CHAPTER 4

Rayne had found the ring, with some spare keys and other bits and pieces of tat, in his music room off the hallway on the evening after his argument with Xavier; the evening after he broke Dominic’s commemorative wine glass. He had retreated there once they got back to the apartment to give Xavier some space, but also to try and find some mental peace for himself. IAs far as he could remember he had never been much of a one for sharing his private space before Xavier came along, but some of the things he had found tucked away in that little box, just inside the lid of his upright piano, seemed to contradict that. There were house keys that he could not recall using; an address book with names and numbers for the Greater Manchester area and a receipt from a magazine, presumably, for an article he had no memory of writing. The ring was the most alarming clue though. He owned plenty of jewellery, but nothing like this. It was a flat, chunky band, made from two separate circles of aluminium and white gold, fused back to back and set with nine tiny diamonds around the outer face. Apart from this the outside was unadorned. On the inside surface there was an inscription in a swirling, romantic script. RJW My heart is always yours. KMJD

When he saw it, Rayne’s heart thumped once, so violently that he thought he might be sick. For the life of him, he could not remember who KMJD was, but that person had clearly believed that they meant something to him. He knew of only two men in his life that might be able to solve the mystery for him.

He wasn’t inclined to discuss a potentially important part of his love life with his ex-boyfriend right now, so that meant one thing. He was going to have to eat humble pie, and plenty of it.

He turned up on Dominic Warren’s doorstep the next day with a very expensive bottle of white wine and a small, colourful business card.

“The guy’s based in Dulwich,” he explained, handing over the latter with an apologetic grimace. “But he’s got a really good rep, I promise. If you show him one of the other glasses he reckons he can reconstruct it. He isn’t cheap. Trained in Murano, he says, but I’ll foot the bill, he’s already got my details. I don’t expect you threw the bits away, did you? Least, I ‘ope not. I ‘ad to go south of the river for that.”

Dominic contemplated the details in silence for a moment then looked up at Rayne seriously. “If you think I’m going to forgive you that easily…” he began, but he pocketed the card anyway. “I’ll think about it. Is that all you wanted?”

Rayne shook his head, knowing when he was rumbled it was safest not to try and lie about it. He held out the small, black velvet bag. “I was hoping you could tell me what this is.”

Dominic opened the drawstrings and decanted the simple, heavy ring into his palm. The diamonds glinted in the sunlight like tiny stars. His face fell dramatically.

“Oh damn! You really don’t remember anything, do you? I’d hoped it was just…” He closed his mouth again but it was too late anyway, the look on his face told Rayne without words that he’d been acting out of character and it had already been noted.

“It’s coming back in bits and pieces,” the little vampire confessed as Dom relented and ushered him into the house and straight through into the kitchen where he spent most of his time. “Being with Xav helps, it’s like… when I bite him, I mean, when I share with him through the bites rather than just taking, I wind up giving him something that’s personal to me. And most of the time he doesn’t even know he’s got it. But when I bite him and drink from him I get some of it back, like it’s one of his own memories.”

Dominic nodded sagely at that as they settled on the sofa in his sunroom. On this warm, bright summer’s day the door and the windows were open onto the garden and the place was fragrant with the scents that wafted in on the breeze.

“That makes sense, darling, Jabez and Cam both told me that they had similar experiences with human partners, where the biting went beyond feeding and became a way of sharing. I think that’s in your Undead genes, Rayne. When you get close to someone and you want to give something back, to share as much of yourself as you can with them, well… maybe it happens instinctively. You’re doing it without even thinking about it.”

“Speaking of Jabez,” Rayne said, momentarily distracted by something that had been very much on his mind since he returned to London. “Where is the grouchy old bugger? Has he been in touch with you? Because I haven’t heard a peep from him, not even a fucking card to ask if I’m okay after… y’know.”

He shrugged a little, still unable to speak about what had happened to him in Paris. Dominic shook his head, though he looked worried too now.

“Nothing,” he confirmed. “He hasn’t called, hasn’t been round. He doesn’t answer the phone. Mersen said he’s not called in but he’s in the Far East, apparently. Pot hunting, or so Mers’ seems to think. Nothing life or death. He’d have taken Mersen with him if it was.”

“I’d know it if anything had happened to him, right?” Rayne said warily.

“If anything serious had happened, we’d both know,” Lord Warren assured him, touching the twin bite marks under his shirt collar tellingly with his forefinger.

He was still holding the ring that Rayne had given him in the other hand and now the vampire nodded towards it, his expression filled with trepidation.

“So… who gave me that?” he asked bluntly. “What happened to us? Why don’t I wear it anymore? None of that was in the memories that Xav and Matthew gave back to me.”

“No, I expect not,” Dominic told him soberly. “Kevan happened whilst you were living in Manchester. Back before you went out to the States and met Xavier.”

“Do what? I lived up north?” Rayne blinked at him. “I mean… I know I was at college up there for a while but I was just a kid then. Matt gave me that much back; I met him whilst I was up there.”

“I know, my darling,” Dominic was picking his words carefully now. “You… uh… you know what happened to Simon?”

Rayne’s expression closed down again. He nodded his head twice. All of that had come in a rush, both from Matt and from Xavier. When he was trying to share the depth of his feelings for Xavier with the younger man, he could not do so without having Xav understand something of his former life. And so he had those bittersweet memories back now; of long, sunny, summer days spent in the close company of his best friend; of Simon’s balanced wisdom, both in the recording studios and on tour, that kept him from going over the edge; and ultimately the pain that he could do nothing to heal as his precious Simon died in his arms, struggling to breathe, fighting to find the words that needed to be out of him before they were silenced forever.

He was not sure when Dominic had moved closer but suddenly the older man’s arms were around him and he was holding Rayne tightly kissing his hair, all his earlier vehemence over the broken glass forgotten.

“Sweet boy, I am so sorry,” he murmured tenderly. “I know how much you loved him, and he you. Xavier must truly be unlocking your heart though. I never saw you weep for him so easily before.”

Rayne lifted his head, biting his lips, fighting down the huge wave of unchecked emotion that threatened to drown him.

“That was only a few years ago,” he forced out now. “Is that why I went back to Manchester?”

“Mostly , I think,” Dominic agreed. “You needed to be away from London, from everything that reminded you of him.”

Rayne was nodding slowly as if this made sense. “So who was… is… who is Kevan?”

“You met him whilst you were living there,” Dominic said, his tone becoming more cautious again. “He was a detective. You helped him initially, with a case, as I understand it. This is difficult for me to explain. You told me some of it at the time. You had your misgivings about the relationship. He wasn’t gay, I remember you telling me that over lunch once. I got the impression you needed to get it off your chest at the time, as if it was troubling you. You said that you liked it because that was the way you felt about yourself.”

“Well… that makes sense, I think,” Rayne laughed nervously, still trying to resurrect the memories that lay dormant in him. “Why did he give me the ring if neither of us wanted to face up to our gay genes? You’re…” He hesitated again, his eyes widening with sudden dread. “You’re not gonna tell me that I married him, are you?”

Dom shook his head, but his face remained sober. “No, Ray. You didn’t tie the knot. He had a wife and kids, I think you said. He was a married man.” He handed back the ring with an apologetic wince.

“I know how to pick ’em, don’t I?” Rayne’s laugh was sharp and humourless. Then it died on his lips as something sank in like a cast stone dropping into a still, deep pool. ” Had?”

“I beg your pardon?” Dominic blinked at him.

“You said had… he had a wife and kids. What happened to us, Dominic?”

Lord Warren drew a long breath and let it out slowly. Then he explained to Rayne Wylde the real reason why he had run away to the States as soon as he was released from the secure unit of the Liverpool research hospital where he had been incarcerated for six months, following the unexplained deaths of two young men found beside him and the dead body of his police detective lover at that man’s south Manchester home one night in the height of summer, almost one year ago. For a time Rayne’s ashen face held no expression as he listened to the words that made no sense to him. There was no context in his memories for this tale.

“They found me at the house. I don’t understand,” he ventured weakly at one point.

“Rayne, the neighbours called for a SWAT team, they’d heard screaming and gunshots. If Kevan’s partner hadn’t come out on the call with them, it’s likely they’d have tried to shoot you dead,” Dominic told him patiently, though his own heart was hammering now.

“But I don’t get it, he was my boyfriend. They thought I killed him?” Rayne was shaking his head slowly, still bewildered, turning the ring in his fingers as if it held the answers.

“They had no idea what had happened in there, Ray,” Dominic reiterated. “All they knew for a fact when they walked into that room was that Kevan was dead and you were holding on to him and wouldn’t let go, and… others died in that place, darling. They had no idea how many others at first, but they found… remains.” He stopped and swallowed the lump that was growing in his throat. “Remains of something that had once been human… plastered over every wall, over everything in that room. They locked you up, for months, Ray. It was horrible. They… well, let’s say their hospitality would have been considered barbaric by animal rights activists if you were a chimpanzee. It took every last connection that Jabez and I had between us to get you released, and even then neither of us believed that you would survive. You were a very long way away from us, my darling boy. Even when you occupied the same room, you were a long way away. I worried when you decided to go to America, but Jabez said to let you go. Maybe he saw something in your future. He was right to give you your head, if you had stayed then you’d never have met Xavier. So I suppose that the Lord and Lady were looking out for you.”

He was rambling now, growing nervous in the face of the vampire’s continued silence. Rayne was just staring at him as he talked, not really listening, past the part about human remains, but a slow sense of nausea was creeping over him as the meaning behind those quiet, insistent words seeped in, and with them came memories; dark, terrible memories that were like something out of the worst nightmare. He stumbled to his feet and as Dominic reached to catch him he shook himself free of the older man.

“I need a cigarette. I’ll be back in a while.”

He needed something stronger in truth, but the nicotine fix would have to do for now and he walked blindly down into the sunken garden hidden behind the rows of elegant London townhouses, moving on autopilot. He chain-smoked his way through half the packet of Marlboros in his shirt pocket as the pieces that Dominic had given him slipped into place in his head. In their wake, fragments of recall were coming to him now, slotting into the gaps in his mind. He saw a large, awkward man with the build of a back-street bruiser and the shy smile of a little boy, looking up at him, hope and tenderness mixed in his gaze. There were more emotions than images though; humour, anger, frustration, humiliation that blazed like a dying star in his chest, concern, doubt, lust… a whole lot of lust, searing through him like a flame, and yet more anger; a blinding, senseless rage such as he could not remember feeling before Xavier came into his life and he realised that he had something worth fighting for.

He turned the ring around between his fingers again, remembering gentle, blue-grey eyes and a soulful stare that would have put a puppy to shame. In contrast, he felt the ghosts of hot needy hands on his naked body and a sexual charge that was almost beyond his control.

It was then that he could taste the memory of blood; the salt flavour of it in his mouth, the feel of it on his hands, on his skin, and the raw iron tang of it filling his nostrils until he could hardly breathe. The pieces were still jumbled up in his head, like a deserted room in the aftermath of a party, debris strewn everywhere. He had been afraid… no, not afraid but anxious, and that anxiety was mixed up with the overpowering sense of lust and need and energy that he always felt moments before reaching a blinding orgasm. He remembered trying to reach out, to make it stop, but something was holding him back. And then he saw something that would have stopped his heart in his chest if it had still been beating.

“No…” he whispered, as the memory came crashing back down on him, just as those young hooligans, fuelled up on White Lightning and foolish bravado, had come crashing into Kev’s bedroom on that night… that fateful night.

He’d gone out for a smoke, he remembered it now, he wanted a ciggie before they went to bed and Kev didn’t like him smoking in the house. When he came back in he’d locked the door but he hadn’t put the alarm back on, partly because he couldn’t remember how and partly because he secretly thought it was silly when there was obviously someone at home.

They had tumbled into one another’s arms on the big, comfortable bed, the way they always did; ravenous for the press of lips against lips, flesh on flesh. He had surrendered to the cool metal of the police-issue handcuffs around his wrists, the only things that could hold him for more than a minute or so if he chose to fight them. He yielded as well to the fierce heat of Kevan’s need, giving in to the other man’s hunger to press inside him, to straddle and ride him, bucking like a machine as he buried that big, satisfying cock deeper. That surprised him on two counts, firstly because he was rarely submissive with his lovers, to the best of his knowledge and secondly due to the fact that he hated to be restrained. He’d picked that one up from Matty, who had always loved it.

The memories kept on spooling. At one point Rayne had thought he heard a crashing noise and implored Kev to stop, to check it out, but his lover, ever randy and ever persuasive, convinced him that it was just something outside on the estate. It was that kind of place, hence the security alarm and the barbed wire around the tops of all the back walls; he remembered that too, with a sense of shock. But Kev was unconcerned and so he let it go, like a fool.

Because Kev believed that if someone was in the house the alarm would trigger. Wouldn’t it?

