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Precious Platinum Secrets

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Ow. I've regained consciousness in pain often enough over the years, however, that I'm no longer surprised by it. Even have a routine when it happens, the first step being that I remember that I have a routine. Second, I see if I can remember who I am. (I suppose if I didn't remember I was Mrs. Garrett's favorite son, I probably wouldn't remember I have a checklist either, but …) Steps three and four pretty much go together too. Who did this to me and why?

This time around, though, I was coming up blank on both. While it certainly felt like I'd been on the receiving end of a Saucerhead Tharpe special, I wasn't remembering that I'd been involved in anything that would have earned me it. Never mind that Saucerhead wouldn't have done this to me, probably.

He'd accepted that kind of job once and, yeah, work is work and we're all just trying to get by in our little piece of the world call TunFaire. Sometimes that even mean doing things you'd otherwise skip if desperate to put food in your mouth. But Saucerhead had been flush in booze and babes over the last few months, thanks to me subcontracting out some of my own investigations, and so he'd be even less likely to contract against me.

Fuzzy though I may be, my memories wanted to put Saucerhead traveling to Full Harbor anyway, playing bodyguard or something for one of the dwarven families that were getting out of TunFaire while they still could, with life, limb and lentils intact. Course, that could have been a memory from last month - or six months ago, given how many non humans had been departing for friendlier climes as us humans were flexing our increasing power and boredom now that the war in the Cantard was nearly over and our native sons were stumbling home with no one to fight but their neighbors and each other.

Even if my recollections did have holes in them and Saucerhead was around, when I tried to move I discovered another pretty good reason to figure this hadn't been his handiwork. Bad idea given how my body screamed at me, but pretty reasonable logic -- I was still alive. Saucerhead isn't often more than a bone breaker, but he did know his way around a body's body. Breath-stealing agony and more experience were telling me that whoever had done this had tried damn hard, but either hadn't known what they were doing, or had been interrupted before they could finish.

I liked that last thought better, assuming the interruption wasn't because the boss had decided they wanted me alive so they could continue to beat on me. If someone was out to beat me dead … well that's awfully damn hard to recover from (even though my partner, the Dead Man's done it. But then he's a Loghyr and they don't move around much even when they're alive since they can piggyback their brain onto someone else's and experience life vicariously, but without the risk. Damn voyeurs!). No, if someone really wanted me dead, they probably weren't going to give up just because I'd managed to avoid it somehow.

Unfortunately I couldn't remember the escape any more than I could the start. Leaving me with only what I could figure out right now as I curled around myself.

Okay, then, first - I wasn't home. No Dead Man in the back of my brain, or the sounds or smells that meant Dean had been hovering even if he might have gone off to his own bed instead of watching over me in mine. No squawks from the Goddamn Parrot, either, or the simple noises of the denizen living or doing business along Macunado Street.

Second, I hurt. A lot. But once I managed to distance myself away from the pain and sorta send messages to my body to think about moving again without actually doing so, it didn't really feel like anything was broke. Except maybe my head. Someone had tried to bust it open, or -

No, the stinging patches I could also feel on my face (without actually raising a hand to feel them) weren't from bruising and swellings so much as from scrapes. Like I'd taken a tumble, or had been dragged for a distance - both occurrences I'd had plenty of experience in. I could feel stiffness along my arms, along my entire front (chest, knees), and I had several linen bandages wrapped around various bits. There was also a sharp pain across my upper back that was not bandaged, so at least it wasn't a significant slice or puncture, whatever else had caused it.

Dragged after being whacked, then? Except I didn't feel any specific abrasions around my unwrapped wrists or ankles, and I did feel a few more minor stings elsewhere on my back, thighs and calves. So, a fall (push?) then, of some distance? Like out of wagon and then I'd rolled?

Or, maybe whoever had beaten on me used a variety of implements.

I wasn't tied up or down, however. Yet they'd taken my clothes.

That was just rude, as well as a little freaky. The only time I liked being naked was when I had a bit of fluff in bed with me, preferably with red hair (that always looked real pretty against the white pillowcases). And I was definitely in a bed. Which was also freaky, because what kind of bruno beats someone up, then strips them, washes them up, and tucks them in. (I know there are those kind - Hell, I'd even fought a few of them in the last couple of months and I did not want to be thinking of Maggie Jean, the Rainmaker, or his boys along with me naked and in a bed. Cleaver was dead, anyway, and his 'gang', those not dead right along with him, had been run out of town or were guests courtesy of TunFaire's not so secret, secret police.)

Could be the work of Belinda Contague, TunFaire's new king(queen)pin of crime even though the rest of the city thought it was still her father calling the shots, I suppose. But Belinda would never have made secret about having me beaten -- or rescued. And I would never have been left alone in her room, much less a bed, regardless.

Wherever I was, I was pretty sure I was alone. I couldn't hear anything other than my own blood pounding in my head (no street sounds at all, which was beyond freaky because that either meant magic, really, really expensive construction, or that I wasn't in TunFaire anymore). But I'd gotten pretty good in the last couple of years in being able to just sense if someone was nearby, no doubt, in part, to my partner's heavy handed-use of his mental abilities -- even on me -- which might almost be an even trade off. The bed was comfortable and big, which meant I wasn't at Tinnie's either, not that we ever shared a bed at her place what with all the cousins and her uncle there -

Nothing else for it. I was going to have to open my eyes.

Helping not at all and actually hurt, as I had known it would. I'd felt sunlight warming the room, but not my skin, and the reason why was obvious once I did open my eyes to the blinding light of mid-day. Through a window that looked out over nothing I recognized, but that made sense since there was nothing about the room I recognized either.

Definitely not Belinda's bedroom. I'd not actually seen the inside of hers, of course, but I did know the estate she ran her father's empire from, and the outside had none of the features expected - like the thunderlizards roaming outside the window on guard duty. The room overall was too small, also, to be within the main house and, while not overtly masculine to the point of having dead animal or thunderlizard heads staring at me from the paneled walls, I could just tell it belonged to a man and not a women. Who from what little I could see, had better taste than our queen behind the crimelord, even if he wasn't, quite, in Belinda's pay bracket.

What it brought to mind was one of the houses lower down the on the Hill (if maybe a bit more comfortable instead of a showcase) where the rich or important, but not rich and important people lived. A thought that was maybe even more troubling than being beholding to Belinda. It made much less sense, too. I made of point of staying as far down under the radar of the Lords who ran 'civilized' TunFaire. Yeah, I've worked for (and against) a couple of them, but I'd always managed to clean up everything in the end and they weren't the type of folk to remember who helped them get dressed in the morning, nevermind someone that might have figured them out of a jam some months ago and so now they wanted to return the favor.

For all my logic and thought processes, I still had many more questions than speculations of answers. I wasn't sure I was up to walking yet, but figured I'd better see if it was in my near (or far) future. I still had to figure out the why too; even if I just dumped myself onto the floor, I'd be making noise. That should bring someone in if I was being tended. Or minded.

What can I say; the knack for being subtle in strategy was Morley Dotes' forte, not mine.

Just lifting my head nearly put an end to even my ruminations. But I sucked up the whimper that wanted to grow up to be a scream, closed my eyes to stop encouraging my stomach from joining the room in spinning, and managed to sit up although I was holding onto the bedframe hard enough to feel new raw spots along my tightening skin.

Once I was pretty sure my eyes and my stomach weren't going to play any more tricks on me, I looked around some more. Spotted my boots down near the end of my bed, and some clothing. Not mine, but obviously left for me. I leaned over to see if I could reach the shirt on top. Without falling over or throwing up.

The shirt was neither fancy nor shabby, pretty non descript in styling and neutral in color, and was probably something I might have picked up had I been shopping for something new. And if it had fit; it was a little big which was saying something since I top out at about six feet two.

The pants now uncovered were leather, of sturdy, good craftsmanship, and again too big, but my own belt was coiled on top of them so I could probably manage them too. The belt, when I picked it up next, was damp, but with water, not blood and so I was able to slow my breathing down pretty much right away.

There were bandages around my waist, but no blood there either, when I looked down to check. Yeah, I'd been tended and washed off, but no doctor I or my friends could afford would have clean me up that good. If there'd been enough blood to soak my belt, I'd still have some on me below where it had rested. Not to mention that I'd never have been able to sit up without confirming in excruciating detail a wound of that significance across my stomach.

Feeling emboldened by this bit of logic, I bent over to give my boots a better gander and, yeah, they looked a bit darker - like they were damp too. This closer proximity to either the belt or the boots brought me a whiff of the something they might have been trying to clean off. Smoke. Not the type of odor that clings a bit from whatever type of weed they're using as tobacco when you tavern hop in places a lot more fun than Morley's Joy House (and since he doesn't really serve beer there, there's no point in calling it a tavern and hardly one for it being the Joy House, because even his clientele couldn't really being enjoying the oats and grains and other rabbit food that was all he offered). This smoke was deeper, richer almost, like from a fire, but using really fine woods, or --

Enough of my memory came rushing back that I no longer cared if the clothing was too big or that my body really wanted to protest against the sudden demands I began putting on it. But fear and horror (and guilt) were a much more powerful motivator than pain, and I was damned if I was going to stay here (where?) any longer, being cared for by someone when Tinnie, and her family -

I'd been walking Tinnie back home after a nice enough dinner at Morley's place (and yeah, it was called the Palms, now, not the Joy House, and the fare was a bit more expansive as he was trying to attract a more upscale type of folk into it, although it was still all vegetarian). I'd just seen her to one of the doors that looked like it belong to no place special, but instead led beyond the front of a rather rundown neighborhood building and eventually into an interior open courtyard of the astonishingly nice compound that was interconnected to a lot of non descript doors behind which were housed all of the Tates, their families and their workplace. Kissing Tinnie good night while ignoring the derisive snort of her cousin Rose, and the jibes and catcalls from some of her brothers and other cousins who'd been there to greet our arrival, I had made it back out onto the street to head back to my own home when the world exploded behind me.

