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“I didn’t know I should care if González is poorly or not,” David said, pulling at his collar. The damn thing didn’t give a bit and he put his elbow up on the table to get more leverage, only to suffer disapproving glares from Figo and Helguera. After a moment’s thought, he planted his elbow more firmly and yanked at his cravat till it allowed him to breathe. “Come to think of it, I don’t even like the man.”

Helguera blinked, then tucked down his chin and coughed awkwardly. Then he rubbed at his chin, looking even more like he wished he’d chosen a suit that blended into the wallpaper.

Figo, on the other hand, appeared to be as exasperated as David felt. “It doesn’t matter if you like him or not. He has a lot of influence in the Treasury and if you want money for Valencia, you need González. Unless you’d like to deal with Calderón directly?”

The sudden air in David’s lungs made him a little dizzy, keeping him from immediately responding. He grimaced and rubbed at his throat, then pushed his fingers under his collar. “What’s wrong with González?”

“Ah,” Helguera said triumphantly, as if he’d done something marvelous.

He had had the bright idea of arranging for David and Figo to meet, but other than that, he’d served no purpose but to drink their tea and eat the little sandwiches the waitstaff were forever bringing them. At least he had the grace to look embarrassed when David and Figo both glanced at him.

“Anyway,” Figo said, turning back. He pushed at his cheek, then leaned forward and gestured at David. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. That’s why I was asking you.”

David looked at the man.

After a long bit of looking back, Figo’s eyes rolled faintly upward and then to the side as his upper lip curled. He put his hand down and began to speak, but instead snorted. Then he muttered something about the gossips not exaggerating for once and steepled his hands together before his face. “Villa. I have been in Italy for the past two years and only moved back this month. I haven’t had the time to see González yet, and anyway, González is the head of your political faction. You don’t know how he is?”

“I did mention that I don’t like him, didn’t I? I don’t wait on his doorstep every morning to see what color gloves he’s decided to wear,” David snapped, slouching back in his chair. He flicked at the lace dripping off the tablecloth’s edge, then grimaced as he wrenched himself back around to meet Figo’s frustrated glower. “Oh, all right. I’ll ask someone.”

Figo’s brows twitched slightly upward. “Thank you very much, Señor Villa. That’ll surely help mat…yes?”

Thankfully for David’s temper, Figo’s valet or secretary or something along that line bent down by Figo’s left ear just then. The man apologetically handed Figo a letter, then retreated to stand by the potted plant behind Figo as Figo began to open the envelope. He looked over as David began to rise, but settled when he saw Figo wasn’t bothered by it. Then a serving-cart carrying a half-carved, rather bloody steak seemed to catch the man’s eye and he turned towards that.

“Well, if I have to, I don’t think I should be dawdling over tea,” David said, squeezing behind Helguera’s chair. “Good after—”

Helguera tapped David’s arm. “Oh, don’t forget about the opera tonight.”

“You have to go,” Figo said without looking up from the letter. “If you’re serious about this, you need to start convincing people you care about them so they’ll care about you. Also, I’ll be there and it’ll be a perfect time for you to tell me how González is.”

David paused. He gazed at the table, contemplating the brimming cup of tea before Figo, and then looked at the man’s head. Then he slowly pushed himself back, sliding the rest of the way out from behind Helguera’s chair. “Never mind about the good afternoon, then.”

“Good man,” Figo distractedly replied, lifting a hand. Apparently for his valet, who pricked to attention. “Adrian, can you—”

On second thought, David regretted the tea. But he was already halfway out of the place, so there was no point in going back.

* * *

Silva stood up, then sat down nearly as quickly as a mass of papers and pens cascaded from his lap. He futilely snatched at a few of the items before finally stilling, his cheeks flooded with color. “Er. Sorry, what was—”

“What’s wrong with González?” David repeated, continuing across the room. He wrenched at his cravat till the knot came out, then pulled off the damned cloth and threw it over his shoulder. The daily pile of mail on the sideboard caught his eye and David slowed his step, then decided to leave that till later. Instead he proceeded into the bedroom.

Scurrying steps followed him, but stopped just inside the doorway. “Señor González?”

“Something’s the matter with him?” David pulled open his wardrobe, then stood back and eyed the assorted garments hanging inside. He tilted his head to the left, then to the right. Then he sighed, having not seen anything better about this. He hated the opera, and couldn’t understand who in their right mind would pay money for something that a few angry cats could provide for free on the street, let alone make the opera house the center of social life. “He’s ill?”

“Well, he has missed the last five sessions. Which he hasn’t done since…I don’t think he’s ever missed that many in a row,” Silva said. “He did come to yesterday’s—”

Frowning, David crossed his arms over his chest.

“—but you didn’t see him because he sat in the back for only a few minutes and then left. He didn’t look very well at all, and ever since people have been saying the wildest things about his health,” Silva finished. The other man edged into the room and up to David’s side, then peered into the closet. “Are you looking for your—”

“I’m supposed to go to the opera tonight, apparently,” David muttered. He gingerly reached towards his evening suits, then pulled back his hand. Then he pushed down his irritation and put his hand into the closet again. Both Figo and Helguera had already seen him today so he could hardly send word that he was sick now, and anyway, from what he’d heard of the man, that would only earn him a personal visit from Figo.

Silva coughed delicately into his fist, then took away the coat David had taken out. “I…did put the note by your breakfast this morning.”

When David looked at the other man, Silva was staring down at the coat and twiddling it between his fingers. The sharp retort on David’s tongue dulled a little, making it easier to swallow. “Do you know what’s wrong with González?”

“No. Nobody does, which is why they’re making up rumors,” Silva patiently explained, leaning past David. He tried to pick through the crammed wardrobe, but the coat beneath his arm began to slip and he had to take it out. After hooking its hanger back on the rod, he resumed pushing at the coats and pants. “He’s supposed to be at the opera, though. If he doesn’t show up, then it’s going to really stir people up.”

“Just what is so important about this damn opera? Is it starring the king’s new mistress or something like that?” David rubbed at the side of his face, then slung himself about on his heel. He honestly had better things to do than waste an entire evening waiting for Raúl to perhaps show up, and when everyone was probably making much out of a simple cold. Actually, for all he knew, Raúl was deliberately fishing for attention; lately he’d experienced a few very public setbacks and his influence was resting on shaky ground.

Sensibly not answering, Silva continued to poke and prod in the wardrobe till David finally turned around, and then the other man presented David with a complete outfit. “It’s the newest thing from Milan, and the lead tenor is that young Swede everyone’s been talking about. He’s very good but still raw, and apparently he and the orchestra conductor, who’s from Rome, have been having spats in rehearsal. And the director is Maldini, who you should know is one of Raúl’s favorites so probably Raúl will be going down to see him after the show.”

“Are there any death—what am I talking about? Of course there are death scenes. They’re the worst damn part,” David mumbled, taking the various pieces of clothing. He paused for another moment, then drew in a bracing breath and walked over to the bed. After putting the clothes down there, he began to unbutton his shirt. “I suppose the most direct way would be to ask Raúl how he is.”

“If he’s really ill, do you think he’ll want to…” What might have been a half-suppressed sigh came from Silva as he brought a bowtie over to David. He was also carrying a pair of dress shoes, but when David went to take them, the other man stuck them behind his back. “No, they need blacking. I’ll bring them up in a bit. So the Swede apparently gets killed after the second libretto, but it’s really a fake death and he spends the rest of the opera getting revenge on everyone and their father. Literally. The story’s based on ancient Roman history, all the costumes were made here in Spain, and remember to say that the music is excellent.”

David snorted and flicked his hands out of his sleeves. “Is it really?”

When he didn’t immediately get an answer, he turned around and caught Silva just ducking his head. Then the other man turned away, scrubbing at one slightly blushing cheek with his hand, and David inwardly cursed his forgetfulness, tugging his shirt back onto his shoulders. He awkwardly stared over the bed, and after a moment Silva let out a sigh that was mostly wryly knowing. “Yes, it is, but more importantly, Nesta’s been known to throw violins at critics of his orchestra.”

“Well, that only matters if he’s actually hit anyone with them,” David said, grinning a little. It took a bit long, but eventually Silva laughed and made a helplessly disapproving gesture with his hand.

Then Silva left with the shoes, and David was careful to shut the door after him. Not that he thought Silva would look, because Silva wouldn’t: he was too respectful and far too good at smoothing over the little fusses in David’s life, and probably that was why David had kept the man a good deal longer than he should have. Silva deserved better, if he wasn’t going to have any hope with David—with a grimace, David pulled off his shirt. As soon as he had this latest matter sorted out, he’d give Silva the recommendation the man would need to set up on his own and let him go.

But first, the opera. David eyed his evening dress, then clenched his teeth and reached for the first garment.

* * *

Like every other opera David had ever attended, the production was magnificently overwrought and the most interesting part. Well, no—the Swedish tenor did have a few moments when he and his cues seemed out of step, and it was fascinating how the man’s eyes bulged enough to be seen even from David’s second-rate box seat. Unfortunately it didn’t amount to more than a few odd spots when the soprano clearly thought her partner was going to be over there, and instead he was several feet away glaring into the orchestra pit. It wasn’t that David didn’t have an ear for music—he had a very fine one, and it preferred the natural stylings of his own country’s singing to the inhuman ranges of the Italian schools.

Which was just as well, since he had other business besides lingering in the halls and lobby once the curtain had fell. He quickly made his way through the throngs of over-dressed dilettantes, made a quick greeting to Helguera’s wife—probably too quick, but he’d not promised more than that and Helguera could take it up with him when he’d paid David back for the horse—and ducked into the narrow halls that twisted about the back of the theater. Raúl had indeed come, and had sat through the entire first half without any apparent trouble. Admittedly he had looked pale, but the dim lighting plus the suggestions of gossip could have caused that.

At any rate, the director had sat with Raúl and then the two of them had left at intermission, likely to go downstairs to meet some of the singers. So that was where David was heading.

He’d made his way to the dressing rooms and had just thought he’d heard a snatch of Raúl’s voice when something moved in a dark corner. David started, then went on a step. Then he looked back, but he saw only a few swaying ropes; theater workers were bustling all over the place, changing the set for the next act, and likely that was it.

Whatever it was, it caused him just enough delay so that he missed Raúl, or so he was informed by the director in absentminded tones. The Italian appeared to be mediating some sort of argument between the tenor and the conductor, so David was unable to get any more detail out of him and had to turn his steps back towards the auditorium, much to his disappointment. He’d hoped he could finish the business during intermission, and then leave.

David made his way up a back-staircase, thinking he could at least avoid the public ridicule of the late returner, and much to his surprise, found he wasn’t the only one with that concern. He slowed his steps, debating what to do.

It became a moot point when the other man turned around and saw him. And then David stumbled so badly he had to catch himself on the railing. His eyes dropped for a moment, but he swiftly righted himself, and even before he’d fully done that, he was looking up again. Because he had been looking at a dead man.

But no. The staircase was empty, and…no, not quite. There was another form on it, tucked just beyond the next turn, and when David rounded that, he discovered the difficulty he’d had in making it out had been due to the fact that Raúl was slumped heavily on his knees against the wall.

Raúl stirred at David’s approach, then jerked his head up with a gasp. He was pale—face white with an unnatural fear, and set in that, huge blindly staring eyes. They seemed to be pleading with David—David blinked, stunned anew by the sheer strangeness of that expression on Raúl. Then he shook his head, and looked about the hall again.

They were alone, but certainly not settled: David started again at a grunt from Raúl, then turned almost too sharply on the steps. He took a moment to steady himself, then cautiously drew closer to the other man. “What’s the matter? Are you ill?”

Then David paused, a little…annoyed with himself at how easy that’d come about, after all the trouble he’d taken. But he couldn’t dwell too long on it, as Raúl was shaking his head. The other man pushed his hand up the wall, then got it over the rail and began to pull himself up. It was slow going, as he had his other hand pressed to his neck and he could have used the extra support. “No. I’m fine. I—had a little bit of dizziness, but I think it’s just the stale air here.”

David sniffed at the draft stirring his coat. He looked round again, then finally had to put out his hand. As much as he didn’t like Raúl, the man did not look well, and David was…singularly tempered, not sadistic. “Well, you’d better get into the upper hall where the windows are. What’s wrong with your—”

Raúl turned his head just as David’s hand touched his elbow. The look in the man’s eyes was surprise, but in an instant it went to alarm. Then Raúl ripped himself away from David. His arm hit the wall and he grunted in pain, then dropped back to one knee. Then he forced himself up, clapping his hand back over his neck. “Thank you for your concern, Villa, but I’m fine. It’s good to see you’re taking an interest in the opera.”

“I would be more convinced if your chest wasn’t heaving like a blown horse,” David snapped, reaching for Raúl again. He swerved his hand around Raúl’s attempt to bat it away, got it under the man’s arm and made them move up to the landing. Then he grasped Raúl’s wrist, trying to pull the hand away from Raúl’s neck. “Look, what’s going on? First I thought I saw Morientes, and now you’re—”

“You saw not a damned thing,” Raúl hissed, his eyes suddenly blazing. He wrenched his arm from David’s grip, then spun away. The effort cost him dearly, but he managed to keep facing David. His mouth worked for a few moments as he forced his breath to slow. Anyone else would perhaps have given up, but of course this was Raúl González and he couldn’t be seen to have a weakness. Even when he was the color of bleached bone, and was trembling all over. “Villa. Unless you have some reason for stopping me, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to wait till after the opera. I can hear the curtains rising.”

“Oh, your damned opera. You look more fit for the grave right now, and God knows my life would be a little easier if I left you to it but I like to think I’m a little better than that. Even if you clearly don’t believe it of me.” David yanked at his coat, then pointedly stepped forward just as Raúl made an attempt to slip to the right. He feinted, then rushed up and seized Raúl’s arm when the other man fell for it. Raúl’s hand caught David squarely in the chest, but the man barely nudged David before he suddenly collapsed, wheezing hot breath into David’s face.

He nearly slid to the ground before David managed to grab him, and even then Raúl continued to resist, twisting and shoving weakly at David. It was just about all David could do to haul the man back to his feet, and by then he was in grave danger of falling himself. Raúl, predictably, was unappreciative and continued to gasp that David needed to leave, that David—Raúl’s voice abruptly broke and David looked down at him. But Raúl was staring at something over David’s shoulder, what little color his face still had draining away. Then he swore and from somewhere got the strength to drag David down to the floor.

David instinctively released the man, but Raúl fell across him and pinned him down. Swearing himself, David jerked himself around, then slapped his hand against the floor and pushed himself up on the recoil. He looked up and he saw—

—the side of his head burst with pain.

* * *

“…David? David, are you awake?”

“Goddamn pigheaded ass,” David mumbled.

“David,” Silva said, voice heavy with relief. Something touched David’s forehead, then his shoulder when he irritably turned away his head. Then Silva caught David’s head as David threw it up, cursing at the sudden pain at his temple. Silva pressed a cold compress to the spot before sitting back. “David. Xavi found you unconscious in one of the upper galleries. He said a window nearby was wide open.”

After a tentative feel at his head, David carefully sat up. He waited for the nausea to subside, blinking hard to also hurry away the blurriness in his sight. “A window…wait. Raúl. I was…he was almost fainting, and then he attacked me…”

“David, González is gone.” Silva looked solemnly back at David. Then he turned away, biting his lip, and fussed a bit with his shirt-cuff. Behind him the doctor was nodding and beginning to pack up. “He’s…he’s gone. No one can find him, but Xavi says he heard González shout and that’s why he came up and found you.”

Gone—thinking made David’s head ache even more. Which he’d have to put up with, he thought after a moment. He pressed the compress harder against his temple and tried to remember those last frantic moments. Raúl…he’d fallen on his back on David. He’d done that on purpose, because he’d been talking to someone. Telling them not to…not to…

“Xavi didn’t tell anyone else you were there. He just pulled you into this room and sent for me, and I think Figo’s downstairs trying to calm people down,” Silva added. Then his eyes widened and he put out his arm. “Wait, you’ve just woken.”

“I’m fine,” David mumbled, swaying. He clenched his teeth and the world settled down. Then he took a good look around himself.

They were in one of the little private rooms of the theater, on one of the upper levels. When he concentrated, he could hear a lot of excited speech filtering in from the hall. It didn’t seem to have been that long—he spotted a window and went over to it, looking out at the moon. Which hadn’t moved much at all, so he’d been unconscious perhaps an hour.

His eyes drifted down, onto the expanse of roof that stretched out a few feet below the window. There had been something else he wasn’t remembering, something about…Raúl’s voice, perhaps. The man had been begging, and one of the few honors David begrudged Raúl was that Raúl was even more stiff-necked than David. So that was strange—but it wasn’t quite that that nagged at David. He’d forgotten…he frowned and leaned over the sill, shaking off Silva’s tugging hand. Then he opened the window and leaned even further.

One white spot resolved into a man’s shirt. The other into a very, very pale face, and before he’d really thought about it, David had vaulted the window sill and dropped down onto the roof below it. Silva shouted at his back, but the cold wind carried most of it away. It almost knocked David off his feet a few times as well, and by the time he’d reached the body, he was all but crawling on his hands and feet. The edges of the tiles cut at his hands as he leaned down, then felt clumsily at Raúl’s face. The man was even colder than the tiles, and for a moment David’s heart crammed into his throat.

Then he felt a flutter of air go past his hand. He put his fingers over Raúl’s nose and confirmed the breath, then moved his hands to the man’s shoulders to ensure Raúl wouldn’t slide off the roof. David turned back to face Silva. “Get someone out here! I’ve found him!”

The flesh under David’s hands stirred, making him look back. His eyes went to Raúl’s torn collar, then to something dark on the man’s neck, just where it blended into the torso. Frowning, David tilted Raúl’s head to the side and found himself looking at an area that had been bruised black. In the very center were a pair of bumps, or…no, they were…

David jerked up his head. Then he twisted sharply around, but all he saw was a black dot flying away from him. A bat or a bird—it was too far for him to make it out, but even so, it was too small to be anything but some nocturnal animal.

“David!” Silva hailed. “David, they’re coming out!”

* * *

Figo emitted an irritable noise and pushed himself back from his desk. He held his arms at full stretch, glowering at his inkstand, before letting them fall to the side and himself into a slouch. Then he looked crossly at David. “Well, and why are you so pleased? You’ve gotten nowhere—you don’t even know how González got out onto that damn roof.”

“I’m not pleased. It’s just that unlike you, I knew González would think about his pride first and act like nothing ever happened,” David snorted, digging his heel into the floor. Then he looked down, into the disapproving eyes of Figo’s…the man claimed it was a dog-wolf cross, but frankly, David couldn’t see much but wolf in it. He prodded Figo’s Turkish rug again and the dog got up and growled at him. “I carried him off that roof and he won’t see me, so don’t take his rejections so personally.”

“I’m not concerned with my personal hurt, Villa. I’m concerned with the fact that this is extremely odd behavior for González. At least where it concerns someone he does like,” Figo said. After so many years he still had a strong Portuguese accent, but it didn’t hinder the drawling sarcasm in his voice at all. He stared hard at Villa, then dismissively turned away, moving his hand. “Adi, stop that. He’d give you indigestion.”

David rolled his eyes, putting his arm up on the sofa-arm. Then he lowered it, pulling at his cravat as, with a last growl, the dog reluctantly retreated. Its mood seemed to slightly improve once Figo had given its ears a tousle, but it still turned a baleful eye on David as it settled at Figo’s feet. “Anyway, I don’t know nothing. I can’t answer your question about how González managed the roof, but I can say that he is ill.”

Somehow Figo managed to convey contempt and exasperation and challenge with a single lift of his brow.

It was a deliberate attempt to provoke David and David knew it, but his moment of amusement aside, he was just as irritated as Figo. More so, since he’d directly suffered on account of Raúl’s strangeness and thought he had earned something by it. He’d also seen a good deal more than Figo had, and the unresolved nature of it had been eating at him constantly for the past two days. He didn’t like uncertainty, and right now he wasn’t certain where he and his memory stood on some matters. “There was something odd—right before, I thought I saw Fernando Morientes on the stairs.”

“Morientes? He’s been dead for over a year,” Figo said, his brows rising again. He pushed himself up in his chair. “I heard—he got tangled up in some matter in England. Some eastern nobleman who’d gone mad, and was breaking into women’s bedrooms.”

“That’s not half the rumors. They were saying the lunatic thought he could fly, and was biting at people’s throats and even more. But yes, and I attended Morientes’ funeral too. But I thought I saw him.” David shrugged more carelessly than he truly felt. He’d not known the man very well; as close as Fernando had been to Raúl, it’d gone against David’s instincts. But Fernando had been beginning to overcome that dislike, and had even brought David to unwillingly look at Raúl in a different light when he’d gone to England for a quick trip on Raúl’s behalf.

Raúl had mourned Fernando to an almost unseemly degree, even given that they’d been friends since childhood. In fact he’d only recently begun to emerge from his depression when he’d fallen ill. David had regretted Fernando’s death as well, but not nearly to the same degree, so there was no reason why he should have the man on his mind.

“Really,” Figo said. He absently glanced over when David started, then resumed gazing thoughtfully at the far wall. His dog had risen up and after a nose at Figo’s hand, trotted out of the room. “That’s interesting. Did you see anything else strange?”

“Besides González being unable to stand on his own when I was with him, and then somehow getting himself over several steep roofs to where I found him? No, I don’t—” David paused, thinking of the bruise on Raúl’s neck “—I don’t think so. Is that all you called me here about? Couldn’t you just have left a message with Silva?”

Figo blinked, then shook himself as if coming out of a daze. He passed his hand over his head before looking up at a soft knock on his door. “Come in,” he called out, then turned to David. “No, because God knows when you would have bothered to read it. But thank you, Villa. I do appreciate the information.”

“And what does that mean? Is it actually useful?” David said sharply.

Figo’s manservant crossed the room and handed Figo a large, slightly tattered book, then left with an oddly hostile look at David. The man was unusually quiet, and walked with a peculiar loping gait. He also didn’t seem entirely comfortable in his clothes, tugging twice at his sleeve and once at his collar, though they were well-cut and of good quality.

David drummed his fingers on the arm of the couch. “Who is that, anyway? I don’t remember him.”

After a moment, Figo looked up. He glanced over his shoulder, then returned to the pages through which he was leafing once he realized who David had meant. “Adrian? Because he came back from Florence with me. He’s my Italian secretary.”

“He doesn’t look Italian.”

“He’s not. He’s from Romania,” Figo replied. He paused at something interesting, splaying the pages with his fingers. Then he shook his head and turned the page. “But he speaks and writes and reads Italian extremely well, and that’s what he does for me.”

“Then why don’t you simply call him your secretary?” David asked, restlessly shifting his legs.

Figo looked up again. He seemed torn between annoyance and a kind of lofty amusement that worked hard on David’s frayed nerves. “Because Xavi’s my secretary. Villa, you’ve told me some interesting things but right now I don’t know exactly what they might mean. And I probably won’t know for a while, so you can go if you’d like. Or I suppose you can watch me think about it, but I don’t think you find me that interesting.”

“I don’t understand why nobody throws tea at you,” David snapped without thinking. Then he got up and left, ignoring Figo’s questioning look. If the man wasn’t about to help David clear up some of his mysteries, then David hardly saw why he should help Figo.

* * *

By the time David reached his front step, he was in a foul mood. He tossed his coat and hat at the sideboard, then needed Silva to step in front of him twice before David heard what the man had to say. A tiny bit of shame pricked at David for mistreating Silva that way, but it was immediately overwhelmed by his seething temper.

“Well, what’s this about—” David started as he stalked into the parlor. Then he saw who was waiting for him, and that was unexpected enough to cool even his tongue.

Raúl looked a little improved from the last time David had seen him, being carried off on a stretcher with someone’s overcoat thrown over him. But it wasn’t by much: the man was on his feet, and his eyes were open, but his face was distinctly grayish and he had a white-knuckled grip on the top of the chair in front of him. “Villa.”

“If I’d known I’d be entertaining my superiors, I’d have gotten out my mother’s bone china,” David said after a long moment. He reached behind him and tipped shut the door, then slowly came further into the room.

“I received your messages,” Raúl said, as if David had never spoken. As David cautiously circled towards him, the other man pivoted slightly to continue facing David. His usually impeccable appearance was marred by a crooked cuff, and the hair by his temples was damp with sweat even though the room felt rather chilly to David. “I apologize for not having been able to receive you as well, but I’ve been a little ill.”

At that David had to stop and look hard at Raúl. He didn’t normally expect much sense from the man, obsessed as Raúl was with blind maintenance of the old order, but he at least thought Raúl was…was sane, anyway. “González. Two days ago I nearly called for an undertaker, and to be honest you don’t look too much more lively today. I don’t know why you’re here, but I would hope you know that I didn’t try to call on you to offer my wishes for your speedy recovery.”

Raúl pursed his lips. The flicker of irritation in his eyes was somewhat more familiar, and so was the effortlessly arrogant way he tipped his head. “I’m well aware of your feelings towards me. But I do think you have a vested interest in stability, at least because it enables you to go about your…hobbies without undue worry.”

“I have a vested interest in whatever enables me to sleep soundly at night, knowing I’ve done the best that my abilities allow,” David snapped. He felt a trickle of sweat began to seep from the hairline at the back of his neck and put up his hand, but it’d already disappeared beneath his collar. It really was unusually warm, and he supposed he’d have to have a word with Silva about adjusting the gas on top of everything else. “If you’re here to tell me I didn’t hear you shouting at someone to leave me be, or that I didn’t see that bruise on your neck—”

The chair clattered as its feet fell back on the floor, then was abruptly silent as Raúl half-collapsed over it. He was breathing too hard for David to think he’d passed out, but it was several minutes before he was able to speak. That aborted lunge might have shocked David into silence, but it had cost the other man very dear.

“Don’t get involved in this, Villa,” Raúl finally said. He had to struggle for every word, though he’d gained back enough strength to at least push his chest off the chair. “It has nothing to do with you and is of no interest to you, anyway.”

“I think you’re wrong there. The lump on my head certainly says so.” David eyed Raúl, gauging how low the man was holding his head, as he edged forward. When Raúl was leaning over as he was now, David could see partly inside the man’s collar and he thought he could just make out a thick bandage beneath the starched wings and cravat. “Besides, I see no joy in your death.”

He spoke perhaps a little more sharply than he’d intended. Well, no, David had meant for his words to sting, but the way they lashed through the air, they sounded more of worry than of sarcasm to him. And he’d phrased it a bit oddly.

Raúl seemed to agree with that, judging by the way he looked at David. He straightened up, his hand drifting towards his throat before he noticed and jerked it down. Then he looked at his hand, his lips pressing tightly together. “I appreciated the help the other night. But that should be the end of your involvement in the matter.”

“I think that’s the first time you’ve ever thanked me,” David eventually said, once the lengthening silence had irritated him too much.

The other man glanced at him, then snorted quietly, looking over David’s shoulder at the window. “I thanked you only two weeks ago, for—”

“Well, then it’s the first time you’ve thanked me when nobody is around to be impressed at your graciousness.” David came up to the chair and took it by one corner, swinging it back into position. Then he put out his foot and smoothed out the wrinkle in the carpet beneath the chair.

When he looked up, Raúl was eyeing him with an odd mixture of exasperation and confusion—and exhaustion, which perhaps accounted for why overall it was much duller than the usual contempt with which the other man treated him. In fact, Raúl seemed almost amused. “You know, I’ve never discounted your raw ability, Villa. I think we mainly differ in how and when you put that to use. Or rather, when you shouldn’t. You’re not as political as you should be.”

“Or I prefer not to sink to the depths of others just for the sake of a little power,” David acidly replied. He took his hand off the top of the chair just as Raúl put both of his on it, then scratched at the side of his face. Then he sighed and looked at the other man. “Are you ill?”

On the chair, Raúl’s fingers flexed. His eyes narrowed a little. “Did I not need to come beg your cooperation, after all?”

“No, it’s not—” David struggled not to roll his eyes “—there’s illness and there’s illness. You look like it, but you don’t talk like, and…”

He stopped, bewildered. But a few blinks didn’t remove Raúl’s hands from him—on the contrary, the other man moved closer, his head bowing past David’s so that it was nearly resting on David’s shoulder. His fingers shifted a little, crumpling up folds of David’s coat between them as their grip became unexpectedly hard.

“David,” Raúl whispered, harsh and commanding. His breath chilled the side of David’s neck. “David, let it be. I will not tell you again.”

Then he began to draw away, but two could play at that game. Raúl’s head immediately came up as David pulled him back, and then Raúl tried to put his arm between them, but David was too quick for him. He yanked Raúl clear of the chair and up against him, so no space was left for any barriers.

“You can tell me as many times as you want, but I’ve never been satisfied with your mere words before, and I won’t start now,” David hissed back.

After his initial resistance, Raúl had ceased to move, apparently stunned by David’s actions. His arm was lying across the front of David’s shoulder, pressing quite hard, and his breathing had turned raspier. David loosened his grip but the other man didn’t shift away, and David found himself oddly frozen as well.

He eventually focused on Raúl’s neck, which was directly before him. There was a bandage wrapped about it, under the collar, but Raúl’s exertions had caused it to pull away from the skin so David could see under it to the purplish, swollen flesh. The abused area was about the size of a coin, but more in the shape of an oblong.

Raúl’s flinch made David realize how close he’d leaned, to the point of brushing his nose against Raúl’s ear. The movement seemed to break some sort of spell, for then both of them hastily moved back. David scored his cheek with his hand, irritated at the inexplicable flush creeping into his face.

No such color had penetrated Raúl’s pallor, but the other man betrayed no little embarrassment as he fussed awkwardly with his hair. He glanced up at David, then grimaced and jerked his head down. Then he turned away, that old air of entitlement dropping over him. “It’s for your own good, Villa. We have our differences but I’ve never wished you harm, and I don’t want—I would remind you that you’ve as little hold over my personal business as I do yours. Good day.”

“Hardly,” David said, watching the man leave.

* * *

Of course that didn’t settle the matter. If David had had any doubts that Raúl was attempting a cover-up, they’d been confirmed by the visit. On the other hand, the matter did seem to be solely affecting Raúl, and David was not even a friend of the man, let alone someone who cared overmuch for Raúl’s well-being. It was true that David needed Raúl’s influence, but he could pursue that without necessarily involving himself in Raúl’s private affairs.

“David, you might as well just say you’ve made up your mind,” Silva sighed, handing David his overcoat. He returned David’s look with a long-suffering one of his own. “I think you’d better take a walking stick. Let me get that one with the steel core.”

Then Silva turned away and began to root about in the hall-closet while David stood back, irked and confused. “I haven’t. I’m discussing it right now.”

“You’re telling me that you don’t want to do this because you don’t like Raúl, but you were dressed to go out when I came down.” Silva briefly withdrew from the closet to wrap a black scarf around himself, muffling nearly all of his face. Upon his second dive, he found David’s walking-stick, and then slipped what looked like a billhook into his pocket. “Not wanting to do it and—”

“Oh, all right, I’m going and finding out what’s going on. If nothing else, that man cannot tell me what I can and can’t know,” David muttered. He stared back at Silva, who had his brows raised. “Yes?”

After a moment, Silva merely shook his head and closed the closet door. He fell in behind David as they went outside, then paused to lock the door as David looked up at the darkening sky. The moon had just risen and was over half-full, but it seemed as if it’d be an overcast night so they wouldn’t have that light. Just as well, since for all his enemies’ accusations, David hardly made a habit of breaking laws.

Raúl had an elegantly overdone townhouse in a highly fashionable, highly conservative quarter of town, where apparently everyone went to bed before ten o’clock. At least few windows were lighted: one of those few was the window that Silva informed David belonged to Raúl’s bedroom. David didn’t know and frankly didn’t care how Silva came about such bits of information, or where Silva had learned to shimmy up an ironwork fence as if he was part-squirrel. He did, however, wish the other man hadn’t been quite so impatient.

“I was planning to wait a little, and then call at the door to see if I could interrupt anything,” David whispered through the bars. “Get back here. If you’re caught I don’t know what I’m going to tell your aunt.”

“Tell her I was doing what she did when she got her second husband. Look, we’re never going to talk our way into his rooms, but if you distract him, I probably can get up that ivy and have a peek,” Silva said unrepentantly. Then he turned to go.

David stuck his arm through the bars and just caught the man’s arm. He also knocked his walking-stick against the bars rather loudly, which made him wince, but he held on till Silva came back. “Sil—David, listen, you don’t—”

“I know, but I want to. It’s important to you, so it’s important to me.” Silva paused, then smiled wryly, with too much understanding shining from his eyes. He did know David, and know David far too well for his own good. “I’ll find out what’s the matter with Raúl for you, all right? I just need a few minutes.”

“I…thank you,” David said, swallowing hard. His fingers loosened. Then he changed his mind and tried to catch the other man again, but Silva was too quick for him. Before David could speak, Silva was across the yard and then it would’ve taken a shout to bring him back.

After a moment, David reluctantly withdrew his arm. He watched till Silva had vanished among the thick bushes that surrounded the house, then backed away from the fence. Overhead the clouds slowly thickened till they had blotted out moon and stars, and along either side of the street, the lights went out one by one. It wasn’t long till David only had the light from Raúl’s window.

He was looking up at it when a nearby church rung the hour, making David start. For a moment his gaze drifted, but then it went back to Raúl’s window. At first he wasn’t sure what had attracted his attention, because it was so dark, but gradually he made out a strange sort of cloud hanging about the window, as if someone had set a fire near it. But he saw no flames, and as he watched, the cloud slowly dissipated.

It’d been long enough. No late visitor had come, as David had half-expected, but at this hour Raúl was still likely to not be as guarded as he normally was, and perhaps would betray himself. David went around to the front of the house, opened the front gate and walked up to the door, where he smashed the knocker till a servant came. Then he argued with Casillas till he finally saw Raúl’s haggard face appear at the top of the stairs; David forced himself fully inside, looking up at the other man. “Good evening. I know it’s late but I wanted to ask you about the other night, on the roof.”

Casillas hadn’t stopped protesting, but he fell silent then even though Raúl had done little more than raise his hand from the rail. Eyes fixed on David, Raúl slowly made his way down the stairs. Twice he stumbled and Casillas went to move forward, but Raúl waved him away and finally ordered him out of the hall. Raúl had apparently been preparing for bed, as he was only in a dressing-gown. It didn’t have a high collar so the bandage on Raúl’s neck was in plain view, and it was half-unraveled, as if the man had been in the middle of changing it.

“What do you want, Villa?” Raúl snapped when he was near enough.

“To ask you a question. About the night at the opera. As I just said.” David resisted the urge to look either upstairs or out the nearest window. Silva was a grown man and could make his own choices, and if David still had a lingering disquiet regarding them, he could at least try not to disappoint the other man. “Look, you might think you’re king of this city but you’re ill, you’re causing all sorts of gossip and whatever you think, you can’t change the fact that someone attacked me as well as you. I don’t take very kindly to that.”

“You shouldn’t—” Raúl abruptly stopped himself, his eyes flickering with an odd alarm. He tucked his chin down, then wrenched his head about as if ridding himself of a cramp. Then he looked back at David. “No one attacked me. We were arguing and I fell on you, and you hit your head on the floor.”

For a moment David stared at Raúl. In fact, he didn’t believe the man had said those words till Raúl grimaced and began to turn, apparently leaving—David swore and darted forward to seize Raúl’s arm. Then he dragged Raúl forward, ignoring the way the man’s face whitened. “The more you try to convince me nothing’s the matter, the more you make it obvious that something is very, very wrong. I’m not an idiot, González. Someone hit me in the head, after I was on the floor, and it wasn’t you because you were telling them not to.”

“I wasn’t—Villa, would you just leave this be? What good is it doing you?” Raúl hissed. He attempted to pull his arm free of David’s grip, and when that failed, settled for pushing them into an adjoining parlor. His feet stumbled and his breath stuttered so David instinctively tugged him up, but then Raúl irritably shook off the helping hand. “You don’t care for anything about me, you’ve made that clear over the years, so why don’t you follow your dislike and leave?”

“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? It’d prove what you always thought about me, that I’m just another hungry young dog looking to topple you. Well, I’m not. I’d like to see you gone but because I’ve become convinced that you’re not doing any more good. You just want everything to stay the same as when you first came.” David caught himself with his free hand against the wall, then pushed off that and took Raúl by the shoulders, forcing the man to face him. “It can’t, you fool. The world isn’t something you can put in a glass case and keep forever, and you would think that you can do—”

“—I don’t.” Raúl pushed ineffectually at David, but ran out of the breath and ended up sagging heavily against David for support. His fingers curled into David’s coat. “I know it changes, I know the danger of wanting nothing to ever change. I know it better than you, how it stifles the life from—but you can’t tear everything down. You have to know what to keep, and what to…what to let…let go…”

He’d started out strongly enough, but very quickly Raúl had faded and it wasn’t entirely due to his lack of strength. Some other concern—fear, perhaps, with the blank way he stared past David—was draining him, draining the fervor from his voice till it was little more than a shell of a whisper. In the end he slumped in David’s arms, his chin hooked over David’s shoulder, breathing harsh and loud in David’s ear. Beneath the quilted gown his body was cold and rigid, and he seemed caught up in some strange daze.

“Let go,” Raúl muttered, just as David opened his mouth. He stirred a little, twisting his body as if trying to throw off something—not necessarily David, who was more letting the man lean than holding him up. “Let me go. Let…no, don’t. We can’t…I can’t go—I won’t go. I’ve had a year and it’s not the same…”

David frowned, looking sharply at Raúl. Then he pushed back the other man to have a better look at Raúl’s face, at that odd distant look in the man’s eyes, only to hear something in the hall.

“What are you doing—” Casillas started.

“No!” Raúl suddenly ripped himself away from David, spinning towards the hall. He overbalanced and toppled over, and David barely caught him but even then the man resisted him, plunging blindly forward. “No, oh, God, no, no, no—no! No! Fernando—”

“Morientes?” David asked.

He’d merely said what had come to mind, but that single word produced an instant effect: Raúl went rigid as if he’d been smashed in the head, then just as abruptly turned limp, slipping out of David’s arms. Instinctively David still tried to pull up the man, but only ended up being dragged to his knees; David’s walking-stick dropped from his hands and rolled off somewhere. Casillas had dived down as well, and between the two of them, they managed to turn over Raúl.

