and the rest we can work out, ok?”

“’K,” Dave managed on a shaky breath and a sniff. He looked into those summer sky eyes, shadowed, yes, but the love in them pierced his heart. He curled up with his head in Xavier’s lap. “I’ve missed you, sweets…” Another thought hit him as he snuggled closer. “There’s, um, a whole bunch of messages from me on your cell. You might wanna delete those. And there’s a letter in the kitchen. Might wanna put that in the disposal.”

Xavier stroked his fingers over Dave’s face tenderly. He looked up at Jonathan, who went into the kitchen without being asked. A second later the disposal ran, and then he came back. Dave had fallen asleep.

“Well, maybe I should–” Jonathan said.

Xavier interrupted him. “Do you have to go? Or can you stay for a while?”

“I can stay, hon,” Jonathan answered softly. “You want me to make you breakfast? You’re looking a little waif-y.”

“Waif-y?” Xavier said with an arched brow. “Is that even a word?” He smiled. “How about steak and eggs?” As soon as he said it he was hungry, he hadn’t been eating much, hadn’t felt like it. “And I should call Cody…” Before he got a chance to though, Jonathan had wandered off to the kitchen and Xavier slid down on the couch beside Dave. He only meant to lie down for a second, but he hadn’t been sleeping either and he was out almost as soon as he closed his eyes.

“Did you–?” Jonathan stuck his head back out of the kitchen and stopped at the sight on the sofa. “Poor babes,” he murmured and decided to wait on cooking. Let them nap first, they sure as hell needed it.

He’d wanted like hell to be angry with them both. They’d upset Vincent so badly. Though Dave would never believe it, he was sort of a hero to Vince…maybe that wasn’t the right way to put it but Vince looked up to him. Time enough to put all that right later. Dammit but they looked so freaking adorable curled up together. How could he be mad?

He went back into the kitchen to make some soft phone calls, Cody, Sebastian and then home, just to let everyone know things would be all right now.

Chapter 219 – A Voice in the Dark (2)

Chapter 174 – Serial Killer (3)

Rain poured down in cold pelting buckets and Xavier was not thinking about the little microphone that looked like a button on his shirt, or that there might be a psycho stalking him. He was thinking about getting into his car as fast as he could. Of course, he could be forgiven for being a little less than cautious after three weeks of nothing in the news, and no hint of anyone ‘weird’ following him.

For the same reasons he might also be forgiven for not noticing the guy with the umbrella until he was nearly on top of him.

The guy politely brought the umbrella over Xav. “Hey, looked like you could maybe use this,” he said as he took a few steps beside him.

“Um, sure,” Xavier replied wittily. He was freezing, teeth chattering. The weather had been nice on his way into work, and had really turned nasty. He wanted nothing more than to get home and snuggle into bed with Dave, the human furnace, next to him.

“Don’t mean to be presumptuous or anything.” The guy laughed. “Just thought I’d get you to your car. That was a fantastic show tonight… you’re really good. I mean, you dance good.”

Xavier smiled. “Thanks, glad you enjoyed the show.” Standard response. Don’t be condescending, but don’t enter into a conversation. Be approachable, but unobtainable. Look available, but don’t be. All part of the job. Sometimes they got the hint, and sometimes they didn’t, Xavier was used to it.

This one surprised him though, and didn’t come back with the usual stammered banality or blatant proposition. “Listen, I know this sounds like a lame come on, but… I’m a photography student, I’d really like you to be model for me, all totally legit, and I’d pay you for your time.”

Something suddenly clicked for Xavier and he looked at the guy. He’d been about to tell him, sorry no… but he remembered about the microphone, Vince and Dave listening, Vic waiting, what he was supposed to be doing. He’d been thinking this guy was just another club hopper hoping to score. Now he took a better look.

He was Mr. Average. Average height, average build, brown hair, brown eyes, glasses. He wasn’t some big menacing thug, or even a creepy weirdo. He looked normal, friendly… trustable. If the guy had approached Paul with this modeling spiel, would he have gotten in the car with him? Yeah, he would have. Did that mean this plain looking guy was a psychotic loony waiting to rape, torture, and strangle him? No, no it didn’t. One way to find out.

He gave him a considering look. “Well, I could use some extra cash right now. How much and when?”

It turned out that ‘Gary’ wanted to snap some photos right now, if Xavier had the time. He had a studio set up not to far from the club.

Xavier got into his car, thinking it was just too fucking weird to be this grateful to get out of the rain when he was looking at the guy behind the wheel as a possible sadistic monster. He didn’t look or sound like a sadistic monster. He kept up a steady stream of light chatter, school, work, music, photography… hell he even told Xav about his parents and brothers and sisters by the time they arrived at his place.

Xavier began to think he was really was some guy who just wanted a few pictures. He was so normal. He wasn’t the least bit intimidating, he spoke with just a faint southern accent, and had good ‘ol boy charm, a warm smile. More than that though, he wasn’t that much bigger. Xav didn’t see how once they were alone he would easily overpower him. He might be able to, it just didn’t look like he could.

Back out into the cold rain they made a dash across the parking lot and Gary fumbled with the keys for a moment before getting the door open. Xav glanced once around the parking look before stepping inside. He hadn’t seen a trace of Vic, if he were following, which Xav was sure he was, he was not close.

Xavier went inside. It was dark. Gary was telling him it would be just a moment while he go the lights on, in his cheerful, almost drawl. Xav felt the little hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. As soon as he knew for sure this guy was the whack job they were looking for he was supposed to ask, “Have we meet before?” that was the cue for Vic to come racing in.

Xav didn’t get the chance for such pleasantries. The lights came on, and what Xavier saw, splashed in bright glossy photos on the walls of the room stole all thoughts from his head.

“Shit…holy shit… Jesus…” The words came out a bare frightened whisper. The brightness of the lights on the walls plunged the rest of the room into total darkness and Xav only got those few startled words out before the body sacked him and slammed him to the floor.

He didn’t have even a second to react, as they were going down he felt a hot stab of pain and it took a few seconds to realize it hadn’t been a knife sinking into him but a needle. With terrorizing swiftness the world began to go fuzzy at the edges.

All Xavier could think of was the photos on the walls. So much blood and pain. Pieces removed… Dave was not exaggerating about the bodies. They were hideously tortured, and the guys took pictures of it. Vic, oh god, please come. He tried to get his hands and knees under him and crawl away but he couldn’t make anything work.

#

“How could you lose him?” Dave’s shriek cut into Victor like a razor.

“It’s dark, dammit, and it’s pouring. Too many turns,” Vic muttered in response. The Buick had vanished and a cold ball of ice lodged in his stomach. Xavier…

“We still have a signal, Attila,” Vincent’s calmer voice broke through Dave’s ranting. “Hold your position.”

Vic held at the corner, feet planted on either side of the Vulcan. He shivered in the driving rain. Relative silence reigned in both ears while Vincent tracked. A whisper in Vic’s right ear, Xavier’s channel, sent a sharp spike into his heart.

Shit…holy shit… Jesus…

“Xav!” David bellowed in his other ear.

#

Vincent stared at the screen. He couldn’t breathe. All the air had been sucked from the universe. Those desperate words echoed through his head.

“Dammit! Do something!” David had him by the coat lapels and shook him hard. “Don’t fall apart on me now! Fucking hell, Vincent!”

“Leave off!” Jonathan yelled back. There was a scuffle, a hard slap, and Vincent collided with the floor.

Gentle arms folded him close. His inhaler was offered and the black spots began to recede.

“He can’t breathe! And he sure as shit can’t work effectively with you screaming in his face! Sit down and shut up!” Jonathan sounded more angry than Vincent had ever heard him. In the near distance, David sobbed.

Vince patted his lover’s cheek to let him know he was all right and heaved himself back into his chair. “Signal…” he wheezed out. “Haven’t…lost it. Attila…turn right…”

#

There was dead weight on Xavier’s back, and then he was being pulled across the floor. He struggled to get up, fight off the hands gripping him, but it was like he had no strength at all. The edges of the world were getting fuzzier by the moment.

“It will be easier if you don’t try and fight.” Gray’s voice, still friendly, cheerfully told him. “I don’t want to hurt you. I really don’t, but you boys need this. You’re all sinners. You’re all dirty. I make you repent. I make you clean again.”

Xavier tried to say something and it came out a jumble of incoherent words, he knew he called for Dave, and Vic, the rest he couldn’t have said what it was. Gary lifted him and then dropped him into the chair he’d seen when the lights came on. It looked sort of like a dentist’s chair, fitted with restraints.

Even as he was slipping farther into the weird sort of twilight state, his skin crawled and his stomach turned at being placed on that chair, stained dark with dried blood and maybe other fouler things.

His shirt was gone. He didn’t remember it being taken off. Where was Vic? He kept trying to make some sense, but all that came out was frightened whimpers. God, those pictures… those horrible pictures. He couldn’t get his arms or legs to obey him, and then Gary was buckling him down to the chair.

“Don’t be afraid. Just tell the truth, confess your sins. The sodium pentothal will help you, Xavier. And so will I.” He picked up a scalpel from the metal tray beside the chair and held it up for Xav to see. “Are you a sinner?”

“Yes!” That he could manage to say, anything he wanted to hear. He would confess to sodomy with Satan if that would buy him time.

Gary cut him anyway, opening an eight-inch long gash over his ribs. It was so quick and the blade so sharp Xavier didn’t feel it at first, and then he did and he screamed in pain.

“Yes, you are a sinner,” Gary said, smiling. “When I’m done, you will believe it.” With this said, he poured a handful of salt along the fresh wound and Xavier screamed again.

#

“On…your left,” Vincent panted into the mic. “The building…yes, that one. Pan…for me…”

Victor slid off the bike and stood still, moving his head in a slow, practiced motion from one side to the other so Vincent could see everything in front of him.

Not a large apartment block, two stories. Most of the windows either had lights on or showed the whites of curtain linings and sheers. One set, though, showed completely black, the windows covered to prevent any light or shadow from escaping.

“That one…see it?” Vincent whispered.

“I have it,” Vic growled. “If it’s the wrong one, I’ll apologize.” He heard Dave whimper in the background and wished he could comfort him. Time enough for that later. If he arrived too late, all the comfort in the world wouldn’t help Dave.

Not bloody likely that he’d be too late. The grim reality was that this killer took his time, according to all the evidence, and not enough time had passed since Vic had lost sight of them for him to finish.

He tried the door silently. Never knew when he might get lucky. When the knob wouldn’t turn, he backed up five steps and hurled himself against the door. It bowed inward. A second heavy blow from his shoulder and the frame splintered. The door flew inward with a crash.

With a predator’s tunnel focus, Vic tuned out all the peripherals, only dimly aware of the nightmare visions of gore and agony on the walls. All he saw was Xavier and the beast with the scalpel.

The killer turned, white-faced in shock. He cried out something that didn’t get past the pounding of blood and adrenaline in Vic’s ears. Whatever it was didn’t matter one bit. Vic never stopped his charge from the door. He barreled into the slighter body with the force of a high-speed train and hurled him to the floor.

White hot pain shot through his shoulder as the blade imbedded under his collarbone. If the man thought that would stop him, he quickly realized his mistake. Two swift blows and the body beneath Victor went limp.

“Xavier!” He called out while he flipped and hogtied his captive. “Are you all right?”

“It burns…it burns.” Xav’s voice sounded slurred around the edges, high and breathy with fear, as he gritted his teeth against the pain.

Vic gripped the scalpel’s handle, now slick with his own blood, and yanked it free. Hurt like hell but with all the adrenaline roaring through his system, the pain might as well have been someone else’s.

“Hold on, my dear, I’m coming,” he muttered as he staggered to his feet. David’s voice filled his head again, demanding to know what was happening. He would deal with that in a moment. A tray sat beside the gruesome chair, gleaming surgical instruments lined up in a neat row and beside them, a box of salt. The cheery innocence of the Morton’s girl on the label gave Vic a chill.

“Damn sadist.” He gave the unconscious man on the floor a desultory kick and ran into the kitchen. A plastic pitcher in the dish drainer looked clean. He filled that with water and hurried back to Xav. “Hold still, sweets. It’ll be all right now.”

Xavier shivered and moaned while he rinsed out the nasty gash along his ribs. He didn’t appear hurt anywhere else, and Vic breathed a sigh of relief and undid the buckles. Now for the tricky part. He fished Xav’s phone out of his pocket since the boy didn’t seem capable of getting it himself. The cell needed to show a call to Dave or the police might question how he’d known to come. He certainly didn’t have any illusions that David would stay put much longer.

“I’m taking the helmet off a moment,” he announced over Dave’s frantic pleas.

The phone rang, Dave picked up. “Szoldos, you motherfucker! Tell me that the hell’s happened to him!”

“He’s all right. Take a breath. God. He’s a little woozy and scared to death but he’s all right. I want you to come down here as if Xavier called you on the phone after Attila left, you have it? Have Jonathan call the police now on his cell. I’ll stay with Xav a few minutes longer but I can’t be here when the police arrive. Are you back with me, Brooks? Sensible? Calm?”

“Yeah…yeah…sorry, bro. Christ. I just…”

“I know. Get your ass down here. He needs you.” Vic put the cell in Xavier’s lap and slipped his helmet back on. “Make the call, base. Give me a heads up when the squad cars are on the way.”

David was already out the door. He hadn’t even stopped for shoes. Jonathan called 911 and gave the operator the standard opening. “This is Attila’s base requesting a pick up.” The operator couldn’t quite conceal his excitement though when Jonathan explained who the pick up was.

In the killer’s apartment, Vic had a chance to take in his surroundings. He shuddered at the grisly photos plastering the walls. This psycho had been at his trade awhile. Far longer than three victims.

With a squeal of tires, Dave arrived first, having ignored every traffic law ever written. He stopped in the doorway, eyes wide in horror, before he shook himself and hurried in to Xavier’s side. “Sweets, I’m here,” he murmured gently, smoothing Xavier’s tousled hair back. “I’m here now, love. It’s all right.”

“Good. Much better.” Vic patted his shoulder.

Sebastian’s voice came through the helmet. “You’ve got about three minutes, Attila.”

“I’m out. Keep an eye on that monster on the floor. I’ll check in as soon as it’s feasible.” Vic hated leaving them but for everyone’s sake, he had to. “Base, I’m coming in.”

He frowned. No immediate answer came from base and it was Sebastian’s voice instead of Vincent’s when he finally received acknowledgement. “Everything all right over there?”

“Yeah.” Sebastian sounded distracted. “More or less.”

While Jonathan made the 911 call, Vincent had reached the end of his endurance. The cider-press feeling around his torso tightened until he thought his ribs would surely crack. He tried to get up, to let someone know he was in trouble, and tumbled to the floor.

Only experience and practice kept Jonathan from panic. He undid Vincent’s collar with one hand and dialed home with the other. “Drew? Sweetie, I need you to do something and I need you to hurry. There’s a box in the fridge. Top shelf. Yes, the long, white box. Grab it and bring it to Dave’s. Vince needs it now.”

#

Cops. Ambulance. Hospital. People went by in a blur. Xavier clung to Dave like he was the last piece of driftwood in the ocean. He wouldn’t let go of him even when they cleaned and stitched the gash in his side. Not that Dave was in any hurry to relinquish his hold either. The drug pumping in him made it hard to focus. He knew he’d asked Dave things, but couldn’t remember what they were. Had they found the guy? Did the cops have him? Was Vic ok?

He finally fell asleep, a nightmare circus of images playing behind his eyes.

#

Drew chewed on his thumbnail as he sped to Dave’s place, the box from the refrigerator on the seat beside him. When he got there he tucked the box under his arm, jogged across the parking lot and took the stairs two at a time, then knocked quickly and nervously. His stomach was one hard knot of worry.

A boy opened the door. Sebastian, he recalled in a distant way. But his attention skittered away from all other thoughts when he saw Vince sprawled on the floor.

“Good, thank you, sweetie.” Jonathan’s smile was strained as he reached out a hand for the box. “Get his jeans undone. Roll him on his side.”

Drew stared at him as if he’d lost his mind but Jonathan focused on the box, trembling hands getting it open and pulling out a plastic wrapper. He tore open the wrapper with his teeth to reveal a capped syringe. Drew understood then and hurried to do as he was told.

Grim and silent, Jonathan swabbed a circle on Vince’s right butt cheek, uncapped the syringe with his teeth while he held the skin taut and then plunged the needle in. Vincent twitched but didn’t have the breath to cry out.

“What happened? What’s going on?” Drew asked. There was no accusation in his tone, just profound worry. The room held a bunch of equipment, as if they’d been working on something and Dave and Xavier weren’t anywhere to be seen.