I still didn't remember actually feeling myself being thrown through the air hard enough to end up face down across the cobblestones lining the other side of the street, but I could remember the smell of the smoke as the Tate Compound and bits of my clothing and skin began to burn.

The part of my mind that wasn't caught up in the memories of the screams and shouting and finally, the wail of the alarm to summon the fire brigade, along with the bit that wasn't doing its damnedest to convince all of my body parts to keep working, if not in harmony, was managing to catalog more of the house that I was now rushing out of. Decorated tastefully throughout but with a definite feeling of infrequent actual habitation (and no one trying to stop me from leaving), I'd just about convinced myself it was one of the lower houses on the Hill despite there being no reason that I would have been taken there after the explosion. The Bledsoe, maybe, but thank all the little gods that that hadn't happened because once locked up in that crazy floor of our public 'hospital' was enough, thank you very much.

Until I actually made it outside.

I still didn't recognize the home, but I did now know the area. For whatever reason, I'd been taken about five miles out from TunFaire's South gate. I wasn't convinced I could actually see Eleanor's (General Stantnor's) house from this courtyard I now stood in, but I knew it was nearby, and there was a part of me that wanted to be gibbering about those terrors of the past instead of what I knew was still before me. I was still very conflicted about Eleanor, my old Sarge and his old boss who'd turned out to be a rat bastard long before he'd become a war hero.

For once I was even grateful to see that there was a horse stabled off to the side; walking, even a wagon would have been too slow and, quite probably, beyond my ability to manage in my condition. I didn't bother saddling the horse, didn't even bother giving it a preemptive evil eye before it did the same unto me.

