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“Yggdra—”

The girl flinched for all the world as if she’d been struck again and began to shake her head. She took a few staggering steps backward, then turned and fled.

Gulcasa would’ve gone after her—would at least have called out to her to wait—if right then Nessiah hadn’t made a noise, a high horrified noise that sat somewhere between a sob and a sharp intake of breath. This was enough to make Gulcasa whirl back around to the boy on his arm just in time for Nessiah’s legs to fold unevenly, threatening to drop him to the grass.

Careful not to grab too tightly, Gulcasa supported Nessiah with both arms. He peeked back over his shoulder in the direction the girl had run, but she had already vanished. Even if he left Nessiah here and went looking for her, it would probably be impossible to find her amidst the crowds of partygoers: The garden had lots of places to hide in.

And he couldn’t possibly leave Nessiah now—his breath was coming in quick, sharp rasps, and his entire body was quivering. Under the shade of the hedge it was hard to tell, but Gulcasa thought that Nessiah was going even paler than he’d gotten at the sight of the runaway girl.

He knew these symptoms—he’d had them himself too many times in the past not to—and he was not the kind of irresponsible ass who could leave Nessiah to have a panic attack unattended. Nessiah needed treatment, and that treatment needed to happen in a safe, quiet place. That meant staying at the party was a grade-A shitty idea.

There wasn’t anything he could do for the girl right now, but he could at least take care of Nessiah. And he knew her given name, at least; he could check the guest list for a Yggdra and call somebody once her surname turned up.

“Sorry about this,” he said in as comforting a tone as he could manage, and wrapped one arm around Nessiah’s shoulders, bending to get his free arm behind his charge’s knees. “We’re getting you out of here for right now.”

Nessiah was light as anything when Gulcasa lifted him. He didn’t struggle; instead, he fisted both hands on the lapels of Gulcasa’s tuxedo coat and turned his face towards Gulcasa’s shoulder.

There weren’t very many options, but—it was a long stretch of sidewalk down to the free parking spaces once you were out of the gate, and maybe they’d still be taking their time out of spite. He didn’t like it, but—for Nessiah, he’d suffer it.

Gulcasa adjusted his grip on Nessiah and started to run.

 

As Soltier turned at the sound of Gulcasa’s voice, Gulcasa could just see him searching for a smart remark underneath the veil of that smirk. He also watched as Soltier’s line of sight drifted down to Nessiah’s hyperventilation and thousand-yard stare and the smart remark died. Which was interesting, and which Gulcasa would file away for later. If not for Nessiah’s mystery conference with the guy and with Lapis, he’d have chalked it up to even Soltier not being that kind of irresponsible ass, but—just how did they know each other?

“What happened?”

The question was straight-to-the-point and dead serious—which was both a welcome change from Soltier’s usual behavior and more than a little worrying. Even when he and the others had confronted the guy about corruption in the company, he’d spent the whole time overbearing and condescending, and it’d taken a fuckton of effort to wipe the sneer off his face. But here and now, Soltier’s behavior was actually appropriate for the gravity of the situation.

Gulcasa waited to catch his breath, then shook his head. “I’ll explain in a second, but right now I need you two to drive us back home. It’s too loud at the party, it’s only going to make Nessiah worse.”

Soltier scratched the back of his head, glanced at Lapis—who was staring steadily at him—and then shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah, why not, I doubt it’s that far out of our way. Lapis, have you got his address?”

She nodded; Soltier waved his hand in a lazy, beckoning sort of way, and the three of them walked down the rest of the sloping sidewalk together.

When they reached the lot, Gulcasa couldn’t quite stifle the low impressed whistle as Lapis unlocked the doors to a low black limousine. It was small enough as limos went—Gulcasa didn’t think it went on far enough to be considered stretch, but then he wasn’t too sure how those things worked—but it was still a limo, and that was more car than would ever fit into his own garage.

“Well, get in,” Soltier said, holding the door open for him. “And remember seat belts and all that, because tinted windows or no, I’m sure we don’t want to get flagged down by cops for anything.”