“Hon, there’s a short answer to that question and a long one,” Jonathan said with a weary sigh. “How ’bout the short one for now. Vince got too worked up. He had an attack. The kind his inhaler won’t take care of. He’s pretty good about not letting it get to that point. But once in a while…” He shrugged and put Vincent’s clothes back together.

He slid his arms underneath and lifted Vincent up onto the sofa. “Here. Come be his pillow. We need to keep him warm.” He waited until Drew settled before going to the bedroom to grab a blanket. When he felt confident Vince’s respirations were settling, he flopped down on the other end of the sofa to take Vince’s feet in his lap.

“I suppose you’d like the long answer now.”

Drew stroked Vincent’s chest gently under the blanket and smoothed the hair back from his forehead tenderly. He still looked sort of gray to Drew, but he sensed the easing of the tightness in him. He didn’t really need any other answer, as long as Vince was better, but he was curious. “Yes, please.”

The door opening again interrupted Jonathan’s answer. The large figure who staggered into the living room certainly wasn’t the person Drew expected to see, and certainly not with the front of his t-shirt half-soaked in blood.

“Vic!” Jonathan leaped to his feet again.

“I’m all right… I am,” Vic muttered as he plunked down in the nearest chair.

“Hell you are.” Jonathan planted himself in front of Victor, hands on his hips. “Get the damn jacket and shirt off. Nice of you to mention the fucker stabbed you.”

To everyone’s surprise, especially Jonathan’s, Vic complied. He’d expected at least a growl.

“Christ,” Jonathan whispered. “How’d you drive back like that?” He shook his head and went off to the kitchen for clean rags and water.

Left with Drew and a half conscious Vincent, Victor cleared his throat. He pointed to Vincent with his chin. “Is he doing all right?”

Drew nodded, head on a string, eyes wide. What the hell was going on here? He was too intimidated to ask. He’d wait, and someone would eventually explain, he was sure. He didn’t do good with blood. His own, he could handle when he had to, but someone else bleeding, hurting, made him feel lightheaded and sick, like he could feel their pain too. He was trying to stay calm, there were already too many emergencies in the room, but he knew his breath was coming too fast and too shallow. He closed his eyes and swallowed, forcing himself to take a little deeper of a breath.

“Lie back, sweetie.” Jonathan’s voice sounded like it came through a bad phone connection. So far away. “Here, you can lie right next to Vincent. Attaboy. Keep him warmer that way.”

He spread the blanket back over both of them and stroked Drew’s shoulder a moment to calm him. Poor thing. Bad enough getting that phone call and now all this. No wonder he almost passed out.

Back to Vic, who didn’t look too much better. “You think you need a doctor, maybe? Not that I’d ever tell you what to do.” He washed the blood from Vic’s chest and shoulder. The cut itself didn’t look too bad. Deep, yes, but the blade had been thin. The wound seemed to have stopped bleeding already.

“I’d rather not have to explain this in the emergency room,” Vic grumbled. He sat patiently without a complaint while Jonathan, with surprisingly gentle hands, bandaged the shoulder. “You’ve missed your calling, you know.”

“You mean as a male nurse?” Jonathan gave him a cheeky smile. “Goodness, Victor, what are you suggesting? You want to play doctor?”

Now Vic growled, which was actually a relief, a sign he felt more himself. Between the two of them, in fits and starts, interrupting each other and backtracking here and there, they explained Attila to Drew, how it began, how it had stopped for a while, why they brought him back, and what had happened that night.

At the hospital, Dave sat by Xavier’s gurney. They were going to let him go home in a few hours, they said. As soon as he was fully lucid again.

Dave had already fallen apart, while Xavier rested, and now the shakes had subsided. He wanted to say so many things but his mind skittered and jumped so much it was hard to focus on getting words out. He was pissed at Xav for going through with it, for scaring the living crap out of him. He was enraged that anyone would lay a hand on his Xavier and he wanted to go down to the police lockup and take the fucker apart. Relief, profound relief that Xavier would be all right joined the other emotions roiling in him.

“Xav?” he finally said softly as he leaned forward to plant a tender kiss on his lips. When Xavier opened his eyes, he found Dave right away and smiled. “Xav…what you did tonight…it was just about enough to stop my heart. But…it was…christ, love, you were so brave. Going through with it. Making sure it was the right one.”

He leaned in to kiss him again. “Who knows how many lives you saved? I’m so proud of you.”

Xavier ran his fingers through Dave’s hair. “I think you got me confused with someone else, honey. Vic gets the bad guys, I just lay there and bled.” He smiled, hoping he could erase some of the strain and worry he read in Dave’s face. “Can we stop at Barney’s on the way home? I’m starving.”

A sound caught in Dave’s throat somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Sweets, I’ll buy you everything on the menu if you want.” He leaned his head against Xavier’s shoulder. “My beloved bottomless pit.”

A couple hours later Xav was discharged and they did stop at Barney’s but only to pick up the take out they’d called in. Dave brought out three bags of stuff and made Xavier laugh. Once they got home though he realized he wasn’t just trying to poke fun, the whole outfit was still there, plus a few extras, which surprised the hell out of him since he figured everyone would have gone home once the bad guy was in the hands of the cops and Vic was back safe and mostly sound.

“We, ah, had some issues,” Jonathan said as he ran both hands back through his curls. He looked tired and frazzled.

Vincent was curled up in Drew’s arms on the sofa, his head hidden under the blanket, while Vic lay back in the old recliner, shirtless, Cody snuggled in his lap.

“Looks like you got everything handled.” Xavier commented with a hint of a smile. “We brought breakfast.” He added as Dave came in behind him carrying the bags.

Drew shook his head at him, “How can you eat?”

Xav shrugged, then winced as it pulled his stitches, but he grinned. “I’m hungry.” His eyes went to Vic and Cody. “I… don’t remember if I said thanks or not. So, thank you. One less fuckwad out there.” His head turned, following his nose as Dave set the bags on the coffee table. “Did you tell them extra crisp hash browns?” he asked plaintively.

“Of course, sweets. I know what you like,” Dave answered with a grin.

Cody eased himself off Vic’s lap and came to hug Xavier. “Oh, I’m glad you’re all right. Mostly all right. I can’t believe…” He stopped and kissed Xavier’s cheek instead of wasting more words.

A rustle from the sofa announced Vincent’s emergence. He looked terrible, colorless and exhausted, but he managed to sit up. “Xavier.” He motioned him over, his voice cracked and hoarse.

Xav looked a little bit like a deer caught in the headlights, but he gently disengaged himself with a quick kiss to Cody’s cheek and went to Vince’s side, keeling beside the couch so he’d be on eye level.

Vincent put a hand on Xavier’s shoulder. “You did an astounding thing last night. I’m not certain you realize. There is courage, like Victor’s, where you simply don’t have time, or sometimes sense, to fear.” His hand slid up to cup the side of Xavier’s face. “And then there is courage when you are so afraid you want to scream, and you still do what must be done.”

He leaned forward to rest his forehead against Xavier’s. “You were so very brave. We couldn’t have accomplished this without you. Thank you.”

Vince actually managed to make Xavier do a very rare thing. He turned pink, the tops of his ears were actually hot, and he could not for the life of him figure out what to say.

“Go eat,” Vincent gave him smile and a little shake. “You must be starved if David bought all this for you.”

Xavier laughed, “I’m not that much of a walking stomach, no matter what Dave says. I’m pretty sure there’s enough for everyone.”

He went to help Dave unpack the cartons of food while Cody brought plates and utensils from the kitchen. It was a strange sort of atmosphere, everyone relieved, happy to have their loved ones with them. A victory breakfast rather then a victory dinner, but it was still a victory.

Xavier wasn’t exactly the center of attention, but it was sort of neat to be ‘the hero’, kinda warm and glowy. He hadn’t really thought of it as being ‘the hero’, he’d just wanted to get the guy so Dave wouldn’t be so worried about him, and also way deep down to make it up to Vic and especially Vincent. He hadn’t been trying to be brave, but he supposed he had been, now that it was pointed out to him.

When everyone was halfway into the pancakes, waffles, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and an assortment of breakfast meats, Xav leaned back on his arm where he sat cross legged on the floor and grinned at Vic. “So, do I get a cape or something? Utility belt? Spandex bodysuit with an ample roomed codpiece…? No?” He sighed dramatically. “Oh well.” He picked up a piece of toast and wrapped it around a sausage before taking a bite. “Who do we go after next week?”

Dave choked on his coffee and barely managed not to spew it all over the room. “Next week? Are you out of your lovely little head? If you ever — ever do that to me again, I’ll…I’ll…I don’t know what I’ll do but you won’t like it.”

“Ooo, promises.” He grinned unrepentantly.

“I was thinking more along the lines of me jumping off the roof than you getting a spanking, sweets.” Dave rubbed his chest where the ball of anxiety hadn’t subsided. “Seriously, I don’t think I can make it through that again.”

Xav gave him a softer smile. “I was kidding, hon. I’ll leave catching the bad guys to Vic and Vince…” And he let that hang very heavily and pointedly in the air.

“Well, my friend, what do you think?” Victor asked softly.

From his comfortable spot curled on the couch between Jonathan and Drew, Vincent drew a shaky breath. “I think I need my prescriptions changed first.”

“And then? Tuesdays and Thursdays?”

“And the occasional weekend when we have something…special on the agenda,” Vincent conceded. Stressful, yes, the evening had been that, but it felt good to be back.

Chapter 160 – Resentment

Xavier sat on Dave’s lap, but he might as well have been sitting across the room for all the attention Dave was giving him. There were of course times when they lay on the couch together watching TV or something when he wasn’t exactly focused on Xav and that was fine, but this was different. He was distracted and Xavier could feel he didn’t want him snuggling up right now. Perversely Xav stayed where he was to make him uncomfortable.

Dave’s eyes were riveted on the computer monitor and the video feed from Vic, the spilt screen showed maps and other information changing in relation to Vic‘s position. Xav had thought it was kind of interesting the first few times their little operation set up, but now was bored with it. Dave suddenly stood, not exactly pushing Xavier off his lap but setting him aside quickly.

“Attila!” Dave leaned over Vincent’s shoulder and yelled into the mic. “There’s a through alley between the clubs! You can cut him off on the other side!”

The camera showed the Vulcan turn and barrel down the narrow passageway. Dave flinched as the bike veered around a dumpster and a stray cat. Light glimmered ahead. The bike roared free of the close confines of brick.

“On your right,” Vincent prompted, cool and serene.

“I see him,” Vic’s growl came back through the speakers.

Attila had interrupted a nasty scene in the dark shadows outside one of the seedier clubs, a large man forcing a delicate, willowy woman against the wall, her dress torn, her lip bleeding.

Vic had pulled him off and hurled him to the ground. In the moment he took to make sure the woman wasn’t badly hurt, the man gained his feet and ran. This one, Victor had snarled to his base, was not getting away.

The Vulcan jumped the sidewalk and trapped the would-be rapist against a store front. The man stood whimpering and trembling.

“Please, mister! I didn’t do nothin’! She was just a hooker anyway!”

Behind the black visor, Attila tsked. “I don’t think you could have picked a worse excuse if you tried.”

One well-placed blow to the jaw and the man dropped. With his hands and feet bound, Attila dragged him back to where the woman crouched, picking up the contents of her spilled purse.

“The police are on the way, miss.” To her, the ominous figure spoke gently. “If you wait for them, you can press charges.”

She started to shake her head.

“He said he did it because you’re just a hooker.”

Her face hardened. “I’ll stay.” She glanced up, trying to see through to the face behind the helmet but only saw her own reflection. “Thank you. You’re a good man, whoever you are.”

With that success under their belt, Vincent urged an end to the evening.

The room breathed a collective sigh of relief, an easing of unspoken tension. There were smiles and laughs. Another successful run, one more bad guy punished. Attila was unscathed tonight and headed back, everyone could relax now. Vince and Dave were going over certain tactical things, reliving highlights of the evening.

Xavier watched blankly, and rolled his eyes. God, they were all but high-fiveing each other. He stood and went to the bedroom and changed, he needed to get out of here for a bit. Not that anyone was likely to notice his departure, he thought bitterly.

He walked back out and Dave was still talking with Vince, alternately watching the video feed as Vic headed back to the apartment. The look on Dave’s face was practically glowing. Xavier felt sick. “Going out for a bit.” He said on his way to the door.

Dave’s head turned toward him. Xavier hadn’t been sure he’d even heard him. “Where you going?”

Xavier shrugged his shoulders and kept walking.

“Xav? Something wrong, sweets?”

“Nope.” His hand fell on the door knob.

“Xavier.”

He could hear the frown in Dave’s voice now. The hint of concern. It didn’t comfort him, for some reason it just made him pissed. He turned. “I’ll talk to you later Dave, when you’ve got your lips unglued from Vic’s ass a bit.”

The surprised, hurt look on Dave’s face made Xavier feel worse.

“What’s your problem?”

This came from Sebastian and Xavier gave him a narrow look.

Well, he sure had everyone’s attention now, didn’t he? Fine. Might as well give them a show if he was going to be a spectacle, the anger fueling him helped in this regard. “This is just bullshit.” His gesture encompassed the whole room.

Xavier walked back slowly toward Dave. Some small part of him screamed not to do this but he was way beyond listening. “So Vic gets his jollies beating the crap outta some fuck-wad. So fucking what. It doesn’t make any fucking difference, there’s ten more fuck-wads to take that one’s place.” Each sentence took him a step closer and came out a little more scathing than the last. “He’s not a hero, he’s a fucking vigilante. A hundred years ago he would have been heading up the lynch mob and you would have been jacking off reading about it in the paper.”

“That’s a shitty thing to say, Xav,” Dave said in a tight voice. Heat rushed up from his chest to the top of his head while he fought against his temper. “Hell if it isn’t.”

He took a step towards Xavier and jabbed a finger at his chest. His voice rose with every sentence. “So he’s a vigilante, so what? If he saves one person, two people, isn’t that better than none? It’s not like he goes around blowing the fuckers’ heads off like Dirty Harry or something!”

Toe to toe with Xavier now, he yelled in his face, “What the fuck’s got up your ass, anyway?”

Victor chose that moment to walk through the door, helmet tucked under his arm. His smile evaporated. “Everything all right in here?”

Xavier knocked Dave’s hand away and shoved Dave back. “Fuck you! Your just gettin off on this shit cause you’re hoping he’ll rough you up next.” Xavier yelled back at him. “You just can’t wait to go tell him how great he is so maybe he’ll let you suck his dick.”

Dave’s fist shot out, more rabbit punch than roundhouse, but enough to knock Xavier off his feet. “Like you never have!” he bellowed before he leapt on Xav to keep him down.

The sharp pain in his knuckles brought him down a notch. Instead of swinging away, he caught Xavier’s wrists and pinned his arms to the floor over his head. “What the hell’s this all about Xav? Dammit, where the fuck is this coming from?”

Dave wasn’t exactly expecting Xavier to fight back. The times they’d tussled before he either didn’t fight back at all, or quit once he was pinned. Xavier was beyond just pissed or hurt now though, this was pain like he’d never felt before. He was going to lose him. This was it. Ever since that day at Vic and Cody’s he’d felt like any hope he had of happiness was slipping through his fingers.

“Get the fuck off of me!” He screamed and twisted his arm in a way that would have made most people writhe in pain while he bucked his body. It got him a hand free and he shot a punch to Dave’s chin, knocking him halfway off balance for just the second he needed to flip over.

The punch lacked a full swing and more surprised Dave than stunned him anyway. Plus he was scary fast, and used to brawling to win. Xav only managed to pull away, hadn’t even gotten his knees under him and Dave slammed him back down on the floor.

This time he got him good, one arm shoved halfway up his back, the other pinned to his side and all of Dave’s weight on his back, he wasn’t going anywhere. They lay panting for a couple seconds.

“You aren’t going anywhere until you tell me what the hell your problem is!” Dave growled.

“Fuck off.” It came out a muffled wheeze, he could hardly get a breath with Dave’s weight on his back and his face shoved into the carpet.

Dave pushed up on the arm behind his back, just a bit. Xavier gasped and grunted with the sudden spike of pain. “sonofa…fucker.” That got him another little push and Xavier cried out. He would have pounded his other hand on the floor if he’d had it free.

“Goddamn it, Dave!” That took just about all of his air and Xavier dropped his forehead in defeat.

The rigid tension poured out his body and he went slack on the floor. Pathetic. He was bound to lose him sooner or later anyway, so he just had to burn it all down when it went, all because… “you love him more than you love me.” It just about killed him to get the words out, but he really didn’t care any more.