I wasn't one to generally try to curry divine favor, but I did so now as I swung myself upward onto its broad back. That I wouldn't fall off or be thrown; that it hadn't been days that had passed - that Tinnie would still be alive once I got back to her.

~~~~

I've done way too many things in my life that still give me nightmares (the whole five years of service as a Fleet Marine in the Cantard, cleaning out a Vampire nest, finding Eleanor and her killer), but that ride was probably going to be the featured show for at least a few nights once I did manage to get some sleep again. I don't actually remember a lot of it other than a few, fleeting impressions of trees and dirt, then people and dirt and people and cobblestone, all the while my mind replayed what I remember of the night of the explosion. I was probably damn fortunate that the horse seemed to know its way back to TunFaire.

Or maybe the gods really did smile down on us mere mortals a time or two.

I didn't fall off and I made it to TunFaire even if I ended up heading toward Playmate's smithy instead of Tinnie's. (Or maybe the horse did, which made its own sense if it had come from TunFaire with me in the first place, that whoever had taken me away had known who I was and who my friends were - except why hadn't they just dropped me off home to the not so dubious protection of the Dead Man if they'd known all of that?). I'd still have a fair walk to the Tate compound, but I could do the streets from here in my sleep (also fortunate since I feared my current hold on consciousness was only due to fear and adrenalin), and I could likely talk Playmate into coming with me.

Up until this point, I'd been purposely trying not to think of why the Tate compound had exploded. Shoemakers rarely had accidents that resulted in things blowing up and even more rarely had enemies that would want to blow things up. But there were several families living there with kids and unattachs who could have gotten into anything (and considering how I'd met Tinnie in the first place had been account of her brother and some trouble he'd gotten into with his army buddies before the war should have made it all moot by getting him killed). More likely, though, was that it had been on account of me, somehow.

Revenge or a grudge, even though I wasn't working on anything right now, dammit! Tinnie had been attacked once before because of my business of sticking my nose into other people's business (and while it had been a case of mistaken identity in that they thought Tinnie was someone else, that someone else had been coming to find me, and pretty much all of the clan except for Tinnie had been having some difficulty over the risks her relationship with me seemed to put her into).

"Heaven forefend, Garrett!" But instead of plying me with a bunch of questions, or making snide comments or jokes with regard to how I must have looked, panting, sweating and shaking from the gut-wrenching and bruising ride, my nine foot tall, black as coal friend simply hosted me off of the snorting beast as if I was no bigger than one of the street kids I'd nearly run down in my haste to get here. He propped me up against the nearest wall of the stable, then turned to look after the horse, but I was okay with that. Whether it was one of his or not, Playmate looked out for every one, man or beast, and it wasn't as if I was going to be able to even talk for a few minutes until I got myself back under control.

I chaffed at the thought of any further delay, but knew I wouldn't be walking out of here for those same few minutes either. In fact, I let myself slide down the wall until I was sitting amongst one of the open bales of hay and simply rested my head and body against the support that the wall was giving me while Playmate did his thing.

Next thing I knew, Playmate was kneeling down in front (and still towering over me), a towel and a tin cup that probably held water instead of beer, but which I took gratefully anyway, along with the towel, before he had any thought of rubbing me down like one of his charges. The horse wasn't visible anymore, so I guess I took more than a few minutes and needed to go a bit further away than I'd first figured.

"Word on the street is that you're dead, Garrett," he said gravely, and with a look that said maybe I wasn't that far from it although, considering everything, I wasn't feeling near as bad as I had when I'd first awaken.

Sure, I was still a body of burns and bruises, but the actual stiffness from being blown up had pretty much worked its way out of me through the ride (and I just had new areas of stiffness from riding bareback). But the rumor made sense and his concern was a comfort. With me not turning up before now, even if the blaze had only been last night, no doubt most people thought I was dead. I still wasn't sure if I'd been gotten out of the way for protection or for later harm, though everything was pointing to the former over the latter. Because of the latter, however, it might have been a good idea to let folks keep on thinking I was dead, but I'd rode through that rumor like the entire Venageti army had been on my tail. Someone would have recognized me, even on a horse, and it was likely that news of wild ride would get to several interesting places well before I did.

"Have you heard anything about Tinnie?" Playmate was a friend, and TunFaire wasn't that big that something like an explosion outside of any place other than in the Tenements wouldn't have made the rounds. But I also purposely avoided involving Playmate in any of my general endeavors other than as an occasional source of information - and livery. He wasn't really one of the 'inner circle' as some had called the folks like Morley and Saucerhead, and even Winger. He would likely know general details, but actual names or numbers of the dead -

Playmate shook his head and helped me up. "The fire gutted about half of the Tate's place, and a couple more of the buildings nearby, but everyone's being mum on the actual number of dead or injured, and any of the names. It's been near to two days, and when you didn't show up to check on them …" He kinda shrugged, then gave me a slow grin. "I'm glad you're not dead, Garrett."

"Me too," and I tried to smile back as I let him help me stay steady on my feet.

I didn't bother to ask if he knew what had caused the explosion. Because of the Tate's money and standing (both due to the previously lucrative contract of providing the Karentine army and marines with their boots), the Guard would be investigating. But even I might have trouble getting the details from Colonel Block or Inspector Relway. I'd be asking, of course, and the trouble would be theirs if they didn't cough it up, but I had other, undoubtedly more reliable and accurate sources to go to for particulars, if this was anything more than a terrible accident.

"Can you help me get over there?" Undoubtedly Playmate had work to be doing for himself if not an actual commission, but I also had no doubt that he'd be taking off his apron, stoking the firepits and locking up the gate to his smithy just as soon as I asked. Playmate was too good a person to really be my friend, but any time I'd ever tried to distance our relationship for his sake, he'd ignored all of my efforts without even given me one of those looks as others of my dubious friends excelled at.

Playmate kept the questions easy and general even as he kept me on a reasonably even keel all the way there. He asked after Dean and the Dead Man as if he'd done more than just met either of them in passing, and made a few comments about how the war winding down was affecting TunFaire and not all to the good. About how the deplorable actions and incitements of the Call against the non humans, were becoming all too common place. Playmate's stable wasn't actually in the Safety Zone (the so called neutral territory where anyone could walk with impunity), but he'd always been one to treat everyone the same (fairly), whether they were human, elfin, dwarf, one of the breeds or even centaurs. And everyone respected him right back, even if he was friends with that troublemaker Garrett.

Though he'd warned me with his casual mention of the extent of the damage to the compound and surrounding area, I hadn't been prepared for the sheer amount of destruction we were now facing. Tinnie, Rose, I didn't see how any of the ones who'd been near me upon my departure could still be alive -

"Garrett!" and "You're dead!" came from the shadows across the street from the Compound's ruins. I didn't startle because I recognized both voices (and because good investigators never showed when they were caught by surprise). I was even glad to see them (even Winger despite her sounding almost unhappy that I wasn't dead), almost choking up a little bit, because it was obvious that they were keeping an eye on whatever Tates were left remaining, and they would only be doing that for my sake, despite me being dead as they'd thought.

Of course, them thinking I was dead too, meant it wasn't either of them who had spirited me away, and I was back to being a bit freaked out about not knowing who was behind that bit of the puzzle.

"Nobody but the City Watch has been sniffing around the place," Saucerhead told me as he nodded his head to Winger, who then sidled up to Playmate to chat him up.

They would have made a striking couple, her a match to his size and strength with her height matching my own, her blond coloring a fetching contrast to his darkness. Playmate probably wouldn't have even minded that she was back-country born and bred, could probably gentle the crudeness out of her and help her soften from trying so hard to fit into the life she'd taken to carve out for herself. Trouble was Winger was about as amoral as they came and looked out for herself even if that meant setting up a friend, something someone like Playmate could not condone or forgive. Winger never saw her actions as betrayal, never held a grudge (as long as you didn't either), and was reliable in her own way, as long as you always remembered never to trust her not to have an angle (kinda like Morley, except Morley did have a very narrow moral line that he wouldn't cross which, being the only true assassin amongst my company of leg-breaker friends, was sometimes hard to wrap my brain around).

"A couple of Chodo's men are watching your place," Saucerhead continued in a much lower voice. "I'm pretty sure Morley's got someone nearby too, all making sure there's no trouble there for Dean or His Nibs. Relway does too, but he's probably hoping for something to happen that would get an undead Loghyr out of his city."

Chodo meant Belinda, of course, since her father, though still alive, no longer had the brain cells to rub together to generate speech or movement or pretty much anything else but breath. I was a bit surprised that Belinda had done more than get the word out not to mess with mine, since all of this involved the woman Belinda considered a rival (but I would never, ever, take Belinda into my bed). And generally it still bothered me that any of the Outfit decided I was someone they looked out for; at times I could even empathize with Morley's desperation to remain an independent operator, beholding to none of the gangs (except those he'd gathered as his own, but more like family than Family). But at the moment I was grateful for any support and backup I could get.

"Do you know… is Tinnie -"

Saucerhead shrugged, much as Playmate had when I'd asked the same question. "I think Morley knows, on account of Rose, but I haven't seen him since that first night."

"On account of Rose what?" and I didn't even hear the rest of his words.

Saucerhead cocked his head and looked at me as if I was the slow one between us. "On account of their past relationship," he frowned. "You more banged up than you look, Garrett?"

I shook my head, which wasn't really the brightest thing to do, but steadied myself away from his helping hand once things stopped spinning. "I thought you meant on account of Rose's injuries or …" I didn't want to say it even for Rose, in part because she'd been standing right next to Tinnie was I'd left, and maybe even a little because sometimes instead of the shrew, Rose did let us remember that she could be just a splendid a redhead as her cousin. I knew Morley had no more feelings for Rose than he had for any of the women he diddled, which meant while he'd been with her, she was his world, for however long or short a time that might mean. And yeah, he had seen her a time or two after they'd gone their separate ways I was pretty sure, because temperament and tongue aside, well she was -

"Garrett, are you going to be okay if I'm getting back?" Playmate interrupted us, his expression one of quite desperation - and not because he had stuff he needed to do elsewhere. Winger had her moon eyes again.

"Yeah, thanks Playmate." I didn't want to be stuck with Winger either, but she was here on my behalf and no longer considered me a catch anyway. Saucerhead would still be here too.

It wasn't so much that I was thinking I needed the protection as the company, in case the news was bad. Might also need a helping hand getting home.

I had been hoping that one of the remaining Tates would have noticed our gathering and come out, but it looked like they were staying as button-up up as a priest's coffers. I wasn't too keen on just staying out here, staring at what I was suspecting was the ruins of my life, because even if there wasn't anyone after me, one of Block's Guard or Relway's secret Police would be hearing about my reappearance any time now and would want me in for questioning. I needed to start with the advantage in that situation, however, and that wouldn't happen if they started it with me down at their station.

I started across the street. I wasn't sure whether I wanted company directly, but Saucerhead was signaling to Winger and the two of them ghosted back into the shadows to resume their watchfulness. Since I wasn't looking forward to the conversation and getting a closer look at just how bad everything was, I didn't blame them for staying away.

I picked one of the few outside doors still remaining and knocked. I could have gone in through the rubble of the Courtyard to one of the interior doors, but somehow I felt the need to keep to the rules even if they were pointless now.

I guess I had been observed, because next to no time passed before the door opened in front of me to reveal the last person I expected to see. Tinnie herself, all five feet of her red-headed self, although bits of the hair were burnt or cut off, and her normally pale complexion was even whiter now, with only a few splotches of color from injury.

I nearly collapsed in relief and stepped forward to gather her up in my arms. Only to be stopped by a firm, yet shaking hand thrust into my chest. It was only then that I saw there was no mirror to my relief in her expression (well, maybe just a glimmer of it in her eyes). Instead I saw some sorrow, but also a lot of resolve that might - might - have been tempered with a little bit of guilt.

"No Garrett," she said in a voice that wavered maybe a little more than her arm did. "You … I …we're - we're through. I love - loved you, but I can't do this anymore. It's cost us too much."

I could see a few more little Tate shapes in the shadows behind her, but no one stepped forward until I nodded and took a step back. That the one who came to hold and help her wasn't her Uncle Willard or Rose told me enough. One or both were either severely injured or dead, because despite Tinnie's stubbornness which I had no doubt had led her to insist on standing up to me alone, neither Willard or Rose would have left her that way when she was done.

