A/N: Lest you all think I'm a speed demon when it comes to writing, I started writing this story almost five years ago; it took me two years just to figure out what the ending would be. It wasn't until very recently that I realized I wanted to give this character multiple chapters instead of just a short story. I cut pages out and started thinking of the future. This extremely long prologue is more of a character study than something that jumps right into the plot, but I couldn't let it go.
Title: A Brandished Cross and Hint of Lime
Summary: When it comes to tracking demon nests in Cincinnati and vampires through the streets of Detroit, Alexander is supposed to be the sex appeal, not the hunter. Too bad his boss thinks otherwise. At least the break from his love life might give him a chance to win over his cute, irritable psychic partner at last...
Prologue: Grennhart of the Lighthouse
Quik-4-U-Mart. The i in the neon-lit name blinked certain doom as I stepped from biting winter air into the over-heated, over-saturated aisles. Surely the store was the pinnacle of all that was wrong in the world, conveniently smashed into one loathsome square block. The labyrinthine, all-you-don't-need aisles oozed beneath searing florescent light fixtures and more blinking logos than any doctor would prescribe.
Only the greatest of necessity could have forced me into such a vile place: it was, for some God-only-knows reason, the only store within fifty miles of Kat's home.
The shelf before me held over eighty-three choices of toothpaste. I hadn't counted this number myself, but instead placed my faith in the bright primary-colored sign overhead, which proclaimed exactly that figure. Rubbing my forehead and the sleep-deprived headache within, I squinted at the bins before me with a marked lack of enthusiasm, then looked down at the square of red paper in my hand. Scrawled liberally upon in black marker, it read:
(crossed out, bread) Pita pockets
Chocolate-nut spread? (with an far neater, cursive ad-on beside it: Nutella)
Soap hadn't been too difficult to grab. I was a sucker for the self-mocking advertisements designed to trap the kind of self-mocking people who hated ads. It just so happened that Dove Turbo-Clean 3000 had had a particularly sharp one playing on the airwaves recently, so into my basket the Dove Turbo-Clean 3000 went.
Too bad there had never been a clever commercial for toothpaste. I was tempted just to chuck whatever into the basket, but since I was buying for Kat I didn't want to leave it up to luck. Taking a breath of the refreshing bouquet of old sweat and lemon floor cleaner somehow didn't manage to make the choice clearer, nor jolt me out of my funk and fifty-three-hours-in-eight-airports frame of mind.
Luckily, there was a green-aproned worker in that very aisle, a tall, gangly, glasses-wearing twenty-something, stacking shampoo across from me. He had the harrowed expression of one wondering if he shouldn't have just gone back to med-school while he had the chance.
I walked my five-ten, dark haired, suede-jacket self over to the unfortunate stacker. "Hey," I called, offering my best remaining smile as I glanced down at his nametag, "Perry, can I bother you for just a moment of your time?"
Glasses-guy Perry glanced over at me with an expression just as tired as mine. Despite his weariness, his faint stubble and uncut shoulder-length brush fairly oozed college academia, so maybe he was already working to get out of this hellhole after all. It took him a moment to realize I was indeed trying to flag him down, and he made a visible effort to put on a more alert, attentive facade.
"Can I help you, sir?" he asked. His voice had the same, soft drawl as everyone did in this town, the same one Kat was busily picking up despite her best efforts. As far as I could tell, it was the only thing worthwhile about a place whose only convenience store was built on a model putting small villages just like it out of commission worldwide.
I lifted a hand and waved it expansively at the lines of obnoxiously hued shelving in front of me. "I'm picking up a few items for a sick friend," I explained, trying my hardest to sound as charming as only someone who wouldn't be caught dead in a store like this one could be, "and haven't a clue what's 'in' when it comes to toothpaste. Any suggestions?"
"Hmm," the kid said, turning around and scanning the products with a quick eye. "Well, Crest is always a safe bet. Most people prefer the whitening option, and the flavor of the month is Orange Crème, so perhaps this one, sir?"
He picked a box off the shelf and handed it to me. I smiled brightly at him again and after a moment he smiled hesitantly back, no doubt just as surprised to find a pleased customer shopping in his junk-heap store as I was at finding good help. Having worked in the retail business once myself—a long time ago, that was—I knew that these kinds of places didn't pick up a lot of happy people, and that every smile could, if not brighten a day, make it trudge on a little less drearily. I tried to bump my cheerfulness up a notch with that in mind.
"And I see it's on sale!" I replied happily. "Thanks much."
College student nodded shyly and trudged back to his unpacking, and I returned to my list again, narrowing my eyes at the paper when it went blurry before me. God, how many hours has it been since I've slept? I wondered absently as the letters wavered and sharpened in a fluctuating manner.
Long enough that I have to ask for help to pick out toothpaste, myself replied, which is a little too long by anyone's standards.
Still, I just need to get this done, and then I can take a break, for real this time. No last minute dragons, no stock-market collapses, no calls from too-cheerful coworkers saying, "it's just ghouls, this mission won't take but a minute, surely you don't mind—"
I shook my head and turned to look at the shampoo behind me instead of doing anything more productive. I wondered if Kat would like some of that, too, even if she hadn't put it on the list. It seemed like an easier task than excavating pita bread in a store that looked like it would be hard-pressed to stock vegetables, let alone a product with more than one grain. And I couldn't even imagine they'd heard of Nutella round these parts, not something that sounded suspiciously foreign.
"Sir, is there anything else I can help you with?" The kid was now standing at my side with his loading cart, obviously waiting for me to move so he could stock up the products on the shelves I was blocking. Even still, his expression was nothing but pleasant politeness. Giving up on life, I thrust my list his direction.
"Does this store have any of these?" I asked, and glasses-guy stepped up to my side, glancing over my shoulder to read my messy notes.
His closeness was a pleasant surprise. Folks hadn't been very welcoming to me in my most recent travels, especially in this town, where anyone with hair longer than a buzz was viewed as suspiciously hippy.
