Skip yawned, stretched, and rolled over, propping himself up on one elbow to gaze in wonder at his companion. He realized to his surprise that he'd never actually seen Dante asleep. The tiny cuts on his skin were long since healed, no surprise there; the little puncture wound on Skip's finger had healed just from the small amount of Dante's blood he'd swallowed the night before. But apparently darkling healing didn't keep a halfling from collapsing after great sex.
Well, Thomas, you'd better be damned grateful you wore him out, because this kid is way, way more than a match for you.
Kid. Just how old was Dante? Looking at him lying there asleep, all the tension gone, his face relaxed and open and strangely vulnerable in sleep, Skip would have pegged him as jailbait for sure. But Dante's eyes, his mannerisms . . . hell, everything else about Dante made him seem older. Much older.
Skip's bursting bladder demanded attention, and he slid out of bed as carefully as he could, surprised when Dante didn't wake. He winced when his bare feet hit the cold stone floor, and momentarily he considered just using the chamberpot, but he hated the smell of the thing sitting under the bed after he'd used it, so he tiptoed to the privy.
On his way back to bed, Skip paused in front of Dante's mirror he'd only just discovered it the day before, mostly because Dante kept it covered with a cloth as if he hated the sight of his own image. Skip could understand that most of his life he'd had a damned hard time looking himself in the face long enough to shave. Now, though, he pulled the cloth away, gazing at himself dispassionately, wondering what Dante found beautiful.
He was putting on some weight already, even in the few days he'd been here. He'd cleaned up pretty good, and there was no mistaking it now the scar on his forearm was almost invisible. Taking a deep breath, Skip turned around, craning his neck to look at the reflection of his back. Old white scars still crisscrossed his back, shoulders and ass souvenirs from Daddy and a few select others but they were noticeably fainter. They were healing. Disappearing.
It was more than the scars, though. Skip turned back around, running a wondering hand down his chest. The elbow he'd broken in a fall from a ladder didn't feel the least bit stiff this morning, even though the sky was cloudy and promised rain. Skip's skin felt smoother, tauter. He leaned closer to the mirror, frowning experimentally. The fine faint lines around his eyes were gone, too. Hell, he looked . . . younger?
Younger, shit. I'm only 27. It ain't the years, honey, it's the mileage. And the odometer on this baby's probably long since flipped over.
Skip turned at the drowsy voice, smiling as Dante stretched like a cat, giving him the most gorgeous sleepy smile. Which rapidly turned to a frown.
"Gods, can't believe I slept like that," Dante said, shaking his head and sitting up. "I rarely sleep so deep even here in my own rooms behind the best locks there are and never with anyone else nearby." He gave Skip a faint, almost frightened smile. "You're so in my blood, muírnigh."
"Yeah, well, you're in mine too," Skip said hoarsely, wondering in that moment whether he could ever dare utter the L word. Probably not. "Look at me. I look younger."
"Not younger." Dante padded over to Skip and embraced him from behind, turning them both to face the mirror again. Dante ran a slow hand down Skip's chest just as Skip had done. "Much of what you saw as aging was damage done to your body by hard living and the poisons in your blood. That's healing, is all."
"Poisons?" Skip murmured, shivering.
"Aye . . . " Dante bent his head to kiss Skip's shoulder. "Last night your blood tasted almost pure. Soon it'll be clean. The first time I could taste strange chemicals in your blood, the second time less as my blood healed and cleansed yours."
Chemicals. Skip looked at his reflection with new eyes, stunned by Dante's explanation. He'd been drinking heavily for a long time, more so since Kix died. And since then he'd taken just about any drug he could get his hands on, too, anything that would let him forget or not care for a while. Not to mention the fact that he'd been smoking since he was ten years old.
God, withdrawal should've just about killed me, Skip realized. Hell, just the booze I can't even imagine what kind of shape my liver and lungs are in. But I haven't craved a drink or a hit hell, not even a cigarette! I've drunk a cup or two of wine with my food and just . . . stopped. Without wanting more. No shakes, nothing.
He began to tremble.
"Skip?" Dante tightened his arms around Skip. "What's the matter, mo grá?"
"My god, Dante," Skip said hoarsely. "You don't have any idea what people would do with your blood in my world. What they'd do to you to get it."
Dante was silent for a moment, meeting Skip's eyes in the mirror.
"You think it's so different here?" he said softly. "You'd be wrong, mo grá."
Skip turned in Dante's arms, biting his lip as he saw the pain in Dante's eyes.
"Ciarán?" he asked softly, wanting to know, but not wanting to force Dante to tell.
