"Spencer. Wake up, muírnigh."
Skip shifted and groaned as aching muscles protested vigorously at the change in position. Blearily he opened his eyes. The room was dark except for the light of a newly-lit fire, there was a decidedly cold draft blowing down the back of his neck from the window
Skip groaned again. Shit, he'd fallen asleep curled up in the chair, and from the feel of things, he'd slept there without moving for one hell of a long time. Both feet were asleep, which was bad news because his bladder was screaming; his neck felt like he'd slept standing on his head, and his mouth tasted like something slimy had crawled onto his tongue, shat itself, died and decomposed.
Well, duh, Thomas. Ever gulp down a bunch of blood and then doze off without brushing your teeth? Yuck. Now there's a nice romantic thought to start the day. Pardon me, evening.
Dante, squatting in front of him, smiled slightly in sympathy.
"The bed would've been a good deal more comfortable," he said gravely. "Or d'you still prefer to sleep alone?" His words were joking, but there was an undertone of worry in his voice.
Skip stretched, wincing as vertebrae crackled.
"Damn, I hate that," he grumbled, managing a smile for Dante. "No, I didn't mean to fall asleep at all. I just started reading and dozed off. Shit, you'd think that if I could put you to bed, I could manage to put myself there too."
Dante chuckled, sympathetically rubbing Skip's feet, persisting when Skip swore and tried to pull away from the pins-and-needles sensation.
"You took good care of me, Spencer," Dante said tenderly. "Better than you did of yourself, 'tis plain. Supper's likely ready; shall we go down, or would you rather I fetch something up?"
Skip didn't even hesitate; he did not want to face James, Blair or Kix right now, not after dragging them through his romantic crisis, not to mention that he felt like he was coming off a bad hangover.
"Let's stay here," he pleaded. "Kix is going to kill me when he sees his room. Or smells it."
"Supper here, then," Dante said, grinning. He gave Skip's feet a final pat, pulled a robe around himself, and headed downstairs, presumably for supper.
Skip stood, creaked, groaned, staggered over to the privy to empty his aching bladder, then headed for the wash basin to splash some cold water on his face. Dante kept a handful of green birch twigs in a cup of water on his dressing table, chewing the end to a bristle and using it to clean his teeth. Skip had picked up the habit and several of Dante's twigs over the last few days. Skip appropriated another without hesitation. Dante could go outside to get more. By the time Dante returned with a tray, Skip felt almost human again.
Skip didn't think he was hungry until he bit into the first meat pie; then he attacked the food, his mouth too full for talk until he finally wound down and sat back, almost uncomfortably full.
"You know, I never did ask you how your trip to town went," he said. "Did you learn anything about the poison?"
"A bit," he said. "Those cheeses came from Lady Alicia's creamery, and the poison was added after the cheeses were packed we found traces in the straw packing the box. The poison's one called Adder's Strike, and it puzzles me mightily as to why it was used. It's what I'd call a field poison. It's strong and sure, and leaves no taste or scent even James would be hard pressed to notice it. But it's quite costly and easily detected and treated by magic, and it's not as fast as some. It's not much use in a household such as this, where a poison detecting charm is used on the food, and where a skilled healer's on staff. I'd use that poison on a nobleman or warlord away from home, in battle or on a hunt perhaps where he's far from a healer. In a household such as this, it makes more sense to spend the money on a magically shielded poison rather than a tasteless one; sheep's cheeses have a stronger flavor anyway. The only reason the Vizier was poisoned is that while Rubia checks all the food and supplies bought in town, these cheeses came in separately, from the meeting with the guild. They'd have been checked again anyway she checks each dish as it leaves the kitchen but Kix took them straight from the storeroom, probably thinking they'd already been tested once."
"It wouldn't make much sense for this Lady Alicia to do it," he said. "I mean, since the cheeses came from her creamery, she's the first suspect. It almost sounds more like someone's trying to discredit her than actually poison somebody here. I mean, if you assume the poison was meant for Simon, that's a pretty clumsy way to do it Simon seems to be pretty careful about having his food checked for poison before he eats it, and even if the poisoned cheeses slipped through somehow, there's no guarantee that he'd be the first to try those particular ones. And if it was somebody on the staff here who poisoned the cheese, which Simon doesn't seem to think is likely, they'd be smarter to poison the cheeses after they're tested and right before they went to the table, not while they're sitting in storage where anybody can take them, like Kix did. And even then there's no guarantee that Simon would be the one to take the poisoned cheeses. It just doesn't figure."