“Why, what laws have you been breaking this time?” Gulcasa retorted, but he ducked into the car anyway. Three walls of the thing were lined with seats, with the one opposite the door covered by what looked like a combination of miniature drinks refrigerator and bar. Feeling overwhelmingly out-of-place, he settled Nessiah down onto one of the seats and then sat down beside him.

The car rocked slightly as Soltier got in and closed the door behind him. “I meant what I said about seat belts, kid, this would be a very bad time to discover that your friend gets motion sickness.”

That actually made a lot of sense, so Gulcasa spent the better part of a minute awkwardly threading a lap belt over Nessiah’s legs. Nessiah was still curled up tightly, hunched forward in the seat and staring at nothing.

“Now that we’re not breaking any traffic laws,” Soltier called towards the front of the vehicle, and there was a rumble of engine in response. He had picked a seat on the same side as them, and once the limo started to move, he stretched out the considerable length of his legs and stared at Gulcasa over Nessiah’s shoulders. “So are you going to start on that explanation anytime soon, or…?”

“In a minute.” Nessiah’s condition came first. Gulcasa rested his right hand on Nessiah’s thin back, moving only his thumb up and down instead of stroking in broad movements. “Are there ice cubes in there, and will you pass me one?”

“What for?” Soltier sounded baffled.

“Cold shocks can be good for grounding, if you’re having a panic attack. Fork one over if you’ve got one, already.” Soltier did things with the mini-bar that made rattling noises, and then his broad hand entered Gulcasa’s field of vision, a curved rectangle of ice flat on the palm. Gulcasa picked it up, rolled it over and over to make sure that it was wet and wouldn’t stick painfully to skin, and then nudged Nessiah’s hands. “Here,” he said, trying to keep his tone soft and unthreatening, “hold on to this. It might help.”

With shaky fingers, Nessiah did, and began playing idly with the ice cube. It left shiny trails of water along his skin, and Gulcasa thought he might have relaxed just a fraction of a hair.

Then something rattled and buzzed in his left pocket, distracting him. Gulcasa very carefully did not swear and retrieved his cell phone, glowering at it.

It wasn’t a call, thankfully, but a text from Siskier: Where u @?

Fumbling the keys, Gulcasa tucked his tongue beneath his molars and typed one-handedly, Nessiah had a panic attack & im taking him home, then pressed Send. The phone was buzzing again in a matter of seconds.

Oh no :(

Explain to the others pls, he texted back. Luciana would not be happy unless he got someone on doing that right away. She would probably still be unhappy even so, but he could preclude a lot of angry lecturing if information got passed along in real-time.

Siskier replied with Ok, and after that the phone was silent. Gulcasa stashed it back in his pocket with no small amount of relief.

Soltier, who had apparently been waiting, remarked “You seem to know a lot about this kind of thing” in a casual tone.

Gulcasa considered his options. Shrugged his unoccupied shoulder. “Panic attacks are a little different from person to person, so all I can do is try what used to work on me and stuff I saw back when I lived at the shelter.”

It was quiet for a while, the engine and the soft rush of air from outside the limo the only sounds. Nessiah didn’t shrink away from Gulcasa’s hand on his back, or from the presence of the men on either side of him. He simply continued to fidget with the ice cube, apparently unable to hold it in one hand for very long. His breath was deep and ragged, but not so much so that he might be in danger of fainting.

Gulcasa could feel Soltier staring at him in expectation all the while, so at last he sighed and shook his head. “I don’t really know. We were going to sit down somewhere after Nessiah had come back from talking to you guys, and we ran into a girl that I think Nessiah must know. She’d—it looked like someone had hit her, choked her maybe. Nessiah freaked out and she ran.” He pushed his hair back distractedly, an old worried motion. “Her name was—Yggdra, I think, I’m going to check the guest list later and call someone about that. I’d have gone off after her, but I couldn’t leave Nessiah while he’s like this.”

“Yggdra,” Soltier said, quiet, slow, and then: “Yggdra Artwaltz?”

That was a name Gulcasa had heard before—the Artwaltz name was a weighty one in business; their family went back since approximately Queen Esther, and they still had a tight rein on vast tracts of raw materials and social resources. The current head of the family, Ordene, had a reputation for being stern and fair, and his daughter was apparently being groomed to succeed him.

