6

“Are you okay, angel?” PJ’s concern sounded genuine over the phone. “Is Rayne with you? Did they hurt him?”

There was the sound of muffled conversation in the background as he seemed to relay what he knew to the others. Xavier felt his throat tighten and had to take a deep breath. He wasn’t going to cry like a idiot. 

“I-I’m okay. Can’t talk right now.” Although, he was pretty sure any cabby in this city had heard crazier shit than tales of abduction and vampires, Xavier was feeling paranoid at the moment. “I’ll tell you everything when I get there.” 

A little under an hour later he was walking up the steps into a Bed and Breakfast motel just off the Freeway. PJ, Clay, and Chavez were seated about on the wide porch. Xavier came up the steps looking shell shocked and roughed up, but otherwise all right but Clay was on his feet at once when he saw how disoriented the young dancer was and noted the bruises on his handsome face. He caught Xavier before the young man stumbled and fell into his arms and the others were beside him in an instant, shocked and full of unexpectedly-gentle concern. 

“Jeez! What happened?” PJ wanted to know. In his heart of hearts he had only half believed Rayne’s tale of Vampires and abduction but now a cold spike of fear hit him in the chest. 

“I don’t know, I don’t know!” Xavier choked out, just because he was confused. “Rayne traded himself for me. I couldn’t do anything, they threw me out, even if I could’ve stayed I don’t know what I could’ve done.”

“You’re not making much sense, sweetheart.” Clay said gently.

Xavier swallowed hard, choking back frustrated tears. He took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. He started from the beginning, with the club, and Steffen. He glossed over some parts, but it was pretty easy to fill in the blanks. 

“…and then the guy says Rayne’s gonna take my place, that he’s not letting him go. They are all outta their fuckin’ skulls crazy. We have to get Rayne out of there before they hurt him bad.”

Now the two older men exchanged a look that went over Xavier’s head. Chavez moved in and put his arms around the kid and Clay pushed himself to his feet slowly. PJ murmured; “So he wasn’t exaggerating. These guys do not sound like reasonable people.”

“Maybe he was right and you should head on out to Paris,” Clay sighed, folding his arms and looking down seriously at the Irishman. “Take the boy with you, in case they go back on their word and come looking for him.”

I should take the boy?” Paddy looked amused. “And what are you planning to do, Action Man? Go in there with all guns blazing. You think I’m gonna let you do all that alone?”

“We got some favours we can call in,” Clay responded with a tight, humourless smile. In that moment, with that grim look in his eye, Xavier could begin to imagine what a formidable figure the big, black former porn star had been as a younger man. He might be carrying a little weight now that he was in his forties but a lot of that bulk was still muscle as Xav could testify. “If this Lagrado wants to mess with one of ours maybe he should realise that we don’t back down without a fight. But I’d be happier knowing that you and Xav were safe in Paris with Mikka to watch your backs.”

“Uh-huh,” PJ shook his head and chuckled wryly. “You don’t get rid of me that easily. I mightn’t be super fit any more but so long as I can hold a weapon I’m not going anywhere.” He reached out to stroke Xavier’s hair, aware that the Dancer was upset and only just holding it together. “Come on honey,” he said, coaxing the boy to his feet with Chavez’s assistance. “Let’s get you into a hot tub and get you to bed. Are you sure you weren’t followed back here?”

“No.” Xavier murmured, “Not sure of anything right now. I walked the opposite way for a while, and changed cabs a few times.” He shrugged. Exhaustion tugged at him. Getting clean sounded fantastic, so did food, and a bed. It felt terribly selfish when all he could think about was what might be happening to Rayne, but if he didn’t eat or sleep he was not going to be much help. He let Chavez and Paddy lead him up the stairs. 

Xavier felt hollow as he stripped while Chavez plugged the drain in the tub and got the water running. He was swaying on his feet. He caught the look Chavez was giving him. 

“What?” 

A glance in the mirror told him what. His usually golden tan skin looked like pale ashes and the bruises from fists and a few boots were a dark purple contrast. He looked pretty well worked-over. His eyes slid away from the glass and Xavier gingerly got into the hot water. 

To his relief they didn’t make him talk about it. They were both men of the world and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Xavier had taken the works during his brief stay with Lagrado and his henchmen. PJ looked concerned and distracted as they got the younger man into the steaming tub. Chavez took control of the issue and stripped to his shorts, climbing into the huge bathtub with him. 

“Go rustle up some food,” he suggested to his boss, who nodded sagely and left them to it. 

Chavez must have seen the moment of anxiety in Xavier’s eyes as he climbed into the water, for he knelt back and kept his hands on the side of the tub in clear sight. That look told him more than words what Xavier hadn’t said.

“It’s okay,” he murmured, as gently as Xav had ever heard him speak. “I’ll keep my shorts on if that’s what you want. But you’re gonna flake out in here and I don’t wanna let you drown after what you’ve survived, okay? Let’s just wash you down, huh? And once you’re clean it’s up to you if you wanna sleep alone or not. But nothing needs to happen, okay? You understand?” 

A flash of irritation crossed Xavier’s face. “Stop it. I don’t need the kid glove treatment, alright? I’m fine.” 

Chavez didn’t reply, but he stayed where he was. Xavier cupped his hands and brought the water up to wash his face. His hands shook like a feeble old man’s and it had little to do with the exhaustion he felt. He kept seeing that thing in the basement, it’s dead eyes looking at him, the greenish grey of its putrid skin. He could feel the liquid sliminess on his skin where it had grabbed him and pulled him up close, smell the cloying stench of death and rot. 

The smell clung to him; a phantom only he could sense. If his stomach was not already so empty he would have retched over the side of the tub. As it was he forced down the gorge that rose in his throat and grabbed the soap to scrub the scent and feel of slime from his skin. He wanted to scrub his skin raw, but his efforts were more listless than vigorous. The heat of the tub was getting to him, making his head swim, and Chavez swayed alarmingly in front of him. 

He slid back against the side of the tub, trying to make the dizziness go away. “Chavez… I’m gonna…” he started to warn him but wavered out of consciousness before he got the words out.

“Fuck!”

The other man was over him at once, disregarding his companion’s earlier defensive outburst and sliding his arms around Xavier’s limp body, pulling him up so that he lay with his head tilted back over the lip of the tub. Miraculously he managed to get the dancer out of the water without slipping up or braining the pair of them. 

“Someone get a doctor!” he yelled through into the next room where he could vaguely hear Clay talking on the phone. “Quick! This is serious!”

He laid his head on Xavier’s chest listening for his heartbeat, feeling for his pulse, which was faint and rapid like the flutter of insect wings under his fingers. The kid was too pale; too cold. It wasn’t right.

The next couple hours were a circus. An ambulance was called. Upon the paramedics’ arrival and assessment of Xavier, suspicion immediately fell on Paddy, Clay, and Chavez, who could not exactly explain how he came to be in this condition. The signs of blood loss were immediately apparent, although where he had lost so much blood from was not. Xavier had no visible flesh wounds, but the bruises pointed to an internal bleed. He was put on oxygen, hooked up with a saline IV and provided with a transfusion of blood. Standard trauma procedure for a gunshot or stab victim, but Xavier wasn’t either. They had him on the stretcher and were loading him into the back of the ambulance when he came to. 

He immediately refused transport and started to freak out about the IV. While they were trying to calm him and convince him he needed to go to he hospital they also discreetly questioned him about his friends’ involvement in his injuries. Was it an accident? Did someone just get a little too rough? 

Even disorientated and panicked he had enough presence of mind to come up with a quick story. It turned out that it was a good thing PJ, Clay and Chavez hadn’t come up with some elaborate cover, because then there was nothing to contradict Xavier, who told them he had been out club hopping and got jumped, before heading out here to meet his friends. It was actually close to the truth, which always made for the most convincing lie.

In the end he absolutely refused to go to the hospital, despite the urging of everyone around him. The pint of blood and saline revived him considerably. The paramedics insisted he must be bleeding internally and Xavier just as vehemently insisted that wasn’t the problem. They couldn’t force him to go when he was lucid and able to get off the stretcher on his own; which he did, only wobbling a little. 

Finally Paddy pulled him aside. He hoped he could get the boy to see sense if he talked to him one on one so he didn’t feel so cornered, and also reassure him they weren’t going to disappear on him if he went for a check-up. 

“It’s not that, PJ. I can’t go, trust me. If I’m admitted they’ll start digging into my medical history.” Xavier paused. “There isn’t anything recent but if you OD few times too many your name gets in the system. I’m not gonna get thrown back in Psych because they think I’m suicidal and did this to myself somehow.” 

It was perhaps a little paranoid, but Xavier had good reason to be. His last hospital stay they had deemed him a danger to himself and locked him up for a ten day psychological evaluation in which he was forced to admit to being suicidal when actually he’d just been stupid. They kept him in the hole until they ran out of questions, then booted him out with a handful of psychotropic prescriptions. 

Xavier knew he was not suicidal or nuts, although the second was looking somewhat debatable right now. Regardless, he wasn’t going to risk getting locked up again. “Please don’t make me go. There’s nothing wrong with me.They just took too much, you know that.” 

For a moment PJ McNamara looked down seriously into his wide, earnest eyes. He seemed to deliberate but at last he pulled Xav into a warm bear-hug of an embrace and murmured into his hair; “Okay honey, so long as you promise me faithfully that you’re not gonna flake on us again tonight, I’ll keep you here with us. I won’t be responsible for you dropping dead though. You get me? If I think you’re slipping away again you go straight to the ER.”

In the back of his mind he was also recalling a similar episode, many years before, sitting on a hospital bed. Then it had been the 20-year-old Rayne he was watching, with his wrists and hands bandaged like a prize fighter, head down, floating on a sea of sedatives, telling him determinedly that he was okay and he could handle himself. Time slipped by but these kids didn’t change. He could not comfort Rayne tonight but he could take care of the boy. And he knew that he would do that.