Dante gave Skip an approving look.
"Much the way I see it," he said. "James is questioning the staff, but I don't expect he'll find anything."
"Why James?" Skip asked curiously. "I'd been meaning to ask you that."
"Ah, because a Sentinel can hear untruth," Dante explained. "James says it's in the tones of the voice and the beating of the heart and other such signs. It's one of the reasons why he attends so many of the High Lord's meetings. In any wise, it would exhaust Kix to cast so many truth spells, to clear all the staff."
"Oh." Spells. Real magic. Jesus, I'm back in the Twilight Zone. Just when I thought I'd gotten used to the idea of vampires and shapeshifters. Skip hesitated. "Do you think there's any way to I mean, how long am I going to be stuck indoors here?"
Dante smiled sympathetically.
"Sorry, muírnigh. Sure and you're feeling trapped here, I know. But Kix is the best mage we can fully trust, and it may be days before he's back to strength for casting. Try to be patient just a little longer, hmm?"
"I'll try," he said. "I'm used to being outdoors a lot." He sighed again, remembering his last job. "I miss the sea," he said wistfully.
"Oh?" Dante moved around behind him, rubbing his shoulders. "Then we'll go soon if you like, when it's safe for you to be out and about."
"Huh?" Skip craned his neck around to look at Dante. "How far are we from the sea?"
"Not far," Dante told him. "Once we're out of the city, less than an hour on horseback, faster on Díoltas. So we'll go as soon as you're able."
"Won't the sun hurt your eyes?" Skip worried.
"It's not important," he said.
"We'll pick a cloudy day," Skip promised.
Dante gave Skip one of his rare warm smiles.
"That's kind of you, Spencer," he said. "And in the meantime, mayhap I can find some ways to make your confinement less irksome."
"Oh, yeahhhh," Skip sighed, leaning back into the massaging hands. "As I remember, you said something about making amends?"
"Oh, aye," Dante murmured in Skip's ear. "And later you'll have to tell me whether I made up for my beastly behavior, eh?"
"Mmmmm. Later," Skip agreed. "Right now I just want those amends. A whole lot of amends."
Dante pulled Skip over to the bed, stripping him quickly and pulling off the robe he'd worn to fetch up dinner. He reached for a bottle on the night table and poured a thin stream of oil into his hands.
"Mayhap I can do something for those sore muscles," Dante offered, rubbing the oil into Skip's legs. In a remarkably short time he'd reduced Skip to a purring, limp mass on the bed.
"Shit, I didn't know assassins learned to massage people to death," Skip moaned as Dante worked his way up Skip's back.
"Would you believe Blair taught me?" he said.
Skip craned his neck, gazing at Dante suspiciously.
"Don't even tell me you've been with Blair," he said.
Dante looked amazed for a moment, then grinned, shaking his head.
"Nay, muírnigh, James would've had me for supper, and not in any pleasurable sense," he said as he continued rubbing. "No, some half dozen years ago, when James had changed his skin and was hunting in the woods, he was caught by a poacher in a log fall trap, broke his spine. Orend saved him, though it took such power that Orend damned near burned himself out; but even so, James was bed-bound for weeks upon weeks, and some of it in great pain. James is rare choosy in his company, didn't like any others but Kix and me and Simon about his rooms, so we all took it in turns to keep him tended and amused well, mostly Kix and Blair and I, since Simon was so busy. Blair had learned all sorts of things in his travels, and he taught us how to rub James' muscles so they didn't go weak, and to help his pain." Dante chuckled. "James purely hated that, being helpless and us taking care of him. He stayed in a rare bad temper the whole time."
"I should apologize to him," Skip sighed, arching up against Dante's hands. The massage was softening his muscles, but at least one part of him was getting stiffer all the time. "He was really nice to me, you know, um, earlier, and I was pretty nasty."
"Apologize later." Dante's voice had dropped to a low purr. He gently rolled Skip over, bending down to kiss Skip slowly, lingeringly. "Right now, 'tis my apology you should be thinking about."