“What?” The exclamation sprang out as an anguished cry as Dave backpedaled, struck harder by Xavier’s words than his fist. “Oh shit…holy freaking…”

Dave was on hands and knees now, shaking his head, stunned. He staggered up, hand on the wall, and wove his way to the bedroom. The world had suddenly tilted sideways and all the light drained out. Another anguished cry followed after the door closed and the sound of something pounding against the wall, probably Dave’s fists or his head.

“Good night, Victor,” Vincent said as he limped past. No one had seen him pack up in the confusion.

“Wait! Vince, don’t go yet,” Victor said in a frantic rush. He wavered, unable to decide whether to block the door, go to David, or slap Xavier silly. Vincent looked up at him, those deep, dark eyes blank and chill, and he stepped aside.

“Dammit,” he muttered as Vincent limped out. He scrubbed at his face. Going to David would do more damage. So would smacking Xavier at this point, though the boy needed a good spanking. He bent down and gathered a fistful of Xavier’s shirt to pull him to his feet.

“You’re a fool, Gavrilov,” he said coldly as he let Xavier go. “A colossal, blind fool. You’ve just ripped the heart out of someone who loves you more than breath itself. And you better think how to fix it before he does himself serious harm.”

Xavier stared at him incredulously and then laughed bitterly. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! He is so freakin gone over you he’s like a twelve year old school girl every time you look at him, and I ripped his heart out!?” He was so angry his voice broke on a near sob and he couldn’t stop it. “I could’ve gotten used to it, I just needed a little breathing space… but no! He had to force out what I knew he didn’t want to hear. And now I’m supposed to fix it?”

“I can’t fix this. This is how it’s been my whole life! He sees you and he sees who he wants. He sees me and he sees who he wants to fuck. I know he loves me, I know he loves me a lot…but it… doesn’t… change it.” His breath was coming in hitching sobs now, on the verge of total melt down and sliding fast. His demons had him and were having a merry time tearing him apart.

“That’s all any of ‘em ever wanted from me. I’m disposable because they don’t need me. I wanted this time to be different, but it isn’t, I can’t give him everything he needs either, and… I… can’t… do this… anymore.”

Vic let out a long breath, his heart breaking for so many reasons. He gathered Xavier under one arm and pulled his head to his chest. God. This was ridiculous.

“Let’s go see David,” he said gently. “I think we’d better.”

The steady thuds hadn’t stopped in the bedroom. Xavier resisted; Victor propelled him. When they opened the door, the source of the noise became apparent. Dave knelt on the floor and banged his head against the uncarpeted portion near the window, over and over.

“David,” Vic murmured. “Stop that.”

He did but he turned with a strangled cry, eyes wild and dazed. Still on his knees, he lunged but it was only to clutch Xavier around the thighs. He held tighter when Xavier tried to pull away.

“I’ve never loved anyone more than you, you fucking idiot!” he cried out. “Never! Oh, God…”

Xavier lost his balance and he half fell, was half pulled to his knees. He was crying so hard now he hardly noticed. It was as if for some reason all the numbness he kept so carefully around his heart suddenly wore off all at once. All he could do was cover his face with his hands and sob. He felt Dave’s arms slip around him and he stopped trying to get away.

He got his arms around Dave’s neck. “You don’t?” It didn’t sound like Xavier at all, but like a lost six year old, stripped of all artifice. He drew a long shuddering breath. “…I’m sorry.”

Dave held him tenderly and rocked in agitated jerks. His breath hitched and heaved, not able to join Xavier yet in his tears. “No one more than you…no one…I…” He buried his face against Xavier’s shoulder. “Christ, why does it hurt so bad?”

“Nothing hurts more than love,” Vic said dryly. “Not even shooting yourself in the foot. I better see to something else now.” He gave Xavier a pat on the shoulder and eased the door shut behind him. He hoped Vincent was still in the building.

Xavier couldn’t stop the dam once burst. He clung to Dave and soaked his shoulder while the painful sobs wracked him. All this anguish was more than just jealousy, more than just fear of losing Dave. The tears came from wounds old and deep and things broken inside that had never healed. He had shed tears of anger and upset before but this purging consumed him, frightening in its intensity.

Dave held him and soothed him, tried to shush and calm him, worry in the small sounds he made. Xavier cried until he hung limp in Dave’s arms and had exhausted both his tears and himself to the point where he hadn’t the energy to move.

Dave’s cool fingers touched his face. He felt hot, almost feverish. Dave shifted and Xavier’s fingers spasmed and clutched at Dave’s shirt. “Don’t leave me.” His voice was a ruined whisper. “Please… I love you.”

“I’m not leaving you, sweets. I love you so. Hush, now. I’m right here.” Dave slid his arms under Xavier’s back and knees to pick him up. “Let’s get you into bed.”

The clothes Xavier had changed into for going out soon lay on the floor and he lay curled against Dave’s chest, covers tucked up to his chin. “I gotta go out there for a couple, okay? Just to let Bastian know we’re all right and stuff. Won’t be more than a second or two. You can time me. Please, Xav…you gotta let go for just a sec.”

Xavier’s arms slipped from Dave’s neck, though not at Dave’s request, he was just too tired to hang on any more. He curled into a ball on the bed, closed his eyes and shivered under the covers like a kicked puppy. His skin looked pale under the light tan. This… whatever it was, blow up, crisis, melt down… seemed to have taken everything out of him. He didn’t seem aware of Dave leaving the room.

“Sweets?” Dave came back, two seconds later as promised. Christ. Xav had been so hot, now he felt like ice. He crawled into bed with him when he didn’t get a response, turned him and held him tight. “Xav? Love?” he whispered. Thoughts of getting him to the ER occurred to Dave. Last resort. See how Xav was in an hour or two…

Xavier drifted in a semi-conscious state, almost asleep but not quite. He ‘dreamed’, but the dream was actually memory. Stuff that Xavier had mostly forgotten, or just didn’t think about. He remembered his mom, the scent of her perfume, the way she ruffled his blond head and smiled at him. She was his light, perfect.

The memory changed to one night he hadn’t thought about in…well, since that night. He was about eight, Ted had moved in already. His mother was with him in the bathroom, washing him in the bathtub. He was hurt, she was washing blood from him, he remembered seeing the blood on the washcloth and feeling woozy. He remembered her trying to soothe him and how he tried to be quiet and not cry anymore.

“Don’t tell anyone about this Xavier, ok? They’ll take you away from me if you tell.”

He nodded numbly. “Ok.” His voice quavered. “Mom, can we run away from him? Please?”

He remembered how tired and scared her sigh sounded. “No, honey… but he won’t touch you again.”

He looked at her over his shoulder and even that young he knew she was lying to herself as much as she was lying to him, just like when Ted said he wouldn’t hit her anymore and she made herself believe it, until the next time. “Do you love him more than me?” Xavier wanted to know.

“No, honey, of course not.” And that was every bit a lie too.

Xavier shivered in his half-sleep. He opened his eyes, more to escape the memories than anything else.

Dave was there, time had passed, he didn’t know how much time. He felt numb again, exhausted. He lifted his red rimmed eyes to Dave’s worried ones. “She knew. Oh my god… she knew.” He sat up too fast, struggling with the blankets. “I’m gonna be sick.”

Who knew what? Dave thought frantically as he untangled Xavier from the blankets and watched him rush to the bathroom. Not that it mattered at the moment. Something awful to pile onto all the awful Xav had been through. He had wept softly while Xavier slept, hurt and angry still, guilty for feeling that way, and worried to the point of near panic.

A broken arm, a head wound, a bad case of stomach flu, anything physical he knew how to deal with. But this? He was lost. Clueless. Worse still, he’d sent everyone home and now he didn’t have anyone here to ask. Vincent had left, according to Vic, in a state of profound depression, unsure whether they would continue with the twice weekly ritual. Vic had been stoic on the surface but Dave knew him well enough to see he was hurting, too.

He couldn’t bug them right now. He went to the bathroom and rubbed Xav’s back gently while he retched.

Xavier emptied the contents of his stomach and then some. When he was finally done he shakily washed his face and rinsed his mouth in the sink. It was so weird, he felt hung over or something, weak as kitten. He turned off the tap and stood looking at the drain while beads of water dripped from his face. He wiped his hand over his face, slow, lethargic. Little pieces of the last few hours needled him like sharp fragments that seemed unreal. What was wrong with him that he always did shit like this? Why couldn’t he just act normal? “Guess I pissed everyone off, huh?” He said in a broken whisper. “I’m sorry Dave, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean any of it.”

“Sweets, it’s not like the stuff you said didn’t have some truth to it. If people are upset it’s mostly ’cause they’re worried about you.” Dave gathered him to his chest. “It’s not just that you have shit that bothers you. But how you go about letting people know is gettin’ kinda scary. I mean any of those things, especially being worried about Vic and me, we could’ve talked through in private. Nice and calm.”

He stopped when Xavier whimpered to stroke his back and kiss his hair. “But there’s so much bad stuff back there, back before I met you, before Kat met you…well, it’s like it’s turning gangrenous inside you now. Xav…we gotta get you some help.”

That had come up before, more the once, with more then one person. Xavier had actually softened up to the idea himself, the last time things had all gone to hell. But somehow as soon as everything blew over it just go put on the back burner again.

This had been the worst though, he’d hurt Dave and Vic, and for no real reason. It was like if he had something good he just had to destroy it. He didn’t want to destroy what he had with Dave though. Didn’t want to lose him. His arms slipped around Dave and he nuzzled his throat. “Ok, can we talk about it in the morning?”

“Well, since there’s nothing open now except emergency services, I guess we better wait till then.” Dave kissed the top of his head and walked him back to the bed. He slipped out of t-shirt and jeans so he could lend Xav his body warmth.

So damn cold. He knew perfectly well how psychological upset could play havoc with the body but he’d never seen anything like this.

Xavier snuggled into Dave’s arms, wanting his warmth, his scent, his strength wrapped around him. His fingers trailed over Dave’s bare chest and he kissed along his collarbone. “You love me more than anyone?” he didn’t need the reassurance this time, he just wanted to hear Dave say it again.

“I do, Xav. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone.”

Xavier felt warmth flood him, even if it didn’t quite bring his body temperature up. “I love you so…” He breathed over Dave’s ear and kissed along his jaw until he reached his lips. Even feeling all tore up inside and hardly having the energy to move he wanted him.

For a moment, Dave responded without thinking. The fear of having this taken away from him was too close still. His hands wandered over Xavier’s perfect back while his lips explored with tender fire. The rush of blood from his head made it hard to think. But…

Whenever Xav had been upset, he wanted sex. When someone had been angry at him, when he had been angry at someone else, after hurt or fear or aggravation or a moment of crushing guilt, always the same. He. Wanted. Sex.

The realization hit Dave like a wrecking ball, sending a rush back up his body as his neck flushed and his hard on wilted. God, he was so dense sometimes.

“Xav,” he crushed the beautiful body to him. “Just hold me, tonight. Can you do that? I…I need you to just hold me.”

“Yeah…sure, babe.” Xavier whispered, kissing him soft and tender, understandingly, but there was a touch of confusion on his face anyway.

In the semi-dark they lay face to face and Xavier cupped Dave’s cheeks in his hands, smoothing his thumbs over the cheekbones.

“When you…” Dave swallowed hard. He stroked the hair out of Xavier’s eyes. “You don’t have to tell me, sweets, but when you woke up, you said ’she knew’. Who? What did she know?”

Darkness seemed to gather in Xav’s face, like clouds riding in front of the sun, but he answered. “My mom.” He said tonelessly. “I just… I remembered something.” He stopped, and he knew Dave wouldn’t push him. Wouldn’t ask for the rest. He’d told Katya about Ted though, and Richard. He didn’t want to talk about those thinks that gave him nightmares sometimes with Dave, but he should know. He was afraid though, on some level, that it would be too much, that he would look at him differently. That he would see him the way he looked at himself in the mirror sometimes.

He swallowed hard. “I remembered her telling me not to tell anyone about… about her bastard boyfriend touching me.”

Dave’s hands stilled. He pulled back far enough to see Xavier’s eyes. “Oh, Christ.” So the abuse had started early. He wasn’t naïve enough to think ‘touching’ meant just that. And his mother…God, Xav had loved his mother…not the first woman in the world to turn a blind eye so she could have a roof over her head but…God.

“My poor sweetheart,” he whispered and pulled Xav’s head back to his shoulder. “I’m here…I’m here…” He didn’t know what else the hell to say. Somehow offering to find Ted and beat his head in didn’t sound too productive.

He didn’t exactly stiffen in Dave’s arms, but he wasn’t as pliant as he had been. A flash of something hot and dangerous flared briefly, and then died. This wasn’t pity, just a natural reaction. Besides, how could he blame Dave when he had been feeling pretty damn sorry for himself. His throat suddenly tightened again and he melted against Dave, but he didn’t have any tears left. “I-I don’t know why. I always thought she couldn’t have known. I mean, she would have stopped him, or left or something if she had known. I just forgot about it, she knew…” Ah, god, he couldn’t talk about this anymore. “I can’t believe she didn’t do anything!”

Dave held him tight, his eyes squeezed shut. He knew about maternal neglect but not in such extremes. All he could think about was Xavier as a little boy, a bright-eyed, innocent little boy, so frightened and betrayed he had to lock it all away. He felt so ashamed of himself but he couldn’t help it when the tears started.

Xavier’s breathing was ragged, his chest hurt and his hands shook. Slowly he pulled in deep breaths until he started to feel better. Water under the bridge. He couldn’t change any of that now. “Dave, I’m sorry. Don’t mean to dump this on you…I’m sorry I’m so messed up.”

“Don’t be sorry, sweets,” Dave whispered against Xavier’s shoulder. “You are who you are and I love you more than I can say. It’s not ‘dumping’ when you love someone. Yeah, you’re a mess, I’m a mess, and I’m serious. We’re gonna get you some help in the morning. You can’t keep walking around with hair trigger landmines inside you. ‘Specially since that makes two of us and dammit, if we need to take turns being sane, that’s what we’ll do.”

Xavier rested his head back on Dave’s chest, his lips forming a small smile. “Alright.” They fell quite for a few moments. “I need to talk to Vic.” Xavier said worriedly.

“Now?” Dave glanced at the clock. “It’s after midnight…”

Xavier tired to settle again. “Right…you’re right.” It was late, he’d already pissed Vic off enough. He wanted to beg forgiveness, not make him more pissed… but… “God, he thinks I’m a total asshole, doesn’t he? I just had to fuck things up with you two.” He bit his lip. “I didn’t want to, tried so hard not to get in your way ’cause I know how you feel about him.”

“OK, now, let’s kinda back up, yeah? Vic’s my friend. Our friend. Yes, I think he’s hot and yes, I’ve had a crush on him for a long time. Hell, enough people have told me I do. Must be true. But it’s not like…dammit, why can’t I explain things better?” Dave stopped to chew on his lower lip. “It’s not like there is an ‘us two’ with me and Vic. It’s not like having sex with him changed anything between us. I think we were both afraid it might, but it didn’t.”

He stopped again, struggling for the right words. “It’s like with Liam, or with Cody. It’s nice to have a little variety sometimes, and I love them both, so do you, but it doesn’t mean there’s going to be some…big thing.”

With a sigh, he gave up trying to explain the whole relationship thing. “And if he thought you were a total asshole, he wouldn’t have tried to make things better, would he?”

Xav reached up and pushed the fall of hair out off Dave’s forehead. He hadn’t gotten it cut in a while. Getting shaggy, he thought with an absurd grin. “What about me? Am I your ‘big thing’?” he asked in a teasing tone.

“Oh, hell, yeah,” Dave said with a soft smile, tracing his finger down Xavier’s jaw. “The best thing that ever happened to a beat up old veteran like me.”

Xavier brought his hand up to stroke Dave’s cheek and brought him in for a kiss. Sweet, and tender, and then hot, “Still want to just be held tonight, love?”

“I do, sweets,” Dave answered, suddenly exhausted. “I don’t feel so good.”

Xavier cradled his head in his hands and brought him in close. His turn to run soothing hands over his lover’s back and kiss his forehead. He was happy to hold him in his arms, but the bit of confusion and uncertainty touched him again.

“I love you so,” Dave murmured sleepily against his chest. “But you know how mean I am if I don’t get any sleep…”

Xav chuckled. “Lord knows princess needs her beauty sleep,” he teased gently.