Xavier relaxed against that broad chest with a sigh of relief. The paramedics reluctantly left. That settled, there was nothing left to do but go back inside. Now that the excitement was over Xav inquired about the food PJ had been working on tracking down. His appetite at least hadn’t suffered! He ate whatever was put in front of him in his usual manner – like a half starved wolverine – which seemed to reassure everyone that he might not be so badly off after all. 

Clay was on the phone for most of the time whilst he ate. Finally it was determined that nothing much could be done in what remained of the night. They were going to have to wait on reinforcements. While they waited Xavier got some much-needed sleep, sliding in with Chavez. His body temperature was still a little lower then normal and Xavier wrapped himself around the warmth Chavez offered and quickly fell asleep. This time it was a normal, if exhausted sleep.

~~~

Rayne was not having as peaceful a night.

His arrival in San Francisco, and the subsequent snubs he had – however inadvertently – dealt Lagrado had not gone unnoticed by other powerful vampires in the area. Neither had Cole Lagrado’s retaliation. The Vampire Masters watched and waited, seeing if they could scent weakness in Lagrado, or if he would cross any lines. Either could damage his power structure in the city. So far he’d been very conservative in how he had handled the situation. 

He was playing by the rules. There had been no deaths. Rayne Wylde’s public humiliation would restore any face he had lost. A Council Gathering had been called and would meet the following night. In the meantime, Cole allowed Steffen to entertain himself with the singer, as compensation for losing his pet.

In the end, getting Xavier out of Lagrado’s clutches seemed to have been the easy part. Once the boy was hauled out of the cell and the curious crowd dispersed, his captor seemed almost to lose interest. 

One of the vampires had remained, the one who’d seemed most upset at the idea of Xav’s release and as the singer was dragged to his knees and forcibly manacled to the wall of the small, windowless hovel which had been his lover’s prison, he watched eagerly. Once the struggle had been won by Rayne’s captors and the singer was pulling on his chains with sheer bloody minded determination, Lagrado made his exit. He patted the other on the shoulder with a humourless smile and said; “He’s yours. For now! Don’t damage him too badly, he has an audience with the Elders tomorrow night.”

Steffen’s soulless dark eyes regarded Rayne impassively as the door closed on the room. The cruelty in Steffen was innate; becoming a vampire had only magnified his disregard for his victims. In life he had brutally tortured, raped, and killed dozens of young boys. Cole Lagrado had appreciated his inventiveness as a killer and knew that the brutality he employed would serve him well. He employed the mortal Steffen as one of his enforcers, and after watching him work for several months he had Turned him, granting the tall muscular enforcer a long Unlife in which to practice his fondest desires. Steffen now had the weight of two centuries worth of perverse crimes behind him. 

He had also a burning resentment for the Englishman chained in front of him. He’d barely had a taste of Xavier, thinking he would have more time; months, perhaps, to draw out and savour the boy’s terror before breaking him. To have so sweet a treat snatched from his hands rankled in the worst way. 

He moved closer, reaching a hand down to caress the side of Rayne’s face. “Your boyfriend’s screams were very sweet. So endearing, the way he tried not to struggle.”

The singer stared back up at him, cool and unblinking in the darkness. Rayne’s night vision had improved 100% since his Turning and the darkness no longer held any fears for him. He endured the older Vampire’s touch in silence, assessing him. Often other Undead guarded their thoughts and memories around their own kind. Steffen did not, He was practically broadcasting what he was to anyone capable of receiving it. Rayne knew he was doing it on purpose; he guessed the effect it was supposed to have. 

“So… you get off on hurting and scaring defenceless little boys, do you sweetheart?” he sneered at last, in a low, husky tone. “That’s a fine use of an Unlife, I don’t think.”

At the same time he was thinking; Good boy, Xavier. You hit a nerve there.

Steffen gave a low chuckle. “It is indeed a fine Unlife, whether you consider it so or not.” His fingers slid deeper into Rayne’s hair and tugged back sharply. “Shall we see if you have more fight then your mortal boy? Should I remove your chains? I’ll even let you have a head start; see how fast you run.”

Rayne’s eyes widened slightly, and shifted to take in the narrow parameters of the cell in which he was locked with this… as a committed vegetarian in his mortal life, ‘animal’ was too kind a word to use on Steffen. His lips curled back from extended fangs and he uttered a little hiss of cynical laughter. 

“Did you let Xav off the leash then? I don’t think so. Bastard!” His fingers tightened around the chains that ran from his cuffs to the wall and he pulled himself up until he was sitting, facing Steffen, back to the wall. “Go on then, big fella. I dare you to slip my lead. I took one of your boys out at the airport. Do you think I’m gonna sit on my arse and cry cause you’ve locked me in the dark?” 

“Oh, but I did give him his opportunity to run.” Steffen leered at Rayne, his fangs extended far enough now to look wickedly sharp. “He preferred to lay down and spread his legs. He liked my bite, but then you made sure he would crave it, didn’t you?” 

Rayne’s fingers tightened around the chains and he jerked down hard on them, wanting nothing more than to punch the smug look off this bastard’s face and feed him his own god-damned fangs. The moorings in the solid stone wall held though and he snarled back at Steffen, a sound all the more menacing for the softness of its tone. 

“You don’t know the first fucking thing about what him and me have done together,” he growled furiously. “Don’t even talk about us in the same context! If he seemed willing then you can bet he’d got you figured out. He knew a fight would turn you on and he couldn’t win it. Me, on the other hand…” Rayne left the remark unfinished. He didn’t have enough words to tell this evil bastard what he wanted to do in retaliation for the hurt and humiliation Xavier had suffered.

Steffen’s chuckle this time held a little more humour though it was just as mocking. “You think you could fight free? Maybe you will be fun after all.” He reached and unlocked one of the cuffs around Rayne’s wrist, grabbing it in a bone-crushing grip in case his new toy decided to swing at him before he got the other wrist freed. 

Rayne caught a little hiss of indrawn breath at the pressure on his slim wrist and writhed around so that he could draw one knee up keeping it between himself and his captor as Steffen wrestled with the lock on the other cuff, single-handed. As the metal bracelet clinked open, Rayne’s hand flew for his face, clawing at his eyes and simultaneously he kicked out and upward, his heel connecting with linen and soft flesh between the bigger Vampire’s thighs. He half turned, on his side, trying to wriggle down between Steffen’s legs whilst the pain was still preoccupying his gaoler’s mind. Steffen let him wriggle away, not only because he needed a second to swallow down the pain, but because that was part of the game. Let Wylde get away from him, let him run a bit, let him think he had a glimmer of hope. 

Rayne almost fell off the rough pallet and dirty mattress on which Xavier had been imprisoned. He rolled as soon as he hit the floor and kept rolling until his back was up to the door. He got his fingers to the handle but Steffen moved as soon as he reached for it. He was disconcertingly fast for such a big Vamp, even in agony, which he must have been. The singer let go of the handle and moved again, trying to keep behind, or just offside of him. His prison was not the biggest of rooms but there was space enough to pass at arm’s length which was all he needed for the time being. 

“Okay… let’s see how fit you are, sweetheart!” he panted ducking a grasping hand and swinging around sharply to his left to come behind his assailant again.

Another manoeuvre like this brought him back to the door and this time he gripped the latch in both hands and rattled it furiously, finding it locked. That bastard Lagrado had locked them in when he left. Which meant he was probably watching what went on, somehow.

Rayne turned fast with his back to the door, eyes searching the ceiling for cameras. Eyes that should have been watching the more immediate threat.

Steffen smashed into Rayne from the right and the strength of the older vampire took him off his feet. They hit the floor hard and Steffen did not waste time gloating. He bit Rayne, sinking his teeth into the tender skin of his throat. Not for blood but to cause maximum damage. The bite was not a simple puncture wound but a savaging. Steffen latched on and shook him like animal with prey between its jaws. Hands that suddenly felt like iron claws ripped and stripped away his clothes. 

The shock came more from the speed of the attack than anything else. Initially, Rayne was too dazed to respond but as Steffen’s jaws closed on his throat and he threw his head from side to side like a dog trying to tear off a haunch of meat, the smaller Vampire struck out at him, his furious cry half-strangled in his throat. All he could think of as his assailant clawed the shirt off his back and those grasping hands lunged for his pants was how the hell Xavier had withstood this bastard for more than half an hour! 

“No!” he gurgled, thrashing and kicking out desperately as Steffen wrestled with his fly, then clawed at the material so violently that the buttons flew in all directions and the seam tore right down between his thighs. “You fucker! D’you know what they cost?” he yelped, as his throat was briefly released and Steffen concentrated all his efforts on tearing his pants right off. 

At the same time, Rayne could feel the immense surge of energy that suddenly diverted into his body’s instinct to heal. It was as if someone threw a switch shutting down a quarter of his physical strength. His throat felt tight and sore as the flesh knitted. Then a new pain ripped right through his left hip as Steffen wrenched his legs open wide and hard. Rayne’s fangs extended automatically and he reared up from the ground, trying to fight free, trying to bite, trying to do anything but play the good little victim. 

“You do not taste nearly as sweet as your mortal boy, Wylde, but you put up a much better fight!” Steffen laughed as he finished ripping Rayne’s clothes away. He went to flip him over; it was much easier to control arms and legs when he took them from behind. In his haste he was careless and Rayne took the opening, sinking bared fangs into his arm. 

The pain sent a surge straight to Steffen’s cock. Rayne’s struggles already had him excited; this put him over the top. Steffen’s fist came down in a vicious backhand, knocking Rayne loose from his arm. He flipped the smaller vampire over and slammed his head against the floor. Either blow might have killed a mortal lad, but he didn’t need to be as careful with Wylde. Pinning the slender, struggling body beneath his bulkier frame he wasted no time stabbing his cock urgently into Rayne’s tight channel. 

The first punch broke bones in his neck and he reeled, falling back, feeling sick to his gut. Even as his ever-efficient nervous system set to work repairing itself, he felt strong hands slam his skull against the stone. He wanted to tell his body to hold on, to wait and mend things afterwards, but it was like trying to stop the tide coming in or the sun setting. Steffen broke him and his persistent body tried valiantly to fix the damage. 

And Rayne got weaker. 

Even so, Rayne fought against him for every inch and every stroke, though he must have known how it inflamed the older, stronger creature. It was no longer in his nature to submit mildly to injustice. As a mortal he had let men get away with it because he had no idea how to stop it happening. Since he had been Turned no ordinary human would have got away with the treatment Steffen meted out to him. No few Vampires would have suffered for trying it. But this one was tough. Rayne knew the moment he was brought down and his attacker began to beat and strip him that he would not win a physical fight with this creature. He screamed and swore all the same, kicking out and trying to twist away from under Steffen’s body and his rough handling. It was insanity but it had to be done. He could not lie back and take what Steffen wanted to give, not without trying to draw blood, at least!

The worst thing of all was, Steffen could see what this was doing to him. And he kept on doing it. It was firing up his boner as he dragged the small, English Vampire’s limp, virtually naked body back roughly towards him, over and over. Each time Steffen impaled him on that thick, pulsing member Rayne bit down hard on his lips to keep in the scream of rage and frustration that wanted to tear itself free. Blood spilled from his mouth and ran down his chin, dripping to the floor as Steffen thrust hard, taking him from behind like a wild beast. The urgent strokes, pushing deeper inside him, stretching him and forcing him until he wanted to howl with a combination of fury and disgust, nevertheless stoked an unwanted flame in his loins. 

He bucked crazily, absolutely desperate to get free, to get this bastard out of his body. It no longer mattered if he even survived the attempt, he was determined that he would not cum with this animal’s cock inside him. 

Steffen was almost drunk with lust. Not only could he mete out an almost unlimited amount of punishment and not have to worry about damaging a fragile victim beyond repair, but Wylde’s furious struggles pushed him higher and higher. He twisted his fist into Rayne’s hair, forcing his head down again whilst he drove into his victim’s body again and again. 

Ignoring the Englishman’s attempts to claw his hand away he snaked one arm around Rayne’s hips, the hand groping his crotch obscenely. He chuckled nastily in his unwilling mate’s ear. “Two of a kind! Your boy liked it rough too.” 

Steffen’s hand squeezed painfully tight and his thrusts quickened. He groaned with satisfaction as Rayne bucked hard under him. 

“Ahh, that’s it, give me a good ride.” He had no intention of making this last long enough to bring Rayne off. The humiliation would be sweet, but he’d rather leave the other vampire frustrated. “Your pet was so eager to spill his hot seed with me.” That part was further from the truth. He had felt the boy begin to respond, however unwillingly, but Xavier had been in too much pain, and suffering from excessive blood loss, to have even got close to orgasm. 

Steffen’s rapid, urgent huffs of breath turned into victorious little grunts as he powered harder astride his reluctant mate and came in a copious, if not joyful, spill deep inside Rayne’s nude, struggling body.

Rayne shuddered involuntarily, huddled on the floor of the cell where Steffen dropped him as he yanked his rod out, gloating silently over the act he had just committed. He felt dazed and dirty. His throat was too tight and too dry as he croaked; “That all you’ve got? Heh… no wonder Xav wanted out of here. You must have been a real fuckin’ disappointment to him after me and the boys! A proper ‘three minute hero’!”

He rolled onto his knees and tried determinedly to pull himself back towards the door handle, even though his head was still spinning from the violent contact with the floor. His lips were bleeding where he had bitten himself and would not stop no matter how much he licked them. 

Not good. Not good at all! He needed an escape plan and his brain was refusing to co-operate. 

Steffen did not bother with a verbal response. He did, however, deliver a kick to the gut hard enough to lift Rayne off his knees and move him further away from the door. Before Rayne could react, he kicked the smaller vampire again, this time higher in the body and kept up the rain of blows. Ribs snapped like dry twigs under his heavy boot, though Rayne barely made a sound. He was biting down on his lips again, eyes closed tight as he rolled on the ground, hugging himself desperately, trying to shield against the attack but too weak to fight it.

“You got a mouth on you that just don’t quit.” Steffen snarled. He grabbed Rayne’s hair and dragged him back to the manacles fixed deep into the wall. He ignored the small gasps and whimpers from his bleeding victim. Forcing his hands above his head roughly, Steffen got him shackled again before using his own key to exit the cell. The door clicked shut and locked, leaving Rayne alone in the darkness to heal the damage he’d absorbed tonight. 

Rayne curled his fingers around the chains, gripping them tightly as he curled around the pain in his gut on the filthy mattress. He flinched as the door slammed shut and the tumblers of the lock fell. His back teeth were clenched hard and his eyes closed, trapping the treacherous tears that only came now that he was alone. 

That big, brutal bastard had a point, he supposed. He never did know when to shut the fuck up!

Shivering in agony he sprawled on the hard, rancid-smelling mattress and tried to close his senses down. It took a long time to shut out the pain and humiliation; longer still to shut out the memory of his Uncle standing over him, belt in his hand, telling him to strip and spread or he knew what he’d get.

Only when the nightmares finally retreated did he slowly, and painfully begin to heal.

