Chapter 13

It was a long time before Skip, who had had no breakfast, got his dinner – not that he cared; his appetite had fled the country. He was glad enough to lie around in Kix's bed, just reveling in the heartbeat and warmth and breath and voice that reassured him over and over again that this time, this time, he hadn't lost Kix – again.

And Dante seemed just as glad to soak up a similar reassurance, half-lying beside Skip, his fingers smoothing back Skip's hair over and over again as if he couldn't really believe Skip was still there. When Skip looked into his lover's eyes, he saw that same wondering, half-terrified relief that he saw in Simon's eyes as the High Lord held Kix close.

And that made Skip wonder again about what Blair had said, about the significance of Dante giving Skip the ring that sparkled on his thumb. What were the implications? They'd become so close, so fast, but Skip didn't believe in love at first sight. Hell, he hardly believed in love. And what happened when – if – he went back to his own world? Was it even possible? Nobody had mentioned the idea. Could he go back at all?

Did he want to?

Skip closed his eyes miserably.

Oh, yeah, right, Thomas. You thinking of settling down here? As what? Dante's kept boy? What the hell use do you think you'd be to anybody here? Hey, you can impress people with your cigarette lighter – until it runs out of lighter fluid, anyway. Oh, I've got it. You can make a career out of pumping people's stomachs. Yeah, right. Face it, Thomas, I doubt they've got any openings for a certified arc-welder.

"Milord?" Skip glanced up. Rubia had appeared again at the door; he could see several servants behind her.

"What is it?" Simon said, not impatiently, but absently.

"Milord, Eban's posted a notice canceling your afternoon audiences," Rubia said quietly. "He also dispatched a messenger to find Orend and bring him home. And I took the liberty of bringing up some dinner, and perhaps some broth for the Vizier?" She hesitated, and to Skip's amazement, looked at him instead of Simon. "I oversaw the preparation of each dish myself, and tested each ingredient."

"Umm – that should probably be okay," Skip said awkwardly.

"Thank you, Rubia," Simon said more strongly, sliding off the bed. "Did Eban check the cheeses against the inventory that was brought?"

"Aye, milord," Rubia said, motioning the other servants to bring the trays they were carrying and place them on the tables. "But I don't believe he's yet finished his investigation. Shall I send for him?"

Simon shook his head.

"No. Tell him to report to me as soon as he knows anything. When Orend returns, I'll want him to attend the Vizier immediately. Otherwise we're not to be disturbed. And I'll want two guards on the door at all times, do you understand?"

"Yes, milord," Rubia said simply. Then she hesitated. "Milord, one last matter. The staff have asked that I speak to you on everybody's behalf – for your confidence, we'd be much obliged if Master James would question each of us. And I'd be grateful if he'd begin with me."

Simon barely smiled.

"Certainly, if it suits you all," he said gently. "I'll have James speak to each of you when he has the opportunity. Right now he has more important matters to attend to than verifying what I already know – that my staff is trustworthy."

"Of course, milord." Rubia's lips twitched in a slight smile. "Thank you, milord."

When the servants had withdrawn and the doors had closed behind them, Simon lifted the covers from the dishes, nodding at the contents. He picked up a cup that presumably contained the broth and returned to Kix's side, helping Kix steady the cup while Kix drank the broth sip by sip. The High Lord gazed solemnly at Skip.

"You saved my Consort's life," he said simply. "Name your reward. If it's within my power to give, it's yours."

Skip swallowed hard.

"God, I don't want anything," he said blankly. "I mean, I'm just glad he's all right. And you've been pretty nice already, I mean, taking me in and everything."

Simon waved negligently.

"That was nothing. In fact, I thought it was safer to have you here where we could watch you." He shook his head. "You leave me in your debt, and I find that an uncomfortable place to be. Well, someday there will be something I can do to repay you. Although I doubt it can ever equal what you've done for me." He stroked Kix's cheek tenderly. He waved his hand negligently, never glancing away from Kix. "Help yourselves to the food."

Skip would have gotten up to fill a plate, but Dante beat him to it, bringing a plate back and all but feeding Skip himself; he'd probably have done that, too, if Skip hadn't firmly taken the plate away from him, embarrassed by all the attention.

Belatedly he wondered whether he should have taken Simon up on his offer. Should he have asked to be returned home? Kix seemed to be the local mage, and he obviously wasn't up to doing much of anything; besides, Skip had felt so unwelcome to begin with, he was pretty sure that if there had been any easy way to send him back where he'd come from, they would've already sent him back.