I wasn't shocked so much as all of the wind had been taken from my sails. Since I'd already more than half convinced myself that Tinnie had died, a part of me had been accepting and distancing myself from the relationship we'd had. At least this way I could still be grateful that she was alive, could hope that she might change her mind some day, although all of me knew the real likelihood of that happening. Her father had been killed during the investigation her family had brought me into regarding Denny's other activities while in the Cantard, she and Rose kidnapped a couple of different times, and almost becoming vampire brides. Then what with her getting stabbed, and the more or less constant threat to her family just because she was close to me...

Some relationships came with just too high a price.

"Be well, Tinnie," because I couldn't go without saying anything. "Give my dearest wishes and condolences to the rest." I didn't ask about the number of dead and injured, didn't ask for names because I didn't want to cause Tinnie any more pain than I'd done already. Morley would know - or could find out.

The clues had been there all along, but it wasn't until I saw, not the dark elfin breed himself, but the ugly bruiser who served as Morley's bartender and general second, that I figured out another big piece of the puzzle. Puddle didn't look too happy to see me, but that was pretty much normal even when I came into the Joy - the Palms. Too, Puddle wasn't much for coming out or even being awake during daylight hours, given the time of night either of his bosses' businesses generally operated, so his sourness could have stemmed from that too.

Everything about Puddle screamed dumb muscle. You had to really look to notice there was a spark of intelligence behind the slack or sardonic expressions he wore (or had to know Morley beyond his reputation; he left the really dumb ones to the other crime bosses though it had taken me a couple of throw downs with Puddle and Sarge in on the mix to figure this all out.) I had no doubts that Puddle had picked out Saucerhead and Winger's positions, along with anyone else who might be nearby and watching us.

It was that there was anger instead of resignation twisting his face that confirmed things for me even before Puddle spoke.

"Were you born this stupid, Garrett?" He didn't thunder, didn't even raise his voice, but someone of his size didn't have to, to get their point across. I wasn't really up to any manhandling, but I sent a quick signal Saucerhead's way (just in case) before I let Puddle grab hold of my arm. I didn't even dig my heels in at being pulled away from the middle of the street since even I'd already agreed I'd been stupid in how openly I'd returned to TunFaire. Mainly though, I was too busy trying to keep to my feet to protest things, as well as trying to figure out just what Morley was going to ask for in compensation for all of this.

Friends or no, even just two days watching the Tate's and my place meant two days they weren't taking other jobs. And since not even Winger seemed inclined to be packing it up with my return, someone was paying them on my behalf. Dean managed a lot of my household, but he didn't have access to the type of funds this would be costing, and the Dead Man had no money of his own as he no longer had any material needs. The Tates had the money, and if Uncle Willard was gone now, some of it might even get spent now and again, but they wouldn't have been behind the watchers; upstanding folk like them relied on the City Watch to figure out the whodunits and put away the criminals, not hire them.

Leaving only Morley left to be footing the bill.

I might have made some snide comment about how maybe it had been a good business decision to change the Joy House to the Palms, but I wasn't feeling particularly snide at the moment what with all the gratitude I apparently still needed to spread around, and the type of money I was imagining - if you added in what now sounded like a safe house or bolt hole on top of the day work, plus expenses - didn't come from selling greens and pellets -- even to the folks on the Hill.

"Did he actually win on the stupid D'Guni races, or was he just making them up along with his tales of woe of losses?" tumbled from my racing brain without any conscious effort on my behalf.

"The only stuff that better be spilling from your mouth right now, Garrett, is your puke."

For a moment I had a bout of fear that Puddle was going to encourage that sentiment in some way or another, but although firm and hurried, Puddle was helping me along with a gentleness that I couldn't quite grasp. Leaving me to continue to fight to understand the real reason behind that statement, along with trying to keep up and not puke without needing any encouragement.

But, yeah, even I knew Morley's secrets were not for the street.

"We weren't heading for my place, nor the Joy - fuck it Palms! - and certainly not back toward Playmate's or any other stable I knew where you could rent horses or wagons, so probably not to the bolt hole either. A couple of people looked like they might be thinking of stepping up and asking if things were okay since I was rapidly loosing my coordination, but soon enough we were in one of the parts of TunFaire where folks were more likely to help Puddle than myself, and even then we were moving inside and up some steep, dark steps before anything like that happened.

The steps were too much for my failing equilibrium and stamina. I stumbled, would have fallen down and done myself a world more of hurt, but for the second time today I was lifted up as if I was a child, and while there was more indignity in being carried by Puddle, I was no longer in neither the position nor mindset to protest the treatment out loud.

It was only once he set me down on what was more of a pallet than a bed that I figured this out too. This wasn't another safe house, at least not in the same respect as the other, by any means.

I don't know why I'd never thought about it before; I mean I knew that only Morley really lived in the rooms above his restaurant. It had, however, never crossed my mind before right now that his people had their own homes (hovels) to go to when the sun came up. It was pretty obvious that Puddle didn't spend a whole lot of time here (but not the same way the other place had told me it was vacant ninety percent of the time) and, thank all the gods who interfere with our lives, there didn't appear to be a Mrs. Puddle or any Puddlets living here either. It was cleaner than I expected given its owner, except I was beginning to feel I didn't really know Puddle any more than I knew his boss.

And was I really that shallow or stupid to believe what I was being shown? I always looked for the lie in my clients and downplayed my own abilities and intelligence when it seemed apropos, so why would I expect someone in Morley's line to be any different? And what did it mean that all of the masks were suddenly being lifted?

Puddle at least knew me well enough to be pouring me a mug of beer as I tried to regain my senses. It didn't matter that it was warm and flat; I would have even drunk water again right now.

"The doc said something about your brain being scrambled up inside for a few more days," Puddle grumbled with something that sounded a lot like amusement coloring his gravelly tone. "The puking and falling down might go on for a bit more too."

I waved the mug of beer in his general direction since nodding would be a really bad idea right now, and then leaned my head back against the wall I was more or less propped up against and let my eyes rest for a moment. "I'm assuming that since you're being so generous in looking out for my welfare, that Morley's found out the explosion was meant for me? Or is Morley just looking to rack up a few more favors or stick me for a big payout?"

When no immediate answer was forthcoming, I tilted my head forward just a bit and open my baby blues again. Puddle had a peculiar look on his face, one with too many emotions present for me to try to identify, although anger was definitely one of them. "What?"

"You really are just a user, aren't you Garrett? And too good for the likes of us."

I frowned and leaned more forward, although sitting up straight in either indignation or a show of strength was beyond me. "What in the Hell are you talking about, Puddle? You saying you all really are doing all of this out of the goodness of your hearts?" I was going to say black hearts, but there was no point an riling him more directly since I wasn't in a part of town that was particularly healthy for me to stumble away from now that evening was approaching - and that would be assuming Puddle would be letting me get away from here any time soon, even if I wasn't baiting him.

I knew that most of Morley's guys were under the impression that I only went to Morley when I needed help. And that might have more than a kernel of truth to it, but that wasn't the full extent of his and my relationship. Nor was it like Morley just casually stopped by to visit my place either, and I doubted it was only because I had a partner that could read your inner most thoughts.

Morley and I were … complicated. It was more like a friendship developed out in the Cantard with the bullets and the blood flying (except breeds were exempt from having to serve their five, and Morley was probably old enough to be my father although I really had no idea how old he was because of his half elfin heritage). In the thick of things, we were as tight as brothers, and there was no one I trusted more against the bad guys. But I couldn't always trust Morley to have my back, and he was an assassin. I've spent all of my adult life after the Cantard running up against guys like him, putting some into jail and the others into the ground.

On the other hand, Morley was also the closest thing I had to a best friend, and I'd always had the idea that the feeling was mutual. Morley had his gang, like Puddle and Sarge and his nephew Spud (Narcisio, but only his mother called him that), but someone like Morley could never really trust even his Second because the only true way of advancement in their type of business was over the body of the First. Even someone like Saucerhead, who was a friend (but not really the best friend type for anyone), was also considered one of Morley's rivals by the other folk in their mutual business, and more than once someone had entertained a desire to see the two of them throw down against one another. (The bets were pretty evenly split as to who would come out the winner.) Considering there was also the chatter that I'd do in which ever one survived made me very glad that at least in this, Morley had no ego, and Saucerhead had no ambition.

Damn, but I was feeling enough guilt for today. "So you're saying no one here is getting paid?" I would have given him my raised eyebrow or one of my really cynical looks, but this was more than typical baiting, or even Puddle's uncharacteristic anger. And that anger still wasn't the only look he was giving me.

"Nah, Morley's covering us, just like you've figured, Garrett."

"Aha, so Morley has been squirreling away the money!" I seized upon the easier subject matter to deal with at the moment.

While he didn't live hand to mouth like Saucerhead did (or I had before my business had gotten me a couple of really good rewards), I had been convinced more than once (or was that led to believe?) that Morley had been on the run from the old Boss Kolchak (before Chodo), due to outstanding gambling debts from losing at water spider races. They'd certainly had a history, and Morley had used me as cover in the last instance which had directly led to him doing in Kolchak though at the hands of one of those vampires I'd had to smoke out. Morley's restaurant had only ever been meant as cover for his real job and yeah, it was maybe in the black right now, but he wasn't raking it in from it, at least not yet, despite his change of décor.

"Not all of us have someone like the Dead Man to protect us when things go south, Garrett," Puddle snarled. "We all squirrel away money or weapons or markers if we even want to think about living to see retirement, but keep it close to the chest if we ever want to see that retirement."

Not very likely in their business, even for someone as skilled as Morley, whether he managed to stay independent of the other crime bosses or not. It didn't help that right now, being non human was almost worse than being a criminal (or maybe there were just being the same in the eyes of TunFaire's new Law).

"And we have our loyalty," he added with something akin to pride, meaning their loyalty to Morley, and Morley to his people in return. I understood; that loyalty was why Morley invariably ran into trouble with whomever became the highest crime boss (as they rarely could inspire the same type of loyalty in their own men), and why someone like Morley could maybe be my best friend.

That not-anger look was back forefront again. Subtlety wasn't one of Puddle's strong suits, but I had no doubt that his ego and comfort of routine were getting in his way now. Obviously he had something he wanted me to figure out, but couldn't bring himself to out and out say it. Unfortunately my generally mythic level leaps of intuition and logic were getting bludgeoned by the headache I'd had since I'd awoken.

"Are you trying to tell me that Morley is doing all of this out of some sort of loyalty to me?" I finally tried out.

It wasn't quite the same look that was rolled out with the anger again. And this one I recognized, I think, as it was akin to the look Saucerhead had given me when I'd asked about Rose, the one that Playmate always gave me when I was forced to deal with horses. It was something involving amusement and pity, with a good dose of patronization thrown in.

Like I was a not so bright child who'd finally figured out there was a puzzle, even if I had no clue where all the pieces were.

"Have you ever seen his bolt hole?" I countered the look, my headache making me feel snippy, then a little queasy when I realized I wanted the answer to be no, that there might be a little jealousy there - or that I was maybe hoping there was. Like maybe I liked the fact that Morley trusted me more than his Second.

All it got me was a new look, however, one that I wasn't about to try and catalogue. Then an innocent, "What bolt hole?"

I tossed my empty mug in his general direction, either hoping to hit him, or get it refilled. He settled on the refilling, pouring himself one this time too. Generally I was okay with long, pregnant silences, and relied on the other guy to be uncomfortable enough to babble. But Puddle had been playing that game as long as I had, and played it more for keeps than I did. And even a stalemate would mean I'd lost, as it was likely only get me unconscious again. And still confused.

So babbling it was, but more to myself than to my companion. "Yeah, fine, Morley and I are friends. But that doesn't excuse what he did in the Cantard, or why he let me confront Chodo, why he even introduced us in the first place! Friends don't put how they can profit -"

"Why not?" Puddle interrupted my musings. "Why would you care if a friend made a profit or came out ahead on a deal? Wanting good things for another is the very cornerstone of friendship."

That was probably the most profound thing I'd ever heard Puddle say even if he was trying to use it against me.

"Friends," I stressed, "don't put their own profit first."

"Oh," he nodded, and that damned look of patience and pity and amusement was coming back. "Friends don't ask another to go into the middle of a war zone and a vampire nest for another friend, then on account of getting paid to search for a bit of fluff."

"We didn't know about the vampires, and even that didn't stop Morley from using one of them against Kolchak to get himself out of gambling debts -"

"Which you've already decided he never had," Puddle was musing in return. "So maybe there was another reason?" he prodded.

Like I was a goddamn slow child.

"Okay, what about the thing with Chodo?

"The thing where he helped you save Chodo's daughter and thus got you untouchable status through the underworld? Or maybe that thing where he was watching your god damned back when you had to confront Chodo directly from across swords?" he sneered.