But this Perry didn't exactly fit the town look; there was that blonde-brown coif which fell in disorganized slices down to his shoulders, and his chin was more pointed than the square-jawed military types populating the front of the store. His glasses hid a pair of dark doe-eyes that lacked the suspicious squint of Kat's neighbors, and though his nose was too long for truly good looks, his face was pleasant enough. I would place a thousand dollar bet that this one had spent more than one weekend at college in a basement with others like him rolling dice and pretending he was a wizard—but that wasn't a black mark in my books, at least.
How long has it been, that his nearness made my blood sit up and pay attention? What the hell, I thought, and tapped a finger against my temple in a quick jab.
His aura was a mess, an abomination, a swirling mass of painful radiation that emblazoned blood-shocked stars on my eyes with just a glance. I had to squint to keep from being blinded. The disaster was predominantly orange and black, a combination that boded ill for anyone—flunked out of that med school, or maybe his mother had recently passed away, or he had been dumped by the love of his life—but it was the large, ugly pink splotches mixed up in it that were the most nauseating. It looked like a vile beast had vomited cotton candy on his soul.
Grief counseling was normally Rangarajan's domain, not mine. But that yellow bursting into searing luminescence wherever my eyes landed, like it was aware it had an observer, called me.
Yellow meant the kid thought I was attractive. That was fine; I'd spent a lot of time on this body, and most people flickered at least a little yellow when I looked at them.
But this was too much, so that the slightest bit of attention from this foreign stranger was absorbed like a virgin's blood by a starving vampire. He would have been attracted to anyone that so much as glanced his way; helpless in the face of overtures, no matter how vile the asker. Like demands of a blow from scruffy men in dark alleyways. Since I was to all appearances young, well-groomed, and—all right, I won't shirk from this one—rather effeminately non-threatening, the painful splotches were all but doing backflips to catch my attention.
There was no way I could leave a kid like this by himself. It didn't matter how tired I was, or how much Thurgood would chew me out later: there was no way I could let someone with an aura that jacked-up walk away without compromising some serious personal morals.
I tapped my finger twice to turn my reader off and smiled brilliantly at Perry again, only a few inches away from his face now. He turned away immediately, erecting a nearly physical wall of pure shy negative emotion between us, into which I only just missed banging my metaphorical head.
Luckily for him, breaking through defenses was my hobby, skill, and job. Vacation (briefly) be damned: a shy boy like this one probably would need a little more encouragement than someone more outgoing, but I was in the mood to be encouraging now. I ran a hand through my sable hair, tucked my chin down a little, and glanced at him with all the subtlety of a wolf in heat.
"Aspirin is in the next aisle over," Perry said in a flustered voice, staring at the list and most certainly not at me. I was assaulting his emotional wall with an onslaught of hormones even the least attentive couldn't miss: true lust, in sufficient quantities, could beat cautious hurt any day, and I had an inkling that this one might have pent up lust for a looong time. "I was just heading over—that is—uh, never mind. Bakery goods on aisle three. And your friend is in luck, because we started stocking Nutella just last week. Front special display."
"Mm," I replied, having processed maybe every other word of his explanation while I tried to read his emotions, figuring out the body signals to which he was and wasn't responding. "Very helpful. You know, helpfulness like that should be rewarded. When do you get off? Maybe I could pick you up after. Get a bite to eat, or something."
Score one for a lucky try—I had him, with one quick blow. At my request, his face wiped clean of emotion as quickly as if I had punched him. His surprise... made me uncomfortable, sent a sore clenching throughout my chest, and I toned down the hormones a bit to just smile at him softly. I was starting to feel that maybe I didn't need or want to get him in bed so much as cuddle him, stroke his hair, and tell him that everything would be fine. I wanted to bury into his brain, stomp out his insecurities, banish them forever.
Luckily, that was my job.
"W-what?" he stuttered. "Um, now?"
I leaned closer to him, letting my intentions show as clearly as possible in case he needed the hint. I could almost feel his mental barrier wavering when I did so; he leaned back towards me, just the slightest amount. "Now you seem to be working," I purred, dropping my voice a few notes. "I can get these groceries and return for you later. When do you get off?"
The boy looked down at his apron as if he were surprised to find it tied around his neck, then at my face, then lightning quick away, landing on my grocery list again. I tucked the paper away in my front pants pocket, knowing his eyes were likely to follow something red and moving, and anything that could tip him off even further towards the dark side would be to my benefit. Right on cue, he glanced at my crotch, and then away so quickly I was concerned he might get whiplash before the night was out. "Um," he mumbled, "fifteen minutes." He immediately bit his tongue, as if he wasn't quite confident he had answered correctly, but he didn't correct himself, nor make up another time to replace that one with. That was fine with me.
"I'll be waiting out front, then," I replied with all the confidence he had omitted. Then I smiled and winked, to drive the point home one more time, and left the poor kid staring after me blankly as I went for the aspirin. Two-to-three odds he would leave out the back at a sprint as soon as I moved out of sight, but there was a small chance I had hit his curiosity, or at least his libido. It pleased me enough that I grinned at the bagger on my way out, and his muttered "Fuckin' fag hippy" didn't faze me in the slightest.
I tossed the single bag onto the back hatch of Kat's truck and settled myself in the driver's seat. The cab was clean, save for a peppermint wrapper on the floor, which I tossed into the bag with the rest. By new habit gained over the last few weeks, I checked to make sure my daggers were laying flat along my jeans, and got the uncomfortable twinge again when I remembered they were locked in my desk drawer. My oath to myself that this really would be a vacation. Well, if I needed them to defend myself in Nowhere, Indiana, then I was really in trouble.
Snow was beginning to fall, pale flakes that shone in the artificial glow from the building. I let my eyes fall shut partway, and considered the expression on Perry's face when I had made my request of him.
It was more than pity that had stirred my heart at the sight—the sudden outward emotion had hit every trigger this aura-reader had. I had spent years learning every way pain could be made beautiful, shock sensual, and that converting either into joy was a release far sweeter than anything physical could offer. The yellow in his aura might make me have to adjust the seatbelt off of my lap, but the idea of changing its negative drive into something positive meant that it took all my self control to keep from dashing into the store that moment.