The man hadn’t passed out, but he was cold as death and his eyes had rolled back to show the whites. His lips were moving and when David bent near enough, he thought he could just make out a murmuring chant of “no no no.” David straightened, looking at Casillas, and upstairs something crashed so hard that the floor shook.

Casillas leaped up, then stopped, staring at Raúl. Then he looked at David, and came to a decision, albeit a clearly-reluctant one: he ran up the stairs, leaving David to tend to Raúl, who appeared to be coming round. And then he was awake, wide-eyed with terror at something yet beating furiously at David, trying to get free and apparently follow Casillas.

“No! No, you can’t—” Raúl’s eyes passed over David several times before they finally seemed to see him, but once they had, they snapped onto David with an unnatural focus “—stop him! Don’t—oh, God, no, me, me, at least have it be me if it has to be—”

“Mother of God!” came Casillas’ hoarse shout. A sharp bang followed it, and then a pained cry. “Stop! Stop—you monster!”

David began to rise, but then cursed and seized Raúl just in time, dragging the other man to the floor. He winced as Raúl struck his shoulder, then threw down his weight to pin Raúl. He got one hand on Raúl’s arm but the other slipped off Raúl and skidded over the floor with all the struggling. It hit something, and David absently snatched up his walking stick just as Raúl suddenly stilled, staring out the window behind them. Raúl’s mouth moved a little.

When David turned, Fernando Morientes was looking through the glass at them. Except—except it wasn’t Morientes. It—

Glass shattered. Raúl screamed something at Morientes, trying to buck off David. He didn’t succeed, but he did make David lose his balance and in reflex David threw up the hand holding the walking stick. Morientes recoiled, his face working into an inhuman snarl.

Then he was gone, and David was staring into the street as light after light appeared in the other houses’ windows. David glanced down at Raúl, who was white and still, with one hand gripping David’s wrist. Then he looked at the walking stick, with the silver cross set into the top, and then at the stairs as someone came stumbling down them. Casillas, his entire right arm bloody, his face ghastly.

“Villa,” he stuttered. He fell heavily against the rail, but that didn’t shake his stare from David. “Villa, it’s…oh, call a doctor. It’s your valet.”

* * *

“I don’t care—” David’s voice broke and he paused, then slammed himself onwards, ignoring the tearing at his throat “—I don’t care what else you’ve got to think about. You owe me an explanation now. If only so—so I have something to tell Silva’s family at the goddamn funeral, you miserable bastard.”

Raúl closed his eyes, then bent over the arm of the couch so he could rub his hand up and down his face. He certainly looked miserable and in pain, but that could have been due to his—his damn illness. Goddamn him.

He didn’t flinch when David kicked over a chair, and merely looked on dully when David continued to boot the damn thing about, though it probably had cost more than David would spend on a good horse. In fact, it seemed like he didn’t realize David was there at all, and David was viciously telling him so when Raúl got up and drifted into the next room.

David followed along without thinking, then couldn’t help a violent flinch when he saw the body laid out on the table. He had to steady himself against the doorway, but even then his sight was blurry—he rubbed at his eyes, but that only seemed to worsen the problem, and finally he pressed his face into the jamb. His throat hurt. His head hurt, and a low burning was eating at his breast, and he did not have regrets in his life, he didn’t live that way, waste his time that way, but he regretted his actions now and yes, that was right. Yes, he had the blame here. He was wrong to try to put it on Raúl.

Eventually necessity forced David to lift his head, and calm himself enough to breathe. He had erred, so very badly, but he—he furiously pushed away that irrational thought. His death wouldn’t do a damn thing, and much needed to be done now.

He blinked a few times. The room slowly resolved into distinct lines, shadows. The table with Silva on it, and seated there with his head down in his arms, Raúl. The man’s shoulders were shaking, but before David’s temper could lash out, Raúl shakily drew himself up and pressed his hands over his face. It wasn’t Raúl’s fault but he had no right to claim any of the grief, not when he was being so selfish about the reasons behind it.

“I’m sorry,” Raúl said quietly. He breathed a few times, but it hardly helped the thinness of his voice. “I—it’s always been my responsibility to see to my own mistakes, and this was one of mine.”

A blasphemy sprung to David’s lips, his anger welling at the other man’s egotism once again. He bit his lower lip till he tasted blood.

“I sent Fernando to England, and then when he came back—I didn’t think. I didn’t understand either, I just let him give me excuses, and…I knew something was wrong. I didn’t want—you’re right to rail at me for being blind.” Raúl paused, then gasped out a broken laugh. He clenched his right hand into a fist before grinding its knuckles against his temple, eye. “I didn’t want to think that he was dead. But his body came home. I gave—I gave the eulogy, and still…and now he won’t leave me.”

“But he’s dead,” David finally said. “How…”

“He’s a vampire.” Figo blinked, looking on in surprise as both of them nearly collapsed from shock at his entrance. Behind him were Xavi and his other secretary, both carrying large boxes. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t come in time, Raúl, Villa. I was waiting to hear from England, to be sure.”

David grasped the door and drew himself up, then waved his hand when Figo meant to go on. “Wait. Wait, wait, wait. He’s a what?”

* * *

With a last stiff-necked remark, Casillas put off Raúl’s protests and went to go help Xavi hang up garlic and angelica over the windows. Raúl let the man go, but from the look on his face, it was only because Raúl was too weak to get up and go after him. Figo had already explained that it wasn’t likely that Morientes would return tonight, but Casillas had taken a bad injury to his arm and they knew Morientes would kill if cornered. And David almost wanted to slap Raúl for worrying over putting his man at risk for his own problem.

David pushed that away. He didn’t want to think much on it, partly because he knew it wasn’t actually about Raúl—for once—and partly because Figo had been talking again and David did need to listen to the man now. “Hold on. Why do I have to stay here? He’s not after me.”

“Well, he wasn’t the first time but he will be now. He knows people are trying to keep him away and if he can’t get at González, which he shouldn’t be able to, then he’ll go after those he thinks are his enemies.” Figo dusted his hands off on his hips, then put them behind his back and flexed his arms, popping a few joints. Then he leaned back over the map of the city he’d spread on the table. “I don’t have enough to do your house and González’s, so you have to stay here.”

“What about you? He might know that you’re involved as well—you didn’t come that much later,” David said. “Or the doctor?”

After a long moment, Figo put his pen down. Then he looked at David as if David was a simpleton. “The doctor is my friend, and I’m more than happy to put up Laudrup for the night. As for my house, it’s been secured against vampires for…Villa, that’s what he is. Stop flinching at the word. If you’re going to see this through, then you have to come to terms with the facts.”

“Well, I’m sorry but I’m not so accustomed to such things. And just why are you, anyway?” David scratched at his jaw, then swore and ripped open his collar. Things were muddy enough so that he hardly thought full formalities were still required. “Where did you learn about all this?”

“I’m in the diplomatic service, Villa. I’m used to working in the dark,” Figo said dryly. He turned as something shuffled in the hall, then pushed back from the table to hold out his hands as his dog approached. Once the dog was close enough, Figo seized its head and roughly caressed it while the animal barked and whined, pawing at Figo’s feet. “So this is the plan. Vampires are creatures of the night, and tend not to be awake during the day, though they can move around if they absolutely must. They’re also creatures of habit—specifically, habits from their former life. There are a limited number of places where Morientes would feel safe enough to rest and we have to examine them all till we find him.”

“Then what?”

“Then…” Raúl paused. When Figo demurred, gesturing for the other man to continue, Raúl dropped his eyes to the floor. He grimaced and closed his eyes, then wrenched the words from himself. “Then we set him free. That isn’t Fernando anymore. That’s something else that’s taken his body.”

Figo cleared his throat, overriding David’s nascent question. “It means someone has to either put a stake through his heart or burn his body, Villa. But in the meantime, we all need to get some sleep. And you’re staying here because I don’t feel like opening up a guestroom to you. You annoy Adi.”

“I…” Sheer disbelief kept David from managing to say anything. He sat back and stared as Figo asked a few more questions of Raúl, then got up with his map and his dog, and went out of the room. The damned animal shot him a smug look on the way out. “It’s a dog!”

The outburst brought him to his feet, and once he was up, he thought he might as well go to the doorway. But by then Figo had already disappeared and only Figo’s…not-Italian Italian secretary was in the hall. For some reason the man appeared to be sniffing at the door where Silva’s—Silva’s body was being kept, but when David challenged him, he held up a braid of garlic and angelica.

So David left the man to that and went back into the room. He stopped, looking at Raúl. Then he turned to go out again, but stopped again.

“You can have whichever room you’d like, and I’ll take the one farthest from it, if that makes it easier,” Raúl said.

David twisted roughly around, but his anger suddenly slipped from him, and all he was…was very, very tired. He glanced around, then pulled over a nearby chair and sat down in it. Then he put his elbows on his knees and covered his face with his hands.

“David.”

“I’m not leaving you alone now,” David muttered. He rubbed at his face, then pushed one hand back over the side of his head and off. “Not with what’s already happened. I don’t care what Figo says—I’m not going to believe him till I see something of his work.”

“David, I’m sorry. I never meant…and I know I can’t possibly make sufficient reparations…”

“No, you can’t and you’re a fool to even mention that,” David snapped, lifting his head. Then he winced and looked away to the side, leaning on one knee. He passed his hand over his hair before letting his arm fall heavily to his side. “Look. Silva wasn’t your valet. He was mine, and I let him sneak into your room. I didn’t know that this was all about—my God, about vampires, but for all I knew you could’ve shot him, and I still…”

A strangled sort of sound came from Raúl, and when David looked at him, the other man’s face was twisted up with disgust and disbelief. “You honestly think that badly of me? Listen, I’ve not always seen things your way but I don’t think solely of myself—”

“Says the man who wanted his damn lover back so badly he let himself be half-killed in the process.” Then David jerked his head to the side again. He worked at his mouth, then pushed his hand across it. Then he sighed. “I meant, perhaps you’d think Silva was a burglar and…I don’t think you’re a murderer.”

“But I’m not much better, if at all,” Raúl muttered. When David looked at him, he had put his head back on the sofa-arm and had his eyes closed. “No, you’re right this time. I was only thinking of myself.”

He didn’t say more. People were still moving about in the hall and downstairs, but inside the room the quiet was unnerving. David shifted restlessly in his seat, then pushed himself to his feet and went over to the window. He started to look outside, then flinched as something moved, but it was only the branch of a tree. Even so, he shut the curtains rather roughly, and then he went about and pulled the curtains on all the other windows as well.

“I’ve been holding back on your request because I don’t think it’ll go to what you want it to do. I don’t trust all your men in Valencia to restrain themselves from skimming off a reasonable amount, and we’ve enough cash problems as it is.” Raúl had opened his eyes, and was looking back at David. He shrugged, a humorless smile pulling faintly at his lips. “I do owe you explanations. That’s one.”

“A ‘reasonable’ amount?” David finally said.

“Political reality. I hate seeing money wasted and hate even more seeing our government tarnished like that, but even I don’t have the power to change how things work.” The other man moved his head on the sofa-arm, then winced. He put up his hand to cover his throat, his lips whitening as he pressed them together. “If I have any power at all these days. But if I survive long enough, you’ll get your money. I think I can still do that.”

David hit the wall with his hand. Then he stood by the last window, shaking the sting from it and watching Raúl start and then settle. “I’m not doing this to earn your damn favor. Well, all right, at first I wanted to know what was going on so I could at least plan for it, but now I’m doing this because Silva’s dead and I’m not letting you die as well. And I don’t know anything about vampires, but Morientes is dead. I used to like him but I don’t—whatever he is now, I’m going to kill it.”

“I know you don’t have to do this. That’s why—”

“Don’t try to buy me off. It may work like that with other people but not with me. If you’re giving me money, you’d better believe in me and my ideas. And if you bothered to know much about me, then you’d realize that I can get that money to those who truly need it,” David snapped, crossing the room. He stopped to glare at Raúl, then sat stiffly down on the couch beside the other man.

It fell quiet again. Then the sofa creaked as Raúl sat up. His breathing quickened, and then his hand went down on the cushion by David’s hand. “I haven’t actually looked at your plans in any detail. I haven’t had time—if I live then I’ll look at them.”

“You’re going to live if I have to drag you out of hell by myself.” David glanced over, then put his hand under Raúl’s arm to help support him; the effort of sitting up was making Raúl shake badly. He chewed at his lip. “So you’re not denying that those old rumors about you and Morientes are true.”

“Well, it seems a little pointless now. And I’m sure this will upset you but I admit to being surprised that you’re taking it so calmly,” Raúl replied. He tried to move himself, but instead half-collapsed against David. His hand scrabbled at David’s side, then twisted away as he struggled to lift himself.

After another bite at his lip, David surrendered to resignation and put his arm firmly around Raúl. He held onto the man’s waist till Raúl stopped his futile efforts and simply let David support him. “I’m no innocent. I know the world’s full of evils, but I disagree with the Church on a few of them. At the least, it seems overly concerned with some minor ones, and lets far worse ones go without a single protest,” David commented. “And frankly, I’d not dislike you so much if I could completely convince myself that you’ll never be what I wish you—what I think you could be.”

Raúl stiffened. David loosened his grip and leaned back from the man. Then he began to take his arm out from around Raúl, but before he’d gotten it half-round Raúl’s back, a convulsive grip seized his wrist. He stopped, then allowed Raúl to pull his arm back.

“Silva adored me, I think,” David said bluntly, talking over Raúl. The words came easier than he’d expected, but they dragged a painful clutching sensation into his throat. “There have been days when I’ve wished I met him before you, because he deserved better. This is one of them.”

He waited, but Raúl never finished what he’d started to say. Instead the other man let go of David’s wrist, though he didn’t try to move out of the circle of David’s arm. He tensed when David cautiously pushed his hand further around Raúl, further than merely supporting the man required, but allowed it. Then Raúl took hold of David’s hand again, lightly balancing it on his fingers. His thumb nudged between David’s third and ring finger, then slipped out again.

“And I still can’t—I don’t understand this, but I can’t leave you. Even with that, I can’t,” David continued, half-snarling. He pulled his lips back from his teeth, then hissed out a breath. Then he shook his head. “You’re not going to die.”

“I need to rest,” Raúl said after a long silence. He ran the ball of his thumb over David’s knuckle, then dropped David’s hand and looked somberly at David. “So do you. There’s a lot to be done.”

David grimaced a last time, nodding. Then he got up, and turned around and helped Raúl up as well.

* * *

Raúl refused to sleep in his own bedroom without any explanation, and David was too worn out to press the man on it. Instead the servants made up one of the spare rooms, and they shared it. The bed could have easily accommodated three giants, and while David didn’t think much of it, he couldn’t have claimed that label for himself. Nor could Raúl, and when the other man stripped out of his dressing-gown, he proved that he was barely retaining the claim to being a man and not a shadow. The bones of his shoulders and wrists and ankles jutted from his flesh, and his pallor continued all over him.

“They’re going to make up a pallet for you on the…” As David climbed onto the bed, Raúl’s voice slowly diminished. He looked warily at David but didn’t attempt to move away.

David suppressed the trace of awkwardness he felt and took off his shoes, then plumped up the pillows on his side of the bed. Then he sat back against them and took stock of the room. It had less windows than some of the others, but still far too many for his taste, and the twisted plaits of garlic bulbs and angelica stalks seemed very frail against the heavy wood.

“Should I have them get you a book?” Raúl asked, tone a bit studied.

“That would be helpful,” David said. He pulled up his knees, then rubbed his hands over them. Then he looked over the side, making sure that his walking stick was still leaning against the bed. After a moment’s thought, he picked that up and laid it across his lap. “I’m not planning to go to sleep.”

For a moment Raúl seemed about to object, but in the end, he merely tugged the covers over himself. When Casillas came in to see how they were, he asked the man to get David something to read, but other than that, he was silent.

Eventually David had to look over at him, and found that at some point, Raúl had fallen asleep. His breathing was shallow and low but steady, and the tension had left his body so he was curled slackly into his pillow, his legs drawn up towards David. A little color had even come back into his face, so that his hair didn’t look so terribly, violently black against his skin.

David put down the hand he’d nearly touched to Raúl’s forehead and leaned back. He stared at the far wall, then began to pick up his book when some noise came from outside the house. It wasn’t much, just a soft scrape, and could have easily been the scratching of a tree branch. But even so, David’s hand went to his walking stick. As time went on and nothing else happened, David shifted himself slightly closer to Raúl. Then he started reading again.

* * *

Over the next three days, David and Figo and various servants from Figo’s and Raúl’s households worked to investigate various locations about the city for Morientes’ presence. Oddly enough, they didn’t go to the man’s grave.

“Because it’s his grave,” Figo explained, looking at David the way a schoolteacher would a particularly slow student. “Nobody really wants to go to it when they’re alive, so he’s hardly going to want to stay in it. That’s the whole point of him being a vampire.”

Raúl mostly stayed indoors at his house, recovering his strength. He did venture out once to accompany Silva’s body to the railroad, which caused a sharp argument between all three of them. David simply thought that that was his responsibility, and at any rate he didn’t appreciate being told to show up at a certain time to see Silva’s coffin go off to the man’s family. Figo missed the whole thing entirely, but seemed less offended by that than by other grounds that he wouldn’t elaborate on, save to finally mutter that he supposed the risk wasn’t significant while looking at Adrian. Then he and his secretary had had a hushed conversation in the corner, and Raúl had offered David a stiff, over-formal apology that showed the man clearly didn’t understand why David was upset. It briefly felt like before.

But that night, as with the other nights, David came over to sit up by Raúl, and Raúl offered a better apology. Then an explanation that he still felt responsible for Silva, because he thought he had some sort of control over Morientes that he hadn’t exercised on Silva’s behalf, based on the fact that Morientes was clearly obsessed with him. They had another argument when David invoked Figo’s vampire lore to point out the flaws in Raúl’s reasoning, and David thought Raúl was on the verge of hitting him when the other man abruptly subsided, staring at David with unnatural intensity.

“I know it’s not truly Fernando because Fernando never made any claim to me,” Raúl said abruptly. “He thinks differently. And I don’t wish to see anyone else fall on the wrong side of that.”

“It’s a little late for that.” A twinge of guilt tweaked at David as he watched Raúl flinch and drop his gaze, but David didn’t take back his words. They were only the truth, as harsh as they were. “I also hope that doesn’t mean you’re finally bothering to worry about me.”

Raúl looked at a silver pitcher on the sideboard, his brows knitted together. Then the corner of his mouth quirked. “Villa, I always worried about you.” He turned away, his hand going to his thickly-bandaged neck, and slowly walked up to the sideboard, where he poured them some brandy. “Are you having any success?”

“We’re running out of places to look,” David said curtly, after a long pause. He grimaced and went over for his glass, then tossed it roughly back. Between his nightly vigils with Raúl and his daytime searches, he’d had next to no sleep and his temper wasn’t very long in the best of circumstances. Granted, he’d been staying busy enough to not think about how damn useless he’d been so far, but he was standing around now thinking about it. “Do you…do you have any sort of contact with him? It sounded—just before Silva’s…you were—”

The other man gazed into his brandy. He pursed his lips a few times, then sighed and pressed the hair back from his eyes. It’d grown quite unruly compared to the impeccably groomed waves to which David was accustomed, and though Raúl was shaving, he wasn’t paying that much attention to judge from the unevenly-stubbled patches along his jaw. “Sometimes I hear him in my head,” Raúl muttered, and quickly drank some brandy. He grimaced that down, then rubbed at his neck again. “It’s not been as loud since they put up the garlic and silver. But…he keeps asking me to come back to him. He promises he won’t leave me this time.”

“The way I remember it, you sent him away.”

Raúl looked sharply up, his eyes glittering angrily. He started to speak, but instead drank more brandy. Then he slowly lowered his glass, looking into it, and a grim sort of smile spread over his face. “Thank you, David. I appreciate your dedication to the truth.”

It was impossible to tell if the man was being sarcastic or genuinely grateful, and anyway David felt oddly ashamed of himself for pressing at what was clearly an old wound for Raúl. He didn’t mind so much reminding the man of Silva, even though he still believed himself to be mainly at fault for that. Perhaps because Silva was related to this matter, and whatever had gone on with Morientes and Raúl before Morientes had left for England was not, at least from David’s perspective.

“Ramos will be out with Figo tonight, but Casillas will be downstairs in the kitchen, if you tire of my company and want some conversation,” Raúl added. His glass still had brandy in it, but he put it down on the sideboard and turned towards the door. “I think I’ll be going up now.”

David put down his glass as well, then caught the door’s edge as Raúl swung it open. He shrugged when the other man looked at him. “I’m hardly staying with you for the conversation in the first place, so I don’t know why you’d think I’d be looking for it. Very well, let’s go up.”

Something flicked through Raúl’s eyes, like the shadow of a bird passing between one’s face and the sun. He looked at David for a few seconds, then assented with a nod. Then he moved aside to make room for David in the hall.

* * *

The church bells had just rung one in the morning when David heard a faint but frantic pounding. He looked first to the windows, but the noise was not coming from them. Then he put down his book, and had just pushed himself off the headboard when the pounding ceased.

“What’s the matter?” Raúl had woken as well, and was struggling to sit up. He’d asked in a strong enough voice, but his eyes were fearful.

“I think someone’s at the front door,” David said, slipping off the side of the bed. He stepped into his shoes and picked up his walking stick.

It appeared Raúl was regaining his strength, as by then he’d already managed to put on his dressing-gown. Then he carefully made his way around the end of the bed; he kept one hand on the mattress till the halfway point, when he took it off. He seemed steady enough on his feet, so David let him be.

By the time they went downstairs, Casillas had already answered the door and was attempting to make sense of the broken Spanish of Figo’s secretary, Adrian. Something had clearly happened, as Adrian’s clothes were torn and disheveled, and he was clutching his right arm close to his body. But he was extremely excited and couldn’t keep himself from making—or attempting to make a broad gesture. He released his arm, then hissed and cradled it back against himself, but not before they’d all seen the blood on him.

“What happened? Where’s Figo?” Raúl asked over David’s shoulder.

Then he tried to push past David, only to irritably pull his arm away when David forced him back. His health was improving, if he felt like taking offense at little matters like that.

“Figo—matches. No, I mean—he don’t have, doesn’t have—he went to get,” Adrian babbled, stepping over the threshold and towards them.

Casillas started to push him out, but subsided with ill grace when David made him let the other man in. Instead Casillas shut the door and then went to stand with Raúl, making a pair of put-upon dilettantes. Just as well, since David actually cared more about finding out what Adrian knew than about maintaining propriety, and even he was rapidly losing patience with Adrian. The man had a thick, awkward accent when he was calm, but when he was agitated, he was all but incomprehensible.

He seized David’s sleeve when David was near enough, then violently shook David. “You understand? The vampire, he—” Adrian gestured at his bloody arm “—and hit Luís.”

“What? Where is—”

David ignored Raúl’s startled cry and got hold of a fistful of Adrian’s clothing, shaking him back. “Calm down, damn it. Where were you two? You were at Morientes’ favorite restaurant, weren’t you?”

“No! No, not restaurant, not—you see,” Adrian snapped. “Vampire. The…the smoke, you see it? Figo, he comes, but he left things—he can’t come. So did you see?”

“No, I don’t see a damn thing, you—look. Did you run into Morientes? Is he coming here?” Exasperated, David grabbed Adrian by the arm. “What did you—oh, damn.”

His hand had closed about Adrian’s injury, apparently. He let go the moment he felt blood welling up, but by then Adrian had already gasped and begun to collapse, eyes rolling up into his head. Swearing violently, David tried to lift Adrian by the waist, but couldn’t help jerking his hand away when he felt another warm, wet spot. He still had hold of Adrian’s shirt, but the cloth ripped under Adrian’s weight and Adrian fell to the ground, his coat flapping open to show blood all across his torso.

David dropped to one knee and got his hands under the man, rolling him fully onto his back. Then he started to lift Adrian’s head—the man’s whites were no longer showing; thankfully Adrian hadn’t actually passed out—but something bumped his back. After he’d moved out of the way, David stopped to think about that. Then he looked up in time to see Casillas with his hand on the door. “What are—”

“Figo, is that you?” Casillas asked.

The door began to open, drawing David’s eyes to its edge and then its bottom, which was sweeping back a yellowed braid of angelica. Adrian sucked in his breath and David glanced down; their eyes met for a second. Adrian’s were filled with a horrified knowledge.

Then David was throwing himself forward, into Casillas’ back. He was successful in wrenching the man aside, but Casillas wouldn’t release the door-knob and so they pulled the door open as they fell. Casillas was shouting at David but David didn’t bother listening as he ripped himself free. Then he flung himself at the door, but it’d barely begun to swing back when something suddenly smashed it open, hard enough to send David off it and into the wall. He gasped, then slid down to the floor, half-stunned.

Something tall and dark and wispy came through the door, then fell back as Adrian leaped off the floor at it. David blinked: for a moment, Adrian hadn’t looked…the man’s legs had elongated, and the face had seemed to stretch…

Then he blinked again. The doorknob was swinging straight at his forehead.

David cursed and jerked himself down out of the way, then stifled a pained grunt as the door slammed into his shin. It didn’t hurt at first, but the moment he tried to move, his leg filled up with fire. He gritted his teeth and pushed off his other foot, scrambling out from behind the door. A graze at his arm nearly had him throwing back his elbow, but then he saw it was Casillas.

“What—”

“Raúl! Where is he?” David snapped. He continued to claw his way from the door as fast as he could; he’d gone two yards before he realized he was using both legs, and then didn’t have the time to be thankful his one leg wasn’t actually broken.

From behind him came a chaotic mix of snarls and crashes and heavy blows. Then there were two especially sharp thumps in quick succession, and a moment after, a third. A pained whimper, and the distinctive sound of a man’s irritated exhale.

David didn’t look back. He dragged at Casillas, who did and who fell to his knees because he was so busy looking, then shoved the man off as soon as they reached a split in the hall. “Run, damn it!”

Then David did, not having the time to see if Casillas was obeying him. He’d just glimpsed the corner of Raúl’s dressing-gown whipping about the corner ahead of him, and was racing to catch up to it before whatever was behind him caught up to him.

At the very end, David’s feet slipped on the parquet floor. They saved him, for he’d never have squeezed through the closing door in time otherwise. The door slammed into its frame, its lock clicking, and David stumbled over Raúl, taking them both to the ground.

David’s momentum carried him off Raúl and onto his back beside the other man. The wind knocked from him, he could only lie there for a moment, but as soon as he could, he pushed himself up. Then he got hold of Raúl’s shoulder and dragged the man back till they were in the center of the room—the library, renowned as much for its architecture as for the volumes on its shelves.

Silence oppressed them. Shivering, Raúl twice tried to push himself off David’s legs and twice failed. He and David both stared at the door till it seemed to swim before David’s eyes.

It wasn’t swimming. Some kind of mist was forming before it, creating the optical illusion. David reached for his walking stick, then swore as he found his hands empty. He must have dropped it along the way.

His fingers closed more and more tightly on Raúl’s shoulder as the mist thickened, drawing itself out from the edges of the door into a tall column till it almost looked like glazed glass. Then it began to darken—unevenly, some places only becoming opaque while others tarnished like silver hidden in the earth. It took on the distinct outline of a man in tattered evening dress—they’d buried Morientes in such clothing, David remembered. A testament to his supposed love of the damned opera.

The eyes were last. They stayed empty blanks till suddenly a malevolent, glittering blackness filled them, and Morientes was smiling down at Raúl. “I promised you I’d come back.”

“Fernando,” Raúl said after a moment, thickly. His hand pressed against David’s calf, then slipped off as he sat up. “Fernando, you…you shouldn’t be here.”

“You’re dead,” David told the vampire. Its eyes went to him and his bones chilled, but he didn’t release his grip on Raúl. “You’re dead and gone, and you have no call on the living.”

The gentle curve of Morientes’ lips did nothing to mask the malice in his measured step forward. He moved silently, with an unnatural fluidity. “David. Ah, David, we never did have that dinner together. It’s a pity. I did find you amusing.”

“You didn’t do a damn thing. You’re not the man who gave me that invitation, and—and why am I bothering to talk to you? You’re nothing more than a corpse with an evil spirit in it.” David slowly pushed himself and Raúl back. It felt like moving his limbs through molasses, but then his heel slipped and the jarring of that broke his stare with Morientes. Broke the spell as well: in a flash David had yanked himself up onto his feet, and then was turning to take Raúl with him.

Except an iron grip closed about his throat. He struck out with his fists and then his foot, but Morientes simply swung David about and slapped him up against a bookcase, as casually as a cat would shake a rat to break its back. David didn’t know if his own spine had snapped, what with the way the world spun wildly from color to black to color again. And then the pain.

“I did not come back here to have any more come between us,” Fernando was saying. He’d dropped the silky, affectionate tone and was speaking with a cold voice that David had never heard the living man use. “No. I can’t. You’ve seen—they only get in the way. They’re jealous, they always were, and they’ve always asked this and that of you, leaving nothing behind. Well, I don’t have to stand for it now, and—and Raúl, Raúl, don’t you love me?”

David clutched at the fingers squeezing shut his throat. His heels clattered against something; he jerked them up onto the shelf and purchased a little support, a little air. “Doesn’t—matter—damn it, Raúl—he doesn’t love—you.”

“Oh, but I do.” Fernando turned back to David. He dropped his arm a bit, giving David some air, and then jerked David forward to take it away. Their noses brushed, and then Fernando tipped his head so his lips brushed along David’s jaw as he spoke. “I do. I love him so much better now, so much better now that I see what all that nonsense was between us. I was too respectful before, but no longer.” His fingers moved down so his mouth could touch David’s neck. “And it’s a pity, because I think you would have made—”

The prick at David’s flesh was there and then it wasn’t, and neither was the grip at David’s throat. He tumbled to the ground, wheezing and clutching at his neck, as someone shrieked in the background. The huge drafts of air he was taking in brought with them the smell of burnt flesh.

A hand seized his arm and he yanked the limb free, then looked up into Raúl’s eyes. Then he got himself up, his half-crushed throat be damned, and they fled to the other side of the room. The library had windows—David ripped at their bolts, throwing up the sash. But it was winter and the shutters were on; he cursed and jerked at them, listening to Raúl’s breath speed up more and more. The lever cut his hands.

“David—” Raúl hissed.

David turned around. Across the room, Fernando had risen and was slowly turning towards them, all pretense of humor gone from the vampire’s face. His eyes burned red, and as he took the hand from his cheek, he revealed that the flesh there was still smoking from where Raúl had pressed a cross into it.

“That’s enough,” Fernando said in a flat, hard voice.

The lever slipped under David’s hand, and he barely grabbed the sill in time to keep from falling out the window. Fernando blurred towards them, and in the same moment the library door burst open to reveal a ball of fire.

David slammed his hand down on Raúl’s shoulder. They dropped; Fernando didn’t. He leaped towards them, then twisted abruptly halfway across as something smashed into him. Then he flew over their heads, shouting in pain as the flames engulfed him. He went up like dry cotton, and David had to throw up an arm against the intense heat.

In the doorway, Figo lowered the crossbow. He stared at them, then nodded tightly and strode across the room to look out the window. After a long moment, he sighed. “Raúl, your rosebushes are on fire. You’d better call—oh, no, I see Casillas survived too, and still has his wits about him. Good man.”

“You are not,” David blurted out.

Figo glanced sharply at him, but before Figo could speak, Raúl did. He pushed himself shakily up, staring back and forth between them. “What…is he…”

“He’s at peace,” Figo said, sobering.

After a moment, Raúl looked out the window. He put his hands on the sill and bent his head, and when David stood, he could see that Raúl’s eyes were tightly shut.

“I think I’ll help Iker with that small fire of yours,” David remarked. He pulled at his clothes, then brusquely walked past the other men towards the door. “Since there’s no damn point in winning if you can’t go to bed afterward, and I’m certainly not walking home at this hour.”

* * *

“No, we can’t be absolutely certain, unfortunately. But all recorded cases have resolved themselves within two months of the vampire’s appearance, and it’s been three. So I do think you can breathe easily now,” Figo said. He sprawled back against the couch, one hand petting his dog, who had its head pillowed on his lap. Occasionally he adjusted the bandage on its foreleg. “We did recover quite a bit of ash from the garden. Of course a lot of it’s from the bushes, but still…I think it’s over.”

David exhaled. “Good.”

He didn’t hear anything from Raúl, and after another moment, the man got up and went out of the room without so much as a farewell to Figo. That certainly piqued Figo’s interest, but he didn’t call after Raúl.

“How’s Adrian?” David asked after a moment.

The dog stirred a little, turning its head to look at David. Figo wore a similar wary look. “He’s fine. He’s nearly healed, and the doctors think he’ll make a complete recovery.”

“That’s good.” David rubbed his hand over his right knee, then pushed down on the joint. Then he changed his mind about getting up. “You know, I don’t say this often, but I’ve had my fill of this sort of matter. It had better be over, because I don’t want to waste more of my time on it.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Figo said. He stared hard at David for another moment, then shrugged and got off the couch, his dog limping after him. It certainly did look healthy, its foreleg aside. “And I do believe we can all get on with our lives, and leave the dark to dark things, as things should be. Please give my respects to González. I’m afraid I have to go now—Adi’s about due for a meal.”

Whining, the dog nudged Figo’s leg, then looked up at him with something very like a smile as Figo opened the door. The two of them paused for a moment in the hall to speak to Casillas, then were moving on when the door shut on them.

David looked at the door. He absently pulled at his cravat, then took a step towards the hall. Then he pivoted sharply around, cursing beneath his breath, and stalked out the room’s other door, following Raúl’s footsteps.

He found the other man staring out a window at the back garden. It was still winter, but the sun was out and a single bird was chirping somewhere. It was all very cheerful, and very annoying. “Well, are you still sorry about it?” David demanded.

Raúl turned around, frowning. “Sorry?”

“It’s lovely that you decided some parody of your old relationship with him wasn’t worth another death, and even lovelier that you eventually did see my way on Valencia, but those are all pointless if you—oh, why do I bother.” Throwing up his hands, David turned about.

“David—”

David yanked his hands down and stopped where he was. He stared at the far wall, listening to Raúl’s steps come up behind him. Then he abruptly turned: Raúl was right behind him, and the man’s eyes didn’t have time to widen before David seized him, crushing their lips together.

Raúl’s hands went to David’s sides. They pressed in, then loosened. Then one arm went up around David’s neck, holding them together when David would have parted them for speech. The other man leaned hard on David, his mouth hungry, his lashes fluttering to just graze David’s eyelids, every bit of him wanting and alive.

“I’d lost a lot of blood,” Raúl said a little later, as they were haphazardly loosening their clothes. “And there was so much I’d let go, because I was so distracted, and then you left town because those idiots lost Silva—”

David winced and Raúl fell silent. Then Raúl’s fingers began to slide off David’s arm, and David had to grasp the man’s wrist to pull them back. In the process he managed to pull Raúl off his feet, and then they were on the floor, David unable to keep his hands from the flashes of olive skin that showed through the gaps of Raúl’s loosened cuffs, collar. He buried his head in Raúl’s throat, then winced again. But Raúl’s hands came down on his head, holding them there, and so he licked at Raúl’s neck and the man moaned, twisting under him, and David bore down harder with his mouth, no longer restrained.

He didn’t know why he’d held back in the first place. It wasn’t wrong, this—no matter of life or death, but simply life. His life, he lived the way he cared to and he cared to be here, and Raúl cared to have him. Him with his hands between the man’s lean thighs, with them twisted in Raúl’s hair as Raúl sucked the breath from David’s mouth. Then David’s mouth on Raúl’s throat again as he pressed his prick up the other man’s leg, into the other man, and this was not about anything that’d come before. It was about right now, and perhaps later.

No. It was about later. It damn well wasn’t about waiting, and David had been sick of that before he’d ever met Raúl. He was here and he wasn’t going away now that he was.

* * *

“He will be happier this way,” Fernando sighed, absently playing with the tight curtains on the coach windows. Then he shook his head and looked at the seat across from him. “I’m sorry. I do believe that, and eventually I’ll feel it as well, I suppose.”

“Just as long as you don’t feel the need to go back and be stupidly possessive again. Do you have any idea how confused I was? First I’m in a coffin, and then I’m hearing you screaming about being burned in my head.” David Silva thumbed over the next page in his guide to Germany. “Oh, we should go to this. It’s this mountain where they say every year, the Devil holds a sabbat at the top.”

Fernando frowned.

“I know, I know, we’ve nothing to do with the Devil. But it still sounds like fun,” David Silva mumbled. He glanced up, looking a little defensive. “This is the first time I’ve ever been out of the country. Can’t we?”

“All right,” Fernando sighed. “But it’ll be very boring, and I don’t think the Germans in that region are too tasty either.”

“So we’ll fatten up in Italy before we cross the Alps. I owe a couple people in Milan a visit anyway, for what they did to David two years ago.” Back to his page-turning, David Silva couldn’t help an excited little bounce in his seat. He was very young—and he always would be on the outside. On the inside, his levelheadedness and quick thinking already made Fernando wish he’d paid a little more attention to the man when he’d been alive. “Cheer up. In a few years David will have calmed down, and hopefully Figo will be somewhere else and we can explain things. I actually don’t think he’ll be too upset then, once you and he settle Raúl.”

“And you think it’ll be as simple as that? Wait a moment, I thought you loved David.”

David Silva lowered his book, but as exasperated as he looked, he still managed to reply in a mild tone. “I do. But honestly, I can’t say that I mind the idea of him and Raúl. Or him and you and Raúl. So long as I can at least watch.”

Fortunately, Fernando hadn’t eaten enough at the last stop to have enough blood to blush. “Silva.”

“Oh, I’m a vampire now, I don’t have to be all proper and pretend I didn’t think about that to get me through those boring tea parties,” David Silva said, waving a dismissive hand. “Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it either. I know you still have a little bit of a connection to Raúl.”

Fernando wisely didn’t answer.

They bumped along a few more yards before David Silva looked up. He put down his book and crossed the coach, then seated himself on Fernando’s lap, beaming in satisfaction as he began to finger Fernando’s cravat. “This is really going to be fun. Isn’t it, Fernando?”

After a moment, Fernando put his hands around David Silva’s waist. He snorted, then smiled, and pulled David Silva down just as the other vampire crooked his throat towards Fernando.