They were both tired, and even though Xavier would have liked to cajole Dave into a little stress relief he understood and he let it go, happy and content to just snuggle up with him and go to sleep.

Chapter 151 – Halloween Party (1)

Vincent felt an absurd excitement when the box came, like a six-year-old on his birthday. He sat down on the couch and sliced open the tape with his penknife, glad both Jonathan and Drew were at work. He wouldn’t want them to see how his hands trembled.

He laughed in delight when he lifted the mask from its packing. Perfect. Even better than the picture on the website. Two other costumes were in the box as well, the one Jonathan had requested with a wink and a grin and the one Drew had asked for, with a few hesitant false starts, as the obvious choice.

Only Wednesday…he found it so hard to wait for Saturday night and this, too, was absurd. As if he could hurry time by fretting. He shook his head at himself and went back to his study to finish the day’s work.

The invitations had gone out to everyone any of them might want to see. He had one on his desk, the silhouette of a classic gothic haunted house against a bone-colored background–Nightshade’s design. Even Drew had caught the excitement and Vincent had handed him the task of putting the music together.

Soon enough…soon enough. He tried to work and found himself speculating about what everyone else would wear.

#

“It looks like they’ve invited a lot more people this time,” Richard observed as he held the car door open for Katya.

“Mmhm.” Katya stepped out of the car.

She had chosen the theme for tonight. Her outfit was a white blouse with black buttons, a short red jacket with tails, painted-on black velvet pants, knee high boots and top hat. Richard, of course, thought she was the cutest ring leader ever.

A friend had done Richard’s and Liam’s ‘outfits’, if they could be called that. They wore shorts and body paint and that was all. Richard was a lion, Liam a tiger. Liam at least got to wear black shorts with the black stripes. Richard’s were a tan that blended in with his body paint. From a distance he looked like he had nothing on at all. If it had been Katya’s party that’s probably what it would have been, so he wasn’t complaining.

Kat took the arms of her two cats and went inside.

#

Xavier’s costume was simple. Two gold arm bands just above his biceps and a white linen loin cloth thing. Of course, he had to add a little more and when the light hit just right, shimmers of gold danced along his skin, highlighting the outline and tone of muscles. Subtle.

He helped Dave with his outfit, similar to Xavier’s, though his included a gold and lapis neck… well, necklace seemed something of an understatement. He’d borrowed both outfits from the props department and the necklace looked like Egyptian lapis and gold that covered from the base of the neck halfway down his chest. His loincloth extended in an ankle-length strip of linen back and front, outlining his long legs. Xavier had tamed back Dave’s hair enough so it disappeared under the headdress, and made Dave sit still and stop whining while he applied the makeup.

When he was done Xavier was sure even the Egyptians would have mistaken him for a Pharaoh.

“All right,” Dave admitted when he took in the whole effect in the mirror. “It doesn’t look girly. But if you come near me with that lip gloss…”

Xavier yanked his hand away from the tube he’d been about to pick up.

#

“Vic…there’s kind of…a problem,” Cody poked his head around the door arch.

Victor put the paper down, weirdly anachronistic sitting in their civilized living room reading the Wall Street Journal. His legs were encased in tight black leather and heavy boots, his torso bare except for the faux wolf fur over one shoulder. A curved sword hung from his hip and a long black braid from the back of his hair. Attila, the historical one, or at least one version of him.

“Do you need help getting it, er, situated, sweetheart?” Vic’s forehead wrinkled.

“No, I managed to get it on and everything but…um…” Cody came around the doorframe so Vic could see all of him. He walked as if he trod on landmines, partly because of the little hoof boots that had him standing nearly en pointe, and partly because of another part of his pony costume. The tiny, red micro-shorts had a built in tail and in order for the tail to stay in place and move properly, a plug end had to be inserted.

Cody had done so and now found walking acutely embarrassing. His erection overflowed the top of the shorts.

“Isn’t there some way to wear it without putting it in?” Victor circled him, considering the problem.

“No. It’s damned uncomfortable that way cause the shorts are so tight.”

“Could you wear it without the tail?”

“But that’s the whole point to it, baby! How can I be a pony without the tail? And besides, if you take it out, there’s a big hole in the back.”

“Ah. Well, then.” Victor unbuckled his sword and sank to his knees in front of Cody. He eased the shorts down until the PVC cradled Cody’s balls. “God. Why does this feel barely legal?”

Cody snickered. “Because you’re about to give your horse a blowjob?”

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,” Victor muttered and effectively shut Cody up by taking his engorged head into his mouth.

A hard groan cascaded from Cody and he pushed forward in a desperate thrust. Vic didn’t tease or hesitate, knowing Cody needed relief so badly. He reached around and grabbed the tail by the base, gently pushing in and out while his mouth rode up and down Cody’s cock in hard-suctioned pulls.

Within moments, Cody gave voice to his rising pleasure, his crescendo of ecstatic cries echoing off the walls. Vic held him by the hips and moved his head back to catch the flood of Cody’s orgasm, suckling gently until he’d milked out every drop.

“Thank you, baby,” Cody breathed, swaying atop his hoofs.

Victor put him back together, the shorts fitting in a more decent fashion now, and held him tight until he steadied.

“Shall we go, then? Don’t want to keep Vincent waiting.”

“‘K, sugar-daddy…but I might need your help again before the night’s done.” Cody grinned up at his handsome husband.

“Anytime, my love. Just don’t expect me to put on an exhibition.”

#

Jonathan gave a little start when the Grim Reaper appeared at his shoulder.

“Hey, Vince. Nightshade here yet?”

“Christ, Sebastian,” Jonathan put a palm on his chest. “Don’t sneak up on people like that.”

“Sorry.” The Reaper chuckled and turned back to Vincent, enthroned in his high-backed black armchair. “So is she?”

“She’s over by the food. You most likely didn’t recognize her in white.” The vision in the chair nodded to the far wall where a small version of Elsa Lancaster’s Bride of Frankenstein chatted with a green-winged sprite.

Jonathan could easily have spent the night at Vincent’s feet, gazing up in adoration. Vincent wore tight leggings of deep, forest green with chocolate colored riding boots. His shirt, with a deep enough V to hint at pectorals, was a shade lighter than the leggings, a diaphanous confection with hanging sleeves suggesting leaves and vines. He’d helped Vince braid his hair back to keep it out of the way and expose the pale column of throat.

All that was gorgeous. The mask was amazing, a leather sculpture of large green oak leaves picked out in gold molded into the impression of a face, it covered him from hairline to above his upper lip. From the top of this mask rose golden horns as much stag as branch, flashing bronze and gold.

A wild young god at whose feet to worship. Jonathan lapped it up and his costume gave him the license to sit there with his tongue hanging out if he wanted. The coyote mask was more of a helm, sitting atop his head and leaving his face free. The shaggy gray fur covered him from the waist down, his bare feet topped by coyote feet, complete with claws. From his collar hung a golden chain, which Vince currently held, though he let it go when the doorbell rang.

Jonathan leaped up to answer it, though Drew beat him to it. The boy looked so damn adorable in eighteenth century satin and lace. Mozart in the flesh. No one would mistake him for anything else. His eyes were ripped from Drew though when he saw what came through the door. Holy…

“Ms. Katya!” he called excitedly and dashed over to air-kiss her twice. He was happy to see her, he really was. But, God…her boys looked amazing. “What beautiful kitties you have,” he whispered to her and winked. “Can I play with them?”

“That could be arranged, I suppose, my sweet,” she purred back with a grin. Glancing around the room she spotted Vincent, looking simply splendid as the Green Man, and with all the critters in this room he certainly could be the God of the Forest Deep tonight, she thought with a chuckle. David and Xavier she did not see, and confirmed with Jonathan that they hadn’t arrived yet. Nor Victor and Cody. She took Richard and Liam to say hello to Vincent.

Drew didn’t even bother trying to be casual about watching them cross the room. Talk about gorgeous! He was practically drooling on himself. Besides, it wasn’t every day he got to see two such well-built, nearly naked bodies walk across the living room.

“She sure as hell gets the pick of the litter,” Jonathan grinned, looking every inch coyote when he did. He wrapped his arms around Drew from behind, nuzzling at his neck. “What sorts of evil thoughts are scrambling around in that pretty head watching those beautiful slabs of beefcake?”

Normally Drew would have blushed and pulled away, but there was something in the air tonight. Something that made everyone a little different, and it wasn’t just the costumes. He still blushed but he leaned back into the embrace and turned his head so he could whisper near Jonathan’s ear, “I was thinking that’s the first time I’ve ever wanted pussy…cat.”

Jonathan threw back his head and laughed. “Hell, yeah. It’s the whole package deal, right?” He kissed Drew’s cheek and would have gone farther but the doorbell rang again. “Why don’t you see if Vince needs anything? Get yourself a closer look?”

With a soft pat to Drew’s adorable butt, he scurried to the door and experienced mixed emotions when he opened it. They looked perfect together and he was glad to see Dave… but…

“Well, hello, your divinity,” he said to Dave with a wink. “Don’t you look gorgeous? Do I have to get on my knees and bow or do I get a kiss?”

Dave laughed and leaned in for a quick peck on the cheek, both of them careful of makeup and body paint, though Jonathan’s was only on his back and shoulders, the gray and brown suggestions of coyote fur covering what he couldn’t bear to reveal to the casual observer.

He turned to the other figure in the doorway. “Xav. Nice to see you.” Perfectly polite, not snide or veiled. He simply couldn’t summon any warmth, the episode with Drew still too raw. But he caught himself before his feelings became too obvious. He waved them inside with a grin. “Ms. Katya’s over with Vince. Oh, just wait till you see her and her, ah, pets.”

Xavier sighed but let it go. Cool and polite was better than just this side of hostile, he supposed. He had actually had a much harder time going to this party than the last one. The only reason he was here was because he didn’t want to put Dave in a position where he had to choose.

They went to see Katya, Xav sticking right to Dave’s side and one step behind. It gave the perfect image of Pharaoh and his slave. The look on Kat’s face when she turned and saw them headed her way was worth any discomfort he’d have to go through tonight Xavier thought. She was going to eat Dave up with her eyes.

Dave took her hands and kissed her softly. “You look incredible, Mistress,” he said with a shy smile. After a moment falling into the blue of her eyes, he looked up and took in first Richard and then Liam from head to foot. “Oh, wow. Yummy.”

Richard arched a brow at him. Liam just grinned. “Me-ow.”

Katya slipped her hand around Xavier’s arm. She leaned close and whispered in his ear, “So tell me, does Pharaoh treat his slave boys well, my sweet?”

A shiver ran down Xavier’s spine and his toes curled. He turned his face toward hers. “Mostly, yes, except when the palace isn’t tidy, then he rants and raves and takes it out on the slaves.”

A soft growl rumbled from Dave. “Only when Pharaoh ends up taking a header into the carpet because of the mess.”

The door rang and once again, Jonathan found Drew had beaten him there. The boy seemed to enjoy taking in the costumes as each guest arrived, so Jonathan didn’t fight him for the privilege.

Drew opened the door and gulped hard on a dizzying, scary bit of déjà vu. An enormous man filled the doorway, halfway dressed in leather and fur. Intimidating all on his own but Drew had opened a door to this very man before. His hand clutched the knob hard and he couldn’t seem to get his knees to unlock.

“Hello, there,” the man said softly, his deep bass vibrating through Drew’s bones. “I remember you.”

“Yessir,” Drew managed to choke out in a bare whisper.

“Lifetimes ago.” A huge hand landed on his shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. “It’s all right. Vincent has told me everything. I’m Victor…though you’ve most likely figured that out for yourself.” He pulled on a braided lead rope to bring the figure behind him into the light. “And this…this is Cody.”

The smaller figure clip-clopped forward, the most incredible person Drew had seen yet. A pony-boy, a strikingly beautiful one. He’d heard about those but….

The headstall had ears and red leather straps, though without a bit. He didn’t need a mane, his own thick fall of copper serving there. His body was nearly naked, a bit of red harness across the chest, tiny red shorts that barely covered what they needed to, and the…hoofs. But the long, silken tail made Drew’s jaw drop as it twitched and swayed with his every movement. He had to wonder…no, it couldn’t be, could it?

“Let’s try again,” the pony said with a gentle smile and Drew flushed, realizing he’d been speaking. “Up here. There we are! You do have eyes. And such pretty ones.” Cody leaned in to kiss his cheek in greeting. “It’s so good to finally meet you, Jonathan talks about you so much.”

“He does?” Oh boy, that sounded intelligent. Drew felt his cheeks turn pink and for the millionth time wished he didn’t blush so easily.

Cody laughed, a happy sound that spread warmth through Drew’s middle instead of making him feel worse. “Yes, he does.” Cody’s finger traced his jaw. “And now I see you, I can’t blame him.”

“Shameless flirt,” Victor rumbled, though it was obvious he was trying not to smile.

Chapter 150 – Camp Is Also a Verb

The bright smile on Sebastian’s face when Dave opened the door was so unexpected, he took a step back.

“Bastian? What’s up?”

“He said I could. Dave, please, can we go this weekend, please? We haven’t been all summer and it feels like forever…”

“Dad actually said, yes, you can go camping?”

“Well, what he said was, ‘fine, whatever’ but it’s better than ‘no, you useless slacker, you don’t do a damn thing around here, why should I let you go?’ Right?”

Dave scratched his head. “Sounds like permission to me. We’ll get the gear together while he’s at work Friday afternoon. That way he can’t change his mind.” He found himself catching his little brother’s excitement.

“Change his mind about what?” Xavier asked as the came into the living room. “Hi, Sebastian,” he added with a smile.

“Hi, Xav.” Sebastian gave a distracted wave.

“Camping,” Dave answered.

“Camping?” Xavier said the word like he might have said ‘spelunking’ or ‘deep sea diving’. It was about as strange a concept to him. “Who’s going camping?”

“Bastian and me and…” Dave stopped a second. It hit him that for Xavier, ‘camp’ meant Rocky Horror. Or certain drag queens he knew. “And you, too, if you want. Out in the woods. Get away from the city and all. We’ve got a good tent back at the house. Everything we need. Used to go all the time when I still lived at home.”

He gave Xavier a little shake by the back of his neck. “Out under the stars. Firelight and sleeping bags. Sound good?”

“I guess so…” Xavier said, a half bemused look on his face. “I’ve never been camping before.”

“Never?” Sebastian asked.

“Nope.” Somehow he didn’t think sleeping in an alley or on a park bench counted. He stood up. “I need something to drink, want anything?” he asked. Both Dave and Sebastian said they didn’t.

“Um, Dave?” Sebastian spoke in a low murmur when Xavier had gone to the kitchen. “I dunno if that’s such a good idea.”

“What, bringing Xav?” Dave’s eyes went wide and then his face shut down, cool gray eyes half-hooded.

Sebastian hated when his expression got like that. Dave looked way too much like their dad that way and the things that came out of his mouth then weren’t real nice.

“What’s the matter, Bastian? Ashamed to be seen with your bro’s boyfriend?”

“Man, geez… You’re such a dork sometimes!” Sebastian fumed. “It’s not that! I’m just kinda, you know, worried about Xav. I don’t think he’d know a hatchet from a canteen.”

Dave’s expression relaxed. “So we teach him. No big deal, yeah?”

‘Teaching him’ turned out to be more of a challenge than expected. It started with packing. Dave had a hard time convincing Xavier a hair dryer would not be necessary or useful and that silk shirts and leather pants weren’t the best choices of attire. Xavier owned a least ten pairs of shoes, everything from sneakers to formal, but nothing that resembled a hiking boot. When they shopped for boots, Xavier declared every reasonable choice hideous. They settled on a pair of black Doc Martens with silver buckles Xav liked.

Since they were at the store anyway, Dave insisted on buying shirts. Xavier looked at him like he was out of his mind when he picked up a flannel. “Sweetheart, did you even look at that thing? It’s plaid.”

“It’s warm. All you have is tee shirts or silk.”

“Yes, and not one of them is plaid. Do I look like a friggin’ lumberjack to you?”

Dave rolled his eyes and grabbed two shirts. “You’ll thank me later.”

Packing accomplished, they packed the rest of the gear into the car on Friday and as soon as Sebastian got out of school, they were on their way.

Up out of the city, into redwood country, the mammoth trees soon towered above them on both sides, ancient cathedral columns. Dave paid the park fee, parked in the lot near the ranger station and went in to register.

“So we’re camping here?” Xavier asked in all innocence, oblivious to all the RV’s and tourists.

“Um, no,” Sebastian tried to say it nicely. A little sarcasm still crept in. “We’re gonna hike in.” He pulled the three packs from the trunk to check straps and zippers. Dave would take the heaviest with the tent but Xav would have to lug his share.