The lighting in the truck's cabin changed suddenly and I was ready and alert as the glass front doors slid open with a gentle hiss. College-boy Perry had thrown on a puffy winter coat that wasn't in the least flattering but certainly brought a smile to my face. I did like men who didn't realize they could impress someone if they only tried. His head was down when he stepped out, his lips moving slightly as he murmured something to himself, but he glanced up when he reached the parking lot, his eyes scanning across the cars stationed there.
I watched him take a breath as his shoulders drooped ever-so-slightly, and then as he nodded to himself and started walking towards the road instead. The kid didn't seem about to flee, certainly, and that was all the confirmation I needed. I started up the truck, flicked the headlights on, and idled up to his side.
"Need a ride?" I called softly, rolling the window down. His head jerked up in surprise, scattering the snowflakes that had landed on the pale strands of his hair. I smiled and, to show that I wasn't a bad guy and just out to jump his bones, added, "It seems awfully cold to be walking home tonight."
For all my good intentions, I couldn't resist saying cold like I was implying how my bed would be that night if he didn't follow me home. Kat would have teased me mercilessly if she had been around to hear me, but then again, if she was around she would have seen his aura and understood perfectly.
As the boy blinked snow from his long, pale lashes and grew red with the chill, I melted.
"Um," Perry replied ineloquently. He swallowed, no doubt about to launch into the speech he had carefully hammered out to himself these last few minutes. I caught myself thinking about licking his neck where it moved and hunched my shoulders, wondering where my own self-control had gone and where I could find its mailing address. "I've been thinking, and—I really don't believe that's a good idea. I'm sorry. None of the restaurants are open after seven, and, and I'm not hungry. I appreciate your offer. I mean, for a ride. I'll be fine."
You won't be fine, I thought, remembering his frighteningly hued aura. So forgive me as I drag you into manipulation. I propped my arm on the window ledge, trying not to shiver too badly in the chill evening air, and asked gently, "Why not?"
The boy looked so lovely surrounded by snow, in the glow of my headlights and the beams of the parking lot, and I inhaled his conflicting emotions like a starving man. "It's just..." Perry took a deep breath, turning his head towards the street again as his features reddened further with the cold. "You must have mixed me up with someone else, all right?" he murmured, barely audible over the stuttering purr of the engine. "Things like this just don't happen to ordinary people. Or maybe they happen where you come from, but not around here."
"Mm," I agreed. "So you're the type that likes this town, then: who prefers things that never change."
That got his attention, and I leaned back a little from the fury he hurled my way. "I hate this town," he snapped, then hesitated, as if he had just realized what he said and how it compared to his earlier words to me. "I—I don't even know your name," he added slowly.
"Alex," I replied at once. "I'm an insurance investigator from Ohio, where I learned to shoot before I could walk. There were twenty-eight candles on my last birthday cake until my dog ate it. I'm left-handed and can throw a mean fastball. Anything else you need to know, grocery boy?" Some of that was very roughly true. The part about the dog and the fastball, certainly. Technically the insurance had been demons, but they had been damaging property.
Now the red was definitely a blush. "I'm Perry," he said, scratching the back of his bare neck. "But you knew that already, right."
"A pleasure to meet you, Perry," I smiled. "But please make up your mind before you freeze to death. With restaurants closed to us, either let me drive you to whatever destination you call home, or back to my place if that tempts you any, and I promise not to make a fuss about either decision."
I shivered with more than cold as I waited. Finally he tilted his head forward and said, "I could use a ride to my apartment, thanks."
"Excellent." That at least gave me a trip's time to change his mind. "Get in; the door's not locked." He walked around the back of the truck—a mark of a cautious person, which I duly noted—and swung his lanky body inward, snapping his seatbelt shut before he closed the door. I surreptitiously adjusted my coat to cover my lap as I went for the gearbox and shifted into drive.
Perry settled himself against the far side of his chair and tried hard to look as if he accepted rides from attractive out-of-towners every day. He might have almost passed it off if he could have figured out where to put his hands, which landed first on the armrest, then on his leg, then on the seat, and back to the armrest again. I tried not to smile as I shifted gears and started down the driveway.
"You don't look it," he said suddenly, and I glanced sideways at him questioningly. Unfortunately the road was too dark for me to see his expression or his to see mine, so I made a light, inquisitive noise instead. "That old, I mean. Uh, jeeze—sorry, sometimes I don't know what I'm saying. I didn't mean to be rude." He moved enough that I could tell he was running a hand through his hair, no doubt covering an embarrassed expression I couldn't see anyway.
"It's all right," I replied warmly, amused. "But thank you. You don't look thirty either."
"I'm not," he said, surprised, then sighed before I could point out I was joking. "Sorry. Again. It's just that—I mean—I'm not usually this stupid. Not that getting a ride with you is stupid, or—damn it, I can't seem to get a single word right at the moment!"
"Well, I don't usually expect to pick up interesting people at convenience stores, so we're both on uneven ground at the moment. Personally," I trailed off, tapping my fingers against the steering wheel, but since honesty had gone well so far I finished, "I was surprised you even came outside, rather than fleeing out the back."
"Oh," the young man said quietly, and I was almost tempted to turn on my aura reading again just to see him. "I considered that, but..." But I'm willing to bet your aura is straight-through yellow at the moment, I thought, and shivered again. "I don't really know why I didn't. I mean, you could be one of those cops or reporters that do write-ups on things like—this. It wouldn't surprise me in this town."
I jumped in my seat, horrified at the thought. If something like that happened to you, I thought, furiously on his behalf, it would kill you, no doubt about it. "Absolutely not," I spit vehemently, then took a breath to calm myself again. "Anyone that preyed like that on a kid like you should be jailed themself."