Consequently there was nothing to stop them, nothing to stop those little thugs, who had been sent by bigger thugs that didn’t like to get their hands dirty, to warn Kev to keep his snooping copper nose out of business that didn’t need to bother the Bizzies. Except, of course, they did more than just warn him in the end.

Rayne sank to his knees in the gardens as he heard it all, felt it all, happening again in slow motion, like a scene from a film reeling out in his head over and over from every angle. He heard the sound of the gunshot, although initially he didn’t realise what it was because it didn’t go off with a bang like a starting pistol, it made a soft, whooshing sound like an arrow being fired into a mattress, ending with a dull, wet ‘thunk’ as it struck its target, practically at point blank range; it was not an enormous room after all. He saw it again, the moment of shock in Kev’s eyes as the bullet punched through him like he was made of liquid, which in a sense he was. He felt it hit him, it’s impact slowed by his lover’s body but still enough to jab into his belly just beneath his ribs, like an impatient finger and then Kev began to spurt blood over him like a ruptured oil pipe and he could not get his hands down from the cuffs to stop it.

He screamed now, as he had screamed that night, struggling to get his hands free as the teenage gunman lifted the automatic pistol again, this time aiming higher and firing the shot that extinguished the last of the light from his lover’s eyes.

People came running from every direction and for a moment he was not sure where he was, though he thought he could hear Dominic’s voice, quick and urgent, trying to soothe him, to bring him back out from the horror of this waking nightmare. He knew that his fangs were bared as they must have been on that night, a little under a year ago, when he finally ripped the cuffs free of the bedframe in his incredulous rage and flung himself between the body of his twitching mate and the laughing maniac who had just shot him dead. He saw the laughter in their eyes turn to disbelief, and then to terror. And it happened that quickly; because he could not remember anything else, just the screams, and the blood and the silence.

“Shhh…” Dominic was murmuring, his strong, warm hands pulling Rayne to his feet, much as Dave Ramsey, Kev’s partner had finally done when he pried Rayne from Kevan’s still-warm body, steering him firmly but gently away from the carnage.

Shhhh… There’s nothing you can do. Leave it… Leave it… He’s gone, Ray.

He did not weep until Dominic got him back to the house. Only then, in the safety of that warm, familiar kitchen did he let the barriers break and an ocean of tears flowed free of his aching eyes. Dom did nothing to try and make him stop. Rayne had not cried for Kevan at all, insofar as the older man knew. Now he was finally making up for lost time, free at last to grieve for his lost love.

Xavier rang when Rayne was quiet at last, sleeping out his grief on the sofa with a soft, green throw wrapped around his fragile looking body. The young man had panicked, able to feel that something was wrong, but unable to reach Rayne on his mobile. Dominic marvelled again that these two had found one another at such a time. Xavier was truly a sensitive, he thought. He was so finely tuned to Rayne’s emotions that they did not even have to be in the same parish for him to know that his mate needed him.

Dom did something then that he hated; something he rarely did with his friends. He lied. He told Xavier that everything was fine, and that Rayne had been getting flashbacks to what happened in Paris but he was okay now.
If Rayne wanted to tell Xavier about Manchester then that was up to him, Lord Warren decided. He had tried to talk to Xavier about this during their journey back to London but the younger man had steered the conversation away from Rayne’s past, and maybe rightly so. He would not play the Devil’s Advocate this time. Some things were probably better left unsaid.

3 WEEKS LATER

Xavier was sprawled on his belly on the futon puzzling out a sudoku when the mail came. It had been a few weeks since the fight at Dominic’s house and since then he was aware that his lover had been round to see Lord Warren and all was presumably well between them again, for which he was glad. He liked Dominic’s company and the older man had been a good friend to him both in Italy and since their return to London.

He could hear Rayne tinkering idly with the guitar in his makeshift studio and Xav gave him his space when he was in there. They had not talked about this,Rayne had never specifically asked to be left alone when he was trying to write, but Xavier seemed to know naturally when he was off in thought or concentrating on a tune and didn’t want to be disturbed, so he stayed out of the way. That was one thing Xav was good about; he didn’t have to constantly be by his lover’s side and he didn’t come on like he was being neglected if Rayne had things to do without him. The only thing that ever really riled him was being kept out of the loop.

Apparently this was something of a new experience for Rayne, and it was therefore initially treated with some suspicion. Only when a little time had passed without them having another blazing row was he finally forced to accept that Xavier genuinely wasn’t the needy, clingy type.

Xavier got up to collect the post since he’d nothing better to do and he carried the customary pile of envelopes and small parcels through to the lounge where he set them on the coffee table for Rayne to get around to, if and when he felt like it. Generally, Xav never even looked at the letters, there was no reason to expect that any of them would be for him, but this morning there was a largish manila envelope in with the rest of the assortment and as he set it down his eye happened to land on the label. He was more than a little surprised to see his own name there, not even on a pre-printed label but hand-written in dark blue ink, in a firm, square, precise script.

Picking the package back up, he looked at the return address curiously and realised that it was from Marco DeCellio, the photographer who had been so keen to work with him in Naples. He chuckled under his breath as he stood there for a moment holding it, thinking that it had been so long since he’d gotten a piece of mail that he almost didn’t know what to do with it. He sat down with the package, figuring that Marco must have coaxed the address out of Aldo, as he opened it and pulled out another tightly wrapped bundle in waterproof paper. From this he finally extracted a thick sheaf of mostly eight by ten photos, another thinner manila envelope, and a letter.

Marco’s letter was brief and to the point.

Xavier, put these into a portfolio and get yourself an agent. The magazine was extremely pleased with the shoot and they are in the process of doing a layout using many of these shots. I’ve also had an offer on the exhibition pieces, not one, but ALL of them, by a very interested party. I have enclosed copies of these in a separate envelope along with some private shots.

All the best, Marco.

Xavier set the letter aside and thumbed through some of the photos bemusedly. They did look very professional, for all that he was dressed in nothing but skimpy underwear in most of them. Xavier played well to the camera, having that ability to seem to look right through the lens so it felt less like viewing a picture and more like he was looking right at you from the photographs. A thread of playful sensuality seemed to infuse them and Marco had done interesting things with the light and shadow too. He liked the light coming from the side rather than straight on, which gave the images a softer, more natural look. He didn’t think he’d take Marco’s ‘suggestion’ all the same, but it was sort of interesting to think about.

“What you got there?”

Rayne’s slightly husky voice, right behind him, just about made Xavier jump out of his skin.

“Jesus!” he yelped, dropping the photos onto the futon, startled. “Fuck, Rayne…I’m gonna hang a bell on you or something!”

He laughed to disguise his shock and the vampire flashed a fanged grin and flopped down on the day bed beside him, reaching for one of the pictures idly as the other hand caressed his boyfriend’s sexy arse. His eyes widened as he checked out the detail.

“When did you get these done?” he wanted to know. There was no clue in his voice but the pupils of his eyes widened and darkened as he admired the sleek lines of his lover’s body and the shadow of the twin bite marks on his neck in one particular shot. “They’re recent.”

“Aldo had a party whilst you were… away… and introduced me to this guy, Marco.” Xavier hesitated only briefly as he handed Rayne the curt missive from the photographer. He picked up one of the photos and looked at it critically, making a small contemplative sound as he did. “I should have charged him more,” he said in a distracted voice.

He opened the second packet and spilled its contents out. These were completely different to the others, the shots more natural and obviously meant for more than just a magazine spread.

The series Marco had showed in his exhibition (and had subsequently already sold for a pretty penny) comprised several black and white prints. These were the ones that Marco had taken of Xav dressed in leather and cuffed to the ladderback chair. They had turned out to be subdued and beautifully erotic.

There was a close up of Xavier’s hands with the leather restraints around his wrists, his fingers curled lightly as if he were testing the give in the cuffs. Every detail was picked out, the creases of his knuckles, the long elegant shape of his fingers, the neat clean nails that were almost too perfect for a man’s hands, except for the one ragged edge that looked recently torn. The next picture showed him at an angle to the chair, his head tipped back, knees bent and ankles strapped to the legs; a coy, playfully submissive look on his face. The next photo was arresting, the kind of shot that was both beautiful and so poignant it was hard to look at. The expression on Xavier’s face showed a naked, raw pain from the intensity in his eyes to the slight parting of his full lips, as if he’d made a little gasp or cry.

Rayne cleared his throat as he studied this last image, adjusting himself consciously on the bed and settling again, on his belly, to stare into the darkness of his lover’s eyes. Most of the shots were delicious fluff, with Xav doing what he did so well, acting out a role; playing to the audience and giving the lens of the camera what it wanted to see.

This picture was different. It seemed to go beyond the surface and delve deeper into his partner’s soul.

“What did he say to make you look at him like that?” he asked distractedly, still staring at the reflection of Xavier’s pain-filled eyes.

Xavier stared down at the photo silently. Marco probably could have stabbed him and he wouldn’t have been as surprised and hurt as he’d been by what the photographer had said. At the time he believed Rayne had left him for good and he had just learned that his fear that Rayne had died was a mistake, or so he’d thought at the time. He had been very confused and wounded and Marco felt no hesitation in twisting him up inside even further, the result being this haunting picture, which Xavier had to admit was the best of all he’d taken. His tongue flickered nervously between his teeth and unconsciously he bit down for a moment on the lower lip.

“He asked me…” He had to clear his throat, taken by surprise at how much the memory still hurt. “He asked me… hadn’t I been seeing you, and when I told him you’d gone, he said it must have hurt to get dumped like that,” Xavier finally answered.

For a moment or so Rayne was completely silent, utterly still. Then he laid the photo down on the bedcovers and pushed himself to his feet without a word. The wrapper from the parcel was still lying on the edge of the day bed and he picked it up, scanning it for a return address before casting it aside and turning back towards the door.

Xavier hadn’t once lied to Rayne since he met him, but he wished he had lied just then, or at least evaded the question.

“Rayne?” he called after him and stood when he didn’t get a response. “Hey…um, where are you going?”

For a moment his lover hesitated in the doorway then he muttered; “I’m going to do what I should have done while we were still in Italy. I’m gonna wring his fuckin’ neck. Cunt!”

Xavier’s eyes widened and he stopped short, not sure what to say. He hadn’t expected Rayne to get that pissed.

“Um, you’re going to fly all the way back to Naples to kick his ass?” he asked, carefully controlling the urge to crack a goofy grin.

Rayne met his eyes, suddenly caught between righteous fervour and anxiety.

“You don’t want me to kick his fuckin’ arse from here to kingdom come?” he asked, and his expression added; Why not? He deserves it, yeah?

Xavier let a small smile curl his lips as he closed the space between them, gave a little one-shouldered shrug, and slipped his arms around his bristling mate.

“It was an asshole thing to say, but other than that he didn’t treat me badly,” he said kissing the edge of Rayne’s hard set jaw. “He didn’t try and rip me off and he didn’t try and fuck me…well, he didn’t try to that hard anyway,” he conceded, at last. “I think he got off more on taking the pictures.”

“I can see that,” Rayne answered testily. “Another reason to kick his fuckin’ balls up into his gullet!”

He couldn’t maintain the scowl with Xavier this close to him though. His hands came to rest on his lover’s hips and he kissed Xav’s nose quickly. “So you don’twant me to give him a kicking?”

Xav finally let out the grin that he’d been holding back. He kind of liked how protective Rayne got, even if he didn’t need to be in this case. “If you went all the way to Naples just to kick some dude’s ass that talked smack to me that would play hell with your reputation, baby.” Xavier teased, and then laughed lightly at Rayne’s expression. “No, I don’t want you to go wring his neck. I can think of better things to do.”

Xavier nibbled suggestively on the tender skin just below Rayne’s earlobe.

“Oh yeah?” Rayne’s mood relaxed a little but the look in his eyes said that he was still mulling over ways in which to make Marco DeCellio pay for the slight against his lover. “We-e-ell… you may have to persuade me.”

He pulled Xavier’s lips onto his very softly. He didn’t like the idea of letting anyone get away with hurting Xav like that, but also the thought of flying off to settle a score was a convenient distraction. He was still fretting a little over the idea of having to leave his lover behind in London whilst he went North but not sure how to take him along without having to explain a whole load of shit that he wasn’t ready to talk about just yet. Somehow it was all easier when Xav was in his arms; when they could just kiss and fuck and not have to talk at all.

“I can be very persuasive…” Xav whispered in his ear, tickling along the outer ridge with the tip of his tongue. He moved backwards, his hands sliding down Rayne’s arms to his wrists and pulling him gently back toward the low fold down couch.

They tumbled across the mattress again where the photos were still scattered and the second envelope still holding the rest of the pictures shifted and spilled its contents out by Xavier’s shoulder. These images were in color, but the light was low and soft and showed Xavier stretched out naked and aroused on the crisp white sheets of a bed.

