Chapter 11

Skip stretched drowsily, more than half asleep. He'd gone back to Dante's rooms, carrying a book of poems that Kix had recommended. He'd tried to read, but the strange, elaborate script and unfamiliar meters had him yawning in record time, and he'd put the book down and dozed, waiting for Dante's return.

To his surprise it had been a good day – before Dante, it had been a long time since he'd had a good day. He'd asked Kix about the song Dante had mentioned, about the miller and the goat, and Kix had laughed and sung it for him in a surprisingly beautiful voice, and they'd both laughed themselves silly. They'd sat around and nibbled pastries and talked about everything and nothing at all. Skip couldn't remember feeling so close and comfortable with someone since – well, since he and his twin had been very young. It felt good. It was good to have a friend – a brother, Kix insisted.

And he had another friend, too, although he hadn't seen Blair for the remainder of the day; Kix had speculated, grinning wickedly, about exactly how James and Blair were spending their afternoon. Skip looked forward to tinkering on new inventions with the curly-haired scholar, but Kix had mentioned another practical advantage that Skip was eager to bring up with Blair.

"Blair probably knows more about Feeders than any mortal alive," Kix had told him. "He lived for a while with a band of traveling merchants, most of them halflings themselves, who traded with some of the lesser darklings regularly. He was even permitted to visit some of their dens or hives or whatever they call them. For all I know, Blair knows more about Feeders than Dante does – I think Dante was mostly raised by his mother's kinfolk."

Skip had promised himself that he'd pick Blair's brain at the first opportunity, but although a rather tired and disheveled-looking Blair had showed up in the dining hall at suppertime, he'd only made his excuses to Simon and carried a tray back to the tower, explaining that at the full of the moon, James tended to get irritable and territorial and didn't like servants in their tower even to bring food. Skip had hidden his smirk behind a goblet of wine.

So the big bad kitty's got the monthlies, huh? Nah, just a bad case of PMS – pre-Moon syndrome. Oh, man, Thomas, better keep those jokes to yourself. I seriously doubt that cat's got much of a sense of humor.

After supper, using Kix's map, Skip had found his way back to the bathing room and availed himself of hot water again. Despite the odd mineral smell, the bubbly water was luxurious and the assortment of scented oils and soaps was nothing short of decadent. The engineer in him had been interested in the construction of the baths themselves – a large wheel-capped drain near the bottom let the dirty water drain out into the pipes that Dante had said flushed through the privies, and a second wheel near the top let fresh hot water cascade in. The other pool in the room Skip found to contain fresh cool water, probably from the rain cistern Dante had mentioned, and it had a similar drain/fill setup; the cool water felt wonderful after the hot mineral pool and the steamy heat of the room. And the whole bath had relaxed him so much that it didn't take long for him to doze off in Dante's bed over the book of poetry. He'd dozed in and out for probably an hour now, just luxuriating in feeling good and having nothing better to do.

Suddenly strong arms slid around him from behind, and in Skip's half- sleeping state, memory substituted an all-too-familiar fear –

"Hey, bitch! Time to pay for ol' Benny keeping you safe from all those other big, bad cons out there! C'mon, Skippy, time for some undercover work, I've been counting the hours till lights out so I could have that hot little ass – "

Skip bolted upright with a hoarse scream, striking out reflexively, only to find his wrist seized in an iron grip. The restraint threw him into wholesale panic, and he screamed, struggling wildly, until a familiar voice finally penetrated his consciousness.

"Skip, muírnigh, Spencer – don't be afraid, mo grá, it's me, only me – "

Skip sucked in his breath, blinking stupidly in the lamplight, staring up into Dante's anxious eyes.


"Me and no other, puisín," Dante soothed. "Did I frighten you, muírnigh? I'm sorry, so sorry."

Skip took a deep, shuddering breath.

"I'm sorry too," he croaked. "Did I hit you?"

Dante smiled.

"Nay, but 'twas a fine effort, wildcat," he said. Then his smile faded. "Who's Benny, Skip?"

Skip shivered.


"You were screaming 'No, Benny, please, no.'" Dante's eyes had grown cold. "Someone who hurt you?"

