Chapter 7

Skip yawned and stretched luxuriantly, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. For a moment the fact that he was staring up at a fitted stone ceiling baffled him – Jesus, who the hell did I go home with last night? How much did I lose this time? – then memory returned with a shock. He sat, almost jumped, upright, his heart pounding, and looked frantically around him.

Well, he'd gotten his wish – he'd woken up in a bed, and a luxurious one at that. It was huge, and equipped with a thick featherbed, about a dozen pillows, and lots of thick, soft furs, in which Skip was damn near buried, not to mention a heavy velvet canopy and hangings. He could hear a fire crackling – yes, there was a large fireplace across the room, a good fire burning there. That sight answered his next question – Dante was slumped in a chair in front of the fire, his feet up on a stool, apparently asleep.

Suddenly Skip felt a pang of embarrassed need – only a few yards away, it was still the farthest Dante had been from his side most of the time since he'd arrived in this bizarre land. And Dante had slept in the chair. Why not in the bed with him? Had he offended Dante somehow? God knew there was enough room in that enormous bed for two. Or ten, come to that.

Skip glanced around the room. Bizarrely, it was round. A round room? Wait – hadn't he seen some cylindrical towers at the corners of the castle as they'd approached? They must be in one of the towers, then. Sky views out the narrow windows seemed to confirm that. At one . . . side . . . was a stairway leading down, probably back to the rest of the castle. Skip had little doubt that he'd find a securely locked door at the bottom. Nobody seemed to want the big bad Skippy running loose unchecked. He was surprised as hell that Dante wasn't awake and guarding him. On second thought, the halfling was probably exhausted. He'd gone for days on little or no sleep.

Skip stifled a sigh, wanting to let the other man sleep. It wasn't all bad. For the first time in – God, months? – he felt good. Really good. The dizziness and nausea and pain were gone, apart from some soreness in his muscles, probably from all the unaccustomed riding. He was alive, and it looked like he was going to remain so, at least for the time being. He was safe, and, last but certainly not least, he was still with Dante, a fact that reassured him more than all the other facts put together.

As quietly as he could, Skip slipped from the bed, grimacing again. He was dressed in some kind of long nightshirt – probably Dante's – and it was long enough that he nearly tripped at the first step, but at least his legs were solid under him again. Now that he was standing, his thighs and ass told him that he didn't want to go anywhere near a horse anytime soon. He walked to the fire and stood in front of it, enjoying the warmth. His stomach growled, and he realized that, miracle of miracles, he was hungry for the first time in as long as he could remember. Thirsty, too.

God, I could use a drink. Or a dozen. But it was only a wistful thought, unaccompanied by the usual shameful twisting need. Just a thought.

Thoughts I can live with.

"Feeling better, eh, muírnigh?" The voice was soft, but enough to startle Skip out of his skin. He spun around and saw Dante watching him appraisingly.

"I didn't mean to wake you," Skip said awkwardly. "I didn't mean to steal your bed, either. Why didn't you just, you know, sleep with me? You have been for days now."

Dante chuckled lightly.

"That I have presumed in the past gives me no right to do it now, Skip. You needed undisturbed rest. Besides, you are clean – I washed you myself – but I've had no opportunity to bathe, and I'd not put my dirty body in my clean bed."

He stood and stretched, and Skip was helplessly caught by the taller man's catlike grace. Then he saw the slight grimace pass over Dante's face and he felt a new pang of shame. The exhausted man shouldn't have had to sleep in a chair, not after all he'd done for Skip already.

"Are you hungry?" Dante asked, and Skip flushed.

"Yeah," he admitted. Then he added hastily, "But, you know, if you want to get cleaned up first, that's fine with me."

"Hmmm." Dante eyed Skip thoughtfully. "Simon never forbade you the bathing pools. I suppose I could guard you as easily there as here."

Skip sighed.

"Dante, as far as I know, I'm completely harmless," he said. "I mean, I certainly don't mean any harm to anybody here, I swear. I know that probably doesn't mean anything, but – "

"On the contrary, Skip, your word means much to me," Dante said, laying one long-fingered hand on Skip's shoulder. "Now we must only convince High Lord Simon that you are to be believed. Come, hot water and good food are calling to us."