For a moment Rayne just blinked at them, not sure whether to be angry or turned on. He sprawled on the mattress and pulled Xav astride him then reached for a handful of prints, flicking through them distractedly. From time to time his hand slid down to caress his lover’s slim thigh as he stared at the photographs, his face pale and unreadable. His body was easier to read, though. He was getting steadily harder between Xavier’s legs as he looked at each print in turn.

“What sort of client does this Marco bloke take pictures for, exactly?” he asked at last, shaking his head.

Xavier shifted his body slightly, pressing his growing erection along Rayne’s through their jeans.

“The underwear modelling ones were for some menswear catalogue, and he wanted the black and white bondage shots for his gallery exhibit.” He glanced at the photos still in Rayne’s hand that showed him naked, his face relaxed and sleepy, the fingers of one hand toying with a nipple while the other wrapped around his hard cock. “These he took for himself,” Xav said, seeming not the least embarrassed or distressed. “He told me he wouldn’t sell them,” he added, plucking the last photo from Rayne’s fingers gently and leaning down to brush a kiss across his lips. “I’d just woken up from a dream…in which you played a starring role,” he concluded, smiling at his lover.

The vampire looked up at him with a small, incredulous twitch of his lips. He put the photos aside. “You’ll tell me anything! Did you know he was snapping you while you were doing that to yourself?”

He ran his hands lightly around Xavier’s lean hips, loving the way the younger man’s body undulated slowly against his own when he touched him like that. Tenderly he began to massage Xav’s delicious backside.

Xavier nodded.

“Yeah.” He had his hands braced on either side of Rayne now and he lowered his head again to kiss him teasingly. “I was so fuckin’ horny from the dream, I didn’t care if he watched.”

Rayne’s lips lingered on his but he did not seal the kiss. His hands gripped Xavier’s arse a little harder.

“So he spent the night with you?” he whispered, eyes narrowing as he processed this information. He reached over and picked a few of the photos back up. If he put them all together and flipped through them they could almost make a shot by shot movie. The expression on Xav’s face was soft and sexy from sleep, but his lean young body was hard and ready, his slender graceful hands touching his own willing flesh and taking full advantage of that fact.

Xavier looked down at him curiously. He’d felt a little ripple from Rayne and his expression turned slightly confused. A moment ago he’d thought Rayne was just angry on his behalf but now he wasn’t so sure, which didn’t make sense. Surely he wasn’t jealous, why would he be? He didn’t seem to mind sharing him. When Xav thought about it though he realised, since meeting Rayne ,every time he’d been with someone else either Rayne had been involved too or it had been with someone they’d fucked before. He still wasn’t sure if that was the problem or not but he knew Rayne wasn’t exactly happy about something.

Xav shook his head slowly. “No, he didn’t. He never touched me. I think he came into the bedroom to wake me up to get ready to shoot. He took a picture of me sleeping and the sound of the camera woke me.”

“He stayed at Aldo’s then?” Rayne’s tone was light but persistent. Clearly he wasn’t about to let the matter go.

“No…” Xav said, still looking at him curiously, a small uneasy frown starting to draw his brows together slightly. “After we met at Aldo’s party he asked me to come work for him and I stayed at his place for a couple days.” He paused, hating the feeling that he needed to somehow explain himself. “Rayne, you were gone… It was just a way to make some quick money,” he said, trying to not to sound defensive but not entirely succeeding.

“Did Aldo know about this?” Rayne asked, indicating the photos of Xav spread out on the bed masturbating, clearly still mulling the situation over in his head. He could not stop looking at the photos though. What had Xavier said? They were for the photographer’s own collection? “Fuckin’ dirty bastard!” he exhaled tremulously, shaking his head. His temper was rising again. “What kind of cunt takes advantage of the fact that a young guy’s on his own and vulnerable in a strange country so that he can take soft porn photos to jerk off to later? I can’t believe you let him do that, Xavier? I thought you were a bit smarter than that!”

He regretted the choice of words the minute they were out of his mouth but he couldn’t take them back now. The photos were trembling in his hand and he just wanted to… actually he didn’t know what he wanted to do with them. They were amazing pictures actually; so sensual. They made him want to strip Xav and just take him hard. Instead they were fighting over this.

Idiot! his conscience sneered at him.

Xavier’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Yeah? Well I guess it’s so much smarter to let a total stranger tie you up and do whatever the fuck he wants to you, huh?”

He threw the words back at him in a low voice that simmered with heat and reminded Rayne of exactly what he had been doing while those photos were being taken. He slid off Rayne, angry now. Things had been so peaceful, they hadn’t had a single disagreement since that night at Dominic’s a few weeks ago. He knew he shouldn’t get angry but whenever they argued Rayne always managed to push his buttons. In a single sentence Rayne had managed to make him feel both cheap and like a wet behind the ears kid that didn’t know any better.

He swept up some of the scattered photos and stalked through to the kitchen where he threw them into the trash, as if by doing so he could erase what he’d done or what Rayne had seen. His throat felt tight and that pissed him off too, that Rayne could make him feel so stupid, so easily.

Rayne rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in the cool linen for a moment, breathing slowly, bringing his hair-trigger temper under check once more. It would not help matters to stalk into the kitchen after his lover and stoke up the flames of an argument he had no appetite for in any case. And they wereamazing photographs; just a little too intimate for his ego to handle right now.

After he felt he’d regained some tenuous control he pushed himself to his feet and followed Xavier into the kitchen a shade reluctantly. His beautiful lover was still bristling, both hands gripping the worktop as he stood with his back to Rayne, his spine and shoulders an angry cross, forbidding him to come closer. And Rayne hated that invisible barrier. He wanted more than anything to go to Xav and take the boy in his arms and kiss away the hostility but he was rooted to the spot, unable to take the first step.

“Xav… Xavier, I’m sorry,” he said quietly, instead. “I… I didn’t mean to upset you, I wasn’t thinking straight. I seem to be able to fuck things up with you every time I open my mouth right now. And I don’t want to do that. You… you were right, I left you alone there and it was none of my business what you did or didn’t do afterwards. I couldn’t stop thinking about what might have happened and how I’d feel if he’d done something bad to you. I’m an idiot and I’m sorry.”

Xavier didn’t move and he didn’t speak for several long moments. Then his shoulders slowly dropped and he turned around. His posture was still a little defensive, arms loosely crossed over his chest as he leaned back against the counter.

“It was just business, Rayne. I didn’t want to let PJ and Aldo take care of me, no matter how much they tried to. It was easy money, he paid me a lot more for those extra pictures and I didn’t even have to fuck him. I didn’t think it mattered.” He finally lifted his eyes to look at Rayne, telling him without words that he wished he would just come over and hold him. “I didn’t think you were coming back, Ray. It’s not like…like, I just forgot about you. I thought about you all the time.” “I don’t deserve you, really, do I?” Rayne said huskily. His gaze roamed up and down Xavier’s tense body restlessly and he shook his head. “I suppose I knew it when I went away and… it was always going to come back to that. I fuck things up, Xav. Everyone… every time I get involved with someone, I manage to fuck up their lives. And even when it’s going well, even now when I’ve been happier than I’ve felt in years just here with you… I know it’s all going to get screwed up and it’ll be my fault, because it always is.”

Rayne held his hands up before his lover could move or say anything. “I’m sorry… I thought he’d hurt you or bullied you into the photos or something bad like that, and I wanted to do something. But I can’t do anything can I? I’m really, really bad at this whole relationship thing, Xavier… and I don’t know how to be any different.”

Xavier pushed away from where he was leaning and moved to him at once, lifting his hands to his shoulders and caressing lightly along the back of his neck.

“My life was way fucked up before I ever met you,” he said, a sad little smile pulling his lips. “And there are people that suck way worse at the relationship thing than you, believe me.” He leaned in and kissed the tip of Rayne’s nose.

Rayne moved against him so that their foreheads almost touched and he could feel Xavier’s warm breath, a little too quick on his skin. He lifted his eyes to look up into Xav’s clear baby-blues.

“I still don’t deserve you,” he whispered, pushing up onto his toes slightly to touch his lips to Xav’s mouth. “Do you forgive me?”

“If I forgive you can we still go make up in bed?” Xav asked with a small grin.

Rayne pretended to think about it for all of a couple of seconds. Then he snagged an arm around Xav and caught him between the legs, hauling the blond up over his shoulder and carrying him unceremoniously back through the lounge and along the corridor, into the bedroom where the duvet was still rumpled from their morning passion.

Xavier laughed when Rayne tossed him down on the bed and then proceeded to show him very thoroughly that he was forgiven, several times.

Afterwards they lay twined around each other, naked and damp and spent. Rayne was on his back and Xavier curled to his side, tucked under his arm, a small contented smile on his face. They lay like that together for quite a while and then Xavier turned his head, resting his chin on the back of his hand where it lay on Rayne’s chest and looked up at him.

“What’s bothering you?” he asked softly.

“What makes you ask that?” Rayne countered cagily.

“Come on, Ray…”

“It’s nothing.”

“It’s something,” Xavier said, giving him a look that was hard to read but held a bit of sadness. “If you don’t want to talk, it’s okay. But, I know something is wrong. I can feel it. You’ve been off with me since the other day when you went to Dominic’s. I just want you to know… to know that you can talk to me, if you want to.”

Rayne tilted his head in the nest of pillows to peer down at Xav, the little sheen of moisture from their energetic tumbling already beginning to aspirate on his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. He stroked Xavier’s sweat damp curls and smiled sorrowfully.

“Can’t hide much from you can I?” he sighed. “That’s gonna be a ball ache.”

His smile said that he wasn’t serious but the tenderness in his eyes added that, yes, there was a problem. He was notoriously hard at sharing his feelings and knew it but didn’t Xavier deserve to know everything about him if he wanted to get in this deep? But on the other hand, did Xav deserve to have the crap-heap of his past dumped on his pretty head so soon? He cleared his throat and let his head sink back into the pillows staring up at the ceiling as he figured out where to start; how much to say.

“I’m going to have go up to Manchester for a couple of days, yeah?” he ventured by way of an inroad. “You’re okay about that, aren’t you? I mean, it’s a bit off for me to leave you here but it wouldn’t really help you to come with me.”

Xavier looked back at him with serious solemn eyes. “I’ll be okay by myself for a while,” he said, and then added almost hesitantly. “I know you have things you need to take care of.”

That focused Rayne’s attention on him for a moment. Not so much what he said, but how he said it. Before he could ask Xav explained; “Dominic said something to me on the train. He warned me that you might be… upset, about things that had happened here before you left. That you might have some things that you needed to attend to. That’s all he said though. I told him that if you wanted me to know more then you’d tell me yourself.”

Rayne pushed himself up on his elbows not sure if he was more surprised that Dominic had considered breaking his confidence or that Xavier had stopped him. He wriggled back into a sitting position so that Xav had to kneel up to maintain eye contact with him. Gently he reached out, stroking his fingertips along the younger man’s cheek as he contemplated how to proceed.

“Xav…” he breathed at last. “He… he was right, it’s been a fucking ridiculous year for me. It’s amazing really that we met the way we did. So many things could have happened to stop it but they didn’t.” He lowered his head for a moment, suddenly feeling his heart race at the mixture of emotions raging within him. “I have an apartment in Manchester, did he tell you that? I used to live there, for a couple of years anyway.”

Xavier nodded silently, then when Rayne still wasn’t looking at him he murmured; “I think he did mention it. And that you’ve been trying to sell it.”

“Yeah,” Rayne said quietly. “I can’t live there again. Not in that place anyway; which is a shame because apparently it’s a nice apartment.” He swallowed and lifted his head to face Xav. “I was… I was with someone whilst I was up there, sweetheart. We were lovers, more than lovers… just for a few months.”

He let out a shaky breath as the words left his lips as if they franked something he’d only hoped was a bad dream until this moment.

Xavier wasn’t sure if he was expecting that or not. He supposed not. Rayne hadn’t seemed like he was just coming out of a relationship when they met, but then sometimes it was hard to tell. People reacted differently to things. Xav licked his lips lightly, a sense of foreboding suddenly shivering down his spine. He almost didn’t want to ask, but he made himself.

“What happened? You… you broke up?”

Rayne’s hand moved to his face and he rubbed his eyes, rubbed his forehead as if it hurt to think. He shook his head.

“He… he died,” he said in a voice so small that it was almost a whisper. “Nearly a year ago. A year ago this Friday. Some cunt broke into his house, walked into his bedroom, shot him in the back and… he died.”

The words fell from his lips like some kind of mantra. Though he saw the scene in front of his eyes as he spoke it, still it seemed unreal somehow; detached from him like a sequence of stills from an old movie. He wanted to cry but there were no tears left. The lump in his throat felt like iron though and the hurt closed cold fingers around his neck, choking him slowly.

Xavier sat by his side motionless and silent for several long moments, that eerie sense of foreboding not going away for all that it had been confirmed that something horrible had happened. There was more to it, Xavier was almost sure that wasn’t where the story ended, but he didn’t have the heart to press Rayne on it. Instead he very gently slid his arms around his beautiful boyfriend and pulled him into his embrace, pressing his lips softly to his temple and just held him.