Skip nodded silently. Dante touched his shoulder cautiously, and Skip accepted the invitation for what it was, burrowing into Dante's arms and tucking his head beneath Dante's chin as if Dante's strong arms could somehow shelter him from his memories.

"Benny was my cellmate in prison," Skip said, his voice muffled by Dante's tunic. "He kept the rest of the inmates from, you know, picking on me too bad. But the deal was, that made me his bitch. I mean, it kept me from being gang-raped or beaten up all the time, but he was pretty rough, and sometimes he'd trade me to somebody else for the night, for cigarettes or whatever."

"Is he alive?" Dante's voice was so remote, so cold, that it sent a new shiver through Skip.

"Hell, I don't know," Skip said, shaking his head. "Probably."

"Not for long," Dante said flatly.

Skip pushed back slightly to gaze up at Dante. Even in the light of the single lamp Skip had left burning, he could see that cold expression.

"Dante, even if you could get to my world and find this stupid convict," Skip said, "he's not worth killing. Look, we had a deal, and I made it with my eyes open. It wasn't the first time I paid my way with my ass, and it wasn't the worst, either. Fine, I didn't especially like it, but I didn't expect to. It was better than the alternative, and it's over." He shrugged.

"Oh, aye?" Dante said softly. "Then why do you scream and beg and fight when I put my arms around you, eh?"

"Because I was half asleep and you startled me," Skip said patiently. He moved back into Dante's arms, smiling when Dante drew him close. "See? I'm not screaming and begging now. Although I could probably manage it, given the right inspiration, hmmm?"

"Skip, why d'you do that?" Dante stroked his hair back, frowning. "You don't even want me, you're upset, yet you try to seduce me. Don't. Willing isn't enough for me, muírnigh. I'll have you wanting, too, or not at all."

"Sorry." Skip closed his eyes. He couldn't explain, and Dante couldn't understand, that his body was all he'd ever had to offer. Dante would never understand how unnerving it was, to be with someone who didn't want that – or who wanted something else that he was completely unfamiliar with giving.

"Skip, look at me, please, muírnigh."

Skip sighed and opened his eyes, unprepared for the sad tenderness in Dante's expression.

"I don't need a hole to shove my cock in, mo grá," Dante said gently. "I can go pay a whore if all I want is a comely body to tup. I want your body, aye, I want the taste of your blood, but I want ever so much more. I want the sound of your moans of pleasure and the wanton little whimpers you make when I give you what you like. I want the taste of your come. I want the way you tremble in my arms. I want that look in your eyes at the height of your pleasure. I want the sound of your voice saying my Truename. I want your love that I can feel as strongly as I feel my own. I'll have it all, mo grá, I'll not settle for less."

Skip buried his face in Dante's long, loose hair, sighing.

"God, do you know how that scares me?" he whispered. "Nobody's ever given me so much. Or asked so much of me. I love it, I want it, but it terrifies me."

Dante chuckled softly.

"Aye, that's why sex is so easy, mo grá," he murmured. "Even the lowest beast in the forest can mate. But love, ah, that's the most terrifying thing there is, and there's no ignoring the heart-call when it comes, or so I'm learning. 'Tis a bit like the Mage-Gift – rare and powerful and frightening, but sadly there's no schools to teach us how to manage it! A pity, eh?"

Skip had to laugh at that, and he leaned back, pulling Dante with him so the dark-haired man lay over him, black hair cascading down all around him. To Skip's astonishment, the warmth of that long muscular body pressing against him, the exotic scent of Dante's hair, fanned the spark of desire in him.

"How do you do that?" Skip said, shaking his head wonderingly. "How do you always know just the right thing to say? Is that one of those Gifts, hmmm?"

"Oh, I dearly hope so," Dante chuckled. "For then I'll be able to keep doing it. Did you have a good day?"

"I missed you," Skip admitted. God, isn't that crazy? I've been alone for how many years? But one day has me missing this guy. "But I had a good time with Kix and Blair, and James and Simon were even nice to me at meals." Then he hesitated. "Did you get anything to eat?"

Dante nodded.