~~~

Xavier had slept poorly. He couldn’t seem to get warm. He tossed and turned and nightmares plagued him. It was only toward early morning that he became more peaceful, after having kept Chavez up most of the night as well. He had curled into a tight ball at the centre of the bed, the blankets wrapped around him in a cocoon. Xav woke suddenly, alone in the room. Struggling to shrug off the blankets he bolted upright. He had been dreaming again. Vague shadows, Rayne chained, bloody and hurting. 

His heart still beating hard he staggered up and to the bathroom. He took a leak and washed his face. Spotting his clothes on the floor he wrinkled his nose. He didn’t want to wear those clothes again. The might have traces of vampire slime on them. 

A look around the room located a bag that had to belong to Chavez. He didn’t think the Mexican boy would mind if he borrowed a tee shirt and a pair of jeans. They were a little big, and a little long, but not that bad a fit. He had just finished getting dressed when Chavez returned. 

“I borrowed some clean clothes, hope that’s alright.”

The young Hispanic man looked him up and down with an open, friendly, appreciative smile. 

“They look better on you than on me, man!” he laughed. “Help yourself. When we’re not hiding out any more you can get PJ to buy you something that fits. What you were wearing was pretty messed up but I didn’t want to trash it without your say so.” He hesitated a little, then quietly added; “You had a rough night?”

Xavier rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, trying to ease the tension there. “Rayne had a worse night than me,” he murmured. 

It wasn’t just that he knew how Steffen would be with him, he had felt it in his dreams. It wasn’t mind reading or telepathy, it was just a feeling. A bad one. “I need to talk to PJ and Clay.” 

Chavez led the way down the hall, where the two older men were both in PJ’s room. Clay was on the phone again. To Xavier it looked like he hadn’t taken the damned cell away from his ear all night. He was just finishing up his conversation and closed the phone as Chavez and Xavier came in. 

Xavier looked a bit better then he had the night before, there was colour in his face at least and he wasn’t weaving on his feet like a strong wind might blow him over. The improvement stopped there though. He still looked tired, his eyes… when people talked about someone looking haunted you could look into Xavier’s eyes and know what they meant. 

He didn’t bother with a good morning, politeness could wait. 

“We have to do something. We have to get Rayne out of there.” Xav swallowed hard, knowing he sounded stressed and on the verge of craziness. “That… that fucker hurt him, I know it.” 

The older man looked him up and down, gravely but suprisingly – given the abrupt nature of his entrance – not with any disdain or impatience. He looked as if he was assessing Xavier’s state of health before dropping a bombshell.

“We’ll get him out of there, once we know where there is, just as soon as we’ve got the wherewithall to take those bastards on,” he told the blond youth, and his Cali accent had slipped almost completely. The Irish lilt had a hard edge to it though. 

Clay rubbed his forehead and rumbled; “Link at Studio 7 reckons Lagrado has access to a whole network of tunnels under Sydney Walton Square. There are access points all over the city so his people can come and go without being seen by the guys at the Studio. One of his Hispanic engineers reckons they even call ABC ‘Ajuntamente Broadcast Coelho’, Lagrado’s in so deep there. It’s all a cover for something, or so Link’s buddies figured. They thought it must be gun-running or prostitution and they kept well out of it.”

The burly ex-porn-star looked exhausted, as if he’d slept even less than Xavier. His expression was still keen though.

“Did anyone come up with leads on the other matter?” PJ asked, without taking his eyes of Xavier. He could see the frustration in the boy’s face but held up a hand for silence.

“The bloodsuckers? Well, y’know I had to be careful what I asked. Don’t want these guys thinking I’m getting loony-tunes in my old age!” Clay laughed humourlessly. “But, yeah… there’s rumours that his friends have a kind of club down there; again the guys I spoke to thought it was kinky sex, even maybe a bit of snuff. They take street kids, whores, the ones that won’t be missed if their fun gets out of hand. Again, if anyone asks questions the party line seems to be that Mr Lagrado gave the kids money to go home to Pokeass, Nevada or wherever the fuck they came from, and sort out their lives. Very neat and tidy!”

“So he comes out of this shitheap smelling of Calvin Klein” PJ muttered, shaking his head. “He’s in deep with the networks and we all know that the media people run this city. Anyone that tries to dis’ him gets a heavy media dirty tricks campaign and has to run for the hills before even their nearest and dearest try to lynch them. He doesn’t even need to get his hands dirty.” He sighed deeply. “We need to get into those tunnels. Any ideas, Mr Gavrilov?”

The look in his eyes now told Xavier straight off that Lagrado wasn’t the only one they had been busy investigating.

Xavier was not exactly surprised, but he did wonder how deep they’d dug. Not that there was anything he wouldn’t have told them anyway. Well, maybe a few things. He did a quick mental inventory of what had probably been easy enough for them to find out. If they started with where he worked they would have been told he stayed away from the drugs, he didn’t take clients on the side, and he’d worked there for about a year. Before that, he’d worked at a less trendy club, and from there it wouldn’t have been too hard to find out he’d been a hustler and an addict. Beyond that… he wasn’t sure if they could have dug much deeper. His mom had died, he went into the foster care system, ran away when he was fifteen, lived on the street for a while. They may or may not have found out about the pornos he’d been in. He’d purposely kept tight-lipped about that, considering he’d been underage, and he’d left the city in a hurry before the producer could kill him for fucking his girlfriend and stealing his dope. And so here he was. 