“Baby, I’m so sorry…” he whispered into the silk of Rayne’s hair.

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for.” The kiss seemed to thaw the cold sense of shock that had briefly wrapped around Rayne, threatening to strangle the life out of him. He looked into Xavier’s eyes very solemnly. “I’m the one that should be sorry. I told him there was someone in the house but he was so sure… so sure that no one could get in if he didn’t let them. I should have made him stop, made him check…”

He cleared his throat again, expelling a small, incredulous huff of breath.

The pain and cold Rayne felt seemed to seep out of him a little and touch Xavier’s heart with thin icy fingers. The expression ‘I feel your pain’ was, for Xavier, quite literal, especially around Rayne. His bright blue eyes shimmered with emotion and he stroked a tender hand soothingly over his lover’s back.

“You were with him when he was shot?”

The vampire nodded, expressionless. His emotions were everywhere though. For almost twelve months he must have believed he could close it down, shut the feelings away where they wouldn’t touch him but saying those words unlocked the door that kept them hidden, safely out of sight and mind. He still could not clearly remember everything that happened on that fatal night. A part of him wanted to believe that he had imagined it all, that he’d maybe had some kind of breakdown and Kevan had not been able to handle it; had gone away for both of their sakes.

He knew it was not true though. When he closed his eyes and thought of that night all he saw was blood. His fangs extended involuntarily at the memory and he turned his head away, sickened by it.

Xavier was quiet for a long moment. He had begun this tentative enquiry with the intention that he would not push, that he would let Rayne set the pace for how far and how deep he wanted to go. But now… now Xav thought he sensed something that he was intimately familiar with. The memories Rayne had of that time wore away at him; weighed him down, becoming a burden he carried around with him. Xavier thought he maybe wanted to purge some of that poison inside but he wouldn’t do it unless someone gave him a little pressure.

He lifted his hand and gently took Rayne’s chin, turning his head back to look deep in his eyes.

“What happened then?” he asked, his voice still very gentle and coaxing.

But Rayne just shook his head again, the words were choking him. He felt tears well up in his eyes, tears he had not been able to weep when they prised him away from Kevan’s body and the nightmares began. Mortified, he pulled away, more forcefully this time. His eyes slid shut and long lashes caught the salt offerings like brief, shimmering jewels before he cupped his face in his hands, swallowing down the crippling sorrow furiously until he could breathe without sobbing out loud.

When he lifted his head his eyes were red, not merely bloodshot but red as fresh blood. The whites were scarlet, the beautiful green of his irises black as midnight. His fangs bared in a little snarl but Xavier could feel, even through the initial fear, that he was in no danger. Rayne’s anger was directed inward. He was more dangerous to himself than anyone living.

Xavier did not pull him back but did not move away either, simply holding his place patiently. He wanted to ask again what had happened when Rayne’s lover had been shot. His instinct was to force it out of him, make him share some of that heavy load so maybe he could start to heal, but another part of him was afraid to press him so hard; afraid Rayne would reject his help and push him away. The fear won out, for now. He closed his fingers around Rayne’s, rubbing his thumb lightly over the back of his hand.

“Are you sure you want to go alone?” he asked, clearly worried now about Rayne going back on his own to deal with things after such traumatic circumstances.

“There’s something I need to do,” Rayne said hoarsely. He still could not meet Xavier’s eyes, ashamed of himself for the emotional episode but also unable to tell him the whole truth. “It wouldn’t be right to… I need to do it on my own, Xav. Do you trust me?”

Now he looked up, finally, seeking the truth in his lover’s sorrowful blue eyes, his own once more clear. Xavier looked back at him unflinchingly and he answered slowly; “Yeah, I do. I trust you, Rayne.”

He wondered if his lover knew just how rare a statement that was for him. He’d learned suspicion early and it had stayed with him. In fact, at that moment, Rayne was the only person in the world he truly trusted.

He lifted Rayne’s hand and turned it, kissing his palm and nuzzling there for a moment. “Do you trust me?”

Rayne took his hand, pressing the backs of Xavier’s clever fingers to his lips and then to his cheek. He took a quick breath, then another.

“Sometimes I think you’re the only one I can trust,” he whispered at last. “Don’t let me down, Xav. Please don’t let me down. Not yet.”

Xavier leaned close and slid his arms around Rayne again, holding him tightly and burying his face at the crook of his neck.

“Not ever!” he promised. “Even if we fight sometimes, even if we scream and yell and act stupid and totally fuck up, I still couldn’t ever hate you and I won’t ever try and hurt you.”

Rayne kissed him long and hard then, pulling him close, immersing himself in Xavier’s warmth and knowing just from that contact that his words were spoken from the heart.

“I will come back,” he promised when their lips parted briefly. “I just have to do this on my own. I need to end things properly.”

Xavier nodded in wordless understanding. He would worry about Rayne while he was gone, but he knew some things you just had to do on your own. That seemed to be enough for his lover. Rayne curled around him and held him tightly as they snuggled together on the bed.

It was comforting to have someone to hold, the vampire thought. The comforting warmth of Xavier’s body helped to drive off a little of the chill he felt descending whenever he thought of returning to Manchester. It was like having his own little sun to revolve around and the idea of that brought some consolation, and even a shaft or two of summer sunshine to the winter of his aching heart.

That delicious heat warmed him slowly, right through. He knew that there were dark shadows to confront in the weeks to come but here and now, in this comfortable bed in a room where the darkness had never reached him, he was able to shut it out and immerse himself in Xavier’s sunlight. His cold hands moved restlessly back and forth over his lover’s body, just sucking up the sweet flames that he could practically feel rising from Xav’s skin, flowing out, seeping into the flesh and muscle and sinew of his hands and arms, flooding down into the bones, until he virtually glowed with that inner fire himself.

“You are amazing, do you know that?” he murmured, tilting his head to touch his lips whisper-soft to Xavier’s mouth.

They had only just finished having some pretty amazing sex, but both the huskiness in Rayne’s voice and the bitter memories he had just shared seemed to seep intimately into Xavier’s skin, reaching down inside and making him shiver. He slid his arms around Rayne’s neck, pulling him closer, returning the soft kiss with another, deeper one. He took a breath, almost letting what his heart was feeling slip out in words, but holding them back at the last minute and kissing Rayne passionately instead. If he had to go alone Xavier wanted to make sure he had a sweet memory to take with him

If Rayne was exhausted from the morning’s fun and games it didn’t show. He spent a little while just lipping tenderly at Xavier’s mouth and then suddenly rolled up and onto him, kissing deliberately harder, whilst his hips rocked in a slow rhythm like the ocean, pushing their bodies together. He rubbed himself against Xav very eagerly, stiffening for him in spite of all the other concerns crowding his mind. Somehow being with his lover like this just drove any other considerations out of his head. It was like a magic spell erasing the dark things from his thoughts.

Xav’s hands roamed slowly down Rayne’s back while they kissed, his fingers tracing lightly up and down the lean musculature and the bony knobs of his spine, sliding sensually over the wings of his shoulder blades as they moved under his palms. Heat started to pool back into him, stirring his arousal, stiffening his sex, making him moan softly.

He bent a knee, sliding his inner thigh up the outside of Rayne’s leg, lifting his hips to meet him as they rubbed together slowly.

“So…you liked those pictures, huh? They got you turned on?” he teased Rayne, wanting to lighten the mood slightly, and finding also that he was sort of turned on by Rayne’s reaction.

“Mmmhhh…” Rayne purred, already very aroused by the way that his lover’s little moans and gasps shivered through his blood and bones and made one particular bone stand up very proud indeed. His hands moved down Xavier’s spine now, caressing the silk of his skin, the hardness of the muscle beneath. Until meeting the dancer he’d not even realised that it was possible to feel the muscles in someone’s back like this but Xav was simply firm all over, beneath the supple covering of his flesh. It was beautiful to touch, like running his hands over a warm, living, beautiful sculpture. “Almost as turned on as you’re getting knowing I’m turned on by them,” he added, determined not to be ribbed without giving some back.

Xavier’s chuckle was a warm, silky, almost dark sound as he conceded the point. He could not very well deny it when the proof was pressing up into Rayne’s belly so firmly. He hooked his leg up over Rayne’s flexing backside, tilting his hips more, inviting him deeper.

“If you ask nicely I’ll re-enact that scene for you, only better,” Xav promised.

“You are a very bad boy, I knew there was something that I liked about you,” Rayne chuckled, his own voice growing thicker and deeper at the thought of those particular images, the ones where his mate was sprawled on the tangled bedsheets, his hand sliding lower and lower until it was gliding enthusiastically up and down over the rigid projection of his gorgeous cock, oblivious to the camera; or at least, apparently so. “Touch yourself for me, sweetheart. Show me how you like it.”

Xav’s eyes looked up at Rayne half closed, teasing, his lips curled in a deliciously coy little grin, but he did not hesitate a moment to send his hand caressing down his lean torso. His long fingers played lightly over his own hard flesh, just letting the pads of his fingertips skate lightly up and down his shaft at first. His other hand toyed absently with his nipple.

His cock head was already oozing a slow drip of clear precum and Xav touched it with one finger, circling around the silky skin there. He shivered almost delicately and then curled his fingers around his stiff prick, giving a slow stroke up and down.

“Mmmm-uhhh…” he moaned softly, letting his one leg fall to the side, opening him up wider for Rayne’s eyes and his body.

Rayne shuddered with need as he watched the younger man gently exploring the sensitive tip of his glans. His mouth watered at the sight and scent of his aroused lover beneath him and as Xav began to fist his cock gently he knelt back between the blond’s legs and dipped his head, touching his lips and tongue to the glistening peak of his engorged penis, licking the little jewels of moisture up greedily. Then he rolled forward again, briefly pressing his salty lips to Xavier’s mouth in an appreciative kiss.

“You are so-o fuckin’ delicious,” he whispered hoarsely. “Jack it harder for me now, sweetheart. Show me how good it feels.”

“Ooohhh…” Xav exhaled, his lips parting around a little gasp and his eyes darkening.

Rayne’s smoky voiced suggestion seemed to drip pure erotisim into Xavier, shivering down his flesh, flowing into his veins, and throbbing in his hard cock. His fingers tightened on his stiff pole, moving more firmly, stroking a little faster. The edge of his index and middle fingers tugged the looser skin up slightly, bumping up over the ultra sensitive frenulum and back down, again, and again.
His eyes were mere glittering slits now, watching Rayne, his breath coming faster between his spit wet lips.

“Mmmmm, fuck me Rayne…I’m so hot, so turned on, I need you…”

His lover was smiling, that slow, lazy smile that didn’t quite bare his fangs and he reached down idly now, propped on one elbow, the other hand moving between Xavier’s legs, cupping his balls and gently manipulating them in their silken pouch as he watched his lover writhe and flex from his shoulders to his knees, still pumping his erection with eager, jerky movements in a delicious contrast to the smooth way he rolled his torso and belly, pushing his hips and groin upward into the descending stroke of his rapidly moving hand.

“You have any idea how fucking sexy that looks?” he asked as the smile quickened to a canny grin, the amusement and pleasure glittering in his vivid green eyes.

“Sexy enough for you to want to pounce on me?” Xav asked with a hopeful little smile.

“Minx,” Rayne chuckled, tightening his grip on Xav ever so slightly as he leaned in closer to kiss his mate again. His lips practically bruised Xavier’s this time and he began to rub his fingertips slowly back and forth just behind the firm, spongy orbs in his palm, more gently squishing them against Xavier’s body as he did so. He knew just how firmly to press to cause more pleasure than pain, although the touch was still enough to make Xav’s eyes water.

Xav was holding his breath and it came out in a little rush, hitching in his throat and coalescing into another soft groan. Hot desire flashed into him so quickly it made his head spin. His mouth opened under the assault of Rayne’s lips and tongue and he slid his other hand lower now to wrap around Rayne’s cock, easing up and down in time with the fingers around his own erection.

He felt his lover moan hungrily into his mouth at the touch of that warm hand slithering back and forth along his shaft, just the way he liked to touch himself, only a thousand times hotter, physically and emotionally and sensually. It didn’t take much to bring him up to the boil just as fiercely as Xavier. Soon he was groaning hard on every breath as those deft fingers worked him up better and better with each stroke.

“Oooohh, fuuuuck I want you!” Xav’s whisper held a little growl under the words and he pushed one shoulder up, rolling in a smooth motion that switched their positions. He threw one leg over, straddling Rayne’s hips, and bent his head to devour his mouth again. Rayne’s hands were on his cheeks, gripping and tugging, parting the taut globes of his arse, and Xav helpfully tipped his hips forward as Rayne did the opposite, their cocks sliding together sensually before Rayne slipped back far enough to press the heavy silken plum of his cock head to his ring.