"He had my back from Full Harbor! I could have been killed twenty times over before he ever set foot on the scene - in fact I nearly was!" I growled in return despite the pounding in my head. "And his work with Belinda got him that untouchable status too --"

 

"So it is friendship only when one friend gets something out of it. Then you really are his best fucking friend, aren't you, Garrett?"

"I … that's … He -"

"He didn't come to you before that thing with Kolchak, Garrett, you went asking for his help. It might or might not have been D'Guni races, it might not have even been a problem between the two of them and instead he just saw an opportunity for a preemptive strike in the end. But if there had been a problem between them, he didn't come running to you to bail him out of it. Not with Kolchak or with Chodo. Nor has he come to you when old war buddies or bosses get in over their heads, or with family shit, or crazy serial killers and crazy Stormwardens and their even crazier children, never cried for help about Belinda's own little kingdom building, or Relway's mob of zealots, or the fucking Call!"

"Alright, Puddle," I held up my hand to stem his tirade against all my sins. "You've made your point. I make a lousy friend." And, dammit, when you looked at it from his point of view, he was too fucking right.

"So what? Do you really want me to stop coming around? To maybe break it off, which in turn will no doubt eventually lead to us coming up on opposite sides of something down the road? While he is my friend, I can overlook certain -"

That earned me another scowl that was probably just as fucking deserved and I don't know why I kept harping on it.

"Typical," he muttered as much to himself as to me. "That's so mighty fucking big of you, Garrett. Damned if I can see why Morley cares so much about -"

"Wait a minute!" I wanted to throw my cup again, but at the same time needed to hold desperately tight to something as the world spun away from me. I'd allowed that I might have deserved some of the bashing, but that hadn't meant I'd planned to really listen to it. But something Puddle had said, the way he had said it -

"What?" but it wasn't belligerence I got back for interrupting, or even out and out defensiveness, though there was something like sudden guilt there. Like Puddle was only just now figuring out what he'd been saying.

Like only now I had figured out what Puddle had really been saying all along.

"You're saying Morley cares about me?" I didn't say love, because two guys don't say love to one another, ever, unless they had a really different type of relationship than the one Morley and I had. Like the type of relationship Sadler and Crask had. "Like he considers me family?"

Elfin wars never started over things like greed or land or power, but from insult or injury to family. Not that they considered their half-human bastard children family, of course, but I'd not yet met a breed that didn't take his family at least way more seriously than we humans generally did.

"Yeah, family," Puddle agreed, except he was too anxious about it, had latched onto my answer as if I'd bailed him out, and maybe saved his life.

Oh, fuck.

But Puddle couldn't have been saying what I was now thinking. Morley got more pieces of female tail than any three other men combined, and I'd never heard of him leaving them unsatisfied. Never heard of him satisfying any other gender, either. And he made the same general type of comments the rest of us did when confronted with those who had a thing for their own type.

But that was sure what I was reading from Puddle's entire body language, and I recognized the moment that he knew that I knew, which was when all of the pretenses dropped.

Except I still had to protest it. "I don't believe you."

Puddle shrugged somewhat fatalistically, and that more than anything cemented it for me. Morley took care of his people when they betrayed him too. By making sure they would never be able to do something like that again.

Puddle had likely just signed himself off, and part of me was hoping that he would take care of it himself, just so Morley didn't have to take out his own Second. The one thing I knew that Puddle wasn't going to do was fight Morley on it, to try and escape his fate or try to take out Morley first. I also knew that Puddle was going to tell Morley, and somehow you just had to respect that.

No more protestations, but I still had a couple of questions.

.

"So why didn't he ever tell me?"

Puddle snorted at that one. "Gee, I don't know, Garrett. Maybe because you've made it very clear what you think of pansies, like Crask and Sadler, or the Rainmaker and his gang."

"But … but they were villains," I sputtered, defending myself even though I wasn't really guilty of or wrong about anything. "We always make fun of the villains." They were my feelings, right? Meaning I couldn't be wrong about them --

"Yeah, but in your heart of hearts, don't you think of Morley like that too?" he asked simply.

Which was the crux of one of the matters now between Morley and I, and probably the one that mattered the most. Did I ultimately think of him as villain or friend? Because if he really was my friend, it shouldn't matter that he liked me a little differently than I liked him in return. And it wasn't as if he'd ever made the depth of his feelings clear, so I shouldn't be feeling threatened by them. Hell, even if I did eventually decide Morley was a villain, I'd only be going up against because of the differences between right and wrong, law and lawlessness. Not because he liked men. I wasn't like some of those others who purposely hunted out queers to beat on them or worse. I only became violent when it became necessary, either in defending myself or someone else.

A little detail that I'd abruptly forgotten in the face of everything else I was learning and now clung to just as desperately as Puddle had tried to use my explanation of family. Maybe putting off how I felt about Puddle's revelation wasn't a good idea, but if I had someone looking to see me dead right now, there was a good chance I wasn't ever going to have to confront Morley about any of it.

Thinking back about the explosion and the potential threat still against me, I suddenly remembered more of what Saucerhead had been saying when I was asking about Tinnie and then Rose.

"Morley wasn't out in the country with me when I woke, and Saucerhead implied that he's been missing for as long as I was?" I asked to confirm the facts that I did have.

Now Puddle was looking like he was about to start keeping secrets?

"Oh, for heaven's sake, just tell me, Puddle. For whatever his reasons are, Morley's doing the whole damn thing for me. I think he'd want you to tell me what he's found out, don't you?"

Unless he - they - were thinking I needed protecting, but this wasn't going to work if I kept thinking about things like that.

Puddle scowled, but relaxed a bit of the tension that he'd gathered, and now simply looked unsettled. He nodded.

"First thing we found out was that everyone on the street was caught by surprise by the attack on the Tates. Lots of people out there want you dead, Garrett, but no one is copping to it and most of the pros either think it was too sloppily done to be one of them because of all of the collateral damage, or simply because they muffed it and didn't get you along with those they did. There also wasn't any trace of a device, powder or accelerant, yet the place burnt too fast for there not to have been something added to the mix than all of the wood and leather,"

And other flammable bits like flesh, but Puddle thankfully didn't see the need to add that last bit.

He met my gaze and saw that I was beginning to look uneasy. That maybe I had figured out the next bit of the puzzle they'd figured out just by what he wasn't saying. "Magic," I ended up whispering, because my throat had suddenly tightened up.

Another nod. "Morley figures that the Dead Man might have had a fifty-fifty chance of preventing something like that if they'd tried for you directly, but that would also mean that whoever did it knows about the Dead Man."

Locals know he's there at my place, and most of the ones who operate in the shadows know that he's got some sort of mental powers that can be worked against them, even if they don't know the specifics. That leads most folks to think he can read minds, that maybe he can keep people away (both true), but there are damn few that know or it would even speculate that Loghyr have a natural resistance to magical attacks - and that their ability to ward it off can be extended beyond their own body. Like maybe to encompass and entire couple of stories building, though it does take quite a bit of effort and energy, and leaves him sleeping it off for weeks if not months at a time.

Yeah, a powerful enough wizard able to do what had been done, could have gotten that level of knowledge about my partner's race, if not about the Dead Man's own abilities. But that would involve quite a bit more work and, frankly, they could have just capped me in the damn street without having to worry about Loghyr at all. I wasn't on a case and, yeah, I no longer walk around TunFaire unarmed at anytime, but I wasn't looking for any particular trouble that night, and I couldn't have stopped that kind of magical attack even with some foreknowledge, unless I had enlisted some magical aid of my own, the contracting of which probably would have gotten back to the wizard in the first place. So all he'd need to do was just hire the second best assassin in TunFaire and problem solved.

Way too many complications, thought there were some wizards who thought that way as force of habit. Even so, I just don't see them botching the job.

Oh, fuck. Again.

"Tinnie was the target."

"Or someone in her family, but yeah, this is still about you, so it was Tinnie to Morley's way of thinking."

It still didn't make a lot of sense. I might do things to piss of wizard, but not the Tates - any of them. And if a wizard wanted to hurt me, well that worked, but there would be lots of other things they could have done instead, or along with. Yet nothing else has happened, and it's now been almost two days, plus we were on to it. The only real thing that had been accomplished was the destruction of a viable business (but the Tates were going to see a loss in fortune anyway, with the war's end and not as much call for army boots), some deaths (but I was thinking they were all collateral since Tinnie was still alive), and the demolition of my relationship with Tinnie

Gods above and below, could it be that simple?

"Where is Morley now?"

Puddle looked unhappy again. "I don't know. He hasn't checked in today with any of us."

"And he's off on his own."

That made Puddle defensive again. "Hey, if we're even a little bit wrong, we're not really an organization like Outfit, you know. We've got a lot of places to cover for your people -"

"Including Morley's own place, yeah, because we're friends. I get it, Puddle, stop beating the dead horse. And I wasn't criticizing you in the first place. Morley's the last person who'd think he needed back up. So just tell me where he was looking."

"Into finding out which of your exes had the juice to hire someone to get Tinnie out of the way - or could do it themselves."

My uneasiness became downright shivers. Morley and I were on the same page, which was frightening enough, but trouble was, it sounded right.

Oh, not that I had that many exes, and especially not that I'd left them feeling either enough animosity to kill me, or enough jealousy that they'd go after Tinnie. I'd worked for a couple of the ladies on the Hill, had even prodded a wizard and a warden or two in my time and, yeah, I was nigh on irresistible -- to a lot of folk it now appeared. But again this was sounded too complicated, even if there was magic involved.

Hill-type folk could buy off Tinnie - or her Uncle, who's become more disapproving than approving of our relationship on account of her being stabbed on her way to see me. It would be even easier to throw someone else Tinnie's way, maybe not even with a love spell or potion to aid things along, because I'm not that irresistible. I might have pouted at the brush off, but wouldn't have questioned it, and it wasn't as if we hadn't had our off days along with the on ones, including both of us seeing other people in between great bouts of make-up sex.

By doing it through violence, they absolutely guaranteed a follow-up and, while I might be interested in most things that bat their eyes at me, that doesn't include people that tried to kill my friends.

"You got a suspect, or even a location?"

Puddle wouldn't meet my gaze any longer.

The cold settled around me like it was going to stay.

"Morley and the Dead Man were comparing names and faces," he mumbled into his chest.

If I wasn't so god damned scared of what Puddle was trying not to have to tell me, I would have boggled that Morley had gone to my partner willingly. The only way a housebound, 400 pound, moribund hunk of dead flesh compared anything was through mental contact. By waiting to see if something hit upon his self-proclaimed genius as he sifted through the memories of the names and faces you knew, and through whatever other secrets you might have hidden in your noggin.

I didn't want to pull this tooth any more than Puddle wanted to lose it, but I had no choice. For Tinnie, and for Morley's sake, I had to know it all. "And they got a hit?"

"They're not sure, and it was apparently Dean who actually met her, not you, but Morley had also seen her around the Palms, and a couple of the guys mentioned she'd been asking about your … qualifications."

"Who, dammit?"

"Some gal who'd come by while you were playing house with your little librarian, 'fore you dumped her to go back to Tinnie," Puddle scowled. "Seems she wanted to hire you, but backed off quick enough when Dean said you were recovering from your last case with the aid a friend." He didn't leer even once throughout his recitation, and that had me wondering if he didn't actually support Morley's unrequited suit out of some sort of sense of romance instead of simple loyalty.

Dean hadn't mentioned a thing about a potential client, but then I imagined there were a few who showed up when I wasn't around. My feelings had always been that if they didn't bother to come back, they either didn't really need me in the first place, or had found someone else.

"So did this gal have a name?"

He shrugged. "But she identified herself as one of the sacerdotess," he offered before I screeched at him again.

It was my turn to shrug; the word meant nothing to me.

He finally looked up, and his eyes were haunted with a lot more guilt than from the telling of one of Morley's secrets, even if it had been the big one.

"It's the name for one of the priestesses for the Goddess Haelia."

It didn't really matter what this Haelia was a goddess of, the gods themselves were always bad news, and I'd yet to have a successful working relationship with one of their avid followers.

Now I understood Puddle's guilt (and his willingness to spill the dirt about Morley's feelings for me), along with the reason why I'd begun to feel so cold and uneasy.

Sometimes - most times -- priests were just people like the rest of us, putting their shoes on one foot at a time, chewing with their mouths open, and no more immune to a knife in their back. But sometimes a few of them could take on an aspect of their god, be granted powers (magic), and wreaked even more havoc than just their proselytizing does to the unwashed masses. Even without knowing Morley's true feelings for me, he was just as likely to take care of things - permanently -- if only to make sure they didn't come back to bite me (him) on the ass in the future.

He'd been out of touch for most of a day. He would have started his hunt for this sacerdotess at Haelia's temple, although even he wasn't stupid enough to confront a priestess in the seat of her goddess' power. (Unless he had no choice.) It didn't matter what Haelia was the goddess of, but I had to know.

"What's her sphere of influence, Puddle?."

Puddle was now a puddle of milk instead of the dark ale of his normal complexion.

"Love."