"Um..." Perry said, a little hesitant after the tone of my voice, and I forced myself to relax further. Sexual exploitation of any kind was a sore point to any in my profession; it was scarcely his fault for bringing it up. "Thanks, I think," he muttered, slumping down in his seat and curving his shoulders forward. "Then you honestly were trying to, um, pick me up?"
I laughed, charmed at his question, and braced my hands against the steering wheel. "The handsome academic who solved my toothpaste woes has to ask that?" I flirted lightly. "I must be growing subtle in my own age if I wasn't able to make that clear enough."
I didn't need to see well in the dark to know his gaze flashed over to me, nor turn my reader on to know he was deeply embarrassed. "I didn't know that pointing out hygiene brands was so attractive," he replied, gamely teasing me back. From what he picked to focus on, though, I could tell that he was in denial about the rest of what I had said. "If that were the case, then I should be getting rides offered from strangers every day."
"Oh, I just really like good customer service," I replied, flashing a grin his direction. Perry hesitantly smiled back before quickly looking away. My pulse roared in my ears at the sight of his soft expression, and I had to stare very quickly at the road instead. Sometimes being an aura-reader was problematic. "Truthfully, though..."
I tapped my fingers on the wheel and considered how truthful I really felt like being. "You seemed down, and goodness knows I've had a rough time lately, so I thought it might be beneficial to both of us to unwind tonight."
Apparently, very truthful. Then I realized that I was suggesting that I was ignoring his request for a ride and nothing more, and added, "Such as, for instance, a lift home on your part and the enjoyment of good company on unfamiliar roads on mine. So, tell me something about yourself. Have you found your true life calling is stocking shampoo?"
He laughed a little, which relieved me. I might be trying—unsuccessfully at the moment—to seduce the guy, but I would stop in an instant if he couldn't have fun too, rather than being stark terrified. "Not especially. I, well, I want to be an engineer. I like figuring things out, taking them apart and making new ones. The job at the store is just to get some funding for school while I'm off on break."
"So this is your hometown then?" I asked, waving a hand out at the black and snowy space around the car. "Seems... spacious." I liked the country, but I loved my conveniences and technology too much to truly appreciate a town like the one we were in now.
"It was hell," the kid replied flatly, and we rode in silence for a few minutes, I out of respect, him I would guess out of embarrassment. His voice was softer as he continued, "But my family used to live around here, so I came back by habit. Now that I'm older—I think I can finally understand why they picked it."
"Does the scenery grow on you?" I hazarded. A movement in the distance startled me from making further guesses and I quickly slowed the truck down as a rabbit dashed across the road. It was lucky; if I hadn't been who I was, an expert at spotting life even in darkness, it would have been so much steaming carcass now.
Aside from the rabbit, the road was completely empty, this far into farmlands and at this time of night. I felt like I was in another, alien planet, surrounded by the falling snow, warm in Kat's rumbling truck and seated beside a man I had for better or worse abducted from a rural grocer. Just, me, him, and the rabbits. Not a bad planet, I decided.
"It's impossible to leave," he said in the absent tone of one who has thought about a topic in detail but didn't expect to have someone to listen to their opinion. "Live here long enough, and it seems like the whole world is farms and the store and Ms. Pearson's bakery. And if that's the world, then why bother to live anywhere else? Every other town must be just like it, too."
I sighed, a touch more realistically than I had meant to. I knew what he meant about small worlds, as much as anyone could. My soul, as I well knew, had its rough, sick pink spots too. "Do you go away for school, then?" I asked instead.
"Yeah," he replied. His hand went back to his leg, the seat, and the rest again. "Uh—sorry to interrupt, but this isn't the way to my apartment."
I slammed on the brakes immediately again and groaned, thudding my head back against the seat. So much for people preying on others. "I'm so sorry," I apologized, quite sincerely. I really hadn't meant to abduct him, despite my intentions. To violate another's trust like this was unforgivable in my line of work. "You wanted to go home, and here I've just been driving the only route I know. Where do you live, Perry?"
He was silent for a long, hesitant moment, the rumble of the truck drowning out whatever soft sounds he might have made. "How—how far away is your house?" he said at last, so quietly I almost missed it.
I had to keep from leaping in the seat again, although this time it was out of a desire to floor the pedal and not out of anger. Kat's wrath at the wreck I would make of her engine was not the slightest deterrent to the blood leaping through my veins now. "Just a field or so from here, if I've judged our location well enough in this weather." Only long practice and skill kept my voice level and casual. "I really am sorry; I didn't mean to get this far away from town before I asked you where I was taking you."
"Ah," he replied in that same soft voice, "that's alright. It's just that, I've been thinking about what you said before, that someone would only turn down an offer like yours because they didn't want things in their life to change. I'm not like that at all, is what I was going to say. I want things to change; I've always wanted things to change; I've spent nights dreaming that something exactly like this could happen, despite everything. I just thought, you know, this is too good to be true, right? That—maybe I'm still dreaming."
The hesitancy in his tone was heartbreaking, and I clenched my hands tightly around the steering wheel to keep from doing something really stupid. Like kissing him right then. "It's not too good," I said, as gently as I could. "It's true. I would be absolutely thrilled to have you in my—uh, house. But if it's what you want, I would be just as content to turn around and take you home. Just say the word."
"Yeah," he replied, and I could see his silhouette hunch its shoulders as he buried his head shyly in his coat. "Well. You've already driven all this way..."
That was close, so close I wished for a mad moment that Kat had lent me a car with a backseat, but it wasn't good enough. I reached out and touched him for the first time, nudging his collar aside with skilled fingers to catch his chin and turn it my way. Half of his face was visible in the glow of the radio and the headlights, one wide and petrified and disbelieving eye staring at me. He was warm against my fingertips, and I shivered again in a way that had nothing to do with the cold.
"I want to make sure you know what you are agreeing to," I said, more seriously than I had before. I did smile a little to show that I wasn't upset, and that I was implying acts possibly even more ulterior than sex, like cuddles. "You could tell me at any time that you didn't want to do a particular thing, and I would respect your words to the ends of the earth—but that said, I would like to see you in my bed tonight."