Xavier ignored the backpack for the moment and took the opportunity to look around. Katya’s backyard was about as woodsy as he’d ever got. This was way different. The air smelled damp and fresh, and although it was hot in the parking lot it was cool once you got under the trees. Half a dozen trails lined with woodchips ran off in different directions. Somehow he hadn’t expected so many people. Kids and dogs ran around with harried parents yelling after them. Xavier thought some of the kids should have been wearing the leashes rather than the dogs.

He walked around the edge of the lot, looking down some of the trails but not actually going down any. He spotted Dave on his way back to the car and headed in that direction.

“You sure about this?” Sebastian asked once more, giving his big brother a last chance to back out.

Dave hefted the second largest pack and turned Sebastian to help him into the straps. “Come on, now. It’s not like Xav’s a flaming queen or anything. He’s a tough little guy. He’ll manage.”

Sebastian helped him on with his pack next and Dave shifted the straps a bit, trying to decide whether he’d overburdened himself. “Besides, we’re not going that far in. Just a few miles.”

Xavier walked up and they helped him with the last backpack. He hefted it a smile, they locked up the car and headed down one of the trails. Xavier noticed that the little wooden sign pointing down the trail said “Remote Campsites”. After a half hour walking he thought ‘remote’ was a bit of an understatement.

“What’s in this freakin’ backpack, Dave?” he asked, shifting it on his shoulders. It weighed a lot more than when they had started out and Xavier wondered if someone had been sneaking stuff into it.

Dave chuckled. “Mostly the food.”

“Oh.” Well, they weren’t going to be getting rid of any of that. Unless… “Hey, should we stop and eat something?”

Sebastian snorted and Dave swatted him. “Uh, no, sweets, we’re gonna need the food later. Trust me on that.” He turned to take a good look at Xav, sweat dampened hair getting in his eyes. “You need a rest? There’s a good spot up ahead.”

He pointed with his chin to a grouping of flat rocks in the shade.

Xavier hadn’t missed Sebastian’s snort, and he’d picked up on a few other little things that said the kid was less than confident in his ability to handle this. Xavier couldn’t really blame him, but he had a shred of pride left, and besides, he didn’t want Sebastian to think less of him. Xavier shrugged, “I’m fine, let’s go.” It couldn’t be that much father anyway, right?

They walked on and Xavier tried to enjoy the scenery. It was really beautiful here, and once they were away from the all the people at the park entrance it was quiet. The backpack kept getting heavier though, and after another half hour they still hadn’t reached wherever the hell it was Dave was taking them.

“Exactly how far into the wilderness are we going?” Xavier finally asked. His back and feet ached and as far as he could tell they’d left any sign of trail behind a while ago. It was just a dirt swath cutting through the underbrush, which slapped again his legs.

“Just another couple miles,” Dave called back from his point position. “Half hour, Xav, not much more.”

He was beginning to understand Sebastian’s concerns but he kept his mouth shut. Partly out of stubbornness, hell if he was going to admit he’d been wrong, and partly to save Xavier’s pride. The boy was trying so hard. Once at the campsite, he could rest without feeling bad about it.

Xavier stopped. “Another couple miles!? Are you freakin’ kidding me?”

“No.” Dave turned all the way around and stopped as well. “Unless you wanna camp here.” He waved a hand at the thick underbrush, an impenetrable tangle of branches festooned with thorns.

Xavier looked, there was a bit of a hollow, a slight widening of the trail right where he was and the thought of walking another two miles was enough to make him try and make Dave see reason.

“This doesn’t look bad to me.” Xavier wouldn’t have known a damn thing about what made a good or bad campsite but he knew he didn’t want to walk anymore. “Look, there’s enough room right…” He stepped off the dirt trail they had been following into the dry leaves. He inadvertently scared a garter snake that had been hiding under the shade and it darted off making a big rustle in the leaves.

Xavier jumped, nearly went over backwards, “Holy shit!” He shot ahead of Dave and Sebastian in a perfect ballet leap despite the boots and the weight of the backpack. “What the hell was that?!” he demanded as he came to skidding halt.

Sebastian had a hand on the tree next to him to hold him up, he laughed so hard. “Ohgod… oh shit… Xav…”

“That…” Dave tried his best to keep a straight face but it was a losing battle. “That, sweets, was a snake.”

Xavier looked at them both, vaguely horrified, like he’d suddenly found himself alone in the wilderness with two escaped mental patients. “Are you kidding me? This is a park. Shouldn’t they round anything like that up? What if it bit me?”

Dave lost it and joined his brother leaning against the tree. He tried his best to bring himself under control but was still snickering when he said, “Xav…if that teensy snake bit you, which it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t be any worse than if I did.”

He wiped at his eyes, took a deep breath. “And they can’t ’round things up’ out here, sweetheart. That’s the whole point. To leave things the way they’re supposed to be.” He cocked his head to one side. “Still wanna camp here?”

Xavier stood with his arms crossed, looking like he was trying to decided if he should be offended or not. He supposed if he had been in any real danger they wouldn’t have laughed. “Glad to be so amusing,” he said dryly and sighed. “Lead on.”

On they went. Xavier tried not to whine, he did, but this little jaunt through the woods was becoming tortuous. At least Dave and Sebastian thought his griping was funny rather than irritating now. They seemed to be doing just fine, he could have cheerfully strangled them both had he thought for a minute he could find his way back out on his own.

When they finally reached the campsite, Xavier dropped the backpack from his shoulders and flopped down on the ground. “Oh my god, is the death march over?”

“Why, yes, yes it is,” Dave said deadpan. He hauled the tent out and started sorting the poles. “And now you can help Bastian get firewood and water for us.” He had to fight to keep his expression flat when Xavier shot him a look to melt steel. “Here,” he tossed over a bottle of water. “Re-hydrate first. When you get back, we’ll check your feet.”

Xavier caught the bottle and drank. The day had grown hotter and he was not looking forward to getting up again.

“Don’t worry about it, Xav. I can handle getting the firewood,” Sebastian said, trying to be nice.

Xavier gritted his teeth and got up thinking pride was a terrible goddamn thing. “Wait up, Bastian.” He took the water with him and caught up.

Now that the half-ton backpack was off it wasn’t so bad. Sebastian pointed out poison oak when they found some and showed him the difference between the dry dead stuff they wanted and greenwood. They had to range a bit for wood, since most of the usable deadfall near the campsite was gone.

They were just about to turn around with what they had collected when they came to a stream. Xavier wanted to check it out. Sebastian said they should take the firewood back first. Xavier shook his head, “You are too damn young to be this responsible. Come on, it’ll only take a few minutes.”

Xavier set his canvas sling of firewood down and carefully went over the side of the bank. It wasn’t steep and he made it down to the rock strewn wash without incident. It was kind of soothing to watch the water rushing through the channel and tumbling over the rocky bed. He’d seen rivers before of course, crossed over them on bridges and stuff, but they were wide, dirty things confined by steel and cement seawalls. The beach and ocean were much more natural but vast and different than this bubbly little stream.

Xavier crouched and put his hands in the water, then sucked his breath at the cold. Surprisingly cold for something that looked so shallow. He saw a piece of granite sparkling with quartz and picked it up to examine. Sebastian had apparently given up waiting for him and came down the side of the bank to join him.

Xavier grinned, all he could think about was how good that cold water would feel. “Let’s go swimming.”

“Um…” Lots of things ran through Sebastian’s head. How furious Dave would be if he had to come looking for them. How bad it would be if Xav got hurt doing something dumb. Not too mention how incredibly uncomfortable he was with the idea of getting undressed in front of anyone, let alone his brother’s boyfriend.

“This is snow melt, Xav,” he cautioned. “It’s real, real cold.”

Xavier suspected the discomfort in Sebastian’s voice was from more than just the thought of the cold water, but he didn’t make an issue of it. “Ah, cold water is your weakness, good to know you have one,” he teased. “OK, you don’t have to go in. I just want to get my feet wet.” Xavier peeled off his boots and socks.

There was some sense in that. Sebastian sucked in a breath at the angry red on the pressure points of Xavier’s feet. Probably not a bad idea to get the swelling down some. He’d get on Dave later for making Xav hike in new boots that weren’t really hiking boots anyway.

With a sigh, he took off his own boots and socks, rolled up his jeans and waded in.

Xavier ooo’ed and gasped at the chill and shivered but it felt sooo good to wade into the stream. The rocks were slippery underfoot and he had to place each step carefully. Who slipped first was debatable, but the end result was the same. Mid-stream, arms flailed and they both went down with a splash.

Though the water was only knee-deep, the current yanked them around in fierce eddies. Sebastian came up sputtering and had a moment’s panic when he couldn’t see Xavier. There…the blond head floated past him. He regained his feet and snagged Xavier by the back of his shirt, got him under the arms and heaved.

A little shorter than his brother and nowhere near Dave’s lean-muscled physique, still Sebastian was solid and strong. He hauled Xavier back to the bank before sputtering out, “Xav! Shit, man, you OK?”

Xavier wiped water out of his eyes, pushed his hair back and started chuckling. “We should have just gone swimming. Holy shit that water’s cold!” He laughed.

They got up and put their boots back on, climbed back up the bank and picked up the carry slings with the firewood. It was a sodden uncomfortable walk back, but at least it wasn’t too far and there was no concern about it being too hot now.

The empty clearing had been transformed into a campsite in their absence. The domed tent stood under one of the huge trees, the fire pit from previous campers swept clear, gear stowed, a small fire started for dinner. Dave sat on a log by the fire emptying cans of beef stew into a pot.

“Oh for chrissakes,” he muttered when he looked up. “Clothes’re in the tent. Get dry before we lose the sun or you’ll freeze. Don’t you dare leave anything wet in there.”

“Yesh mother.” Xavier simpered and dropped the load of firewood.

Ten minutes later they were dressed in dry clothes and Xavier had grabbed all the wet stuff to hang, trying to make up for it being his idea to go into the stream.

Dave and Sebastian spoke in fierce half whispers by the fire, which became louder as the argument progressed.

“That’s how you look out for him?” David fumed, waving a ladle around. “Half-drowning him?”

“Me? Shit, Dave! You’re the one who couldn’t even get him good boots! Have you seen his feet? He was just trying–”

“Don’t hand me that! They’re the only freaking boots he’d wear! He’s–”

“He’s not a baby for chrissakes! Fuck off!”

“Fuck you!”

“Fuck you, too!”

“Fuck you and your mother!”

That stopped Sebastian short. His mouth worked for a minute before he got out, “Shit, man. That’s just sick. She’s your mother, too.”

Dave snorted, choked on a snicker and soon both were roaring with laughter, the momentary feud over.

By the time the sun went down Xavier was glad to be dry and glad for the warm clothes Dave had made him bring. The drop in temperature was enough to make his teeth chatter even with the fire and the blanket wrapped around him. Food helped make him happier, but he was still damn cold. The ominous sound of rolling thunder in the distance did not sound promising at all.

“Babe, you wanna hand me that bag?” Dave was determined before the weather moved in to make some popcorn over the fire. An old pie tin, a dome of aluminum foil and a little patience and few things matched the joy of that pop and rattle sound.

Xavier’s hand shook, though, when he handed the popcorn bag over.

“You all right, sweetheart?” Dave said, real concern banishing the teasing that had colored the rest of the day. “You wanna go crawl into bed?”

“I’m fine,” Xavier said like he was trying to make it true. He was fucking miserable. He sat and shivered quietly and watched Dave make popcorn. It was kind of interesting really, he’d never had popcorn that didn’t come from a movie theater or out of a microwave.

They had time to eat a few handfuls each before the first fat drops of rain came down and chased them into the tent. The temperature plunged even more with the rain and Xavier didn’t get why Dave and Sebastian didn’t seem to be as freezing cold as he was. He crawled into the sleeping bag, blanket, clothes, and all.

It had been a long time since Xavier had slept on the ground. Even with the sleeping bag it was a hard lumpy bed. A peal of thunder rolled across the sky and the rain came down in buckets. Xavier decided he hated camping. This was insanity. What the hell was Dave thinking, dragging his ass out to the middle of nowhere with snakes and bugs and poison oak?

He kept his mouth shut because bitching was only going to make it worse. He huddled down into the sleeping bag but didn’t think there was any way he was going to sleep.

Dave had purposefully given Xavier the heaviest sleeping bag and still he heard him shivering. If they’d been alone, he would have unzipped the bags, one on the bottom as a mattress, one on top, so he could wrap Xav in his arms and keep him warm.

He admitted defeat. Xavier wasn’t enjoying this at all and probably never would. Regret weighed down his heart to think he’d made his love so unhappy.

Sometime during the night the rain stopped. The tent was a good one, with a rain cover. Things were damp inside but not soaked. Xavier woke from the light doze he’d managed to slip into. The deep, even breathing on either side of him told him Dave and Sebastian were still asleep. As hard as he tried to ignore it the urge to piss was only getting worse.

The very last thing on earth he wanted to do was crawl out of the sleeping bag, but he had to. The air was as cold as his nose told him it was. Somehow he managed to get up and get the zipper on the tent up without waking anyone. It was too much to try and find his boots so he went out barefoot. Yeah the ground was cold and wet but it would only take a minute and he wasn’t going that far.

He walked a short distance through the trees and took care of nature’s call. It was so early the sun had just started turning the sky a pale indigo that was more dark than light. As he finished zipping, movement in the little clearing ahead caught his eye.

Xavier froze as a small herd of deer made leisurely progress across the meadow, stopping to crop grass. He had never been this close to a wild animal. They were so graceful. He suddenly wanted Dave to see this, too.

As quietly and quickly as he could, he backtracked to the camp. The deer either didn’t notice him or didn’t care. He slid the zipper back up on the tent and slipped inside.

“Dave,” he whispered close to his ear and touched his shoulder. “Dave, wake up.” The whisper hardly carried but still managed to hold urgency.

“It’s butt-fuck thirty, Xav,” Dave grumbled from his sleeping bag nest. “Whassamadder?”

Xavier put a finger to his lips to hush him. “Sh. Just hurry,” he whispered again and urged him up and out of the tent.

The ground felt even colder than the first time but Xavier pulled Dave along to the edge of the clearing. The deer were still there. They picked their heads up and looked, but didn’t run. Xavier froze, hand still in Dave’s. He looked about as tight as a plucked bowstring in his excitement. After a few moments the deer put their heads down to continue grazing and Xavier looked at Dave with a grin.

Dave put an arm around his waist and pulled him close. “Thanks, love,” he whispered. “They’re beautiful.”

Xavier read between the lines. Dave had probably seen something like this a million times. Oh well, he still thought it was worth getting out of bed for. The deer made their way across the clearing and began to disappear into the trees on the other side. Xavier had lost interest in them, though. Dave looking all bedraggled and still mostly asleep was more interesting. He slid his arms around him and kissed him. “Good morning.”

Nothing like a warm body on a chilly morning. Dave’s embrace tightened, a thrill of pleasure racing through him at the feel of Xav’s body pressed close. He made the mistake of looking down. “Holy shit, sweetheart! Your feet are gonna freeze off!”

Xavier shifted from foot to foot, he had forgotten for a few moments how cold his feet were. He pressed back into Dave, “You’ll just have to warm me up.” He slid his arms around Dave’s neck and kissed him again.

Dave shifted his grip and swept Xavier up in his arms, his kiss growing fierce and insistent. He felt dizzy and stupid but damn it felt good. Out here things felt cleaner, more real somehow, and he would have gladly stretched Xav out on the ground if it hadn’t been so cold and if…

“Aw, man! Can’t you two keep your hands off each other for five minutes?”

…Sebastian weren’t right there.

“It’s much better than keeping your hands to yourself,” Xavier said with a leer and an arched brow. But he did pull back. Damn, he needed to get his boots on, his feet really were freezing now.

Sebastian snorted but clearly was more amused than irritated. The sun was just tipping the horizon and the dawn chorus beginning in riotous joy. Dave whirled Xavier around once and carried him back to the tent for his boots.

The day went much better than the previous one. With no hiking to do and the camp all set up they could lay around and do nothing. Xavier’s favorite thing. Dave couldn’t sit still for long though, and after the three of them went for one walk and returned to camp, a short while later he wanted to take another trail. Xavier told him to take his happy ass off wherever he wanted and he’d wait for him.

Sebastian stayed in camp as well, sorting through the remaining food, making sure everything was picked up and tidy. Xavier lay stretched on his back on a blanket, dozing. Or so Sebastian thought.

“Bastian?”

“Hmm?”