Dante pulled some clothes from a chest at the foot of the bed, and he handed Skip a voluminous, heavy robe that hung nearly a foot too long. Skip held up the ends as best he could and followed Dante down the stairs, trying not to wince as his feet cringed from the cold stone. As Skip had expected, the heavy wooden door at the bottom was locked, and when he'd unlocked it, Dante returned the key to where it hung around his neck.

Other than the fact that they'd started out in one of the towers, and therefore in one of the corners of the castle, Skip had no idea where they were, so the twists and turns as Dante led him through the halls made little impression on him. They passed several neatly garbed and thankfully clean men and women whom Skip presumed to be servants – he'd have been worried about eating the food if the servants here were as dirty as most of the people he'd encountered before the castle – who gazed at Dante with a certain wariness and at Skip with frank curiosity. At last Dante opened a door, and Skip wrinkled his nose at the rush of hot, humid air, not to mention the strange and not entirely pleasant aroma, that wafted out.

"What's that smell?" he murmured.

Dante smiled slightly.

"The baths," he said. "James, the High Lord's Sentinel, can't bear it, nor can he bear Blair bathing in it, since they're lovers. If it troubles you too much, I can have a bath sent up to the room from the rainwater cisterns, but I warn you, the maids aren't happy to carry so much hot water up all the stairs."

"No, it's okay," Skip said, following Dante into the muggy room. He supposed he'd get used to the smell in a few minutes; in his various mechanic jobs, especially on the big oil rigs, he'd become used to chemical odors.

Inside the room, however, he forgot the odor entirely as he looked around. There were two large, deep pools built into the floor of the room, one steaming and bubbling like a glass of champagne and apparently fed from below; the other still and calm, apparently fed by a pipe snaking down one wall. Sponges, bottles and bowls were positioned around the bubbling pool, and cloths and robs hung on pegs along the walls. Dante closed the door behind them, latching it from the inside, then nonchalantly stripped, hanging his clothes on an empty peg. Skip gaped as he removed dagger after dagger – How the hell does he hide all those in an outfit that looks like he had to be sewn into it? – then gasped again as Dante's body was fully revealed to him for the first time.

Dear God, clean or not Dante was the most beautiful thing Skip had ever seen. His jet-black hair, unbraided, fell to his hips until he coiled it up casually, securing it at the nape of his neck with a silver spike. He was tall, sleek, muscular like a hunting cat. His skin was like polished ivory, flawless, making Skip embarrassedly conscious of all the scars he hid under the robe he still clutched around him. He didn't know which was more gorgeous – the muscular, sculpted buttocks in the back or the exquisitely large, uncircumcised cock in the front. Skip bit his lip and tried hard not to drool at the sheer vision of Dante, suddenly feeling uglier, more scarred, scrawnier and more pathetically hung than he'd ever felt in his life. No wonder Dante preferred to sleep in a chair.

"What's the matter, muírnigh?" Dante said, turning slightly to gaze at Skip. "Won't you join me?"

Skip clutched the robe tighter. There was no way, no way he could stand to bare himself now, not torn between shame and desire and downright awe at the sight of Dante's perfect body.

"You said I was already clean," he said weakly.

Dante smiled.

"Then join me just for the pleasure of it," he said. "Skip, I know little of your world, but I'll tell you this of ours – the chance to bathe in fresh hot water isn't to be spurned lightly, especially after a hard journey. Remember what I said of simple pleasures? Come, you've naught to show that I haven't seen already."

Yeah, well, compared to you I've got nothing worth showing, and that's the problem, Skip thought sourly, but he stripped reluctantly and dashed into the cover of the water as quickly as he could. The water was hot, but not too hot, and the bubbles apparently came from some mineral fizzing. A hot mineral spring, you idiot. Don't start to chalk every damned thing to magic, or the next thing you know you're going to be doing rain dances on the roof.