"Oh, yeah?" Skip said breathlessly. His entire body was humming from the sensuous strokes of Dante's hands. "What'd you have in mind?"
"I wish to taste you as you've tasted me," Dante breathed into Skip's ear. "I want to show you how I hunger for you. Will you tell me if it doesn't please you?"
"Uh-huh," Skip gasped, arching his throat against Dante's mouth, waiting for the bite that, to his surprise, didn't come. Instead Dante's tongue traced intricate patterns on his skin down his throat, across his collarbone.
The slight sting of the merest scratch of Dante's teeth barely registered in Skip's mind; he was too busy moaning with pleasure as Dante's tongue collected the single tiny drop of blood, long hands stroking and caressing Skip's body to a fever pitch of pleasure. Dante's mouth moved over him, warm and skilled, flickering tongue on his nipple making Skip moan, then that sweet faint sting just beside it almost pushing him over the edge.
An eternity seemed to pass as Dante's lips and tongue and the tiniest scratches of sharp teeth, overwhelming pleasure punctuated by the sweetest tastes of pain buoyed him up to a plateau of aching endless need where the two became indistinguishable. Dante whispered, "Don't come, Spencer, not yet," before his tongue traced intricate patterns over Skip's erection, but thankfully he withdrew, continuing his unhurried explorations down Skip's thighs before Skip could lose control. By the time Dante turned Skip over and slowly started the journey back up the backs of his legs, Skip had gone from taut, trembling need to utter surrender, whimpering and relaxed under Dante's mouth and hands. He wanted to come almost desperately, but at the same time he never wanted the tender torment to end, and that appeared to be exactly what Dante had in mind.
A slightly harder nip to his right buttock brought Skip moaning to his hands and knees, and as suddenly as that Dante's tongue dived into his body. The pleasure was sudden and shocking and almost overwhelming, and would have driven Skip over the edge, but somehow knowing (without knowing how he knew from Dante, maybe?) that it was important to wait, Skip held out yet again, and thankfully after several mind- bending moments Dante continued his oral journey up Skip's back, one vertebra at a time.
If he'd had time and active brain cells enough to paste two coherent thoughts together, his position on his hands and knees, naked and wide open with a larger, stronger man blanketing him might have inspired discomfort, even fear. But this was Dante, Dante who could have killed or raped or hurt him a thousand times if he'd wished to, and the capacity for rational (or irrational) thought had long since deserted Skip, and he could do nothing but surrender himself utterly to the incredible pleasure his lover was giving him.
Then the delicious torture stopped, and after a moment Skip realized that Dante wasn't even touching him. Puzzled, he started to look over his shoulder, but abruptly found himself flipped over on his back, Dante hovering on all fours over him. Skip drew in his breath sharply. The halfling was trembling, every muscle taut, his eyes so dark with desire that only a thin rim of green could still be seen. But what took Skip's breath away was the raw hunger in Dante's expression, a mixture of lust and savagery and a strange desperation. And Skip could feel those emotions flowing from Dante, mingled with something else fear, almost terror.
"Ah, gods," Dante groaned, trembling harder. "Gods, muírnigh, I need you "
"Shhhh, easy, Dante, I'm right here," Skip soothed, reaching up to stroke Dante's chest and shoulders. "It's all right, whatever you need " In a dim corner of his mind, he realized what was going on in some Feeder sense, Dante was claiming him, and the halfling's instincts undoubtedly demanded that he finish staking that claim sexually. But once again, Dante was holding back for his sake.
"No!" Dante almost cringed away from Skip, sharp teeth sinking into his own lip. "No willing is not enough. Never enough."
Before Skip could even begin to think of a response, he found himself flipped over again, this time on top of Dante, Dante's lips seizing desperately on his. Skip moaned and fell headlong into that kiss, the fire in Dante's body sweeping through him too. Dante pushed him back slightly.
"Take me, Spencer," he panted. "Ride me hard."
Skip moaned and grabbed the jar of slippery stuff, almost dropping it to the floor in his haste. He'd barely begun preparing Dante, however, when Dante seized his shoulders, his fingers digging in with bruising force, the halfling's face contorted with need.