“Does it bug you? To have me around?”

Sebastian looked up and blinked. Where had that come from? What he’d said that morning? “Bug me? Yeah, you’re as annoying as Dave is,” he answered with a snort. Then he looked over and saw Xavier watching him like he was scared of what he meant. “Look, if you mean does it bug me that my brother’s bi, no. Don’t worry about it. Some of my best friends are bi.”

He tried to give Xavier a grin and realized that wasn’t what he was looking for either. “If you mean am I like jealous and stuff?” He shrugged. “I’m always gonna be jealous of Dave’s time. That’s, you know, a little brother thing.”

With a short breath, he put down the pack and turned to Xavier. “When Dave came home from Iraq, he wasn’t Dave. It was like they’d hollowed him out and sent the body home, like he was just going through the motions. Flat, pissed or flashback, those were his only moods. I was so scared he was gonna kill himself, I was over there every day.”

He sat down on the log nearby, picking at the bark. “Then Victor came and Dave started to, you know, care about stuff again. And then Ms Katya came and Dave kinda…started to be Dave again. And then you came…and Dave’s…happy.” He looked directly at Xavier again. “I’m glad he’s happy. And that he’s back.”

Those were some pretty astute observations, Xavier thought. It was also good to know that all Sebastian cared about was that Dave was happy and well and wasn’t really worried about the how and why of it.

~*~

The second night it did not rain, and Sunday morning they packed up and hiked out.

Xavier had made it through blisters, freezing cold, drenching rain, near drowning, dirt, bugs, wild animals and all the other discomforts of camping. As they got into the Mustang all he could think about was a hot shower and real bed. But as they pulled out of the parking lot a peaceful feeling settled around him. The quiet beauty of the place and the thrill of seeing that herd of deer so close had almost made the trip worth it.

“So. When are we going camping again?”

Dave made an odd sound like a car trying to start on a tank of strawberry jam, mouth working, no words forming.

In the backseat, Sebastian laughed until tears rolled down his face.

Chapter 104 – Victor L. Szoldos and Cody I. H. Fitzroy Cordially Invite You (3)

Xavier had not been to all that many weddings, but at the few he had attended there was one thing he had noticed. When it came to the after dinner dancing it was not like a club. First there were some slow dances, in which most of the attendees would join in. Then invariably the DJ would throw on something more upbeat and pertinent to the current century, and that usually heralded a mass exodus of the males from the dance floor where they would then hang around the edges drinking (some for courage) and watching the women folk writhe around together. This of course had left Xavier virtually alone in a sea of satin and taffeta and instantly the most popular guest.

Even if he’d had two left feet and simply stood there and swayed a bit he would have been the center of attention, but that he could actually dance ensured he was never without a partner or three. He expected it would be a little different at this wedding.

Richard had already claimed the first dance with Katya, of course, so when the music started playing and people started drifting out, Xavier thought Vic’s sister would be the perfect one to ask.

Mariana sat at a table with her two little girls, Vic’s father and Cody’s mom. A few years ago, Helen Fitzroy would have been stiffly polite put in such a situation but she’d known Vic’s family for years now. It was a comfortable, chatty table, plenty of laughter drifting from it.

“Well, hello!” Mariana looked up with a smile when Xavier approached. “It’s the pretty dancer. Helen, do you know..?”

“Oh, yes, I know Xavier. How are you, dear?”

After a short, polite exchange, Xavier asked and Mariana practically bounded from her chair. In her shoes, she overtopped him by quite a bit and the hand that seized his was alarmingly large, but at least she was no wallflower.

The song was David Byrne’s “Call of the Wild”, a mild merengue, and to Xavier’s surprise, she knew how. Though she had a little trouble letting him lead.

She wasn’t above a bit of outrageous flirting. Divorced (Xavier had asked) and, from all accounts, a man-eater, Mariana did as she damn well pleased. She let her hand slide down to the top curve of his swaying backside and whispered in his ear, “You have the most adorable ass.”

After that, Xavier didn’t have to look for another partner, almost the moment one song ended there was another lovely, and sometimes not so lovely that wanted a turn, and he was happy to oblige them all. It was after all something he was good at. He always found it amusing how even older more experienced women suddenly got all giggly and flirted outrageously once he lead them through a few turns and loops. Perhaps it was because even with those ’not so lovelies’ he always paid a hundred percent attention to his partner once he had her in his arms. This was not just being polite, it was good dancing. Didn’t matter if you had perfect rhythm and coordination, if you were dancing with a partner it was only a good dance if there was some kind of connection.

You would think that staying on the dance floor dance after dance would preclude drinking, in which case you would be wrong. With Katya otherwise occupied, and her full permission to enjoy himself, Xavier made a pit stop at the bar between each dance, and planned on getting pleasantly toasty, just because.

Of course, as soon as the glass was empty there was usually some girl or another tugging his hand back out to the floor before the butt of his empty glass actually settled, but he didn’t mind. His help hadn’t been needed with the caterers, or the music, or the rides, or anything really, so the least he could do was keep the guests entertained, and Xavier in full on flirt mode was definitely entertaining. Plus, it also kept the crush of interest off Vic and Cody for a while, so they could catch a breather and just enjoy each others’ company.

He had gotten a chance a little earlier, as he danced near where the two of them were, to kiss both their cheeks and give his good wishes. Then he whispered in Vic’s ear, “Your sister is as gorgeous as you are, I’m gonna see if she’ll take me home tonight.” Which, even though he did like Vic’s sister, he wasn’t going anywhere but home with Katya, but he had to say it because this was the one time and place he figured Vic couldn’t wring his neck and he simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a little teasing.

Vic gave him the hairy eyeball for a moment, but he laughed as Xavier wriggled his eyebrows at him suggestively and danced away with his current partner.

As Xavier had expected, after a few more ballads and the evening grew darker, the DJ got around to putting on something a little more lively, and here Xavier was in his element. Feeling the pleasant buzz of vodka humming along in his veins he moved with the beat, and through the crowd.

While Victor visited with his extended family, Cody flitted from table to table, making certain he greeted every single guest. When he reached Vincent’s table, he flung his arms around Jonathan, practically falling in his lap. “Oh my God, J! Thank you, thank you! Everything’s so beautiful! Everything went so freaking perfect!”

An odd look crossed Jonathan’s face, sorrow and hunger behind his smile. “Hey, no prob, Codes. For you, no problem at all.” He took another gulp of his whiskey and the look faded. “So you liked the petal shower?”

 

“Liked it? Genius! It was killer. And I know you’re saying no problem but you were probably near losing your mind and, well, I know how you get. So thank you. And you think about what you want as a thank you present. You want me to paint the mural on the side of the shop like you asked once?”

“Codes…I didn’t do this so you’d pay me back.” Jonathan squirmed. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard when Cody kissed his forehead.

“I know, hon.” Cody withdrew, his own smile a bit sad. “We’ll talk about it another time.” He hugged Vincent tight and then was off to the next table.

Jonathan pounded down his whiskey, eyes on the dance floor. The bass thud and thump tossed him about on a sea of memories, good and bad. The hot blond was out there on the floor, gyrating and grinding with any warm body that came his way. Shit, the boy could move. He was sure he’d seen those moves before and not with so many clothes on.

Before he could think himself out of it, he’d stripped off jacket and tie and declared to Vincent, “I’m gonna go dance for a while.”

The music flowed seamlessly from one pulse pounding song into the next, and Xavier moved just as fluidly between the press of bodies. As he had expected, for this wedding a few more male bodies were still in the mix. Only one cute little thing, already far too drunk, got a little too interested in trying to size up Xavier’s package, and it was easy enough to move away from her. After all, it was a wedding.

The throb of ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ made him chuckle and he suppressed the urge to go into his stage routine for the song, though it came out a bit anyway, much to the delight of the people around him. He felt a hand touch his hip and the body behind him moved in time with his.

Jonathan moved in closer, the heat from the blond’s body making his already alcohol-soaked brain spin. He was just the right height, their bodies fit together perfectly as they moved. Shadows of dancing with Cody flitted on the edges of his memory.

He slid a hand up the lean rib cage, let his fingers splay out across a hard pectoral, and then he spun the boy around to face him, using his tie as a handle, the action playful and demanding all at once.

Xavier rolled his hips into the turn, gave Jonathan a little smile and stepped closer, his thigh slipping between Jonathans slightly spread knees. The lyrics were right at the part where there was a break in his normal routine and he followed them automatically “…I’m at the top of my game -You want my hands from your bottom to the top of your frame …” Xavier bent effortlessly at the knees and brought his hand up the outsides of Jonathan’s thighs and ribcage in a feather light caress that nonetheless gave the appearance of something much more erotic.

Back arched towards Xavier, his hips moving in perfect synch with his dance partner, Jonathan let his head fall back in a pantomime of ecstasy. The flexible grace of his body made it appear that the only thing holding him up was his grip on the tie. His head snapped back up, green eyes smoldering above a mischievous smile, and he undid the knot, smoothing both ends of the tie down Xavier’s chest.

Dave lounged at the table sipping his merlot. He’d had a couple of dances with Katya, had visited with the kids and some of the people he knew, and now was content to sit and people watch for a bit. On only his second glass of wine, he found he could still enjoy a party without getting trashed. Kinda nice. He knew perfectly well he was a belligerent drunk and he wasn’t about to do anything to embarrass Katya this evening.

Xav, on the other hand, had been sucking down the booze like water. While he wasn’t going to be a prig and tell him to slow down, he still made sure to look for Xav in the crowd from time to time, just to keep an eye out.

At the moment, Xavier was doing a good job of expressing a horizontal desire in vertical mode with Jonathan, of all people. They’d talked briefly about Jonathan, heads together over dinner, and both decided he was really nice to look at, even if he was trouble with a skyscraper sized T.

He shifted in his chair, tugging at his trousers, glad to have the tablecloth to hide his growing erection from watching Xav’s moves. Christ they were hot together. Maybe a little too hot. Their bodies melded together now, arms around each other. Jonathan’s fingers tangled in the back of Xav’s hair. They were both obviously drunk.

The kiss, open-mouthed, tongues dueling, sent an electric jolt through Dave even at a distance. The thought that had been trying to crystallize suddenly hit him between the eyes. Vincent. Oh, shit. He glanced over at the table where Vincent had been talking quietly with Nightshade and Sebastian. His chair stood empty.

Even with his senses all muddled up Xavier felt a jolt sizzle through him with the kiss. If he’d been a bit more sober he would have pulled back immediately, but it was harder to make his brain shift gears when he’d been dipped in vodka and that soft sweet mouth was doing such wonderful things to his. He did manage after a few moments to realize this wasn’t a good place to be making out with someone’s boyfriend, and with effort pulled back, breathing too hard and staring into those pretty green eyes. Yes, dangerous, he needed to get away from this, yep.

Heart doing a painful thud and stutter against his sternum, Dave hurried over to the table where a rather dejected Nightshade and Sebastian still sat.

“Where’d he go?”

“Said he was going home,” Sebastian answered in a flat, unhappy tone.

“Crap.” Dave rushed off down the darkened paths, hoping Vincent didn’t have too much of a head start, and nearly missed him in the gloom. On a bench at the second bend in the path towards the parking lot, was Vince. His panting gave him away.

“Vincent? Bud? You all right?”

Vincent gulped a few breaths and then answered in that too-calm, detached way he had when he was at his most upset, “Oh, yes, thank you. I’m not feeling well. Decided to head home to bed.”

“Uh-huh, right. You think you should be driving by yourself right now?”

“I’m not the one who’s been drinking.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Go away, David. I know you mean well, but you’re not helping.”

“Right. Can you at least rest there a minute or two, please? Give me a chance to…”

Vincent waved a weary hand and Dave wasn’t sure if that was agreement or meant to shoo him away. He banked on the first one and ran back down the gravel paths to the lantern lit party and out to the dance floor.

Chapter 88 – Collisions

Two short lines. That’s all he’d do.

Vincent had called half an hour before to invite Jonathan to meet his friends. It wasn’t that he needed the extra courage, but the little stash had turned up so conveniently on the underside of his sock drawer. Not as if he’d gone out to make a score or actually spent money on the stuff. Just a crime to waste it, was all.

He sniffed and snuffled a few times, put away the glass and straw, and checked in the mirror. Perfectly normal. Move along folks. Nothing to see here.

When Vincent arrived, Jonathan feigned shock, passing a hand over his eyes. “Oh my god. You’re wearing something not-black.”

Vincent hobbled in and kissed Jonathan’s cheek. The ankle length velvet coat, the boots and pants were all deep ebony, but the collarless shirt with its delicate claw buttons was blood red. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Hell, no. You look good enough to eat.” Jonathan seized him and whirled him about while Nick Cave’s grave and gravel voice sang in the background come sail your ships around me, and burn your bridges down…

“I love this song,” Vincent whispered in his ear.

An electric thrill raced down Jonathan’s spine. “You sure you don’t want to just stay here? With me and Nick? Let me take those pretty things off you — real — slow?”

“Tempting, but I promised we’d be there. I really do have to go over some things with Sebastian.”

“You’re taking me out so you can work?” Jonathan snorted. “I feel so loved.”

“Jonathan.” Vincent laughed and caught his lips in a tender kiss. “The work part won’t take more than ten minutes. Please come meet my friends. Before they start saying I’ve made you up.”

Vincent’s friends turned out to be two socially challenged teenagers and a handsome but somewhat smart ass young man who slumped on his sofa and didn’t even bother to get up to say hello. Jonathan had the distinct impression that the lazy slacker look was an act, though. He was certain that lean body could uncoil and lunge across the room like a shot if necessary. Not that this dude was unfriendly — he offered Jonathan a beer, told him have a seat — but the impression of being watched and weighed and judged was unmistakable.

“Kemp, was it?” Dave’s eyes finally opened all the way.

“Yeah.”

“Like the flower shop? Are you related?”

“You could say that,” Jonathan offered his best smile. “I own the place.”

Dave sat up so suddenly, Jonathan startled. But a smile had broken out on that surly face, a break-your-heart, little-boy kind of smile. “Great shop. Your folks saved my bacon one night when I was floundering around for the right flowers to take to dinner.”

Jonathan cocked his head to one side. “And did they work?”

“Oh, man. You’ve no idea how well.”

#

The ten minutes worth of work Vincent had promised turned into more like thirty. A rather boring half hour for Jonathan. Then the doorbell rang, creating a rather interesting reaction in the room.

Both Sebastian and Vincent froze and Dave jumped. Looking a bit sheepish, he slid off the couch and went to get the door.

Katya smiled at Dave and stepped into the little hallway foyer. She had thought about calling first but decided to surprise him. Now she was glad she had, his expression was priceless, although he did quickly cover it and returned her smile. She let him get out half a hello before sliding her hands up his chest and around his neck, pulling him toward her for a toe-curling kiss. “Mmm, I missed you,” she murmured softly when she broke away.

For a moment, the world melted away with her near. “God, I’ve missed you, too, Mistress,” he whispered, eyes half-lidded with a surge of desire. He’d missed her so much he’d felt in physical pain the night before, but he didn’t feel it necessary to mention that.

Hushed conversation drifted out from the living room and his eyes flew open. “Shit. Ah, sorry.” He would forget not to cuss in front of her sometimes. “The kids are here. And Vincent’s new boyfriend.”

Katya arched a brow. Vincent had a boyfriend? How interesting. For a change she decided to play nice and told him to wipe off the lipstick he was now wearing before walking down the short hallway to meet the ‘new boyfriend’.

Sebastian and Vincent both looked up from the computer as they heard the distinctive click of her heels on the tiles. She smiled at them as she came around the corner. “Hello Sebastian, Vincent. How are you?”

Sebastian had risen at her entrance, that look of goddess-worship on his face. Dave had to turn his head to hide a grin. If Sebastian managed an answer at all, it would come out all squeaky and choked. Vincent, in contrast, had turned his chair around to greet her, and though his eyes shone to see her, he wasn’t speechless.

“Hello, Ms. Katya. We’re just finishing up a project.” One hand on the desk, the other grasping one of his crutches, he levered himself up. “Ms. Katya, this is Jonathan Kemp.”

Sky blue eyes pinned the young man rising from the couch in a very direct look that left no doubt he was being sized up, his measure taken, and if found unworthy he would be dismissed like so much chaff. Jonathan Kemp… she knew that name. Didn’t she? Where had she heard it before? She extended her hand, “Hello Jonathan… your name sounds familiar. Have we met before, perhaps?”

Jonathan turned on his smile, the one that made his female customers dizzy. “I don’t think so. I’d never forget such a beautiful face.” The flattery was shameless but said in a light enough tone to sound teasing rather than smarmy.