He was already slick and stretched from their earlier efforts and one sharp push was all it took for him to pop past that defensive muscle. Xav flexed his thighs, groaning and wriggling, eager to have Rayne sink deeper. At the same time Rayne rolled his hips, pushing himself upward, feeling the spearhead of his shaft delve deep and hard into Xavier’s hot, welcoming body. He held on tight to the younger man’s slim hips now, rocking and riding with him as Xavier squirmed and bucked and shoved himself downward onto his throbbing cock. Rayne closed his eyes and clenched his teeth hard because he could feel the buzzing in his blood getting louder and more violent as they took the temperature up by a few more degrees.

“Uhhh… Jesus!” he growled huskily. “Jesus Christ on a fucking moped… Xav! Uhhh gawd…’m not gonna last like this, babes.”

“S’okay…” Xav panted. “Me neither…”

He sealed Rayne’s moans in with another searing kiss and bucked his hips faster. His hands gripped the sheets either side of Rayne’s head, clutching and releasing in time with each of his down strokes. Rayne’s fingers tightened on him and Xav kissed a path to the side of his throat, nipping and sucking the tender skin there.

Rayne arched his back. He could feel each of Xavier’s little bites and suckles go searing through his flesh like tiny, blazing arrows in his bloodstream. Each one was making a beeline for his cock and balls, swooping down into his bucking groin and stabbing him with wild bursts of electricity that made his thrusting cock lurch and throb even more urgently.

For a moment he wondered what the hell he was doing, leaving Xavier alone to go trailing off up North. Dominic had offered to find an agent who would sell the apartment for him. He ought to just leave it at that.

And then he wasn’t thinking at all. He was just clinging to Xavier and circling his hips furiously, pressing his cock deep and hard inside that luscious body and holding on as the liqueous fireworks went off within him, driving a trembling, ragged gasp of pleasure from his throat.

Xav rode that intense feeling for a moment, the almost painfully tight grip of Rayne’s arms around him, the extra steel in his cock right before the hot liquid burst of bliss, and then he let go of the pressure he was barely managing to contain and burst right along with him. He had no little fangs to bite Rayne with but he sucked the soft tender skin at the base of his throat hard enough to leave a small mark there, raising the blood to the surface, even if it would only last a few moments.

He collapsed into Rayne’s arms as the last shuddering pulse of his orgasm rippled through his hot sweaty body and left him feeling floaty and spent. His vampire lover pulled him close and nuzzled against the moist heat of his neck, returning the love bite with interest. Although he hadn’t meant to drink deeply he did let his fangs sink hard into the heat of Xavier’s skin, sucking on him gently as he made slow thrusts into the cum-slick inferno between his peachy cheeks. For those few moments that they were entwined in post orgasmic bliss he was actually contented, a rare sensation for Rayne.

Xav was pretty damn contented himself as he nearly melted in Rayne’s arms. His body was already flooded with the blissed out feeling that came from a massive orgasm, and the feel of Rayne’s slow, lazy thrusts and those razor sharp pinpoints sliding into his pulse magnified that feeling about a hundred times. Every muscle in his body relaxed. As odd as it might seem to someone else, Xavier felt more comfortable and at home in Rayne’s arms, with his teeth embedded in his flesh, than he did at any other time.

“Mmmmhhhh… you taste so good,” Rayne purred happily at last, pulling back a little to lick his neck and trail his fingers through the spill of creme on his bare chest. He slipped them in his mouth with a little grin and made ‘yummy’ noises before towing Xav in for a longer, deeper kiss.

Xav licked his tongue across Rayne’s bottom lip, let the tip flicker inside playfully, then deeper once more as the taste of his cum and his blood and Rayne’s saliva all mixed into a delicious liqueur in his own mouth. He felt a little pang then, a longing to ask Rayne not to go, or at least not to leave him behind, but he pushed that feeling down as selfish and immature. He could live without his lover for a few days, or longer, if he had to.

As if sensing some of his emotions Rayne whispered into his mouth, their lips still touching softly. “Will you miss me?”

“Maybe a little.” Xav murmured back, his lips twitching slightly. Actually, he didn’t want to admit how much he thought he was going to miss Rayne, it just felt so ridiculous.

“If you’re good I’ll bring you a present,” the little vampire purred… curling around him again and stroking his hands tenderly all over that sweet, warm body, thinking that he was certainly going to miss this; the heat and the sex and the sheer physical high of being wrapped around Xavier.

“Yeah? I mean…yeah, you better.” He chuckled softly and slid off Rayne then, curling to his side and getting comfortable. “When are you going?” he asked more seriously.

His lover’s head turned into the pillow for a moment, letting the dark hair tumble across his face, screening him as he murmured; “I was kind of thinkin’ I might go tomorrow… There’s something I need to do on Friday but then I can be back for the weekend, you’ll ‘ardly know I’m gone.” He was stroking Xavier’s bare chest almost soothingly with the flat of his left hand as he talked.

Xav nodded, almost surprising himself with how well he took that announcement.

“Yeah, best to go and get things done then,” he said understandingly, then he punched Rayne’s shoulder, just a little bit too hard to be playful. “Tomorrow? And you were gonna tell me when, exactly?” He shook his head though, his lips twitching with humour. It was just so typically Rayne he couldn’t help finding it kind of funny.

Ray looked up at him, lips twitching slightly as well, though there was still a sombre cast to his icy clear gaze.

“Um… kind of… tomorrow, I guess,” he murmured almost bashfully. “Don’t tease, I’m used to living on my own. I don’t normally have to tell someone when I’m going out.”

He said it with a wry little smile though, catching some of Xavier’s amusement, relieved at least that they weren’t going to have another scene about this. If he had to face up to his demons this week he would at least do so knowing that Xav was waiting for him when he returned. That put some warmth in his heart, quite unexpectedly and he slid his arms more tightly around the beautiful blond boy, pulling him closer again. His cool, dry lips touched Xavier’s full, wet, deliciously warm ones, kissing him again, more slowly and tenderly.

Xav knew Rayne was trying to distract him, and that was also very typical of his lover, but he wasn’t upset. He let himself be distracted, and he did some distracting of his own, and then they got all sorts of distracted again together. They were going to be apart for maybe a week, and Rayne was leaving tomorrow, and suddenly they both wanted to make every minute count until he had to go.

CHAPTER 5

Rayne’s lips were still tingling from the ferocity of Xavier’s farewell kiss when the cab turned up to take him to the airport. They had spent the morning and most of the night before tangled passionately in his bed and on the futon and the floor of the lounge and finally in the shower as he got ready to leave. Now, as he strapped himself in and prepared for take-off on the Heathrow to Manchester shuttle service, he just wanted to get things over and done with as quickly as possible so that he could get back to London and be in Xavier’s arms again.

And that in itself felt like a betrayal. So much had come back to him since they returned to London. Biting Matty and then Clint had restored memories to him that he was barely able to conceive possible. But it had been talking to Dominic that restored the elements which led him North. He knew that there were still missing pieces and he would only find them there. But the shards he held in his hands were bad enough, they already coloured his nightmares. And there hadbeen nightmares, some dreadful ones too.

Since Paris he had dreamed repeatedly of a man standing over him with a long pike in his hand, laughing as he plunged the pointed head into his breast. At least three nights a week he woke in a cold sweat as the blade pierced his heart. But lately his dreams had been muddled. Sometimes he was hiding, sensing that the danger was drawing closer, the bogeyman was coming to get him and drag him out of the closet. He saw his mother lying dead on the living room floor at their old house in Dymchurch, which made no sense. He had never seen his mother’s body and she died in the garage of Brian’s house in New Romney anyway.

The worst dreams were the ones where he was holding Kevan in his arms, begging him to wake up, screaming at him to fight, to try and stay alive for just a little while longer. Sometimes in those dreams he was tangled in a long piece of material like a shroud or a bridal train and it wrapped his feet, tripping him, refusing to let him reach Kev’s side. He lay weeping hysterically in a tumble of pale, blood-stained cloth as his mate slowly spilled his life force into the pastel carpet. In the background he could always hear bitter laughter, as if the gods were mocking him for daring to believe his life could be anything other than tormented. It was this last dream that still plagued him as he stared at the open magazine in his lap without seeing it and tried not to think of the thousands of feet opening up between himself and the ground.

He was not as bad as Dom when it came to flying, but he had never liked it. The sense of claustrophobia was always stronger when he was trapped on a plane. And these days he could not even have a quick drink or a snort of coke to alleviate the anxiety. Instead he slipped his hand into his short black jacket and retrieved the little velvet pouch, which was slightly worn now from being tucked away in pockets and bags but still went everywhere with him, as it had since he retrieved it from the box in his piano. His fingers loosened the drawstrings at the neck and he tipped it from the bottom so that the single item it contained slipped coolly into the palm of his right hand.

The nine tiny diamonds set into the matte, platinum outer circle of the chunky little ring were as bright as the day when he had first let Kevan put it on his finger. The inner circle was white gold so that it looked, from above, like a curious eclipse. There was an inscription on the inside, which he had not noticed initially; only discovering it after Kevan was dead. It read; “RJW my heart is always yours KMJD”. Typically, for Kevan, it was sentimental nonsense but Rayne had considered giving up the ring until he found those words. Now he could not countenance it. It would be one more betrayal and he had apparently deserted Kevan too often over the past year. It was time to make amends now.

Time to say goodbye.

The cab took him to a boutique hotel in Piccadilly where he checked in under an assumed identity. He had credit cards in the name of James Raymonde, which he used periodically when he did not want attention. Since Whipsnade began their career hiatus he had also written songs for other SOLD artists as Jay Raymonde so it was an easy alias to pick up and put down. Once he was safely tucked away in the comfortable suite, five floors up above the busy Mancunian streets, he hung up the few clothes he had brought with him and took a shower, then lay down on the bed trying to decide what to do. The ring was in his hand again and he slid it onto his third finger now, startled by it’s cool weight, perfect fit and the familiar feel of having it there, even after all this time. It was like being an actor, sliding back into a role he had not played in years.

The past few weeks had been a heady dream and he had been happier than he had dared to feel in months with Xavier but this place had been his real life for three years and he had spent almost twelve months of those three years with Kev Delaney. If Kevan had listened to him on that fateful night almost a year ago, maybe that life would have carried on and he would still be here; he would never have met Xavier Gavrilov and his existence would have been very different.

“Shit!” he exhaled, shaking his head slowly. “This is hard, Kevan. Please bear with me. I never meant for things to work out like this but please try to be happy for me, yeah? I still miss you so much.”

He curled up on his side then and drew his left hand to his lips, kissing the cool surface of the ring and closing his eyes to hold back the tears that threatened to spill from them once more. Over the past few days he had been ridiculously emotional and it just had to stop. Kev had always had this effect on him though. Xavier gave him balance and stability but Kev had unlocked the door to his feelings and allowed them to spill out unchecked. Rayne still didn’t understand how he had managed it, but what was done was done. There was no putting the genie back in the bottle. He just had to finish things properly now, in order that his life, such as it was, could go on.

Rayne lay naked on the bed, enjoying the feel of the cool, clean linen against his skin and the comforting smell of it. He stayed there for the next three or four hours until it began to get dark, simply thinking things over, remembering times he had spent here and things that he and Kevan had done together. Then he pushed himself to his feet and pulled on his snug black jeans and a dark blue silk shirt. He ran his fingers through his hair and wriggled his feet into black silk socks and his faithful Chelsea boots, then tugged on his jacket, snared his keys and wallet and went for a walk.

He had not intended to go to his old hangouts tonight but his feet led him from the hotel down Auburn Street, overshadowed by new apartment blocks now, and into the Gay Village which had been his home during the time that he lived up here in Manchester. It seemed stupid to walk within metres of his old abode and not stop to see if it was okay. He stood outside the misleadingly shabby white block, staring forlornly at the green glass bricks that framed the double-doored entrance to the building. There was nothing to stop him going inside. He had the key and the entry codes were in his head somewhere. When he touched his fingers to the number pad they would come back to him like magic, just like the pin for his credit cards did and just as he knew how to locate people in his phonebook. He could not make his feet move closer though. Not tonight.

Instead he walked down Canal Street through the early evening crowds, still a light-hearted mixture of city types and tourists among the more bohemian locals. It was too early for the hardened ravers yet but they would come, he knew it, just as magpies were drawn to any shiny object. His feet took him to the Rembrandt where he first met Kevan and Dave and this time he crossed the threshold and went inside. There were no familiar faces, people he would have fenced words with, to his relief and he ordered a shot of Stolichnaya for old times’ sake and knocked it back easily. The bar tender topped him up without a word and Rayne smiled and indicated with a gesture for the young man to have one himself.