"Lord Vithian invited me to sup with him," he said. "But I let his kitchen put up a few meat pies I could eat in the saddle instead so I needn't stop at the kitchen when I got home. I was more hungry for your company."

"My . . . company?" Skip said, squirming slightly against Dante, letting Dante feel his growing erection.

Dante smiled, but to Skip's surprise and consternation, he rolled off of Skip, sitting on the side of the bed.

"I brought you a gift, muírnigh," he said. He handed Skip a small leather pouch. Skip sat up and hesitantly untied the pouch, emptying it into his hand. A ring rolled out – a wide silver band, set with not a gemstone but a dome-shaped section of exquisite filigree.

"Oh, wow," Skip said softly. "Dante, this is beautiful. Did you find it in the market?" He tried it on his finger, but it was too big. "Oh, damn it – "

"No, no, not like that." Dante took the ring and gently slid it onto Skip's thumb, where it fit perfectly.

"Oh." Skip grinned. "How come it goes on my thumb?"

"I'll show you." Dante pressed on the edge of the filigree, and to Skip's surprise the dome flipped up on a tiny hinge, exposing a tiny triangular blade that jutted up from the band like a shark's fin.

"These rings were first a Feeder invention," Dante said. "Later mortals adopted them to their own use – mostly to inject poison into an enemy. But that wasn't the original purpose."

"There isn't any poison on this one, is there?" Skip asked, alarmed.

"No, no," Dante reassured him. "No, this one I owned already. I took it to a jeweler to have it fitted to your hand." He grinned at Skip, pulling a length of string from the pouch. "I took your measure while you slept."

Skip chuckled and touched the small blade curiously, wincing as he discovered just how sharp it was.

"Man, you're sure there's no poison on this?" he asked a little worriedly.

"I'm positive, muírnigh," Dante said in a strange voice. "No poison."

Skip glanced up, only to see Dante's eyes riveted on the bead of blood that welled up from his finger. Skip smiled.

"See something you like, hmmm?" he said. He extended his hand toward Dante, passing his finger under Dante's nose, watching Dante's eyes dilate, his nostrils flare. When Dante reached for his hand, however, he snatched it away. "Uh-uh, who said you could have that?"

"Skip," Dante groaned, licking his lips involuntarily. "Don't tease."

"Maybe I want to tease you," Skip grinned. "Maybe I want you desperate for me." He raised his finger and slowly rubbed the drop of blood over his own lips. "Come and get it."

Dante was on him in an instant, lips seizing and claiming his. Skip moaned as Dante's tongue explored his mouth, collecting the last traces of blood. A moment later Dante sat back, breathing hard, his eyes dark and wild.

"Ah, gods, Spencer," he gasped. "What you do to me, mo grá. I want so much of you – "

"What?" Skip gasped just as breathlessly. "What do you want?"

Dante licked his lips again.

"I want – " He reached out, running a tender fingertip down the side of Skip's face. "I want to see you, muírnigh, see your body in the moonlight. May I have that privilege?"

"Oh, yeah?" At any other time Skip might have felt insecure about his body compared to Dante's, or maybe frightened at the thought of displaying himself, but in the face of the love and hunger so plain in Dante's eyes he could feel nothing but joy. He slid off the bed, opening the shutters to let in the bright light of the full moon, then blew out the lamp.

"I think I can manage that," he purred, his fingers going to the lacing of his tunic.

It probably wasn't the best striptease in the world. Skip had stripped for johns occasionally, but it wasn't something he'd enjoyed, so he'd never put all that much effort into it. And the damned underwear was just too funky and complicated. But the sheer desire in Dante's expression only grew as each article of clothing fell, and by the time the last piece dropped, his eyes were so dilated they looked black, and his fingers were sunk so fiercely into the bedding that his knuckles were white.

"Like what you see?" Skip smiled, pulling the clasp from his hair and shaking the blond length down over his shoulders. Just to tease Dante a little more, he ran one hand down over his flat belly, stroking his fingertips lightly up the underside of his erection.

Dante swallowed hard and nodded silently.

"Then . . . " Skip teasingly moved a little closer. "I think it's my turn now. I want to see you too, Ciarán, please?"