Dante didn't appear dismayed by Skip's shyness; he only picked up a sponge and one of the bowls, which apparently contained soap, and started lathering his long body. Dante sighed contentedly.

"D'you know, Skip, sometimes I think the greatest pleasure of traveling is washing off the dirt of the road afterward," Dante chuckled. "Never do I appreciate a hot bath and clean clothes so greatly as then."

Skip thought of coming off a long, messy shift on a rig, the simple happiness of a hot shower to wash off all the grease and smelly solvents. He felt himself gradually relaxing in the hot water, although the millions of tiny bubbles tickled against his skin and did nothing to ease his still-fierce erection. Helplessly he watched the sponge travel over Dante's body, slicking his skin with sweet-smelling soap.

"I can't remember the last time I soaked in a hot tub," Skip said, surprised at the realization. I've always been a shower man, never took the time for baths . . . Kix always loved to soak in a tub. Maybe that's why I stopped.

"And I canna remember the last time I bathed with another," Dante chuckled. "But as you're here, will you wash my back?" And a totally stunned Skip found the bowl and sponge thrust into his hands.

"Uh . . . okay." Skip swallowed heavily. Jesus, is this just . . . something they do here, or is he trying to seduce me? Oh, come on, Thomas. Look at him. A man who looks like that could have anybody he wanted, man or woman. Hell, as far as I know he's completely het – he kissed me, yeah, after I pretty much yanked his head down and went tonsil-diving. And he turned me down when I offered. Yep, no doubt about it – he's been nice, but that's all there is to it. Enjoy the soapy grope, 'cause that's all you're going to get, and it's probably just as well, too.

The soap in the bowl was a thick paste that lathered into a rich herbal-scented lather. The sponge was a real sea sponge (Gee, no shit, Thomas, think they've got a good ol' sponge factory using petroleum byproducts or whatever?), fine and soft, but compared to the silken perfection of Dante's back it might as well have been burlap. Skip's hands itched to slide over that gorgeous ivory skin, feel its warmth.

"You're lucky," he murmured.

"Mmmm?" Dante said, leaning back into the strokes and arching his back like a cat.

"Well, I mean, you must be pretty good with that sword, to take care of those men so easily," Skip said awkwardly. "It's probably hard to get that good without ending up with a bunch of scars."

Dante chuckled.

"I told you, I possess the darkling healing," he said. "I'd have had scars aplenty were it not for that. Here, look." He turned around and took Skip's left hand, turning his forearm up to expose an old scar Skip had gotten in a motorcycle accident. Skip looked – and froze. The scar was almost gone, barely visible and noticeably shorter.

"I told you that my blood imparted that healing for a time," Dante said, reaching up to brush Skip's hair back. "All your scars are smaller now, fainter."

Skip touched the scar with trembling fingers.

"All of them?" he whispered.

Those green eyes seemed to see into his soul.

"Only the scars on your body," Dante said softly. "The others, they can heal too, or at least lessen. We are all the sum of our scars, muírnigh, but they need not be seen for us to know they're there."

Skip felt his breath catch. They were close, so close; even in the bubbling water Dante had to feel Skip's erection brushing against his belly. But the taller man made no move to retreat, only stood there, running his fingers through Skip's hair, gazing into his eyes. Suddenly Skip felt a hunger, a need that was sweetly painful in its intensity, to run his hands over Dante's body, to kiss him, to taste – ah, God, to taste –

"Shhh, easy, muírnigh," Dante murmured. "I know, it burns, the hunger. But we should not, puísin. In time the hunger will lessen, the bond will fade. For your sake, we should let it fade."

Skip was trembling violently now.

"What if I don't want it to fade?" he said.

Dante leaned closer, so close that his breath fanned Skip's face.

"What do you want, muírnigh?" he purred.

"I want," Skip breathed. "I want."

"I want too," Dante murmured in Skip's ear, the soft breeze of his words making the tiny hairs stand on end. "Ah, gods, muírnigh, I want so very badly."