It had been just before Xmas, a little over eighteen months ago that he first teamed up with two police detectives, Kevan Delaney and Dave Ramsay, here in this very same pub. Together they managed to put a stop to the murderous activities of a Vampire who had earned the nickname of The Canal Street Ripper. Although he had allowed both men to fuck him afterwards, he did not really get together with Kevan until a few months later when the guy asked him out for a drink. He had considered saying no. Kev really wasn’t his type and he hadn’t been looking for company, but curiosity got the better of him. After talking for about three hours, over a couple of bottles of Barolo, they went back to Rayne’s apartment around the corner and spent the remainder of the evening and most of the night screwing like animals

Kevan was married, but separated from his wife. Dave, his work partner, was gay and had introduced his buddy to the pleasures of the Gay Village after growing tired of listening to Kev complain that he never got laid on the straight circuit. As a result, Kevan had quickly acquired a taste for young male prostitutes. He had a prodigious sexual appetite, something that Rayne readily appreciated.

As he’d admitted to Dominic, Rayne had never considered himself to be exclusively gay. Pressed to define his own appetites he would grudgingly admit that he swung both ways but it was interesting for him to meet a man who also considered himself to be essentially straight but who liked to fuck other guys too. It worked for them both. Their relationship hung on a strong physical bond though, emotionally and intellectually they were hardly compatible at all. Even Kev, who quickly became besotted with his vampire lover, had to admit that they had precious little in common beyond the fact that they always had amazing sex. Initially, Rayne reflected now, he had been incredibly cruel to Kevan but the big man always came back for more. It was as if he expected the abuse and tolerated it patiently in order to get what he wanted. He began to go to the gym regularly because Rayne told him he made the apartment look untidy and the results were quite eye-catching. Even women Kevan worked with, who had never previously given him the time of day suddenly began to pay attention when he walked into a room. Rayne advised his lover on clothes and grooming and actually took a quiet pride in the handsome man that began to emerge from the chrysalis of the slob Kev had been when they first met.

All of this spilled through his consciousness as he sat at the bar. The memories were so real to him that he almost expected to see Kev come lumbering through the pub door and call out to the bartender for a bottle of Becks. He downed the second shot of vodka, pushed a twenty across the counter and walked back up Canal Street towards his hotel.

“Hiya, you going somewhere?” a voice asked from just behind him and he turned to see a good looking kid in a black tee shirt and white jeans grinning at him hopefully. His blond hair was spiked up a little on top and reminded Rayne painfully of Xavier, though his eyes were a greenish brown colour.

“I’m going to crash, I’ve been travelling all day,” he said with a lopsided smile that never reached his eyes.

“Want some company?” the boy persisted, reaching out to stroke his fingertips over the sleeve of Rayne’s jacket.

“I’m kind of tired,” Rayne lied, though he did not move away, deliberating that it would not hurt him to feed from the blond boy.

“I’m legal, and I’m clean,” the lad said persuasively. He held his hand out. “My name’s Jack, what’s yours?”

“Jay,” Rayne told him, briefly and firmly shaking the proffered hand. “I like to be on top, Jack.”

“That’s okay, I don’t mind subbing,” Jack grinned at him. “You look well good in those tight kecks.”

He moved closer now and when Rayne did not increase the space between them automatically he tilted his head and touched his mouth to the vampire’s cold, soft lips. At the same time the hand Rayne had just shaken reached between his legs and boldly groped his dick and balls through the tight denim.

“Fuck, you’ve got big knackers,” Jack panted into his mouth. “Bet they make a lot of cum, Jay. I love eating cum. Have you got somewhere we can go, or do you want to go down by the canal?”

“You talk a lot, don’t you?” Rayne said with a tired smile. He was contemplating taking the lad back to the apartment, which was nearer than his hotel, but the canal bank, under the bridge, would do. He might have to compete for space with other mating couples but the night was still young and it was only Tuesday, not a busy evening on the club circuit.

In the end he led Jack a little way up the canal bank to the next bridge where the sound from the clubs and bars was just a distant buzz. The boy crouched down there, popping the buttons of his fly, and sucked Rayne’s dick without needing to be told. His warm hand gently worked the vampire’s clean-shaven balls as he nodded and slurped. Rayne leaned back against the arch of the bridge and laced his fingers behind the boy’s head, wishing it was Xavier on his knees in front of him. Jack wasn’t anywhere near Xav’s cock sucking skills but Rayne still pressed his head down until he could feel Jack nuzzling his mound, then fucked his throat rapidly.

“Uhhh… Jesus!” he panted as he shot his load in the blond’s mouth and pulled out quickly, letting the gasping boy scramble up into his arms to kiss him; tasting his own salty spill on the blond’s tongue and lips.

He was still half-hard and his nuts and the head of his prick were tingling pleasingly as he went down on one knee and started to suck Jack off. His fingers pulled the boy’s white jeans down to mid thigh, exposing a nice thick seven incher and smooth waxed crotch. Rayne licked up and down his penis and sucked Jack’s firm young balls. The sound of the busy city over their heads was almost inconsequential. They were about thirty feet below street level here and sheltered by the dark curve of the bridge and right now the only sounds that were important to Rayne Wylde were the pre-orgasmic moans of his young mate. Jack growled softly in his chest as he was taken deep into Rayne’s throat and the pretty, dark-haired Londoner pressed two searching fingers up his arse, frigging him urgently.

“Man! You suck like a fuckin’ bitch!” Jack yelped delightedly. He cried out harder as he began to thrust and cum in Rayne’s mouth, the fingertips inside him touching just the right spot.

Rayne swallowed his thick, teen crème greedily. There was nothing to beat the feel of a young man’s prodigious flow of cum on his tongue and it tasted heavenly. He stroked his cock as he suckled the last drops from Jack’s throbbing knob-end.

“Turn around,” he crooned, stroking the blond’s naked thighs now. “Lean on the fuckin’ wall. I’m gonna shag you til you can’t stand up on your own.”

“Ahhh… fuck, yeah!” Jack moaned happily as he rested his splayed hands against the dark brickwork and pushed his bare backside into Rayne’s face.

The vampire’s cool hands parted his cheeks and a wet, studded tongue explored Jack’s crack vigorously for several minutes, making the blond wriggle and utter little cooing noises. When Rayne moved to his feet and bent over him, Jack’s face turned back to meet him and they kissed for a while. Rayne eased his cock head into Jack slowly and began to buck his hard length into the blond’s hot, wet rectum, his fingers gripping the boy’s bare hips.

“Ohhh… man! Are you doing me bare?” Jack groaned, bucking like a wild mare as he felt his randy, black-haired stallion mount him.

“You don’t mind, do you?” Rayne soothed, kissing his neck and feeling the rapid eager pulse just beneath the skin. “I’m clean, Jack. It’s okay, really.”

“I… uhhhhhh… I don’t mind, Jay. I like it. I never had a guy go in me bare before though,” Jack panted. “It feels fuckin’ great. I wanna feel your cum up my arse.”

Rayne pushed himself balls deep inside the blond then pulled back until just his head was inside. He did this a couple of times, feeling Jack whimper and writhe under him as he teased the kid. Then he began to thrust hard, shoving Jack against the wall with the force of his deceptively slender body. They were well matched for height, which he guessed Jack must have calculated when he was cruising for a mate. The blond was nice and tight around him although it did not take very long for Rayne’s thrusting cock to open him up and get him hot, wet and slippery inside.

“Ahhhh… yeah!” Rayne groaned as he leaned into the blond and pounded his arsehole fast and deep. The firm muscles of Jack’s rectum pulled and sucked on him until he was ready to burst again. “You are so fuckin’ hot, Jacky boy. That is amazing.”

“Uhhh… don’t stop!” Jack whimpered. “Man! That feels so fuckin’ good!”

“I’d like to get a little kinky, if you don’t mind. I bite,” Rayne panted in his ear.

“Oh fuck, yeah… anything!” the boy gasped as his mate surged deeper. “Whatever you fuckin’ want. I am this close!”

He held up his smallest finger. Rayne’s arms snaked about him tightly and he buried his face in the warm crook of Jack’s neck and shoulder, sinking his extended fangs deep. He bucked fiercely into the blond, shutting out his emotions, just riding the tide of sexual pleasure and sinking into the coppery heat of his blood. He fed long and hard and the first shut off point did not come until he felt Jack shudder with the force of his own orgasm and sink to his knees. Rayne went down with him, coming hard into the boy as he held Jack close, kissing and licking his slender neck.

“Oh man! What did you do? I never felt like that with a guy?” Jack groaned huskily.

“You’ll be okay,” Rayne promised him, his heart still pounding. He had not taken so much from a feeder in ages and he was buzzing from it, feeling invincible. Usually he left them able to fend for themselves, but he worried that Jack would not even make it back up to the street.

Rayne moved to his feet and fastened his pants then made the boy decent. Jack was sprawled at his feet, still huffing rapidly. His face was very pale. Rayne touched him and fretted again that he was too cold. Rayne could feel the low level buzz in his veins that told him the boy had been speeding. The combination of amphetamines and blood loss was not a good one.

“Do you live locally?” he asked, coming to a crouch by the lad’s side.

“Ardwick,” Jack said faintly.

“Is there someone at home right now?” The vampire slapped his face gently to keep him focused.

“Uhh… maybe my mum… dunno,” Jack slurred.

“Crap!” Rayne slid his arms under Jack’s shoulders and eased him to his feet. It took him a little while to walk the boy back up to the street. And then there was no sign of a taxi anywhere.

Automatically he headed back towards the apartment. Rayne had not planned to go there so soon but he could not take Jack back to the hotel and he would not abandon him on the street in this state. It was less than a quarter of a mile to his old home.

 

Rayne swallowed his reservations and whispered. “Come on. Let me take you somewhere you can rest and get better.”

The entry code for the apartment came back to him just as he had hoped it would as he set his fingers on the keypad. Rayne practically had to carry the blond boy up the stairs to his front door but Jack was barely any weight at all and he got the lad inside without being overseen. Once they were in, Rayne took him upstairs and laid him on the bed. The room had been left as it was when he last used it, the dark silk of the sheets was drawn back and rumpled, and ever so slightly dusty. Rayne checked that the power was still on then turned on the bathroom light and ran a hot bath. He managed to get Jack undressed and into the hot water then called out on his mobile for a takeaway.

Once the kid was warm and Rayne had coaxed food into him, he put Jack back to bed and wrapped the duvet around him, leaving his exhausted guest to sleep it off. Feeling numb, Rayne went back down to the lounge and curled up on the supple suede cushions of the long sofa. He chewed on the large knuckle at the base of his thumb, lost in thought, but he did not succumb to sleep. It would not do to have Jack wake in the night and come looking for him only to find him ‘dead’ on the settee.

Rayne spent the night in darkness, alone on the couch. He was not ready to sleep upstairs, not yet. And certainly not with another man. The darkness was full of ghosts, full of memories, and he was unable to shut them out. He rolled onto his back and closed his eyes but whenever he did that he could feel Kevan’s hands on his body, sliding under his clothes; Kev’s hungry mouth on his neck and those strong fingers stripping him, groping him, parting his legs…

With a little gasp of anguish he pushed himself to his feet again, pacing the room restlessly, refusing to sleep.

“Leave me alone,” he whispered disconsolately. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! But please… please let me be!”

Finally, he reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, retrieving the little velvet bag and the ring it contained. He tipped it out into his hand again and slid it onto his finger. Like a charm it stilled the unquiet spirits in his head. Pressing the third finger of his left hand to his lips, Rayne returned to the sofa and curled up there once more.

He did not sleep but his thoughts were more restful and the memories that came to him were not of blood and vengeance but softer and more consoling. He contented himself with the recollection of strong arms around his shoulders and warm, steady breath on the nape of his neck. More than once he considered calling Xavier. He needed to hear a fond, familiar voice and more than that he needed to be in a comforting embrace. Rayne was used to feeling lonely, the desolation had been a part of him for most of his life, but this was like a nightmare. The need that kept driving him was eating his spirit. For a little while that night he understood why people believed vampires to be soul-less. In order to survive it was necessary to shut out any sense of humanity. But he still craved it. Without it, what kind of a creature would he become?

He already knew the answer to that question. Without it he was a cold, blind, ruthless killer. Stripped of his humanity he could go back up those stairs like a silent ghost and drain the sleeping boy in his bed until he was little more than a breathless husk. He could go out onto those teeming streets peopled with mindless hedonists and rip out their throats until the police sent a SWAT team over to pump bullets into him and blow him to oblivion.

Miserably he drew his knees up to his chest and hugged them there staring into the darkness. He was the darkness made corporeal, the worst of nightmares in a human form. And here he waited, back in the place that forced him to confront it more than almost any other. Time and time again he reached for his phone and turned it over in his hands, playing up and down over Xavier’s number. So easy; it would be so easy to just call and listen to his sleepy voice; to tell Xav how precious he had been, one last time.

And then he would do it. He would go out there and show them what a monster he could really be.