Once again Dante nodded silently and pulled off his boots before standing, placing one hand on Skip's shoulder and silently urging him to take Dante's place sitting on the side of the bed. Skip sat, shivering with anticipation as Dante moved to the middle of the room.

"Let me tell you about the ring you wear, muírnigh," Dante said in a husky voice. He slowly unlaced the black leather vest he wore, sliding it down his arms.

"Feeders have always taken mortal thralls, kept them to sate their hungers," Dante said in a low voice. He pulled his black tunic over his head. His black hair spilled like midnight over skin that almost glowed in the moonlight. "But sometimes a mortal thrall became more. Became a lover. Sometimes they would share an exchange of blood as you and I have done, taste the pleasures of giving and receiving that passion. And to seal that bond, the Feeder would gift the mortal love with such a ring."

Slowly Dante unlaced his black leather trousers. They were too snug to fall, but Dante slid them down in one sensuous push, and Skip's jaw dropped. Dante was naked underneath.

Oh God – no underwear? He's gone all day with no underwear, feeling all that soft leather sliding over – oh God.

"And – uh – what's it for?" Skip whispered through dry lips.

"I'll show you." Dante moved closer, standing in front of Skip, a vision of such moonlight perfection that Skip thought he'd come then and there, just from looking.

Dante took Skip's hand, turning the ring on his thumb until the filigreed cap was down instead of up. He opened the cap, exposing the tiny blade, and drew Skip's hand to his chest.

"Thus," Dante purred.

His eyes on Skip's, Dante moved Skip's hand so the ring's blade cut a fine line into his chest directly over his heart. The invitation in Dante's eyes was unmistakable.

Slowly, Skip leaned forward, pressing trembling lips to Dante's chest. His tongue flickered out, tasting the liquid heat of Dante's blood, hearing Dante's thick moan of need. It shot straight to his head like a drug – then straight to his groin. Even as his tongue traced the shallow cut, he felt it closing, healing.

"More?" Skip asked hoarsely.

"More," Dante choked pleadingly.

With lips and tongue Skip worshipped Dante's moonlit body, making a dozen tiny cuts – at the angle of his hip, the small of his back, the inside of one muscular thigh, over his collarbone – moving on as each one healed, covering the rest of Dante's skin with soft licks and tiny nips and wet sucking kisses, savoring Dante's moans and quivers even more than the brief tastes of his blood. At last Skip closed the filigree cap and knelt at Dante's feet, rubbing his cheek against the taut length of Dante's cock. Trembling fingers wove into his hair.

"Spencer . . . "

Skip gazed up at his lover, relishing the open, hungry look on Dante's face, realizing that the halfling was holding on to his control by the barest of threads.


Dante tugged Skip to his feet, pulling the smaller man tight against his body. Skip could feel the taller man trembling violently, and when Dante bent down, pressing small hot kisses up the length of Skip's throat, Skip tilted his head back, waiting for the sweet sting of Dante's teeth. Instead, however, Dante's mouth moved to Skip's ear, breathing hotly.

"Spencer . . . " The briefest hesitation. "You can tup me if you wish."

Skip went rigid with surprise – all over – his breath deserting him entirely. God, he'd only topped a handful of times in his life since – since Kix. And those had been johns, not exactly pleasant memories either. But God, the idea of Dante offering himself to Skip that way – the idea of claiming that unearthly beautiful body –

"Are you sure you want – " Skip swallowed, reluctant and eager, wanting and afraid. "I don't want to hurt you."

"You could never," Dante whispered. "Your love could only bring me pleasure. I want this to be special, sacred." He pulled Skip's hips tightly against his. "I've never given myself to another in this way."

Oh God oh God oh GOD – fear and desire sharpened until Skip could barely think.

"I don't want to hurt you," Skip whispered again, burying his face in Dante's shoulder.

Dante's hair spilled over Skip's shoulders as Dante nibbled on his throat.

"You won't."

"I – I don't know if I can," Skip gasped, clinging to Dante as Dante restlessly kneaded his scarred back.

Dante claimed Skip's lips again, tongue slowly tracing the line of his mouth.