"Aye, the blood of a darkling can heal most all ills," Dante said quietly. "Even what you think of as aging, most of that heals too. But enough of darkling blood brings the change what change, well, that differs with the breed of darkling. Halfling blood like mine, there's no such risk, though it only slows the damage of aging, doesn't stop it. But even my blood has its price the blood hunger, in time, and the bond it creates. As you know."
Skip felt the blood drain from his face. He pressed trembling fingers over his mouth. Blood that cures almost anything. Blood that prolongs life. That becomes addictive.
"Oh, God, Dante, do you mean somebody " He bit his lip. "God, Dante, surely Simon didn't "
Dante smiled, to Skip's great relief.
"Nay, muírnigh, Simon's a good and honorable lord. He's never asked that of me, for himself or any other." Then Dante's smile widened and grew tender. "Thank you, muírnigh."
Dante cupped Skip's face in his hands, stroking his cheeks.
"For wanting me only for myself," Dante said simply. "For caring more for the sharing between us than for what my blood can give you. All my life I've been either a thing to be feared or a thing to be used, or both. Simon has use for me, aye, but I don't begrudge him that. Only here have I ever had an honorable place and friendship and safety." He bent down and brushed a light kiss across Skip's lips. "And you, mo grá."
Skip cleared his throat, hoping he wouldn't cry.
"Do you want to go back to bed?" he offered breathlessly.
"I'd dearly love it," he admitted. "But I've barely time to wash and dress to look wicked and fearsome. I'm to join Simon in a meeting with several lords he wishes to intimidate by my presence and James'. Perhaps you could spend some time with Kix and Blair again, and then I'll meet you at dinner?"
Skip sighed, horny and disappointed, but he couldn't argue. There wasn't time to visit the baths, and even after they'd scrubbed as best they could at the washbasin, Dante laughingly admitted he could still smell Skip on himself.
"Never mind, Spencer," Dante grinned. "'Twill only keep my mind on pleasanter things while I stand and scowl fiercely and near die of boredom. And it'll bedevil James no end."
Skip choked on startled laughter and merrily followed Dante downstairs. He wound up at the bathing room after all, though, because after chasing all around the castle looking for Kix, he finally found a maid who told him that Kix had gone to meet Blair there. Skip hesitated, but finally nerved himself to knock on the door, and a moment later Kix opened it a crack, peeking out.
"Oh, Skip!" Kix said, grinning and opening the door a little wider. "Come join us. We stole all of Simon's fancy cheese and a skin of cold cider from down cellar, and we're barricading ourselves in. In fact, maybe you and Blair can help me solve a particular mystery that's been troubling me."
Skip slipped inside, trying not to look at Kix's wet, naked body as Kix latched the door again. He couldn't help but look. Dear God, he remembered that body so well . . .
But not the same. NOT THE SAME. See, he's not so thin as . . . as my Kix. I don't know if he still throws up when he gets upset, but he must not get as upset as often here. And see? No scars from Daddy's belt. A brief pang of sadness. And no scar on his leg from the time he fell out of our treehouse. But God, he's still so beautiful.
Skip flushed, wrenching his eyes away. To his own surprise, he didn't feel much desire right now. Mostly just shame.
If I weren't covered with scars, would I be beautiful like that? I guess I'd have to we're twins. Is that how I'll look if Dante's blood keeps healing me? No, can't be. I can't be that beautiful. God, I remember how his skin felt, so smooth and soft. My Kix would have been that perfect if I'd taken care of him, if I'd protected him.
"Aren't you coming in?" Blair called, laughing, and Skip was pitifully grateful to be jolted out of the memory trap. He was surprised to see that Kix was back in the hot pool with Blair now, water dripping from his hair suggesting that the other man had splashed him.
"Uh maybe I'll just sit up here and keep you company," Skip said uncomfortably, squatting down next to the tray of cheese they were nibbling from.
"Don't be ridiculous!" Kix protested. "Surely you're not that shy?" Then he smiled slyly. "Besides, don't you think you need a bath?"
Skip blushed, remembering his activities of the night before. He shrugged and began undressing, not turning his back to the pool. He didn't mind so much Kix and Blair seeing him naked Kix apparently had already seen everything anyway but he didn't want Blair to comment on the scars.
"Oh, you're looking so much better," Kix smiled, not even making a pretense of averting his eyes, and Skip blushed again. Then Kix's jaw dropped and his eyes widened. "Oh, gods, what happened to you?"
"Huh?" Skip glanced down, confused. He didn't see anything.