~~~~

I wasn't above using magic to protect myself, the odd spell or potion had proven quite useful often enough in the past that I knew I'd want to get my hands on a few things before I went after Morley. I was less likely to use magic as a type of cure for personal ills and aches, stuff like that was never permanent and generally only led you to believe that you were well, thus too often making things worse overall in the long run. But I wasn't up to slaying any dragons (evil priestesses) if I couldn't even walk into the lady's lair, and so I instructed Puddle to find me one of the better hearth witches.

I was tempted to tell him to pay for her services out of his own pocket, but that was ultimately Morley's pocket, and none of this was really his fault. He was just more the unfortunate messenger, who had had a notion of further danger, but really hadn't put all of the pieces together until I had done it for him (smart is good, but street-smart is more useful in a thug, even in a Second as smart spend too much time figuring out how to become First.).

Course, I didn't have anything but a few coins on me (every bit I'd had on me when I'd been walking Tinnie home, but then I'd already spent most of what I'd been carrying at Morley's). Instead of bringing the witch back, Puddle had convinced me to follow him to her instead, and so took me to a neighborhood where my own reputation could stand up to Morley's, which had her agreeing to work with me for payment due. I wrote out the note myself, signed my flourish and entrusted it to Puddle to take to Dean just in case I didn't come out of this successfully.

I already hadn't planned on taken Puddle with me, not that he wasn't damn useful in a crunch. But I was hoping for talking to get us out of this one. If it went to violence, one more bone-breaker wasn't going to be making any difference, whereas a couple of the strips of paper I had been given might. Not offensive, because you just didn't fight a priestess, power to power. But I took all the wards that I could get, an invisibility spell, and something that was supposed to enhance my own natural glibness without enhancing my looks. Somehow, if some dingy love groupie had gotten it into her head that she was going to be my new girlfriend, I didn't need to become any more irresistible to her than I already was.

A couple of foul smelling (and even worse tasting) draughts had most of my headache and miscellaneous pains gone. I still had a certain stiffness across my back; I'd discovered I had a long strip of a burn there as well as a deep bruising, and we decided I'd gotten clobbered by a piece of the burning door that had been blown out after me during the explosion. The witch identified most of my other pains as contact points against the ground, and that I'd pretty much hit it head first, which had indeed scrambled my brains a bit as Puddle had said. I wasn't feeling any of it right now, though. Other than the trick my brain was trying to play on me because we both knew I was still hurt, and so I was thinking I was still in pain - or remembering. But the deadline against time that I was on was doing a good job in keeping me from letting the phantom pain keep its hold, and so I was finally ready to move out and start my own inquiries in the Dream Quarter.

Now I know that normally, you wouldn't classify a goddess of love as being one of the evil ones, but in my line of business a lot more damage was done between my clients and the villains of the piece by their own near and dear, than was done from someone on the outside wanting stuff or in. Love made people crazy, turned them into something else and away from everything they thought they believed in.

I mean, take Morley as the perfect example. He was a damn fine assassin, a semi-respectable businessman, a 'gentleman rogue' to all of his many, many lady friends, and was even becoming a player on the political scene, having hammered out the neutrality rules for the Safety Zone where shadow and day players alike could co-mingle without fear of retribution, even now with all of the turmoil against TunFaire's non human citizens. Yet here Morley was, ready to throw all of that away - for me!

I was in turn feeling flattered and guilty and, yeah, bothered, but not because of any particular disgust. I'd never done a guy, never even considered it before, but five years out in the Cantard with all of your soldier buddies pretty much exposed you to every type of getting ones' self off, and when all was said and done, two people fucking looked pretty much the same most of the time. I thought about women and sex - a lot and especially if they were red-headed - but even I knew that was simply a personal choice and I wouldn't turn down someone I was interested in just because they had blond hair the next time, or brown.

Was gender that big a difference?

Now the disgust came, but because I was thinking about sex instead of getting on with what needed to be done. Hell, this all could still be just the lousiest practical joke being perpetrated by Puddle against me, and Morley was just doing this all for a payout and favor, but that still didn't mean that I didn't owe him for looking out for mine. (Or owe Puddle a hella bitch of a payoff if his part was a joke).

Night was well underway by the time I reached the Street of Dreams, and it had begun raining about halfway through my trip. There were religions that practiced throughout the night, of course, but by and large most of the sheep preferred typical waking and sleeping hours, plus staying dry, and so for the most part there were few others out along the sidewalks and cobblestones. I could figure out which church I was looking for on my own and without drawing any particular attention.

The Dream Quarter was unique in all of TunFaire (and I guess a part of me wondered and assumed it was the same in Full Harbor and all the other major cities of Karentine -- and even Venagat ), in that the buildings didn't always stay were they started, but you always seemed to be able to find what you were looking for. The temple appearances could change, in style, size, composition, as somehow the divine powers-that-be controlled this aspect of their mortal connection and as a god's influence waxed and waned, their places of worship were affected. The biggest and first two on the west end of the street closest to the Hill, belong to the Chattaree cathedral of the Church, and the Orthodox compound both of which looked out over most of TunFaire;s citizens. Several of the others next in line had at least been there for as long as I could remember, but I suspected at least a couple of rows of pews or whatever had appeared or disappeared over time as people left their faith for whatever reason.

As a god's number of worshippers and, thusly, sphere of influence waned, so too did their proximity to the top of the street/access to the power. On the absolute other end, the 'temples' were even less than Puddle's little apartment, simply storefronts, shabbier in appearance and likely to fall into the river they abutted in the next bad storm, be it simply one of rain or of power.

Haelia was doing okay it looked like, she was maybe midway down the street, in a place that reflected the supposed upside of what she represented and, unfortunately, something bigger than I had been hoping for in never having heard of her. At least I wasn't blinded by any overpowering pinkness, flying cherubs or gooey confection that was usually assigned to love/beauty/peace deities, and had instead found something well constructed, generally clean and infused with a sense of calmness -- at least from the outside.

I probably should have taken the time to find out if Haelia was one of the orgy types, but those cults usually had priests running them, not the women, and I think that if lust was the primary power engine, the building would feel more like a brothel than a temple.

Because it was night, I didn't go in through the front door. It very well could have been unlocked to allow those love-struck teenagers access so they could pray for true love and a lifetime of happiness. But if my admirer and stalker were both actually here, I didn't think the confrontation between the two of them would be going on in the front basilica. I'd picked up a couple of unlock and lock spells too from the witch too, and used one now to get through a back door that was probably used for deliveries for all those mundane items the priest would rather have you believe were there by divine providence.

Ah, how the mundane taints the holy mysteries.

Because of the size of the place, I figured it would take me a few minutes of trying to get my bearings, but I sensed it almost right away, a spike of something much darker than what seemed to normally make up this place's atmosphere. I followed it back into a warren of rooms that had to be where all the priests and priestess hung out when they were here on business, somehow knowing that it wasn't where they lived. A damn good thing, too, because I hadn't even thought about her maybe having reinforcements other than from her own goddess. I'd been assuming that my stalker wasn't playing by the rules with her vision/version of love, and even if I was wrong, well, it seemed my luck was holding and there would only be the four of us to work through it.

Well, five if you counted the … thing that was there in the room between Morley and a rather plain looking woman of maybe thirty years of age. She wasn't ugly, but wasn't a beauty either, and maybe that's why she'd gone for this particular deity instead of one of the ones who utilized good looks to ensnare their worshipper. Both Morley and woman were wet, so they hadn't been here all that long to have also have been caught by the rain, although from the level of darkness in the room, it was obvious that she knew that Morley wasn't here to bring her home with him. And had maybe been working her own type of love spells for a few nights before she'd done what she had against Tinnie and me.