Perry sucked in a sharp breath and would have turned away had not I tightened my grip in anticipation of this shy reaction. Instead, I was able to watch as his expression filled with shock and some sort of wild, disbelieving joy all at once. I had to bite my tongue against a sudden urge to lick my lips, at the way that look made everything about him turn so unbelievably delicious. "Um," he whispered against my hand. "Okay."
It was not the most eloquent response I had ever received to a proposition before, but the hope in his eyes was more than enough for me. I released my grip and realized that I was smiling helplessly as I put the pickup back into gear again.
The truck rattled down the lane as it changed from pavement to bumpy dirt; never had a distance of a football field seemed as long as those last few feet did, as I buzzed with excitement and fizzy energy. We didn't say anything else during the trip, but it wasn't a strained silence, rather one that could just not bear to have words muddle it further.
I pulled up Kat's winding driveway to her low, dark sling of her house, setting the truck into park and shutting off the lights. "We're here," I sang needlessly, opening the door and hopping down the drop into the accumulating snow. Perry did the same, although he handled the step off of the tall pickup truck better than I had. With a gesture I led him across the stone path and up the wooden steps to the sprawling ranch my boss called home.
I opened the front door after a moment's snafu, struggling with a frozen lock, cold keys in colder fingers, and fierce-hot nerves all at once. "Kat?" I called out as I stepped across the threshold, Perry following cautiously at my heels. He startled visibly when, in reply, a person stepped around the corner rather than a four-legged furry critter: a five-five, red haired, bathrobed woman with a perpetual scowl and enough prickliness to embody the feline she insisted she wasn't named for. I smiled and held out the bag of groceries to her, which she took without glancing downwards.
"I wasn't expecting company," my boss said neutrally, brows raised, and I scratched the hair by my temple in a faux nervous gesture. She got the message immediately, copying my motion, and I could tell by the way her eyes widened that she saw what I did in our guest. Kat blinked, then smiled with startling warmth at the slowly reddening young man. "But welcome, all the same. You both look frozen—please, go into the living room and warm yourselves; I've got the fire lit in there."
I just managed not to gape as I searched my mind for the last time I had ever seen my boss smile. Enough of my manners remained to pilot my legs if not my mind, and I followed behind her meekly as she led us into the proffered area.
I took a seat at the couch and hid a smile of my own when Perry cautiously perched at the very, very far other end of it. The other chairs were occupied with discarded boxes from my move. I had meant to dispose of them earlier; now I was glad I hadn't. Procrastination did pay off sometimes.
"And let me guess," Kat continued with her newfound, unnerving cheeriness, "neither of you have eaten dinner. I have some ham rolls just out of the oven now, if you'd like them."
My guest, obviously at a loss at this unexpected turn of events, just glanced at me. I smiled brightly at Kat and said, "That would be wonderful." I was hungry, and if I was, I would have to bet a growing lad who had been on his feet working all day would be too. Kat left before he could respond otherwise, disappearing into the kitchen.
"I didn't realize you lived with someone," Perry commented cautiously, and I grinned at the tone of his voice while I lifted my shoulders.
"I thought she would be asleep," I admitted. "But no; this is my boss's house. She's letting me stay in the area until I find my own place or finish up my task here, whichever comes first. Let me reassure you that she won't—mind anything. The rooms are quite far apart here as well, and the walls are thick." The rooms were in other dimensions, technically, but I wasn't up to technical explanations at the moment. Admiring the college boy's sharp blush was far more pressing to my mind.
"Um," he said, but nothing further as Kat returned, a basket of steaming rolls in her hands. Not for the first time I wondered if my boss had the as-yet unproven skill of prophecy, but I was too busy stuffing cheesy ham bread into my mouth to ask her about it then. She glared at my rudeness, probably more out of habit than anything, and then handed the rest of the basket to Perry. He thanked her shyly and Kat went all smiles again.
"I'm heading back to bed," she informed us with a pointed yawn, past the edge of over-theatrical tiredness in her effort to impress upon our guest how very much she wouldn't hear any commotion in the night. "If either of you need anything, however, don't hesitate to wake me up and ask."
I appreciated her gesture, which I had to guess was meant to reassure Perry further about his safety here: the implication was that if he became too uncomfortable with me, than he was free to ask her for a ride home. I certainly would be shot on sight if I thought to wake my boss up before the morning.
"Feel better, Kat," I told her, and she nodded with an amused glance as she went down the hall. Perry politely echoed my general sentiment.
I waited until my boss was totally gone before turning back to the man at my side. He was now staring very intently into the basket and trying not to look at me in any way, I noticed. "I hadn't realized she could cook," I quipped, trying to come up with a neutral topic that had nothing to do with bringing attractive guys home, "but these are pretty good."
"They are," he agreed to the basket. Then he took a deep breath, glanced at me, and immediately returned to the rolls again. "I—I think this isn't such a good idea," he rattled off quickly. "I'm really sorry. I realize it might be too late to say this, but I... this isn't really the sort of thing I do." He ran an anxious hand through his hair and appeared not to notice when it fell immediately back in front of his eyes again. "For a thousand reasons, I have no reason to be here. I mean, you seem to be, uh, pretty comfortable with talking and... things... and..." He let out a breath, taking out a roll and tearing it apart with his fingers to distract himself. "And I'm not. If it isn't obvious."
"It's not too late for you to change your mind," I murmured agreeably, using his distraction to slowly ease myself down the couch towards him. "But how about this—give me just one chance, and then you can decide from there, please."
"A chance?" he asked, sounding puzzled as he raised his head, but I was already there.
One advantage to being able to read auras meant that there didn't need to be any hesitation on my part; I knew what I could and couldn't do. I reached up and tangled my hand in his long fair hair, pulling his head down as I pressed my mouth to his.
His lips were stiff and chapped, cold from the outside air, but I took that only as a challenge, opening my mouth to warm him with my breath and tongue. I could feel his hesitancy as a physical presence, pinning all his limbs to the couch and keeping him frozen as I snaked my arm around his shoulders, pressing against his mouth now roughly, now softly, waiting until he could move again.