The ball that Gulcasa had been returning from when he’d found Nessiah—the ball where he’d first met Yggdra, too—had been held on Artwaltz property.

Implication rushed in like a solid steel weight, and Gulcasa could feel his temples pounding like the warning signs of an impending migraine.

“I think… it must’ve been,” he said slowly, and looked up. Soltier was looking at him still, expression dark and tense with conflicting emotions. It was the look of a man biting his tongue with all his might.

“This isn’t a fight you can win,” Soltier said, low and quiet.

Gulcasa bristled. “So you’re telling me to shut up, pretend nothing’s wrong? Fuck that. Fuck that fucking sideways. That’s like the opposite of what I clawed my way up to this position for.”

“Lapis and I couldn’t win this fight with full documentation, influence, and a child’s testimony,” Soltier said, and his eyes were blue like steel, the lines on his face harsh like wind-cut granite. “You’re not going to win it either, not even if Nessiah tells you everything—tells the police everything. Worst case scenario, he’ll get taken away from you. The Albelt name, the name of your company—those things have got weight, but not enough to compete with the Artwaltzes and their associates. You don’t want to pick this fight.”

Gulcasa might have said something in reply, but right then Nessiah shivered and made a low sound, like the moan of a dying thing. So he wrapped both arms around Nessiah and held him until their hearts were beating in the same rhythm, but the wheels in his head wouldn’t stop turning, all the rest of the silent drive.

 

Some half an hour later, the limo pulled up in front of the house, and Gulcasa disembarked, leading Nessiah with a little difficulty.

“Call us,” Soltier said, “if you need help with him. And also don’t be a dumbshit, make sure that you can at least guarantee his safety if you decide to wade into this clusterfuck anyhow.”

“Fuck off, and thanks for the ride I guess,” Gulcasa replied.

Once they had driven off, the street was very quiet. Gulcasa put his arm around Nessiah’s shoulders and steered him inside, making sure to lock and bolt the front door behind them.

There wasn’t much more to do. Nessiah was no longer in the state of tearing panic he’d exhibited before, but rather than easing back to normal functionality, he was back to the worn-down empty state he’d had long ago when Gulcasa had first brought him home. He didn’t show any interest in offers of food, drink, or warm blankets; despairing, Gulcasa led him to the stairs, and wound up having to carry him up them when Nessiah just stared at them blankly as if having forgotten how to climb them.

There wasn’t much more to do, so Gulcasa led Nessiah down the hallway into their bedroom. No amounts of offered nightgowns or shirts was able to get any kind of response, and Gulcasa knew better than to try to undress him after he’d gotten such a shock, so he turned down the sheets and lifted Nessiah up to set him on the bed, party dress and all.

Nessiah closed his eyes, let out a long breath. He might have gone to sleep right then; Gulcasa couldn’t tell.

But at least he didn’t move around, so Gulcasa changed clothes and turned the lights down, shutting the doors firmly before getting up on the free side of the mattress.

Nessiah still didn’t move. Gulcasa turned his face to the side, squinted at him through the dark, and scooted his hand across the mattress until it bumped into Nessiah’s. It was cold, maybe from having played with ice the whole way back and maybe just from shock, the soft slender fingers curled lightly.

Gulcasa didn’t cover it with his own hand, didn’t try holding it; he just kept his own hand there, against it, in case.

 

It was the sound of the door closing that woke him.

The noise was small and quiet, not even a slam, but it still flooded Gulcasa’s body with adrenaline with all the force of a firing hammer coming down. He was up and tense on hands and knees, staring around the room wildly, before he even had any idea as to where he was.

It was light out, that vague morning gray that usually heralded a cold and rainy day. Not the middle of the night. There was no huge male silhouette in front of the door, swaying with drink. Gulcasa breathed out, rested a hand at his chest, and shook his head in an effort to clear it of the weird, dissociative sensation of evaporated tension.