“I can take you to the building where they were.” Xavier said, focusing on the present. 

If PJ noted the hesitation before he answered, he said nothing about it. He seemed on the verge of asking another question when the phone in Xavier’s pocket bleeped imperiously, a little chirrup of sound and the dancer remembered that he still had Rayne’s cellphone. Chavez had taken it from his jeans pocket last night in the bathroom and put it by the bed, and he had picked it up and tucked it into the pocket of his borrowed pants almost without thinking. It was still switched on. 

He pulled it out and stared at it for a moment. The instant of mindless hope that the caller would be Rayne himself was pushed aside as a stupid impossibility. Why would he ring his own phone, even if he had managed to get free? The caller ID on the readout screen said ‘LADY W’. 

“You gonna answer that?” Clay asked him with a little frown. 

At the same time, PJ murmured; “That’s Ray’s cell?”

Xavier nodded to them both, still looking at the phone as it rang again. He flipped it open, “Hello?”

There was a pause and then a very proper sounding voice said, “This isn’t Rayne?”

“No.”

“To whom am I speaking, then?”

“Who is this?” Xavier asked, not impolite, just cautious. 

“Xavier?”

“How do…” He shut up, and then figured what the hell. The caller was somebody that had to know Rayne, his number was in Rayne’s phone, it stood to reason. “Yeah.” 

“Oh hell,” the speaker said, a little breathlessly. There was a lot of commotion in the background, then a clunk like a car door closing, and things were suddenly quieter. “Please tell me that he’s sorted this business out and the only reason he isn’t answering his calls is because he’s asleep beside you?”

The tone of voice was more optimistic than confident. 

Xavier debated playing stupid, he didn’t know who was on the other end after all, but it seemed rather silly. His caller obviously knew something was happening. Rayne must have called and told him, how else would he know who Xavier was? 

“No.” And Xav suddenly found his throat a little thick at the thought of where Rayne was instead. “No, he isn’t here.” He cleared his throat. “Who are you?” he asked again, still sounding politely neutral, if not borderline hysterical. 

There was a little pause on the other end of the line. Xavier thought that the caller caught his breath, then, rather more gently he answered; “My name is Warren; Dominic Warren. I’m a friend of Rayne’s from England. He called me yesterday, in rather a state. Your name was mentioned. He seemed to think that you were in some kind of danger.” Dominic took another breath, as if steadying himself. In the background Xavier could hear something that sounded like the engine of a car revving up. “Look, I’m just leaving the airport now. Are you all right, darling?” he asked in a solicitous tone. “Are you safe? You can talk to me.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Which was mostly true anyway. How much had Rayne told this guy? What did he know? Why had Rayne called him in the first place? “Look, let’s not play the guess-how-much-I-know game, okay? Rayne must of trusted you enough to call you and tell you what was happening, and if you immediately hopped on a plane to get over here you must know it’s not bullshit, so…” Xavier took a deep breath and reached a decision. “Rayne must have talked to you just before he met up with Lagrado. The first thing I knew about it was when they came in to where they had me locked up and Rayne made a deal, he traded himself for me. He got them to let me go, and give me some clothes and promise not to hurt me on the way out or follow me, but that’s it. He didn’t try for any other conditions, no kind of limits on what they can do to him, not even a time limit. So now they got him and that bastard said he was going to make him hisservant, and he put him in chains, and they got this… this thing… like a starved rotting thing… and that sadistic fucker Steffen…” And he couldn’t seem to quit now that he’d let a little bit out. It was just too much, everything that had happened, everything that had been done to him. He hadn’t had time yet to assimilate it all and put it behind him. Now it all came flooding out of him.

In the room Clay’s eyes widened a little at this part of the tale, the stuff that Xavier hadn’t told them last night. PJ was looking curiously at the phone, his expression saying plainly that he was suspicious and had a few questions of his own.

In Xavier’s ear the soothing voice; that bizarre, cut-crystal English accent that was as different from Rayne’s lilting Estuarine drawl as Xavier’s own, neither denied nor confirmed anything. He simply said; “Xavier, I’m in a cab leaving San Francisco International now. Rayne asked me to meet up with a friend of his at a place called… The Happy Pig?” He sounded slightly incredulous. “Do you know it? Can you meet us there? We’ll try to help you, I promise.”

“I’m there now.” Xavier said numbly. He felt a bit like he was surfacing from something. He couldn’t believe he’d run off at the mouth like that. Usually he played it so close. 

“You’re with McNamara?” The caller sounded both relived and – Xavier couldn’t be sure but he thought – a shade envious as well. “That’s… great! Look, hang on Xavier. I’ll be there in about 30 minutes, traffic permitting. Don’t do anything rash until I get there. I promise you I’ll do everything in my power to help.”

“Okay.” Xavier said, and Dominic hung up. He was left looking a little befuddled, with the phone in his hand and three curious faces looking at him. 

He closed the cell with a little snap. “That was a guy called Dominic Warren. He’s a friend of Rayne’s, I think. He said he’s on his way here, to help.”

“He knows where we are?” Clay asked, perplexed by this. 

Xavier nodded. He pointed towards PJ; “He knew you were here.”

“I don’t like this.” Barclay was on his feet, moving towards the door. “It could be trouble. What if they tortured him? What if they come after us?”

“Why would someone ring and tell us he was coming if he was gonna kill us?” Chavez fired back at him with a nervous laugh. 

“He has a point,” PJ mused. “Rayne doesn’t know how to fight these bastards. He’d be here with us if he did and we wouldn’t be jumping at shadows. Where is this Warren dude?”

“On his way here from the airport.” Xavier said distractedly. He was looking at the phone in his hand, turning it over between his fingers like a worry stone. The conversation bothered him now. He’d felt he could trust the guy on the phone, and that was extremely weird. People usually had to work hard before he trusted them, yet he’d babbled out a bunch of stuff to a complete stranger. “He’s not a vampire though.” Xavier said. How he knew that he had no clue, but he would have bet on it. And he was not a betting man.

They did not have to wait long for confirmation. A little before 1pm, a cab pulled up in the parking lot and as the driver huffed and puffed, extracting three large, samsonite cases from the trunk, his passenger slipped out of the rear door and stretched in the sunlight. The stranger ran a sun-tanned hand through the riot of silver and gold curls at his crown and tugged the travel creases out of his crisp, white linen shirt. He was tall, easily PJ’s 6 foot plus height, but not as big as the vast bulk that was Clay. Nor did he have the muscle of either of those men; his build was lean and trim like a dancer or a distance runner, enhanced by the snug fit of his light blue, designer jeans. There was a small, black holdall slung over his left shoulder and he wore large, open, frameless sunglasses and a number of colourful, braided wristbands. 

Xavier remembered that Rayne had some similar to these, along with his silver curb bracelet. He had played with them idly as they curled around one another in bed. Xav felt a little pang of loss and desperation.

Clay and PJ rose from the veranda to greet the newcomer but only the big black moved forward. As if by some unspoken command, PJ stayed at the top of the steps. The stranger held out his hand at once but Clay did not take it. 

“Dominic Warren,” the man introduced himself in that crisp, perfect English accent, like something from a period drama where the men wore top hats and the women bustled around in crinolines and curtseyed all the time. He smiled warily. “I know this must seem a little strange but Rayne did say that it was a matter of some urgency. He seemed to think that you had a problem. A rathernasty problem. One that bites?” He hesitated then added, rather less formally; “Forgive me, but aren’t you Barclay Johnson Francis?”

He pushed his shades up into his hair, pale eyes twinkling with astonishment and no small amount of hero worship. 

“Goddess! You are!” he exclaimed without giving Clay the chance to speak. “I have… positively drooled over so many of your movies! Oh my!”

On the veranda, PJ cast a small, sidelong look at Xavier, who had come to join him there. There was a half-incredulous smile just at the edges of his generous mouth. “This is our vampire hunter?” he murmured without moving his lips.

Xavier’s expression was a mite more dismayed than PJ’s. He wasn’t sure what he been expecting. Someone built like an action hero, maybe, with a Uzi strapped to his back, cris-crossed with ammunition, stakes and mallet in one hand, machete in the other. Perhaps unrealistic, but it would have made Xavier feel a whole lot better. He took a step forward, drawing Warren’s admiring gaze from Clay, “Um, you said on the phone that you could help?”

Dominic’s pale, clear gaze moved at once from the impressive bulk of Barclay to the lighter, pensive form of the boy on the steps.

“And you must be Xavier,” he said, abandoning the mild histrionics of a moment or two ago. “Oh yes, very much his type. Beautiful, in fact.” He drew a short breath and exhaled it in a little sigh. “Yes, Xavier. I hope that I can help.”

“I hope so too.” PJ was still standing at the top of the short flight of steps with his arms folded across his broad chest looking down on them. 

For a moment Dominic’s eyes widened again and he shook his head slowly. 

“Goodness… I didn’t recognise you for a moment,” he breathed at last, visibly flustered again. “I mean… I read that you’d been sick… I’m so sorry. I… oh my Lord and Lady! You actually look very well…”

“Let’s skip all that, Lord Warren,” PJ McNamara said amiably enough, demonstrating that he knew as much about British Politics as their visitor knew about the US Porn Industry. “I’m fit enough for the task in hand. The question is, as Xav delicately managed not to ask, are you?”

The willowy Englishman drew himself up to his full height with a little smile and narrowed his gaze on PJ as the cabbie was struggling up the steps with the last of his cases. 

“I think I might pleasantly surprise you, Mr McNamara,” he replied in a steelier tone, retrieving his wallet from the front pocket of his jeans and unfurling several large denomination notes which he passed to the cab driver without even looking at the man. “Appearances can be frightfully deceptive, as I’ve found to my advantage time and time again.”