Chapter Text

When Luís arrived in the village, it was well into the afternoon and the mists still hadn’t burned off the thickly-wooded hills that surrounded the place. The sky was overcast as well, and he could barely make out the front door of the inn, only a few yards away from the coach. He started at the sudden emergence of the innkeeper and a servant; they seemed to drop from nowhere into the slashed mists. But soon afterward the whitish fog closed round again, and Luís found himself closing his eyes against its damp touch as he moved towards the inn.

It was a well-made, snug little place, with a roaring fire in the front room’s hearth that blew its welcome heat into Luís’ face. The floors were scrubbed clean and the rafters, if still rough-hewn, looked sturdy and gave off a pleasant scent of pine. Still provincial, of course, but altogether better than what Luís had been expecting.

He had just finished paying the innkeeper when a familiar figure ducked out of the kitchen, a broad smile on his face. Rui Costa was on Luís almost before Luís could raise his hands. “So you’ve found the city so boring, then! Well, I’m glad to have you, and hope this little mystery might be of some interest.”

“It’s not quite little these days, is it? We had a few farmers shout at us to turn around on the way out—something about cursed lands,” Luís said dryly, returning the man’s embrace. He held his breath till Rui had released him, then grimaced as his cramped ribs re-expanded. “And what’s going on out here is quite the talk of the town.”

Interestingly enough, Rui didn’t look very pleased at that. He stepped back, rubbing the side of his face and gazing over Luís’ shoulder. Then he sighed, raking the hair out of his eyes with one hand; he’d let his locks grow and become rather unruly since he’d taken up a regional outpost. “I can imagine. But as I said in my letter, I really think it’s something quite…”

“Mundane?”

“Different,” Rui firmly pronounced, flicking his eyes to Luís. There was an intervening moment before Rui’s usual good cheer again suffused his face, and he invited Luís to come down the street to his home for a hot dinner.

Luís had to temporarily decline, as he’d just seen his traveling chest being carried clumsily up the inn’s stairs. He did call over his shoulder that he’d be down as soon as he settled his things, and apparently accepting that, Rui wandered across the room to chat with a curious maid looking on at the hustle and bustle.

At the same time, another man emerged from the opposite side of the inn and crossed the room to stand by the door. It wasn’t the fashionable season for the region, and then given repellant nature of the recent reported terrors, Luís had expected to be the only guest at the inn. But presumably that was what the man was. He certainly didn’t look like a native, as they tended to be olive-skinned and dark-haired, with slight builds, and he was about as tall as Luís with extremely fair skin and light brown hair. He was well-off enough to afford Parisian-cut suits, but the casual way he and Rui nodded at each other signaled that he wasn’t entirely new to the area.

Oddly enough, he seemed more interested in the unloading of Luís’ luggage than in determining what was the cause of all the fuss, as he didn’t look once at Luís. Instead he looked out the door, preventing Luís from having any sense of the man’s face, and when Luís came back downstairs, the man had disappeared.

Rui was still there, of course, and immediately began to talk about the lovely venison they were having for dinner, which would have made questions about the stranger awkward. Besides, if he was a guest then sooner or later Luís would encounter him at the inn, and anyway Luís had more important interests to pursue than an ordinary mystery like that.

* * *

“Well, I can’t speak for some of the earlier ones, but I’ve personally inspected the last five carcasses to be discovered and I do believe there’s something to the wilder reports. The size of the bites is unusually large,” Rui said, half-mumbling through his meat. He ducked his head and drank some wine, then blinked a few times as he raised his head. Then he sighed. “No, not beyond the normal range of a wolf.”

Luís made a half-hearted attempt to stifle his smile as he tore off another piece of the excellent peasant-style bread Rui’s kitchen had provided. “I know you well enough to not doubt your judgment, Rui. If you say something’s unusual, then it’s unusual. But so far I haven’t heard anything that suggests this is the type of unusual that might interest me.”

“Would either of you like some more wine, sirs?” offered a footman.

Both of them declined, and then Rui sent the footman out of the room. He absently nibbled on a forkful of venison, watching the man shut the doors of the dining room behind him. Then he put down his fork and leaned forward, expression abruptly somber. “You’re not far off the mark. It all sounds like merely wolves coming down out of the mountains. Except that no one’s found any stools, and while tracks have been found, they invariably end after at most a hundred yards. No one’s heard any howling either.”

“Has anyone seen one?” Luís asked. He put down his own knife and fork, then wiped his mouth and hands on his napkin.

“Not from very close, which is why I suppose some of the farmers with the earliest kills said it was a tiger or a lion.”

Luís frowned as he tossed his napkin onto the table beside his plate. He and Rui had both spent enough time in the country to not make the error of thinking peasants and farmers were always uncultured fools. Ignorant of many things, yes, but in some respects they’d retained knowledge that city-dwellers lacked, and probably to the detriment of the townspeople. “They don’t know what a wolf looks like, even from—”

“They do, but this would be the unusual part,” Rui said, his lips lifting in a faintly teasing smile. “They know wolves, and they say this was unlike any wolf they’d ever seen. Much larger—though still not beyond what’s been reported out of the steppes—and strangely behaving. Too intelligent. It’s gotten into locked barns, and afterward the windows and doors have still been locked. Also it apparently has unnatural abilities.”

“As in it’s too quick for their guns?” Luís suggested.

He already knew that couldn’t be it, but it was part of the story-telling, the questions, and Rui did enjoy recounting a tale. Probably it was why he was so happy in the country, when he could’ve had his pick of Europe’s metropolises. “As in it seems to change before their eyes. One farmer said he had his gun on it and was firing when it suddenly reared up on its hindlegs and ran like a man.”

Rui allowed his words to hang in the air for a few minutes. He picked up his fork and finished off his venison, then reached for the cheeseboard and cut himself a nice wedge. His pleased ‘hmm’ upon consuming the first bit made Luís start, so loud did it seem.

“Only pigs?” Luís finally asked.

“Only pigs. It’s run at the sight of any humans. Although that doesn’t comfort the people about here—especially after it managed to kill a huge prize boar while a little girl was sleeping in the loft above. They’re afraid that it might graduate to them any day now.” The cheese was a bit runny and sent a trickle down the back of Rui’s hand, which he stopped with his tongue. Then, a little embarrassed, he exchanged that for his finger and more genteelly removed the cheese to his mouth. “But they’re too frightened to send out a hunting party. Not enough of them, and also they don’t think their weapons will be effective against a creature of the Devil.”

Snorting, Luís pushed back from the table. He got up and took his and Rui’s plates to the sideboard, then picked out clean ones so they could serve themselves dessert. “I suppose they’ve sent to the nearest bishop?”

“Yesterday?” Rui looked calmly back at Luís. “So you have about two weeks, I’d say.”

“Damn it, Rui,” Luís snapped. The plates tipped in his hands and he hurriedly tightened his grip on them. Then he looked at them.

By the time the plates had stopped clattering on the table, Rui was already out of his chair and calling for his coat. Then he clapped Luís on the shoulder with only the faintest look of apology in his eyes. “I did want to make sure you had a good hot meal first. It’s absolutely freezing at night here, and the farmhouse we’ll be going to is rather far out.”

“The forethought is appreciated.” Luís headed for the door, then paused, thinking of the various tools and instruments he’d left in his rooms. Then he shook his head, deciding against sending for them: it was rather late and he didn’t wish to create a commotion quite yet, and anyway, if time really was of the essence, then shaky firsthand observations were to be favored over studied second- or thirdhand ones.

Rui’s servant brought Luís an extra scarf and a heavier pair of gloves to replace his, which were made of the best calfskin but which admittedly were better suited to a night strolling down the main avenues, not tramping about the countryside. Then they were outside, and despite Luís’ many layers, the cold slapped him through his clothes. He was still inhaling in shock when Rui led around two horses.

After a look-over, Luís laid his hands on the reins to the shorter, stockier but altogether calmer one. “Thank you.”

The other man pursed his lips, then shook his head and laughed quietly as he soothed his flighty mount, which was nickering nervously and stamping its hooves. “That one’s mine. I only have the two right now.”

“I was wondering where Nuno was,” Luís remarked as he swung himself into the saddle. The horse shifted just as he was lowering himself, giving him a painful bump on the backside. It’d been a while since he’d ridden, as one of the benefits of having a prestigious foreign post was the carriage and Luís didn’t see any reason to let the trappings of his office gather dust. His country had spent a good deal of money on them, after all.

“Nuno’s in Florence.” Grunting, Rui finally got himself into the saddle. He exhaled sharply as his horse threw itself forward, but the little tantrum quickly petered out into a side-step and he gave the horse an absentminded pat on the neck. “Doing the Christmas shopping and readying the townhouse for the party season. He took the coach. I would have offered you his room, but a bad storm last week blew a tree branch through two of the windows and we’ve still not repaired everything.”

Luís grinned despite the cold, waving his misty breath away from his face. “Just as well. I don’t believe he’d appreciate my being anywhere near his wardrobe.”

Rui glanced over, then sighed as he flipped his reins to the other side of his horse’s neck. He led them out of the courtyard gate and down the village’s single paved street, apparently heading for the church at the north end.

“I take it he’s not so keen on tracking down unusual natural phenomena either?” Luís asked. He clucked at his horse, which was a bit of a plodder, to hurry up to Rui’s. “Still, I’m a bit surprised you let him go off on his own. You’re not nervous that he might…er…”

The back of Rui’s head bobbed complacently up and down. When their horses finally drew abreast of each other, Rui’s expression proved to be just as serene. “Luís, we’ve known each other for a long time and there’s no need to restrain yourself with me. Besides, I’m no fool. The fact that Nuno is four years younger than me, highly attractive company and very fond of the city’s delights would be somewhat worrying if I didn’t know very well that he would drop everything and come screaming back at the faintest rumor that I’m being improper with someone else.”

After a long moment, Luís rubbed his lip. He couldn’t half-feel it, he noted, and he gave it a bit of a slap as he raised his head, gazing down the street. Nearly all the houses had dark, tightly shuttered windows, although here and there he saw a brief glimmer of candlelight as some curious villager peeped out. “Really. Nuno?”

“You don’t spend nearly enough time with him. But I’m rather grateful for that. God knows what you two could get up to together,” Rui snorted. Then he leaned back and pointed to a distant hilltop, just visible through the thick fog. “That’s our destination. It’s a small olive farm, but they have a sideline in raising prize boars.”

“Well, then. I hate the cold, so let’s not dawdle in it,” Luís said, bracing himself.

As he was lifting his reins to slap them against his horse’s flank, he noticed one of the inn’s windows was open. It shut as they went by it, but he just glimpsed the stranger from earlier in it, and for a moment Luís almost thought the man’s eyes were glowing.

Probably a trick of the weak light and the mists, he thought. He put it from his mind as he followed Rui up the hill.

* * *

“I do have a theory, but I’ve not been able to test it yet so I think I’ll refrain from telling you about it till the night’s over,” Rui whispered. He blew softly on his hands, then rubbed them together as he looked over the edge of the loft.

They’d been sitting up here for about an hour and a half, judging by the glimpses of the moon Luís had through the clouds, with only a pair of shotguns for company. The farmer had offered them a lantern, but while the light would have been welcome, they might as well have stood around on the ground shouting at each other about folktales. At least the presence of the pigs and their plentiful manure below meant they didn’t lack in heat.

The smell, on the other hand…but then, they needed that as well to cover up their presence. Rui was fairly optimistic about the tactic, claiming that the wolf hadn’t proven to be totally invincible. He did know more about the immediate matter than Luís, but Luís had spent a good deal of his spare time studying certain…improper…texts in Toledo and the other old strongholds of sorcery and alchemy, and he was somewhat more dubious. Not to mention it seemed that the wolf, if it was as clever as Rui claimed, would do more than sniff the air a few times before it came inside.

They waited. The pigs kept up a constant low grunting and stomping below, so it wasn’t deathly silent, but nevertheless the air seemed to carry a certain repressive feeling. A little like—

--the pigs suddenly squealed sharply, then fell silent. One old boar in the corner barged his bulk against the side of his pen, rattling the boards. His hooves scraped against a rock or something of that nature. Rui and Luís looked at each other, and then Rui silently passed Luís one of the shotguns as he pivoted up from his seat onto his toes, betraying a nimbleness that Luís watched with quite a bit of envy. Long days sitting in marble chambers might be good for the career, but were rather less so for one’s physical abilities.

The other man put his hand down through the straw with only a modicum of rustling and leaned over the edge. He looked down for a moment, his brow furrowed, and then he turned away and crept softly towards the far end of the loft. Luís took a moment to glance down himself and found the pigs largely bunched by Rui’s end. He looked up into the inquiry of Rui’s raised brows, then silently sighed and gestured that it was all right. White teeth flashed back in a smile; they did know each other too well.

It wasn’t long before the pigs began shrieking and tramping about again, growing increasingly excited. Several began to knock into the walls, and hard enough to shake the whole shed, forcing Luís to catch at a rafter for support. He stifled a curse as he nearly dropped the shotgun, then looked over to find Rui grim-faced, with a similar white-knuckled grip on the sill of the window by him.

Neither of them noticed the wolf till one pig’s screech suddenly died in a soaring gurgle. And even though that sent them scrambling to the loft’s edge to peer anxiously about, all they saw was the blood arcing up from the pig’s torn throat as the other animals hysterically threw themselves about. Luís cursed again, without any restraint, then stiffened as Rui called out.

He looked just as Rui fired, causing Luís to look back at the other man without ever having seen what had made Rui act. The smoke from the shotgun blew up in an impenetrable screen around Rui. Below the thuds and screams increased even more, and then Luís thought he heard a kind of hiss in the middle of it.

Just as he was turning to look, the shed shuddered under a hard blow and Luís lost his balance. He fell heavily and his arm flopped out over thin air, and for a moment he thought he would go over the edge. But his other hand caught something in the straw for long enough for him to claw himself back, and then he threw up his head just in time to see a pair of piercing green eyes rise up behind Rui.

Luís flicked up the end of the shotgun through the straw and pulled the trigger. The recoil nearly sent him over the loft’s edge again and he had to drop the shotgun to keep from dropping into a pen of frightened pigs. It was quite uncertain for a moment, and Luís thought very seriously that if he’d wanted to die in that ignominious a manner, he would’ve stayed in Madrid and at least made his sacrifice for his country’s political future.

But a strong grip on his wrist pulled him back onto the safety of the loft. Breathing heavily in relief, Luís looked up into Rui’s excited face.

Then Rui dragged Luís across the loft and almost threw them both out an open window, jabbing excitedly with his free hand. “Look! Look!”

A dark shape was erratically slipping through the grass away from them, moving fast but hardly at full speed. But the pigs were too worked up for them to get down the ladder they’d used—Luís swore a third time, momentarily questioning his choice of interests. Then he squeezed out the window, keeping a tight grip on the sill with his hands. When he was at full stretch, he dropped to the ground.

It wasn’t unreasonably far, but the impact was jarring. By the time Luís got up again, he feared they’d lost it, but he looked up and Rui was still pointing. The other man threw down a shotgun before disappearing inside the barn.

The sensible thing would have been for Luís to wait for him, but Luís was…well, he was excited himself, and thinking less than sensibly. He took off across the field, forgetting that he was well into his thirties and hardly the sprinter he’d been in his youth.

Still, he was fast enough. Or they’d managed to wound the beast—the grass was lightly frosted, showing tracks quite clearly, and they showed the animal was heavily favoring one side. Then the tracks…vanished.

Luís came to a slightly slippery stop on the uneven terrain, then stared around himself. He was standing in the midst of a fenced-in clearing, probably where the pigs were allowed to browse in the autumn, and he had a clear view all around him up to the dense woods just behind the fence. The grass reached halfway up his shins but that was hardly enough to disguise a wolf, and yet he saw nothing.

He heard a rustle and whipped about barely in time to see a black shadow crest the grass right up against the fence, a bit like a whale breaching the sea’s surface. Then the area erupted with snarling and scraping noises, causing a nearby bush to shake violently. The commotion seemed to roll into the bush as Luís cautiously approached, shotgun raised, and some fluid pattered out onto the grass from it.

“Who’s there?” Luís shouted.

Everything went silent and still, so that Luís gradually became aware of Rui calling to him from behind. He kept a firm grip on his shotgun.

It served him well as something huge and black suddenly sprang out of the bush at him. Luís drew a quick bead, then attempted to shoot at what he presumed was its chest, but at the last moment the thing jerked away, as if it’d been hit by something else at exactly the same moment. It landed heavily about ten yards to Luís’ left, rolled up and then took an astounding leap over the fence and into the woods. By the time Luís ran up to the fence, it was gone.

Cursing, Luís turned around and began to hail to Rui, but something caught the corner of his eye. He looked down and lying half-under the bush was a man, clothes shredded and stained darkly, wide eyes fixed on Luís. The man from the inn, in fact.

The man’s mouth was a little open. He closed it and pursed his lips, then was saying something when Luís smartly hit him in the head with the butt of the shotgun. Then Luís dropped to his knees and dragged the man out from the bush. He’d just about checked him over when Rui arrived, breathless.

“Mutu?” Rui said, startled. He blinked at Luís’ sharp glance, then sighed and raked one hand through his hair. “Adrian Mutu. Just a rich traveler—I thought, anyway. He arrived about a week ago. He’s quite friendly—lent me a book of translated poems from his homeland.”

“Which is?”

Rui pulled his hand out of his hair, casting a regretful glance at Mutu. “Romania.”

“Huh.” Luís undid Mutu’s cravat and rolled the unconscious man onto his side, then bound his wrists together with the cravat. Then he took out a penknife and began cutting Mutu’s coat into strips to make bandages, careful to lift the salt-covered cloth away from the lacerations that covered the man. None of the man’s wounds by themselves were very serious, but taken together with the chilly air, they did pose a threat. “Fortunate that I brought my doctor’s kit. It’ll be awkward enough for you to talk the innkeeper into moving his things into my room.”

It took a moment for Rui to finish pursing his lips. He shifted the shotgun under his arm, then gazed back at the farmhouse as faint shouts began to reach them from that direction. “For me to talk to him?”

“Well, you know him,” Luís grunted, turning Mutu back over. Mutu’s torn shirt gaped open, showing a surprisingly smooth chest, and his hands and face were likewise fashionably clean-skinned. One piece of folklore that was apparently only that. “Rui, go do something about those farmers, would you? I’ll get him onto my horse.”

“I trust that you know what you’re doing,” Rui finally sighed. He picked up Luís’ shotgun and reloaded it, then went down to deal with the farmers.

* * *

In most respects, Mutu seemed like any other man. He didn’t have hair in unusual places or in unusual amounts, his fingers were tapered—rather elegantly, actually—and he stayed nicely unconscious while they got him back to the inn and into Luís’ room.

He did have one odd attribute. Unlike a normal person, who woke in fits and starts, he seemed to come immediately into full awareness. His eyes snapped open and he stared at the bloody suture-end Luís had just clipped off and lifted.

“If you move, you’ll rip one of the stitches and waste about three hours of work,” Luís told him. Fairly pleasantly, considering it’d been a long night and Luís’ own back was letting him know it appreciated the lack of attention even less than the abuse it’d taken.

Mutu didn’t move except for his eyes, which carefully moved about the room, taking in his surroundings. Then they returned to Luís and his lips compressed tightly as Luís lifted his ankle to put on a bandage. He relaxed slightly when he understood that that was all Luís intended to do; his eyes half-closed but they remained quite sharp under their long lashes. “I didn’t kill it.”

He spoke excellent Italian, with less of an accent than Luís had. Luís shrugged and gingerly worked the cotton strip around and under the manacles on Mutu’s ankles. “I have no way of knowing that.”

“You saw—” Mutu coughed down the name he’d been about to say “—you saw the other one run off.”

“So that just means there are two of you. Certainly it supports your case, but it’s hardly determinative,” Luís said. He tied off the bandage and stepped back to examine the other man. Then he turned about and was just dipping his hands into a bowl of water to wash them when he heard the creak of wood.

He turned back. Mutu strained at the chains that held him to the table for another moment before falling back, clearly exhausted and even more clearly unhappy. The man put his head between his chained hands and glowered at Luís over his arm. “I came here a week ago. You can ask the innkeeper. The deaths have been going on for a month.”

“And where were you before that? For all I know, you could have arrived much sooner, and merely not taken a room till a week ago.” Luís briskly washed and dried his hands, then picked up a pitcher of water. He poured out a glass, put down the pitcher, and then stood well clear of the table while setting the glass down besides Mutu. “You lost quite a bit of blood. You should have something to drink.”

“I didn’t kill them,” Mutu repeated, spitting out each word. He pushed himself up on his forearms. A pained grimace crossed his face, but despite that, there was something genuinely menacing about the way he arched his shoulders. “If you don’t let me go, I’m going to call for the—”

“—I can point out you appear to be a werewolf and given how worked up the populace is, I’m not entirely certain they’ll stop to check,” Luís said calmly.

Mutu froze, staring at Luís. His eyes swept back and forth over Luís’ face several times before he finally seemed to accept Luís’ point, and grudgingly began to lie back down. And then the glass suddenly flew over Luís’ shoulder.

Fortunately, it landed on the bed. After a moment, Luís went over and retrieved it, and took it back to the table. He filled it again, put that on the table, and began to tidy up. “That was pointless, seeing as I was going to offer you the bed.”

“Well—” Exhaling sharply, Mutu abruptly rolled over onto his back, pulling his manacled hands onto him as far as the chain would allow. He glared at the ceiling. “I’m not a werewolf. They’re just stories peasants tell to scare each other.”

“First you said I saw ‘the other one,’ who was definitely not another man, and now you want me to believe that. I think not,” Luís said. “Anyway, I shot something and it wasn’t human.”

Mutu turned his head, his eyes suddenly narrowing. “I don’t have any bullets in me. So how—”

“I loaded the shotgun with herbed salt. And washed plenty of it off you.”

An interesting succession of emotions went over Mutu’s face, starting with shock and rapidly progressing through dreadful comprehension, frantic thought and finally a kind of angry resignation. He moved restlessly on the table, then flinched at something. Then he looked at Luís again, pondering something in those slitted eyes. “So what do you want? You seem like you already know everything. Why not just kill me?”

“Because that seems a little medieval for a few pigs, however high a price at market they would’ve fetched, and because I don’t know everything. For instance, I don’t know about this other one,” Luís replied. He shut his doctor’s bag, then stood up and put his hands at the small of his back, stretching tired muscles. Then he went over to the table, just out of Mutu’s reach. “I also don’t know how good my doctoring is these days, as it’s been awhile. So it would be very thoughtful of you if you didn’t test it overmuch, and let me get you to the bed without a fuss.”

Mutu had turned onto his side at Luís’ approach, and now warily edged back when Luís slightly moved his hand. He looked Luís up and down, his gaze strangely slow to move, and the air palpably thickened between them. Then he pushed himself up on an arm, his head tipped a little to the side. “The bed?”

“I’m taking the couch,” Luís said dryly. He rubbed at the side of his face. “This is interesting. Can you do it at will, or is it a defensive reflex?”

The warm, prickling sensation abruptly vanished as Mutu dropped back into a crouch. “Do what?”

It was—somewhat more morning than night, Luís confirmed with a check at the mantelpiece clock. His patience was beginning to fray. “All right, you appear to be an intelligent man—”

“You said I was a werewolf,” Mutu stubbornly pointed out.

“I said—oh, for God’s sake, would you be sensible? You clearly have unusual abilities, which you displayed when I either caught you killing a pig or damn close to attacking my friend, and all in all I think I’ve been very fair about not hitting you in the head again,” Luís snapped. He saw, or thought he saw, Mutu move towards him and lost his temper a little.

Luckily he controlled it before nothing more happened than the room’s lights briefly dimming, but that was enough to make Mutu’s eyes widen. Luís opened his mouth to explain, then instead chose to sigh and roll back his head. He closed his eyes and massaged the back of his neck, counted to ten, and opened his eyes again.

Mutu was still staring at him, with a good deal more fear and almost no anger. “You know, it doesn’t normally come so easily to me,” Luís finally said. “Did you do that?”

“I didn’t do anything.” The way Mutu blurted the words, blinking rapidly, testified to his genuine shock. He looked at Luís a third time, then dropped his gaze to the table. His fingers moved in nervous little circles over the grain. “So you want to know about the other one? Is that all?”

“Well, no, I’m interested in you, too. In the sense that I’m interested in what you are, and whether you can explain to me what’s going on so that I can put a stop to it. Because I don’t particularly like a riled countryside myself,” Luís replied a bit quickly. He suppressed his grimace at the odd look Mutu gave him, then made himself pick up a spare shirt from the corner.

Then he offered it to Mutu at arm’s length, and after a long, thoughtful look at Luís, Mutu took it. He fluffed it in his hands a few times before arching his brows at Luís and prominently showing the cuffs on his wrists. “How am I supposed to put this on?”

“Before you woke up, I was going to propose I unchain you and we have a civilized discussion, but you’ve been rather touchy and I’m no longer convinced that that’s a wise idea.” Luís rubbed at his face again, grinding his fingertips into the corners of his eyes.

“You could keep my ankles chained if that’d make you more comfortable,” Mutu suggested. He appeared to be speaking seriously, but his gaze was causing that prickling sensation on Luís’ skin again. “I don’t think I could be that much of a danger to you that way.” His brows lifted again at Luís’ look, and then he glanced at his wrists. “I can see you’re not ignorant, all right? These have silver in them.”

After a long moment, Luís admitted no good alternatives were possible and reluctantly retrieved the keys. He kept himself as far from Mutu as possible while unlocking the manacles from the man’s wrists, then held onto the chain while Mutu eased himself into the shirt. It took a bit of maneuvering, apparently due to Mutu’s injuries, and Luís eventually averted his eyes so he was only watching the man from their corners.

“You’re more embarrassed when I’m awake and dressed than when I was unconscious and naked?” Mutu asked. This time his tone had a definite coyness to it. He fussed with his sleeves, then dropped his hands into his lap so their weight pulled the shirt till a wide patch of chest gaped through the deep collar. He fixed a very level look on Luís. “So you wanted me in bed, to talk?”

Luís pressed his lips together and silently held up the manacles. A faint shadow crossed Mutu’s face, but then he shrugged. He held out his hands and allowed Luís to fix the manacles back on him. Then Luís carelessly bent to undo the end of the chain that was wrapped about the table-leg, and before he could react, Mutu had pressed up against him, hands twisted in Luís’ shirt, face pressed into Luís’ neck.

“You want to know what I can do?” Mutu whispered, his breath warmly coasting over Luís’ skin. He leaned up into Luís, bending backward. “I can smell you. I can smell…you want to talk.”

“This is interesting,” Luís said after a moment, and then he whipped the chain free and in a quick moment, dragged Mutu off the table.

In another minute he had the man secured to the bed’s headboard, and was back at the table to finish his cleaning up. He heard an irritated noise behind him and ignored it. The groaning wood made him pause, but once he determined that no cracking was in the groan, he continued what he was doing.

“What the hell do you want to talk about?” Mutu finally snapped.

Luís deposited his doctor’s bag back in his traveling chest and turned around. He met the other man’s frustrated face, then walked into the adjoining washing room. “Actually, I’d like to get some rest. Then talk in the morning, over breakfast. And don’t make any noises, or I will hit you again.”

Mutu didn’t. Though when Luís came back out, Mutu’s expression made it clear that that was only due to the barest shreds of self-control. Those burning eyes followed him as he took off his shoes and laid down on the couch, and then he could still feel them, which by now he was certain was abnormal. Perhaps some sort of psychological ability—at any rate, it was testing on Luís’ nerves and he finally resorted to covering his head with the blanket. Then he got some sleep.

* * *

“The latches all showed little marks where someone had jimmied it. I hadn’t thought to look for those before—I was looking for claw-marks. I still have one more farm to check, but that should only take a half-hour.” Then Rui turned to go, but paused with his hand on his scarf. He smiled absently at the innkeeper, who was passing by their table. “You are extremely fortunate that Toldo is a close friend of mine, and what’s more, of a very phlegmatic nature.”

Luís sipped at his coffee. “He’s still a little upset, but he didn’t throw his breakfast tray at me like he did his water glass last night. Then again, I suppose I should go up and see if the carpet’s ruined.”

The other man merely sighed, and clapped Luís on the shoulder on his way out. After enjoying the peace and quiet a little longer, Luís picked up his cup and saucer, and went up the stairs to his room.

Mutu’s pique hadn’t kept him from cleaning off his plates, to the point that they looked freshly from the cupboard. Miraculously, they were also still on the tray, and that was still neatly sitting on the bed. Just behind it, Mutu was sitting with his legs straight out before him. His shirt was hiked up nearly to his hips, but he seemed uninterested in drawing attention to that. Instead he leaned back against the headboard, thin-lipped and narrow-eyed, and watched Luís remove the tray to a sideboard.

“You seem remarkably better compared to last night. Should I even have bothered putting in stitches?” Luís asked, noting the bruises on Mutu’s face. They’d gone from purplish-black to an ugly, but lighter, green.

Silence.

Luís drew up a chair by the bed and sat in it, then drank more coffee. “I see silver isn’t as fatal as has been reported, but it…has some sort of weakening effect?”

After a moment, Mutu deigned to turn his head towards Luís. Then he moved his shoulders dismissively and lifted his hands from his lap, examining their nails.

“I have to admit that right now, I’m fairly convinced you aren’t the killer. Last night a wolf attempted to attack a shepherd who was out late to retrieve a lost goat, well after we had gotten back here,” Luís said. He swirled the dregs of his coffee in his cup, watching Mutu’s head whip up. “So you are concerned about that.”

“He—it—” Then Mutu grimaced. He ducked his head and started to raise his hands, only to pause and look at them as the manacles clanked. Then he lifted them more slowly so he could rub his fingers over his face. “Is he hurt?”

Luís finished his coffee, then got up to set his cup and saucer down at the sideboard. Then he went back to his chair and sat back down, flipping his coat-tails out of the way.

“Oh, are you that kind?” Mutu said, tone biting. He tipped his head and pulled at his chains so they clinked. “That’s what you’re interested in? I was wondering who would bring silver-laced—”

“The shepherd’s fine. He was nearly home and his shouts brought out his family’s dogs, who apparently scared off the wolf.” Whatever effect the silver had, it wasn’t outwardly visible. All the dramatic gestures by the other man had given Luís a few glimpses of the skin beneath the manacles and it looked untouched. “Or not? You seem a little disbelieving.”

Also uncooperative again: Mutu simply stared back at Luís. His eyes were narrowed but the faintest hint of uncertainty could be detected in them, and that was confirmed by the way he shifted on the bed. He put his hands down, then absently twisted his fingers in the chain between the cuffs.

“I happen to have silver-laced chains because, as you pointed out last night, I’m not a fool. And my friend who sent for me isn’t a fool either,” Luís said after a moment. He put his hands up on the arms of the chair and drummed his fingers a bit against the wood, then leaned forward, his hands dropping between his knees. “With Rui Costa that’s merely his nature, but with me it happens to be due to a very unpleasant experience I had a few years ago in Barcelona. And several people close to me died in very painful ways before I stopped it, and even then, I never did get to the bottom of the matter.”

Mutu’s gaze flickered, and then he dropped it again. He rubbed the fingers of one hand over the back of the other, his mouth twisting and untwisting. Then he looked away at the window. His shoulders hunched a bit. “I’m sorry about your loss. But if you’re worried about a repeat, then you have the wrong one.”

“Wrong one?”

“Yes—” The other man grimaced, tucking his chin down to his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut, then exhaled tiredly and looked up. “All right. Yes. I—sometimes I run around on four legs, and have a lot of fur. It’s something that runs in a lot of families where I come from. But it’s not…we’re not any more dangerous than we are when we walk on two legs, all right?”

Luís couldn’t help a snort. “I happen to be a diplomat in the daytime, so I don’t consider men to be very harmless.”

“I meant—oh, never…” Frustration silenced the other man for a few seconds, but he drew a breath before Luís could speak again. “Anyway, I did only come a week ago. I’m here to find the other one, who’s been making all the trouble.”

“And then do what?” Luís asked.

Mutu closed his half-parted lips rather abruptly, looking hard at Luís. Once or twice he seemed on the verge of replying, but in the end he seemed to have made up his mind to be quiet, and merely shrugged. His shoulders stayed pulled defensively forward when they came down.

“Very well. I suppose I’ll have to find out on my own, then,” Luís said, putting his hands on his knees.

He paused when Mutu made a sharp, if aborted, move towards him. Almost as quickly Mutu retreated, but his hands went flat on the mattress instead of back in his lap, and he remained half-twisted over towards Luís. His head went down, then up and he finally dug out a few curt words. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“I’m not planning to kill him. Or her. We were shooting salt at both of you—”

“Oh, it’s fine if you kill him,” Mutu said, and then looked mightily regretful about the slip. Wincing, he slowly pushed himself back against the headboard. “But I don’t think you’ll…you’ll have a very hard time doing it, anyway.”

“Well, then help me.” Luís got to his feet and came over to the bed. “Answer my questions.”

The other man looked askance at him, then straightened up. And continued the movement with an absurd, eye-drawing slowness till he was lying on his stomach, supported by his arms. He pulled himself a few inches towards Luís, head tilted back so they didn’t break contact. “Just answer your questions?”

“Given that I’m perfectly happy to do the actual work…yes, just answer them. Although I’m not unchaining you till I’m satisfied with their substance,” Luís said, deliberately pacing his words. Tired as he was, he felt a twinge of amusement at the rapidity with which cunning gave way to sourness in Mutu’s eyes. “Well, you’ve hardly had a good record at that so far.”

“This hasn’t been a civilized discussion,” Mutu snapped. He pushed himself straight up on his arms, as if to throw himself back, but then abruptly dropped face-first into the mattress. His back rose and fell once before he rolled over onto his side, his eyes squeezed shut. He curled in on himself, pressing his hands up his side.

Some of the deepest lacerations had been there and Luís naturally took the cause to be that, and carelessly reached towards the other man. In an instant Mutu’s hands shot up and seized the sides of Luís’ coat, dragging him down onto the bed. Unnaturally hot breath gusted in Luís’ face and he instinctively ducked, driving his head into Mutu’s shoulder and thrusting up his arms between them to keep some intervening space. But his feet left the floor—Luís’ initial reaction was to jerk himself back, but that would have been too predictable, and likely what Mutu was counting on.

Instead Luís rolled with the man, and when the chains jerked Mutu back, Luís twisted himself from the other man’s grip. Then he whipped back and, before Mutu could rise up, fell on him. Luís pinned Mutu’s legs, then grabbed at the manacles digging into his chest and dragged them off to the side, forcing them into the mattress till he heard hissing.

“Sss—all right,” Mutu gasped. Then Luís slipped, accidentally driving his knee into some part of Mutu’s leg, and Mutu’s eyes widened. “All right! I’m not pretending—that hurts!”

Which honestly was not what Luís would have preferred to be doing, but caution made him hold on a few moments longer before he shifted back. Even then he made sure he was moving to a steadier position for himself, and a firmer grip on Mutu.

He was more or less lying on the other man, with Mutu turned onto his right side. All the struggling had pushed up the thin shirt Mutu wore and even though Luís was fully dressed, he had a sense of rather more than what was proper. He tried to focus on Mutu’s face as, still breathless, the other man twisted his head about to face him. “I want to know about the other werewolf,” Luís said. He paused, hearing his shortness of breath. “That’s all.”

They eyed each other, both catching up on their breath. Mutu recovered much faster, and Luís didn’t think it was entirely due to the other man’s…well, actually, he shouldn’t assume anything about Mutu, including the man’s apparent age.

“I thought you said you wanted to know about me,” Mutu eventually said. He sounded serious, but he was looking oddly at Luís. His legs flexed under Luís, then went slack so quickly that Luís was almost caught off-balance. “This still hurts.”

“I’m sorry about that.” Truthfully, Luís was. Not that his guilt outweighed his sense of self-preservation. “How much? You are healing faster, aren’t you?”

A flicker of annoyance went through Mutu’s eyes, and then something else, but at the same time Mutu turned his head to glance between them, preventing Luís from identifying the second emotion. “You know, there are much more comfortable ways we could be doing this.”

“I do, but frankly, the only entertainment I was planning on was solving this damn mystery once and for all. Even before I learned that you’re untrustworthy on top of being clever,” Luís remarked. His back, still protesting last night, was beginning to formulate a new complaint. After a bit of an internal debate, he risked settling slightly back, so his legs were lying across Mutu’s and not directly along them. “I spend most of my actual career dealing with those traits, and don’t care for them when I’m not in the office.”

“I’m not untrustworthy. I’m chained to a bed,” Mutu snorted. He put his head back on the mattress, looking narrowly at Luís. His lashes really were impressively long. “You don’t want to go after him by yourself.”

“I wouldn’t be.” And finally the urge to roll his eyes at Mutu’s transparently calculating look got the better of Luís. Of course in the middle of that, he felt the man shift and had to hurriedly press down on him again. “Look. I’d very much appreciate your help, but I—am not willing to force it out of you.”

Mutu raised his brows. “You’re just going to keep me tied up instead. If you’re going to do that, you might as well enjoy it.”

“Except I’d rather not,” Luís said. He sounded testy. He felt rather testy.

That was one thing they both seemed to agree upon, given the way Mutu snorted. Then Mutu shifted again, and it took a moment for Luís to realize that the man was moving…against him, which was an entirely different matter from in opposition to him. “All right, then you could at least make me enjoy it.”

“No, I—look, I don’t know why you have this impression that I’m going to press my advantage in that manner, but I’m not. I happen to have some morals, and I honestly, truly do just want to ask you questions about what you are,” Luís sighed, belatedly clamping down on his temper. He’d already lost his composure once, and he still hadn’t gotten off the damn bed. No point in worsening the situation.

The other man looked up at Luís for a long, considering moment, his lips pressed tightly together. Then Mutu abruptly jerked himself to the side; Luís’ weight kept him on Mutu, but it was a testament to Mutu’s raw strength that he still managed to twist onto his side, and with a disgusted sigh on top of that. “And you think that’s more moral. God, I think I’d prefer you taking advantage of me.”

“I have gotten that impression,” Luís dryly replied. After another moment, he carefully loosened his grip. Not enough to put him at risk, but certainly enough to garner Mutu’s attention. “Well, if you won’t be helpful, perhaps your colleague will—”

That brought Mutu round, and in a hurry. He nearly threw off Luís and didn’t seem to notice, so busy was he with violently shaking his head. And then he actually pulled Luís back down, fisting his hands in Luís’ shirt, staring up with wide, frightened eyes. “No. No. If you get that close, you kill him. You don’t—no, don’t even go out. I know him and you can’t deal with him—no. No—please, listen, don’t—please.”