When even was the last time he’d been awakened by someone accidentally throwing his body into full alert? Emilia had shades of the same problem, and the twins mostly knew better by now, so it had to have been a while. And he couldn’t imagine Nessiah having to be warned about something when he probably—

Nessiah’s side of the bed was empty. The realization derailed Gulcasa’s train of thought completely.

Now wasn’t the time for calming down. Gulcasa got out of bed, pulled the door open without bothering to change out of his nightclothes, and ran down the stairs at a speed that led to two near-falls.

No one was in the immediate entrance hall. When he charged into the dining room, no one was there either; the kitchen and living room were similarly devoid of human presence. On an instinct and a guess, Gulcasa ran back to the front door and looked out the window.

“Shit.” The door was unlocked, so Gulcasa threw it open and let the screen door slam behind him, running barefoot over the dewy lawn after the distant, familiar silhouette at the end of the block.

It was cold enough for his breath to rise in clouds of steam, and the pavement was rough and cruel against his feet, but Gulcasa kept in shape and was fueled by raw panic besides. He caught up to Nessiah before the latter had reached the corner, and planted himself firmly in Nessiah’s way, doing his best to take up as much sidewalk as possible.

As Nessiah stared at him with wide eyes and an expression like he didn’t understand what was happening in front of him, Gulcasa choked on cold air and tried to glower.

“And just where the fuck do you think you’re going?”

Nessiah’s shoulders went up, and something—rebellion, maybe—hardened his expression. He stared across the street mutinously. His body was shivering lightly, maybe from emotion and maybe from cold; the skirt and gauzy top he was wearing, gifts from Aegina, covered a hell of a lot less than Gulcasa’s old sweater and flannel pants and definitely couldn’t retain as much heat.

“I have to go back,” was all Nessiah said. His voice was small, but his words were firm.

“You have to what now,” Gulcasa said between sharp gasps for breath. The air felt like it was shredding his lungs, and his face was starting to feel hot, exertion catching up to him.

“I have to go back,” Nessiah repeated. Gulcasa would’ve spoken but for the slight warp of Nessiah’s lower lip—he must have the edge of it tucked between his teeth, worrying it. And: “You don’t understand.”

Fucking A, Gulcasa thought, but instead of saying so, he stretched his arms out, let them fall to his sides. “I sure seem to be missing something here. Maybe you could explain, because all I can see is that you’re doing something that makes no logical sense from where I’m standing.”

“It’s my fault,” Nessiah said, and pressed a hand to his forehead, fingers clenching in his hair. His voice rose sharply with every syllable, until he was nearly shouting. “Don’t you see? She wouldn’t be—I was supposed to be protecting her, he promised that if I—if I stayed quiet, that I was shielding her, that otherwise he would hurt her, and I—I just covered my ears and forgot about her when I was too weak to bear it any longer, I was selfish and ran away, and now she’s—it’s because of me, I did that to her, and I don’t know if I can make it right anymore but I have to try because maybe—”

Gulcasa reached out and rested his hands on Nessiah’s shoulders, wanting to grab on tightly, wanting to shake him, holding back the urge with every ounce of self-control he’d ever built up because rough handling would just make Nessiah go to pieces even worse right now. The thousand-yard stare was back, tears beading like little frosted jewels along Nessiah’s eyelashes, and his words had sped up and gotten more and more pitchy until Gulcasa didn’t know how he’d managed to get them out.

“Nessiah, if you go back now,” he said, trying to sound firm and reasonable, “the only thing that’s going to change is that you’ll be getting hurt right alongside her. He’ll hold you each over each other’s heads, and neither of you will ever get out, you’ll be too afraid for each other. And you’ll die like that. You will, and she will. The guy who hurt you, he’s—already escalated to hurting her too, and you can’t make him stop like that.”

Nessiah shivered. His shoulders were tense underneath Gulcasa’s hands, but when he ran his hands over his face distractedly his wrists were limp. “I’m—supposed to be protecting her,” he said numbly, and his voice was gelled with tears. “Like you protected Emilia.”