Rayne turned off his mobile and threw it across the room, then he wrapped his head in his arms and wept silently until daylight began to seep like blood into the room.

Jack was mildly embarrassed in the morning, bereft of the confidence the speed had given him, but Rayne played it cool. He made coffee and called the kid a cab to take him home. As they were waiting, Jack grinned shyly and whispered; “I like the toys in your bedside cabinet, Jay. Maybe we can come back here again some time and you can tie me up and use them on me, huh?”

Rayne studied him for a moment. Once upon a time he would have capitalised on a remark like that but today he was too sorrowful and far too tired.

“I don’t think so, sweetheart,” he said gravely. “Last night was enough. Take care, Jack.”

When the boy was finally gone, he pulled off the bedclothes then stripped himself and took a long, hot shower. The scalding water focussed his thoughts as always and he shut out everything unnecessary as it drilled down on his head and simmered through his lank hair, enfolding his body in liquid heat.

Then he set about the preparations he had come here to make.

For most of the morning he was on the phone to various estate agents, arranging for the valuation of his property and the clearing of his personal effects. Some of this he sorted out himself during the remainder of the morning. There were things here that he did not want to leave to the hands of outsiders.

The restraints and sex toys he packed into the lid of the small case he had brought with him. Each one conjured a memory and he was not ready to explore those memories yet.

Rayne opened the sliding glass door of the wardrobe next and flicked through the clothing within. Most of it could go. He had been a peacock in his younger days but now he tended to stick to a certain look and style. Sleek and simple, suited his spare frame. The little black silk dress that Kevan had bought him when they first began to play more exotic games still hung in its wrapper and he took it out and laid it on the bed.

Over the next hour or so he emptied the drawers and the wardrobe and divided the contents into two piles, a small ‘keepers’ pile and a much larger ‘charitable’ heap. There was a third, brief selection on the bed but he packed the larger mound of items into carrier bags and put them aside and packed the ‘keepers’ in his case too before addressing those. Of the pile that remained, most of the things were undergarments and he had neither the desire to keep them nor the wish that they should fall into the hands of others. In the end he took them down to the basement where the caretaker had a small incinerator and he fed them, piece by piece into the flames; each item conjuring up a separate memory, one that would never leave him. He lingered until he could be sure that everything was fully committed to the fire and then he turned away, returning to the apartment with crimson tears glazing his eyes.

XAVIER ALONE

As Xavier went through his morning routine he realised that it had been a month since their arrival by train in London. Rayne had left for Manchester in the small hours this morning and now Xavier found himself… bored. Dominic had things to do, Rayne was heading north, and Xavier didn’t really know anyone here. He and Rayne had spent most of the time since they got to London wrapped up in each other and hadn’t even gone out much, which Xav did not regret in the least, but now it felt a little odd to be alone, even for just a few hours. Maybe it was knowing that Ray wouldn’t be back by lunchtime that made it feel different to the other days when he’d just popped out for ciggies or a bite to drink.

Still, life had to be lived, and this morning Xavier had decided he’d had enough of cold cereal for breakfast. By the time he was dressed he was picturing bacon and eggs. Of course, if he wanted them edible they weren’t going to be cooked by him! 

With nothing more than breakfast in mind he headed out the front door, locking up behind him. He got no further though before he spotted a hunched figure on the top step, dressed almost the same as he’d been the first time Xav had seen him.

The kid looked, if possible, even thinner and scruffier than he had on the day of Xavier’s arrival in London. There was a tiredness in his eyes and dark circles around them like Rayne sometimes got when he was hungry or hurting. Though his hair was obviously dyed, a strip of some tawny shade showing through now close to his scalp, he seemed to have made a conscious effort to actually look a little bit like the singer. The slight upward tilt of his nose was almost identical and the way his full, colourless lips hovered between a smile and a sneer was very self-consciously Rayne.

His dark hood was pulled up over the back of his head and unruly hair poked out around his face like the mane of a small, starved, emo lion. It was a cool morning and he was already shivering a little as he pulled on a roll-up between the thin white fingers protruding from his cut-off gloves.

“Didn’t Rayne chase you off once already?” Xavier asked mildly.

“I need to talk to ‘im,” the boy said, rising at once when Xavier turned to face him. “It’s important.”

Xavier’s eyes settled on him, though it was hard to tell if his expression was sympathetic or just resigned. “You’re not supposed to be here, you know.”

“It’s important!” the boy repeated stubbornly.

Xavier shook his head once. “He’s gone. He had some business to take care of.”

“When will he be back?” The boy was nothing if not persistent. He shivered again though, shifting from one sneakered foot to the other as if both gave him pain. From the look of his battered Converse hi-tops there was not much sole left in either of them. He stared at Xavier with big, unblinking eyes, defensive and fascinated, like a little fox that had found something inexplicable waiting in the mouth of its den.

Xavier cocked his head slightly, considering the boy in front of him just as curiously.

“I’m not sure. Could be awhile,” he finally answered. “You could tell me what it is, and I might be able to get a message to him,” he offered, curious to see what the kid thought was so important, or what he figured Rayne would think was important.

The boy continued to study him with that wary expression on his face. His nose twitched as if he was scenting out the truth but then he just sat back down on the steps and wrapped his arms around his skinny knees. “I’ll wait for him.”

“Guess it’s not that important then,” Xav said and turned to head down to the street.

“What would you know?” the kid muttered under his breath, sinking his chin onto his folded arms and shivering again.

Xavier stopped and turned slowly, one eyebrow arched almost delicately. He bent from the waist so that he could look the boy in the eye. Holding one hand up in front of the scruffy kid he ticked off a count, touching his first three fingers to his thumb on each point.

“I know where he is. I know how to get him a message. And I know bullshit when I see it!” Xav said, and then straightened. “If it was really something worthwhile, and if you were smart, you’d use me to get a message to him. He’s gone, probably won’t be back for a week, maybe two. And I’m sick of being polite to a brat. If you’re here when I get back I’m calling the cops and I’ll have them move your ass.”

“Don’t…” It was a half-strangled noise in his throat but the look on the boy’s face said it was an effort to make the plea. “Don’t call the bizzies. I know hethreatened it but he wouldn’t call them, not really. He knows it’d get me in a lot of trouble. Will he really be gone for that long?”

The look in his hazel eyes was suddenly lost and a bit desperate.

Xavier studied him carefully, not immune to that desperation. He knew what it was to be afraid of the cops too, and he hadn’t really meant the threat either. Of course, the kid didn’t need to know that.

“Tell me what’s so important and maybe I won’t call them,” Xavier said.

The emo kid bristled for a few seconds but he was too tired and cold for such a battle and probably hungry too. Shoulders slumped as he tugged his hood forward over his face but he muttered; “Need him to talk to my grandad again. I need some money, they won’t let me have any more. They said I have to go home if I want it. But this is my home. I just need what’s mine.”

This, understandably, didn’t make any sense to Xavier. Why would Rayne talk to this kid’s grandfather? And why would the kid think he would? Unless he was just nuts… but Xavier didn’t think so. Rather than satisfy his curiosity the answer brought up more questions.

“All right…I’ll ask him for you,” Xav said cautiously, then on a whim added, “…if you come to breakfast with me.”

The kid just stared at him and Xavier gave a little shrug. “I don’t like to eat alone. Come on, I’ll buy.” The boy didn’t move and Xavier sighed, turning his back again. “Or you can sit there freezing your ass off and starve. Like I fuckin’ care!”

The boy on the doorstep gave this all of fifteen seconds thought. Xavier was just wandering back towards Portobello Road when he bounced to his feet like Tigger and ran after him, catching up before the turn. He held himself very straight in an attempt to match Xav for height (which just about failed) then glanced sidelong at him almost shyly, muttering; “Don’t suppose I can come in and have a shower or something after, can I?”

“Maybe,” Xavier murmured, deliberately not sniffing in the kid’s direction. “What’s your name?”

There was a moment’s hesitation and then, a little shyly, he answered; “Clint. Don’t laugh, it was my mum’s idea. She called me Clinton James, I’m not named after Clint Eastwood!”

“I’m not laughing,” Xav said, although he was smiling a little at the way he answered. “My name’s Xavier. How old are you, Clint?”

“Seventeen,” the boy flashed back immediately, a defensive look in his tawny eyes.

Xav snorted softly. “Don’t fuckin’ lie to me, okay? I peg you at thirteen maybe, fourteen tops.”

Clint bristled a bit at this but reluctantly conceded; “I’ll be sixteen soon!”

Xav nodded, that was more like the truth. Clinton had been living on the street for a while too, Xav gauged by the look of him, but at least he’d had someone to call for money. Seemed grandad’s wallet had dried up though. Xav wondered why. It could be a lot of things. Maybe whatever family member had been playing the sucker had finally had enough of funding his habit. Xavier didn’t see any obvious signs though. The kid was tired and dark eyed, but he wasn’t twitchy, itchy, and bitchy. Well, not beyond normal bitchy anyway and Xav thought that was mostly self-preservative bitchiness. Still, Xavier knew full well that looks could be very deceiving.

He wanted to ask why Clint didn’t just go home but he kept his mouth shut. Sometimes home really was worse than the street. It wasn’t his business, and besides any suggestion like that would just make Clint go on the defensive again. He also didn’t ask how come Grandad wasn’t coughing up cash any more. If he wasn’t cutting the kid off because of drugs he figured it was because he was trying to bribe him to come home. He did however have one question.

“How come you want Rayne to ask your grandad about the money?”

Clint looked at him with a knowing smile. “Get me breakfast, and I’ll tell you. I should have figured he wouldn’t talk to you about it.”

Xavier narrowed his eyes suspiciously, thinking maybe the kid was just playing some kind of game, being all mysterious because he wanted attention. He managed to keep his tongue still only because Clint maybe had a point, Rayne did make habit of not telling him things, that was for sure. Since he’d already offered to buy him breakfast anyway it wouldn’t hurt to wait until they were settled to hear what Clint had to say.

“Okay,” he conceded, with a shrug and took Clint to his favourite cafe. They had a little seated area out the front where customers could sit in the watery autumn sunshine, though when they got there Clint preferred to stay indoors, so Xav collared a double table by the window where they could at least see the daylight.

“What are you having?” the genial Irish waitress asked and Clint looked a question at Xavier who just waved at the menu.

“Whatever you want.”

In the end Clint ordered most of the breakfast menu; sausages, bacon, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, baked beans, black pudding, fried bread (extra slices) and three poached eggs. Even Xavier, who could eat for his country, blinked at the size of the plate. Clint beamed his thanks at the girl who brought it to their table and emptied it in under three minutes. He ate like he feared someone would steal the food from under his nose and mopped it up with the extra slices of buttered bread. He knocked back the mug of milky tea and grinned at Xavier enthusiastically.

“You’re right, it’s fantastic here. Can I have another poached egg? And some more sausages? And that fried bread was ace, just nice and crispy.”

“As long as you don’t puke or expect me to carry you outta here you can have whatever you want,” Xavier said airily, and then added; “Except beans! I don’t know what is up with putting beans all over a perfectly good breakfast. That’s just… wrong!” His expression clearly said he thought it was disgusting. He kept his opinion about the milky tea to himself though. Ugh!

The waitress came again and took Clint’s order and Xav got a refill on his coffee. “While we’re waiting on your seconds, you wanna answer my question now?”

The boy stretched like a well-fed cat and said; “You sure you really wanna know?”

Xavier narrowed a look on him that could have refried his beans.

“Okay… you asked,” Clint licked his lips and leaned across the table. “I’ve got a secret that puts me closer to him than you’ll ever be.”

“Look, don’t try and play cute.” Xav said, a bit of a sharper edge cutting into his voice. “Just spit it out.” He was starting to lose patience.

Clint looked taken aback, very briefly, as if he hadn’t expected Xavier to be quite so sharp with him. He retreated behind his mug for a moment then when he saw that the cute approach seriously wasn’t going to do him any favours, he put it down.

“Xavier, you’re a nice bloke. I didn’t come here to piss you off,” he said carefully. “You wanna know what you’re getting into though. He’s used to getting what he wants. But I know what I’m worth, all right? And I think you do too, so don’t get mad at me when I tell you this.”

“Just fucking tell me, okay. I’m getting very tired of all this,” Xav warned him, still conscious of a little bubble of anxiety that was welling up inside him as Clint fixed him with those solemn, unblinking eyes.

“You want it,” Clint muttered, holding out his hands helplessly. “Okay, Xavier. He’s my dad. Is that straight enough for you? He fucked my mum, she had me, he’s my daddy. Cool?”

Xavier looked at the none-too-clean boy across from him and his mind automatically kicked the words back at him and told him the kid he was lying. Hehad to be lying. Rayne wouldn’t let his own son live on the street. Would he? If Clint was really his kid Rayne would have told him. He would have told him something like that! Wouldn’t he?