Then it struck him – maybe he should've asked for something for Dante. But he had no idea what, if anything, the mysterious halfling might want. Even though Simon had "bought" him, he didn't appear to be kept here against his will. Despite all the luxury around him, Dante kept his rooms rather plain; he simply didn't seem to yearn for luxury.

What do you give a man who has next to nothing – and seems to want next to nothing? Skip thought amusedly. He glanced down at the ring on his thumb. Instead he gives me gifts.

A warm clasp of fingers around his hand; Skip glanced up and smiled at Kix.

Besides, I got my reward. Simon couldn't give me anything better than that.

When Skip had finished eating, Dante leaned close to whisper in his ear.

"We should probably leave the High Lord and his Consort alone for a bit, eh?"

"Uh – yeah." Skip didn't want to leave Kix, but judging from the sappy looks Kix and the lord were giving each other, they definitely needed some private time. And somewhere between the soup and the meat pies, James and Blair had already made a quiet exit. "Grab some food and we'll sneak out. I doubt they'll notice anyway."

He was wrong, though. The moment he stirred, Simon reached over, wrapping big fingers completely around Skip's wrist, giving Skip a surprisingly panic-stricken look.

"Wait," he said urgently. "At least until Orend has seen him. Please. I want to be certain he's cared for properly."

"Uh – okay," Skip said, settling back uncomfortably now, very much disturbed at Simon suddenly casting him in the role of practicing medicine. "Uh, look, Simon – what I did for Kix earlier, I mean, that's just emergency training they gave us to, you know, keep a victim alive until trained medical help arrived. I never thought I'd actually use that training. We were never meant to substitute for a doctor, either. I mean, beyond that, I don't know shit. I don't know how he should be taken care of now, or what he should or shouldn't eat or drink or do. Your, um, healer probably knows better than I do."

"Then it'll do no harm if you stay," Simon said firmly, and Skip sighed. Fortunately he didn't have to wait long; only a few minutes later a breathless middle-aged man dashed into the room, nearly knocking dinner to the floor, and all but skidded to a stop at the side of the bed.

"I beg your pardon, milord, for my absence at such a horrible time," he panted, bowing deeply. "Milord Vizier, I'm appalled at your misfortune but overjoyed that you're still with us. I'm delighted to know that someone gave you such excellent care." The slight edge to his voice made Skip chuckle; apparently Orend shared Blair's opinion of Belzar's competency.

"We can all thank the gods that Skip was with him and knew what to do," Simon agreed, and Orend glanced at Simon, freezing in shock.

"By the gods – " he gasped, his eyes wide. Then he hurriedly recovered himself. "My apologies, lords, I'd heard, of course, but – " He shook his head briskly. "No matter. If you please, High Lord?"

Simon reluctantly gave way, letting the healer sit down beside Kix; while the healer gave Kix what looked, at least to Skip's untrained eyes, like a fairly competent examination, Kix told him what had happened, with a few additions from Skip.

"Frankly I'm amazed to find you this well, and without any healing magic whatsoever," Orend admitted, feeling Kix's pulse. "But the results are undeniable." He glanced at Skip. "If sir would be so gracious, I'd much appreciate a summary of his technique that I can commit to writing."

"Uh – sure," Skip said, shrugging. "Most of it's just common sense, really," he added, before realizing how condescending that sounded. He grimaced apologetically.

Orend waved a hand at his expression.

"As sir has undoubtedly learned, there's nothing common about sense," he said with a crooked grin. "Milord Vizier, so long as you suffer no further symptoms of poisoning, I would recommend a soothing tea for your throat and stomach and a good night's rest, and simple foods and light exertion for the next few days, and I'll get the tainted cheeses from Rubia for analysis." He glanced at Skip. "If sir concurs, of course."

Jesus, Thomas, at least they can't sue you for malpractice. Please, God, nobody have a heart attack, okay? Because I was hung over during CPR class.

"Sounds good to me," Skip said, shrugging uncomfortably. "I mean, I've never actually seen anybody get poisoned before."

Thankfully after Orend had given his instructions, Skip was allowed to retreat with Dante to Dante's quarters. As they walked upstairs, Skip paused beside the closed door halfway down that corresponded to Blair's workroom.