With great, disbelieving hesitancy, he very gently responded, leaning in just a little so that I could reach him better, brushing his lips against mine as if I was the one who would flee. I in turn kissed him with gusto, moving until our legs were pressed together, my other arm snaking around his coat to pull him closer to me.
But as all things must come to an end, so did this, as I pulled back to let him breathe and see if he would allow me to comfort him tonight.
Perry's eyes were too full of emotion to properly read as I watched him. My arms rose and fell with his chest as he panted, and trembled as he trembled. I saw him wet his lips self-consciously with his tongue, a move that forced me to withdraw another precious inch less I lose control and dive into him again.
"It's your choice," I murmured, flicking my lashes down to partly cover my eyes, focusing on the area above his shoulder for a moment while I regained my own self. "Say that you have no reason to be here again, and I will take you home, no questions asked."
I had to convince him to stay. But I could not heal someone unwilling. It had to be his choice.
"This is real, isn't it," he said shakily, squinting for a moment before he reached up and took his glasses off, setting them on the table beside the rolls. His gaze was so vulnerable that it broke my heart anew, my fingers curling in subconscious reaction into his hair. "You really did invite me to your house, and were kissing me, and you want to sleep with me. Me. Why?"
"Why?" I repeated dumbly, entranced by the way his lips moved, and shook my head a little to clear it. I had to focus; I of all people knew how important every move I made here was. But after weeks of stressful—different—work my body too ached for this, my mind too entangled in this desperation for comfort. "How could I not?" I murmured, half to myself, as I reached up and traced my fingers around his wide dark eyes, his pale cheekbone. "I'm afraid I can't answer your question with you looking at me like that." Focus, Darren, I told myself as pleased puzzlement crossed over his features. "I just saw you and—knew. In the darkness that is this town, you shine out."
Perry withdrew a little, although, thank god, I could tell it was because he was contemplative and not because I had offended him. Otherwise I would have been tempted to fall to pieces. "You mean you knew I liked men?" he asked quietly.
I jerked my head back a little, perplexed. "No," I replied, "that's not what I meant at all. Ah—that is, I had figured that you were interested in me at some point, or I would not have invited you here. No, rather I meant that—" This was always so difficult to explain, and it never got easier, not for any of us. I fed those that starved for touch, and most people didn't like to be reminded that they were hungry. "You're beautiful," I blurted out suddenly, with the sudden leaden feeling in my stomach one gets after having let too big of a truth escape. "Both inside and out. It's so obvious to see, and yet it's just as obvious that no one else has, and yourself especially. You are so much more than you think you are, and I want to be the person that shows you that. If—if you'll let me."
Perry flinched but didn't pull away, staring down at where he had placed his glasses rather than look at me. "Oh," he said quietly. The silence stretched on for a long moment before he lifted his head again, eyes alighting upon mine. "Okay," he murmured. "I'm game."
I smiled. "Good," I said fiercely, tugging his head down again towards me. This time he kissed me back when I surged against his mouth, tentative little presses that complemented rather than juxtaposed my own fierce embraces, infinitely sweet and pale. Leaning up and resting my weight on my legs to give me added height, I reached for his coat. It took a few nudging gestures on my part, but at last Perry shrugged the thick material off, and I smiled at the heat I could now feel rolling off his skin, radiating through the thin, cheap cloth of his shirt to me.
"What," he murmured against my mouth, and I reluctantly left his to let him speak. The man did not continue immediately, but instead leaned forward to kiss me once again as I pulled his chest closer to mine, wrapping my fingers in his sleeves. I was hardly disappointed by his reaction, but I did pull away again; I was as interested in hearing him talk as I was in the taste of his skin, after all. Kissing could not solve everything.
His large dark eyes flicked up to mine, full of concern and blurry with a desire that sent my heart rattling in my throat. "What am I supposed to be doing?" he asked at last, quietly, as that gaze moved across my face again.
I couldn't help but smile again, bending my head to run my lips across the edge of his jaw, to feel him breathing. "Anything you'd like," I murmured against his skin. "Don't be afraid." I touched my hand to the back of his neck and pressed forward until, a little hesitantly puzzled, he bared his throat to me. I ran my tongue against his pulse and reveled in the way he shook, his neck bobbing against my mouth. "If it helps," I added quietly, "You may pretend that you were right, and this isn't real." I touched my hand to the side of his face and lifted my head, looking up at him again. "There is no one to judge you here."
He swallowed visibly, then slowly reached up, settling his hands on the top button of my jean jacket and threading it through the eyelet. I tilted my head back to encourage him, holding still as he continued the slow line down my chest. If I had ever been undressed so carefully, I couldn't recall it; there was something quite appealing about this manner that I was unable to deny, and I could feel my pulse speed up whenever the back of his knuckles pressed against my chest. At the end, he reached up, eyes shy, and eased it off of my shoulders and down my arms.
I let him, trying not to shiver too noticeably when the material caught up briefly around my wrists. There was a time and place for everything, and this was not one to suggest I be tied up.
Then I realized I was even contemplating idea—considering giving myself helplessly to a young man I knew nothing about, just for the whim of wanting it—and wondered if Thurgood was right to have sent me here after all, if I really was losing my mind to the job. It was not a thought I could consider now, so I let it pass me by.
"Are you cold?" Perry asked quietly, and my lips twitched a little. I swallowed the more truthful answer as to why I shuddered under his fingertips and nodded instead, a touch shyly. I ran a hand down the bare skin of my arms, goosebumped patches the t-shirt I had thrown on that morning didn't cover. Hesitantly he placed his palm above my own, following the trail I led; Perry made a startled noise when this didn't appear to help my little trembles in the least. "Um, maybe if you turned somehow, you would be warmer if you were closer by—"
I responded by swinging my leg around, twisting to straddle his waist and settling in there, my knees braced on either side of his hips. "Is this what you meant?" I murmured, and smiled when he sucked in a breath, when his dark and lost eyes focused upon mine to stabilize his tilting world. I found myself unexpectedly bewitched, unable to resist falling into him and curling my fingers in his long fawn hair. I slammed my mouth against his and tightened my thighs against him, breaking against the startled noise that rose from his throat and matching fierce heat for fierce heat.