The last remnants of Skip's self-control were swept away in the maelstrom of Dante's hunger/need/fear/desperation bombarding him, and he thrust into Dante's heat with a good deal less gentleness and caution than he would have liked. He had little time to worry about that, however, for instantly he found himself atop a bucking, thrashing, clawing wild thing that met his every thrust with a howl of pleasure, even as Dante's wild thrashing and clawing left Skip feeling more like he was being attacked than loved. Caught up in Dante's ferocity, Skip rode him hard, harder than he'd have dared or imagined, trying to hold Dante relatively still with the pressure of his body; Skip's lesser weight, however, might as well have been a feather on Dante's chest for all the effect it had. Skip clung to Dante, just trying to hold on and stay in position now, Dante's hunger and need driving him on, and instinctively he sank his teeth into Dante's skin at the juncture of neck and shoulder, instantly tasting Dante's blood.
Dante cried out and instantly became still, trembling tautly under Skip, hands caressing his back not violently now, but tenderly, almost hesitantly, and Dante arched his head back, baring his throat.
Skip knew nothing about Feeders, but he knew a submissive gesture when he saw one and was more than happy to take advantage of it. Instantly he slowed his thrusts, loving Dante gently now, murmuring soothingly in Dante's ear in between licking the already-healing bite. They'd reached such a pitch that despite the slower pace, which somehow only seemed more intense, they both came hard, silently, shuddering against each other, holding each other so tightly that it seemed their bodies must melt together entirely. Then Dante sighed, "Spencer . . . " and went limp under Skip, unconscious. By the greatest effort of will, Skip barely managed to maintain his own grip on waking.
He carefully eased away from Dante and rolled panting to one side, pillowing his head on Dante's chest as he gathered his scattered wits.
God, that was wild! Good, but wild. Maybe a little rough. Oh, shit, did I Skip froze in terror, then made himself reach down and gently check Dante. He let out a sigh of relief. Thank God, no blood. Or would he have healed already? His eyes fastened on one of the scratches Dante had left on his arm as he watched it slowly healed. Jesus. I'll never get used to that.
Skip slid carefully out of bed and fetched a basin of water, cleaning Dante gently before he washed himself more-or-less clean. The room was getting damned cold; he built the fire back up again and was about to go back to bed when a persistent, repetitive sound from downstairs caught his attention.
Shit. Company. Skip glanced at the sleeping Dante and grabbed the discarded robe, tying it around himself; it was way too long, and he held it up as he walked down the stairs. Now wouldn't that be embarrassing falling down the stairs and breaking my fool neck when I probably smell like an orgy.
Skip opened the lower door a crack, wincing when he saw Kix there, a thundercloud expression on his face.
"Uh, hi, Kix," he said timidly. "Listen, about your room "
"Oh, hush." To Skip's astonishment, he found himself enfolded in a warm hug, his head on Kix's shoulder. A moment later Kix pushed him back slightly. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, really," Skip said hastily. "I'm really, really sorry about the perfume."
"Forget the room," Kix said firmly. "It'll air out. I hardly ever stay there, as I told you, and I've only got one brother. Sort of."
"But your sheets," Skip protested.
"Oh, the laundry's used to my sheets coming down dirty," Kix chuckled. "Of course, it'll probably take a substitution transformation to get the stains out of silk, but gods know, being a mage should be good for something practical, shouldn't it? All I care about, are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Skip said, rubbing his suddenly watering eyes.
"And you and Dante have worked things out?" Kix's eyes twinkled. "You certainly look like you have."
"You could say that," Skip grinned, rubbing his itchy nose on the sleeve of his robe.
"And I trust we won't see you two for breakfast?" Kix giggled.
"That's probably a safe a safe ah ah ashooooooo!" Skip's sneeze echoed resoundingly down the halls and blew back Kix's hair.
"Oh, gods, don't tell me you've caught a vapor, now?" Kix said worriedly, laying the back of his hand against Skip's forehead. "You don't feel fevered "
"Nah, I just ASSSSSHHHOOOOOOOO!" This time Skip caught it mostly behind his sleeve and Kix's hair only fluttered slightly. "Shit, what the fuck's [snort] wrong with me?"
"I don't know," Kix said, raising one eyebrow. "I'm not even wearing perfume how could I, when it's mostly on my wall?" he teased.