The driver fired a look at Warren, then checked the notes and brightened visibly. He was in his vehicle and gone before the crazy Englishman could change his mind. 

Xavier, with a typical lack of patience, said “Great! Why don’t you tell us how exactly you’re going to do that on the way. I know where the building is, we can get in the car and go now!” 

For this Xavier got three similar looks, in various stages of patronisation that told him without words that they weren’t going to be rushing off any time soon. Only Chavez kept a carefully neutral expression that said he would go with the flow, as usual. 

“Xav, we can’t just go off half cocked here…” Clay started reasonably.

Irritation prickled up Xavier’s back. “We got to move! Don’t you get it? They are not just hangin’ around sipping tea and playing cards.” 

He said this last part in a near-perfect imitation of Lord Warren’s clipped, cultured tones. It would have been pretty comical under any other circumstance.

“There are guys that will hurt you because they can’t handle booze, or because they got pissed, and there are ones that just get off on it. These guys like to hurt… and I left him there,” he raged; which was where the near frantic need to hurry was coming from. Never mind that he couldn’t have done a damn thing even at full strength, much less that he’d barely managed to stagger out of the alley they’d tossed him out in and make it back here.

PJ and Clay looked at one another again, rather more helplessly. The stranger had been watching Xavier throughout and his expression was rather more serious now. Ignoring the sipping tea jibe, he set a hand on the back of Xavier’s neck, his fingers moving soothingly there. 

Xavier stiffened but didn’t pull away, torn between not wanting to be soothed and desperately needing to be. Surviving trauma was nothing new for Xav but the guilt that came with leaving Rayne behind was, and it was eating him up. 

“Xavier darling,” Warren said, in an entirely reasonable tone. “If we run in there without a plan then we run the risk of winding up in exactly the same mess Rayne is in. Except that he is one of them, and we are not. We can’t help him if we’re dead. Now I know that you’re worried about him but you have to trust me on this one. Whilst they would have no qualms about squashing you or me like flies, they are very unlikely to kill him. True Death, Vampire to Vampire, is not an easy option for them, it violates their codes on so many levels. Now I know you don’t want to hear this, but the hurting is something he can take. I’ve seen him do it. He’ll be strong and he’ll do it for you, my darling boy. What we must do now is make sure that he doesn’t have to be strong for very much longer. Okay?”

No. No! Nothing was okay! Xavier swallowed back the words. 

“Fine. Tell me what the plan is then.” He forced the response out slowly but the impatience was still there, just beneath the surface. It was very clear that if he did not like what he heard, he was going to be done with listening, and short of tying him up and locking him in they were not going to stop him from going off on his own. 

“This is not the place to talk business,” Lord Warren exhaled, bending to pick up one of his cases. 

As Clay lifted the other two, he uttered a little grunt of disbelief. “You planning on staying a year or is this just you travelling light?”

“You don’t think I’m going to come all this way to take on a vampire like Lagrada Diaz with just my looks and my charm do you?” the older fellow chuckled wryly as Clay led the way back to PJ’s rooms. Paddy put an arm around Xavier’s shoulders and squeezed him consolingly as they went. 

“It’ll work out, hon. You’re not on your own now,” he said, almost tenderly in a low voice that was for Xav’s ears only.

Once they were there, with the doors locked and Dominic had expressed an ironic appreciation of the motel’s ‘faux-rustic appeal’, he crouched and unfastened the barrel locks on his cases. As he lifted the lid, Clay who was still hovering over the fellow, sucked in a sharp breath.

“Jesus Christ! How in Hell did you get that lot through the SFI scanners?”

The others moved around to examine the contents of the first case, which seemed to be mainly made up of military hardware set into precast foam packaging to keep it stable in transit. There were handguns with night sights and the broken down components of what looked like a pair of high-powered semi-automatic rifles in there. Dominic knelt down and opened the other cases, which held more parts and ammunition rounds the like of which they had never seen outside an action movie. The ammo-cartridges were made of glass, or some kind of hard perspex and the rounds they contained were clear and filled with a slightly luminous substance that looked like mercury. The final case held a series of long, slender chromium rods and a range of spikes and blades with a tubular, grooved fitting at the base designed to screw onto another appliance. As Chavez reached out to touch one of the rifle butts, Dominic slapped his hand away lightly. 

“What’s the point in having Diplomatic Immunity if you can’t make practical use of it?” Their visitor looked up at Xavier now and winked at him. “Is this more the kind of thing you were expecting, darling?”

Xavier blinked at all the stuff and looked at Lord Warren with a judicial eye. He must know people in some very high places to have been able to get weapons of this calibre and quantity into the country. “Yeah, that’s a little more what I had in mind.” Xavier said at his driest.

Dominic Warren closed the cases and spun the locks on them then pushed himself to his feet with a little smile. 

“I need to have a shower and get changed,” he said, running a hand through his silver curls again. “I’ve been on the go since last night… that’s yesterday afternoon in local currency! And then I need to make a couple of phone calls and acquire a suit.”

“Suit?” PJ looked sceptical. 

Warren was already exploring the en-suite and his sing-song voice echoed back blithely from the bathroom. “I can’t go buttering up Master Vampires looking like I just fell off the Greyhound from Tucson, Arizona. For God’s sake!”