"You can," Dante whispered into Skip's mouth.

"I – I – " Skip couldn't think of any more objections; hell, he couldn't think at all, which was no surprise considering that all the blood had abandoned his brain for a much lower region. Then: "But we don't have anything – I mean – "

Dante pulled away momentarily, fumbled at something on the night table, then thrust a clay jar into Skip's hand.

"This," he murmured into Skip's ear. He guided Skip's other hand to his erection, showing Skip the truth of his desire. "Let me give you this, muírnigh."

Oh God. Now what the hell do I say?

One last-ditch attempt.

"All right," Skip said unsteadily, halting Dante when the taller man tugged him toward the bed. "No, not there. I want – I want to see you in the moonlight." He nodded at the open window, sure that Dante would refuse. "There."

Dante's eyebrows jumped in astonishment, and he glanced at the window, then back at Skip. Then he smiled, a slow, dark smile that melted Skip's soul, and walked to the window, facing out to the night sky. Slowly, deliberately, he bent at the waist, leaning his hands on the windowsill and spreading his legs. He looked over his shoulder, hair blowing in his face, and gave Skip a look of such blatant desire that Skip grabbed hurriedly for the post of the bed to steady himself. His last reluctance burned to ash in the heat of that gaze.

He stumbled to the window, already frantically prying the cork out of the jar, and dug his fingers into a slippery, waxy substance that could have been grease or soap or butterscotch pudding for all he knew. He gripped Dante's hip with his free hand, more to steady himself than anything, and showered Dante's moon-silvered back with hot kisses.

His adult knowledge of this end of the act was barely a notch above theoretical-only, but God knew he had plenty of experience from the receptive end – and certainly plenty of examples of what he hadn't liked – to guide him. With trembling fingers he stroked the slippery gel liberally into the shadowy crease between Dante's buttocks, letting Dante's soft moans of pleasure guide his caresses. At last he thought – he hoped – that Dante was relaxed enough, accustomed enough to his touch, and scooping out some more gel, he carefully coaxed the tight muscle to open and admit his finger. Dante made a small whimpering sound as Skip's finger slid into him, but it wasn't a sound of pain, and Dante pushed back against the probing digit, silently demanding more.

Skip stretched him carefully, taking plenty of time and plenty of gel to do it right, murmuring soft reassurances, caressing and kissing every part of Dante he could reach. When even three fingers brought nothing but a soft growl of pleasure, Skip finally relented, anointing his aching cock with what was probably a ridiculous quantity of gel, but God, he'd never forgive himself if he hurt Dante.

Dante was making impatient little murmuring sounds now, pushing back against Skip's fingers.

"Please, Spencer," Dante gasped. "Please, now, I need you."

"I know, I know," Skip said unsteadily. He withdrew his fingers, guiding himself into place. "Relax, okay? Just relax, try not to tense up, I'm coming in . . . "

He pressed forward as gently as he could, but at the first penetration Dante pushed back suddenly, taking Skip by surprise as he found himself abruptly sheathed completely in Dante's heat. Both of them froze, Skip in astonishment and trepidation, Dante probably in pain –

"Ah, gods, muírnigh, yes, oh yes," Dante whispered. "Be mine now, mo grá, my heart, be mine and let me be yours."

That was all the reassurance Skip needed, and he moved, slowly and shallowly at first, barely thrusting, then faster, deeper. Dante refused to cooperate with Skip's slow, deliberate pace, pushing back impatiently, muttering what were probably curses under his breath until Skip could hold back no longer, thrusting hard and deep into his lover, and Dante let out a howl of pure unadulterated pleasure.

"That's it, muírnigh, more, give me all of you," Dante growled, answering Skip's hard thrusts with his own. Skip moaned with pure lust, thrusting with abandon now, nipping hard at Dante's back and shoulders, reaching around him with gel-slick fingers to pump Dante's pulsing erection, and he could feel it building for them both, that ultimate explosion, building higher, hotter –

Then Dante's desire shot through him like a bolt of lightning, and he released Dante's cock and tangled his fingers in Dante's hair, pulling his head back, as with his fingernail he flipped open the cap on the ring, moving his hand to cut a thin crimson line between Dante's neck and shoulder. The difference in their heights made the angle awkward, but Dante arched his back and screamed as Skip's mouth fastened over the cut, Dante's blood trickling like nectar into Skip's mouth as Dante's whole body shuddered wildly in climax, even as Skip, his mouth full of Dante, gave one last deep thrust and filled Dante with his come.