The squeak of chair wheels brought his head around. Vincent had sat down abruptly, all the color drained from his face. Jonathan rushed across the room to him, skidding to one knee in front of his chair. “Vince? What is it? You need me to get you something?”

Vincent’s dark eyes were filled with anguish, his throat working as he tried to speak. “I shouldn’t have introduced you two. Oh god, I wasn’t thinking –”

“What’s he talking about?” Jonathan looked from Sebastian to Dave in helpless confusion. Then at Katya. “Who are you?”

Katya smiled lightly but it was chilling nonetheless. “No, I think the questions should be, who are you.” She said to Jonathan, but her eyes flicked from Vincent to Dave and back. “But I think I remember now where I’ve heard your name before…” The chill in her voice could have frozen water. “Cody Fitzroy is a very good friend of mine.” With this her eyes came back to rest on Jonathan. “And you… you are the asshole that set him up.”

“Please, Ms. Kat –” Vincent whispered but he couldn’t force any more out.

Jonathan stood slowly, fear and anger constricting his chest. There was no earthly reason to be afraid of this little slip of a woman — but he was. “I made my mistakes. I paid for them. More than you know.” he spat out. “I don’t know what you’ve heard. Or who you heard it from. But whatever’s left to say is between me and Cody.” He felt Vincent’s hand on his arm and he shrugged it off as gently as his anger would allow. “And the rest of the world can go to hell in a packing crate.”

“Mistakes? You call what you did a ‘mistake’? You think you can just say ‘Oh, it was a mistake’ and everyone will forgive you?” Her voice was rising, that alone was unusual enough, but she was also advancing slowly on him. “You deliberately drugged Cody and let two men brutalize him to save your own ass, Damien.” White-hot rage poured in her veins and clouded her thoughts to a hazy red. She completely missed that she’d called him the wrong name.

“That’s not a fucking mistake you fucking asshole!” Unreasonable rage, totally out of proportion. She shouldn’t be this angry. He’d hurt Cody, yes, but she never lost her temper like this. She wanted to hurt him, destroy him, she hated him. “You think you ‘paid’!? You can never pay enough! Where’s the contrition? Where’s the apology? Your still so fucking full of yourself you think people should feel sorry for you! You self-centered arrogant bastard!”

“I never drugged him!” Jonathan shouted, taking a step towards her.

Vincent was on his feet now, arms around his ribs to keep him back. A small corner of his mind registered that Dave had Kat around the waist as well. In different circumstances, he would have found the whole thing hilarious, the two of them ready to go at each other like alley cats. At the moment, his sense of humor had deserted him.

“I didn’t let them do anything to him! Men like that take what the fuck they please! I was there that night to pick up the pieces, don’t even try to tell me what a horrible thing –” The name had been echoing in his head and finally registered. His jaw clenched so hard, a sharp pain knifed through his skull. He tried to keep hold of himself but the shakes had him, slamming through his body, making it hard to keep his feet.

“What the fuck did you just call me?” he whispered, feeling the blood leaving his head. Don’t pass out. Christ, not now. It seemed farfetched but the name was so unusual. “What the hell do you know about –” He struggled for a moment and finally spat it out, poison on his tongue. “Damien.”

Katya stared back at him blankly. Had she called him that? She didn’t remember calling him that. That she didn’t remember scared her more than just about anything could have at that point. The fury, the rage washed out of her on a tide of icy fear and just like that, she shut it down. One second she was ready to rip him apart and the next she was as calm as still water. Like watching a door slam shut. Even her eyes changed, from a heated glare to cool contemplation in a blink. Most people that got their temper under control only managed surface deep, the eyes still gave them away. Not Kat.

“Let me go, David,” she said, and when he didn’t move quite fast enough she pushed his arm away. Turning on her heel she stalked down the hall toward the door. She had to get out of here, needed to get away, immediately.

Dave rushed after her, frightened for her. Unable to think straight, he blocked her exit. “Katya, what is it? Please, please don’t go like this.” He didn’t touch her, though he wanted to take her in his arms. “Katya –”

Katya stopped, but only because she couldn’t get by him in the narrow hall. She was hanging on by a very thin thread. She could feel her hands trembling slightly and curled them into tight balls to make it stop. Dave’s worried face swam before her and the floor and walls suddenly seemed to tilt slightly. His arms reached for her and she was sure… *sure* that they changed, became a larger set of arms with a small tattoo on the inner wrist… Katya jumped back with a small cry that sounded remarkably terrified to her own ears.

God! What was going on! This was crazy! Her rational mind tried to insist she get a hold of herself once more, it was only David standing before her, but the trembling in her hands had snuck up to her shoulders. She pulled her arms in and tucked her clenched fists under her chin to make it stop. She closed her eyes to make the image of thickly muscled arms reaching for her go away and she didn’t even feel the fat tears that rolled down her cheeks.

This was not supposed to happen! A voice inside her wailed in protest. She was over this. Done. Never supposed to let it bother her again. She’d had reached her little breaking point with Vic and that was that. Over and done, all she wrote. She had been fine when she walked in, better than fine. Damien had been the furthest thing from her mind. What the hell happened?

She heard Dave say her name again, real fear coloring his voice. She tried to say something but her throat was locked and her mouth was paper dry. The anger she could handle. The anger almost made sense. But the fear… this unreasoning terror…

She was breathing too fast, too shallow, and everything sounded muted behind the blood rushing in her ears, her stomach was turning and she thought she might have to throw up. Just as that thought hit her the world seemed to go gray, then black, and slide out from under her.

“Katya!” Dave wailed even as he caught her limp form up in his arms. He felt as if a black chasm had opened under his feet. His strength, his pillar, his comfort had crumbled before his eyes. He swallowed hard, gazing down at her beautiful, too-pale face.

“Dammit, don’t fall apart now, Brooks,” he growled at himself. She needed him. Too bad if that made his stomach lurch. He’d failed her once — it wouldn’t happen again.

He carried her back through the living room where the scene wasn’t much better. Jonathan stood with his head down, fists clenched, breathing hard, while Vincent tried, unsuccessfully, to talk him down. Someone was going to have to explain all this to him someday, Dave thought with a shake of his head, but he could wait.

Gently, he laid Katya on the bed, removed her shoes and covered her to her chin. Then he sat down beside her, took three slow breaths and called the house. Please let Liam answer. Please. He really wanted Richard, but he was out of town.

Liam answered on the third ring. “Hello… Hi Dav… What’s wrong?” He felt a thrill of panic for a moment. “Calm down, what exactly happened.” He waited, listening while Dave explained, a worried frown creasing his brow. While he listened he was already thinking what would be best. Xavier was actually closer, he was at work rehearing. But Xavier would probably be a bit like throwing gasoline on a fire.

When Dave finished Liam told him, “I’ll be over in a few minutes.” He paused, thinking. “Dave, I don’t know how much Katya or rather Xavier told you, but Damien is the name of the man who attacked her. If she called Jonathan that… well, I don’t think she was thinking exactly straight. Anyway, I’ll be right there.” He hung up.

Dave put down the phone slowly. He’d suspected as much from her reaction; Liam only confirmed it. That Kemp would have nearly the same reaction — there was an unhappy puzzle. Torn between staying with Kat and making certain everyone was all right, he stuck his head out into the living room for a quick look.

The kids had managed to get Jonathan down on the sofa, still shaking, panting, his head in Vincent’s lap. Dave didn’t know how to feel about him. To have done such a despicable thing to Cody — but he was right, that was between him and Cody now. He didn’t know all the details, but he knew damaged goods when he saw them. Kemp hadn’t gotten out of the deal any better than Cody, it looked to him. Maybe worse.

He went back to sit with Katya, numb and tired. What he truly wanted to do was crawl in beside her but he didn’t really have the option at the moment.

What seemed like forever, and was really only a short time later, Liam knocked on the door. It was odd but for such a large man Liam’s presence was like a soothing blanket. With very few words he seemed to, if not put everyone at ease, at least relax some of the tension. He checked on Katya. She looked pale, but peaceful. He discussed trying to wake her with Dave and they decided to let her sleep it out for now. Going back into the living room he thought about what he might say, but was at a bit of a loss. He supposed he would wait and see what Jonathan might have to say first.

Certain things had been explained to Jonathan as well — who Kat was, why she would draw up Damien’s name unconsciously in a moment of fury. He sat pale and listless, head in his hands, all the anger drained from him.

“I don’t know what else to do,” he whispered to the floor. “I’ll be scum for the rest of my life no matter what I do. Or say.” Oh, dammit, how he wanted Cody right then. But he’d destroyed all of that, any hope of comfort lost forever.

Liam bit back his first response and took a moment to carefully arrange himself into a chair. He had a lot of patience and compassion, but nothing pushed his patience further then someone feeling sorry for themselves. “You very well could be scum forever, if that’s what you choose.” Liam said calmly. “Or, you could stop making excuses and rationalizing you past and simply take responsibility for it.” He gave Jonathan a direct look, but unlike Katya’s hard appraisal his was softer, more open.

Jonathan looked up at him and had the oddest feeling. The urge to say ‘bless me Father, for I have sinned’ hit him like a slap in the face. He shook his head to banish the bizarre illusion then waved a hand dismissively. “Whatever. You can spout platitudes all you want, since you don’t know shit about me –”

The gentle hand on his arm stopped him from letting off any more serious salvos. “Take a breath.” Vincent urged softly. “Everything’s a little rattled right now.” To his surprise, a bitter, defiant note edged Vincent’s voice when he turned to Liam to continue. “He’s right. You don’t know and it’s not fair of you to say such things. Jonathan did a horrible, stupid thing…”

“Thanks, Vince,” Jonathan muttered. “That helps.”

“…but he took responsibility for what he did and nearly got killed for it. He’s the one who pulled Cody out of the line of fire that night outside Paige’s. His testimony in court put the man who attacked Cody away forever. And if he can’t apologize to Cody now, it’s because Cody gets physically ill seeing him. That may take time. How much more responsibility can a man take?”

Jonathan stared at his young lover. How did he know all this? And more to the point, why would he leap to his defense so fiercely?

“The last thing I’ll mention — Jonathan please forgive me — is that I’ve done some research. Katya was attacked by a man named Damien. A man with the same name showed up as Jonathan’s cellmate at about the right time after Damien’s trial. A man who brutalized Jonathan day after day, night after night, with increasing sadism and savagery. The man who, in a feral rage, carved his name deep into Jonathan’s back. Damien Moorland. One and the same.”

Liam shook his head, making the gesture somehow more sorrowful then reproachful. What a strange world. “No one should have to suffer that much, and I don’t deny you’ve suffered Jonathan, but that’s not what I meant.” He paused for a second, once again thinking careful about what he wanted to say. He could just leave it at that. He didn’t owe anything here, and more often than not when you were trying to help you only ended up being the bad guy. But, it was just in his nature to try.

“Being sorry, even suffering horrible consequences for your actions, that’s not the same as taking responsibility for them… owning them.” He held up a hand, gently when it looked like both of them might be ready to jump on that. “Truly I’m not trying to hurt you here. I just want to give some insight perhaps, into how others look at you and why.” He looked at Jonathan squarely. “Next time someone jumps your shit for what you’ve done, try saying ‘I know what I did was wrong.’ and meaning it. Because right now it doesn’t seem like you think you understand what you did was wrong…” He paused again. “Or you can tell me to piss off and continue saying it was all just a mistake, I didn’t mean it… poor me.”

Jonathan felt like his head might explode at any moment. He knew his anger was completely out of proportion to what Liam had said but he couldn’t seem to stop its boiling over. “Is it fun to sit there all self-righteous and superior? You get a kick out of it?” He leaped up, twisting out of Vincent’s grip, but he wasn’t going for Liam. He paced the room in agitated circles.

“Of course what I did was wrong! It was stupid and awful and the worst fucking thing I’ve ever done! Do you think, any of you, for a second, that I don’t know that? That I don’t tell myself that every fucking minute of every fucking day? I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me! You people just don’t get it, do you? Sitting there in judgment when there’s only one person’s judgment that counts!”

His voice was much too loud but it was like having the volume knob broken — he couldn’t seem to modulate it anymore. “I lost the one person on earth who ever really loved me and it’s my own fucking fault! Mine, you hear? Can I own this any more than that?”

His throat raw, he realized he’d been screaming and the shocked faces around him didn’t even please him as they once might have. He stumbled into the kitchen, vision blurring, and made it to the kitchen table where he collapsed in a torrent of tears.

Liam managed not to roll his eye, just, and got up. So much for trying to point out the obvious. Maybe in a few years he would understand what he was trying to say, maybe not. Not really his problem, and pretty much what he expected. With nothing more to say he went back into the bedroom to wait with Katya.

He was surprised to find her just sitting up. She looked up at him as surprised as he. “Liam? What are you doing here?” He came closer and crouched down beside the bed, taking her hand. “David was worried about you and called me.”

In a sudden rush Katya remembered all that had happened. She looked around to find David standing on the other side of the bed, looking very worried indeed, and almost a bit fearful to approach. Well, she supposed she couldn’t blame him. She could hardly believe that she had flipped out like that herself. She beckoned him over and took his hand with her free one. “I’m sorry David, I shouldn’t have lost my temper, and shouldn’t have told Kemp what I thought of him here.”

Dave swiped at his eyes impatiently. “It’s all right, Mistress.” He sat down beside her on the bed. “Wasn’t your fault. I just wish my apartment wasn’t drama central all the time.”

Out in the living room, Vincent had retreated to his computer, the curtain of thick, black hair hiding his face.

“Vincent?” Nightshade prodded his shoulder. “I think I’d better get home. You all right?”

In a voice far too calm and even, Vincent said without looking up, “I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon. We’ll go over the Darley specs then.”

She shook her head and shouldered her backpack. Vincent was hurting, she could see that, but she knew from experience that the chill front he put up to protect himself was nearly impenetrable. No use in trying. She left, worried and unhappy.

Dave stretched out on his side on the bed and kissed Katya’s fingers before explaining in brief what had gone on. He gave her a crooked grin. “Poor Liam. Trying to be all sensible and grown up and stuff. Can’t do that with someone who’s a mass of broken, jagged glass inside. Nothing’s gonna get through.”

Katya turned her attention to Liam. “Always trying to help, aren’t you.” She said with a little smile. “Too bad others don’t appreciate it.” She kissed his forehead to let him know she at least did.

She leaned back on the pillows with a pensive expression and was quiet for a long while. Then, “I called him Damien? I did, didn’t I,” she said, as if to herself. “And then I got so terrified I actually fainted.” She rolled that idea around for a bit. She couldn’t remember ever actually ’fainting’ before. Knocked unconscious, but never fainted. She looked at Dave, where he waited patiently beside her. “I think I overreacted.”

Dave nearly dove under the covers he was that afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face. He clenched his stomach muscles tight and held in the hysterical laugh that wanted out so badly. “Comes from bottling it up, Mistress,” he managed seriously. “Please don’t hit me too hard.”

Katya arched a brow and gave him a halfhearted shove, then changed her mind and bent to nip the top of his ear. “That’s not what you usually say,” she said in a soft purr.

“True,” Dave said on a sharp intake of breath. “But there’s a difference between a good, satisfying beating and getting slugged in the face.”

Katya had slipped one hand onto his shoulder and now slid it down his chest. “Aw, now you really don’t think I’d sucker punch you?” she said in that same teasing purr. She pinched his nipple none too lightly.

He twitched a bit and bit down hard on a moan. “Probably not,” he murmured, gazing up at her. “But I wouldn’t duck if you felt like you needed to.”

“Mistress…” Liam’s soft voice interrupted reluctantly.

Katya sighed. Liam was right, this really wouldn’t be an appropriate time to forget the world outside that bedroom door existed.

“Mistress, I think there is something you should know,” he said, now that he saw she wasn’t going to continue playing with Dave.

“Oh?” She didn’t like how reluctant he sounded, or the fact that he was carefully being formal by keeping his eyes downcast .

“Jonathan knows Damien, they were cellmates,” he said, missing the double meaning of his words.

Katya was so surprised she didn’t know what to say, other than “oh.” She didn’t need any other information to draw her own conclusion. She knew Damien, knew his appetites, and knew first hand how he had lost any self control he might have once had. Jonathan would have been perfect for him, with the physique he liked in males and an easily dominated personality.

Although she was almost tempted to call it justice she knew no one really deserved that. Was it so terrible to feel just a little vindicated that he had suffered as he had allowed Cody to suffer? Yes, terrible, but human she supposed. Jonathan may not have done the deed himself but he had still led Cody like a lamb to slaughter, offered him up on a platter, and not had the balls to try and stop it or call the police.