One of Mutu’s fingers had caught part of Luís’ cravat and if the man had wanted to, he could’ve had a good chance of strangling Luís right there. As it was, Luís was feeling more than a little lightheaded when he’d finally forced down Mutu’s hands, and in an even less charitable mood than before. “I’ll take the warning, but if you’re not going to be cooperative, then I really don’t see what other option I have. He did give that shepherd a fright, and I don’t intend to let him give the next one even that much.”

Mutu didn’t immediately reply, and gradually Luís became aware that he’d ended up pushing them closer together, since this time he’d forced Mutu’s hands down over his head. Their noses actually were touching—had been touching, since Luís lifted his head the moment he noticed that. The slight movement made Mutu’s unblinking gaze finally shift from Luís’ face. Then Mutu looked at something on Luís’ shoulder, obviously considering something very seriously.

“I can tell you about me, but not about him,” Mutu muttered.

“Not good enough. Not that you haven’t been charming, but…” Luís shrugged and began to push himself up, careful to keep the other man pinned.

Mutu’s eyes snapped back to Luís. “You leave and I’ll scream till the whole inn comes running. I’m interested in how good you are at explaining things to people who aren’t tied down, actually.”

A long, irritated exhale eventually escaped from Luís’ lips. “You do have a point.”

* * *

Toldo cast a mild look at the roof, absently tugging at his apron. “Just how long has that loose shutter been thumping? Did it bother you last night?”

“Oh. Er, no…actually, that was an accident on my part. Please feel free to credit it to my bill,” Luís said, suppressing a sigh. After he’d finished knotting his scarf about his neck, he stepped out onto the porch where Rui was waiting. “If he hasn’t tried to transform yet, then I don’t think he will now, but I’ve seen human teeth chew through some remarkable materials. So I’d say we have fifteen minutes at most, and then I should go back up and check on things.”

Rui appeared to be having difficulty deciding on what expression to have. In the end, he settled for a rumple of his gloved hand over his face. “What did you use?”

“Spare towel and some rope. And I moved him into the tub because the pipes are stronger than the headboard. Hopefully he doesn’t cause some plumbing disaster, because I would enjoy a hot soak right now.” The cold hadn’t improved since the other day, but the mists had miraculously lifted. Although after a look about the place, Luís actually thought he preferred the fog, with the elegant, eerie cast it gave to an otherwise unremarkable countryside. “So how was your last trip?”

“In line with the others. Lever mark on the window. It’s still very impressive that they managed it with a shed of excited livestock awaiting them, but…” Shrugging, Rui crossed his arms over his chest. He rubbed his hands up and down his upper arms a few times, then looked at Luís. “I’m due to speak to the shepherd after lunch, and then I believe I have some village elders calling on me after that. They’re a little frustrated with the lack of aid from the city.”

Luís grimaced. Frankly, the villagers were better off without official intervention because they’d be forced to house and pay for it, and then more on top of that, and it was all but guaranteed by the Pope to be a disaster. A small, actually knowledgeable group would be far more efficient and far less oppressive. But he could understand their position, much as he was working somewhat against it. “Last night you said you had a theory about which farms would be hit.”

“I did. And it was spectacularly confirmed by the attack we witnessed, but then the shepherd steps out of the pattern and now I’m not sure again,” Rui said unhappily. He cast a concerned eye over the town’s main street, rubbing at the side of his neck. “There are two influential local families in the area.”

“And one has been spared?”

“No, actually, both have been hit. In exact alternation with each other, starting with some fairly worthless targets and working up in market value and prestige. Fortunately that became apparent very early, or you would have walked into a small war.” Rui pulled at his scarf, then failed to notice that its end had come untucked from his coat and was whipping in the light breeze. “I think I’m going to tell them to lay down a curfew till we have this in hand. Winter is well enough along so that I don’t think many will have urgent reasons to be out after dark. But it’s getting harder to keep them calm.”

Luís nodded in agreement. That did seem the best solution, but it was indeed only temporary. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The other man looked sharply at Luís, then abruptly coughed back whatever he’d been about to say. Instead Rui stared down the street again, brow furrowed with worry.

“Luís, I would appreciate it if you were careful,” Rui said, just as Luís was turning to go inside. The side of Rui’s mouth tipped up with faintly resigned humor. “Not that you aren’t always, but you have an unusual sense of what careful means, or so the villagers understand. They’re rather impressed with the fact that at least you’ve come out, and are willing to be so reckless. Of course I know you.”

“Indeed, you do. And do let me know in the morning how the esteemed elders have taken matters, would you?” Luís stepped over the threshold and back into the inn.

* * *

It was oddly quiet when Luís went back into his room. So much so that he crossed to the washing-room without bothering to take off his coat or scarf, only to breathe a sigh of relief when Mutu started up in the tub, blinking. Then Luís locked the door, and set about stripping himself off his bulky outer layers. Once he’d gotten rid of them and was able to move freely again, he went over and undid the gag from Mutu’s mouth.

The other man worked his jaw, grimacing, and draped his manacled hands over the edge of the tub. “I thought you were going out,” he said, an unmistakable trace of relief in his voice.

“I needed to go downstairs for a few minutes.” Luís flipped out the towel and examined it, but though it was damp with spit, no holes marred it. “But no, not for…it’s not night yet.”

“It’s not that we need that. Or the moon, if you’ve heard some nonsense about it.” Mutu stopped when Luís looked curiously at him, eyes wary. Then he sighed and leaned more over the tub’s edge. “But obviously people are going to notice a man changing into a wolf less at night.”

“Interesting. I was led to believe that it was very difficult and painful for you, and also quite a lengthy process,” Luís said. The room was very stuffy, even though he hadn’t lighted the fire in the hearth next door. It did have a window but on the side facing another house, if Luís remembered correctly, and he didn’t care to open it while Mutu still had that irked expression lurking in his eyes. “Oh, and does that mean you can control it?”

Speaking of irked, Mutu stared at Luís for so long that Luís finally moved away from the tub and went back into the other room, assuming that the other man was deploying silence as a tactic again. He retrieved a few things from his traveling chest, borrowed a candle from a wall-sconce, and carried it all back into the washing-room. After setting it down in a corner, well away from the tub, Luís stripped off his coat and began to roll up his sleeves.

“Not at first.” The manacles clinked as Mutu put his hands back inside the wash-tub, then scratched at the underside of his jaw. At one point his arms jerked inwards and a flicker of pain crossed his face, and he tried to hide it, which was a telling sign that he had actually felt something. Those bruises of his were fading, but Luís hadn’t looked at any of the cuts. “I think the whole moon story comes up because the first time usually comes during a full moon, when you’re—when you’re young, you know, everything else is changing. And you don’t have good control over it, but that comes later.”

Nodding, Luís hung his coat up on a wall-fixture. Then he picked up a bucket of water under the wash-basin and used the little water that remained in it to wash his hands. He’d have to remember to bring up more tonight, since he’d told Toldo to not let the servants into his room.

“It doesn’t…really hurt. Well, when no one’s hitting you with salt, and making it happen. It—I don’t know, I don’t think about it that much. You just…” Mutu shrugged, but in an illustrative and not a dismissive way. “You still think when you’re the other way, too. It’s not the same, because nothing’s the same, but…if I knew someone as I am now, I’ll still know them as a wolf.”

“So you preserve the higher orders of intelligence. But I take it your drives and desires change—I can’t imagine how you’d stand to kill pigs otherwise,” Luís said. He took a small towel off the shelf and flipped it over his shoulder, then dug out his doctor’s bag.

“Look, I didn’t kill the pigs,” Mutu snapped, offended again. He pushed himself back from the tub, glowering at Luís. “And you ate the house blood sausage this morning, I can smell that, so I don’t know why you—wait. What are you doing? Don’t—you don’t come any nearer.”

Luís stopped by the tub and looked down at the other man, who’d belatedly pressed himself up against the far wall, limbs drawn defensively inward. After a moment, he put down the things in his arms, then sat down on the tub’s rim. He took the towel off his shoulder and carefully unfolded it. “Good point about the sausage. I suppose teeth aren’t too far from some of the hacking I’ve seen from so-called butchers in the provinces.”

The concession didn’t seem to relax Mutu any, but only narrowed his eyes with confusion. He shifted once, to get his chained feet out from under him.

“I was going to look at your wounds,” Luís eventually said. “To see if you’re all right. We did have a bit of an argument earlier.”

Mutu blinked. Then he snorted, shaking his head. He looked at Luís for another second before abruptly but fluidly peeling himself from the tub’s wall, and rolling up onto his knees; he snorted again as Luís immediately shifted back a foot. His head came about level with Luís’ chest that way. “You are an odd, odd man. Well? You can look. You can do whatever you want.”

“Yes, but this isn’t the bed, and I don’t feel like doing in my back.” Either Mutu had caught a part of the shirt on something, or Luís hadn’t noticed he’d packed a ruined spare, because Mutu’s front down to the stomach showed through the gaping vee of the collar. The man’s looks were distracting, and even though Luís had asked for the Italian post to get away from that sort of trouble, he did wish he’d bothered to rustle up some in Milan. It might have taken the edge off. “Are you going to—”

The other man ducked his head and pulled in his arms, and smoothly flipped his shirt over his head. For a moment the billowing folds of the shirt obscured everything, but Mutu dealt with that with a few sharp jerks of his arms. Then he carefully bundled up the hanging shirt-tails between his forearms. He was looking at that, but his brows were distinctly arched as he inquired, “So does this do better?”

“You have a very good sense of smell even as a human, I take it,” Luís finally said. He fixed his eyes on a point on the wash-tub’s rim, somewhere just past Mutu’s pale, bare shoulder. Somewhere, despite all the local difficulties, Rui was laughing at Luís. “I do admit to finding you attractive, but I’m not here to…look, you’re not going to persuade me that way. You’re going to persuade me by—”

“Answering your questions and helping you catalogue all the little details about me so they can stick werewolves in some zoological chronicle somewhere. You made that point,” Mutu said acerbically. His arms moved up and it briefly seemed as if he was going to redress himself, but then he just sighed. He shuffled forward on his knees as far as the chain on his ankles would let him, then sat down with his shirt bundled up over his legs. “I’m not dense and you don’t have to keep repeating yourself. And if I can smell your lust, I can see that you can control it. You can’t blame me for wanting to make the best of a bad situation.”

Luís couldn’t help arching his own brows. The other man saw that but didn’t respond, and eventually Luís felt his nerves creeping up on him at the lack of action. So he bent over Mutu’s shoulder, pulling and poking gently at the bandages about the other man’s ribs. None of them looked stained or felt damp, so it seemed they’d avoided a pulled stitch.

“I wasn’t planning to write down anything you told me,” he said after a few minutes had passed in tense silence. Done with Mutu’s back, he put his fingers on the man’s shoulder just long enough to turn Mutu, and gain access to Mutu’s injured leg. “I am immoral that way, and would prefer to keep such knowledge to myself.”

“Why?” Mutu seemed unnaturally close to Luís’ ear, his breath tickling so much that at first Luís thought the man had touched him with a finger.

The leg seemed fine as well—and then Luís lost his balance on the slippery porcelain rim. He had his hand down and stopped his fall quite quickly, before he was in any real danger, but his hair brushed against something and then fingers closed around his arm. The lights momentarily flickered, and Mutu drew in a sharp breath, his fingers tightening on Luís.

Then they hastily loosened and Luís slowly sat up. He pulled his clothes into order, chewing on his lip, and then shrugged. That had been careless of him, but clearly he couldn’t deny it. “Well. That, for one. I don’t care to be so famous for making a discovery that people feel obliged to make discoveries about me.”

“If you have that, then why are you bothering with me?” Mutu asked. “Oh, and—I was just catching you. I wasn’t intending to be—to be argumentative again.”

Luís laughed before he could help himself at the look on Mutu’s face. It was undeserved, for the man did have understandable concerns, but something about how Mutu could open his eyes wide and set his shoulders back put Luís in mind of a dog caught making off with a half-plucked chicken. “I would’ve thought you of all people wouldn’t make the mistake of assuming it’s that simple. I have certain skills, which occasionally I use. If they were greater than that, I wouldn’t need to work.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but I hardly know anything about…” About halfway through it, Mutu realized what Luís’ true point was and his voice began to taper at that point. He grimaced, the color coming into his cheeks. “Oh, well…oh.”

“I really am here just to solve a problem for my friend, and to satisfy a few personal curiosities. Other than that, I don’t have any plans to probe any deeper,” Luís said. He made a slight, slow movement with his hands, giving Mutu warning, and then bent down to finish examining the other man.

When something touched his shoulder, he paused. Mutu pressed his fingers down a little more heavily, then shifted slowly upwards, both giving Luís a better view of his leg and resting more of his hands on Luís’ back. His body sagged a bit when Luís resumed feeling over the calf.

“It really would be a lot easier if you let me go, and let me deal with the…problem, and then we could have a discussion over dinner with some nice wine,” Mutu said almost meditatively. His fingertips dug slightly into Luís’ back, then smoothed out. Then they did it again, and while the first time could have been necessity, the second was definitely provocative. “Then you wouldn’t have this issue of wondering whether you’re being immoral or not.”

“I understand you don’t have that problem, but really, now.” Luís finished with his examination and pushed himself up, but Mutu’s fingers dragged around to his front, hooking his shirt so he was held down. He grabbed at the man’s arm, but that only dragged Mutu nearer, which was—something hot and wet grazed at the side of Luís’ jaw and he shoved Mutu back.

In the process he lost his own balance, and this time he slipped entirely off the tub’s rim. Fortunately it was on the room-side, and he managed to stagger onto his feet before wholly embarrassing himself, but it left Luís in a foul mood. The moment he was able to do so, he turned sharply on the other man and went to the corner, where his other things were. Then he pulled over a folding screen to shield himself from Mutu’s view; Mutu snapped something quite loudly in response, then rattled his chains till Luís had to look over, for fear that the man would crack the tub.

“It’s not even your business, what’s going on. You should leave well enough alone, or—”

“Or?” Luís asked roughly.

Mutu stopped, then shut his mouth so hard that his teeth clicked. He stared angrily at Luís, then pointedly turned away. Then he laid down, disappearing beneath the wash-tub’s rim.

“Very well,” Luís said, and went behind the screen.

* * *

Much to Luís’ surprise, Rui Costa called again just after dinner, as the last rays of light were disappearing over the horizon. They met in the front room, which thankfully was empty given the smell emanating from the tightly-wrapped jar Luís was carrying.

Rui made an effort not to wrinkle his nose, but finally succumbed to a sharp cough into his hand. He waved off Luís’ apology, then stepped nearer with obvious reluctance. “I thought you’d like to know…a shepherd reported an unnaturally large wolf watching him take in his sheep. It’s just a mile from the farm we were at last night, so possibly some unfinished business?”

“Ah, excellent. I wasn’t looking forward to wandering the countryside all night with this,” Luís said, indicating the jar with his chin. Then he shook his head, putting out his hand to stop the other man. “No, no need to come with me this time. I remember the way, and I think you’d be more useful here, wouldn’t you? The maid was talking about a watch when she brought up my dinner.”

“Yes, well, luckily I’ve convinced them that that’s a bad idea. For now.” From the look on Rui’s face, he also thought that Luís’ plan was similarly misguided, but he was too polite to voice such an opinion. He knew it wouldn’t do any good, anyway. “Will you be out all night? Have you made arrangements for…”

His eyes drifted upwards, and Luís couldn’t help a grimace that drew Rui’s keen eyes back to him. The other man rubbed the side of his jaw, then offered a sympathetic look as Luís sighed.

“We had a bit of a disagreement, and he prefers sulking. I can’t say that I object to the lack of noise, but…I think he’ll be fine,” Luís finally said.

“I was intending to stay up at any rate. I could do it just as well here as in my home.” Rui blinked, then hastily made a demurring gesture with his hand. “Oh, no, down here in the common room. Of course I’d be willing to wait upstairs if you think that that’d be better, but past experience suggests…”

Luís smiled in relief. “The common room would be an excellent idea. Thank you.”

“I’ll have the coffee waiting, shall I?” Rui added, turning out of Luís’ way. As Luís passed him, he put out his hand and squeezed Luís’ shoulder, and Luís briefly grasped the man’s wrist before pulling himself away.

* * *

It was colder this night than it had been the last, and that was saying something. The farmer had offered to let Luís wait inside his snug, infinitely tempting house, but Luís had reluctantly declined, then spent a half-hour smearing his afternoon’s work on the ground in a wide circle around the pig-shed. By the time he finally ducked into the shed to warm up, he could hardly feel a bit of himself.

The steaming warmth of the manure helped somewhat, but it was tedious waiting without any company, and the pigs seemed nervous already. It was too dark for Luís to see if the blood from last night had been mopped up, but he did notice that that pen was still empty.

He took up a perch in the loft again, with a shotgun over his legs and another one at his feet. The one in his lap had salt, but the one at his feet was loaded with buckshot; while he was bound and determined to get at the root of this mystery himself, he wasn’t so foolish as to ignore the very real concern Mutu had shown regarding the other werewolf.

Perhaps two hours later, the pigs began to run themselves against the walls again. They made the shed tremble enough so that Luís had to get to his feet. He’d made sure to stay clear of the windows, and had tied small bells to the latches to serve as crude alarms, but the shed was rocking so violently that he couldn’t determine whether one was ringing louder than the other. Then he saw a window on the bottom level explode inwards in a shower of splinters and glass.

Luís had the gun up and ready, but the blurry black shadow was moving too quickly for him to get a shot off. He fought down his nerves, tracking it as best he could as it leaped across the floor, then scrambled up the ladder to the other side of the loft. Then it turned towards him, and he fired.

He missed. Cursing, Luís snatched up the second shotgun, but he felt the wind over him shift abruptly and quickly slammed the shotgun over his head, like a bar. A tremendous weight hit it and knocked him over, and then he had steaming, fetid breath blowing in his face. Claws pricking through his trousers and coat. Teeth gnashed dangerously close to him, so close that he almost thought he’d lost his nose, but then the wolf imbalanced and fell off to the side, and Luís was able to throw himself off the loft.

Not on purpose, and fortunately he landed outside of the pig pens. But the landing itself was bad and jarred something in his side into burning, and then his ankle turned under him as he tried to get up. He cursed, looked up and saw teeth coming down at him.

Luís shot the thing again—a whitish spray went up and the shadow violently twisted mid-drop, falling a few yards away: he’d wasted the buckshot on the first shot, and that had been the salt. Choking down the pain, Luís got to his feet and swung his shotgun like a bat at the midriff of the shadowy figure that lunged up to confront him. But the thing danced away, and then Luís felt a hard blow on his hurt side. It drove him to his knees and before he could catch his breath, fingers closed around his neck.

A brilliant white light flooded the shed. Then it was dark again—somewhat so, since the after-lights danced in Luís’ eyes for quite a while as he leaned on his hands and knees, gasping for breath. Eventually he touched his side and felt warm blood there. Then he worked his ankle and was relieved to see that that still could operate. He wasn’t about to die, Luís realized, and promptly vomited.

As he wiped at his mouth with a shaky hand, he gradually distinguished another noise from the riotous squealing of the pigs: human shouts. He looked up, able to see again, and saw all the windows in the farmhouse ablaze with light. Luís grimaced and forced himself to his feet. He glimpsed the shotgun lying a few yards away and went towards it, then shook his head and instead stepped outside, searching the ground.

The night sky had stayed clear, and the moonlight shone plainly on a set of tracks leading away from the shed. Blood had dribbled between the…they were paw-prints. Luís cursed again, staring at the surrounding hills.

* * *

“I will tell you about it in the morning, Rui,” Luís firmly said, and just as firmly shut and locked the door in his friend’s face.

He didn’t like doing that, he thought, and for a moment things became rather blurry. Luís breathed slowly till his vision cleared, then gingerly turned around. He dropped the shotguns somewhere, then half-shrugged out of his coat as he staggered across the room. Then his side hurt, and also it seemed very warm so he concentrated on pulling off his scarf and gloves. He left those on the threshold of the washing-room.

“You went after him! I told you—oh, my God, what did he do? Oh—oh…”

“Good evening,” Luís said pleasantly to Mutu. He had to slump against the doorway to catch his breath; it’d taken nearly all his energy to pretend he wasn’t wounded and pass Rui’s sharp eye. “You know, it occurred to me that you seem to have unnatural resilience as well. You were the one who fell out of the window, weren’t you?”

Mutu blinked. It didn’t cause his eyes to be any less rounded.

Luís started to say something else, but forgot what it was. He shook his head, irritated, and pushed himself off the jamb. Somehow he ended up by the tub next, and then he was trying to push off Mutu’s hands. “It’s not that—I’m tired, damn it. It’s already stopped bleeding.”

“It’s not the blood, you—” Mutu continued in nonsense, or possibly some language Luís didn’t know. Such as Romanian. He was from there.

He continued to pull at Luís, chains clanking over his muttering, and at some point Luís was lying at the bottom of the tub and facing upward, and Mutu was pushing at his side. The man had very warm hands, very warm breath, and that odd prickling sensation had returned. Only it was all over when Mutu was looking intently at merely Luís’ side, and all in all, Luís thought, it rather felt like his skin was coming uncomfortably loose.

Luís didn’t much enjoy it. He put his hand over the side of the tub and pulled himself up, dislodging Mutu. But the other man got a handful of Luís’ clothes and clung to Luís, his toes digging at Luís’ shins. He smelled…of something. It wasn’t easily identifiable but that was oddly intriguing, and so then Luís had his face pressed into the man’s neck. Mutu gasped and twisted, throwing off more of the scent. He was still talking, back to Italian, saying something about…about…Luís dragged his nose along Mutu’s throat, trying to determine what the smell was, and Mutu’s skin caught his lip, turning it back so he inadvertently mouthed Mutu’s neck.

The man tasted like—Luís licked the spot, then clamped his mouth over it and sucked it, feeling his eyes roll at the deliciousness of it, sweet and delicate yet unutterably complex, so that one taste couldn’t discern all the nuances. He sucked again, absently pushing at Mutu when the man moved and threatened to thwart Luís’ quest.

Mutu stiffened, and some tiny, still logical part of Luís tried to reason with him. At first he ignored it, licking and sucking at Mutu’s neck, but Mutu’s nail scratched his cheek and distracted Luís enough to listen for a moment. He blinked, mind disordered, and lifted his head.

He looked down, and Mutu was gazing up at him with dark, dark eyes. Long lashes—they fluttered, and drew Luís’ eyes to the man’s lips, which pursed once as Mutu put his hands up around Luís’ face. Then the other man tugged downwards slightly and Luís pushed the rest of the way, and good God, but the man’s mouth tasted even better. Barely had Luís had a bit of it before he was forcing his tongue as deep as he could into it; Mutu squirmed, knees knocking into Luís’ ribs, which still—Luís grunted in pain and irritation, and shoved the other man harder against the tub.

In doing so, he accidentally half-strangled himself by pushing into the chain connecting Mutu’s wrist-manacles. The cough made Luís rear back, and he was so annoyed—he clawed indiscriminately at Mutu, pulling the man down, and then ducked to fasten his mouth on a bared shoulder that caught his eye. Mutu arched against him, manacles dragging down Luís’ back. His legs slid up either side of Luís, inviting Luís’ hands onto the long lean thighs, the round of the knees—cold iron. It was jarring, the metal chain after all the warm silken skin, and Luís ripped his mouth from Mutu’s shoulder just long enough to snap the words to unlock it.

Then he forced himself down again, pushing his mouth down the sharp jut of Mutu’s collarbone, over the little ripples of the breastbone. His boot-heel caught the chain and sent it spinning against the tub before Luís kicked himself free, running his hands up and down the inside of Mutu’s thighs. He thought he couldn’t make the man’s legs go any wider, and then Mutu slid down a few inches so the tub wasn’t closing him in, and spread further, and Luís’ hands naturally pressed up against the man’s groin, rolling over the prick, cupping the balls. His mouth crossed a nipple before he moved back up, unsatisfied with the weakness of the taste there. Better at the neck—he latched onto Mutu’s throat again as Mutu thrashed and whined, digging his knees into Luís’ shoulders, trying to—the man bucked hard, driving Luís’ teeth into his flesh, and a body-warm stickiness lashed over Luís’ hands.

Luís wiped his fingers up between the man’s legs, trying to get the stuff off, and a twist of Mutu’s body suddenly put the tip of his thumb inside the man. Then out as Mutu jerked back, arching as if he’d been touched by one of the new electric batteries, and Luís chewed at the man’s throat as he shoved his index finger inside Mutu. Two more fingers rapidly followed, to the sound of cloth ripping under Mutu’s scrabbling. Luís’ clothes loosened, then fell away and there was no obstacle to him as he pressed his prick up Mutu’s thigh.

The slippery porcelain forced them up the wall, so that Luís was braced on his knees as Mutu slumped over him, still shaking from before. It was too damned hard, and not hard enough; Luís finally pried a hand from Mutu’s hip to grasp the tub’s rim, and then he could keep himself from sliding even as he reached deepest in the other man. His teeth went back in Mutu’s teeth and Mutu’s arms wrapped around his head, encouraging that—Luís scraped his nails down Mutu’s thigh, causing the other man to whimper, and then fucked him till the tub rattled.

Mutu whipped against him, then slumped, pulling himself half-off Luís’ prick as Luís spilled himself in the other man. For a few moments they were still. Luís needed to catch his breath.

Then Luís pushed Mutu down to the bottom of the tub. The other man mumbled something, but that glided smoothly into a moan as Luís reseated his prick in him, and then he put up no protests.

* * *

The inside of Luís’ mouth tasted absolutely horrible, some stale coating on his tongue and the bitterness of regret under it. He blinked, then tried to lift his hands to rub the crusts out of his eyes. Something was lying on his arm.

After a few more blinks, he rid himself of enough crusts so that he could look about himself. He was in the bed, still fully dressed—although the state of his sleeve, which was right before his eyes, made that a dubious distinction. Then Luís looked at the shoulder tucked under his hand.

Mutu murmured sleepily, nuzzled the side of Luís’ jaw and fingered Luís’ chest—he was still manacled—and opened his eyes. At first he looked quite content, but that rapidly dropped away as he took in Luís’ expression. “I told you not to go after him.”

Luís opened his mouth. Then he shut it and yanked himself free, ignoring how that dumped Mutu nearly off the bed. He twisted around, only to find himself looking at the wrong side of the room. Then turned back in time for Mutu to seize his arm.

“Wait, I’m sorry,” Mutu blurted. Not the slightest hint of petulance tainted the anxiety in his eyes. “Wait, wait, let me—look, it wasn’t your fault. It’s the spit. If it gets in your blood, then it makes you—not act like yourself. If enough of it gets in you, you end up like one of us.”

“Not act like—then what was I acting like?” Luís snapped. A nauseating lurch in his gut made him clutch at his stomach. And then he remembered he’d already thrown up last night, but that hardly seemed to matter to his body. “What did—”

Mutu scrambled over the bed, his hands crawling up Luís’ arm to Luís’ shoulder, and then he looped his arms around Luís’ neck while Luís was looking at his shoulder. “It’s fine, I was fine with it.”

After a long moment, Luís looked the other man over, noting all the fresh bruises—particularly the deep one with the teeth-marks on Mutu’s neck. He grimaced, but forced himself to take Mutu by the waist and make the man sit down on his legs; Mutu couldn’t help a grimace and Luís swallowed hard.

The other man glanced down, then sighed. He tightened his fingers in Luís’ shredded collar. “Honestly? I’m not…sure. It wasn’t like other people act, but then you’re…you smell like yourself now, anyway. I think you worked it out of your blood.”

“Then what did I smell like last night?” Luís demanded. “What—”

“You know, not that you’re going to care, because you want everything to be the way you like it, but I liked it,” Mutu said sharply, looking up. He stared hard at Luís, presenting a determined jaw, then abruptly sagged as he glanced away in naked disappointment. “All right, the closest I can say is…you acted like us. And you’re going to say it’s immoral and not how to do things, but we have certain ways of asking for things that don’t look like asking, and you asked and I…well…”

“You liked it?”

Mutu looked quickly back at Luís. Then again, tipping back his head a bit as if that would give him a better view. “I gave you an answer, anyway.”

After a moment, Luís took one hand off the man’s waist and felt at his side. He frowned. “I think I healed.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Mutu said almost defensively. Then he stiffened as Luís put his hand back on the man’s waist. His lips parted a bit, then pressed together as he arched his brows.

“I wish you’d told me about this earlier,” Luís muttered.

“Well, I have no idea about why you’re different, so I don’t know how I could’ve known. And you didn’t ask anyway, and you’re so bent on your quest—”

His lashes fluttered beautifully when Mutu was startled. And his mouth…well, it didn’t taste like last night, didn’t have that feverish, unreal intoxication to it, but in the chilly air and weak light of morning, it still was sweet and clinging, and full of invitation.

The manacles pinched Luís through his shirt as they drew apart. He glanced at them, frowning—his stomach lurched a little—before muttering under his breath. Then he moved slightly back, letting them tumble out from between them.

“You know, I didn’t mind that, really,” Mutu said thoughtfully. He glanced up at Luís and a glint of amusement was sneaking into his eyes. “If your attitude had been better.”

Luís let go of him and got off the bed. He heard Mutu start to call after him, but he continued on into the washing-room. There he pulled aside the folding screen to show a map of the area spread out on the floor, pinned down with various small objects taken from around the room. A small piece of wood was moving slowly over the map of its own accord: it was cut in the shape of a pentagram, but its center had been cut out and replaced with a piece of glass.

A rustling at the door made Luís look up. Mutu had come up, a bedsheet carelessly slung about his waist. The other man paused uncertainly on the threshold, clutching his wrist and twisting his hand nervously about the joint.

“I liked the look of you when you first came,” Mutu said after a moment, quite softly. He stared at the floor. “I thought, if I hadn’t had business to see to, I would’ve liked to get to know you.”

“What I did last night—does that mean anything? Because I know something about wolves—”

“It could but if you don’t want it to, then you don’t have to take pity on me. I was listening, all right? You’re some great politician with lots of important things to do when you’re not running around the hills—”

Luís crossed the room while Mutu was still throwing up his hands, his eyes sparking angrily. He caught Mutu’s right hand, then used it to pull the other man forward. For a moment Mutu’s lips continued to move in speech against Luís’, but then Mutu put his arm over Luís’ shoulder. Then opened his mouth, and pressed his body up against Luís.

“I’m in Italy because I was in Madrid before, but I had a rather painful falling-out with Z—a man I used to be very close to. I had the idea that being alone for a while might be good for me,” Luís said, drawing back. He touched the side of Mutu’s face, then drew one fingertip lightly about the bruise on Mutu’s neck, watching how Mutu’s lashes trembled, how the pupil’s of Mutu’s eyes widened hungrily. “I don’t pity you.”

Mutu lowered his gaze, turning his head into Luís’ hand. His eyes half-closed as he caught Luís’ thumb with his lips. Then he let it go, sighing, absently rubbing his hands up and down Luís’ upper arms. “Maybe you should. I’m here—this other werewolf, he’s a…we have certain customs. He broke them, and fled, and I have the task of tracking him down and punishing him.”

“That does seem unpleasant—”

“Because if I don’t, then they’ll send someone to kill me. I broke rules too, and it’s only because I agreed to do this that they suspended that. And even if I succeed, I can’t—I can’t go back,” Mutu said in a low, pained rush. His eyes briefly rose to meet Luís’, then fell again.

When Luís cupped Mutu’s face, the man stiffened. Then he abruptly slumped forward; Luís instinctively grabbed at him, but Mutu wasn’t falling. He was, however, pressing his face hard into Luís’ shoulder, his hands coming up to grip at the backs of Luís’ shoulder. A hard shudder wracked Mutu’s body and Luís was rather glad he’d tightened his grip on the other man, after all.

He gave the man some time, and after a few more shakes, Mutu steadied himself. He lifted his head from Luís’ shoulder, breathing in deeply. Then he rubbed at his eye, and blinked hard afterward.

“How old are you?” Luís abruptly asked.

Mutu looked up at him, confused, but answered readily enough. “Twenty-six. Why?”

“Oh, it just occurred to me…” Luís grimaced and looked over Mutu’s shoulder, but his damn memory was failing him and he probably should know this “…what’s your name? I know your family—”

“Adrian,” Mut—Adrian said, his eyes narrowing slightly. He shifted his arms up to rest them more comfortably on Luís’ shoulders. “I know you’re Luís Figo. I talked to the innkeeper. You know, for someone who likes to know things, you tend not to ask the obvious questions.”

Luís looked at him. Then cupped his hand around Adrian’s buttock, pushing his fingers up into the cleft, and snorted as Adrian hissed and squirmed. “You’re extremely snide for someone who doesn’t know how he finally got me to bed him.”

“You—” Eyes flashing, Adrian yanked Luís’ head forward and soundly kissed him.

It started out as proving a point, but quickly segued into something less combative, more appreciative. For all his spirit—and Luís did enjoy that, despite his passing irritation—Adrian seemed willing to see the value in comfort and contentment, and wouldn’t cling to a principle simply for the sake of clinging to it. Which was relaxing and practical and…different. And what he would like, Luís decided.

* * *

“I suppose he didn’t get much of it on him, since the connection seems weak, but it’s enough for me to follow him with this.” Luís lifted the star-shaped planchette, then set that aside so he could spread out the map on the table. He pointed at the grease-pencil markings on it. “These are places where he’s stopped for more than a half-hour at a time.”

When Luís sat back, the other two men started to attention. Then Adrian half-heartedly stifled a wince, shifting restlessly in his seat. Probably his clothes didn’t help, for they were cut to the height of fashion and so the trousers were very slim and the coat tailored perfectly to his shoulders and waist, but given the way Rui kept eyeing him and then Luís, better some discomfort than the blatancy of a dressing-gown. “He keeps going right there. What’s that cluster?”

Rui finally pulled his curious, faintly amused gaze from Adrian to the map, and then his good humor immediately dropped away. He dropped his head to press his fingers against his mouth, then closed his eyes as he pressed the heel of one hand against his temple. “Well, I suppose that would be it.”

“Local conflict?” Luís suggested.

A low, unpleasant laugh came from Rui. Then he slumped back in his chair, still rubbing at his face. “Oh, if it was that simple…no, that’s the hunting lodge of a certain Italian from Turin, who’s been trying to buy out the landowners here. No, I’m wrong. It is so simple—it certainly makes sense of the pattern.”

“You mean—”

Rui glanced at Luís, who sighed and looked heavenward. Luís was acquainted with the man in question and disliked him quite a bit; in fact, he’d been working to thwart the man’s designs on the estates of certain Milanese friends almost since the moment he’d arrived in Italy.

“It’d be like him to agree to help out that sort of plan. For enough money.” Adrian leaned forward, steepling his fingers and staring at the map. His face was stony but his eyes were burning; he wasn’t referring to an Italian politician, Luís realized after a moment. “He tried to sell me to a rich man in London once, to go in some private zoo. His own kind.”

Obviously uncomfortable, Rui coughed low in his throat. Then he pushed himself up and out of his chair. “Well, right now the lodge is empty, or so I thought—anyway, as revolting as this is, I don’t think murdering politicians would be wise.”

“It’s more rewarding to assassinate them in debate anyway,” Luís remarked. He glanced at Adrian, then nodded to Rui.

The other man dutifully left the room, though not without a knowing look at Luís. He meant well, but Luís had to swallow hard before he turned to Adrian.

“Doesn’t mean him, does he?” Adrian said, nodding towards the map. “Because I don’t care about your politics. I’m here to kill him.”

“No, not him. Though I don’t think you should kill him.” Luís reached out just as Adrian reared up, catching the man’s arm and pinning it to the chair. “You’re not that old. You were on the losing end when I interrupted your fight, and I think your…sentence, they suspended it because they thought carrying this mission out would kill you, didn’t they?”

Two hot red spots appeared in Adrian’s cheeks, then faded as he repeatedly pursed his lips. He jerked his head down just as he would’ve spoken. Then he shook himself and looked up, trying to force his frustration to the forefront, but Luís had already seen the fear in his eyes.

“Look, this was my business in the first place, and—and I have to,” Adrian said, desperation suddenly flooding out the anger. He grabbed at Luís’ arm with his free hand, leaning over his chair-arm and staring pleadingly at Luís. “If I don’t, then they kill me. If you care about me—”

“Yes, well, I do.” And Luís snatched up the planchette from the table and smashed it into the side of Adrian’s head.

He caught the other man as Adrian slumped, then carefully pushed Adrian back in his seat. Then he got up and went to the door. Predictably enough, Rui was waiting outside, though he looked rather stunned upon seeing Adrian.

“He’s a hotheaded young fool and I’d rather not see that come to a bad end. So I’m going to need a fast coach—”

“Fortunately for you, Nuno came back this morning.” Rui glanced off to the side, briefly distracted. “And wasn’t happy at all that I’m mixed up in this monster chase, and is fussing, but anyway, he brought the coach. He can take Mutu back to Florence and have something to do.”

Luís raised his brows.

“You’re not that young now, but you’re rather foolish at times. And I’m fond of you,” Rui said, looking affectionately at Luís. Then he smiled, and the whiteness of his teeth made it rather sharp. “Those are my shotguns you keep borrowing, Luís.”

“All right, but if the consequences come down on you, I refuse to put up with Nuno’s temper.” Then Luís looked down at Adrian. He bit at the inside of his mouth, then allowed himself a quick touch to the man’s cheek. “All right, we need to move him now. He doesn’t stay out very long.”

* * *

The lodge was indeed empty, and was a poorer waiting place than the pig-shed had been, since it lacked any sense of warmth. There was the hearth, and some half-burned logs still stacked in it, but of course lighting a fire would have defeated the purpose of Luís and Rui hiding by the windows.

Someone had clearly been making their home in the lower parlor: it was free of the dust that coated everywhere else, and the sheets had been taken off the furniture. A small but expensive leather travelling-chest was in one corner, besides a pallet and a few boxes of foodstuffs. Dried blood tracked over the rug, marking out the prints of both man and wolf, and most disturbingly, a bloody shirt was draped over a chair.

They’d loaded the guns with pellets, and Luís had brought his revolver along as well. Rui had asked if they needed anything else, but Adrian hadn’t appeared to suffer any harmful effects from the chains, so Luís assumed silver merely kept werewolves from transforming. It certainly wasn’t necessary to kill one, provided enough force was used, and that Luís knew from firsthand experience.