"What's this?" he asked, looking up at Dante, who'd already reached the top and unlocked the door there.

Dante looked uncomfortable, but he walked back down to join Skip on the small landing.

"Tools of my trade," he said quietly. "D'you wish to see?"

Skip swallowed.

Professional assassin – what did Kix say? Spying, God knows what else.

Well, hell, if I can live with a vampire and he can live with an alcoholic ex-junkie murderer –

"Yeah," Skip said quietly. "Yeah, I'd like to see."

And I hope to God he didn't keep trophies.

Skip had thought that maybe the same key that opened the tower door, and the door to Dante's quarters, would open this one; to his surprise, however, Dante pulled a different key out of what looked like a small pocket inside the top of his boot to unlock the door. The door itself gave Skip pause as it opened – like the door to the tower and the door to Dante's rooms (and, he supposed, like most other doors to high-security areas in the castle) it was two layers of wood, reinforced with a layer of iron in between, but this one was more heavily banded with iron over the wood, and the hinges had been so carefully tended that there wasn't the slightest sound as it opened. Thick rugs on the floor banished the sound of their footsteps as they entered, and as the light of the lamp Dante carried finally illuminated the room, Skip's gasp sounded disproportionately loud.

Lamplight reflected off gleaming steel wherever Skip looked. Racks held swords, daggers, stilettos, arrows, crossbow bolts, darts and other less easily classified weapons, plus other items Skip could only assume were weapons due to their location in the room. Other racks held a stunning array of grapples and hooks, some so small that Skip couldn't conceive of them supporting Dante's weight – perhaps they had some other use, and he didn't want to think too long or too hard about what that might be.

A long workbench at one side held a number of vials, jars and bottles, and Skip wondered uncomfortably if they contained poisons. He decided not to ask. Another workbench held whetstones, oil and probably tools to maintain the weapons. There was more, too – enough to boggle the mind. Unlike Blair's workshop, however, this one was as immaculate as the weapons themselves.

"My god," Skip murmured.

"No god sanctions what I do," Dante said plainly. He took a deep breath. "You've not asked me about what duties I perform for the High Lord, and I've not wanted to discuss it, but it's not my wish to deceive you, so – "

Skip turned around.

"I know what you do," he said quietly. "Kix told me yesterday."

Dante's face held no expression at all.

"And still you lay with me last night?" he asked quietly.

Skip chuckled bitterly.

"Dante, I'm hardly the person to judge somebody else's crimes," he said. "If it even is a crime here when the High Lord orders somebody killed – probably not, huh? Anyway, you killed four men just to save me, so I'd be some kind of hypocrite if I got squeamish now."

Dante smiled slightly.

"You have a unique way of thinking, muírnigh," he said softly.

"Yeah, well, like I said, I haven't exactly lived soft," Skip shrugged. "I'm not all that easily shocked." He felt a brief spear of pain. "Kix was always the sensitive one. I'm pretty much used to taking what life dishes out."

"Apparently." Dante stepped closer, then gingerly touched Skip's shoulder, as if afraid he'd be rebuffed. Skip took Dante's hand, turned, and firmly wrapped Dante's arms around his waist, leaning his head back against Dante's shoulder. Dante sighed, kissing the side of Skip's neck, and suddenly Skip was incredibly happy – happy that Kix was alive, happy that he was alive, happy that he had this strange and wonderful man to share his life, at least for the time being.

"Is there anything else you'd wish to see, or know, muírnigh?" Dante asked softly, his tongue flickering over Skip's skin, making him shiver.

"Yeah, as a matter of fact, there is," Skip gasped, turning in Dante's arms.

"What, then?" Dante whispered.

Skip's fingers went to the lacing of Dante's black leather vest.

"I want to see the man behind the leather," he said, smiling. He looked up, startled, when Dante's hand grasped his, halting him. "What's the matter?"

"Not here," Dante said softly. "Our love shouldn't be in a place of death."

"We'll go upstairs if you want," Skip said, meeting Dante's eyes. "But is this a place of death? If you hadn't killed to save me, I'd probably be dead. I'm sure that's not the first time that something you did, even if you killed someone, saved lives. So is it death, or life?"

Dante chuckled, shaking his head wonderingly.

"I say again, mo grá, you've a way of thinking like no other I've known," he said. "Now upstairs with us, or would you rather cold, hard stone under a thin rug than a warm, soft bed?"