The room itself wasn't any sort of living quarters, however. Instead it was more of a mini temple, something I guess was only for private interactions between the goddess and maybe fifty of her special followers. I could see an altar and a prie-dieu before it toward the back, and it was that direction in which the thing was being pretty successful at maneuvering Morley toward.

Morley wasn't holding any weapons in hand, but I could see at least two knives sticking out of the writhing darkness that was handily keeping him from being able to toss anything directly at the priestess herself. It had no weapons that I could see, but then it also didn't have any hands or fingers to be holding onto them, and from the looks of Morley, it didn't really need anything more than the amorphous, undulating pseudopods. Something had certainly raked a set of claws across my buddy's chest and down one of his arms, although I suspected the smaller set across one dark cheek was from her.

Had I not been able to sense the level of power in the room I might have been disappointed that he had gotten close enough to her that she could mark him, but not have marked her in return. But then I realized that although her red gown was darkened from the rain, some of the dampness down one side was also from blood. So he had gotten to her. Were it a normal waiting game as to who lost enough blood to fall first, he looked much more likely to be the victor. Unfortunately all of the love spells I knew of required some sort of blood sacrifice, and so I was thinking that by not delivering a killing stroke outright, Morley had aided in manifesting the nature of his pending death.

The upshot of it was, that was probably my fault too. Because, normally, Morley went directly for the kill shot. I doubted he had a fundamental problem with killing a woman who deserved it, but I was wondering if he might not have found some sympathy for this one just the same; empathizing with her just enough to cost him, because of him apparently having the same type of feelings for me that she did.

Or, it might have simply been because I'd been ragging on him recently for his propensity to violence, trying to impose my better nature on him by encouraging talking as a way of extricating ones' self from trouble.

None of them had sensed me yet, but I couldn't count on that staying that way for long, especially with the way the three of them were changing positions back and forth. It appeared that Morley was still quicker than the power she was directing against him, though from past viewing, I could see that he wasn't moving as quickly or as fluidly as normal. His own blood loss didn't look nearly as severe as hers, but then she probably packed a little more oomph each time she connected.

It also appeared as if the thing was growing - bigger, stronger -- with the more blood she was losing.

What I'd taken for chanting by her, however, in augmentation of the thing and her spell, turned out instead to be taunting I discovered as I opened up my invisibility spell and stepped far enough into the room to where I could really see and hear what was going on. Any doubt I might have had in her being the one who'd tried to kill Tinnie was dispelled by the vitriol she was spewing.

"-- could never understand what he saw in her in the first place, she was so short. I mean, imagine the freakish kids they would have produced. That mousy librarian was bad enough, but at least theirs would have just been ugly. But then he took that little gnomish bitch back -"

Hey, watch who you're calling mousy, lady, I shouted to her in my mind. And Tinnies' family had elfin blood in them, not gnome!

"-but, of course, it looks like I picked the wrong one of you to go after, didn't I, Darko?"

"Well, you missed the part about who's the bitch in the room, but you got the last bit right," Morley grinned a mouth full of pointy elfin teeth.

He'd warned her, but still she didn't see it. Unfortunately, in the end it didn't really matter, because impossibly high as he could leap, it still wasn't enough to flip above the growing manifestation of her sickness. I winced when I heard the smack of that thing around one of his ankles, then broke my invisible spell and my cover when I heard the crack of something breaking as he was flung to land on his back against the altar.

The priestess spun around at the sound of my cry of denial, but even my rage didn't matter as I could now see that Morley had accomplished what he set out to do. Before I could reach her with spell or sword, she crumpled, clawing at her own throat and at the set of razor sharp blades that had found purchase there. She was dead, and I didn't need to see the black thing disappear back into her body to know it.

I didn't need to see the blood pouring out of Morley's mouth to know that he was dead, too. I'd like to think that he had no idea I'd arrived, that he had simply decided his way was the only way to make sure she would go down. But I guess that really didn't matter either, since in both cases, he did what he did to protect me - my god damned friend to the end.

"Fuck you!" I screamed out, because I could still feel power in the room, and there was no one else I could rail against. "You're supposed to be a fucking goddess of Love! Where in any of this -"

And what do you know of love, mortal?

Even somewhat expecting it - somewhat counting on it - I was still surprised that She deigned to appear before me (well, actually, behind me). There was also the fact that She looked elfin (but so much more so!), and was almost impossible to actually look at and, yeah, my body couldn't help but to respond, because even if Her power wasn't primarily fueled by lust, it was still a factor in its strength. But anger was heating my blood a lot more than any lust, and She wasn't the first god I'd stood (stumbled up from where I'd fallen to my knees before Morley's body) before.

I watched with a sort of sick, pain-filled fascination as She simply stepped over the body of one of Her most successful worshippers, focusing on the edge of the diaphanous wisp of something She wore draped around Her since She still had too much presence to actually see. Her steps took Her through the blood that now pooled out from the several body parts Morley had been successful in broaching, only there wasn't any more blood once She reached me and passed me by; just the blades and the body of her broken priestess.

There was a lot more blood spilling across from where Morley was brokenly sprawled across Her altar, so this time She used Her fingers (because we can't have something as ugly as life's blood taint the purity of Her Temple, after all).

What do you know of love, mortal? She repeated, and though I burned from raising my eyes and looking at Her directly, Her own eyes now held me mesmerized.

Within them I saw Tinnie, Linda Lee and Maya, saw Chaz, Kayean and even Eleanor and Belinda, plus maybe another dozen other women and girls I'd tumbled and/or loved over the years from when I'd learned I could do something else with my dick other than piss from it, parading before my mind's eye. Some I could see and remember more clearly than others, although it didn't seem that anyone's vagueness had anything to do with how long it had been since I'd been with them. Eleanor's image was the clearest, Maya's stronger than Tinnie's, and didn't that bother me if this all had something to do with the strength of my feelings for them. Eleanor had been dead long years before I'd ever known her, and was I really that commitment phobic or shallow that I would only give so much of my love to someone who would never have the power to hurt me?

I was falling again, then. Into more memories, beyond the fathomless depths of Her eyes, back down onto my knees and, dammit, the cold marble flooring hurt! This last sensation brought me back to myself with a start, only I was alone. She was gone, and so were the bodies - both bodies, and with that I felt something inside me break, because damned if I hadn't been expecting some sort of miracle since She'd answered my call.

But miracles only happened for true believers.

