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Devotion

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"Have you considered the research I sent?" Egret pushed his bishop into position on the heavy marble board.

"It's an interesting process. I can appreciate your attachment to the idea, but I prefer more natural means of compelling loyalty." Elias shifted on the sofa opposite, ostensibly to reach the board more easily, but also a deliberate move that brought his bodyweight forward onto the balls of his feet. Sprawled at his feet, Anthony grinned, the lazy, assured expression of a tiger that was accustomed to being the most deadly creature in the room.

Not tonight, he wasn't. Egret heard a soft rustle behind him as John stepped a little closer to the back of the chair, following standing orders in response to a perceived threat.

"Please." Elias raised both his hands in supplication. "This is not an insult, Harold." (Though in Egret's opinion, it certainly was.) "If you are unhappy with our working relationship, if there's some lapse in the security of my operation, you know I will address it. You have only to say the word." As if to demonstrate this, he pushed his hand into Anthony's hair, scruffed at it as one would with a beloved pet. Anthony closed his eyes with obvious pleasure. Egret wondered sourly if the man would purr next.

They had been working together since Elias had appeared from nowhere, bent on annexing the five families and taking the reins of the mafia for himself. Egret would rather have a good operator managing the underworld than expend energy on it himself and Elias had been amenable, so they'd worked out an agreement. Elias had a survivor's appreciation for a solid hierarchy, and his ambitions had not yet spread beyond the bounds of NYC organised crime. That said, it irked Egret that he had offered Elias something of value, and this gift had been rebuffed.

"You believe in tradition and you trust your people," Egret said. "In the old world, that would be admirable, but this is not the old world. Tradition is fallible. People are fallible."

Elias cast a glance at the man standing at Egret's shoulder. "John is remarkable, I won't deny it." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, I truly am, but I am not going to do something like that to Anthony. From him I already have perfect obedience. If he fails, I will have failed too, and I'll deserve your wrath."

Anthony did not blink, his gaze didn't shift from John's, but he pushed his head back into Elias's hand.

"I don't appreciate my gifts being refused," Egret said. He was angry, he knew it, and he didn't want to force this issue when his alliance with Elias was so convenient, but how dare the man?

"It's not a refusal." Elias was edgy now, his voice tense and clipped. "I appreciate the offer but I can't do this to my friend. If that's something unacceptable, Mr Egret –" Elias used his surname now, a show of deference that only slightly mollified "– I'm afraid that we'll have to part ways."

Egret frowned. This refusal was a significant thing for Elias, and he clearly knew it. There wasn't an easy way to separate his business from Egret's, not without bloodshed. Why would the man be willing to put his own life at risk like this?

"Loyalty," Elias said to the silent question. "Loyalty is not the same thing as obedience, and unlike obedience, it goes both ways."

Egret narrowed his eyes, pushed his rook into position to close the cage around Elias' queen, and left without a goodbye. John followed him, silent and exact in position.

Back at his own residence, Egret had John kneel beside his desk, hands folded at his back. On the monitor in front of him, he watched as Elias pulled Anthony up, kissed him, wrapped his arms around the man. Egret flipped on the audio, listened to Elias's voice as he promised that he'd never let that happen to Anthony, that he'd keep all three of them safe from harm.

"I'll keep you safe," Anthony said, his voice low and his meaning clear.

Elias obviously had an accurate idea of Egret's abilities with surveillance, because he put his hand over Anthony's mouth to silence him. "Let's go to bed," he said, and took Anthony's hand.

Egret felt something like a snarl rise in his throat. He'd have to eradicate the man, despite his competence. If it got out that Elias had been allowed to refuse a gift, if there was any hint of vulnerability, Egret's position would be less secure, less absolute.

He watched Elias lead Anthony through the apartment, and his knuckles turned white around the mouse. That's what he got for offering a kindness. That's what he got for allowing a connection. He'd fooled himself into identifying the similarities between the two of them, and it had made him weak.

He eyed John, kneeling on the thick carpet, silent and obedient, the perfect soldier. Tomorrow, he'd send John to kill them, Elias and Anthony, and make it messy. Make it a statement. He'd send John now, but Egret had enough self-awareness to know that his rage was making him stupid. He'd wait, and he'd plan, and John would perform exactly as he was ordered.

John's eyes were not downcast as they should be. Instead, he was watching the monitor, where Elias held Anthony down on the bed, pushed hard into him, kissed him on the throat. The angle of the camera – one of the phones left on the side table – showed the expression on Anthony's face: devotion and ecstasy of a religious intensity.

Egret's hand moved without thinking to slap John's face, and it was only afterwards that he thought, "What if the training has failed?" John could kill him so easily.

John didn't move, though, apart from a gentle sway from the impact. When he steadied, one cheek turning red from Egret's palm, his gaze was correctly at Egret's feet, as if nothing had happened.

Egret considered him. With John, Egret could rage freely, could say what he wanted, faced no consequences for vulnerability. With John, there was a place for the part of Egret that was irrationally concerned with emotion to burn itself out in safety. He reached out and touched the man's cheek, fitting his fingers over their reddening impressions. John did not flinch – he never would. There was something in that, Egret thought, something that he wished he could make Elias see.

"Loyalty breaks eventually," he said softly. "You never will."

John's eyes closed briefly, plausibly a blink but Egret thought it was something more. "You never stop longing for it, do you?" he said. "Some form of tenderness." He removed his hand. "That is not what this is, I'm afraid."

John normally slept on the floor at the end of Egret's bed, the better to protect Egret should there be an incursion. Tonight, Egret took the rug away, had him sleep on the wooden boards. Instructional, he told himself as he turned out the light. In the dark, though, he knew it was something different, and he did not like it.