Blair had gone a little pale and was staring too Skip realized, to his utter embarrassment, that they were staring at his groin.
"I've never seen anybody mutilated like that," Blair whispered.
Blair's words, coupled with something he'd glimpsed on Kix's naked body but hardly noticed, suddenly cleared up Skip's confusion. He hurriedly slid into the tub, wondering if somebody could actually die from embarrassment.
"I'm circumcised," he mumbled. "Most male babies are, um, clipped right after they're born. Well, at least they used to be," he amended. "It's not so automatic anymore."
"Who in the world would let somebody hack off part of their baby's genitals?" Kix said, shuddering. "How awful."
"It's not like that," he said. "It's just that some people think it's, you know, cleaner or something, I guess. And some religions demand that male babies are circumcised, too," he added.
Blair shuddered too.
"I think I'd choose another god," he said, grimacing. "Does it, you know, still, um, work?"
This time Skip laughed.
"Yeah, it still works just fine," he said.
"Speaking of that " Kix nodded at the ring on Skip's thumb. "Did Dante give you that?"
"Yeah, yesterday." Skip remembered the night before and blushed again this time not with embarrassment.
"Oh, wow." Blair lost his grimace and grabbed Skip's hand, examining the ring, popping up the filigree to look at the tiny point underneath. "Wow. Dante gave you that? That's . . . wow."
"Why? Is that strange?" Skip gently repossessed his hand, closing the ring cap. "I mean, Dante told me about what did he call them? Thralls."
Blair exchanged a pleased glance with Kix.
"Well, it's a little different for Dante, because he's never had any thralls as such at least as far as we know," Kix amended, poking through the cheese tray, selecting a small pyramid-shaped cheese and popping it into his mouth.
"But giving one of those rings to a mortal is " Blair shook his head. "It's an incredible gesture of trust. For a Feeder, it's, hmmm, like publicly declaring your dog to be your wife. Wait " He held up a hand as Skip started to protest hotly. "No, I know Dante doesn't think that way," Blair said hurriedly. "I just mean that even for him, it's a huge gesture."
Skip touched the ring, feeling slightly awed. Dante hadn't even hinted at any gigantic significance to the gesture, but now that Skip thought about it, he wondered if Dante hadn't kept silent so Skip wouldn't feel uncomfortable. Because the look in Dante's eyes, the way he'd given himself to Skip, all hinted at a gesture far above the simple gifting of a piece of jewelry.
"Well, that brings me to my mystery," Kix chuckled, picking another pyramid of cheese off the tray. "You see, last night Simon and I could hear these strange howling noises all through the castle, and we wondered what in the world it could be "
Skip flushed hotly; to his surprise, Blair was blushing furiously too.
"And strangely enough, it seemed to be coming from two different towers," Kix said, his eyes twinkling mischievously. "Now, Simon thought part of it sounded like a wild animal roaring and torturing its prey."
Blair choked and spit a mouthful of cider out.
"And the rest sounded rather like some demon howling," Kix continued relentlessly. Skip wondered how difficult it would be to drown himself in the bath.
"And you know the strangest mystery of all?" Kix giggled. "This morning Blair's positively covered in scratches and bite marks, and James practically crawled downstairs. Oh, and one of the guards on courtyard patrol swears he saw something or somebody, maybe hanging out Dante's window last night and making quite a racket."
"Oh my god," Skip and Blair groaned simultaneously, covering their faces.
"Now, I told Simon, it was probably just the full moon," Kix grinned. "I mean, everybody knows it brings out the strangest behavior in people. And of course Simon and I found all that noise strangely, hm, inspiring, shall we say? And from what I heard being gossiped in the halls this morning, I think some of the servants did too."
"But what I want to know is this," Kix continued, raising one eyebrow. "When we all sit down to table at dinner today, which chairs should I put the extra soft cushions on?"
Skip groaned again and dunked under the water until lack of oxygen forced him back up. Blair, he noticed, was very absorbed in his mug of cider, and a cold drink sounded damned good right now, so Skip took a mug for himself, pointedly ignoring Kix, who thankfully had stopped giggling.
"Somebody's going to have to invent soundproofing for stone," Skip muttered. "Goddamned castles, can't even put on some loud background noise to drown it out."
"That's it," Blair agreed. "Next month James and I are spending the full moon in the woods."
"What, and deprive the whole castle of its nighttime entertainment?" Skip joked feebly. "I mean, you heard Kix, we 'inspired' them, right Kix?"
A long moment of silence. Then, very shakily,
Skip and Blair turned instantly at that tone. Kix was clinging to the side of the bath unsteadily. His face had gone white.