Chavez, who was still sitting on the edge of one of the beds staring at the cases, now shook his head and murmured; “He is one crazy fucker!”

~~~

Lagrado stood before Rayne Wylde looking immaculate in fitted black trousers that hugged his hips and crotch suggestively and tucked smoothly into supple, knee-high black riding boots. His tailored black shirt was open to the navel in a style reminiscent of the mid 1970s and he wore a three-quarter length black jacket open over the ensemble. In his right hand he carried a proper, leather-bound hickory-shafted riding switch which he tapped against the top of his boot from time to time like an intermittent heartbeat. Rayne was painfully conscious that the struggle with Lagrado’s young enforcers, then later with Steffen, had left him bloodied and dishevelled. His shirt and pants were torn and there was still blood on his skin. In this sumptuous room, surrounded by ancient and powerful Vampires some of them, like Lagrado himself, probably over half a century old, he was painfully aware of the fragility of his continued Unlife. 

“You are here because you have shown us absolute disrespect, Mr Wylde,” Lagrado addressed him coldly. “It is my task today, as the Master of this region, to bring you back into line. What makes you think that a creature less than twenty years beyond the Veil may ignore the rules of his elders and betters; rules that were set in place for the benefit of all our kind; rules that have been adhered to by Vampires in this great country for centuries?”

Rayne seethed silently, his entire body bristling with hostility. They could see and feel it in him and he sensed the hunger in their watching eyes but his own gaze was fixed solely on Lagrado. 

“Get real, Old Man,” he hissed through extended fangs. “Move on! This is the 21st Century. People have the freedom to make their own choices; set their own rules. Get used to it!”

There was a low rumble of… something like anticipation from the assembled Vampire Elders. Some leaned forward in their seats to get a better look at the insolent British Fledgling, or maybe to better witness what Lagrado would do to punish him hard for his wayward behaviour. 

“You are no longer mortal, Mr Wylde,” said the older Vampire impassively. “Their petty rules no longer apply to you. Mortals believe, in their supreme ignorance, that they run this city. The Mayor and the officials, they all puff themselves up with their own self-importance. So long as they make money they are happy men and women. Their police have no power. They are merely fat, indulgent windbags with no real authority. All they are is food, Mr Wylde. But we…” and here he paused to gesture around the room including his peers in this generalisation; “we have the real power, my young friend. A power so great that we can make a man disappear and no one will question it; even a man of your moderate fame and immoderate reputation. And we maintain that control through strict discipline.” He stroked Rayne’s cheek with the paddle of his riding whip. It was a flexible switch such as the race-riders used in the days before plastics and polymers, hand-stitched and well maintained. He could smell the polished leather binding and feel the almost suede-like texture, like human skin against his own flesh. Lagrado held his eyes with that bottomless, dark gaze, breathing the words; “You have been brought here before us to learn some discipline, child.”

“In your dreams!” Rayne sneered, sounding braver than he felt right now. 

Lagrado glared at him, those empty eyes suddenly cold and hard.

“When you came to this city I gave you a warning,” he reminded his young hostage. “Show me some respect, or go home. You are still here and still you deliberately offer me offence. I have been patient with you. I respected your marking of the dancer. He was released as you requested and still you bait me, Mr Wylde. My patience is not without limit. Today you will be punished for your insolence. Today, it will be my pleasure to teach you humility.”

“You’ll try, you mean!” Rayne snarled at him, his eyes flashing true anger and a little fear, searching now for potential escape routes or something he might use as a weapon. There were no windows visible in this panelled room. Although he had lost his bearings in the elevators, he suspected that they were still below ground. The only door he could see was the one through which he had been dragged, now guarded by the pair of muscle boys who had hauled him down here from his cell. The walls were banked on two opposing sides with carved benches rising from front to back so that all the seated Vampires could watch the entertainment unimpeded. At the head of the room was the long, polished table behind which Lagrado had been seated when he was dragged into the chamber. It and the seats were the only furnishings. The floor was smooth, polished maple, as were the wall panels. The light came from recessed fittings in the panels above head height. He felt the cold, bone deep as his mind cancelled the options for fight or flight one after another.

And then there was heat again. Cole Lagrado moved faster than even his sharp eyes could see. The crop struck him across the face from left to right. As the assembled Elders murmured their satisfaction, he reversed the stroke, lashing the other cheek with a stripe of heat that burned Rayne’s blood. He stood his ground but he could already feel the blood trickling slowly down his face. His audience grew restless as they scented it. Fangs extended and he felt the hunger in their cold eyes as they watched him, eager to see his reaction. 

“Is that the best you can do?” he forced out, trying not let them hear the tremor in his voice. He was shaking with impotent rage as much, if not more than fear. 

Lagrado shook his head with a slow, humourless smile. 

“Oh no, Mr Wylde. That was merely for my own amusement. I have a far more meaningful punishment for you, boy.”

Rayne’s lips curled back from his small, but lethal fangs. “Bring it on!”

Again the Ancient Vampire tapped a little rhythm on his boot with the crop. He did it when he was excited, Rayne thought curiously; it was a signal, a code for his growing eagerness to inflict pain. He tensed for another blow but it did not fall.

“Show every Elder in this room absolute obedience and servility and I will let you go free,” Lagrado told him at last. 

Rayne looked around the room, taken aback by this. He mentally counted at least twenty heads; mostly male although there were a couple of females in the assembly too. They all stared back at him eagerly, regardless of their age or gender.

“How?” he asked Lagrado, unable to disguise the loathing in his voice.

“However they command,” Cole Lagrado said earnestly. “They are your masters now. You are merely their servant. Give us satisfactory service and absolute, unquestioning submission and we will take you back to the airport and allow you to board a flight home to your weak and impoverished island where you may wallow in filth with your human friends to your heart’s content, if that is your desire.”

Rayne bit his tongue on the insult that sprang to it. 

“I have to do anything they ask?” he queried atonally.

“That is the definition of servility, yes,” Lagrado exhaled impatiently.

“And if I don’t?”

Those cold eyes glittered again. 

“If you resist I will punish you.”

“I think I’d rather be punished,” Rayne told him vehemently. He was hinging this argument on the rather tenuous theory that Lagrado would not kill him. He was a fellow Vampire, no matter how lowly and disgusting to them. And at the moment he was too entertaining to be put down like a lame dog; certainly judging by the rapt attention of Lagrado’s peers.

“You do not know how I intend to punish you yet,” the Ancient responded in a smooth, icy tone.

Rayne just fired an insolent look at him, waiting. The bastard would tell him. He was itching to do it.

“Very well,” Lagrado sighed at last, as if this was something Rayne was forcing him into against his better judgement. “The rules I set out are very simple. Do as I tell you without question or argument, acknowledge me always before these highly esteemed Elders as your absolute Master. I want them to hear you call me Master, Mr Wylde, I hope you understand. And if I am satisfied with your obedience I will not exact my punishment on your human friends.”

Rayne had been focussed on the neutral view of the panelled walls as he listened to this nonsense, forcing himself to remain cool and not lose his temper. But when the final words sank in his head came up at once. He glared at Lagrado, almost consumed by incredulous rage.

“WHAT?”

“You heard me, Mr Wylde.” Lagrado stroked his blood-smeared cheek with the paddle of his crop, almost tenderly. “Satisfy my demands or you will watch as I bring those you care for so sentimentally to heel in your stead. As mortals they will not be asked to serve, just used as we see fit; for food, or sex… or any form of entertainment we can devise. Perhaps we should arrange a hunt. There has not been one in the Bay Area for so many years. I’m sure it would draw participants from as far afield as New York and Vancouver, Miami and Anchorage.”

“No!” Rayne barked hoarsely at him, interrupting his flow. “No, you can’t! Youpromised!”

“I can, Mr Wylde and I will, if you continue to defy me.” The ancient Vampire Master smiled almost pityingly at him. “Perhaps we will begin with the pretty dancing boy. He has already been so entertaining. I only promised that I would let him walk away unharmed and that he would not be followed. I gave no word that I would prevent others from hunting him in the future. I know that Steffen, for one, would be delighted if I were to take the boy from you and present him as a gift in return for his loyalty. We will let you watch, never fear. And I will be sure to let him know that you are watching.”

“No!” Rayne growled at him again, then more urgently. “Please!”

“That’s more like it,” Lagrado looked surprised but contented. “See,” he announced to his assembled friends. “We have no need to use violence. It is far more beneficial to find our rebel’s weakness and manipulate it deftly. Mr Wylde’s weakness is for pretty boys with no morals. He has a misguided sense ofresponsibility towards mortal fodder. His Sire has failed to teach him that he is no longer weak and easily seduced as humans are. He longs to still be one of them, to be loved and accepted by the cattle that he used to graze among. He does not understand that he is now a wolf in their midst. You don’t, do you, Wylde?”

Rayne just stared back at him, stunned and angry. Jabez had not been lax. He had warned Rayne about this time and time again but his wilful Fledgling had refused to listen, refused to take it on board. Yes his friends were human, but it was no crime. Jabez Everman associated with Mersen, his mortal bodyguard and Lord Dominic Warren the Wiccan Vampire specialist and they were both human. It was not a crime.

“I asked you a question, boy!” Lagrado slapped him with the crop and stopped his wool-gathering. “You are weak, aren’t you? You bluster and fake and try to impress us but you have no skill, no experience, no power and no big strong friends to hide behind out here. Is that not the truth?”

“No,” Rayne protested almost inaudibly. 

Cole Lagrado hit him harder. 

“Remember your place, slave! You will answer me as Master. Do you understand?”

Again the younger Vampire just glared at him through tears of helpless rage that blurred his vision and turned the world into a vague, red-hazed blur. Lagrado slapped the whip into the palm of his hand impatiently, then hit Rayne again, the leather biting into the skin of his jaw just to the right of his mouth and leaving it tingling like he had received an electric shock.

“Maybe when the dancing boy has been gang-fucked and cut for us all to feed from, we will return to the house of your friends and collect that big black fool you are so fond of. Do you think he will be a good candidate for us to hunt? Maybe not fast enough? He is not young, but he will feed us well. Lots of hot blood in that one; plenty of meat! The comely Mexican boy then? I bet he can run! We will have some hot sport in the desert with that one.”

Rayne shook his head in dismay. They had been watching him all too closely and he had never even seen them. Bitterly and silently he cursed his own stupidity.

“Please don’t hurt them?” he implored in a voice that was little more than a whisper. “Please! I’ll do whatever you want, but leave them alone.”

Lagrado came to him at once, caressing his face almost tenderly. He bend his head and licked the drying blood from Rayne’s cheek as gentle as a lover, stroking the singer’s dishevelled, ebony hair as he did so. 

“Better,” he sighed into Rayne’s ear. “Much better, child. But you still forget your place. You still forget that I am your Master. How can we train you to remember? That old man you call your friend, the creator of so much mortal obscenity, he is weak and contaminated from lying with so many boy whores. No use to us as food or sport! Maybe if we bound him and cut off his famous member to use as a dildo when you entertain us, it would remind you who is your Master now.” He caught Rayne’s chin between his fingers and thumb, jerking the young Vampire’s head up so that their eyes met. Rayne’s tears had dried and there was a kind of numb resistance in his gaze now. “What do you say, slave?”

“No!” Rayne swallowed hard, hating himself, struggling to speak words that damned him to hell but might yet save his friends. He could not watch Xav or even the sharp and sarcastic Chavez hunted and used for sex and blood by these creeps. And he would not see loyal Clay or his beloved Paddy broken and humiliated like that. He closed his eyes and shut the doors on his pride. “Please… M-Master! Please! I’ll do as you say. Please leave them alone. Please Master, I beg you.”

Lagrado sighed, a deep, pleasurable sound. 

“Ohhhh… Much, much better!” he exhaled, stroking Rayne’s hair and face, almost petting him like a faithful dog. “You are a stubborn boy, but you can be educated. If you wish to beg, however, should you not get down on your knees, slave?”

Rayne’s eyes opened; a hint of fire still flickering deep in that sullen, defeated emerald glare. There was a moment when the entire audience chamber would have held it’s breath (if most of it could remember how to breathe in the first place) and then he slowly and stiffly went down on one knee.