For a moment time froze for both of them, every muscle taut and trembling at the peak of pleasure; then slowly they shuddered down to earth again, relaxing gradually, gasping for breath. Dante stayed still, braced against the window, and Skip collapsed against his back, letting Dante support both their weights while Skip tried to force his scrambled brains back into his exhausted body. He gave a little moan of regret as his softening cock slid from Dante's body, and Dante turned swiftly, gathering Skip into his arms and whisking him to the bed. Before Skip quite realized what had happened, he was tucked snugly under the covers, Dante holding him close, and Skip had to laugh a little breathlessly at the craziness of it all.

"I don't believe it," he wheezed.

Dante smiled too, his eyes full of amused tenderness.

"What, muírnigh?"

That made Skip laugh even louder.

"All of it," Skip gasped. "That you'd let me do that. That you wanted that. That I wanted that. That we – we did it – there."

This time Dante laughed too.

"'Twas the condition you set," he protested mildly. "I tell you, muírnigh, I'd have had my will if you'd demanded it be on Simon's very throne – while Simon sat in public audience."

That image almost made Skip pass out from lack of oxygen as he howled. Finally he gasped, "You know, Simon would've probably had a heart attack – but Kix would've been there taking notes!"

Dante snorted and pulled Skip close, kissing him soundly to silence him. Finally Skip subsided, taking a deep breath.

"Are – are you okay?" he asked softly, dreading the answer.

"Ah, mo grá, I could scarce be better," Dante said tenderly. "You were a beautiful lover to me, my Spencer."

Skip swallowed.

"I didn't hurt you?" he said in a small voice. "I know the first time's not easy, and I've hardly ever – "

"Shhhh." Dante placed a gentle finger over Skip's lips. "It wasn't my first time, muírnigh."

Skip frowned confusedly.

"But I thought you said – "

"I said I'd never given myself to another," Dante corrected quietly. "I never said no other had taken."

Skip froze in horrified realization.

"Oh, God, Dante, why didn't you tell me? I never would have – "

"Aye," Dante said simply, smiling. "You see?"

"Oh, God," Skip repeated. He rolled away from Dante, onto his back, staring up at the ceiling and trembling hard.

"Spencer." Dante followed, rolling over to lie on top of Skip, carefully resting most of his weight on his knees and elbows. "Look at me, mo grá. Look at me."

Unwillingly Skip met Dante's eyes.

"You did not hurt me," Dante said, enunciating each word. "D'you believe I'd lie to you now? You did me no hurt, you caused me no fear. I felt naught but pleasure and your love, Spencer. It was such a beautiful gift you gave me, the freedom to trust, to give myself to you and to pleasure. D'you understand me? You let me fly, muírnigh. For that moment you gave my spirit wings."

Skip swallowed hard, searching Dante's eyes for the faintest cloud. There was none.

"You really mean that?" he whispered.

Dante smiled, a rare full smile.

"Aye, muírnigh, I do," he said. "I can scarce wait until we do it again."

"Oh, God," Skip groaned, chuckling helplessly. "Much of that would probably kill me."

Dante kissed Skip's eyelids and rolled them over again, pulling Skip against his side.

"Then sleep, mo anam, my soul," he said tenderly. "Rest yourself and think of all the new delights we can share on the morrow."

"Mmmmmm." Skip pillowed his head on Dante's shoulder, savoring the musk of Dante's sweaty skin. He felt himself sliding toward sleep.

"Dante?" he murmured drowsily.

"Hmmm?" Dante's voice sounded drowsy too.

"I wonder . . . "

"What, muírnigh?"

Brief pause.

"Is there a cushion on that throne?"

Dante groaned, and Skip grinned, snuggling closer into Dante's side and closing his eyes.

Email: Shadow