Neither of them talked. It was no longer an interesting little mystery but a genuine menace with a potential scandal attached, and the prospect of dealing with the aftermath in government chambers and the drawing-rooms of high society kept Luís grimly silent. Of course Rui might be able to avoid that, given how happy he seemed in his country home, but that very happiness translated into a strong determination to keep the place safe. Luís still didn’t understand that, having looked thoroughly round the town, but he respected it.

It was a cloudy night again, so it was impossible to tell how much time had passed when they finally heard the scuff of a boot in the hall. Luís looked to Rui, who was already raising his shotgun.

The footsteps came up to the door, then stopped. A moment later, the doorknob began to turn. It clicked twice, and then the door slowly swung open.

Nothing was there. Both of them were too experienced to make any noises of surprise, or even to move right away, but Luís could sense Rui’s confusion. The other man stared hard at the empty doorway while Luís looked around.

A whitish fluttering caught Luís’ eye, and he turned further, till he was facing the window, whose curtains were moving a bit under a draft. Draft—Luís swore and lunged for Rui, dragging the man back from the window just as it shattered inwards. “He smelled us!”

“What?” Rui whipped around and leveled his gun at the broken window, but nothing came through it.

Then the window next to it broke, and as they turned towards that, a black blur leaped through the first one. Shouting, Rui swerved frantically out of the way, striking out at it with his shotgun. Then he continued to spin, sticking close to Luís’ side as they both tracked the beast about the room. But the werewolf was moving very quickly, and dodging behind pieces of furniture; it would have been hard to be sure of instant death with the first shot, and it wasn’t likely they’d have enough time to reload.

They’d spun nearly fully about when Rui suddenly stumbled, falling against Luís. Likely that was what the wolf had been waiting for, because it immediately whipped about and leaped at them. Rui didn’t have a chance at firing and sensibly dropped to the ground; Luís did get up his shotgun but as he was pulling the trigger, the beast somehow stretched enough to grasp the barrel. Its paw warped into fingers before Luís’ eyes, and slapped aside the shotgun so the blast only winged the beast’s side.

Then Luís was facing a man with a hairy muzzle full of sharp teeth. He threw up the shotgun to block the man’s punch and the fist dented the barrel. The force of it drove Luís back and he fell over Rui, who hadn’t been able to get away. Luís gave up on trying to resist and lunged down at the floor, trying to speed up his fall. He grunted at the heavy landing, then rolled as quick as he could to the side, mumbling. He shut his eyes.

Light flashed through the room, turning the backs of Luís’ eyelids violently red. He shoved his head down as he continued to scramble away, then opened his eyes when the light died away.

Across from him was Rui, and ten yards from both of them was Rui’s shotgun. The werewolf was nowhere in sight—Luís saw Rui’s eyes widen and swore, jerking himself around. He found himself facing a hulking form, half-animal and half-man, and it was smiling at him. “Once tricked, twice shy,” it rumbled at him in a grating voice.

Luís heard Rui inhale sharply, and then something struck him brutally hard on the face, sending him down to the floor. His head spun, and when he touched his cheek, he found blood there.

He looked up as the floor shook under the wolf’s landing. It had leaped between him and Rui, and as they watched, it sent the shotgun skittering out the door with a sharp kick. The—he was far larger than Adrian, with massive shoulders and burning red eyes. He carried a whiff of brimstone and sulfur with him, and suddenly Luís had a rather good idea of what rules the werewolf must have broken. Adrian called upon God’s name in vain like any other frustrated man, but somehow Luís thought that would be an impossibility for this werewolf.

The werewolf swayed between them, clearly saving the moment. Then it abruptly swiveled to face Luís, contemptuously turning its back on Rui. “You, sorcerer. You—”

The window was already broken, so there was no sound save for a slight whistling to warn them before another dark form crashed into the werewolf, toppling him over. The two bodies rolled apart, the smaller wolf rolling to its feet so it was between Luís and the larger one. They snarled at each other, and then the large one smashed forward into the small one’s forelegs just as it tried to leap onto the large wolf’s back.

Luís scrambled to his feet to get clear of the thrashing mass of fur and teeth, then looked wildly about till his eyes fell on the bloody shirt. He lunged for it and snatched it off the chair, hissing the necessary words under his breath as he hurried to the windowsill. His revolver was still there and he yanked it to him, then shot repeatedly through the shirt.

In the middle of the room, the wolves suddenly separated as the large one howled loudly, writhing in pain. The small one tried to jump back and crumpled, whimpering. Then it heavily lurched to its feet and awkwardly dragged itself clear on three legs. Swathes of blood stained the carpet.

The larger werewolf flopped onto its side, then was still. It had a trickle of blood running down its muzzle, and its eyes had shut.

“Is it dead?” Rui asked. He was on the other side of the room, by the hearth with poker in hand. Before Luís could reply, the other man took a step towards the fallen wolf. “What did you—”

Those red eyes snapped open, and as Luís was shouting a warning, the wolf whipped up at Rui. But then there was a bang, and the wolf fell, its skull bloodied.

White-faced, Nuno lowered the smoking shotgun. He looked at them all, then stalked into the room and over to Rui. After handing Rui the shotgun and taking the poker, he went up to werewolf. He lifted the poker, then looked to the left. “The heart?”

“Ah…yes, just…” Adrian, back in human form, was sitting on the floor with his arm cradled to his chest. He made a quick downwards gesture with his good hand, then grimaced and clutched at his arm again.

Nuno promptly stabbed the poker down into the wolf’s body. He met some resistance and grunted, stopping to brace his foot against the wolf’s side. Then he threw his weight down onto the poker, and it went down with a sickening wet crunch. For several moments Nuno remained bent over the poker, and Rui was lifting a concerned hand towards him when the other man straightened up. He looked disgustedly at the blood that had splattered his clothes, plucking at his shirt with a limp hand, then turned to glower at Rui. “You. You do not ever act like that again, or I swear, I’m going back to Lisbon.”

Rui gaped a bit, then attempted to gather his composure. His eyes were rather awed. “Er, Nuno…look, I was trying to explain before…I didn’t want you in danger.”

“Oh, yes, and this had nothing to do with wanting to run around the hills with Luís. Rui Manuel Costa! I’m not a damn flower! I’m a better shot than you, and just because I don’t like hunting doesn’t mean I can’t—”

“Nuno, I adore you,” Rui said, eyes shining.

That stopped up Nuno’s protests, though his mouth stayed open a little longer. He wrung his hands, then threw them up, and while Rui was stammering out an apology, flung himself onto Rui. Sensibly Rui shut up and returned the embrace, and soon the two of them were enthusiastically kissing, the carcass beside them notwithstanding.

Luís went up and lifted the werewolf’s head to check that it was indeed dead. Then he slowly made his way over to Adrian, who stared up at him with a tightly furious expression.

“You didn’t even ask me how to kill him,” Adrian said, voice trembling.

“I know, and I agree, that was stupid of me.” Luís sat down beside the other man. “Did you break your arm?”

Adrian glowered at him.

“I…look, I’ve been a bachelor for a long time. I’m used to acting by myself,” Luís sighed. He paused, head tilted, and then grimaced. “That’s a poor explanation, let alone excuses…Adrian, I’m sorry. I’m pigheaded sometimes. Are you all right?”

“I broke my arm,” Adrian replied after a long moment. He glanced down at the limb in question, then suddenly shuddered, breathing quickly out. Then he gratefully leaned his head onto Luís’ shoulder as Luís tucked an arm around him. “You idiot.”

Luís chuckled, carefully pulling Adrian’s shirt loose from his trousers. He ripped it up and fashioned a sling out of it, then kissed Adrian’s forehead as the other man tried to look up at him.

“I don’t care if you can do fancy things with shadows and light. If you hit me in the head again, I’m going to put dead rabbits in your bed.” Adrian pushed his head into Luís’ neck, then made a soft pleased sound as Luís rubbed soothingly at his shoulder. He sounded even more pleased when Luís moved his hand up to Adrian’s nape, scratching gently at it. “Also yes, we heal faster. Lucky for you, so I…I woke…wake up before…far out of…”

“Does this do something for you?” Luís frowned, tickling some more at the back of Adrian’s neck. He looked at the slack way the other man was leaning against him, then grinned as Adrian’s annoyed mutter quickly smoothed into a contented noise very like his wolf-whine. “It does, doesn’t it?”

Adrian ineffectually hit at Luís’ knee, grumbling, but it was more like a caress, so weak was it, and then Adrian did wrap his fingers over the kneecap. “Mmm. Warning you. Dead rabbits.”

“You’ll have to change the sheets. At least if you want to sleep in it,” Luís said, watching Rui try to pull Nuno’s hands out of his coat. “What if I hit you on the head and take you back with me to Milan?”

The scratching wasn’t completely effective: Adrian stiffened. Then he slowly raised his head, and while he succeeded at controlling his mouth, he couldn’t hide the hopeful affection in his eyes. “Wouldn’t it be a lot more enjoyable if I wasn’t unconscious?”

“I don’t know, sometimes it was more convenient that way, with your sharp tongue.”

Luís.”

“Ssssh,” Luís said, drawing his fingers slowly over the back of Adrian’s neck. He grinned at the mock-irritated look he received, then tucked Adrian into his side again. All in all, not a bad vacation. Not at all.

Chapter Text

Luís tried not to look at whatever had just run over his foot, and kept his coat tucked close around him as he picked his way through Pep’s workshop in order to avoid any…unpleasant close encounters. Oddly enough, given the standard idea of an inventor as an unorganized recluse, Pep kept his place in fanatically precise order and cleanliness—in fact, Luís had it directly from Pep’s outraged maid that the man rose before dawn to scrub and dust everything himself. And Pep had a great many interests that he pursued outside of the workshop, ranging from attending the opera to briskly exchanging political views in the coffeehouses to skirmishes before the courthouse on behalf of the needy with the city fathers. He was in all respects a perfect gentleman and an ornament to his society.

Unfortunately, Pep also had an incurable curiosity and even worse, an inability to simply let things rest at an explanation. No, he had to carry it home and take it apart, or make furtive sketches on his palm and then spend hours reconstructing the newest arc light or telegraph, or dissecting some rare specimen from abroad. It was all organized and never offensive, but…nevertheless Luís did wish the man would occasionally throw something away, or at least put it in storage. These days coming to see Pep was like trying to thread a camel—or a Portuguese man who took pride in keeping fit, but still was no willowy young thing—through a needle. Or a giant observatory filled with things that at the slightest touch might clank or hiss steam or say hello.

“Don’t touch that!” threaded through several stacks of coiled wire.

Luís eyed the circular metal disc on the worktable before him, which had just begun to emit whirring sounds. He put his hands in his pockets, then took them out and clasped them behind his back, standing well away. “Not likely, P—oh, Xavi. Good afternoon.”

The other man, who’d appeared to have melted directly out of the gramophone to Luís’ left, nodded and passed behind Luís. His sleeves were rolled up and he was using a rag to wipe off his hands, which were covered in a blackish substance that seemed a bit thicker than normal grease. “He’s in the back.”

“So perhaps I should wait in the front?” Luís asked lightly, eyeing the forbidding stacks of coiled wire and spare parts that intervened.

Xavi paused, considering the idea. As Luís understood matters, he’d originally been hired as a secretary to handle Pep’s voluminous social correspondence, but he seemed to have adjusted well to the more unorthodox role of draftsman and mechanic. He certainly presented an impressively nonplussed face in light of Pep’s meandering interests. “Probably. He knows you’re here.”

“Indeed.” Luís allowed the other man to go and turned around again, gazing about the extraordinary space. A generation ago it’d been a lovely conservatory and hothouse, famous for its winter roses, and it still did retain its glass roof. But these days the panes were thickly smoked on the inside from Pep’s experiments, and the green of the plants had been replaced with the grey and black of steel and iron of machines. The air constantly carried a faint acrid tinge, which Luís supposed was due to the gas lamps required to light the cavernous space.

A steady plinking, coming from presumably wherever Pep was, gradually reached Luís’ ears. He sighed and shifted his package under his arm, then grimaced as a sharp corner caught him in the ribs. But holding the bulky object before him was not any easier on Luís’ arms, so he put it back under his arm. He tapped his foot a few times, and ran one hand through his hair. The plinking was beginning to eat at his patience.

In the end, Luís gathered up his courage and plunged into the ironwork jungle. And nearly ran down Pep after the first pile before jarring his elbow into something as he hurriedly backed up.

Pep closed his eyes and grimaced at the horrendous clatter. Then he opened them, looked at something Luís determinedly wouldn’t, and finally shrugged one shoulder. “Well, that one wasn’t working anyway. You’ve saved me a few hours of disassembly.”

“You’re welcome. Are you busy right now?” Of course, Luís already had Pep by the arm and was pulling him carefully back through the room, so the man had no choice.

Being a gentleman, Pep merely arched his brows without comment. He also kindly helped Luís avoid something that spouted steam and appeared to have glowing eyes as they finally reached the door to the house. “That’s for a nephew who loves dogs. I think I might just get it to work before Christmas.”

“I’m certain he’ll adore it, tin ears and all,” Luís muttered under his breath. Once they were in the hall, he couldn’t help a sharp cough as the fresh, soot-free air hit his lungs. He coughed again into his hand, then noticed a streak of black dust on his coat and wiped it off. Then he saw the smears on Pep’s cheeks.

“Luís, I do have a wash-basin for this sort of thing,” Pep said mildly, after Luís had done his best to scrub the grease off with a now-ruined handkerchief. “And I know, it’s nowhere nearby but I’m sure you didn’t come by merely to act as my mother.”

“No, yet somehow I always…well, no. I came because I need your opinion on something.” Luís wrapped up the napkin with the marginally-cleaner parts on the outside, then thought the better of dirtying his pocket and instead pressed the cloth into Pep’s hand. Then he turned down the hall, walking slowly till the other man caught up to give him a bemused look that Luís ignored. “Can we go to your study, or…this will do.”

He pulled open the door of a nearby room, then held it open as Pep followed him inside. After dropping his package off on the table, Luís turned back to shut the door.

When he had dealt with that, he twisted about to find the package’s strings already undone and slipping off the table. Pep glanced up and mild chagrin crossed his face, but his fingers continued to pull at the brown paper wrapping.

“Some day you’re going to lose a finger to your enthusiasm,” Luís dryly remarked. He came up to the table and rested his palms on its top, watching Pep’s hands.

They did still briefly, but soon resumed their vigorous shredding of the paper. The right hand gave a little flick of the wrist to rid itself of a sliver of paper that had wrapped about one of its fingers. Then it pushed back under the last layer and peeled it back to reveal a small, blackish disk a little bigger than a man’s palm. After a moment, the left hand hesitantly levered up the side of the disk and stood it on end, twisting it this way and that as a little bit of soot dusted off it.

Luís raised his gaze to Pep’s arched brows. Then he shrugged and rubbed at his chin. “They found it in the kitchens at the Camp Nou, mixed in with the breakfast things.”

“What is it?”

“Well, they thought it was a crumpet at first,” Luís muttered. At Pep’s frown, he sighed and repeated himself more loudly, and then reminded himself that he had no reason to be embarrassed. Granted, Laudrup and Puyol were close friends but friendship hardly required Luís to take on their blushes. “It was a bit browner at that point.”

Humming more thoughtfully than the thing deserved, Pep picked the disk off the table and lifted it to eye-level. He poked a few times at it, then held it near his ear as he flicked his fingernail along the top, listening to the sounds it made. Then he set the disk down and, without wiping the black streaks from his fingers, pulled an oblong case bound in lovely morocco leather from his pocket. From it he produced an odd contraption of glass lenses and wires, which looked as if it was designed to gouge out eyes but actually fitted against his right eye, being held in place with a strap.

“It had some sort of covering, so it looked a little more like…anyway, someone spilled tea on it and according to Carles, it threw off sparks and made whirring sounds for a bit before suddenly spitting out a large cloud of smoke. Presumably that’s when it…er, died,” Luís added. He leaned his hip against the side of the table, warily watching Pep flick through lenses before finally settling on one. The device apparently was some sort of barrel-less telescope. “Nobody was hurt, but it gave the staff a bit of a fright.”

“Whose breakfast tray was it on?” Pep asked, bending down to examine the disk again. His nose wrinkled as a puff of dust rose off the disk towards it. He switched lenses, then twisted back to the first one as something apparently caught his attention.

Pep wasn’t wearing a coat or a vest, and Luís found himself rather taken in by the way the man’s shirt pulled taut against his back and shoulders. It took him a moment to realize he was being spoken to, and so he must have sounded more than a little distracted. “Cruyff’s.”

The other man cocked his head. Then he straightened up, his incredulous stare skewed by the magnifying lenses, which enlarged his one eye to comical proportions. “Johan? Why is there only you here?”

Luís blinked, surprised at Pep’s uncharacteristic rudeness. But then he understood, and covertly pinched the side of his leg to try and call his mind back to the matter at hand. “Because I believe everyone else is still crowded into his office, screaming about how it must be a Madrid conspiracy, and I was apparently the only one who thought it’d be useful to actually find out what this thing is before we start bandying about accusations.”

After another moment, Pep started to shake his head. A lopsided smile started to spread over his face; it was still disbelieving, but the look in his eyes was affectionate. “Good God, so instead of having a mob descend on me, I’ll have Johan storming after you for stealing this?”

“I didn’t steal it. It was, at the very least, abandoned and Cruyff didn’t announce he was claiming it, so I…optioned it, in a manner of speaking,” Luís said. Of course Pep didn’t believe a word of it, but he merely clapped Luís on the shoulder as he stooped to have a better look at the device. “Anyway, it’s now in your possession, not mine. Feel free to return it to Cruyff.”

“Luís,” Pep muttered, absentmindedly scolding. They both knew very well that now that Pep had it, even Cruyff wasn’t about to pry it from him. At least not till Pep knew its ins and outs and had built a working copy of it. “Well, let me take this back to the workshop and we’ll…Luís?” He had to make a clear effort to drag his eyes off the disk. “Or would you prefer I have Xavi take you to—”

Luís gazed at the clock in the corner. “—why, that’s very considerate of you. I think it would be a good idea for me to inquire about supper, and bring that up while you’re working. It’ll get me out of your way and allow you to start working on this as soon as possible.”

Naturally that hadn’t been what Pep had meant to suggest—probably Pep would have had Luís dine alone in one of the parlors, or be entertained by poor Xavi. But it was nearly seven and Luís knew Pep well enough to know the damned man hadn’t yet had his evening meal. He also wasn’t particularly interested in the mechanical arts and would be bored to death if he insisted on overseeing Pep’s work, but if left alone, Pep wouldn’t emerge from his workshop for the rest of the week.

Pep pursed his lips a few times, peering up at Luís through that ridiculous contraption on his head. Then he sighed and stood up, wrapping the disk back in its paper. “Very well.”

“I’ll make sure they add a decent bit of pork to yours,” Luís generously informed Pep. He laughed at the put-upon expression on the man’s face as he went out the door.

* * *

On his way back to the workshop, Luís happened to hear a carriage pulling up at the front door. He looked out a window just long enough to see the crest on it, then turned sharply about, only to find Xavi coming up behind him. The man startled Luís almost to the point of dropping the supper tray, but once Luís had calmed himself, he was glad to see Xavi. “Keep him busy and out of the workshop, would you?”

“Is it Carles?” Xavi obligingly backed out of Luís’ way, but a bit slowly. “Victor?”

“No, it’s Hierro. Hierro and—” Luís peeked between the curtains again “—I think he’s got Raúl González with him.”

The only reaction that Xavi showed was a twitch of his brows towards each other, and then a slight sigh as Luís encouragingly clapped him on the shoulder. With a thanks over the shoulder, Luís hurried down the hall and left Xavi to it.

Probably it wouldn’t be too much of a problem for the man. If Hierro was coming to Pep first, then he was concerned enough to want to curry favor with one of the few men known to be able to stand Cruyff’s thunderous moods. He’d not be interested in mauling poor Xavi, if indeed Xavi could be mauled—he was an unusually steady young man, from what Luís knew of him.

Luís had been hoping that Pep had been so intrigued he’d set to examining the disk as soon as possible, and would therefore be somewhere near the door. Unfortunately, when Luís stepped back into the workshop, he didn’t see the other man at all. Nor did he hear Pep, which meant…Luís sighed, paused to button his coat close to himself, and then determinedly plunged into the teetering, crowded labyrinth.

After more close brushes than he cared for and one bizarre encounter with what appeared to be a steam-powered, many-armed bottling machine, Luís finally emerged in a small space framed by great curving arches of steel. Upon closer inspection, he discovered that they had been hammered out of railroad rails. The effect was startling but oddly elegant in a spare, lean way, much like the man standing under them.

“Oh,” Pep said, twisting a screwdriver into the disk. The tip of the tool caught on something with a loud clink and he stopped, frowning down at his work-bench. Then he shrugged, pressed down on the handle, and with a soft pop, the disk’s top came off. “Did you eat already? You weren’t gone for that long.”

No, Luís hadn’t eaten, and his stomach was rather grumbling about it. “Yes, and you’ve a few visitors, so I hope you’ve made as much headway as it looks.”

Pep blinked. Then he put down the screwdriver and straightened up, absently wiping his hand across his jaw as he looked down at the various parts and tools strewn over the bench. His fingers left a dark dusty stripe on his skin. “Luís, I’ve only just—”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m not really interested in speaking to Hierro at the moment,” Luís added. He set the tray down, then picked up a napkin from it. After shaking it out and spreading it over the bench, he began to pile turnovers into its middle. Once or twice the piping-hot pastries burned his fingers and he had to stop to suck at them. “Or Raúl González, as fond as you are of him.”

“Hierro—” Then Pep’s eyes narrowed as a faint air of offense rose about him. “Luís, I’m not—there is nothing suspect in admiring an intelligent, albeit politically misguided, young man who is considerably less haughty than the gossips would have you think.”

Luís snorted, suppressing that slight pang with the reflex of long habit, and tied up the napkin’s corners about the turnovers. “And who has very lovely eyes with lashes as long and pretty as a doll’s. Yes, of course. Are you planning to just stand there and turn red, or would you care to scold me while I’m attempting to scale your back garden wall?”

The other man began to sputter, but almost as quickly stopped. He stood there, his hands angled towards his hips, eyes narrowed. Then they widened with a wry warmth as Pep shook his head, reaching for his tools. “Dear God, the garden wall? You can’t be serious.”

* * *

Cursing, Luís hobbled forward a few steps and then gave his left ankle a tentative shake. Then he turned around, hearing a slight whistling. He was just in time to see Pep land in what seemed to be an awkward position, and when instead of rising, Pep hunched lower, Luís bit the inside of his mouth.

But then the other man rose, clearly quite all right—better than all right, with the pointedly supple way he slipped by Luís. He shifted the strap of his bag so it was sitting more securely on his shoulder, peering about them. “Now where is—”

“There we are,” Luís said with great satisfaction as his carriage clattered round the corner and came down the narrow alley towards them. Xavi did know his business about such matters.

The coachman pulled it to a neat stop before them, then leaned down to swing open the door. The youth started when Luís’ hand got there first, but then Andrés pulled himself back onto the box, smiling shyly. “Sorry for the delay, Señor Figo. But your coachman was in the privy, and he told me to just go ahead and take the reins if you were in that much of a hurry—he’d find his own way back.”

“Not without an earful,” Luís muttered, pushing Pep towards the carriage. Once the other man was inside, Luís entered himself with a thankful nod towards Andrés. Then he pulled shut the door; the carriage was already moving again. Exhaling in relief, Luís plopped his bundle into his lap. He looked at it, then undid a corner and teased out a turnover, which he held before Pep till the other man reluctantly took it. “If I have to face a rant from Deco, then you’re going to have a decent meal at a decent hour.”

“I don’t quite see how the one relates to the other.” Though Pep still took the turnover, and after a cautious nibble, set upon it with such enthusiasm that Luís could barely retrieve a second before Pep had swallowed the last of it. He took that one with much less reluctance. “Deco? Why on earth is he acting as your coachman? Actually, why is he in Spain—”

“It’s a long story but the gist is that he doesn’t want to see Mourinho and I told him if he’s going to put me through that trouble, he can bother with a few chores here and there. Anyway, he’s one of the best drivers in Portugal.” Luís shrugged and took out a turnover for himself. “No, truly. He handles a six-horse rig in his spare time, and takes it down steep hill-sides he really shouldn’t be able to take it down. It’s his idea of a hobby.”

Pep looked at Luís for some time while he ate his second turnover, though Luís didn’t look to confirm the slight tingling in the side of his face. Then the other man shifted, the seat creaking under him, his arm bumping Luís’ side; he was leaving Deco for now, out of respect for Luís’ wishes. “As I think I mentioned inside, I haven’t had much time to look at it, but it’s quite a work of art.”

“The crumpet?”

“You know, I’m never going to be able to think of it as anything else now,” Pep said after a moment, tone mildly scolding. His eyes looked a sigh as he carefully wiped the butter from his mouth with his fingers, then cleaned those off with a napkin. “Yes, the—crumpet. The gears are remarkable.”

They went over a loose stone and the carriage bounced quite roughly, so that Pep fell into Luís for a moment. The man’s breath passed over Luís’ face, smelling warmly of butter and spice. Then Pep awkwardly pushed himself off and Luís just caught him by the arm before his flailing hand would have made things more uncomfortable by landing between Luís’ legs.

“Thank you,” Pep said, tucking his chin into his chest a bit. He steadied himself against the back of the seat before pushing up the crumpet package. “So anyway, it’s incredible workmanship. I’ve never seen that way of arranging the escapement, and—”

Even in the darkness of the coach, the excitement in Pep’s eyes was clearly visible. It lit up his whole face, allowing the full attractiveness of his animation to be seen as he went on about second wheels and jewels and Luís sighed. Sometimes he really wondered what he had done to find himself in such a position. “Pep. Pep. Josep.”

“Yes?” Irritated, Pep snapped his mouth shut into a tight line.

“What in God’s name does it do?” Luís asked.

The other man blinked. He looked down at the package cradled in his arms, then back up at Luís. Those lustrously dark eyes seemed to offer up the whole world in their depths.

“I have no idea,” Pep confessed. “Where are we going? Will it have somewhere where I can look at it a little more closely?”

Luís put his hand over his face. Really, what had he done?

* * *

“I had no idea you knew Fernando Morientes.” A slight wrinkle marred Pep’s brow as he gazed about at the fancy stonework that decorated the doorway. Then he hastily brought his head down and presented a polite smile as the door opened.

After the rather snooty butler had been pointedly informed of who they were, Morientes speedily appeared and invited them in, apologizing for his state of undress. Which was to say that he lacked a coat and cravat and his collar was undone, and had bits of shaving cream still stuck to his throat. If he hadn’t looked so nervous, Luís would have drawn his attention to the greasy spots that dotted Pep’s cravat and cuffs.

In all honesty, Morientes’ nerves were in their favor, for he hardly asked a question before obligingly ushering them into a backroom that contained a workbench with carpentry tools and what appeared to be a half-finished toy fox. Morientes blushed and hurriedly brushed the pieces into a box. “Christmas present for my niece.”

“It looked very nice. And these are really lovely chisels,” Pep said, fingering one. He glanced at Morientes, but then seemed to remember he already had a project and lifted the crumpet to the bench. Then he busied himself with unwrapping it.

Luís grimaced and quickly took Morientes by the arm before the other man could see what it was. These days Morientes was a bit out of favor with the Madrid old guard and wasn’t likely to be seeking favor with them while they were still fêting his replacement Raúl, hence why Luís had gone to his house, but he was young enough to still be indiscreet on occasion. And he certainly had a lively curiosity.

“Guardiola likes carpentry?” Morientes asked as Luís ushered them into the hall. “I always thought he was the type of gentleman who’d never have a speck of dust on his shoes.”

“He doesn’t. When he’s at church or in council, but he’s rather crazed about mechanics. I can’t believe you haven’t heard of—well, you only recently came back from Liverpool,” Luís replied. He dropped Morientes’ arm and reached behind himself, then pulled the door shut without turning around. “Speaking of that—”

It wasn’t strictly fair to bring up the subject, but it did draw Morientes’ attention away from the door. He winced, then snorted while looking darkly down the hall. “Failure. I think you’ve heard.”

“It was always intended that way, and I’m sorry the lot had to fall to you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be if I was you,” Morientes muttered. Then he smiled at Luís, and probably he meant it to be apologetic but the edge to it instead made him look ironic. “You didn’t tell Del Bosque to eat his mother’s shit.”

Luís rubbed at his mouth, then combed his fingers back through his hair. “Well, not in public, at any rate. I have confession this week, so I suppose I shouldn’t compound my sins by stretching that to cover my private moments.”

The other man looked sharply and a little incredulously at Luís, then let out a startled laugh. He absently ruffled his hair, then rolled back his shoulders. “Ah, well, I have returned, and none the worse for the English weather. And I take it I’ve come just in time for one of your rare public moments?”

He was far from a stupid man, was Morientes, and Luís had never contemplated telling him nothing. However, it was one thing to describe and another to explain. “It’s not public yet, and I rather hope it won’t be, hence why I’m somewhere I doubt Hierro will look.”

“Oh, you’re annoying him again.” Morientes grinned, then tried to cover it with his hand. “Actually, I thought I still respected Hierro. You’re an awful man with your subversions.”

“It’s hardly my fault that I throw wonderful parties that attract intelligent and interesting people,” Luís said mildly. He glanced over his shoulder, then reluctantly decided that he’d only be a hindrance if he went back inside. No doubt Pep was already immersed in the workings of the crumpet. “Anyway, how was England? Honestly?”

“It was…wait, I think a bit of brandy would be appropriate. At least for me,” Morientes said, half-turning. “Come on to the parlor.”

* * *

At some point, Morientes decided that scratching at the dried foam on his throat was too irritating and went upstairs to finish his shaving. He left Luís to preoccupy himself with the dregs of a second glass of brandy and a contraption from England that blew animal-shaped soap bubbles. At least as far as Luís could ascertain, which mainly consisted of poking cautiously at various bulges in the object till something happened.

“Luís, I’ve—” Pep stopped, then leaned against the doorway, not bothering to hide his amusement. “Luís. What are you doing?”

Luís jerked back his hand, then cursed as his knee simultaneously slid forward and hit the edge of the table, jarring it so the things on it rattled. He twisted around, rubbing at what promised to be a sizable bruise on his knee. “Pardon?”

The amusement slowly faded from Pep’s face. He put his hand on his hip, and then crossed his arms over his chest as he sighed. “Luís, is that brandy?”

“It was,” Luís said after a glance at the glasses on the table. The empty glasses. “So how goes the experimenting?”

“I didn’t think I was that long at it.” Which was about as close as Pep ever got to a reprimand with Luís—of course that was much closer than Pep got to any sort of actual comprehension. The man could be frustratingly dense about certain subjects. “Well, the crumpet’s quite complicated and actually I think it may be only a cog in a larger machine. I’ve not been able to figure out what that machine—oh, don’t have another damn drink, Luís. I did figure out one thing.”

Expectant, Luís raised his brows.

“The jewels in the mechanism are extremely well-made. To the point that only two people in Spain of whom I know could have done them, and I know I didn’t.” Pep spoke matter-of-factly. He wasn’t preening but reasoning out his line of thought for Luís’ benefit. “So I expect we should pay a visit to Ludo.”

“Assuming that it was made in Spain,” Luís had to point out. Then he sighed and pushed himself out of his seat. “I realize you know more about this than I do, but—”

“The gears were made here. I recognize the style, so I expect the rest of it was as well,” Pep said, voice clipped. Then he grimaced. He looked briefly down before turning to Luís with one hand out. “My apologies, it was a valid point and I didn’t address it. I didn’t mean to be so curt.”

Luís paused to gauge his state, then decided that faint sense of detachment would wear off before it could do any harm. He was not a lightweight by any measure, but he hadn’t meant to have that second glass, except that Pep could be terribly exasperating at times without ever noticing and of course, Luís would never tell him so. Not when the man could turn around and look so earnestly concerned about losing Luís’ good faith over such a little thing. “No matter, I’m just not much in the mood to see Giuly.”

“I thought you liked Giuly.”

“I do, but not when I’ve got to ask for his professional opinion,” Luís said, starting to go into the hall. Then he paused again. “Damn. We’ll have to borrow Morientes’ coach. I sent yours back so it wouldn’t attract attention.”

“Borrow my coach to see Giuly?” Morientes came down the stairs, clean-shaven and pristinely dressed, yet with a slightly off-kilter air. Perhaps it was the bravura tilt of his head, or the somewhat loosened way he was currently moving. “I’ll drive you myself. I haven’t seen him yet, and he’s always good for a piece of gossip.”

Which was exactly why Luís didn’t want to see him. But if they had to—and one look at Pep said they did, then Luís supposed they had to, and he’d simply have to spend the rest of the week ferreting out baseless rumors. Well, he hadn’t wanted to see this week’s play anyway. He had little taste for Macbeth’s lack of guts beyond the props anyway, and Del Piero simply would not understand he wasn’t suited to tragedy.

* * *

As usual, Giuly was delighted to see them. It took a full ten minutes for him to let them inside, and by then they’d learned all about Thuram’s dressing-down of the bishop and Gutí’s latest affair, and Luís was well on his way to breaking a few teeth. He’d seen Giuly pat Pep at least three times on the small of the back and once nearly on the hip, and he was rather sure that that had little to do with their relative heights.

“So let me take a look at this gadget you have then,” Giuly finally said, kicking at something. Then he airily waved a hand as something whooshed overhead. “Oh, watch out.”

Once it was close enough for them to see the sparking white arcs in its interior, Luís had to pull Pep to safety, and even then the other man was straining to look at the machine. Pep nudged it with the crumpet package, then grinned as the thing retreated like a wary animal back up the wire down which it’d rolled. “Lovely.”

“It’s more convenient than searching through all that for what I need.” Giuly gestured over his shoulder at the rest of the room, which was as crowded as Pep’s workshop—but not nearly as organized—with odds and ends and dangerous hissing things. Then he pulled a pair of pliers out of the thing on the wire, which apparently was a mobile toolbox, and pointed out a tiny scrap of bare desk.

Morientes coughed at Luís’ elbow, then half-stifled a yelp as something clanked next to them. He stepped back nearly into Luís as they both warily eyed the whirling, whistling cylinder before them.

“As I was about to say, I think I’m going to pay my respects to Giuly’s cook,” Morientes remarked. “I imagine she decides what does and does not move of its own accord in her kitchen.”

Luís looked a moment longer at the cylinder, then glanced to the desk. The heads bent so closely together pricked an irrational irritation to life in his chest, but by now he was accustomed to shaking that off, and did. “Excellent idea. She’s not the same one he had when you went away, but her duck is just as good.”

Nodding, Morientes gestured a bit grandly for Luís to precede him, and then followed Luís out into the hall. There they stopped, a bit thrown by the sudden movement of what had appeared to be a suit of armor in the corner but was actually some sort of mechanical coat-rack. Well, perhaps it’d started life as a suit of armor; it still had the halberd. At any rate, it seemed to be harmless so Luís started around it towards the kitchen.

“So you and Guardiola are still friendly?” Morientes stumbled a little, and his tone was carelessly surprised. “I didn’t think you were known for your patience.”

Young annoying idiots, Luís thought. “We are good friends, if that wasn’t obvious from my bringing him along.”

The other man recovered his step and slowly straightened, blinking. He’d only had the one glass of brandy, so his behavior was rather odd. “Forgive me if I was impolite just now. Before you came—”

Someone rapped at the door. Morientes apparently didn’t hear and continued to ramble, but Luís stiffened. Out of pure instinct at first, and then reason, because Giuly had mentioned in passing that he’d not have answered the door for anyone else, since he’d been about to go out for a rendezvous. Presumably that wasn’t the unnamed lover come to demand a reckoning for the missed meeting, since Giuly normally didn’t care for that sort of companion.

Luís took one step towards the door, then looked up as a series of clangs began. He watched in growing dismay as wires pulled and levers flipped all the way down to a pulley attached to…the front door.

Just as that began to open, Luís dodged between the suit-of-armor coat-rack and the wall. It was rather a tight fit and he couldn’t help brushing something that moved—Luís froze.

“Excuse me,” said a familiar voice. There was an uncertain pause before Raúl continued. “Ah. Good evening. I…”

Fortunately the spindly arm stopped almost immediately and nothing else moved, which allowed Luís to let out a silent sigh of relief. Then he lifted his head, peering through a triangular frame made of various iron bars, and saw Raúl staring quite hard at something, his right hand hovering in the air with uncharacteristic indecisiveness.

Luís twisted his head a little and followed Raúl’s gaze to Morientes, who swung towards the door with a grace so casual it bordered on lurching. “Oh, hello. I don’t believe we’ve ever met, which is a pity.”

Raúl blinked. He was very young but normally he had a good deal more self-possession. “Er. No. I don’t remember you. I…Raúl Gonzál—”

“Oh, good God, you’re Raúl?” Morientes planted his feet and stretched out his arm so he could grip the doorway to the right of Raúl, partly boxing in the other man against the other side of the doorway. “Fernando Morientes Sánchez. I can’t believe how short you are.”

Then Morientes winced, shutting his mouth with a sharp click. Oddly enough, Raúl didn’t seem to notice the insult, but instead continued to stare up at Morientes as if he…he…by the Virgin, Luís slowly realized, but that was hopelessly dumbstruck love in Raúl’s eyes.

“I mean, you’re not what I expected,” Morientes eventually said, sounding defeated.

That time, Raúl started. He ducked his head and raised his hand to his hair, but abruptly jerked it instead to his cravat, tugging awkwardly at it as he flushed. “Ah, I’m very pleased to meet you, given…your accomplishments—I’m sorry, but I’m actually here to ask after Señor Giuly, and I’m sorry I don’t have—have time to—properly make your acquaintance—”

“But I think we are.” Morientes’ tone had brightened considerably. He shifted his stance so it was less…aggressive in the hostile sense. “Making acquaintances, at least. As for the ‘proper’ part, I have to apologize for my rudeness, and beg your patience for an attempt to…”

Luís was torn between amused exasperation—Morientes had had another drink while he’d been upstairs shaving, clearly, and the man was a flowery drunk—and guilty pleasure, since all joking aside, he had been disturbed by Pep’s recent expressions of admiration for Raúl. Perhaps he had no chance, but he was hardly saint enough to reconcile himself to the idea of someone else having one, much less some upstart from Madrid who still looked like he plied a razor to his cheeks only once a week.