“Wait!” Lagrado’s iron grip on his right shoulder stopped him and Rayne looked curiously up at him, as did the murmuring Elders who clearly wondered what he was planning now. Lagrado’s fingers released him and stroked slowly and seductively into the open neckline of his torn and blood-stained shirt. Dark eyes surveyed him hungrily. “Much better for our purposes if you remove your clothes before you kneel in humility and supplication before your Masters. Don’t you think so, slave?” He bestowed a feral smile on his clearly recalcitrant captive. 

Some of the watching Vampires laughed and applauded at this. Rayne swallowed an impertinent retort. He could not help but think of the fear in Xavier’s eyes as they negotiated his release and the painful bite marks all over his young, nude body as he lay, shackled to the bed in that squalid room. He would not allow the boy to suffer like that again, not if he could avoid it. 

“If that is what you want, Master,” he managed to force out, though the words almost choked him.

“It is. We shall find music… I am sure your pretty dancing boy has demonstrated how a whore should shed his clothes for the delectation of an audience!” Lagrado snapped his fingers before Rayne could think of a suitably tart response and moments later the slow, hypnotic pulse of an all-too-familiar refrain filled the room, seeping from hidden speakers in the walls. The introduction to the album edit of Dark Paths was like a slow heartbeat, like the pulsing of blood in a sleeper’s veins. 

Rayne clenched his teeth and his fists knowing that this was all arranged carefully to humiliate and unsettle him. He was angry now, but some of the control Jabez had struggled to instil in him – often slowly and painfully – when he was a very young Fledge came back to him. If he disobeyed it would be Xavier here in his place, he reminded himself. He could not let that happen. 

And he had done worse things in his life than perform a striptease for a bunch of randy old men.

Closing his eyes he rose to his feet again, letting the music flow into him, soothing him and controlling him. He stroked his hands into the open neck of his shirt, pushing harder to force the remaining buttons from their holes. He caressed his body slowly, sliding the material down off his slim shoulders. In his mind he was back on stage, teasing the fans; flirting with the audience, half-undressing, listening to their screams and howls of encouragement. Seductively he licked the tip of a finger and stroked the wetness over one erect nipple then the other, loving the feel of it on his sensitive tits. His hips swayed sensuously and he ran a hand down his flat belly to the waistband of his jeans, curling the fingers over the bulge of his crotch and down between his slim thighs. He stroked himself there, tossing his head back and moving his lean hips slowly as if a lover was between his legs. His hands crossed over, gliding back up his arms and pulling down the ruined shirt until it fell to his waist. He held out his arms, hands lowered to his sides and let the garment drop to the ground, then spun around deftly.

Rayne was a good dancer, he had no illusions about that. He had natural rhythm, although he had been in receipt of professional training too when Whipsnade were first setting foot on the ladder of fame. There had been an enforced spot on TV’s Strictly Cum Dancing as well, which was a source of much amusement in the Whipsnade camp. He still recalled one of the judges, a sharp-eyed, middle-aged lady choreographer with a loose tongue, telling him after his Paso-Doble, with a glint in her eyes, that he had a body made for sin. Damn right, he did! 

His hands roamed all over his bare torso now, up the curve of his neck and into his hair leaving it even more tousled and unkempt than it had been after he was knocked about by Lagrado’s heavies. Then he stroked them down smoothly over his heaving chest, his belly, his angular hips and drove the fingers of the left hand firmly down beneath the waistband of his snug, black jeans, cupping his balls and stroking his cock blatantly as he swayed for his deathless audience. 

Withdrawing his hand, he slowly loosened the buttons of his fly and unhitched the buckle of his belt. Both hands now slipped into the open crotch of his pants and eased them down so that he was flashing just his shaven mound and the root of his cock. He rolled his head slowly on his limp neck and let his hands stroke back up to his erect nipples again, impossibly horny. The song made him think of Xavier and the nights of slow, sensuous pleasure he had spent in the boy’s warm arms. He was on fire. When this was all over he was going to wrap himself around the dancer and fuck the gorgeous blond boy until he had no strength left in his body. 

Rayne drove his left hand back into the front of his open jeans and the right down the back simultaneously in time to a surge in the music. He rubbed a slow finger up and down his cleft, letting them guess what his hands were doing in there. Slowly his left hand eased his cock and balls out of his open fly and his bucking pelvis bounced them teasingly for his appreciative admirers. 

They were appreciating it too. When he opened his eyes lazily, a number of males in the audience were openly touching their cocks through their pants. Even one of the females had a hand up her skirt and was diligently fingering her clit. He stroked his hands down his thighs, easing the loose denim down to his knees then sank to the ground, kneeling with his thighs wide apart, the first two fingers of his right hand sliding between his lips so that he could suck them with an ingenuous smile. He leaned right back now, wriggling his shoulders down to the heels of his black boots and letting his dark hair sweep against the floor between his feet. The wet fingers of his right hand probed his ring, easing slowly in and out and he bucked his hips as he frigged himself, clutching and caressing his balls as he rose and fell, writhing on the floor, feeling the song reaching it’s tidal crescendo. 

As the rolling music peaked, he came up and forward onto his hands and knees then dropped to the floor as the sound crashed down into emptiness and a gentle surge that would carry him to the end of the routine. He writhed onto his back, stroking his naked body eagerly all over and drawing his knees up to his chest to slide the jeans right down to his ankles. Then he lay back again, feet together and knees spread wide, undulating as if a powerful mate was bucking between his open legs. He could smell how eagerly some of these bastards longed to be his mate. A few were discreetly masturbating now at his artistic depiction of how he might later serve them. 

Good! he thought grimly, easing his booted feet out of the denim and kicking his jeans away casually as the music subsided, leaving him spent and near nude, sprawled on the smooth, cold, wooden floor. It was fine to let them get preoccupied with the idea of sexing him. Sex was an easy concession for him. He had been fucking men for favours all his adult life and for much of his teens as well. It might keep them from thinking of other, far nastier things to make him do. 

As he lay there, slowly writhing like the victim of an electric charge, limbs still twitching spasmodically long after the current had ceased to pulse through his body, the sound of Cole Lagrado’s boot heels clicked closer across the polished floor. He schooled himself to greet the Ancient Vampire with appropriate submission. Lagrado did not give him the chance. He kicked the naked Fledgling fast and hard, driving the toe of his boot in just beneath the ribs where Steffen had struck into him the night before and Rayne coiled defensively like a snake found beneath a rock. The blow drove the air from his lungs so that he could not even scream. No more than a whimper of confusion and agony trickled from his lips. 

“Get up!” Lagardo bellowed at him. “Get on your knees, now!”

Rayne yipped, a short, hurt, puppyish sound and struggled away from him, trying to get to his feet. He wanted to run away but it was enough of a struggle to get upright. His left side was burning; it felt as if his ribs were all broken again, even though he guessed that the kick had been too low for that. Pain rippled through him like a hot knife dragged against his skin. Lagrado snatched a handful of his hair, impatient with his slowness and dragged him to the required position, then struck him across the face once more with the crop. 

“I’m doing it! I’m doing it!” Rayne screamed, his tongue freed by the clean burn of the whip across his left cheek.

Lagrado thrashed him again, cutting deep this time. He felt the slow, hot trickle of blood. 

“WHO AM I?” the Ancient roared into his face like a desert wind.

Rayne flinched from him, too hurt and shocked for anger. That would come.

Master!” he yelped automatically. “Please! I’m doing what you said, Master!”

“Insolent little bitch!” Lagrado kicked him in the gut and he doubled up, forehead on his knees, clenching his teeth against the pain inside until he felt the enamel grind to powder where they met. He was jerked upright by the hair again almost immediately. “Did I instruct you to pleasure yourself?”

Rayne blinked at him, feeling too slow, too stupid. The pain fogged his reactions. He could taste the iron tang of blood in his oesophagus, never a good sign. Numbly he shook his head. Cole Lagrado sighed his impatience and struck his face again. 

“Stupid, stupid little slave!” he hissed. “Shall I have my boys go and fetch the dancer back here? Shall we see how obedient he can be? He’s a younger bitch, maybe he’ll be easier to train, yes?”

A surge of cold terror welled up in Rayne’s chest, quelling his pain like morphine. He caught hold of Lagrado’s long coat tail as the Ancient turned to walk away. 

“No!” he cried out desperately. “Please, Master! Don’t! I’ll be good, Master. I promise! I didn’t understand that I wasn’t meant to touch myself. You didn’t say!”

The waiting elders let out a collective murmur of admiration at this. Very slowly, Lagrado turned and looked down on the pretty creature bleeding and grovelling at his feet. There was naked disgust in his dark eyes. Rayne felt his heart stop. 

“Let me make things plain for you, slave,” he said coldly. “So that you comprehend me and there shall be no further confusion. When I tell you to do a thing, you will do just that. You will not improvise, you will not embellish and you will not disregard my orders. Do you understand?”

He emphasised the question with three concurrent slaps of the whip. Rayne put his hands up to shield his face at last but they were pushed away roughly. 

“NO!” Lagrado screamed at him in a fit of fury. “No! No! NO! Useless! You are wilful, pathetic and utterly useless to me! You cannot even take the punishment you deserve without resisting me.”

He slashed indiscriminately at Rayne’s face and torso as he roared this admonishment. “Stupid, gutless, wayward little SLUT! That’s all you are, isn’t it? ISN’T IT?”

“Yes Sir!” Rayne was already nodding frenetically at the first demand. “Yes Sir! YES SIR!” he screamed as his captor continued with the vicious beating. He was just frantic to make it stop. They had not fed him and he was sure that the slow, dull pain inside was internal bleeding. With every drop that they spilled he would grow weaker. Lagrado would not even give him pause to heal himself. 

“NO-O-O!” the Ancient snarled in utter frustration. He lost all patience and kicked the singer to floor. “WHAT AM I?” he bellowed, standing over Rayne Wylde like Colossus as the Fledgling huddled on the ground shaking and retching blood. He delivered another kick to emphasise each word. “WHAT. DO. YOU. CALL. ME?”

“Master…” Rayne choked out, his voice little more than a whimper of anguish. “Master… Please!”

“I did not hear you.” Lagrado put the sole of his boot against Rayne’s right cheekbone and applied just enough pressure to cause pain. “Speak up, slut!”

Rayne closed his eyes. His head hurt; his gut ached; his nose was bleeding but then just about everywhere was bleeding by now. 

“M-Master…” he groaned more loudly. “I’m sorry!”

Lagrado’s boot pushed his face away but the Ancient did not kick him again. 

“Good,” he said more rationally, in a calmer tone. “Better. But it should not take you so long to remember next time. If it does, maybe I shall send for the dancing boy anyway and you will be the first to spill his blood if you know what is good for you. Now get up, you’re making a mess on my floor.”

“Yes Master,” Rayne exhaled with a supreme effort. 

It took him forever to drag himself to his knees. He was constantly tensed for another thrashing or another round of verbal abuse but to his surprise, Lagrado only watched him impassively. When he was finally upright, swaying slightly from the loss of orientation, the older Vampire’s hand came down towards his head and Rayne flinched but did not even lift an arm to stop it. Instead of the expected slap for taking too long, his hair was stroked gently and the Ancient caressed his bloody cheek where the spill of gore was already turning to carmine dust. 

“Good boy,” he said, as if to a favoured hound. “Much better! You see, I do not enjoy punishing you, child. It hurts me to see your beauty marred by blood and bruises when it could bring so much pleasure instead. If you obey me without question I can be a kind Master; even a loving Master. Do you understand now, slave?”

“Yes Master,” Rayne said breathlessly. He was in agony and just wanted to lie down and close his eyes but he did not dare to move without being ordered to do so. 

“Good boy,” Lagrado murmured soothingly again. “Next time I give you an order it will be easier to obey, will it not?”

He nodded miserably. “Yes Master.”

Cole Lagrado stroked his hair again, then he turned to the enthralled bank of spectators with his hands held wide, a broad smile on his handsome face. 

“You see, my friends, how easy he is to train! In just an hour I have brought the Everman’s bitch to heel. Once one knows the buttons to push, he may be manipulated as easily as a well-schooled dog.”

He executed a short bow and the assembled Vampires rose to their feet as one and burst into spontaneous applause. Rayne ground his teeth in silence and imagined ripping out Cole Lagrado’s tendons and stabbing him through the heart with his bare hands as the bastard writhed on the floor. He kept his head bent though and remained on his knees. At last the laughter and clapping subsided and to his relief, Lagrado summoned his lackeys to take Rayne back down to his cold, bare cell.