When I pulled back, leaving us both gasping, Perry raised his head and whispered, "You can't mean that. You cannot feel this way." Even as he spoke his hands were trailing across my back, pressing against nerves and tender spots that made me bend weakly in his arms, making it difficult to bring reassuring words to my mouth. I went for his shirt, slipping my fingers under the edges to lay my palms flat on his stomach, feeling the light flutters that went across his skin whenever I shifted my position. When I smiled, the surface sunk down with a sharp exhale of breath. I could feel a few soft curls of hair against my palms, the gentle strum of blood pounding in his veins.
"Try me," I murmured, leaning forward to nip at the soft flesh of his ear, "and I will try you." I slid my hands upwards, bringing the edge of the uniform up along with me, and wonderfully receptive, Perry straightened and allowed me to pull the shirt clean off. His eyes were wild when they met mine, full of doubt and passion and abrupt, invigorating life, that only grew more heated as his body began to tremble in the chill.
I did what I might, wrapping my arms behind his neck as I pressed him back against the couch and bent down to make sure his lips, at least, would not freeze in the cool evening air. There was something unusually fine about entwining my arms around this young, shy thing in front of the flickering firelight. All that was missing was a bed, and I actually had to stop kissing him for a moment to laugh in short little gasps against his shoulder.
"Does that tickle?" Perry asked, and I smoothed his confusion away with a thumb drawn across his brow.
"Just realized that my infinitely more comfortable room is waiting for us down the hall." I smiled, when I could pull my lips away from him again. "It's warmer there, I promise."
"Ye-eah," he breathed. I wanted to curl up in the space of his hesitation. Perhaps I was growing sentimental in my old age. Sentimentality or not, I was able to lift myself off of him and hold out an assisting hand.
Sneaking through the hallway with him made my heart beat staccato with a childish thrill I hadn't felt in years. It was as if we were attempting the deliciously forbidden, only barely getting away with it as we evaded some stern watchful eyes. I flashed a grin over my shoulder, and he slowly, wonderfully, grinned back.
I swung upon the door of my room and resisted the urge to bow and make some foolish comment; no sense in scaring him off before we'd even begun. It was he who took the door from me and shut it, as if making sure himself that it was done right, and then I was able to pull him towards the bed, his fingers hot against mine.
I'd fallen back on the bed and pulled him down atop me, staring up into eyes framed by golden hair. His lips pink and wet, his breath still coming in gasps that pressed his chest to mine, damp with sweat as he lowered his head to mine... and my phone rang.
We both jumped at the clamor as it rattled its way across the dresser where I'd tossed it before I left for the store, and then Perry jumped again as I swore loud enough to counter the sound. "Sorry," I gritted out, and if looks could kill the plastic would be so much smoldering rubble, "sorry, let me just turn it off—" I wriggled my way from under him and Perry fell on his side on my bed, smiling a bit. The phone clattered to the floor and I snatched it just before it would have vibrated its way under the dresser.
I'd intended to just jab the silence button the side, but I caught sight of the caller-ID and swore again.
"It's my work emergency number," I groaned, shooting him an apologetic glance, "and they'll kill me if I don't answer, it will just be a second, I swear—" I punched the call button and barked out, "Thurgood, I'm busy." Technically there were all sorts of ways of subtly saying one was with a lover, but I was not in a state for departmental niceties.
"I don't care," the cool voice on the other end replied. "Grennhart, a demon is by your house. Showed up on our sensors just a moment ago. It approached from the east. Based on the signature, it could be from the Cincinnati nest."
I stared at the dark boards beneath the bed, trying to pull my unwilling mind away from lust and into business. I'd had enough of demons, I was on vacation dammit, they weren't supposed to be able to track me into the middle of ass-nowhere. That had been the whole point. Destroy the nest, get rid of as many as I could, then flee while the team took care of the rest of them. Just a moment ago I'd been seducing a young man on the couch, and now I was supposed to figure out how to fight?
And, damn it all, I had dragged poor Perry into this mess. My fingers whitened on the phone as I realized it. Unless they were in great number, demons hardly posed a threat to me anymore, but him—God, what had I done?
I reached down my pants to where the knives should have been, had they not been locked in my desk drawer at work. My guarantee that I'd let this trip be a real vacation. Maybe I could club the demon to death with my phone, I thought in growing hysterics.
"Grennhart? GRENNHART?" Thurgood was shouting, something I don't think I had ever heard, and I wrenched my mind from the problem to the phone.
"Where?" I murmured, glancing towards the bed. Perry was watching me with a puzzled, hesitant expression, no doubt wondering why I was taking so long.
"You insubordinate, irresponsible playboy, you had better—no, I am not going to—oh shut up. Grennhart, the demon is very close by, probably above you." I glanced up to the ceiling on reflex, and Perry, obviously perplexed, followed my gaze. I didn't hear anything—but was that a scrape of a branch, now, or a claw striking the tiles? There was a letter opener in my dresser, which would be better than nothing, and I slowly eased the drawer open, trying not to let the wood creak.
"What's going on?" my visitor whispered, probably spooked by my actions, and, regretting it, I held up a single finger for silence. There would be time for explanations later, once he was safe.
"...wait," I heard the phone crackle. "Grennhart, when you said you were busy... are you with someone?"
The sensors would have shown everyone in the house. Later I'd have words with Thurgood as to why they were monitoring at all, but not now. If the demon was on the roof, he could be directly above us, blocking the signal.
"Can't be," I said tersely. Thurgood would know that I meant he was wrong; he had to be. "Check again."
"You, Grady, and a demon. That's all."