Of course, then Luís remembered that they were trying to avoid Raúl, and he needed to remove Pep and the crumpet from the house as soon as possible. And he promptly began to sneak across the hall, only to knock into the damned suit of armor. He grimaced at the clatter and jerked back to have his elbow painfully stopped by the wall.

Something gleaming caught the corner of Luís’ eye: the halberd. He cursed and twisted about so it just missed him. The blade continued on towards the wall and then across it, leaving a long scratch in the wallpaper as Luís hastily put several yards between himself and the armor. Just what in God’s name had Giuly been trying to accomplish with that damned thing? Protecting hats from their owners?

“Excuse me, that’ll do,” Morientes said, abruptly shoving past Luís. The other man seized the handle of the halberd, stopping it mid-swing, then pulled it free of the armor’s gauntlets. He blinked as several of the rods protruding from the armor began to spin wildly, steam issuing from their joints, then shrugged and turned on his heel.

That was highly inconsiderate of him, and ineffective as well if he thought he was doing Luís a fav—Luís closed his mouth, which had been about to inform Morientes of his failings. He turned fully around so he could better take in the sight of Raúl backed up against the front door, which was barely shut as—as metal claws skittered about the edges. The wood groaned and creaked on its hinges, and then Raúl hissed in alarm as a panel splintered inwards under one claw, mere inches from his shoulder. He bravely remained to keep his weight against the door, but lost no time in leaping away once Morientes had thrust the halberd crosswise through certain metal attachments on either side of the doorway.

“I believe I missed something,” Luís finally said.

Raúl yelped again, turning wide startled eyes on Luís; he clearly hadn’t realized Luís was there. Then he glanced uncertainly up at Morientes, who’d taken him by the arm and was dragging him towards Luís.

“Giant mechanical spider,” Morientes said succinctly. The slight floridness to his face had vanished, and his demeanor was briskly composing itself over its former shock. “Does Giuly—”

The door suddenly cracked thunderously in half. Before the splinters had fallen to the ground, long thin metal rods were probing through the hole. They were hinged at two points and ended in claws—they did look enormously like huge spider legs, and while the remains of the door prevented Luís from having a full view, the body that the legs were battering against the doorway did appear to be bulbous.

The left half of the door gave way and the body lurched fully through, only to be smashed into the floor by what appeared to be a…very large sword. Luís hadn’t previously noticed it hanging above the door, what with all the other wires and pulleys nestling in the cramped space, but he presumed that the sword had come from there.

“Oh, he does,” Morientes remarked. “And he does loves his parables, doesn’t Ludo?”

“Morientes, may I suggest you leave the literary criticism for later and—”

At first it appeared that the sword had fully demolished the spider—and it had, but something else was moving in the darkness beyond the doorway. Something that hissed and clanked, and then stretched through the smashed door a metal leg that seemed inordinately spindly compared to the thick menace that surrounded it. In context the faint shouts that reached Luís’ ears seemed of absolutely no consequence.

Except—he frowned, straining his hearing. “Is that Italian?”

“Figo!” someone half-gasped, half-shouted in Luís’ ear.

He winced, then began to turn, but by then Pep had seized his arm and they were lunging back into Giuly’s workshop. The door caught on Luís’ heel and made him stumble into Pep, who all but crushed Luís’ shoulders as he pressed Luís against him. Time had slowed, as it generally did when matters became inflammatory, but nevertheless it seemed to take a little long for Pep to release Luís.

Of course, that could be a mere sign of how far Luís’ fancy had progressed towards madness, and at any rate, that was very unhelpful in dealing with their present situation. Shaking his head, Luís straightened up and took stock.

He found himself in the midst of a beehive of activity both human and mechanical: Pep and Morientes were tipping a large, apparently heavy chest against the door while Giuly hopped and scrambled about the room, picking up this and pulling that as a wide-eyed Raúl watched. Other objects moved of their own accord, wires whined noisily overhead—a trapdoor suddenly swung open, causing all but Giuly to look sharply up at it.

Then they looked to the side, at the door where something had just given it a house-rattling thump. Raúl shivered, then gave himself a hard shake. “They’ve very hard to stop. One of them broke Salgado’s arm, or so the wire from Madrid said.”

“Salgado?” Pep asked distractedly. Then he remembered whatever it was and lunged across the room to start haphazardly piling together the remains of the crumpet into a cloth.

Fortunately Raúl seemed far too rattled to pay much attention to that. “Yes, Sal—Señor Guardiola, listen, I have to reassure you that Madrid had nothing to do with this. In fact—”

“Well, if you’ve got spiders breaking into your house, then I suppose I have to believe you,” Pep muttered, knotting the cloth’s corners together. Then he slung the makeshift bag over his head and came over to stand by Raúl, looking up the ladder that hung from the trapdoor. “Is that why you were by earlier?”

“Yes! Yes, exactly that,” Raúl said in an overly-relieved voice. “We wanted to make sure that you knew we had nothing to do with it, and in fact strongly condemn it all, and also to alert you to the fact that we may have a mutual—ah!”

“Sorry.” Though Morientes didn’t pause as he bundled Raúl onto the ladder. He grabbed onto Raúl’s thigh to steady the other man till Raúl had a handhold, then…held onto the leg as he tugged the end of the ladder down till it was just grazing the floor. Then he pushed Raúl, who was still trying to get out some complicated bit of factional politicking, up into the dark space beyond the ladder. “Watch your—oh, watch your head.”

Giuly appeared beside Luís’ shoulder. “Figo, I highly suggest you follow their lead.”

“But what about your house?” Pep said.

The spider threw itself against the door again and they all winced at the sound of cracking wood. Something small and metal was pressed into Luís’ hand: a key. He looked at it, then at Giuly with the wickedly arched brows over determined, knowing eyes.

“The right pedal is for lift, the left is for engine-power. Remember to use the stabilizers,” Giuly said.

“What?” Pep blinked.

About to echo that sentiment, Luís shut his mouth sharply as a horrendous smashing sound arose behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, then swore and took Pep by the arm, flinging him at the ladder.

Pep resisted, but a well-timed kick from Giuly took Pep’s feet out from under him and allowed Luís to force them up the ladder. Then the ladder began to shudder and Luís instinctively stilled, clutching at the sides. He looked down and Giuly, inexplicably still on the floor, waved furiously at them. “Go! Go! Don’t wreck it! It’s the true love of my life!”

The ladder was retracting into the ceiling. Too late, Luís understood what Giuly was going to do. So did Pep, and the other man swore and twisted, but Luís was not about to let the man go back downstairs. Not with—Luís winced and turned away as he heard the door below give way.

“Luís, you bastard—” Pep struck at Luís’ shoulder, then seized the same place and squeezed it hard as the ladder lifted the rest of the way into the ceiling. He sucked in a hard, shaking breath.

Luís didn’t apologize. Nor did he keep Pep back when the other man fought free before the ladder had fully stopped, yanking himself away as if he couldn’t bear to touch Luís. He did have to take a quick, aching breath, but then he looked around.

Sitting in the middle of the attic was a squat-bodied machine with long, thin metallic…wings extending from it. The whole thing looked rather like a steel bumblebee—Luís glanced down, at the floor shaking under the spider’s onslaught, and for a moment he regretted not retrieving Giuly simply so he could smack the man for having a highly inappropriate sense of humor.

But then he thought more sensibly, and hurried over to the flying machine. The driver’s seat was fairly obvious and after he’d seated himself in it, it only took a minute to find the keyhole. Once the key had been twisted, the machine growled to life, shuddering and clattering.

“Oh, dear God. I’m not getting in that,” Raúl blurted. He looked wildly around, then pointed repeatedly at the roof over them. “How are we—”

With a creaking screech, a huge crack appeared in the roof. As it continued to widen, revealing a beautiful star-studded night sky, Morientes casually wandered up next to Raúl. The man had a small rectangular box with buttons on it in one hand; wires connected the box to bigger boxes attached to various places in the attic. “I think this one is for launching,” Morientes said, and pressed something.

The flying machine abruptly lurched up at a sharp angle, throwing Luís back into his seat. His hand caught something and he gripped desperately at it, only for the rod to abruptly shift, revealing itself to be a lever. The hum of the machine’s engine suddenly became a roar.

“Put that down and get in here,” Pep snarled, abruptly appearing in the seat by Luís. He was talking to Morientes, who obligingly dropped the control box and picked Raúl up off his feet, much to the other man’s clear dismay. Then Pep turned to Luís; there was still a tenseness about his mouth, but the set of his shoulders and the firmness of his gaze said he was willing to wait till they were out of the current crisis. “Can you drive this thing?”

“I have no idea,” Luís said. He was rather cramped in his seat as well, and as he tried to adjust himself, his foot slipped down to hit a pedal.

The machine surged forward, caught on something—giving Morientes and Raúl just enough time to finish clambering into the backseat—and then they hurtled up into the sky at a blinding speed. There was no time to do anything but hold on for dear life.

Then they reached the apex of their arc, and the whole city was spread out before them. The moon wasn’t full but no clouds barred its light and so buildings rose up like ghostly apparitions between pieces of velvety-black land, long dark ropes of streets and roads. Everything seemed toy-like, unreal.

“Beautiful,” breathed Pep. And then, much more sharply: “Luís, we’re fall—”

Luís started, then cursed as he surveying the unfamiliar controls before him. They were falling, with that sickening earthwards tug just becoming apparent, and he couldn’t remember what Giuly had said about stabilizers and pedals and love, and—Luís snarled and just seized the first levers that presented themselves.

He did it half-right: the machine’s nose jerked upwards, pulling them from their dive into a fierce swoop, but then the thing tilted dangerously left. Still cursing Giuly’s taste for drama over sense, Luís pushed and pulled levers till the machine tipped the other way. Too far—he yanked and twisted, and finally hit upon a combination that kept the machine reasonably level.

It’d only taken a few seconds, a minute at the most, but it left Luís panting for breath. He was sweating hard as well, but the—he only then noticed the stiff breeze in his face, which was skinning away the sweat almost as quickly as it came up. “Thank the Virgin. I think I can fly this thing.”

A moan came from the back. Luís looked over his shoulder, but only saw a sheepish Morientes. Then Morientes tightened his arm around…he had Raúl clinging to his side, with the man’s head hidden in Morientes’ coat. “It’s really quite nice,” Morientes said, placating. He rubbed at Raúl’s back. “And we’re not falling any more. Are you sure you don’t want to look?”

Raúl mumbled, his hand becoming briefly visible as it pushed over Morientes’ chest. Then it disappeared beneath Morientes’ vest. “No. I mean, yes, I know I don’t want to see. Just tell me—tell me when we’re on the ground again.”

Well, Morientes hadn’t wasted a moment, Luís thought with some admiration. But then he glimpsed Pep’s expression and all such flimsy thoughts vanished.

Can you land it?” Pep asked. The edge to his voice almost seemed to be daring Luís.

Instead of immediately replying, Luís braced his feet against the floor to ensure he wouldn’t lose his balance, then leaned over the front of the plane. It took him a moment to orient himself, but after that he was reasonably able to plan out a route.

“I think I’ll try for a park,” Luís said.

* * *

It was touch and go, and a right miracle that Raúl didn’t choke on Morientes’ coat with all his whimpering, but Luís managed to set the flying machine down on a small hill-top. The wings clipped off a few tree branches and looked rather ragged by the end, but overall Luís thought he’d managed to preserve the machine very well.

Pep swung himself out of his seat before the dust had settled, and stalked off a few yards to a tree stump. He looked at it, kicked it, and then his shoulders slumped.

Half-up himself, Morientes curiously watched. “What…”

Raúl made a soft, nauseated noise, prompting Morientes to turn back to him while Luís got the crumpet from the front seat and got out of the flying machine. He took his time going up to Pep, but didn’t try to disguise his approach.

“So G—” Pep stiffened, then put one hand up to the side of his face as he turned around “—so for the past two years, Cruyff has been funding a project in Argentina. Originally it was called ‘The Lion’s Paw,’ but we’ve all taken to calling it ‘Leo’ after the young man who’s in charge of it.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of it. But I thought it didn’t work.” Giuly had shoved them up that ladder himself, and anyway, it would have been even worse if no one had escaped, Luís thought. Of course he didn’t say such things out loud, much less look like he was thinking them before Pep’s shadowed face.

The other man was making an effort to continue on as they had to, but the strain told in his voice, and in the way he couldn’t quite look Luís in the eye. “So did I. The last we heard, Leo—the boy, not the machine—had shipped his work here. He’d run into too many problems in Argentina and was sending what he had in hopes that we could…but it appears that that was a strategic lie. It does work, but he must have noticed he was being spied on and was trying to throw them off.”

“And the crumpet’s a part of this?” Luís cautiously guessed.

For the first time Pep looked straight at Luís, but after a sharp, quick examination, the other man seized the crumpet bundle from Luís. That was all that concerned Pep at the moment; it seemed little different from Luís’ particular concerns and Luís admittedly felt a spark of bitterness in his breast right then.

“Yes, we think so. Giuly—” Pep had some difficult over the name, but got it out this time “—recognized the workmanship as Leo’s, made out of parts he’d personally sent to Leo, and moreover, he believes the crumpet forms the critical impetus for engaging the…Luís, it’s what makes the whole thing work.”

“Ah. I see.” Luís gazed around them, paying particular attention to the slope of the hillside from their feet. None of them were dressed for the countryside, but it wasn’t that far from a main road and while at this hour it was unlikely they could get a coach, they could at least find some unfortunate homeowner to awaken. “I suppose that makes sense why I’d hear Italian voices behind the spiders. They—”

“Capello,” Raúl said meaningfully, coming quickly up behind Luís and Pep. So quickly, in fact, that he had to pause for breath and looked rather frustrated in doing so. “We received a message from Turin that he’d intercepted most of your shipments and was planning to blame us for it.”

Pep crossed his arms over his chest, the crumpet secure under one arm, and eyed Raúl. Thoughtfully. “And so your interest is in clearing your name?”

“Also preventing that technology from taking root in Italy instead of Spain. Rivals are rivals, but this is still a single country and we’d both be disadvantaged if Capello succeeded—oh, thank you.” Blinking, Raúl took the glove from Morientes and stuffed it into his waistcoat pocket, his sudden awkwardness rather noticeable compared to the passion with which he’d been expounding just a moment before. He tugged at his cravat, then pushed at his forelock, and Luís wondered whether Raúl’s initial shortness of breath had been due to his sense of urgency, after all. “Anyway, Zinedine’s letter said that he’d trust Figo and anyone he worked with over Capello and his Juventus Corporation, and Hierro says the same about…er, you, Señor Guardiola. So…”

“I might quibble with you on some of your underlying assumptions, but I have to say I’ve come to the same general conclusion,” Pep said after an odd pause. He sounded a little more tense than before, and gave Luís a sharp sidelong look before abruptly shouldering forward.

The other two men looked on in some bewilderment as Pep began to stalk down the hillside. Suppressing a sigh, Luís cleared his throat to offer a distraction, then politely gestured for Raúl and Morientes to go ahead of them down the hill. “Well, since we’ve all decided to cooperate, may I suggest more congenial surroundings for planning our next step? I’m afraid we’ll have to walk it, as I have no idea how to get that contraption back into the air.”

* * *

The sleepy little roadside inn barely could accommodate four men in its back room. Four men and Pep’s work ethic was consequently an extremely uncomfortable fit. Not that Pep seemed to notice, busy as he’d been since the innkeeper had managed to turn up some sheets of paper and a stick of charcoal. He’d even taken the crumpet out of its bundle and had laid out the pieces on the paper so Raúl’s curious eyes could take them in without difficulty.

“It looks like a crumpet,” Morientes finally said. He rubbed at his nose, then awkwardly folded his arms behind his head, pulling at his forearms till his joints cracked.

Pep didn’t look up. Raúl, however, did, with large questioning eyes. “Crumpet?”

“Oh, it’s this…this English…” Morientes lowered his arms and made gestures with his hands. He’d started out all right, but once he’d looked Raúl in the eye, his composure had taken a considerable blow. And it couldn’t have been alcohol, since the cold wind on the walk down had been enough to freeze that out of the man. “They put jam or cream on it, and eat it for breakfast. It’s not bad. Probably the only decent food the English have is their breakfast spread.”

“You’ve been to England?” Then Raúl winced and touched his fingers to his temple. “No, I knew that. I don’t know…”

“Somebody told you about me?” Morientes said, surprised. “I do hope you won’t hold the bad parts against me. At least, not till I can explain.”

Raúl blinked once, as if he’d left back in the park the wits that had taken him from promising to Hierro’s heir-apparent. “Bad parts?”

As charming as Luís found the whole exchange, they did have other matters that needed addressing. He cleared his throat. “So—”

“There,” Pep said, satisfied. He tossed down his charcoal and pushed back from the table with a look of such satisfaction that it kept him from noticing the bang of his chair into the wall. Then he put his hands under the table; when Luís peeked, he found that yes, Pep was wiping his dirty fingers on his elegant trousers. “Oh. Right. We no longer need this.”

And before anyone could stop him, Pep had swept all of the crumpet’s pieces off the table and into a fold of his coat. He twisted out of his chair, took a step behind Luís, and while Luís was still attempting to turn, tossed the pieces into the hearth’s flames.

Raúl cried out in alarm and started up. Due to the cramped space, he almost immediately fell, but fortunately Morientes managed to catch him before more than his arm hit the table.

Pep looked over, brows raised as if he was utterly shocked. Then his eyes widened and he began to wring his hands in a motion that crossed apology with command. “No, it’s all right! It’s all right, I know how it works and I can build another one. Also, I have it all worked out on those papers, and it’s even already encoded so all we need is a working telegraph. Then we can send it to so many people that Capello can’t possibly get to all of them.”

First Raúl’s brow furrowed and then it smoothed as he opened his mouth and breathed in, ready to reply to that. But then he seemed to have second thoughts and sank down, absently letting Morientes continue to handle him. His hand went up, as if to raise an objection, but instead detoured to pull at his forelock. “Oh,” he finally said. “Oh, all right. I think that’ll work. Señor Hierro won’t be too happy, but he’d rather even you have it than Italy.”

“Except they’re still chasing us,” Luís felt bound to point out. He tried not to let his irritation show when both Pep and Raúl turned tight-lipped looks on him. “It might have been helpful to keep those pieces. As a distraction. So perhaps we could hand them over, and then be free and safe to find a telegraph office while they were puzzling over the crumpet.”

All three of them glowered at Morientes, who belatedly clapped a hand over his titter. Then Morientes dropped the hand and shrugged. “I just came from Liverpool. I can’t help it if it sounds odd to me.”

Luís reminded himself that there’d be plenty of time later to slap the impertinence out of Morientes. “Anyway—”

“I suppose that that’s a point but what’s done is done, and now we have to work with what we have,” Pep interrupted. His tone was a bit odd, and then he paused without reason, his eyes wandering near to Luís before abruptly snapping to the papers on the table. He began to roll them up. “Probably the best strategy would be to split up. I don’t need these papers either…”

And he held them out to Raúl, who properly looked astonished at Pep’s carelessness. The man did begin to put out his hand to receive the papers, but to his credit, he immediately withdrew it. Then he put it on the table, under the papers. “Ah…Señor Guardiola, I do very much appreciate your willingness to trust in us, but—”

“—but your hesitation’s about as good a voucher as I could have, I believe. I’ll take your word as a gentleman that you’ll use these not for selfish ends, but for the general betterment.” Then Pep smiled, and it was that rare, slight smile that should properly break under the weight of its brilliance, but instead seemed to illuminate the entire world. He offered the papers again. “Go ahead.”

Raúl dropped his gaze, but after another moment, he did take the rolled-up scroll. He tapped its end against the table. “I didn’t give my word yet.” But before Luís could feel more than a frisson of alarm, Raúl looked up, and in his eyes was something of that same light. “But I give it now.”

“Thank you,” Pep said simply. He put his hand to his neck and scratched at it, leaving charcoal on his collar. Then he blinked and turned to look at Luís, directly in the eye and with nothing but expectation in his face. He trusted Luís to come up with the right answer, no matter the question. “Well, which telegraph office?”

It was an odd way to forgive Luís for making him leave Giuly, and even odder timing, but Pep had never had regular manners. That was part of his charm, and Luís had long since given up on battling that. And of course, the same could be said for Pep’s strange, touching but often frustrating belief that Luís could solve any problem. Luís thought well of himself, but he certainly wouldn’t presume so far.

Then again, he also certainly wouldn’t dare disappoint Pep. “The safest one probably would be in the Camp Nou, but we’ve the entire city between us and it.”

“There’s the flying machine,” Pep suggested. He glanced curiously at Raúl when the other man couldn’t help a half-whimper. “I only half-took in the dials, but I think they said it’s still got a half-tank of gas when we landed.”

“But we don’t have a—a catapult. The thing that got us off the ground in the first place.”

“Oh, the catapult’s useful but if that’s the version I think it is, then it should be able to lift itself without one.” Pep pursed his lips at Luís’ dubious look. “At any rate, you’d get the same effect from simply driving it off the hill-top. The drop’s steep enough.”

Luís stared at Pep. “I’m not driving it off a hill. For God’s sake, I’m not even sure I know how I got it to work in the first place!”

“It didn’t look that difficult. The stabilizers were on the right side, and you had pedals for the engine and the rudder, right?” When they looked at him, Morientes gave them an elaborately casual shrug. “I was paying a little attention to what you were doing, and I learned something about aeronautics in England. It’s a fascinating field.”

Raúl was looking at Morientes as if, for the first time, it’d dawned on him that pure uninhibited adoration had its drawbacks. “You…you want to go back up in that thing?”

“It was really beautiful! You should have seen—” Morientes hastily realized that that might not be the most diplomatic line to take “—well, I didn’t see anything that’d allow those mechanical spiders to fly, and if getting back in that machine is what’s necessary, then I’m willing. My personal…er, preferences aren’t important with so much at risk.”

He demurely underplayed the manly, heroic stance, but for all the difference it made to Raúl, Morientes might as well have puffed out his chest and saluted an invisible flag. For less than ten seconds, Raúl’s face contorted in agonized indecision before it cleared, and he straightened up with a hard swallow. “If it is the quickest way…but the Camp Nou? Hierro was heading there, the last I saw, but I don’t know if he managed to see anyone, and…”

“Oh,” Pep said. “Right. Well, then probably it should be Morientes and Luís—”

“No,” Luís said. He ignored the grateful look Raúl sent him. “Look, there was a senyera in the front room that I’m certain we can persuade the innkeeper to lend to us. And I don’t like that flying machine any more than González does.”

“Well, then perhaps I should go with—” Pep frowned “—no, I can’t. I’m the one who has it memorized, so—”

“It’s been nearly an hour. Morientes, you’d best get back up that hill, before some peasant stumbles across the machine.” Luís went to the door, and under the pretext of opening it, helped Raúl along after Morientes with a good shove to the back. “If anyone still gives you trouble, I suppose you can just shout that I’ve corrupted you to the ways of Barcelona.”

Morientes was wisely hurrying down the hall, but couldn’t help a last inquiry. “Does that happen that often?”

“More than I’d like,” Pep muttered.

Frowning, Luís turned, but was unable to prevent the other man from brushing roughly past him into the hall. Pep belatedly raised a beckoning hand; as much as Pep strove to remain with one foot in the good earth and to not succumb to airs, the man was a born leader and sometimes he couldn’t disguise it.

“And now where are we going?” he called back to Luís.

“A nice quiet corner of Purgatory, if I’m fortunate.” Then Luís shook his head and followed Pep out of the inn. He raised his voice to give his real reply. “Your workshop.”

Pep stopped walking.

“You’ve got the most powerful telegraph in Barcelona there. It’s also probably one of the last places they’d look for you, given that they know we know they’re hunting us, and since they went to Giuly’s, they obviously assume you’re the one doing the thinking. And we’re both used to sneaking in and out of the place,” Luís added to Pep’s back.

The other man’s hands began to rise, then fell sharply. “Oh, the Virgin preserve us. Luís.”

Luís turned.

After a long, long moment, Pep sighed again. He held out his hand. “Well? And how are we getting there?”

* * *

“I had no idea my kitchen was sitting on so—much—filth,” Pep grunted, pulling himself free of the sewer. He looked distastefully at the scum on his shoes, then crawled out of the way as Luís carefully lowered the trapdoor back into place. “There has to be a better system for transporting away waste.”

“Surely, but I think it can wait till we’ve dealt with the crumpet.” The journey through the city’s underground sewage tunnels had been…unpleasant, but aside from a few nerve-wracking moments, had been uneventful. Still, Luís’ caution had made him insist on coming up into a small shed built next to the kitchen instead of inside the house proper.

He remained wary as he tiptoed over to the door and pressed his ear to the wood, and his carefulness served him well when he heard Italian voices approaching. Luís immediately gestured to Pep to be silent, then sank to his knees to peer through the keyhole.

The two men weren’t quite visible, but their voices and movements were clearly audible as they moved around the kitchen, poking at pots and opening drawers. They spent no more than five minutes in the room before they moved back into the hall, but Luís waited an extra minute before he dared open the door. “Xavi’s locked himself in the conservatory,” Luís hissed. “They’re still looking for a key.”

“Well, they’ll be looking a while,” was Pep’s cryptic response.

He hurried ahead of Luís, then assumed the lead as they slipped out of the kitchen and into the darkened halls—someone, hopefully Xavi, had also turned off all the gas—towards the conservatory. Once a clanking sound gave them barely sufficient warning to dive behind a grotesque medieval tapestry Pep kept purely due to its familial antiquity. They had no time to arrange for comfort, and so Pep had his face pressed into Luís’ shoulder while Luís attempted to concentrate on the metal spikes methodically advancing across the floor instead of the hand Pep had curled about the back of Luís’ neck.

As soon as the spider had passed, they were off again. And perhaps it was a careless footstep, or a flicker of light catching them, but suddenly shouts had been raised in their wake and they had to abandon all pretense of concealment for a dead run.

Fortunately the conservatory wasn’t far off. But its doorway was heavily guarded—Luís cried out in surprise as he was abruptly dragged to the side. He was raising his hand for a blow when he saw that it was Pep—by then the other man had released him in favor of pressing at the wall molding. A whole section of the wall suddenly swung inwards; Pep seized Luís’ arm again and hauled him through before the section spun sharply back—and with some force, judging by the thuds and cries they left behind him.

It was pitch-dark inside, but thankfully, they only went about two yards when a rectangle removed itself and revealed the lighted conservatory beyond it. “Convenient, if a bit romantic,” Luís breathlessly observed as they came out. “Take your cue from your chivalric forebears?”

“Actually, that little passage is their doing, not mine. Although I did add a few modern improvements,” Pep said modestly.

Just at that moment, they heard the unmistakable hiss of steam, followed by loud shouts of pain and anger. Luís cocked his head and Pep shrugged.

“I’m not so wrapped up in my work that I can’t think beyond it.” Then Pep seemed about to add something else, but whatever he’d been drawing breath to say was whipped away by Xavi’s precipitous approach. Pep had to steady the man by one shoulder. “Xavi!”

“Sir! You’re all right.” Already Xavi’s usual reserve was returning, but it was a measure of how shaken the man was that he’d even slipped at all. “I think I kept all the important things in here, but—”

“Never mind my work, we’ve more crucial matters at stake. Is the telegraph all right?” Pep said, starting past Xavi. Then he cursed, stopping right where he was. “The wires. I ran them underground so they can’t get to them from the house, but they come up again about a hundred yards away. If they guess what I’m doing and cut them…”

Luís swore himself. From one crisis to another…he looked idly about the conservatory, rubbing at the side of his face. Nothing immediately presented itself, and Pep wasn’t making any suggestions either. It hadn’t been likely that Pep would have had anything useful: he had strong opinions, but among the strongest was the belief that peaceful means were the best. Of course that was true of the long-term view, but occasionally Luís did wish Pep would stop thinking so much of the grandchildren and a bit more about current circumstances.

Then again, that was what Luís did. He flexed his feet inside his shoes, which were intended for gentle strolls about the town; the hike down to the inn had beaten up the soles quite a bit. Well, they’d have to do. “I suppose when you get down to it, there’s no real replacement for a human being.”

Pep’s eyes narrowed. “Luís?”

“Hopefully you can tap out the message in a half-hour. Because I’m not twenty any more, and I doubt my lungs will last much longer than that,” Luís said, stripping off his coat. He tugged loose his cravat and took that off as well, then unbuttoned his vest. It was dark-colored and he’d make for a better target in his white shirt.

Xavi drew in a sharp breath, then abandoned his half-protest to begin rummaging frantically in the crates around them. After a moment, he came up with what appeared to be an iron box with a thickly-padded leather handle on one side and an odd thing like a tuning fork on a wire sticking out of the other side. “It’s a battery. Those things use arc lamps so there has to be a circuit in them that the battery will interrupt. But you can only use it once because we haven’t figured out how to turn it off once you stick the leads in.”

“The fork on the wire?” When Xavi nodded, Luís reluctantly took the box from him. And noted Xavi’s alarmed start when he initially reached for the box, and made a note of that as he instead took it up by the leather handle. “Thank you. No, no need to show me the way. I’ve been out the back enough times here.”

Then Luís turned, but he thought he saw something and he paused. But it must have merely been his wishful thinking, since Pep didn’t say anything. The other man merely looked at Luís—perhaps his gaze was a little intense, but he always looked like that when he was thinking hard. He certainly moved out of Luís’ way without hesitation, and probably that was some stray part catching at Luís’ sleeve as Luís went towards the back.

* * *

Once Luís had sneaked into the back garden without incident, he made for the fence without delay. He knew he’d be seen—and he was, almost immediately—once he scaled that, but he needed the height since he didn’t remember exactly where those wires came out. That day he’d been regrettably more interested in the fit of the new suit someone had persuaded Pep to wear for the occasion than the occasion itself.

Well, one only lived once, Luís thought. With a grimace, hearing the shouts and clanks nearing him. He quickly spotted the thick, half-dead tree on which the wires were strung, then hopped off the fence just as something swiped at him. The wind of its passing nearly unbalanced his landing.

Nearly, thankfully, because he’d lost enough stamina to age without having to also deal with a turned ankle. The moment Luís had steadied himself, he took off in the opposite direction, and almost ran straight into the crackling jaws of a giant spider. Cursing, he dropped heavily, and then ignored his joints’ protests as he scrambled between the spider’s legs and ran for what seemed to be an empty alley that was far too narrow for the spider.

Except of course spiders could climb, and when Luís paused for a breath and looked back, he found the damn thing straddling the alley, calmly using either wall as footholds. He swore again and resumed running, then took a sharp left at the next turn. The clanking noises temporarily diminished, then began to increase again: it appeared that the spiders weren’t too maneuverable, but they were surprisingly fast when traversing in straight lines. Barcelona, fortunately, was not a city of straight lines.

Another spider came close to slashing its hooked foot at Luís as he ventured into a main road, which he wouldn’t have done if he’d had a choice, but he couldn’t keep running forever. He’d never intended to, and so he had to cross the road, dodging the ominous white flashes between the spider’s fangs—the arc lamps Xavi had mentioned?—and slide into the next alley, which was a tight fit as the households neighboring it were very cavalier with their trash. Grimacing and trying not to breathe in, Luís stomped over the top of it, then leaped off a box to grasp the top of the alley wall.

He honestly shouldn’t be attempting feats like a one-handed pull-up. He almost dropped the damn battery, and then once he’d gotten over the fence, his shoulder caught fire. It made him drop to a knee, blinking at the stars that had appeared in his vision.

As it turned out, that was a fortunate turn of events, as it meant the punch sailed harmlessly overhead, and then Luís’ sight cleared to reveal a pair of dirty galoshes. He promptly slammed an elbow into the knee that topped one, then jumped over the man as he fell and continued his run across the house’s yard, exiting out the front gate to a flurry of Italian profanity.

About ten yards from him was a large fountain with beautiful baroque-style sculpture decorating it. For a moment, Luís regretted what he was about to do.

Then he heard—and felt—thunderously metallic thuds from three directions, and looked up to see several spiders converging on him. Luís buried his regrets, as usual, and hurried over to the fountain. He hesitated a moment, wondering if—well, if it didn’t work, he couldn’t help it if he wasn’t a born engineer.

Luís set the iron box on the very rim of the fountain, then picked up the tuning fork, which had rubber wrapped about part of the handle. He had paid some attention to Pep’s attempts to enlighten him as to the science behind the gadgetry, and frankly, he wished he hadn’t as the spiders slowly crawled up to him, their tiny heads almost completely obscured by the lightning sparking between the pair of curved fangs each of them bore. He was spending far, far too much time thinking about how this could turn on him for a so-called man of action.

Some days, Luís honestly thought he’d spent too much time reading romantic novels in the library. He shook his head, then glanced up as he heard the church bells. It’d been about a quarter-hour.

And he was nearly about to be stabbed through the chest by a spider-leg. Luís ducked it, swerved abruptly as the next spider over thrust its foot at him, then used the tuning fork to parry the fangs dropping at him. As soon as he felt the fork jam on one fang, Luís yanked his hand off the fork and kicked backwards to knock the battery into the water.

Only two of the spiders had legs in the fountain, and of them, one had the tuning fork stuck to its fang. But as they seized up as if infected with St. Vitus’ dance, they blundered into the third and caused it to flail wildly, smoking and steaming from its joints.

Luís wasn’t quite able to get out from under them before they collapsed, but fortunately, the foot only tore his sleeve. He still smelled burned fabric, and felt the slightest graze of something tingling as the spider-leg thrashed away from him.

Then Luís started running again, back towards Pep’s house. Men had accompanied the spiders, but they were easier to dodge—they had guns, Luís hurriedly corrected himself. Guns, and when Luís clapped his hand to the sting on his shoulder, it came away with blood on the palm.

It didn’t hamper him from running, so he supposed it wasn’t too bad. Still, he took care to keep to the narrow, crooked alleys, even though that lengthened his time by a good five minutes. He was utterly lacking for breath when the distinctive glint of Pep’s conservatory finally showed over the fences and bushes, and—

--that was an absolutely stunning blow, Luís thought, lying on his back in the middle of the road and staring up at the sky. In fact, he wondered if it’d broken his spine.

He knew it hadn’t when the spider lurched into view and he started up, then hissed as a host of aches and pains spread throughout his body. Luís kicked out and dug the heel of his boot into the cobblestones, then pushed off it. Then he continued to scramble backwards, but he was hampered by his bad arm and—well, frankly, the spider could move faster than him. It could move faster than it was moving now, and despite its mouth-less, lifeless features, Luís thought he detected more than a hint of smug anticipation in its deliberate pace.

Then he looked through the spider’s legs and saw the man walking behind it with something in his hands, and knew it was smug anticipation. A creaking noise made Luís look back up in time to see one leg raised high above him, its dagger-like foot aimed directly at his stomach.

If there was ever a time for a heartfelt, witty quip, now would have been it, but Luís truthfully couldn’t think of anything except that if he was really going to admit to loving those trashy three-part novels, he should’ve kissed Pep before he left.

The leg came down.

Luís breathed in sharply. He held it for exactly one second, then expelled it in a rush as he watched something bigger smash the spider to the side, like…like…well, like one would swat at an annoying pest. Then the rest of the thing hove into view, and despite all the gleaming metal, the first thing Luís saw was Giuly’s wide grin in what appeared to be the driver’s seat. “Monsieur Figo! Did you lose my true love?”

“Oh, God,” Luís couldn’t help muttering.

The second thing Luís saw was a dark blur leaping down from the automaton’s…well, where the head would have been, if it’d been a person. Somehow Luís knew the identity of that blur, and it had him starting to his feet in worry. “Pep! You’re going to break your damn neck—”

Pep was on Luís before Luís could finish, and his grip was so tight that it took Luís a while to realize the man wasn’t trying to strangle him. Not that Luís still wasn’t thankful for the air when Pep finally loosened his grip, and stood back to stare at Luís with black smudges on his face and…disbelieving, Luís raised one hand and touched at the gleams at the edges of Pep’s ears. They felt wet.

“My God,” Pep said, choking, and then embraced Luís again. He buried his face in Luís’ shoulder—he had his hand overlapping the place where the bullet had grazed Luís’ arm, but Luís couldn’t bring himself to protest, despite the hurt. “My God.”

“Pity about the spiders. Good work—I hope we don’t have to smash all of them, as I’d like a chance to work with them.” Giuly nimbly descended down the side of his automaton, then strode up to them, still grinning. “Ah, you look surprised. Well, they thought if they let me live, I’d show them how to put the crumpet to work in my second love—” Giuly affectionately patted the automaton’s leg “—since they had everything but that. And I did, but then I didn’t want to get out of it. It’s quite fun.”

“I almost prefer the flying machine,” said another voice. A little less steadily, Raúl made his way down the automaton, and then gratefully allowed Morientes, who’d come after him, to put a steadying hand on his arm. His face turned a bit more green as he looked at the crushed spider, then at the men behind them who were briskly taking the spider’s controller into custody. “We sent off one message but then received one from Giuly, who suggested we instead take his directions to…er, to activate our…” Raúl waved vaguely at the automaton “…and I believe we’ve the upper hand now. The city should be back in Spanish hands within the hour.”

Luís raised his brows—so Madrid had these automatons as well? That was…Luís couldn’t help a choke as Pep squeezed him a bit too tightly. “Pep—”

Raúl sneezed, then pulled apologetically at his nose. “Anyway, I have to say…oh. Oh…thank you.”

He took the scarf Morientes offered with a look of plain shining adoration, which shone just as brightly from Morientes’ eyes. In Luís’ ear, a low amused voice murmured, “Well, there goes your brilliant plan to subvert Madrid.”

“Pardon? I’d rather say that there goes your plan,” Luís replied.

Pep blinked, then looked sharply at Luís. Several more automatons were approaching and one appeared to have Xavi controlling it, while another held…Cruyff?...but Pep wouldn’t be distracted. “Luís. Good God, have you not been joking about that all this time? I have a good deal of respect for González, but—but—but really.”

“Really what?” Luís sounded a bit harsh. Well, he’d just faced near-death in a strange mechanical form, among various other sundry threats, and he was very tired of it all. All of it. “Pep, for years I’ve been waiting for you in drawing-rooms, corridors, courtyards—that damn workshop of yours. I’m not the waiting type, so why do you think I’ve been so damn patient?”