She realized she had fallen silent again for a long time and she sat up, sliding her legs off the edge of the bed. She crossed to the bedroom door, both Liam and Dave trailing behind with nearly identical worried frowns.

She stepped into the living room and the silence that greeted her was filled with tension. Sebastian had lost his normal puppy dog expression in favor of a look somewhere between distrust and anticipation. Vincent glanced up from his computer screen, his face devoid of expression, and Jonathan, returned from the kitchen and slumped at the card table, didn’t lift his head, though she knew he knew she was there.

If she had been confronted with a mirror, she would have been shocked. Her skin was still milk pale and her eyes looked dark and filled with shadows. The confident and slightly intimidating aura she exuded almost like a shield was replaced by a shaken presence that made her appear wounded and somewhat frail.

Her first urge was to keep on walking. She owed no one an explanation and she’d already apologized to David, but she knew if she did it would be cowardly, and that was one thing she was not. She walked over to the table where Jonathan sat and placed her hand down in front of him so he would look up. There was a wary light in his eyes; he didn’t immediately scream at her.

“That anger was not meant for you,” she said softly. “I shouldn’t have let it get away from me like that.”

The little duck of his head turned into a nod, his eyes returning to the table. “I — I know it wasn’t. Look, I’m — I didn’t — I’m sorry I shrieked at you like some banshee drag queen.” He tried to meet her gaze, his eyes full of anguish, and immediately dropped his head again. “I’m sorry.”

Here was the woman who had put Damien in prison; the one who, according to Damien at least, had been the source of all his violent fury. Jonathan thought he should hate her, should be able to summon a little anger at her, but none came. Only sorrow that she had suffered at that maniac’s hands. That they would meet like this with such animosity between them.

So many things they might have said to each other. Damn. He cleared his throat, trying for a steadier voice, and shifted back in his chair. “Sorry I screwed up the evening for everyone. I should probably go. Vince, you think you could take me home?”

Vincent remained where he was, stiff-backed, eyes glued to his screen. “No. I don’t think so. Get a cab, Jonathan. You need money?” he offered in a too-reasonable, colorless tone.

“N– no, I’m good,” Jonathan heard himself answer from far away, an ice pick lodged in his heart. Now what had he done? Dammit, why was Vincent mad at him? God, he felt unsteady. Maybe the double handful of Fiorinal he’d pounded down in the kitchen hadn’t been a great idea.

“Easy, easy.” A hand was under his elbow, guiding him onto the couch. Dave’s face was up there somewhere, saying, “Maybe you shouldn’t go just yet.”

“Jonathan?” At least Vincent didn’t sound so cold anymore.

Someone was smacking his cheek. It was irritating. He wanted to sleep.

“Come on, Johnny-boy! Stay with me! What’d you take, bro? Shit — he’s fading. Check his pockets,”

“David, he’s so cold –” Vincent’s gentle hand on his forehead.

“Oh, yeah, here we go. Talk to him, Vincent, keep him awake. I think he’s swallowed a shitload of barbiturates.” The prescription bottle was in front of his face. “Was this full, bro? Jonathan, you gotta help me a little if you want me to help you.”

Jonathan nodded. He’d only picked it up at the drugstore that morning.

“Bastian, count these. Hurry.”

“Jonathan? Look at me –” Vincent was there. He managed to reach a hand out to wipe a tear from that worried face. “You didn’t mean to do this, did you?”

What did Vincent mean? Ah. He thought it was a suicide thing. “No,” Jonathan whispered, astounded at how weak and thready his voice sounded. “Just hurt. Everything hurt.”

“Take as directed, bro, ever heard of that?” Dave heaved him into a sitting position.

“Dave, there’s twenty here.”

“Thanks, kiddo. Thirty on the script. He downed ten. Weighs about one fifty, I’ll bet, dripping wet. C’mon bud, we’re going to the porcelain goddess.” The world lurched as Dave hauled him to his feet. “Liam, glass of water, lots of salt. Dump it in.”

He didn’t want the salt water. It tasted awful. His heart pounded and he couldn’t seem to pull in a full breath. Someone was holding his arms while the stuff was forced down his throat. He couldn’t focus long enough to protest. Then he was throwing up violently, gentle hands holding him up, keeping his head in place. Just when he thought he was going to heave up his lungs, it stopped and the world abruptly went away.

A couple hours later Katya and Liam left, fairly certain that Dave wasn’t going to end up having to call an ambulance. Jonathan was sleeping deeply but his heartbeat was strong and regular and his breathing was good, as his slight snores attested.

The evening had gone nothing like she had planned. She had Liam drive her home and asked Dave to bring her car over later, once he got everyone sorted and gone.

Dave scrubbed his hands over his face, frustrated and tired. To have had Katya so near and have her leave again was nearly unbearable. The weird thing was he should have been truly pissed at the little shit sleeping it off in his bed. He wasn’t.

He sat down beside Vincent where he slumped on the edge of the mattress. “You gonna live, bud?”

Vincent nodded without looking up.

“He’ll hurt you again, you know, if you stay with him,” Dave said. “He’s a bundle of pain and heartache in a pretty package.”

“I know.” Vincent whispered. He drew in a long, shuddering breath and shoved the hair back from his face. “David, why don’t you hate him, too? You’ve been so kind to him tonight and you didn’t have to.”

Just the question he’d been asking himself. He rolled Jonathan over a little to stop his snoring while he considered. “Did you know Hell has housing projects here on Earth?” he started off and Vincent gave him a puzzled look. “Think about it, bud, you know what I mean. Anyway, people who’ve been residents, well, they kinda recognize each other. And this little dude –” He patted Jonathan’s foot. “He still lives there.”

He shook his head, trying for the right words. “Look, I know what he did was shitty and craven. Betrayal of the worst kind. But from everything I’ve heard, from Cody and Vic, from things tonight, it sounds to me like he’s trying his damndest to change. And I know what it’s like to want to change and no one out there wants to give you a chance.”

Vincent’s dark eyes searched his face a long moment before he nodded again. “Thank you, David.”

“Does Cody know?”

“About me and Jonathan?” Vincent managed a ghost of a smile. “He does. And gives his blessing, in a way. He said –” He cleared his throat and took on Cody’s gestures, his mannerisms. “‘Hon, I think you’d be good for him. He’s a born scoundrel but he can’t help that. Both his parents were investment bankers. But if he ever lies to you, beat him like he stole something.'”

Dave chuckled. “Well, that’s something, at least. There’s lots of people who’d ask why you put up with him, though.”

“I know. It’s — not something most people would understand, I think.” Vincent reached over to brush a stray curl from Jonathan’s temple. “But in his arms, I feel whole, David. I haven’t felt whole in a long, long time.”

And that Dave understood perfectly.

Chapter 51 – Attila

Even if Cody had called home for Victor, he wouldn’t have answered. He left the house shortly after Cody drove off for Katya’s.

“You be good, Persephone,” Vic said to the tiny black ball of fur he held up in front of his face. “No pulling down tablecloths. No eating unauthorized plant matter.”

“Mew.”

“Quite so. I shouldn’t be too long this first time. Wish me luck?”

“Mew.”

Victor let her nuzzle against his cheek before he set her down and left through the garage. His motorcycle roared to life, he zipped the black leather jacket up to his chin against the wind, and sped off into the night. His destination, a rather unassuming apartment building in one of the shabbier neighborhoods, was just as Nightshade had described it, faded yellow window trim and all.

A whey-faced, pudgy teenager opened to his knock, mouth hanging open. “Holy crap! She wasn’t kidding. You’re huge.”

“Um, hello,” Victor tried to peer past him into the room. “Is Ms. Nightshade here?”

“Ooo, listen to him. Ms. Nightshade,” a rail thin girl snickered. Whiter than Nightshade herself, this gothic apparition sported black nails long enough to put Victor in mind of Edward Scissorhands. “So formal. He is quite a bit of meat, isn’t he?” The girl sidled up to him and drew him in by the arm. “The Rock’s got nothing on you, handsome.”

“Lilith!” Nightshade appeared around a corner, rolling her eyes in exasperation. “What part of committed gay relationship didn’t you understand?”

Lilith shrugged. “You didn’t say how committed or how gay.”

Nightshade ignored her and took Vic’s hand to pull him into the center of the room. “Vic, this is Sebastian.” She indicated the boy who had answered the door. “And Vincent.” A ghostly figure in the corner at the computer raised a black clad arm in greeting. “And that’s Dave, Sebastian’s brother.” She pointed to the sofa where a young man in his twenties sprawled, sleeping or feigning sleep. She added in a whisper, “This is his place but he lets us use it if we don’t make too much noise.”

“And Lilith,” she added darkly, “you already met.”

Lilith smiled and waggled her fingers at him. Vic tried not to stare at the girl’s teeth, the canines filed to sharp points.

“Everybody, this is Victor,” Nightshade concluded triumphantly. “Didn’t I tell you?”

“You sure he’s not a cop?” Dave, on the sofa, had opened one eye.

“That wouldn’t make a lot of sense, would it?” Victor found his voice. “Me being a cop and then being the one to go out and do legally questionable things?”

Dave grunted and shifted. “Guess not. You packing?”

“Am I — what?” Victor looked to Nightshade in his confusion.

“Are you carrying, you know, a gun or something,” she whispered to him.

“Oh. No. I don’t carry firearms. Too dangerous.” Victor gave Nightshade a warning look when she giggled. He knew she was thinking about his foot. “So Ms. Nightshade tells me there’s some grand plan here?”

Vincent turned in his chair, a vision in black velvet and leather. Perhaps seventeen or so, he gave off an air of self-confidence and painful shyness all at once. He flipped thick black hair back over his shoulder. “Yes. When Nightshade told me about you and your, um, aggression problem, we thought this might be a good deal for everyone. You know, the city gets some help with the crime rate. The night gets safer for us — night people.” He looked up towards Vic with a shy smile. “And you get an outlet.”

It took a moment for Victor to respond. The thought of being the topic of clandestine discussions gave him an odd turn. “Do you get something specific out of this?” he asked the young man.

A soft laugh, hardly more than an exhalation. “Yes. I get to outfit you like Batman.” He rose and hobbled to a corner of the room using the furniture for support, and Victor saw the Canadian crutches leaning against the wall. “Could we get your jacket off?”

Vic put his helmet down and slid out of his jacket, wondering what was coming next. Whatever Vincent tried to lift from the corner was too heavy for him and Sebastian had to come to his assistance.

“Kevlar,” Vincent panted as he resumed his seat. Sebastian brought the heavy vest over to Vic. “Just like the military ones. You might not have a gun, but other people will.”

The bullet-proof vest fit perfectly and now Vic understood why Nightshade had asked for measurements. A bit cumbersome but he didn’t think it would restrict his movements. Vincent, somewhat recovered, rolled over on his chair, holding something that looked like a watch.

“Which wrist do you want it on?”

Vic held out the right automatically before asking, “What is it?”

“GPS tracker. This way, we know where you are in relation to the calls coming in. And if something bad happens, we have to have a way to find you.”

“Ah. Calls?”

“To the cops. Police scanner. And some fancy program Vincent’s got going.” Sebastian cut in with a typical teenage sneer. “What? You thought we’d just let you ride around until you happened to see something?”

“I had no idea what to think, quite frankly. And I didn’t realize so many people were involved.”

Vincent tilted his head to one side. “Everyone’s here for a reason, Victor. Are you backing out on us?” He looked Victor up and down, a bitter edge to his soft voice. “If I had your body, I’d be out there myself. But I don’t.”

“I’m not backing out,” Victor leaned forward, hands clasped between his knees. “Just a little caught off guard and a bit overwhelmed.” He found himself unable to distrust this earnest, intelligent young man. “So you’ll be my eyes and ears, my dispatcher, essentially?”

“Yes,” Vincent’s smile returned. “Sebastian does the scanner. I figure out where to send you from your location and the calls the police can’t respond to right away. We send you where the need is greatest and you can do the most good. Nightshade is here because it was her idea. And she helps me with the electronics. Dave provides us a base of operation and he’s here in case of emergencies.”

“Combat medic,” Nightshade whispered in his ear. “Just back from Baghdad.”

“And Ms. Lilith?”

“Finances,” Lilith slid onto the arm of Vic’s chair. “Daddy gives me a ridiculous allowance and doesn’t ask where it goes. Give him his helmet, Vincent, so I can show him my surprise.”

The open-faced, half-visored helmet looked like a police model, except in black. With flames painted on the sides.

“A little flashy, don’t you think?” Victor turned it over in his hands. Something about the inside looked odd.

“A little. But we want the bad guys to get to know you. Inspire a little fear.”

“Like Batman,” Vic grinned.

Vincent let out a relieved laugh. “Yes. There are headphones and a mic built into the lining. That way we can keep in touch without you having to dig for a cell every time I need to talk to you. Like a walkie talkie.” His smile faded again. “But I can’t guarantee it’s secure. So I don’t want to call you by your name over the airwaves.”

Victor turned a few options over and finally said. “When I’m out there, you can call me ‘Attila’.”

“Oh, cool!” Nightshade enthused. “The Scourge of God and all that.”

“Good. And we’ll just be ‘base’ on this end,” Vincent concluded.

“All right. Now, a couple of things I want to set straight,” Victor stood to shrug back into his jacket. “I will not intervene in gang wars. I will do as little harm as I possibly can in any situation. Criminals will be restrained and left for the police to pick up. And when I give the all clear, I want someone calling the police to tell them. Everyone all right with that?”

“Perfectly.” Vincent reached up to touch his arm. “You’re the man in the field, Victor. We’re just information and support but out there, you have to call the shots.”

Vic patted his hand. “Try to avoid words like ’shot’. Ms. Lilith, what do you have for me?”

Lilith led the way out to the basement garage, Nightshade and Sebastian in tow. She pulled the cover off a motorcycle in the corner and handed Vic the keys while he gaped stupidly at the beautiful, black machine.

“Holy. Crow,” he whispered.

“A Vulcan 2000,” Lilith crooned. “They tell me it’s fast.”

“Oh, yes. Fast.” The Vulcan line was a study in excess — extra power, extra torque — battering rams on wheels. “How did you — never mind. This is perfect.” Victor had been concerned about having his own bike traced back to him and this monster made his poor Honda look like a draft horse.

Nightshade held his helmet while he pulled on his gloves. “Victor? You be careful out there.”

Vic shot her a smile. “Have you been watching too many Hill Street Blues reruns?”

“Too many what?”

“Never mind.” He settled the helmet. “Base? You hear me?”

“Loud and clear,” Vincent’s soft voice came back as if he were speaking inside Vic’s head. “Let’s start off down the boulevard. We might have something for you in a minute.”

The wait couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds. “Attila.”

“I’m here.”

“Two blocks up from your location. Corner grocery. Armed robbery in progress. No units available to respond.” There was a pause. “Too risky?”

“I’ll take a look.”

The Vulcan roared down the street, Vic’s blood singing with exhilaration. The whole night felt so unreal but he felt so alert. Awake. Alive. Truth, Justice and the American Way. Maybe, with the tights and the off-kilter lifestyles, most superheroes were really gay anyway.

He forced himself to sober as he pulled up in front of the store. The door stood open and as he eased up to it, he saw the scene unfolding. Two men in ski masks, both with guns, both waving them about in an agitated fashion. One elderly woman behind the counter, hands shaking as she emptied the cash drawer. All too obvious that the thieves were losing patience.

“Base, I’m going in.”

Perhaps it was a stupid, reckless thing to do on a test run but Vic couldn’t stand by and watch them shoot her. He left his helmet on, barreled in, and used his body as a ram to slam the nearer man into the counter. The second man turned at the sound. Good. Gun pointed away from the old lady. Pointed at Vic. Not so good. But sheet momentum carried him forward and he took the second man down before he could decide to fire. The gun went off, but aimed at the ceiling as the would-be thief fell and his head connected hard with the linoleum. The first man staggered to his feet, briefly, only to meet Victor’s fist with his jaw.

Vic shook out his hand, pulled plastic ties from his pocket and secured the perpetrators at wrists and ankles. He retrieved both rifles, popped out the magazines, emptied the chambers and set them on the counter.

“These are for the police, ma’am,” he told the elderly shop owner. “They’ll be here soon.”

“Thank you,” she managed in an uncertain voice. “Who are you?”

Just an ordinary, concerned citizen, ma’am. “I’m Attila,” he replied and could have sworn he heard someone laughing softly in his ear as he left.