~~~

Xavier paced while Dominic was in the shower until Chavez told him to knock it off. Then he stood sullenly by the window and contemplatively chewed his thumbnail. The waiting was still killing him, but one thing had brightened him up. Dominic had said Xavier was going with him to talk to this vampire Elder. Xavier being marked gave him a certain measure of safety, a thin margin to be sure, but better then any of the others. 

But first they needed to go shopping. Ordinarily the prospect of a necessary shopping spree would have piqued Xavier’s interest, but right now he just saw it as one more delay. 

Dom would get a suit, Xavier something less subtle. Impressions were important, doubly so in vampire politics, and Xavier was to be decoration. That wasn’t a problem. Hell, if he’d been allowed to they could have just gone back to his apartment and picked out a dozen suitable outfits. 

They headed down town and went to purchase the suit first. Fortunately Dom’s height and build both made it so virtually no alterations needed to be done. It was like they used his exact measurements to start as base. Even so the time it took for Dom to pick out what he wanted had Xav wanting to pull his hair out. Finally, after an interminable amount of time and an obscene about of money they were done. 

Then they headed a few streets down to Noir Leather. This was the first time Xavier could ever remember that he was in and out of the store in only twenty minutes. Having an excellent eye, knowing what would look best on him for the occasion, and having an open ended pocket-book helped a great deal. 

The pants were a butter-soft rust coloured suede that looked sprayed onto his body and rode so low his hip bones protruded just above the waist. The shirt was gossamer thin silk in a shade of cream that showed off his tan to best advantage even if he was paler then usual. He might have picked something more revealing but the long sleeves and clingy material at least hid most of the bruises. He came out of the store looking like a walking wet dream. 

“Okay, can we go see this vamp Elder now?” he asked plaintively. 

Dominic’s smile was certainly appreciative but not in the leering way he had become used to from certain older men over the years. There was a look of almost pleasant surprise on his face.

“One more thing,” he said, making the younger man grind his teeth in frustration. “Can you handle a shotgun?”

“Well, there’s not much to it, is there. Point and shoot.” Xavier said. Which was true, with a shotgun he’d need only point in the general direction of what he wanted to hit. He left out that he’d never even touched one before.

Dominic pursed his lips though, thoughtfully. 

“Perhaps we’d better stick to something more simple,” he sighed at last, seeing straight through this attempt to bluff him. “I’m not going to take responsibility for you possibly wiping yourself out, but perhaps we need a bodyguard as well. Someone who does know how to handle a gun. I’m not taking you in with me unarmed though. Just in case Diplomacy only gets us so far.”

He touched his fingertips to the inside of Xavier’s neckline, brushing lightly against the two small, sensitive bite marks on his skin. 

Xavier felt the tingle go down his spine like electric current. His sky blue eyes became more guarded at once, even though he didn’t pull away. The touch seemed innocent enough, but felt much more intimate. Dom might as well have stuck his hand between Xav’s legs to cop a feel. 

“Oh my,” the older man murmured almost reverently, drawing his fingers away from the bite marks at once. Then, as if to demonstrate that he meant no harm by his action, he tugged down the collar of his shirt to show Xavier the sequence of double-point marks on his neck and left shoulder. “We have a curious bond, you and I,” he whispered. “The Vampire whom Rayne calls his Sire gave me these. All but this one…” And he touched the marks that were almost at the meeting of his prominent collarbones. “They are much older. We are touched by infinity, you and I.”

He flashed Xav a conspiratorial smile and turned his collar back up smartly. 

Xavier managed to rein in his jaded side and not say “whatever”. On the way back to the car though his curiosity did get the better of him. 

“Rayne seemed… um, kinda worried, I guess… that they didn’t go away,” he ventured with a thoughtful little frown. “The bites from the other vamps all went away, not a mark. Weird, huh?” 

“He gets that from his Sire, I expect,” Dominic Warren did not look at him but something in the way he held himself suggested all the same that he was paying very close attention. “Jabez only marks as a sign of protection. Some Vampires do it… I don’t know, to show off, I suppose; to demonstrate that they have sway over mortals. Two of the marks I have were inflicted that way, in the course of battle. One of the others is from the Everman, an indicator that I am his. The other was from a friend, a good friend. I’m still foolish enough sometimes to half believe he did it as a sign of his regard for me, but…” The Englishman caught himself and sighed rather more impatiently changing the subject. “Feeding marks will generally fade with time. Occasionally one Vampire’s marks will override any others that might be inflicted. It’s rare but I have heard of people who were marked through sustained feeding and intimacy with one Vampiric partner. I’ve never known Rayne to mark a human though and he’s fed from me often enough.”

The thoughtful little frown on Xav’s face stayed as he mulled over that little titbit. Why had Rayne marked him then? Because he thought Xavier needed his protection? Or… or, something else? He almost asked the question out loud, then decided better of it. “Can you hear him inside your head too?”

Dominic smiled more broadly at that. 

“Life might be easier if I could,” he chuckled. “Rayne Wylde is a law unto himself, it would be useful to know what he’s thinking sometimes. Though it’s interesting that you can hear him. Is it just when he’s with you, or can you hear him now? And do you hear other people, or is it just him?”

He stopped walking and turned to look curiously at the younger man. 

“No, I can’t,” Xavier answered, to both questions. He thought about it for a second and added, “Not words anyway. I’ve heard him, like he was talking in my head, a few times. But only when we’re, uh… close. I could sort of feel him though, last night… I had dreams.” He swallowed hard and shook his head, conscious that this sounded a bit screwy. 

For a moment Dominic looked as if he might have reached out to put an arm around him but he checked himself at the last moment. His long hands sketched a vague pattern on the air between them.

“It could simply have been that you were preoccupied with him, worried about having to leave him behind,” he suggested carefully. “The mind can play tricks on us. Sometimes it shows us what we want to see, at others what we’re afraid to see.”

Xavier gave Dominic a very direct look. “No, it wasn’t like that. I can tell the difference.. I called it a dream, but it wasn’t really. I know what happened to Rayne last night; not all of it, not in perfect detail, but enough. I can’t even say Isaw most of it, but I could feel it. He was in pain, and he was scared.” He looked away and started walking again, his body stiff with tension. 

The older man caught up with him in a few easy strides. He fell into step beside Xavier, glancing at him contemplatively. 

“You know that you can shut it out if you don’t want to feel it, don’t you?” Dominic said now. “I’d have thought Ray would have shown you how to do that if he figured you were channelling. Although he was the world’s worst. It took me years to teach him how to shield. Everyone with a hint of empathic ability was getting a blizzard of emotional garbage from him every time he lost his temper. And he was soaking up peoples’ moods like a psychic sponge and getting increasingly paranoid about them, even when their feelings were nothing to do with him. According to his friend, Simon, he used to do it before he was Turned as well. They always put it down to too much cocaine before!”

Xavier was shaking his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I can’t just shut it off, its like saying make your heart stop beating, or don’t think about a red hammer. You just thought about a red hammer, didn’t you? Same thing.”

“Come here,” Dominic half turned as they passed a bench set back in a tree lined square off the street. He sat down on it, patting the seat beside him, inviting Xavier to sit but leaving him enough space that it did not need to be on intimate terms. “Don’t be shy.”

Xavier wanted to grind his teeth. Why were they wasting time? He impatiently walked over to the bench and sat down. Immune to his youthful impatience, Dominic told him to close his eyes and pressed his finger firmly to Xavier’s forehead between and a little above his eyebrows. 

“When we walk into the den of an Elder Vampire, probably as soon as tomorrow,” he said quietly, “that creature may well – given that he will probably be many hundreds of years old – be able to key himself into our thoughts and emotions. Or he might, if we were unable to contain them. Concentrate on my fingertip, Xavier. Think just of that, nothing else.”

“You know, you are completely bat shit, you…” Xavier’s voice cut off abruptly. With a little gasp he grabbed Dominic’s wrist and yanked his hand away. He opened his eyes, blinking in a panic, heart thudding in his chest. 

Xavier had a natural empathy that went beyond what most people had. The cloud of emotions that people carried around with them were like a constant background buzz, a white noise of emotions that was easily ignored. It became stronger when he was intimate with someone, but only recently, with Rayne, had it developed into an actual communication. The thing was Xavier hadn’t been aware of that background buzz of emotions until Dominic shut it off. It was like suddenly being plunged into a sensory depravation chamber. The constant sifting and sorting of people around him he used like a guide without even knowing it was just all of a sudden gone. Worse, he couldn’t sense Rayne at all.

“What did you do to me!?” He was looking around, at people walking past, like they were all blank to him. He felt like he’d been struck blind and deaf without warning. Then, slowly, the buzz started to fade back in. The white noise he’d never even really noticed before came back like a comforting blanket. Xavier took a shaky breath. He was still holding on to Dominic’s wrist, though not tightly. He let him go. “Don’t do that again.” 

The lean sun-tanned Englishman looked back solemnly at him completely unruffled by this little outburst. It was as if everything Xavier did fascinated him, yet was kind of expected. 

He pursed his lips thoughtfully for a moment then said; “I didn’t do anything to you Xavier. You did it yourself. It’s all about concentration, darling. You can shut it out, you just need to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all the other nonsense. And you can let it back in again just as easily. Think of it like opening and closing doors in your mind. When you’ve practised it hard enough you can tune in to one particular thing and shut everything else out.”

He sat back with a sad little smile then, as if he had already guessed what Xavier might want to tune in on. 

“Alright, just… whatever. Lets just go.” Xavier got up and, after a moment or so, Dominic followed suit and they resumed their walk back to the car.

On the way back to the motel Dom advised Xavier to practice shutting others out, Xavier gave lip-service that he would and Dom just shook his head like he knew what was going on in Xavier’s. As they were pulling up outside the Happy Pig Dominic got the phone call he’d been waiting on. They finally had an audience with an Elder, a Vampire named Iannopoulos, who would speak with them later in the evening. It was clearly sooner than Dominic had expected, but they still had about six hours to prepare. Xavier suddenly got butterflies, a feeling like stage-fright, which was weird because he never got it normally.

Finally they were doing something!

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