For a few moments Pep merely stared at Luís. Then his gaze drifted to Luís’ arm and he grimaced, then chewed at his lip as he futilely petted the bloody sleeve. As dim as the light was, color had clearly come into his cheeks. “Luís, I—well, I thought you were being a gentleman. I didn’t think you would…with my failings, after all…”

Gentleman—” Then several thumps all about them made Luís look up.

They were surrounded by automatons. In fact, the thick metal legs formed an impenetrable wall about them, so now only Xavi, perched atop one iron shoulder, could see them. Xavi was gesturing furiously, looking as exasperated as Luís had ever seen him.

“What on earth…” Pep was saying, brow furrowed in a frown.

Xavi pushed his two hands together, and Luís suddenly realized he owed the man quite a few dinners. Later.

Luís put his hand about the back of Pep’s neck, then firmly pulled the man forward into a kiss. At first Pep hunched up, but then he pressed into Luís. His hand stroked over the top of Luís’ head, then fell over Luís’ back as Luís wrapped an arm about his waist. It’d been a very, very long time in coming, but their bodies fit as if they’d been carved apart from the same block, and their mouths met each other as naturally and comfortably as the warm welcome of a fire in the hearth-place in the evening.

They eventually parted for breath, and Luís had to snort. “Gentleman. Me.”

“Well—oh, yes, you,” Pep said, irritated. But then he put his hands about Luís’ face, and drew in for another, rather less comfortable and rather more heated kiss. He wasn’t a gentleman either, in the end.

Not that Luís loved him any less.

Chapter Text

When the knock came, Pep was just sitting down to a glass of brandy and the evening paper. He wistfully looked over both, then put them on the table at his left elbow and got up from his armchair.

“Sorry for the wait, but the staff’s gone…” Pep started as he opened the door. When he saw who it was, he paused before he could help himself. Then he coughed, shaking his head, and pulled the door open wider. “…home.”

It was a chilly night, and snow was falling thickly so it’d already formed a lacy patchwork over Raúl’s dark hair. Despite that, the other man looked as elegant as ever, with his fashionably black-edged white scarf tucked neatly into his overcoat. He smiled as if he was the one in need of making an apology, then gestured with one hand. “I don’t imagine any sensible person would be out so late. I apologize for calling at such an hour, but I was wondering if I could…”

“Oh, of course. Do come in before you lose a nose or a few fingers,” Pep said belatedly. He shook his head again, ashamed of his bad manners, then quickly stepped back and to the side to allow Raúl entry.

Raúl looked up sharply, his eyes slightly narrowing on Pep. But he didn’t seem hostile—merely surprised, and perhaps wary. After a moment he came up to the threshold, doing his best to scrape clean the soles of his boots as he stepped over it into the foyer. He twisted immediately away, fending off Pep’s attempts to help him out of his coat with a small push of the hand and an off-hand comment about last week’s gala at the theater house. So Pep withdrew back towards the study, replying lightly.

Once they’d both gone into the next room, Raúl did accept a snifter of brandy to aid in warming his blood back up. He glanced curiously about the room, paying particular attention to a framed piece of paper hanging on the wall. “That was a good day for Spain,” he said, half under his breath.

Pep looked at the letter, feeling a bitter smile curl his lips. He looked down to hide it, fingering the paper on the table. “I think so as well, although I understand that there are a few who still doubt the government’s wisdom in allowing me back into the country.”

“I don’t think that they understand—” Raúl began with surprising heat. Then he caught himself and pressed his lips together. His fingers shifted around his snifter, then lifted it so he could take a draught. The muscle in his cheek rippled a little as he rolled the brandy around his mouth, and then he nodded approvingly. A slight air of chagrin touched him as he turned back around, smiling. “I was thinking of asking if I could provide any help in settling back in, but it seems as if you’ve taken care of yourself well enough.”

“An exile becomes expert in such skills, I suppose,” Pep shrugged. He’d meant it as a joke, but the flinch in Raúl’s eyes promptly made him regret his words. An awkward silence began to fall over them and Pep grimaced, then cleared his throat. He brought up his head and looked levelly at Raúl. “I daresay some of them will be useful in saving Spain from the disaster that’s brought you down to my step.”

The other man started, then dropped his eyes. A shadow flicked over his face and he looked at his brandy as if he needed another draught of it, but instead Raúl set back his shoulders and raised his head. “I’m sorry, I should have called sooner. I…I do still consider you a friend, Pep. But I know we have political differences—I always thought you understood they have their place and then social relations have another, but I could understand if…I didn’t know if you’d mind the associations I’d carry…”

“Oh, no, I apologize. I didn’t mean to imply any of that.” Pep grimaced again and stepped away from the table. He stayed a moment in place, then went around Raúl to the desk in the corner and began to lift up the top. “I was only observing that you’re probably here on some dire errand for the government.”

Raúl watched him for a moment, absently rotating the snifter in one hand. Then the snifter stopped, and Raúl lifted his chin a little. “How did you know? I know the hour—but you never kept regular hours.”

“Well, no, but you do. Did. Still do, from what I understand. But you’ve forgotten your hat, though otherwise your appearance is composed to perfection. So you’ve been thinking very hard and very carefully about how to approach something—too hard. If it’d been your gloves, or a misbuttoned shirt, I would have taken it to be a petty matter since they intrude unpredictably,” Pep said. He pulled out a pen, clucked at the ink-clogged tip, and reached for another. “But a hat is the last piece of armor in a gentleman’s wardrobe, and also it protects the head, the most vulnerable part of the body. So it’s something of such gravity that you feel it strikes to the very center. In defense you carefully prepared yourself, but you haven’t quite determined how to resolve a last key part.”

“It still doesn’t mean that it’s a government matter,” Raúl offered slowly.

Pep smiled to himself, then lowered the top of the desk. He listened for the catches to click, then dropped a few sheets of paper and a pen on the wood. “Of course I know it is now, because you’ve said that, but very well. I also didn’t hear a carriage, but you’ve not walked here. Your face and ears weren’t red enough, despite your lack of a hat. I don’t believe your personal carriage runs so quietly. Only a few do, as I have had the misfortune to know.”

Then Pep looked up in time to find Raúl wincing. The other man noticed Pep and controlled himself, only to fall into a short stammer as he was of two minds about what to say. One appeared to favor some sort of an apology, and the other…the other won out. Nodding, Raúl gravely regarded Pep. “I’m thankful to see your powers of observation haven’t faded while you’ve been gone, and it is for the reason you’ve guessed. I—I am sorry, that I have to ask you, but more than the government depends on it.”

“I had nothing else planned for the night,” Pep said, spreading his hands. He watched Raúl’s tense face for some sign of relaxation, and when none came, he shifted back to put his hand on the top of the chair behind him. After pulling it out, he sat down and dragged a sheet of paper towards him, hoping that the familiar movements would put the man at ease. “Well, then…”

“I’m sorry. It’s a bit difficult…” Eyes closing, Raúl rubbed uncomfortably at his jaw. Then he squared his shoulders and looked at Pep, settling something within himself. “Actually, it’s not. It’s very simple, at least to tell—one of Hierro’s secretaries had just finished drafting a secret letter to a…recipient in Italy. Turin.”

The caginess was hindering Raúl’s ability to speak comprehensibly more than it was likely protecting whatever he wanted to protect, but nevertheless Pep could glean quite a bit simply from those few coded words. Foreign relations were quite touchy at the moment, and the slightest tip in any direction could very well prove explosive. It was more serious than factional differences.

“He put it in his pocket and went to meet someone for lunch, but on the way back he was waylaid and robbed. They took the letter,” Raúl continued. “No one believes it was happenstance.”

“Any attempt at blackmail yet?” Pep asked.

A pained expression came onto Raúl’s face. He pursed his lips, then sighed and nodded. “And in fact, we know exactly who it is, and still we can’t do anything. We can’t find where he’s hidden it. We’ve had his rooms searched, we’ve had him waylaid and robbed, and—”

Pep coughed lightly to have Raúl’s attention, then leaned forward. “I’m sorry, but the name…”

“Oh. Oh, yes. It’s David Villa,” Raúl said. He paused, his head tilting. Then he put his glass down on the desk, frowning. “I don’t know if you’ve heard much of him. He’s quite new, and you wouldn’t have known him before.”

“The Asturian, yes? With the fortune from selling pumps to coal mines? I’m afraid that that’s about the extent of my knowledge of him.” And what the man looked like, although admittedly Pep hadn’t been paying close attention when they’d briefly been in the same government hall together. Still, he recalled a scowling, intense face, accompanied by a young valet. “Now, anyway.”

Raúl smiled with a touch of irony. “You won’t need to perform your usual investigation there. I can tell you anything you need to know about him—I’ve been carrying out the searches of his things myself, since…well, since I was responsible for having Hierro hire the secretary who lost the letter. Sergio was careless, but I don’t think anyone else would have fared much better, and I do think he shouldn’t have his whole career ruined because of this.”

“I can sympathize,” Pep said dryly, reminded of his own experiences. Then he recollected his company and looked apologetically at Raúl.

A shadow shaded into the other man’s eyes, but then it was gone in the time it took Raúl to blink, and Raúl was merely nodding. He continued in a brisk, business-like tone, having got out the worst of it. “And I have a good deal of firsthand experience with Villa from other matters. We’re somewhat…unfriendly.”

“A new nemesis? You do seem to accumulate those.” Pep caught Raúl glancing at the pen on the desk and put it and the paper away. He’d never intended to write anything down—he’d long since learned the lesson that memory, if often fallible, was still far more secure than documents—and had only taken them out as props.

“Don’t I,” Raúl muttered, looking down at his hands. He rubbed his fingers around his wrist, then gazed off to the side with a rigid twist to his mouth. Then he seemed to notice Pep looking curiously at him, and attempted a dismissive smile. “Well, I don’t mind if it helps with this. So where should I…”

“…by going home, and having the good night’s rest I suppose you’ve been missing for a few days now,” Pep said. He stood up from the desk and pushed in the chair, then took Raúl by the arm while the other man was still stunned by surprise. “It’s late, and as urgent as the matter is, I doubt that dragging a recital of facts from your tired mind will help much. I’ll call on you tomorrow, when…”

For a moment it seemed as if Raúl meant to protest, and his arm did tense in Pep’s grip. But then it abruptly went lax, and Raúl allowed Pep to lead him into the hall. He was looking a little oddly at Pep, almost as if he wished to laugh, but instead he pursed his lips again. “Eleven. Lunch. They’ll all be happy to see you again.”

“It won’t compromise you?” Pep arched his brows. “I’m a realistic man these days. I appreciate your friendship, but I won’t pretend to think it comes without difficulties for you.”

“They’re my difficulties, not yours, and if I choose to bear them, it’s no concern of yours,” Raúl said with unusual sharpness. He and Pep looked at each other, and then Raúl dropped his head with a deprecating smile. He slowly withdrew his arm from Pep’s hold. “I don’t mind, Pep. Come for lunch.”

One look at the set of Raúl’s jaw told Pep how futile argument would be, and so he simply retrieved the other man’s coat and scarf for him. “Very well, eleven.”

Then he held out Raúl’s belongings, and Raúl extended a hand too far to take them. Instead Raúl’s fingers closed on Pep’s wrist, then tightened there as Pep glanced in surprise at them. Pep looked up and Raúl was staring quite hard at him.

“I never believed what they said you’d done,” Raúl told him, abrupt, voice almost vibrating with tension. He held onto Pep a moment longer, then released Pep’s hand and took his coat and scarf before Pep could react. Then he was swinging the coat onto his arms, once again the composed gentleman. “Thank you very much, Pep. I appreciate this.”

“I won’t pretend that it wasn’t exile, or that it didn’t leave its marks on me. But this is still my land.” Then Pep paused. His words had had a clear effect on Raúl, making the other man turn even more quiet and watchful, but it wasn’t quite the effect he’d expected. They’d been taken seriously enough by Raúl, but they hadn’t answered whatever it was that had been peeking out of Raúl’s eyes a moment ago.

But an inquiry about that now would have been inapposite as well as rude, and so Pep let it pass. He saw the other man out with a final comment to be careful of the ice on the roads, then shut the door. The cold air that had come in as he’d stood on the threshold had leached some of the feeling from Pep’s hands, so he rubbed them briskly together as he moved back to his study.

* * *

The first order of business was to find out more about this Villa. It wasn’t that Pep didn’t trust Raúl, or believe that Raúl would provide him with information on the other man—he knew the other man too well to doubt him. But Raúl was of a certain set of society, and wasn’t accustomed to moving outside of it. If Villa was someone who could arrange for a robbery on the street, then likely he was venturing into places about which Raúl wouldn’t know, let alone go. And that would be one of the reasons for which Raúl would have come to Pep in the first place.

It was well beyond decent hours when Pep reached Luís’ back-door, but he could see a light in an upstairs window and so he knew he wasn’t waking his friend. He was, however, waking the poor servant who had to let him in, and he was still apologizing to the man when Luís strode into the kitchen to see what was the matter.

Luís stopped, looking at Pep. He had on a dressing-gown and in one hand he was holding a book, but his keen eyes hardly looked prepared for slumber. In a moment he’d sent his valet back to bed and in another, he and Pep were seated at the table with the remains of a very decent pie divided between them.

“So, who’s about to be murdered now?” Luís asked off-handedly.

“No one. Although Raúl did call on me about an hour and a half ago.” Pep stuck his fork into the pie’s crust, then nodded approvingly at the way it flaked. “I need to know about David Villa.”

When Luís didn’t immediately answer, Pep looked up and found the other man staring at him with a disappointed expression. Then Luís sighed and pushed his book aside, leaning forward to fold his arms on the table. “Pep, I’m not as young as I used to be. Don’t raise my hopes like that and then dash them so cruelly.”

Occasionally it crossed Pep’s mind that he and Luís were such close friends because they were both highly inquisitive and hard to satisfy, and they were both one of the few people who could still puzzle the other after so many years. If true, it still didn’t aid him in deciphering how Luís thought.

“I actually thought for a moment that you and Raúl had finally, after so many years of villainous machinations by others to keep you apart, come to an, ah, understanding,” Luís elaborated. He sighed again and ate some of his pie, then wiped the flakes off his mouth with his napkin. Then he shrugged at Pep’s disbelieving look. “Well, he’s been estranged from Morientes for a while now, and then he calls on you—alone, I’m assuming—this late at night. I’m still a romantic, Pep. I can dream of a damn ending to this hopeless—”

“It is not hopeless, and it is not hopeless because it is not. There’s no…whatever you were about to call it.” Pep suppressed his own sigh, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. Then he frowned as he remembered what else Luís had just told him. “Raúl and Morientes are no longer friends? When did…never mind, tell me later. I came here to ask about someone else.”

“Well, I might as well tell you, since it’s all about the same matter.” But first Luís flicked his fingers at Pep’s plate. He stared at Pep till Pep had finally lifted up a mouthful and swallowed it, then sat back, satisfied. “They fell out publicly about two years ago, but in my opinion it’d been coming for a while. Morientes has never been as dedicated to pure politicking as Raúl, you know, and so he doesn’t quite see why he accommodate this fool or invite that boor to dinner.”

Pep had another bit of pie. “But he’s no fool. You’re surely not telling me that they parted ways because Morientes couldn’t bother with the cultivation of allies.”

“No. But that takes up a good deal of Raúl’s time, which he then can’t spend with people he genuinely likes and that leaves them feeling rather neglected and undervalued. At least, in my opinion—I’ve nothing more than that.” Of course that little shrug of Luís’ hardly meant anything; he knew very well what he was talking about and had no real shred of doubt in his mind. In Pep’s opinion, Luís actually was the one who should be rightfully called a genius, for his ability to read clues and currents invisible to anyone else far surpassed Pep’s skills. He only wasn’t recognized as such because he didn’t care to be, preferring instead to sit comfortably in the background. “Anyway, what happened in terms of actions is that Morientes had a pet project, a small church in his hometown that he wanted funds to renovate. It shouldn’t honestly have been a great matter, but his timing was bad. He didn’t get it, Raúl wouldn’t fight for it for him, and so he was ripe for Villa.”

If that was true, then Pep could sympathize with Morientes, for he knew that situation very well. Factionalism was always a problem, but when it was especially intense, it could render impossible even simple, routine decisions such as whether to hire another clerk to help with the paperwork.

“And I suppose you should know how it goes from there. Morientes is firmly embedded in Villa’s faction now, though for the sake of their families, he and Raúl still speak to each other.” Luís frowned at his plate, and it was indeed surprising how empty it was. A moment ago there’d been a slice of pie bursting out with fruit and syrup. Then Luís shrugged, and picked up his plate as he rose. He went over and set it by the sink, then came back to the table. “Probably they actually are still friends, but not so…but anyway, the connection with Villa is more important for your purposes.”

“Well, yes. I’m sorry to hear that about them—it’s a shame to see a genuine friendship sour, and they were very well paired. But unless Morientes has taken to actively undermining Raúl…” After a moment, Pep sighed and waved his hand for Luís to tell him.

“You’re a genius at what you do—no, don’t look humbly at me, I know you—but sometimes, Pep, I do wish you’d pay closer attention to the consequential effects.” Shaking his head, Luís retook his seat. “No. I doubt Morientes is involved, too. But likely he’s shared a few confidences with Villa, which may factor into whatever you’re investigating.”

It was silent for a moment.

Luís drew in a little breath, then paused with one hand resting on the edge of the table. Then he shrugged and relaxed in his chair. “Very well, I’ll merely ask that you don’t see yourself into another exile. I still haven’t gotten out of you what actually triggered the last one.”

“I think you’ve puzzled it out anyway,” Pep said neutrally.

“But unlike you, with your insistence on objectivity, I happen to think highly of the subjective differences between my figuring it out and your telling me about it. But never mind. I know you.” Then Luís leaned over the table. He lifted his arms, then rested his elbows on the table top and folded his hands together so they hid his mouth and jaw. For all of that, he spoke clearly enough. “Villa. He’s a bit of a mystery, at least in conventional terms. I honestly think he’s motivated solely by hatred of the status quo. He certainly has an odd obsession with tripping up Raúl, and I do wonder about his acquisition of Morientes.”

Pep couldn’t quite help a glance at a clock on the sideboard. It was very, very late, and while normally he enjoyed Luís’ tangents, he was rather aware that he had an appointment to keep with Raúl. Of course, not more aware than he would be for any other anxious client. “What’s he working on right now?”

“Oh, several things. He’s taken up Valencia, and is trying to advance them as a power. He’s been rumored to have spoken to the English about certain favorable coal arrangements for Asturias,” Luís drawled. He deliberately waited for Pep to shift in his seat before continuing; occasionally Luís’ sense of humor could border on tortuous. “Trying to replace Raúl.”

“Pardon?”

Luís snorted. “You heard me correctly. That’s his ultimate aim. He wants to be Raúl.”

The matter of the time briefly dropped from Pep’s mind. He nodded silently, then put his arms up on the table, folding his hands together into a platform for his chin. Then he took his hands out and steepled them before his face as he thought.

“Thank you very much, Luís,” Pep finally said. “No, don’t—no need to go to any more trouble on my behalf. I can see myself out.”

* * *

Raúl’s butler answered the door promptly, but a few people strolling along the sidewalk had already turned to whisper to each other. The butler himself wasn’t the one whom Pep remembered, and instead of immediately departing, he sent off another servant to retrieve Raúl and stayed to ask if Pep would care to leave his coat with him, would like the scraper for the mud on his shoes, and so forth.

But Raúl himself greeted Pep warmly without any trace of artifice, and Pep was so unexpectedly relieved that he embraced Raúl slightly too long. The other man didn’t seem to notice, or if he did, to care, but it clearly sank Pep lower in the opinion of Raúl’s butler.

They were shown into a lovely verandah that would normally have opened onto the backyard, but for the winter, it’d been enclosed in bright tapestry-like curtains over canvas walls to guard against the drafts. The table only had two place settings.

“My family’s just departed for a few weeks to stay in the country with my parents,” Raúl explained as they sat down. “A little earlier than planned, unfortunately. There was a…but they’re sorry to have missed you, and send their affections.”

“Your yearly tradition,” Pep recalled. He murmured something appropriately admiring about the settings—they were worth the compliments, but obviously were not the point of their meeting. “I suppose you’ll be heading that way in a few days.”

Raúl paused to give the servant hovering over his left shoulder an order, then twisted round to face Pep. His brows rose slightly, but then he nodded. “Once this matter’s seen to, hopefully. I don’t know if I should be so optimistic, but…”

“Well, that seems to depend on whether you’ll be more truthful with me. I don’t work particularly well with lies.” Pep smiled with his lips shut, but looked out across the table instead of at Raúl. He’d half-expected it, but had still felt the keen edge of disappointment. And to be truthful, a small part of him was still hoping for a denial. “A perpetual failing of mine.”

Before, Raúl would have protested. Badly, because he knew a lie was a lie no matter how he justified it to himself, but his pride at least would have spurred him into attempting a defense. Today he merely dropped his gaze.

“I don’t know if you’re afraid that I might use it to my advantage,” Pep began, measuring his words carefully. “If so, let me reassure you that my days of political maneuvering are over.”

“No, that…” At first Raúl was forceful in his denial, but he abruptly trailed off, looking from side to side in frustration. He made another attempt to speak, but it barely produced a tired exhale as he suddenly slumped back in his seat. His hand went to his brow, then briefly pulled at his nose before he looked up at Pep. “I’m sorry.”

Pep raised his brows. “I’d hardly expect you to do anything else. It’s commonsense.”

“Well, perhaps commonsense appears a little less fair now,” Raúl snapped. Then he grimaced, nearly covering his mouth. He glanced at Pep, then dropped his eyes as he idly began to finger his fork and knife. “I still am sorry. Both for my lies and for your…your…”

“In all honesty, I can’t say that I mind having lost interest in that,” Pep said. He startled himself with how warm his voice sounded, but after a moment’s thought, that seemed appropriate. Then he chuckled, and that failed to jar with him as well. “It’s not as easy as it looks, staying where…where I’ve been, and you are. It takes as much as it gives.”

Raúl looked sharply at him, as if he thought Pep was taking ill. Then he opened his mouth, but the servants came in with the first course at that moment. He and Pep made small talk about the latest architectural fantasy that Gaudí was apparently putting up in Barcelona while the food was set down.

Then the servants withdrew, and an awkward silence fell. The proper thing to do would have been to wait for Raúl, as host, to pick up his utensils, but he was still gazing oddly at Pep. Eventually Pep reached for his fork and bent over his plate simply to break the tension. “Are these from your hothouse?” he asked, pointing to the vegetables.

“It does,” Raúl said. Then he shook his head, and left his non-sequitur unexplained as he began again in a brisk tone. He also started to eat, which somewhat soothed the memories of Pep’s childhood etiquette lessons. “I’m more involved with the letter than I let on before. It’s not only the secretary—he happened to be taking dictation from me for it. It is to someone in Turin, and it implicates more government affairs than I could begin to tell you right now, but…to put it directly, it’s embarrassing for me.”

“Why, is it to an old lover?” Pep swirled his glass of wine under his nose, inhaled, and then sipped appreciatively as the wine bloomed in scent and taste. Then he happened to look up and see Raúl’s expression, and nearly spat the lovely mouthful out. “I was joking.”

Raúl smiled. It wasn’t pleasant, although it made Pep more melancholy than cautious to look at it. “Well, you always would, but my sense of humor’s not any better, Pep. It’s not, but it might as well be, for all…you remember Zinedine?”

“Of course. I was surprised to see he’s rather dropped out of sight, too, as I know he wouldn’t have been sent away.” It was a moment before Pep could put down his glass and resume eating, despite his light tone. That was more for Raúl’s benefit, since the other man was still as tense as a drawn violin string. For himself, Pep was still disturbed by the idea of…of…and when he knew very well the lewder aspersions cast on Raúl and Morientes’ friendship were fairly accurate, for once. He’d never minded that, and had always taken the men for who and not what they were. But for some reason he felt relieved at hearing Raúl’s denial now.

“No, he’s semi-retired now, I suppose you could say. Too caught up in his family and his farms to bother coming much to the city now,” Raúl told him. Raúl was smiling again, but in genuine affection this time. Sadly, it lasted barely longer than his words did amidst the clinking of their silverware, and the occasional whistling breeze outside. “It’s not about him. It’s about how he came here.”

Pep waited a moment, so he would know for certain that he wished to ask. A new habit he’d taken up, since his…he might as well begin to call it retirement, he thought. “So the rumor that you masterminded some unsavory goings-on to facilitate that is true?”

“More or less.” Sober again, Raúl put down his knife and fork and looked at Pep for a long, searching moment. Then he looked down at his place. He lifted his hands, oddly hesitant, and inhaled sharply before he cut an asparagus spear in half. “To be honest with you—and I’ve not even told my confessor this much—I don’t think I actually did very much. Most of it had been done before, by Inzaghi and Zinedine’s…and I simply had the information passed on to Zinedine. But you can imagine how it would look.”

“How does Zidane imagine it?” Pep asked.

Raúl glanced up, brow furrowed. Then his face cleared and he shook his head, bleakly amused. “Oh, we talked about it years ago. He understands. But I wouldn’t ask him to defend me, if it came out, and anyway, he wouldn’t. It’s not that—he doesn’t wish to ever speak about it to anyone. It’s how he believes things should be done.”

It was an approach Pep could understand, even if he personally disagreed with it. Although not quite so much these days, after he’d reaped what his former outspokenness had sown. “But that’s all old business, then. Why would you be writing a letter about it now?”

“Because I felt…I felt it was necessary. To deal with an unexpected loose end that arose.” At the end Raúl’s tone suddenly hardened. When he met Pep’s eyes, his own were cool and unreadable. “But that’s relevant to how this happened, not how this will end.”

“Very well,” Pep said after a moment. His curiosity was of course piqued—and his pride perhaps a little stung—but he was old enough to look past both and see it would be a digression, and he hadn’t come here for that. “I’ve been looking into Villa a little.”

Raúl frowned. “I could have answered any questions you had on him.”

“I know, but with all due respect, Raúl, I doubt that you’d know everything about him.”

“Perhaps not, but I’d wager I know nearly that much,” Raúl muttered. Then he looked up and over Pep’s shoulder.

The servants had returned, but they took their cue from Raúl’s stiff nod and quickly whisked away the empty plates for fresh ones with the main course deliciously steaming away on them. Then they appeared to whisk themselves away; it was impressive and unnerving all at once to watch, and reminded Pep uncannily of eating at Hierro’s house. Although Hierro, for all his insistence on order around him, still remained a man with a genuinely spontaneous laugh. Once upon a time Raúl had been capable of offering a charmingly nervous smile or two, but the man hardly looked so vulnerable these days.

“When I said that I’ve had searches done for that letter, I do mean that I’ve had everywhere that Villa has been searched. I’ve had Villa’s rooms ransacked, I’ve had him waylaid and robbed…I’ve even had him followed, trying to see if perhaps he has some secret apartment. I’ve grown to know him far too well, attempting to guess where he would put that damn letter.” Then Raúl exhaled and dropped back in his chair. His hands slipped a little on the table, making the silverware rattle. He looked down, then up at Pep as if he were about to defend himself.

But Raúl changed his mind, and instead merely shrugged with his hands briefly turning their palms upward, eloquently bespeaking his frustration. A strand of hair had slipped into his eye, but he didn’t bother to brush it away.

Under the table, Pep flattened his fingers against his knee. He began to speak, but even in his throat, his voice felt oddly thick, and so he turned that into a cough before any words could become distinct. His hand lifted involuntarily from his leg. After another moment, he took it completely out and retrieved his knife and fork. “I don’t doubt your thoroughness. But I have my ways of managing this type of matter, and if you didn’t expect me to use them, you wouldn’t have come to see me.”

“I…I know,” Raúl sighed, straightening. His hand hovered over his knife, then finally went on to take up the wine decanter instead. He refilled Pep’s glass before Pep could refuse him, then set down the decanter and pushed his own nearly-empty glass aside. “I apologize for my temper just now. But I’ve had them search everything, and then…”

“But I rather think you could use this more than I,” Pep said. He pushed his glass towards the other man, and when Raúl reached out to forestall that, took advantage of the man’s distraction to top up Raúl’s glass. Then he leaned back, but continued to look at Raúl until the other man finally picked up his glass. He couldn’t help a chuckle at the way Raúl eyed it, as if it was a poisonous snake. “It’s a lovely red, Raúl. Time was that you’d favor that sort of thing a little too much.”

Raúl lifted his brows. “Well, I was young and careless back then.”

“With you, that was never going to be more than a transient failing. Although I admit to being highly amused on occasion.” After finishing his current mouthful, Pep retrieved his own glass and sipped from it, so as not to be hypocritical. “Besides, what was carelessness in the young can often be a sign of humanity in the old, if properly tempered.”

A light flickered in Raúl’s eyes, and he leaned forward with an intensity that gave Pep pause. But then Raúl glanced down into his glass, reserved and somber again. He swirled it by the stem, then abruptly drank from it and set down the glass almost in the same motion. “You’re not trying to seduce me to your ideals like you were back then, are you?”

His tone was neutral, which Pep took as unease. Pep shook off his odd moment of humor and put down his own glass. “No, I’m trying to reassure you. I’ll have your letter by the end of the week. I give my word.”

The other man didn’t believe him, but Raúl was too polite—and too desperate, said the spark of hopefulness in his eyes—to say so. Instead Raúl merely nodded, and turned the conversation back to what Pep had found out about Villa. For all that he claimed to know the man so well, he still seemed hungry for more information.

No wonder Luís had been so blackly amused, Pep thought. Then he frowned, faintly disturbed by his…by that odd snap of irritation within…he shook his head as Raúl repeated his question, and turned to directing the conversation to less uneasy subjects. Their business was done, and Pep knew this sort of friendly meal would be rare; he didn’t want to waste any opportunities now.

* * *

Despite his menacing reputation, Villa was surprisingly accessible. When Pep called at his business offices, Villa himself happened not to be in, but his staff were so profusely apologetic about it that Pep felt forced to remind them that he’d come without an appointment. Even after that, they gave him no trouble about arranging for a meeting with Villa, and made no comment when he casually specified that he’d like it to be somewhere private. Villa’s secretary had difficulties with reconciling Villa’s schedule right then, but he promised Pep that he would send a message with the date and time before the day was over.

And he kept it. A letter arrived for Pep while he was cautiously renewing a few acquaintances at his old club.

“Well, it is good to see you back,” Luís Enrique insisted stubbornly. “We still need you.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Pep said dryly, turning around. The servant had set the letter down on the table by his arm and its unusually thick, pale—the fashion this year was ecru stationery—paper almost outshone the silver tray beneath it. “But I’m keeping you from your family. I think they at least would prefer if I left that habit in exile.”

For a moment it seemed as if Luís Enrique would persist in his argument, but he was already standing and a servant behind him had been patiently waiting with his coat and hat for nearly a minute. He exhaled, rubbing at his nose, then half-turned. Then twisted back, but finally took his coat and irritably threw it on. “A good evening to you, Pep. Despite yourself.”

Then he turned and left. Pep was in the midst of picking up the letter, but he paused to watch the other man stride through the stately, wood-paneled halls. A faint sting about his eyes and perhaps the muscles of his mouth bothered him—but that was only natural, he supposed. It took time to become accustomed to new surroundings, and no matter how Luís Enrique or anyone else might wish it, that was what they were to Pep now. They didn’t need him. Want him, perhaps, and he couldn’t but admit to feeling flattery and relief at that, but they hardly needed him. They’d done very well while he had been gone—arguably, better than if he’d been able to stay, and thus would have presented a ready scapegoat for their enemies.

Pep grimaced, shook himself before he could settle into that black mood, and looked down at the letter between his hands. He held it by one end and flicked the other with a finger, listening to the sound of the paper…best-quality Valencia linen-paper. The wax seal was also carefully done, its edges crisp and even all the way around instead of tilted towards one side, as was more usual. Only one word graced the envelope: ‘Guardiola,’ written in a bold but messy hand. It wanted attention, yet it’d not taken the care to keep the top of the ‘d’ from smearing into the dot for the ‘i.’

He cut the seal and opened the letter. The contents were short, containing only a courtesy opening and closing, and in between the necessary information. They were also written by someone other than the one who’d addressed it, in a neat, small-looped hand that would have been hard to place amongst the hundreds of similar scripts that daily flowed from the city’s clerks. But then, at the end, an emphatic signature that slashed into the line above it, as if it was angry at the rest of the message for having come last.

Very well, they had a meeting. Pep folded the letter back up and slipped it into his pocket, then got up from his chair. In all honesty, he’d been expecting to have to deploy quite a bit more persistence and persuasion, but if Villa wished to make this part easy, Pep was not one to protest.

* * *

The meeting with Villa was at the end of the week. Until then, Pep preoccupied himself with matters that had nothing to do with it. He finished unpacking his belongings, then wondered at how his beloved home, subject of so many desperate longings, suddenly seemed over-large and unfriendly. He tentatively acquainted himself with the current factions, and more than once found himself wishing he was many miles away from all of them. Of course he’d not been expecting the same city, no matter how much he had dreamed so—he was a rational man—but it was still rather jarring to see that it’d moved so much beyond him.

With his usual perfect timing, Luís arrived in full evening dress with two young men in tow whom Pep was mildly shocked to recognize as Xavi and Andrés, and told Pep very pointedly that Pep hadn’t come back to mope about the house. While Pep was—badly—refuting that, Luís and his two helpers were ensuring that Pep would be presentable when they went to the opera-house.

“I do not remember Xavi and Andrés being nearly so…so…” The tip of Pep’s cane caught on something as he exited Luís’ carriage. He cursed and awkwardly righted himself before he could stumble; he hadn’t bothered with the full social spectacle of going out to the opera in quite some time, and couldn’t help thinking briefly that it was far more fussy than he remembered.

“Clever and underhanded and utterly like me? Well, that’s what happens when you let me raise anything,” Luís said, managing his cane, overcoat tails and shrug with ease. He turned round to tell Xavi when to bring back the carriage, then used the head of his cane to nudge Pep towards one of the side-entrances. “I think they grew up well.”

Pep began to agree, but his throat unexpectedly tightened on him. He found himself staring at an ornamentation over the doorway, then started when Luís nudged him again. After a look at the other man, Pep went into the theater.

“Or perhaps my morals have slid precipitously in your absence, and I should be on my knees apologizing.” Luís came in, looking sidelong at Pep as he removed his hat.

“No. No, you did…I appreciate what you’ve done with—for them very much, Luís. They seem well on their way, though they’ve been generous enough to play the servant for their elders tonight,” Pep said quietly. He didn’t return Luís’ steady gaze.

After a moment, Luís stepped up to Pep’s side with an offhand comment about the new murals, and so Pep of course looked at the walls. The ensuing discussion about the subjectivity of aesthetics and the value of modernization carried them up the stairs and to Luís’ box; they did not, as people usually did, linger to mingle with the other arriving patrons, but Luís made no indication that he would be interested in such and Pep certainly was not.

Then again, Luís might have had other motives, as they had still come well before the curtain’s rise. At first they did take their seats, their conversation easily traveling on to other shared interests, but Luís occasionally glanced down or at the other boxes. Not the slightest hint of furtiveness clung to him, so Pep assumed he was merely indulging in the reason they held operas in richly decorated halls instead of on simple grass fields: society-watching.

But then Luís rose, excusing himself to go to the washroom, and Pep was left to his own devices. For a few minutes he looked over the rail at the men and women mingling below, but he rapidly lost the little interest he had in jewelry, and men’s cravats, and all those other small but excruciatingly significant signifiers of rank and class and power.

“I thought you were staying ho—” Raúl paused, blinking. Then he shook his head and began to ease back out of the box as Pep stood. “I apologize. I thought Luís—”

“He was here a…” Pep paused, then acknowledged ruefully that Luís still very much had the better of him “…he should be returning momentarily, if you’d like to come in and wait.”

Raúl frowned and pursed his lips, as if he didn’t quite believe Pep. After a moment, he did come in, but he was careful to stay to the side, where the curtains that hung about the front of the box would hide him from public view. He looked round and found another chair, but only put his hand on its top. “It’s nothing worth that. I was only surprised to see him here, and came up to ask what on earth could have gotten him to…to…”

“Well, it’s hardly rude to state the truth, and the truth is that Luís isn’t particularly fond of the opera,” Pep said dryly.

“An understatement,” Raúl muttered. He pulled at his nose with a long-suffering look, as if he’d taken over the duty of assuring that Luís arrived tipsy enough to not seem bored, and left sober enough to not end the night in a bout of fisticuffs with the conductor. Then he glanced up at Pep, and a short, low laugh escaped him. “It is good to see him out. Some nasty rumors about his antisocial habits had been going about again.”

“Oh, don’t mention those to him. He’ll only be encouraged.” Pep allowed himself a smile as he turned around to face the other man. His suit tightened slightly about his waist and he smoothed it back into place.

Raúl flicked his eyes heavenward, understanding perfectly. Then he sighed and shook his head, leaning against the chair. “Well, I should go before Michel decides I’ve gone missing and raises a search party. Tell Luís that I hope he’ll at least stay for the aria in the second act—it’s bloody, I think he’ll like it—and to not extract too much flesh from you for this.”

Then Raúl turned to go, but he stopped at Pep’s half-exclamation. Pep began to put up his hand, then forced it to the arm of his chair instead and slowly smiled at Raúl. “Oh, no, I think you’re under a…Luís brought me, actually. I think he sees it as an act of charity for my genuinely misanthropic soul.”

For a moment Raúl stood and looked at Pep. He was still twisted about to go and the shadows cut him on the diagonal, showing a cheek, a triangle of his brow and the dark, searching slice of one eye. Then he nodded, and as he stepped from the shadow to the door, he smiled as Pep had just smiled: polite, amused, reserved.

“Then I hope you don’t hold it against him. He’s a good friend,” Raúl said. He turned away. “I wish I’d kept one of those myself, these days.”

Or perhaps he didn’t say that. Perhaps he merely had said he wished he’d see that more often. He had been speaking very quietly and walking away, and for all their friendship, he and Pep were hardly confidants. Although there had been a time when Pep had thought—suspected, more like, he reminded himself as he sank back in his seat. Back then he had to admit he hadn’t been so interested in Raúl himself as in what the other man stood or could stand for. When one was young, everything seemed symbolic, and more than that, desperately important.