"What's the matter, little one?" Blair said worriedly. "Is the water too hot for you?"
"I " Kix pressed one shaking hand to his stomach. "I don't feel so I think " Then his eyes rolled back and he collapsed into the water.
Blair and Skip were there in a split second, pulling him out of the tub.
"What's the matter?" Skip said, checking Kix's pulse. "Does he have these attacks often?"
"It's not an attack." Blair pulled up one of Kix's eyelids. "Gods, I think he's poisoned!" He let go of Kix and ran to the door; dimly Skip heard him out in the hall yelling to someone.
Poisoned! Oh my God -- Skip pried Kix's mouth open, examining his tongue and throat. No burns; not a caustic, then. He rolled Kix to his side, shaking him, then slapping him lightly.
"Wake up. Come on, Kix, wake up for me."
"Huhhh " Kix's eyelids fluttered.
Good enough. Skip jammed his finger down Kix's throat, holding Kix's head as the Vizier vomited. Kix struggled feebly now, but Skip did it again, again, until he was certain Kix had nothing more to bring up.
"By the gods, what are you doing to him!" Simon roared, and Skip looked up to see a small crowd pushing in the door, led by the High Lord, James, Dante and a still-naked Blair.
Skip ignored them.
"What did he eat?" he asked Blair, nodding to the cheese tray. "Look at those you and I are fine, so he ate something you didn't. What was it?"
Blair was shaking hard, but he looked at the tray.
"Those," he said, pointing to the white pyramids. "I don't like sheep's milk cheeses."
Simon, who had been reaching for Skip, probably to pull him away from Kix, was diverted.
"Bring the tester from the kitchen!" he snapped to the servants behind him. "And fetch the healer."
"Simon " Blair laid a hand on Simon's arm. "Orend's out in the city buying herbs. That leaves Belzar, and you know he'll just bleed Kix and chant charms over him, and I keep telling you "
"Bleed him?" Skip choked. "Are you crazy? Jesus Christ "
"You think you know better?" James snapped.
"Goddamned right I do!" Skip snapped right back. "Come on, help me get him up."
Nobody moved, even when Skip tried to pull Kix upright on his own. Finally Dante stepped forward, supporting the Vizier from the other side.
"Now what, muírnigh?" he said softly.
"We need to keep him conscious, walking if we can," Skip ordered. "And we need to get fluids down him, as much as we can, to dilute the poison and flush it out of his system. Water will do, but tea's even better he always said it goes right through him "
Simon met Skip's eyes squarely. A long moment passed. Then
"Tea!" Simon roared. "NOW!"
Servants scattered in every direction. Several returned with what looked like gallons of tea; others brought cushions for the floor, and a woman in an apron brought what looked like an elaborate silver Christmas tree ornament, holding it over each piece of cheese on the tray, one at a time; when she held it over the pyramids, it abruptly turned black. Holding it over Kix's vomitus produced the same result.
James took over Skip's position, helping Dante walk a feebly protesting Kix around the room for what felt like hours, pausing only for Skip and Simon to coax or bully more tea down Kix's throat or guide him to the chamberpot. Kix faded into unconsciousness once, but Skip slapped him awake, earning not so much as a chiding glance from Simon. An elaborately robed man, presumably Belzar, the healer, arrived belatedly and announced that Kix needed bleeding and prayers, only to get the door slammed in his face. By that time some of Kix's color had returned, he could stand shakily on his own, and Skip could feel that his pulse was stronger.
"I think it's okay to let him sit down now," Skip said, sighing with relief. "But don't stop the tea."
"Thank the gods," Simon whispered, pulling Kix into his arms and burying his face in the fine blond hair. "Oh, Dove, if I'd lost you " Then he held Kix back, shaking him slightly. "What got into you? How did you get hold of food that hadn't been checked?"
Kix looked embarrassed.
"I'm sorry, Simon. I sneaked it out of the box you got yesterday from the Guild. Rubia hadn't had a chance to test it yet."
"How could you be so foolish?" Simon roared. "How could you oh, gods." He groaned and buried his face in Kix's hair again, holding the smaller man so tightly that Kix could barely breathe.
"Simon, it's okay," Skip said, trying to loosen Simon's death grip a little. "He'll be fine, really, at least if you don't suffocate him "
"Thanks to you."
Skip turned to see James watching him levelly.
"That was good work," the Sentinel said quietly. "Are you a healer back in your world?"
Skip chuckled ruefully.