And that was it, more than Skip could bear, and he let Dante take the sponge and bowl from his hands, and he filled his hands instead with the slick warmth of Dante's skin, gorging himself on the feel of him. Such soft perfect skin, such sleek hard muscle underneath. He could feel the pulse of Dante's blood, slow but strong, deep thrumming beats of desire in counterpoint to the hot rapid pounding of Skip's heart.

And then Dante's hands, hands that had killed, moved over his body as softly as a whisper, cradling him as delicately as if he was made of spun glass, gently urging but not pulling him closer until not even breath separated them. Skip moaned as his erection pressed against a hot, hard length, and desire and fear chased tails inside him until he was dizzy.

"Easy, muírnigh, nothing to fear," Dante whispered, mouth tracing a red-hot trail from Skip's ear to the point of his shoulder. "To hurt you would be to hurt myself, mo grá [my heart], mo anam [my soul]. Let me touch you, let me love you, let me share all that we are . . . "

Skip moaned and lost himself in that mouth, in those eyes, in the hands that made the lightest brush over his belly an almost unbearable intimacy. Long fingers slick with soap cupped his erection, stroked it knowingly, skillfully, drawing the pleasure inexorably from him until Skip could feel his bones melting in the heat of it.

"Wait," he choked, grabbing Dante's wrist with one hand, the other daring at last to trace the length of hot, hard flesh that seemed to sear his belly where it pressed against him. "Together?"

"Ah, yes, please, muírnigh, please yes," Dante groaned, thrusting into Skip's hand. "Together, mo grá, yes, together – "

And thankfully Dante slowed his caresses to let Skip catch up, and Skip relished the flush of pleasure that suffused Dante's skin, his soft moans of delight as Skip's fingers seemed to know by some telepathy exactly how to touch him, this fast, this hard, ah, yes, here

"Wait, muírnigh," Dante gasped. The fingers of his free hand brushed the side of Skip's throat where he'd bitten before. "This too – do you wish – "

"Yes – oh, God, yes," Skip moaned, shuddering. "Please, I want – I need – "

"Yes, oh yes, mo grá," Dante groaned. "Here, then – " He pulled the silver spike from his hair, letting the ebony length cascade down his back, pressing the pin into Skip's hand. His hand guiding Skip's, he pulled the point of the spike across his upper chest, opening a shallow cut. He dropped the pin and held Skip close, murmuring hotly in his ear, "Spencer?"

"Yeah, oh yeah," Skip whimpered, hovering on the edge, waiting for that final touch to push him over.

Dante bent impossibly closer, as if he could melt into Skip's skin.

"My name – is – Ciarán," he gasped. "Say it, muírnigh, please say it – "

"Ciarán," Skip moaned hoarsely, and sealed his lips over the cut on Dante's chest. Dante's cry of joy was all that Skip needed to fall over the edge into pure ecstasy, screaming as the brief sharp pain at his throat only punctuated his pleasure. He was drowning in a crimson sea of utter bliss, the skillful caresses of Dante's fingers, the sharp-edged delight at his throat, Dante's pleasure that he felt as strongly as his own – even his mouth joined in his climax, overcome by the heady taste of Dante's blood, and only his desperate will not to miss even a second of these feelings allowed him to maintain a tenuous hold on consciousness as the wave of blinding pleasure peaked, crested, and ever so slowly subsided.

Skip groaned and squirmed drowsily, nestling closer into strong warm arms.

"Shit," he breathed. "That was – that was incredible." Then he remembered, sitting up and pushing back slightly so he could see Dante's face.

"You told me your name," he said slowly. "That's – that means something special here, doesn't it?" He waited, holding his breath.

"Aye, muírnigh," Dante said simply. "But with you it was only acknowledgement of what we shared already." He traced the line of Skip's mouth with one long finger and smiled. "I think perhaps we can share the bed tonight."

Skip snorted.

"I'd hope so," he grinned.

"But not," Dante said sternly, "until I finish washing. Now more than ever."

"I could – " Skip suddenly felt unaccountably shy. "Would you like – can I wash your hair?"

Dante smiled, a rare and beautiful full-out smile that left Skip dazzled.

"Only, muírnigh, if you'll let me return the favor."

Email: Shadow