Skip was about to retort in kind when a thrumming purr reached his ears, and he suddenly realized.
"Oh, shit," he groaned. "Tell me ashhooooo! that's not [snerk] what I think it is."
"It's just Rif." Kix reached into the voluminous pocket of his robe and extracted a longhaired white kitten with brilliant blue eyes, and a purple ribbon tied around its neck in a big bow. "Isn't he beautiful? Simon gave him to me tonight as a get-well present. Want to hold him?"
"Uh no, uh-uh, nope," Skip said, backing away from the kitten. "Get that thing away from me, okay?"
"That thing?" Kix said, eyes wide, lower lip already practicing a quiver.
"Sorry," Skip said hurriedly, rubbing his streaming eyes. "I meant, of course, um, I wouldn't achooooo! dream of separating that [snort] beautiful precious baby from you for [sniff] so much as a ah ah "
"ACHOOOOOOOOOOGAH! so much as a second," Skip gasped.
"Oh, wonderful," Kix sighed. "First James, now you. Poor wittle Rif," Kix cooed, scritching the kitten under its chin. "Nobody wuvs him but me. Not even my brother."
"I wuv I mean, I love him, I love him," Skip said hurriedly when it looked like a chin quiver might be forthcoming. Steeling himself, he walked over and planted a quick kiss right on top of the furry little head. "See? Cute little Wif I mean Rif."
Kix beamed. Skip grabbed his nose and pinched it hard.
"Skip?" came Dante's worried voice from the top of the stairs.
Oh, thank you, God. Thank you SO much.
"Uh, gotta go," Skip said quickly. "My guy's calling."
"Well, then go," Kix said firmly, making a shooing motion. "I just wanted to make sure you were all right. Both of you. And I'd better not see either of you before dinner, understand?"
"I promise," Skip said gratefully, and retreated upstairs as fast as he could.
Dante was sitting on the edge of the bed looking distinctly anxious.
"Is everything all right, muírnigh?" he said softly. "When I woke and found you gone, I worried that perhaps I I " He flushed.
"I'm fine," Skip said as warmly as he could under the circumstances. "Hang on just a minute, okay?"
He took off the robe, dropped it in the corner, and fled to the wash basin to scrub his hands and face. After blowing his nose several times, he felt almost human enough to talk to Dante, and he gladly hurried back to bed.
"Muírnigh, your eyes are all swollen," Dante said worriedly. "Have you been weeping? Did I " He looked horrified.
"No, no, just Kix's new pet cat," Skip said sourly. He pulled Dante close and kissed him thoroughly. "I'm sorry, Kix knocked while you were sleeping and I went downstairs. I shouldn't have left you."
Dante's eyes probed his.
"Then . . . that didn't disturb you?" he asked hesitantly.
Skip shook his head. He understood what Dante was asking, and now, finally, he thought he understood a great deal of what had happened in the past couple of days.
"I think I get it," he said, pulling Dante down beside him. "It's hard for you to be on top in charge, I mean and not take it all the way, isn't it? But you can let go when it's the other way around."
Dante gave a sigh of relief.
"You do understand," he said, smiling slightly. "Thank the gods."
"Yeah, I understand." Skip kissed him again. "And it's okay with me if that's easiest for you. But . . . one question, okay?"
"What, mo anam?" Dante murmured tenderly, stroking Skip's hair.
Skip took a deep breath, trying to slow the pounding of his heart.
"If I wanted to, um, try again," he whispered. "You know what I mean? You inside me. If I did, would it be like that, or could you be, you know, gentle?"
An expression of incredulous joy lit Dante's eyes, and the hand stroking Skip's hair shook slightly.
"For you, mo grá, I could be gentle," Dante vowed softly. "For you, I can be anything."
Skip sighed tremulously and laid his head down on Dante's shoulder, breathing in the scent of his lover.
"Then . . . I'd like to try," he said quietly. "Not tonight, but soon."
"Whenever you wish, and not before," Dante breathed against his temple. "And then, mo grá, we'll be truly one."
"I'd like that," Skip whispered, amazed at his own daring.
Truly one. Together. Together means not alone, not just outside, but inside too. I wonder what that feels like.
And you know what? I'm beginning to believe I might just find out . . .