"Now, that reasoning I can't argue with," Skip laughed, dashing out of the room before Dante could react.

He knew that Dante would lock the door again before coming upstairs, which gave him a hell of a head start. He used that head start to full advantage, kicking off boots and stripping his tunic off over his head as he ran up the stairs, leaving a trail of fallen clothes behind him. He hopped on one leg across the bedroom, cussing at the damned intricate underwear when it tangled around his ankles, but just as he heard Dante's step at the top of the stairs, he threw the last piece aside and flung himself naked on the bed. He laughed as the door opened to reveal Dante, still bent over to pick up Skip's trousers. Dante glanced up at the laughter, then froze, staring at Skip, his eyes darkening with desire.

"See anything you like?" Skip challenged, stretching in what he hoped was a seductive pose.

Three things happened simultaneously and damned near instantaneously: The door slammed shut behind Dante; Skip's discarded clothes flew into the air like confetti; and Skip suddenly found one very aroused, leather-clad halfling, his eyes almost black with the intensity of his arousal, on top of his naked body. Skip might have panicked immediately were it not for one discordant note – Dante was trembling violently, and the taut grimace on his face looked more desperate than threatening.

"Ah, muírnigh, you mustn't tease me so," Dante said hoarsely, licking his lips. "I'm a creature of hungers, Spencer, many and strong hungers, and you must have a care, else what you're afraid to give I might be tempted to take."

For a moment Skip froze, fighting down fear; then he reached up, cupping Dante's face in his hands.

"Then maybe I can give you something else," he whispered. "There's so much I want to give you, Dante, so much of me you're welcome to take, my mouth, my hands, my blood – "

Dante made an incoherent sound, a desperate mixture of lust and anguish, and almost frantically he rolled them over, pulling Skip on top of him and holding him almost painfully tight.

"All I ask you to give me is your desire, your need, your pleasure," Dante panted, his hands stroking over Skip's skin. "And perhaps, someday, your love."

Now Skip was the one trembling, and his fingers fumbled with the lacing of Dante's trousers.

"You've got them," he panted, trying to pull Dante's tunic up. "God help me, Dante, it scares me to death, but you've got them all."

Dante moaned, belatedly joining in the struggle to rid himself of his clothes.

"Ah, by the gods, you feel so good," Dante gasped, writhing under Skip. He grabbed Skip's hand, twisting the ring around to the inside and popping up the filigree cap. "Let me share myself with you – "

Skip had made the first shallow cut over Dante's heart almost before he realized what he was doing, and Dante's rich groan of pleasure as he arched up against Skip's mouth burned most of the conscious thought out of his brain. He moved down Dante's body, loving him with stinging caresses and long wet kisses, then climbing the pulsing length of his erection with light, teasing butterfly licks before drawing it ever so slowly into his mouth, one hairsbreadth at a time, until Dante's moans grew pleading; then he swallowed Dante's length in one smooth stroke.

Dante howled, sinking his fingers into Skip's hair, shuddering under him as Skip gave his lover a tongue- lashing he was determined Dante would never forget. Skip pulled up every skill, every trick he'd learned in his not-inconsiderable experience and loosed them upon his lover, determined to show Dante that vampires didn't have the corner on oral fixations. He courted Dante, teased him, tortured him with pleasure just as he'd pleasured Dante with pain, and when every muscle in Dante's body was taut with need, swallowed his cock in one gulp, sending the halfling screaming over the edge.

Slowly he nursed Dante down from the peak with slow, gentle licks and strokes to draw out his pleasure, not releasing him until he'd grown too sensitive to tolerate any more stimulation. Dante collapsed back to the bed, weakly spreading his legs in silent invitation, but the lubricant on the bedside table was too far away and Skip was too close to the edge himself. He slid up over Dante's body, and the friction of his cock sliding over Dante's sweat-slick belly was all it took to make him cry out and come, dropping his head to Dante's chest and shuddering in Dante's embrace.

"Ah, muírnigh, gods, what you do to me," Dante whispered drowsily, stroking Skip's hair. He turned them over on their sides, pulling the covers up over them.

Skip stretched and closed his eyes; then a thought nagged at him. He reached down and closed the filigree cap on his ring, thoughtfully twisting it back around.

"Dante?" he murmured. "Don't you want – "

But Dante was already asleep, and with a troubled frown, Skip cuddled closer and joined him.

Email: Shadow