When one was older, the symbols lessened but the importance didn’t. That grew, but of course it was always a little late to realize it. But it was just as well in this case: they might be on different sides of a political canyon, but Pep liked Raúl much better for it. For being himself, whereas if Pep had exploited that chance so many years ago, then God knew what he would have had on his hands.

“God, but you’re frustrating, Guardiola.” Luís dropped back into his seat, then arched a brow at Pep’s start. He’d gotten a glass of wine from somewhere and now he glowered over it at Pep. “What do I have to do, exactly? I don’t wish to resort to crude measures because I do respect your dignity, but I’m running out of patience.”

Pep blinked, then sighed as he stretched up and over the back of his chair. He leaned out and just caught the door with the tips of his fingers, sending it into its frame. Then he sat down and turned about just as the lights began to dim. “Respect my wishes.”

“I should have dropped a hint that you’re going to see Villa,” Luís said after a moment. A grimace passed over his face as the first high strains of the violins reached them, and he quickly drank some wine. “Then again, likely Raúl already knows that. He does have quite an organization these days, even within Villa’s own faction. He didn’t mention it?”

“I take it you mean my meeting with Villa. No, and he seemed quite pointedly up to see you, not me.”

“Oh, don’t be jealous. You know what I’m like with everyone, and the poor man needs someone who still dares to joke with him.” Someone down in the orchestra pit briefly hit a flat note and they both winced. Then Luís began to slouch in his chair, rubbing at his temple with a look on his face as if he’d just been sentenced to several years’ hard labor. “Besides, it’s only because I’m your friend.”

Pep looked sharply at Luís. But then he shook his head, leaning forward. He put one hand on the rail to support himself and peered down at the stage, where the first singer had just strode onto the boards. “Luís, for the last time. I’m not interested in corrupting Raúl.”

“Who said it’d be corruption? After this long, it seems more like a proper resolution to me,” Luís snorted. He pressed two fingers into the side of his nose, then closed his eyes as the singing began. “Good God, I haven’t had enough rioja for this.”

“She’s actually very good. If you would stop grimacing long enough to honestly listen, and…” Pep exhaled in resignation. He drew one finger along the rail. “The matter isn’t up to your wishes, Luís.”

“Exactly.” Then Luís turned and leaned over the arm of his chair, looking very hard and long at Pep.

What he was trying to convey, other than supreme irritation, was impossible to discern. Eventually Luís seemed to realize this as well and he threw himself back in his seat with an exasperated sound. “Pep, you are a brilliant man, but occasionally you can’t see the forest for the trees. Or the man for the dignity, for that matter.”

“But that’s exactly why…” Pep sighed and sat back to enjoy the opera. He could see that this wasn’t an argument he was going to win; sometimes only time could show Luís that he was wrong, and Pep could see no risk in leaving it up to that, aside from some awkward meetings. But then, he was hardly unaccustomed to those now, so even that wouldn’t be any more of a burden than he already carried.

* * *

Villa came to meet Pep at the door rather than let his secretary show Pep in, as most others would have done. He was friendly, but even smiling, he gave off an impression of great intensity. It was as if he was committing to memory every word that Pep said and movement that Pep made.

His office was opulent in size but not in furnishings; it was devoid of the elaborately baroque ornamentation in favor now, drawing instead from the starker lines of the classical era. The pieces of furniture were widely spaced apart, accentuating its size and giving it the same faintly intimidating yet hollow air of an old Roman temple. When Villa wasn’t in the room, it must seem extremely lifeless, Pep thought.

But Villa was in it, and he by himself had the air fully charged with a kind of anticipatory tension, as a beast of prey must feel upon sensing an unseen predator’s gaze. He waved Pep to a nearby chair, then leaned against the front of his desk rather than sit himself. “Well, I’m surprised to see you here. I thought that if anything, you’d agree with me. But I heard that your exile changed you a good deal.”

“I don’t believe we’ve spoken before,” Pep said after a moment, smooth and calm. He let his back rest against the chair, but kept his hands folded in his lap. “Agree with you?”

“That this place needs a change. A good razing, to get out all the old and useless things, and bring in some good for once.” Villa abruptly pushed off his desk and walked around it. His hand went down to trail along its top, briefly bumping an antique letter-box, then rose as he went to the window behind the desk. There he seized both sides of the curtains and threw them roughly apart. “This place looked the same for my father—well, if he’d been able to afford to come here. And it’s likely to stay the same for my lifetime, if they have their way.”

Pep put his hands on the arms of his chair, paused, and then eased back in his seat. “I have my disagreements with the current regime, which are well-known, but I don’t believe in the apocalyptic approach. There is something to be said for preserving order, and protecting people from undue suffering.”

“Well, the order that’s in place right now inspires more than a little suffering, wouldn’t you say?” Villa asked sharply. He looked over his shoulder at Pep, then turned around, tossing the curtains from his hands as if they were dirty rags. “Unless your years away have made you soft.”

“Being exiled generally doesn’t have that effect,” Pep said after a long moment. To be honest, he was still composing himself, but the other man seemed on the verge of spitting out more and he thought it better to deny Villa that chance. Of course Villa had no idea what he was talking about and was merely groping for a reaction, but he was closer to the mark than Pep preferred. “Señor Villa, I’m not here to discuss political matters. I know very well that I’m not a force in that arena these days, and I don’t intend—”

Villa’s brows rose, then drew together over his nose as he snorted. He crossed his arms over his chest, his heavy-lidded eyes narrow with contempt. “Oh, so you are that soft. I had a lot of respect for you, you know. You led the way, I’ll give you that much.”

“Pardon?”

“I don’t understand. You’ve won out—you made them take you back. But now that you’re back, you don’t…you want to go off in the country and retire? What is that? I don’t know what that is,” Villa said. He unfolded one arm to cut his hand sharply through the air, underlining his point. “You should be taking advantage of having the upper hand and going for blood.”

Pep drew in a long breath, then released it slowly as he leaned back in his chair. He looked at Villa’s desk, at the antique letterbox Villa had nearly knocked over a moment before. It was very fine metalwork, but slightly discolored despite being polished to a blinding gleam. Perhaps it was a family heirloom, with age having taken more of a toll on it than all the care in the world could erase. “Forgive me for not living up to your expectations, but I’ve already seen much more blood than I have wished to. It’s a high price to pay.”

“Well, sometimes it has to be paid. That’s the way of it,” Villa said sharply. But he was already turning around, utterly disgusted. He stared out the window. “And even if you don’t wish to go that far, I still don’t understand why you’ve sunk to letting them use you.”

“My affairs are none of your business, but if you’re so concerned, then I can truthfully tell you that I’m still my own man,” Pep said dryly. The letterbox was quite full, with sheets sticking out at all angles. Some of them appeared to have been there for some time, judging by their ragged state: one letter in particular had been folded unevenly and then stuffed into the box so roughly that it’d nearly torn in half. Now it hung out, letting Pep see the wax seal on it: Villa used a bat, apparently. Odd choice. “I asked for a meeting with you today because—”

“Because González is desperate enough to go outside of his loyalists, and thinks you might put me off guard because you’re such a famous opposition leader.” Villa snorted. “I’m no fool.”

Then it was quiet for a few minutes. Outside, Villa’s clerks shouted muffled things to each other, and inside, Villa uncrossed his arms and put them behind his back. He grasped one wrist with his other hand, then twisted his fingers back and forth around it. It wasn’t nervousness, not with the deep genuine anger that underpinned his challenges.

Pep got out of the chair, careful to scuff his shoes on the carpet to ensure that Villa heard. The other man’s shoulder twitched, but otherwise Villa remained still.

“I am here on his behalf, but he doesn’t know that, let alone have asked me. I’m here because I respect him—I believe he deserves it,” Pep said. He watched Villa’s back tense, and then Villa throw back his shoulders to shake it off. “And I believe that there are ways to approach political disagreements, and blackmail isn’t one of them. You dislike the current order for its failings, but you can’t build a better one if you start with the same mistakes.”

Villa glanced over his shoulder, then turned away. He unclasped his hands and put one on the sill, then snorted as he flicked his fingers rapidly against the wood. “No wonder you’re so sick of blood. Honor’s the bloodiest thing there is, and it’s even worse for pretending that it isn’t so.”

“What, exactly, do you want to accomplish with this? Raúl may not see matters your way, but he at least understands that a government requires legitimacy and trust to function. Not everyone does, and if you remove him, you could very well end up with someone truly awful.” Pep came up to the near corner of the desk, but stopped there when Villa made a slight, abrupt movement towards him. He lifted his hands so Villa could see them, then smoothed down a wrinkle in his suit.

“Oh, yes, paint me as the irresponsible one. They truly have turned you,” Villa spat out, looking at Pep. His lip curled, and then he strode away from the window towards the door. “Well, I was hoping that you’d see the point in having a role in the revolution—the very one you started, but if you’re so insistent on rejecting me, I won’t bother you any more. I don’t force people.”

“Don’t you?” Villa had swept so close that Pep had had to press back against the desk to avoid a collision. But now that the other man was past him, he stepped away from the desk, then looked down. A fresh sheet of paper caught his eye and he picked it up, then glanced up to see Villa stopped halfway to the door, watching him closely.

Villa took a step back towards Pep, but paused and frowned when he saw Pep was merely taking up a pen. “Only those who demand to be forced. I’m not unreasonable. I would like to see business done in the open air, not in the shadows. But I’m not a dreamer either. When I want to see something done, I try to see it done.”

“If you’re a reasonable man, then I would hope you think very carefully about all the consequences of what you’re about to do. I’m sorry that this hasn’t been a more pleasant discussion, but if you’d like to try again, I’ll leave my address,” Pep said, scrawling over the sheet. He finished and laid down the pen, then flapped the paper a few times to help the ink dry.

When he looked up, Villa was impatiently shifting on the balls of his feet, his desire to be rid of Pep clear for the world to see. Nevertheless Pep smiled politely and folded up the sheet, then slipped it into the letterbox. He left it sticking up above the other letters.

“Thank you for seeing me,” Pep added. He nodded to Villa, who didn’t return the gesture, and made his own way past the other man and out the door. As that shut behind him, he heard a heavy, fast tread and then the crumple of paper.

* * *

Raúl sat down and then twisted as if he were about to stand immediately back up. He looked at Pep, then away, and then at Pep again.

“You look terrible,” Pep told him.

That had not been the greeting Pep had planned to give the other man, but Raúl merely let out a hollow chuckle. He touched one of the dark circles under his eyes, then absently tucked a loose strand behind his ear; his hair was somewhat snarled, a far cry from its usual smoothness. “I’ve been contemplating my future in case you…it’s not that I don’t believe you’ll help, but for caution’s sake I need to.”

Then Pep smiled, and handed the letter to Raúl. “Actually, you don’t.”

Raúl frowned at it, flipping the torn, yellowed paper between his fingers. He began to put it away, but then stopped, looking very hard at Pep. After a long moment, he took it back out and slowly unfolded it. His eyes swept down the paper, then back up. Then again. Then he exhaled sharply, his shoulders sagging. He looked up incredulously at Pep.

“How?” he eventually said.

“I went to see him. I apologize for not telling you, but I thought it would be better if I could see to it that he wouldn’t expect it at all.” Pep got out of his chair and went over to the sideboard, where he poured out a glass of brandy. “He was about as I’d heard: very confident, very intelligent. Very concerned that he would be able to do everything that he wants to do.”

When Pep handed Raúl the glass, the other man stared at it as if he didn’t know what it was. He finally took it, but the dumbfounded look on his face had hardly faded. “But we searched his rooms. We looked—”

“I know you did, but Villa likely knew that, too. But he needed that letter to hand, not stashed away, at least for his own peace of mind—he doesn’t seem like the type who’d let such a potent weapon out of his sight.” Pep retook his seat, then couldn’t help a laugh at Raúl’s expression. Before he could think about it, he leaned forward and grasped Raúl’s arm. “No, honestly it was very clever, what he did. Clever and bold, hiding it in plain sight.”

“I hope you’re going to explain this instead of merely laughing at me,” Raúl said. He looked at his glass again, then took a long sip from him.

In the process he pulled away from Pep’s hand and did Pep a favor by allowing Pep to recover his sense. “I’m sorry,” Pep said, sitting hastily back. He rubbed his hand on his knee, then transferred it to the chair-arm when he noticed what he was doing. “I wasn’t laughing…it was impressive, how he went about it. He knew you’d search everywhere, so he thought to hide it in so obvious a way that you would never suspect it. The letter was freshly-drafted—very well, so why look at an old, torn letter stuffed into the box on his desk?”

For a moment Raúl stared at him. Then Raúl glanced at the letter in his hand. He turned it about, then unfolded it and slowly folded it so the opposite side was facing out.

“Exactly. He turned it inside-out, stamped his own seal on it, and then added a few rips here and there for authenticity.” Pep extended a finger and touched the edge of the letter. “I slipped it out during my meeting with him. He can’t reach you now.”

Raúl started to speak, but then shut his mouth tightly. He stared at Pep, strangely unhappy…and then his lips relaxed and he smiled, but he was still not nearly as relieved as he should have been. He put the letter inside his coat, then gave the glass of brandy to Pep.

Disturbed by Raúl’s odd behavior, Pep attempted to press the glass back into Raúl’s hands, but Raúl’s fingers suddenly overlapped his own. They crushed down as Raúl looked Pep deep in the eyes.

“Thank you,” Raúl said heavily. He paused as if to continue, but instead withdrew his hands, leaving the glass in Pep’s grip.

Then Raúl quietly stood and left. It was long after his back had vanished through the doorway when Pep’s fingers finally ceased tingling. Pep attempted to distract himself with some little chores, but found his thoughts too disordered and finally betook himself to Luís’ house for some restorative conversation. Luís also lived on the other side of town from Raúl, so Pep wouldn’t be so tempted.

* * *

Two days later, Pep rose as usual and found his paper in its customary place besides his breakfast. He unfolded it and laid it down to dose his coffee with cream and sugar, then began to leaf through its pages. One article caught his eye and he frowned, peering more closely at it.

The dishes clattered loudly as Pep jolted up from the table, and as he hurried away, he wasn’t entirely certain that he hadn’t knocked over the coffeepot. But he had no time for such considerations; he had to see Raúl right away.

Pep was just rushing onto his front step when Xavi pulled Luís’ carriage to a halt at Pep’s gate. The carriage’s door slammed open and Luís leaned out, mouth open. He closed it a little when he saw Pep, then ducked back into the carriage to allow Pep to bundle himself inside. “I take it you read—”

“—I did,” Pep said tersely. He yanked the door shut, then sat back as the carriage began to lurch forward. Then he looked sharply at Luís. “Did you know?”

“I don’t speak to Raúl that much these days, Pep.” Luís raised his cane and rapped on the roof of the carriage, urging Xavi to drive faster. “You didn’t know? Haven’t you been working with him lately on the matter of that…”

“I had no idea.” Pep rubbed his hands over his face, then dropped them roughly to his lap as he fell back against the wall. He stared at the empty bench opposite them. “I even spoke to Villa, but I had no…I thought it was the letter.”

To that Luís had nothing to say. He only pursed his lips and propped up his arm against the shuttered window. They continued in silence for several moments before Pep raised his arm and banged on the roof of the carriage. The rate of their passage increased and Pep cursed, then scrabbled for a handhold on the wall. His hand found the latch to the window and he lifted it, then thrust his head out. Behind him Luís exclaimed, and then Pep felt a hand on his back, but he shook that off as he shouted up at Xavi to turn about.

* * *

They arrived back at Pep’s house with such a clatter that Pep’s staff came running to see what was the matter. Then they stared—they had reason to, given that he’d left precipitously only minutes before. Unfortunately Pep had no time, and had to shoulder them out of the way with little more than a curt word or two. He heard Luís following close behind, demanding to know what he was thinking, but he had no time for Luís either.

When Pep reached his front door, he quickened his pace. He strode directly through his house into the last room before the yard—the kitchen—and then made a dash at the closing back door. His fingertips caught the edge, struggled to keep it as the rest of his body caught up, and then pushed it back so he could seize Raúl’s arm and drag the man inside.

Raúl inhaled sharply, then turned as Pep reached past him to shut the door. He stepped backwards, head down as he pushed one hand through his hair. Then he looked up into Pep’s eyes, levelly, with sadness but not surprise. “I thought a letter would be more appropriate.”

“Well, it would certainly fit with the way you’ve conducted yourself so far,” Pep snapped. He stopped, trying to think of precisely what he wanted to say next, but instead found his hands rising.

He and Raúl both looked at them. It gradually penetrated Pep’s mind that he must look as if he was going to attack the other man and he quickly put his arms down, but that only spurred Raúl into a flinch. The door rattled as Raúl knocked into it.

“At any rate, a letter isn’t likely to answer the questions I would—no, that I think you owe to me to answer,” Pep said more quietly, more slowly. He eased back a little. He thought of the servants, of Luís—well, they should know to stay out of the way. If they did not, then for once Pep would leave it to them to deal with the consequences. “You distracted me.”

“I didn’t—the letter was important. It did say everything I said—didn’t you read it?” Raúl looked at Pep, then smiled wryly as he rubbed the side of his jaw. “No, you wouldn’t have. Sometimes, Pep, I really think…but I did need it back, and I did need you to do that.”

“Why? It didn’t save you from being disgraced.” Pep passed one hand over the back of his head, then slid it down his neck and off his shoulder. He was such a famed reader of men, he thought, and yet he could not fathom what he saw in Raúl’s face. “Why go through the trouble, if you were expecting to be forced out?”

Raúl grimaced, his eyes briefly closing. He settled back against the door, but his shoulders set rigidly and when his eyes opened again, his gaze was clear and steady. “Pep, there’s a difference between losing power and being disgraced. And I’m afraid I’m not so cavalier as you are about my legacy—I accept that no man reigns forever, but I don’t wish to be infamous.”

“Neither did I,” Pep said after a long moment. Then he caught Raúl’s wince and shook his head. He breathed in, then out, and then again. He still didn’t understand, but that first flush of anger was rapidly dissipating. “No, I know what you mean, and I can’t begrudge you for taking a little more care about yourself. It’s one of my failings. Not a virtue. But…but if you knew beforehand, then why didn’t you…I would have…”

“I know, but that is why I asked you to retrieve the letter instead of dealing with this other matter.” After a moment, Raúl sighed and put out his hand to touch Pep’s arm, much as Luís would when Luís saw that Pep hadn’t seen the connections Luís had. “You would have helped, and moreover, you would have succeeded, and I—preferred that you didn’t.”

Pep began to speak right away, but then caught his lip between his teeth. He looked very hard at Raúl, who stayed motionless for it, although every inch of him bespoke his discomfort.

“Pep, I wanted Villa to do it,” Raúl said abruptly, as Pep was groping for some kind of reply. “Everything has a cycle, and mine’s been nearing its end anyway. I’m no longer—I cannot do this now, I’ve known that for a while. In the morning, I look in my mirror and I don’t recognize that man. Nor do I want to know him, and yet I do. Far too well.”

Then he closed his mouth and lifted his chin, as if he expected Pep to rail at him, abuse him. He was already composing the regret in his eyes when Pep startled it away by laughing quietly under his breath.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make light of this. But I wish you would have told me this as well, since if there’s one man in this city who understands, it would have been me.” Another harsh chuckle trickled out before Pep managed to control himself. He coughed into his hand, then looked at Raúl again. “You know, they sent me away on trumped-up charges, but that hardly means that I didn’t deserve to be sent away. Some of the things I did, and in the name of—it rather makes me blush to say ‘principle,’ given how far I strayed from it.”

“I don’t believe that. You never did a thing that you didn’t wholly believe in. You aren’t capable of that,” Raúl said, with sudden fierceness. His hand pressed down hard on Pep’s arm before he abruptly withdrew it, looking as if he’d trespassed on something precious. He looked away. “But I am. I have. Except no more—and don’t reason with me. I’m hardly letting anyone down that I haven’t already. I know what people say about me, that I’m the pillar that holds up the roof, but you’re more intelligent than that. I was never more than the latest in a line of runners, and I…I no longer have the legs.”

Pep touched Raúl’s arm, and then Raúl’s shoulder when the other man still wouldn’t look at him. “So you’re ceding the ground to Villa. As simple as that. Well, I don’t believe that. You had your faults, but you were never lacking in spine.”

“And I thankfully have that now, to know when I should go and not to hold on till I’m a parody of myself,” Raúl replied. He pulled his shoulder away from Pep, then pushed his hand up over his face. He still wouldn’t meet Pep’s eyes. “The government will survive without me. Villa’s not the man to destroy everything. He wishes he was, but he’ll find it harder going than he thinks. Now, you could have done so, but you never would have.”

“You still have so much faith in me.” The laugh that barked out of Pep then startled them both, and it was a moment before he could continue. “I could have stayed, you know. I was on the verge of…but what I would have had to do in order to stay. What I would have been afterward. At the last moment, I realized that that price was too high. I sent myself away as much as I was sent away.”

He found himself looking at the space between them, and for several moments couldn’t bring himself to raise his head, even though he sensed Raúl’s gaze on him. Then Pep sighed, and shook himself as he looked up.

“But that’s why you deserve that sort of faith.” Raúl was staring at him, quiet yet intense, those beautiful eyes for once free of their usual veil and looking quite as they had years before. They were far too open, and more than that, willing.

This again, Pep thought tiredly, feeling that familiar spike in his chest. He tried his damnedest to be a good man, but the world sometimes was no help in that endeavor, and particularly—he cursed, snatching back the hand he’d been about to put on Raúl’s cheek. “I apologize, the…the emotions of the situation…Raúl. What are you doing?”

“Something that I’ve regretted not doing for years,” Raúl said, keeping tight hold of Pep’s sleeve. He straightened up off the door as he pulled Pep towards him, narrowing the space between them from both directions. “And perhaps one of the few silver linings in this whole mess. Pep, the worst part of what I’ve let myself become is the losses I’ve let myself suffer. People call me selfish, but I’d rather think it’s foolishness, for standing back and letting certain things—people—fall by the wayside. I could have done something about your exile.”

“I don’t blame you for that. I can understand—although I do not understand what you’re doing now, except that I have never wished to take advantage of you.” A strange lassitude had taken over Pep and he only now shook it off, pushing up his arms to block the other man. But his hands seemed to have a life of their own and instead of lying flat, they curled over Raúl’s shoulders. “You’re distraught, and I am—am not a saint, dear God, so if you don’t have a care—”

Raúl snorted and suddenly stepped up till he was nearly touching Pep—he was touching Pep, his hands settling on either side of Pep’s waist. A faint scent of starch and lavender-water rose from him; Pep could see a small trickle of sweat running down the man’s neck and into his collar. “Pep, that would have been appropriate when I was twenty-two. I’m thirty-one now. This is not taking advantage of me.”

They were so close that Raúl’s breath puffed against Pep’s lips as the other man spoke. Pep’s fingers, still of their own mind, kneaded and pressed against Raúl’s shoulders, and while that couldn’t be enjoyable, Raúl merely arched up against it, so Pep was looking down directly into Raúl’s eyes.

But then Raúl faltered. He tensed, his eyes searching Pep’s face, and the openness began to drain from his face. “Or did that die abroad?” he asked softly.

Pep looked at him, and swallowed hard. Except his swallow never passed the lump in his throat and instead forced itself back up, parting his lips in a sharp inhale. His eyes closed and he bent his head. Their lips just grazed before he pulled back his head, breathing hard and blinking rapidly.

The shoulders under his hands stiffened. “Oh, I see—”

“No,” Pep said roughly. “God, no.”

He only glimpsed Raúl’s face—startled eyes—as he stooped again. Quickly, too quickly to be graceful and he caught Raúl’s mouth as it tried to move, pressed it hard. But it still shifted beneath his own lips, yet he couldn’t pay it any mind. Not after this long, after so much, and still he had Raúl pushing hands up his back, leaning into him. Not minding the way Pep forced them back against the door, all his composure gone, pinioning Raúl’s head between his hands and his mouth. Died abroad. Good God, but some nights he’d dreamed of this and it had been so real, so present he’d been fooled into believing in it, only to wake to the cold truth.

But the truth was warm now, warm and pliant in his hands, and—God, they were in the kitchen. Pep forced up his head, then looked wildly about, but couldn’t catch sight of the other door. Unless he turned completely around, but then he’d have to release…he turned back, half-hearing Raúl’s gravelly words, and was nearly pushed over by the force of Raúl’s assault. The other man seized him by the neck, nearly strangling Pep, and then seemed to be making an attempt to smother Pep’s mouth as well…but no, he was kissing frantically at Pep’s jaw, cheek, whatever he could reach. Saying…demanding…no, not demanding. It was too desperate for that.

To hell with the servants, Pep thought. His name had been dragged through the mud for far worse.

He got a handful of Raúl’s coat and dragged the other man back against the door, then pried down Raúl’s wrists and pinned them to the wood as he took Raúl’s mouth, making it clear he wasn’t leaving. Oh, no, he wasn’t leaving. He’d left once, when he should have, but he was not making that error again. And he was not leaving this, this sweet mouth, not now that he’d had it. That had been why he’d been afraid to start in the first place, because he’d known he would never be able to walk away. He tried to have principles, but he was no true martyr.

Raúl struggled, then gave in with an alacrity that threatened to drop Pep to his knees. His knees knocked into Pep’s legs as he strained up to meet Pep, and then, as Pep let his mouth slip from Raúl’s lips to Raúl’s jaw, he let out such a loud moan that Pep shivered. But his skin, flushed hot under Pep’s tongue, it was too inviting and Pep quickly distracted himself with pursuing that trickle of sweat down Raúl’s neck. He mouthed the tendons as they rose and fell with Raúl’s rasping breathes, then finally let go of Raúl’s left hand to tear open the man’s collar.

Once that was undone, Pep’s hand seemed as frenzied as the rest of him, and continued downwards to wrench at buttons and pins. Raúl brought up his free arm to loop over Pep’s neck, making no attempt to forestall the mauling of his clothes. He groaned again, directly into Pep’s ear, and then he somehow twisted his head about to catch the lobe of Pep’s ear between his teeth. It stung, and then didn’t; Pep jerked his head to take his ear out of danger and Raúl didn’t pursue the matter, but instead pressed openmouthed kisses to Pep’s cheek. The sting slowly smoothed out into a tingling warmth that joined the flow of fire now coursing through Pep’s blood.

Enough fastenings came loose for Pep to finally have his hand on bare skin and he made the most of his access, stroking his fingers along the line of every muscle. He couldn’t see—he had Raúl’s mouth again and he couldn’t bear to release it long enough to look—so he saw with his hand. Hands, both of them, and Raúl now gripping Pep’s shoulders as Pep rudely pushed back Raúl’s shirt-tails, shoved down Raúl’s trousers, disheveled him without any care at all, as if they weren’t both extremely proper gentlemen of breeding and rank and no, they weren’t. They weren’t gentlemen right now. They weren’t even men. Men would think

Pep didn’t think. He had his hands working for him, his fingers folding around the heavy length of Raúl’s prick and Raúl gasped, arching up against the door so Pep could see him, could see the red spots in his cheeks and the glaze over his eyes. The sheen of sweat over his brow and Pep kissed at that, as if he was forgiving the other man. He was thinking no such thing.

He saw the bottles on the counter beside them. He grasped blindly at them, and several fell over and began to spill out their contents as their tops jiggered free. One had olive oil that coated thickly over his fingers as he pressed his hand down on the counter, trying to keep his balance against the sudden fingers at his groin. He staggered and his palm slid one way, then the other as he managed to straighten up. His loosened trousers began to slip down his hips as he took Raúl by the elbow, twisted him about to face the door, and then stepped up to press hard into the other man, his oiled hand already working between Raúl’s legs.

Raúl did himself no favors by making it so damnably easy. He tried to claw up the door once, at the very beginning, and then he breathed in deep and fast, slackening his muscles so Pep didn’t have a reason to wait. When Pep slid into him, Raúl snapped back his hand and grasped Pep’s thigh, but otherwise did nothing to suggest he wanted a say in it, and so Pep didn’t give him time for that. Too maddened by the heat in his blood at that point, irrational—Pep dug his nails into Raúl’s sides and his teeth into Raúl’s shoulder, and had the man up against the door. Fucked him, to be vulgar, and it was vulgar, vulgar and rough and ruthless.

The door at least helped them to stand in the aftermath, when both Pep’s body and mind seemed on the verge of collapse. He pressed his forehead into the wood, and then lower, against the side of Raúl’s head, trying to catch his breath.

“But why the business with the letter?” he finally gasped.

An odd sound came from Raúl, a sort of strangled cross between a laugh and a sigh. Then Raúl took three breaths, each progressively slower than the last. His hand unclenched from Pep’s laugh and he brought it back around, pushing both hands up the door to just above his shoulders. “Pep, if you’d known what else Villa had against me, you would have saved me no matter what you understood about what I wanted. So I needed you occupied elsewhere.”

“I—no, not that letter. I guessed as much. The other one…the one you were just leaving.” Pep slowly unwound himself from the other man. He nearly had to grit his teeth against the loss of warmth; it was cold in the kitchen without Raúl’s body pressed against his. “Where, exactly, do you think you’re running off to? Did you honestly think I’d let you be, once I figured out how you’d tricked me?”

Raúl pushed his hands up the door a little further. His shoulders rose and fell, then seemed to reach a comfortable level as he lowered his hands. After another moment, he turned around. “Well, you let me be for nearly a decade,” he said, rather evenly.

“I—” Pep reluctantly, embarrassingly stopped that remark from leaving his lips “—that was because I didn’t—”

“—want to take advantage of me, I know.” For the first time, a trace of irritation showed on Raúl’s face, setting his jaw at a distractingly tempting angle. He leaned back against the door and Pep did his best to pay attention to the conversation and not the other man’s state of undress. “Pep, you are one of the most brilliant men I know, but you’re utterly idiotic when it comes to certain matters. I wasn’t running away. I was leaving a letter because I knew if we spoke right away, you’d be too worried about me to listen to anything else, as if I’m still that boy. I’m not. I know very well what I’m doing when I let you…you…”

He gestured vaguely, suddenly faltering, and Pep’s eyes inevitably dropped from Raúl’s face. “—toss you against a door and have you like I’ve wanted to have you since the first time you looked through those damn lashes at me?” Pep blurted.

Raúl’s dying flush immediately renewed itself. He bit his lip, blinking. His gaze didn’t drop from Pep, but he began to nervously pick at his disarrayed clothing. “Incidentally, I don’t think I’ve made sacrifices in vain. I think I’ve done a good deal—enough that I’m now content to stop, and be able to spend time with those whom I care about.” A touch of bitterness suddenly curled his mouth. “Those whom I haven’t already lost, anyway.”

“Well, I’m a good deal harder to lose than most,” Pep said after a long moment. He took a slow step towards the other man, and then the second he needed to be able to slide his fingers into the curling locks by Raúl’s temple. “Although Luís informs me I try far too hard at it. But you’ve already come to know that.”

“Pep, you did have me the first time we met, and ever since,” Raúl said simply.

Pep exhaled sharply. For all his vaunted intelligence, he…could not come up with a worthy response to that. So he put his hand around Raúl’s jaw and kissed the man. When he felt Raúl’s arms come around him, he leaned closer.

* * *

“Although I have no idea what we’re to do in our illustrious retirement,” Pep said. He lifted his teacup to his lips, doing his best to ignore both the lingering blush on his face and the urge to reach over and slap Luís. This was a necessary discussion and they were going to conduct it in a rational manner, and given all the help Luís had provided by way of excuses and distractions, Luís deserved to smirk in that manner at him. “I have to admit, I’m a bit ashamed at how deeply I sank into the matter of the letter, but I can take a warning when I see one. Clearly I’m not made to sit about in idleness. He’s not either.”

Luís made the barest hint towards rolling his eyes as he fingered a watercress sandwich. “No, you’re not, but it could also be possible that you still haven’t learned to relax. It is occasionally helpful to be able to work at an intensity that’s less than every fiber of your being.”

“Raúl agrees with you, and has insisted on inviting me to see his country estate. It should be a lovely family vacation—we’ve not visited each other socially in some time.” Pep arched his brows as Luís choked a little on the bit of sandwich he’d just attempted to eat. “I know that certain types of personal relations aren’t my strong point—probably a large factor in my failure as a politician—but even I can see that…Luís.”

“Not that.” The other man swallowed hard, then chased that down with a long draught of tea. Then he straightened up, half-heartedly trying to compose himself. “No, that’s a wonderful idea, and saves me the time of reasoning with your wives. No, it’s merely…Pep, if I’d known you’d dote on him so much, I would have arranged to have you two stuck in a hunting lodge on a rainy evening years ago. You’re all but purring. Though granted, he’s always looked rather like he could use a few loving licks.”

Pep set down his teacup and looked hard at Luís over it.

Of course, Luís ignored him and served himself some of the English-style pastries. “Go on your country vacation. Roll around in bed with him till he loses that weary look of his, and then come talk to me when you’re back. I might have a matter or two where I could use help.”

“If I can do anything, I would be…willing to give you a hearing,” Pep said carefully. When Luís glanced at him, he shrugged as carelessly as Luís might. “You are my dearest friend, Luís. But it occurs to me that lately I’ve forgotten to inquire after whom you’re currently entertaining.”

For a moment Luís eyed him, expression unreadable. But just as Pep was beginning to feel concern, a broad smile broke out over Luís’ face. He leaned back in his seat, looking dangerously pleased with himself. “Thank God. It’s lovely like a spring morning to see you content for once, but I would hate for you to lose your sharpness. There’d be no one left to partner me for a decent conversation.”

“Luís…”

“Oh, there’s a few underhanded affairs. My usual fellow Portuguese—my old friend Rui Costa’s in town, and I really must introduce you two sometime. I’ve picked up some likely young men from the last time I was in Barcelona, and there is a very earnest attaché to the Romanian ambassador…of course, you’re going to keep out of all of that because first you need to learn how to take off your boots before you shove someone against a door…”

“Luís!”

The man merely nibbled his pastry. “Anyway, the real mystery always was why you restrained yourself with him for so long. You never did with anything else.”

“Perhaps I thought I was being good,” Pep said after a long pause. He leaned forward and touched the handle of his teacup, then curled two fingers around it. “Perhaps I was right, for once. At any rate, I see no point in inquiring into that now. It’s a dead matter.”

“Thank God. I don’t think I could stand another round of you two making hopeless cow’s eyes at each other.” Luís smiled again, and lifted his half-eaten pastry in a playful mockery of a toast. “Welcome back, Guardiola.”

Pep tried to look sternly at Luís, but the corners of his mouth persisted in curling upwards. Finally he laughed, nodding, and they settled into their old comfortable routine.

* * *

Bonus Scene

David shouldered aside the butler and seized the doorknob. He was momentarily surprised to find it wasn’t locked, but his irritation quickly rushed that away. He flung open the door, then stormed into the room. “González, I don’t know what you were thinking but I need those ledgers and you’re going to tell me where—er.”

Guardiola blinked at David over the top of what appeared to be the latest three-part novel from Catalonia. He was sitting up against the headboard, with his lower body under the sheets and his upper body impeccably garbed in a quilted velvet dressing-gown. Then he frowned and lowered his book, revealing a dark-haired head pillowed on his breast. The sheets were tented up over most of the face, leaving visible only a bit of nose and one eye, which was squeezed tightly shut.

Then the eye opened and found David. Raúl slowly pulled himself up, yawning and sleepily fluttering his lashes. He only wore a night-shirt with the collar undone nearly down to the middle of his chest. “Villa?”

David abruptly remembered he was upset. “You! Where did you hide them? Do you honestly think you can thwart me with this sort of nonsense? You lost, fair and square, and—”

Raúl sighed and rubbed at his eyes. “What are you looking for?” he muttered, as if he didn’t much care.

“The accounts for the Treasury clerks,” David said, too thrown to answer any other way. “We need them to issue salary checks, and the clerks say unless they’re paid, they’re not going to tell me what the budget is—”

“Oh, that? Iker has those. That’s why he’s the head accountant.” And then Raúl began to lie back down, curling up against Guardiola as if David wasn’t standing right there. He twitched the sheets so they covered his nose. “Go ask him.”

This was not any kind of tactic or stratagem David had ever seen before. For a moment he honestly didn’t know what to do. And then his ire began to rise again, because he hated feeling like that and of course Raúl would try to put him off his guard. “Wait a moment, now. You can’t just—dismiss me—”

Guardiola suddenly snapped shut his book and pointed it at David, the planes of his face hardening so that David stopped before the other man even spoke. “Take one more step and I will personally see you out, Villa. This is a private residence and unless you can present some official authorization, you’ve no right to come in here.”

Several minutes passed in tense silence. It had been rumored, David recalled, that Guardiola only seemed more refined than his opponents. That book in the man’s hand also looked quite weighty.

Raúl grunted and pushed his head into Guardiola’s shoulder. “Is he still there?” he asked in a muffled voice.

“Unfortunately,” Guardiola said, exasperated. “What part of ‘retired’ does he not understand?”

“What are you doing?” David blurted out. “You—you two don’t even—I thought you—”

“Villa, I’m trying to sleep, and Pep’s trying to educate me on Catalan prose. Go bother Iker. He’s young enough to take it,” Raúl mumbled.

David nearly took a step forward before remembering Pep still had a heavy book. “You’re supposed to be miserable and crushed! You’re not supposed to be cuddling!”

Pep meaningfully hefted the book. “Villa, the door is behind you.”

This was…David shook his head. He looked at them again, then turned around. After another head-shake, he slowly exited the room. “That is not fair,” he said under his breath. “Not fair.”

Inside the bedroom, Pep looked down at the man lying on his shoulder. “No wonder you were sick of dealing with him. He doesn’t even know who has the accounts and he wants to run the government?”

“He’s not brainless, he’ll learn,” Raúl said, stretching slightly. He held the pose, then exhaled slowly as he relaxed against Pep. “Where were we? Did Luís Enrique find out who duped his father yet?”

Pep opened his book to the place where he’d left off, then flipped back several pages. He glanced at Raúl, then retrieved his bookmark from the table and stuck it where Raúl thought they’d left off. He’d already read this one before and it was an excellent story, so it wasn’t much of a hardship to reread it. Or to put it off. “Not quite,” he replied, setting the book aside. He put one arm around Raúl and used his other to hold up the sheets as he slid under them. “But I think that that can wait till tomorrow night.”