I closed my eyes for a long moment, knowing there was no sense in asking for a third scan, no matter how bad the implications were. Maybe I should retired after all, find some nice, normal young man and settle down somewhere, but first I was going to have to survive the night.
"I understand," I murmured. "She's gone to bed, but I'll let Kat know in the morning." That meant, I would call again when I could. Thurgood wouldn't be happy, but he didn't have a choice. I slid my thumb onto the off button, pressed it, and barked out in a single breath, "I demand by stars and seas, reveal thy source to me."
Perry didn't seem to realize that his disguise was gone, which was the only reason I didn't attack the moment I spun around. Nearly seven feet tall, he was a curious color for a demon—predominantly the same sickly yellow as his aura, with green tips on his long ears and stripes on his sides and face, the mane running down his back—and thinner than most. The bed barely held his height, but I could have stacked four of him along it. The two long horns curling back from his forehead were making dents in my pillow, but weren't sharp enough to break through.
There was something strange about all this—well, stranger, as a demon tricking his way into my bed—and it took me a moment more of staring to place it. No wings or tail, I realized. Except for the unfortunate Cincinnati disaster, this wasn't my department, and I didn't know what their absence meant. I was a lover, not a fighter. Not usually.
It was strangely difficult to kill him, or even to move. Half of my mind was screaming that a large, dangerous predator was laying in my bed, staring at me with large, golden eyes as if I was about to be midnight snack. The other half was still trapped by the firelight, kissing an illusion and running a hand through his hair.
"Alex?" he asked, and my skin crawled to hear my name spoken in the language of demons. "What's wrong?" How could he not know? He rolled onto his stomach and propped his head on a hand, an action so human-like that I had to swallow down hysterical giggles. I was starting to wish I had taken one of those aspirin. Or the gun from over the mantle. That would have been fun, explaining why I needed to take it to bed—
Then I saw the scars on his back, and the urge to laugh faded. It seemed that he had once had the wings and tail. Now only ragged stumps, burns and sliced scars, marked where they had been.
It went against everything I knew to pity a demon, especially one who had fooled me so well—I want to be an engineer, my butt—but I still couldn't move. I had to know: what kind of demon makes his human disguise an undecided-major grocery shelf-stocker?
One who wants to blend in completely.
Or, one who knows human nature very well, and wants to trick a demon hunter.
Or, one who doesn't know any better, who has never thought himself capable of anything else.
"Alex?" He sat up, his head ducked to the side in a way I would have read as shyness on a man. Finally, I moved, using three fingers to gesture down the length on him.
He glanced down, and the effect was immediate. Faster than almost I could move, he pressed himself against the opposite wall, his eyes darting towards where a window should have been but now wasn't, and the door, which stood behind me. There was a bit of hissing, and I wondered if his tail would have twitched, had he had one. His long ears were pressed down flat against his skull like a cringing dog. "Who are you?" he croaked.
I let the letter opener slide down my fingers until I could get a better grip. "Alexander, known as Grennhart of the Lighthouse."
For a moment we both stood in impasse; then Perry closed his eyes, threw back his head, and laughed. It was not a malicious laugh, like I had heard at the nest, nor the mocking one I had half-expected. He sounded defeated, which was true. It could be a trap—with any other demon I would know it to be a trap—but somehow I could not believe it was.
"What is the Lighthouse doing here?" he asked in between the raspy, horrible sounds. "The nest left years ago for sweeter lands. I am all that's left, and how could I be such a threat?"
Now I felt nearly embarrassed, and not just because we had never known there was a branch of the nest in this godforsaken town. "We weren't after you. It was just bad luck, I suppose."
One clawed hand raised, and I tensed, but he only laid it against his forehead. "That is no surprise. I don't suppose you'll be moved by my pleas, if I say I do not wish to die?"
"That would be very unwise of me."
The demon's head bowed down, and I could see the bob of his throat as he swallowed. "If it is you," he said uneasily, "then perhaps it is fine. For your—kindness. Since we both know I have no chance against you, will you do me one kindness more, and make it quick?"
Every bit of my mind cried that this was the world's most obvious trap, and every lurch in my heart said to believe his sincerity. I told them both to shut up as I crossed the room, held the blade nearly over my head up to his neck. It was not very sharp, but it would do. It trembled against his skin, not because my grip was unsteady, but because he was shaking.
"Hellfire," I murmured, giving up. "Tell me where your wings are."
He flinched hard, all seven feet of him, and if I'd been holding my dagger instead of a letter opener he would have slit his own throat. "Burned. Please. I'd rather you killed me."
"Tell me who burned them," I said.
"Oosoelli," he murmured wretchedly.
When I grinned at my good luck, I imagined that I must have looked quite the monster; certainly the way he shrunk back from me said so. "Was it really." I tossed the letter opener onto the bed, and his eyes tracked it as if he expected it to leap up as a striking cobra. "I killed Oosoelli myself." His unnatural gaze snapped back to my face, and I had to grin wider to keep myself from flinching away from what my instincts screamed was a monster. "You owe me a debt, right?"
"Yes," he said slowly, staring. "Most assuredly."
"Good. Now, you wouldn't mind quitting your job, right?"
His ears flicked the slightest bit up. "No... that is, unless I am going to have to quit by being deceased. Then I would rather continue working. It's not so bad... I mean, they are nine-hour shifts, and we only get ten minutes for lunch, but that's better than trying to feast on the souls of the damned..."
"Sir, I've dispatched three units your way," the voice on the phone said frantically when I snapped it open again; Thurgood's young and eager secretary, "but—"
"Cancel them," I barked out. "Then text me the link to Kat's new intern position. I have a candidate that I want you to meet." I shut the phone again over its puzzled buzzing, tiling my head back. "There, you've got a job. Do you know the binding oath?" I asked the demon.
He slowly pulled his lips back to show off rows and rows of pointed teeth, and I grinned in reply. See? A lover, not a fighter. I could take down an army one by one. Maybe it wasn't the fastest method... but the reward was infinitely sweeter.
"Then repeat after me," I said. "I do solemnly swear..."