And apparently I didn't know jack-shit about love.

~~~~

I've regained consciousness in pain often enough over the years, however, that I'm no longer surprised by it. Even have a routine when it happens, the first step being that I remember that I have a routine. Only this time I didn't need the routine, because it was déjà vu all over again, even down to the decadent comfort of the bedding beneath my naked body, the warm, kinda woodsy, spicy smell of the room, and the warmth of sunlight heating the room and my aching body.

So, somehow (but I knew how), Morley's bolt hole again - except it wasn't, anymore. My memory this time was fully intact other than the how of me getting here. Morley was dead, killed by some whacked-out priestess who'd had a secret thing for me and had decided she needed to eliminate all of the competition.

I was remembering a few more things way too clearly for something I know didn't happen; the goddess - Haelia - for some reason defending what her girl had done, justifying an outcome so far removed from love but still being done in Her name. For a moment I wondered if I hadn't been the recipient of some sort of mind trick like the Dead Man can do, only a goddess should be much better at it than even a live Loghyr, and while I'd never imagined I could sense a psionic intrusion by someone like Haelia despite sometimes knowing when the Dead Man did it, if She had really done something to me, why wouldn't She have fully covered her tracks?

Trying to double think a goddess was making my head hurt all over again, but that was a damn sight easier to deal with than how my heart felt.

I didn't - hadn't - loved Morley Dotes; Hell, there were plenty of times I hadn't really even liked him too much. He was one of the bad guys (though not one of the villains, despite what Puddle had accused me of thinking), and I was one of the good guys, even if my platinum star was feeling a bit tarnished after all of this.

I couldn't love Morley, certainly not as I'd loved Tinnie or any of the others Haelia had shown me, but damned if there wasn't now a hole in my heart that was less Tinnie-shaped than Morley-shaped.

I was a guy! I liked sex, dammit --"

"Whoever has tried to convince you anything otherwise was an idiot - or you are for having your existential breakdown for believing them. And could you please go back to having it silently? Some of us are trying to recover from last night and have enough to deal with on their own without your pathetic mutterings about your sex life."

"Morley!" I was rolling toward and reaching out to him before my brain and eyes caught up to me. Yeah, I was a little freaked out that I was now clutching him to me, and that I hadn't stopped to think if I was naked in bed, he was likely naked too (or was it that I wasn't freaked out enough?).

"Ah, Garrett," he pushed hard enough against me to break my hold. "I'm never that drunk."

My mind whirled from putting that statement together with all of my newfound knowledge (because I knew without a doubt it hadn't all been some sort of drunken fever dream), and I knew a dopey grin was forming on my face. "Dammit, Morley," I settled for chucking him against his shoulder hard enough for both of us to feel it (to feel the warmth of his skin, the quickening of his breath, the pounding of his blood, the beating of his heart). "Dammit all, you're alive!"

Dopey and giddy.

"But I'm guessing you were - are that drunk," he began, pulling my raised brow trick against me. But I was immune even if it sounded just like the old Morley, who was now rolling himself, but away from me, though he'd been slowed down by trying to untangle himself from where the sheets had wound there way around his legs.

Yeah, still good old Morley, who'd never shown an ounce of embarrassment I'd caught him naked and even once in actual flagrante delicto (he left the embarrassment to his doxies and I swear it just added to his ego), except this time I could swear I saw a flushing across his dark skin. And a fleeting something in his eye that made me think that whatever he'd been telling himself about the night before when I'd inadvertently awoken him by muttering out loud, he'd begun (or maybe from the first) remembered the truth.

Especially when he couldn't stop himself from reaching up to where three thin, faded scars now adorned his cheek.

I had a moment of completely irrationally, out-of-proportion anger that Haelia had resurrected him, but had left those scars, but even as I was reaching out to pull Morley back, I think I understood. They were faint, looked as old and faded as any of the others he'd accumulated over the years and did nothing to detract from the physical looks that even before today I could admit and be jealous about being just about damn perfect.

Ever male that survived to come out of the Cantard had a scar or two, myself included. And, yeah, having a physical reminder to go with the mental and emotional ones somehow made the whole thing a little easier to bear; proof that you'd really been hurt and suffered and were changed by it. Physical scars made the experiences a little more real, but at the same time allowed you to distance yourself whatever had happened until, eventually, the scars were a lot more tangible than the memories.

I was surprised that Haelia had known that, with Love supposedly the opposite of War, that She'd cared enough -

Love is much more than physical pleasure taken with pleasing flesh.

Another memory from a conversation I never had, but She was right. There were reasons I was partner to a dead Loghyr, that I wasn't with Belinda Cartague even though I'd never have to work another day in my life if that had been the case and she might have actually been the prettiest woman I'd met so far. And why maybe my best friend could be TunFaire's number one assassin and still not be one of the villains. What was inside had always been more important than how someone looked on the outside.

Including those extra dangly bits?

While I couldn't be sure that last question was solely my own, or another echo, I decided the answer to it was a lot more important than its original source. And I had the means to find out right here, right now.

Morley had let me hold him stationary, sitting up in the bed, but had made no other move toward me or away, and wasn't even looking my direction, though I doubt the view from the window across the room was really what was holding his attention. I reached up and began to trace the bottom-most scar from where she'd raked her nails across with my own fingers while my other trace across the line of bruises that still adorned his back, needing the sensations of touch and his skins' warmth to ground me against the horrors of what they had represented.

Morley started, and twisted back toward me enough that I could see him twinge and know that resurrection didn't necessarily mean full healing. While I couldn't be sure which feelings were heightening the pain in his eyes, couldn't even be sure I wouldn't just be causing him more, I also couldn't stop myself from moving my fingers from that last scar down across his chin so that I could bring us closer, so that I could trace with my tongue across the memories I was trying to remake.

Him letting loose with one of those quiet explosions of breath I only ever heard him make just before he committed on of those exquisitely skilled acts of violence, I could also feel his body tensing, his arms rising, and I had more than once seen him kill someone with only his hand - or with a well placed kick. But his legs were still entangled within the bedsheets, and I moved to grab both of his wrists.

Sheer surprise enabled me to capture them and twist both of his arms behind his back in a parody of an embrace, although I had to practically climb into his lap in order to pull it off without hurting either of us. My bulk allowed me to overpower and push his body back down more or less flat against the bed. I had no doubt that he couldn't still free himself, but only if he was willing to be the one who now hurt one or both of us.

He opened his mouth to curse or perhaps bite, but in our relative positions, I now had easy enough access to be tracing his lips with my tongue. Moving my tongue from his lips and into the open, warmth of his mouth brought more fear of biting, and sudden memory of that feral grin he had given Haelia's priestess, full of pointed, dark elf teeth and promise, and the thought of the damage those particular teeth might/could do - and to different parts of my anatomy - suddenly had the most obvious of those parts lengthening and thickening instead of scampering up and trying to move back inside as I might have expected.

Whoa! And wow.

Yet before I had time to really come to terms with that revelation, my mind and body was being overrun with a multitude of others -

-- Morley's lips were just as soft and yielding as Tinnie's had ever been

-- a moustache (at least his moustache) was also soft, if somewhat tickling, but it certainly wasn't near as bristly - or weird - to feel pressing against me as it should have been

-- maybe kissing was why Morley never had trouble finding a bedmate, even (especially?) when it was one of the wives off of the Hill, and who'd thought there was something Morley was even better at than violence

-- yeah, there were dangly bits that even now were making their presence known, but there was also an indecently welcoming mouth, those long-fingered, extremely agile hands, and even a hole that I'd always wondered about (and had been even more off-limits than Tinnie's mouth), and

-- and rubbing and humping against a body that was more or less the same size as most of my previous bed partners, yet had a firmness and strength to take an even harder pressing as well as grind back, had me coming probably as quick as had my first time ever with a girl.

Being rolled over and straddled in turn instead of being just pushed off brought me back to just whom I'd jacked off against. I had no idea when I'd let go of Morley's wrists, when he grabbed my own in turn and then taken control. I was scared now, but still almost painfully aroused (even if my body had already surrendered and was looking for another nap). I was also a little disturbed to see that Morley's own dick was still stiff, red and leaking, yet a little pleased to know that I'd had something to do with it being in that state (Hell, I'd never had any complaints from my own doxies about that, after all). And more than a little wary of just what Morley intended to do next - about any of this.

"Thank you!" I blurted out, and then groaned, because how utterly lame was that, and he might be thinking I was talking about the sex, as if it were somehow over now that I'd come and even I wasn't so callow as to be willing to leave a lover unfulfilled even if he happened to be male. I wasn't completely inexperience in this after all - at least technically - because there had been those five years in the Cantard and boys will be boys, even if I never was … had. I had even sometimes watched, out of the corner of my eye, since when all was said and done, it didn't really matter whose mouth or hand or hole was being used when a fellow marine(s) was all that was available.

Even without yet explaining, my thanks did serve to make Morley pause from whatever mayhem he'd been planning. And that was good, right? At least now I could come clean (so to speak), and if he decided to still kill me, well, I wouldn't have that big debt/regret loading me down when I passed into that bright light that was supposed to be awaiting me.

"Thank you for looking out for Tinnie, Dean and the Dead Man - and for me," I said as sincerely as I could, although in the absurdity of our positions, of the danger he still presently by looming over me, his dick still almost of presence of its own, not to mention my own trying to stir again despite how cold, sticky and uncomfortable we both had to be feeling because of my first ejaculation, the heartfeltness of my sentiments were probably being overshadowed.

"I never really thought, never imagined -" I took a deep breath and tried again, completely aware that he wasn't giving me an inch, was neither encouraging nor discouraging my babbling, and that it was actually this next moment and not any of thing about the sex, that would redefine our relationship.

"Haelia showed me a lot of things, Puddle told me a …"

A grimace was added at my mention of Puddle to the brow that had raised when I'd spoken of Haelia (he'd been dead at my arrival, or at least dying and at most he might have heard me - someone -- shout).

"I'm not going to let you kill Puddle, by the way," I derailed my own thoughts for a moment. I tricked it out of him - all of it out of him, and do you really want a second who is smarter than you are?"

That got me something of a wry smirk, and a peak of the fangs.

"Anyway, as I was saying, what I learned was all stuff I should have - probably did - already know and just would never admit to myself, much less to you. You've deserved a lot better from me than I've ever given you, Morley. I … you … we're -"

"Fuck me, Garrett! Are you going to send me candy and flowers next or just keep trying to come up with more crappy poetry?"

Flabbergasted, I could only watch as the smirk became a full-fledged grin for just a moment, but before I could mount any sort of retaliation, his expression turned more serious than I'd ever seen before, and he let go of my hands to bring his own up to cup my face.

"I have no illusions or delusions about either of us, Garrett. We're both just trying to make our way through this shit-fest that is our lives. Everyone is corrupt and not worth saving, but neither of us are the type to just quit and fall on our sword and, yeah, maybe there are a couple people out there worth being saved, just as there are those out there who need to be put down."

He paused there, and I don't know if he was really looking for some sort of response or simply gathering up his thoughts as I knew that he wasn't finished, but I nodded anyway, to show that I got it, whether or not I agreed.

"Both jobs need being done," he sorta grinned again, "and I'd be damned if I trusted anyone else but us. I know I have your friendship even when you can't admit it, Garrett. I even know why you can't admit it. You have my friendship - and love - in return and, frankly, those last two really don't depend on your feelings at all. I'm enough of an elf to know that I should outlive most of my lovers since they'll never be any elfs in return, which is why I generally opt just for sex. I can go on living out how many ever years I have left, even if that's all I get, so don't get to feeling all guilty and be stupid about it. I won't turn if down if you decide to offer something real in return, unless it's more of just indulging your curiosity to see if you actually can. We've now been there, done that and both survived the experience. Which should be enough -"

"It was," I nodded again, into his oh so warm hands. That began to move away from my skin, although Morley nodded in turn without even a flinch, although the shutters in his eyes that I had never before noticed before today for being given a glimpse of his true soul were now back.

"We've indulged and survived my curiosity," I agreed even as I was moving my hands up to his wrists again, relying on surprise once more, and on a certain, particular blindness for all of his lofty words about knowing me - us. His weight, when I pulled his hands fully away from both of our bodies, was heavier than Tinnie's or Maya's, and quite took my breath away when he then crashed into me.

But that was okay, because I simply stole his directly from his sinful mouth full of deliciously pointed teeth.

Love requires sacrifice, but knows no boundaries, Mortal. The reason you couldn't give your heart to any of your women was because it had already been accepted by another.

Finis