Gulcasa winced. “Nessiah, I—I can only say this because we’re out of that situation and I’m looking back on it now, but—I wasn’t protecting her. I was dancing on my old man’s strings, thinking I was; I was a punk kid made out of broken fucking glass, I only knew what it was to hurt and be hurt. If he’d ever gotten it into his head to raise a hand to her, I wouldn’t have been able to stop him.”

Saying it out loud hurt. It hurt worse than chewing on razors, worse than having a mouth full of broken teeth, worse than a knife in the throat and the heart for each word. But if it would make Nessiah see sense, Gulcasa could force the words out nonetheless.

“That’s what’s going on with you, too. He used her as a threat to hang over your head to keep you from trying to get away, but if that threat was empty it always would’ve been empty, and since he’s already hurt her that means he was always going to, no matter what you did. That’s his decision, it’s got nothing to do with you, and you can’t make it your fault because it isn’t.”

Nessiah didn’t answer. Gulcasa searched his expression for some kind of clue, anything, a sign that maybe he was getting through. There wasn’t any.

“So—you can’t just go throw yourself to the wolves when it’s going to be in vain, all right? There’s got to be a better way to put an end to all of this, and I won’t give up until I find it. And I won’t stand for you getting hurt like that ever again, so. Don’t—give up on me, Nessiah, okay? At least not yet.”

Nessiah drew a breath like he was getting ready to speak, but let just let it out again. It sounded like the last bit of air rushing out of a punctured balloon. His eyelids fluttered, just a little, and a few of the tears caught on his lashes dripped onto his cheeks and ran down them.

“Also it’s cold as fuck out here, and pretty soon the neighbors are going to come out for their newspapers and wonder what’s going on.” It felt like he was grabbing at straws, but even so, he tried to smile. Hoped it wouldn’t come off as too desperate. “So, hey, let’s go home. Come home. Stay with me.”

Nessiah breathed in, and out, and said “Okay,” a little wobbly. Gulcasa lifted his hands up off Nessiah’s shoulders, held his breath, but Nessiah didn’t try to bolt. He was the one who reached, but Nessiah was the one who folded their hands together, squeezed tightly, like a promise.

They walked down the sidewalk shoulder to shoulder through the end of the sunrise, little Jacob’s ladders filtering down through the gray sky.

 

It was later, and Gulcasa was sitting on the couch with Nessiah curled up to his chest, brittle but solid and warm pressed against the insides of Gulcasa’s thighs. He’d flung a blanket over Nessiah’s back, pulled up a quilt on top of that, like warmth and weight could assure that Nessiah wouldn’t be going anywhere. The reality of him breathing like a kitten against Gulcasa’s skin felt as tenuous as a soap bubble in a building storm.

Gulcasa held up his cell phone, thumbed through his contacts list until he hit a name towards the very end. He stared at it, took a deep breath, and pressed Call. It had connected in a few seconds, and so he held the phone to his ear, nervous, waiting.

“Hello?” said a voice when the ringing stopped. It was a smooth voice, deep, unhurried and sophisticated, like aged liquor or the smell of almond extract; for years, Gulcasa had always wanted to be able to talk like that, able to arrest, to inspire trust with a single word. His voice had gone deep in the middle of being seventeen, but he’d long since realized he ought to let go of the dream. He could sound confident now, but his emotions had no off switch, and he’d never be able to force himself to sound that calm.

“It’s me,” Gulcasa replied. He played with the stringy ends of the blanket with the fingers of his free hand, needing to feel just that little bit active. “Velleman, if you’ve got time, I’d appreciate it if you could come over to my place. I need your advice on something.”

On the other side of the line, Velleman laughed, one quiet ha. “Well. I certainly hope this won’t turn out like the last time you said something like that to me. Being presented with documentation of embezzlement once is more than sufficient for a single lifetime.”

Gulcasa couldn’t help but smile. “No, though you could really stand to be a little bit happier about that. We were showing how much we trusted you, you know?”

“Then, I shall take it as a compliment. What seems to be the matter this time?”

“I can’t talk about it too much over a phone line, but…” Gulcasa looked down at Nessiah, and took a deep breath. “I’m about to pick the most ill-advised fight of my life, and I can’t afford to lose it.”