"Shit, no," he said. "I'm just a mechanic. But when you work in factories where they deal with all kinds of chemicals, and on drilling platforms, you have to have emergency first aid training, hazmat training, you name it." He wiped his sweaty forehead. "If I ever get half a chance, I'm gonna send those guys at OSHA the best card Hallmark has to offer."
Dante chuckled, pulling Skip into his arms.
"Muírnigh, nobody understands a word you're saying," he said patiently.
Then he realized. Would Dante's blood have saved Kix? Simon never even asked probably didn't think of it in all the confusion. He glanced at Dante, leaning close to barely whisper, "Dante, would "
"Aye, mo grá," Dante murmured in his ear. "If he'd come any closer to death, I would have."
Skip let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Thank God, he'd had a safety net all along. Mingled relief and sudden horrified realization weakened his knees, and he collapsed to one of the cushions on the floor, letting Dante hold him.
He could have died. Kix could have died. No paramedics would have shown up to save him. Hell, maybe even Dante wouldn't have made it in time. I could have lost him again.
"Fuck, I need a drink," he whispered, shaking uncontrollably. Or a dozen. Or a whole bottle. So much for being on the wagon.
Dante held him close, stroking his hair soothingly.
"Some brandy, please," he said to one of the hovering servants. "Simon, let's take them to your rooms, shall we? I think Skip needs to be near Kix now."
Simon nodded distractedly, lifting Kix easily and glaring at the servants who had started forward to help.
"Here, let me get him," James said when Dante would have similarly picked Skip up. "You're shaking as hard as he is."
"How about we put a robe on him first?" Blair suggested practically, making Skip realize for the first time that he was still naked. Not caring anymore, Skip turned to look at Dante.
"What's the matter?" he murmured.
Dante shook his head impatiently.
"'Tis nothing, muírnigh," he said roughly. "Only only I think, what if you had been the one to eat the poison? No one would have known as you did what to do for it until I came. What if you'd died of it?"
"Shhh, it's all right, he's all right," James said, surprisingly kindly. He wrapped a blanket around Skip and picked him up easily; Skip was too wrung out to protest being carried, even by a relative stranger. "Blair, would you bring his things? Come on, let's get these little ones somewhere comfortable to rest, and then I think we all need a brandy."
Skip was so deeply in shock that he barely noticed the trip down the halls in James' strong arms; the next thing he knew, he was nestled in the biggest bed he'd ever seen, in a room so huge that it made Dante's bedroom look like a closet.
Jesus, what is it with beds around here? Do they build to accommodate orgies? Skip thought a little hysterically. There was a warm pressure against his side, and he looked over to see Kix lying there, propped up like himself on a mound of pillows and Simon's shoulder, looking as wan and overwhelmed as he felt. James and Blair were sitting at the foot of the bed, watching them. A cool hand on his forehead that was Dante, half sitting, half lying beside him. The hand was still trembling.
"I'm fine," he rasped, gluing on what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Dante didn't look reassured, so he turned to Kix. "Are you okay?"
Kix smiled tremulously.
"I think so," he said hoarsely. "My stomach hurts."
"Well, duh, no kidding," Skip said, and surprised the hell out of himself by laughing.
"And my throat, too, the way you stuck your fingers way down there," Kix said a little reproachfully.
Skip's chuckle dissolved into semi-hysterical giggles.
"Yeah, well, Simon must be hung like a horse, because if you had any kind of a gag reflex, I wouldn't have had to reach halfway down to your navel to make you toss it up," he gasped.
Dante snorted violently; Simon gaped in utter astonishment, and Kix tried hard to glare at Skip, but any appearance of wounded dignity was utterly ruined a second later when he burst out laughing. Blair howled so hard that he fell off the end of the bed, and James was almost biting through his lip.
And Rubia, who'd just walked into the room with a tray holding glasses of presumably brandy in her hand, stood frozen in the doorway, her face crimson.
"Uh, your brandy, High Lord?" she said in a tiny voice.
"Thank you, Rubia," Simon said, clearing his throat. "James, could you get that?"
James took the tray and passed out glasses. When Kix took one, Skip shook his head.
"You'd probably better not," he said softly.
"But I "
"Dove." Simon took the glass out of Kix's hand, then flashed Skip a look of such gratitude that Skip was stunned all over again. "If Skip says no, then no. He saved your life."
A shock ran through Skip's soul.
I saved his life. I saved his life. My God, I did.
Skip glanced down at the glass in his hand, smelling the familiar vapors of the brandy, remembering its delicious bite on his tongue. He handed the glass back to James.
"Y'know what?" he said, grinning shakily. "I think I'll stick with cider."