He stared hard at the boy and he actually felt the word ‘liar’ form on his tongue but it didn’t quite make it out of his mouth. He saw now what he’d been seeing all along but hadn’t put together. Clint’s eyes weren’t the vivid green of Rayne’s but they were the same shape, and placed in a face that had the same fine bone structure. His nose had the same jaunty tilt at the tip and his mouth had that cherubic softness that could twist into a slightly mocking, not-quite-smile at the drop of an ‘h’. His colouring was different, and his face was a tad longer and leaner, but the resemblance was so close that Xavier couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it before, and now that he had he couldn’t un-see it.

 

The anger rose up in him so swift and hot it was nearly choking him, and he wasn’t even sure what he was so angry about, but he knew he had to leave.Now! He pulled his wallet out and dropped the money to pay for the meal on the table, standing as he did so.

“I’ve got to go,” he muttered through clenched teeth.

Whatever Clint had been expecting it clearly wasn’t that for he jumped to his feet at once and tried to catch Xavier’s hand as he put the money down.

“Wait… don’t go. You believe me, don’t you? I can tell. I can see it on your face, you believe me. Please don’t go, I really need to talk to him. It’s not just about money.”

“Let go of me,” Xav warned, shaking him off fiercely. “I don’t owe you anything. I don’t care who you are.”

He got as far as the sidewalk outside the cafe before Clint caught up with him. He didn’t try to grab him this time, maybe sensing that it wouldn’t be well received but he got in the way at every opportunity.

“Xavier, listen to me. You know there’s something weird about him, you’ve been living in his fucking house. You know that he’s not…” He bit down on his lips and shook his head. When Xavier tried to push past him he dodged in front again and held his hands up, barring the way. “He isn’t like us, Xavier.”

Xavier glared at him, grabbing his shoulders and physically moving him to one side.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said each word very clearly. He had to concentrate hard now because anxiety was rolling off the kid in waves and Xavier was soaking it up like a sponge. If he didn’t get away from him it felt like he was going to have a panic attack right there on the sidewalk.

He started walking again and Clint called after him, his tone gone from pleading to sneering.

“That’s fuckin’ right. Force me to tell you and then get pissed off at me. I should have fuckin’ known you couldn’t handle it!”

Xavier stopped, feeling his face flush hot with barely contained anger. Yeah, that was exactly what he’d done too, wasn’t it? He wasn’t really angry at Clint though, it wasn’t his fault. He counted down from five and heaved a sigh, then half-turned back, shaking his head.

“I’m not pissed at you,” he said, then paused and sighed again, wiping a hand over his eyes and wondering if he’d lost his mind, but thinking that if he stormed off now he’d probably never get the answers he wanted. “You still want to come have a shower?”

Clint caught back up to him, although now he was wary again. He opened his mouth to say something but Xavier held up his hand. “Don’t say anything. Just…give me a few minutes until we get back, then we can talk.”

He needed the time, less to cool down than to focus. He hadn’t had so many problems with picking up too much on people’s emotional crap since Rayne had done… whatever it was he’d done to him at Aldo’s. Of course, Rayne hadn’t left his side until now either. He needed to get a handle on all this shit that was bombarding him at the moment or he really was going to go crazy.

By the time they got back to the house Xav’s hands were shaking as he opened the door with his key, letting Clint follow him inside. He closed the door again and locked it, leaning there for a moment and feeling the physical barrier help shut out the background noise a bit and dampen down his empathy with every bastard on the street. Taking a deep breath and letting it out he beckoning to Clint and waved towards the hall where the bathroom was.

“Go have a shower first, then we’ll talk. Don’t break anything, and don’t steal anything. Got it?”

“I’m skint, not desperate,” Clint said airily. “Besides, I’ve been here before.”

And he strode down the corridor to the bathroom and slammed the door. Moments later Xavier heard the water running and off-key singing echoing down the passageway. He just shook his head and moved wearily into the lounge. Xav was not the best at handling kids. He had no patience and although he was not so old that he couldn’t relate, he had grown up too fast and too hard to put up with much shit.

He sat down in the centre of the futon and folded his legs into the lotus position. Dominic had been admonishing him for weeks now to meditate and do the exercises he’d shown him, but Xav was sporadic at best. Now he wished he’d done what Dom had told him. Better late than never he supposed.

He listened to the shower, the tiny little pings and ticks of the house, the low hum of traffic outside. He started to shut the little noises out one at a time, relaxing and breathing as Dominic had taught him, until the world went away and he was calmer inside.

Clint was in the bathroom for an indecent length of time. Rayne could soak for an age but the boy had to have been in there for nearly an hour. Xavier resisted the urge to find out what he was up to. There was virtually nothing he could take and no way out except for the small, semi-circular ventilation window in the wall. It was just a matter of waiting him out.

When he finally emerged into the kitchen he was swathed in towels like a Bedouin chieftain. His pale skin had a bit of a rosy blush to it from the hot water but his eyes were still tired.

“Can I stick my stuff through the wash?” he asked, rather less pushily. “I know where everything is. I’ll fuck off as soon as it’s dry, yeah?”

Xavier waved a resigned hand. “Go ahead.”

He listened to the boy puttering with the washer and Clint returned a short while later looking wary, perhaps conscious of the fact that he was alone in the house with a stranger, and wearing nothing but a pair of bath towels. Xav was more relaxed now and he’d had time to think about things. His initial reaction had been based on Rayne letting him stumble into something blindly, again. It wasn’t right to take it out on Clint though.

“I’m sorry I got so pissed. It wasn’t directed at you,” Xav explained as the boy walked back into the lounge.

“I figured.” Clint flopped down on the edge of the futon and sank back on it with a little huff of breath. “I’m kind of used to it by now. He doesn’t mean to be a fuck-up but I guess he’s kind of embarrassed about it. I mean, it’s not the kind of thing you tell someone you want to impress into bed, I guess. ‘Hey, and this is my kid, I knocked his mum up about sixteen years back and had to pay her family off and guess what, he still comes round here hassling me about it!‘”

The boy shoved a hand into the towel around his wet hair and scratched his head restlessly. He added, incuriously; “You’re American?”

“Yeah,” Xavier answered. “From California.”

“Far out,” Clint remarked with a little yawn. He turned onto his side and curled up, hugging himself, still bundled in the damp towels. “He’s deffo going more for guys than girls now, yeah? Can’t make his mind up. Fuck, I’m shattered Xavier. Dunno when I last slept properly. Some fuck’s always waking you up when you’re sleeping rough. Ball ache! You seem cool though, better than that tall, skinny fuck that’s always yapping at me, he loves giving me grief that one.”

Xav had no doubt the ‘tall, skinny fuck’ Clint meant was Matty Greening. He felt a touch of solidarity despite his reservations.

“Don’t feel bad, you’re not the only one he likes to give shit to. Natural born talent I think!” Xavier said blandly, looking at Clint speculatively now. “So let me get this straight. Rayne’s still paying your family for your upkeep, but you’d rather be in the gutter here than with them?” Xav shook his head and muttered, “That’s gotta piss him off.” Conversely though it made Xavier feel better that Rayne hadn’t totally abandoned the kid. He was still paying for him. It wasn’t his fault if the kid wouldn’t stay where the cash was.

“Rayne can’t make them give you the money, you know. If he tried, the court’s more likely to just make you go home.” He tilted his head slightly. “But you know that, right? So what did you really come after him for?”

“He put money in a trust for me but I can’t get at it legally ’til I’m 18,” Clint mumbled sleepily. “Record company pays my Grandad maintenance but my gran and gramps moved to fuckin’ Devon about 3 years ago, took me with ’em. I don’t like it down there though, fuck all ever happens. I miss my mates. Rather be here, even sleeping rough.”

He rolled onto his back and tugged the towels closer around him as he turned his head to look at Xavier curiously. “Just lately I feel like I need to be here, I can’t explain it’s like an itch, I just need to scratch it. I feel better when I’m here, near him. It’s been a ball-ache having him away. He’s been gone so much lately, y’know. But even when he’s being a cunt, it feels better in my head when I know where he is.” He hesitated almost shyly then asked; “Xavier, has he ever…? Shit… this is a really fucked up question, but did he ever try and bite you?”

“Why would you ask that?” Xavier said cautiously.

Those large hazel eyes looked back at him unblinkingly.

“You know why,” Clint finally said, reading more into his silence than his words.

Xavier debated privately with himself. Odds were pretty good the kid wasn’t just asking on a hunch. He’d seen something, or maybe he felt something. If he really was Rayne’s son, and Xav already wasn’t doubting that, maybe there was some kind of bond there, like he had with Rayne. What would that be like, to feel so oddly connected to someone and not know why? But that was quite a leap to go from feeling some odd connection to thinking his dad was a vampire. It could have been Clint had followed Ray one night and saw him with some feeder…Xav couldn’t say for sure and he couldn’t exactly ask without giving away anything. If that had happened he guessed that had to have freaked the kid out a bit.

Xavier let out a small sigh. “Clint…you can’t talk to anyone about this. They would just think you’re nuts anyway, right? So…so let it be. Okay?”

“So he has tried something with you? I’m not imagining it?” Clint was suddenly more wide-awake. He pushed himself up, dislodging the towel wrapped loosely around his damp hair but ignoring it. “There is something very, very weird going on, Xavier. I just wanna know what it is. He doesn’t feel like other people. At first I thought it was just because I knew he was my dad, but now I’m not so sure. That skinny one, the one with the gob on him, he feels the same. It’s like my skin tries to crawl off my bones when he’s around me. And I know I’m not related tohim. At least… I ‘ope to Christ I’m not!”

Xavier felt like he was being backed into a corner. He didn’t know what he should tell Clint. The kid knew something was up, he was describing exactly how Xav felt when there was a vampire around, and Xav also knew how it felt when no one would tell him what was going on… yet, he also had other concerns. Like, the more Clint knew the more bother he could be, and Rayne probably wouldn’t thank him for discussing this with his kid since it was obvious he hadn’t told him anything. On the other hand, if he said nothing Clint might just get himself in trouble trying to figure things out on his own. He could get seriously hurt if he started asking questions like that to the wrong people.

He didn’t owe this kid a damn thing, but he was not so hard hearted that he could just turf him out now and let him wander, and maybe go seeking out some other toothy fucker that gave him that same strange feeling he was picking up off of Rayne and Matty.

Xavier could vividly imagine what a vamp like Elian Iannopolous would do with a tender young boy like Clint poking around, asking to see his fangs.

“Fuck…” Xav hissed under his breath, running an agitated hand through his hair. “You’re going to get in trouble with this… you’re going to get me in trouble with this!” he grumbled, and then capitulated.

“They’re…different, you’re not wrong,” he began slowly, and then hurriedly added, “but if you go telling anyone else they’ll laugh at you or put you in a nut house, so just keep it to yourself, all right?” He looked Clint straight in the eye, leaning a little closer, his eyes very serious now. “And, Clint, if you ever get that feeling around someone else… you know, that little itch inside like you get when one of them is close…” Xavier licked his lips nervously. “Play it cool, like you didn’t notice anything, and then get the fuck away from them as fast as you can. You hearin’ me? It ain’t no fucking game. Ending up dead would be the least of your worries.”

Xavier’s eyes were haunted enough that Clint knew he wasn’t just trying to scare him. Then Xavier suddenly looked away and wrapped his arms around himself like he was cold.

Clint hesitated, caught between reaching out towards him and letting him be. He decided it would probably be best not to tell Xavier that he got a kind of weird feeling around him too, but not in the same way. His dad’s blond boyfriend could be a little spiky but he was a nice enough bloke, in so far as Clint could tell. Not many groupies would have bought him breakfast or let him hang out like this, or even told him half of what Xavier had hinted at. That scored him some brownie points in Clint’s book.

“Are you okay?” the lad asked at last. “You don’t look too good. Can I get you anything?”

Xavier shook his head.

“No, I’m fine,” he answered, and looked at Clint thoughtfully. “Listen, I really don’t know when Rayne is coming back. It could be as long as I said or sooner. I know I said I’d call him for you but… well, he’s got a lot on his mind right now, and probably wouldn’t be real receptive to making calls or anything anyway. If I give you some cash to carry you through can you just wait until he gets back?”

“I s’pose,” Clint said with a little shrug.

“All right. You can get some sleep if you want to. You look like you could use it,” Xavier said, sliding off the end of the futon.

The boy eyed him suspiciously for a moment and Xavier asked; “What?”

“Are you gonna slip me your dick while I’m asleep?” Clint wanted to know.

“What sort of fuckin’ question is that?” Xav’s eyes widened with disbelief. “And if I was, would I tell you about it first?”

Clint shrugged again. “Guess not.”

Xavier shook his head incredulously and went off to the bedroom. After a couple minutes he returned with a light blanket and pillow and dropped them next to Clint, then wandered off again to go play with the laptop until his mood improved.

Xavier checked in on Clint a few times over the next couple of hours but he seemed fine and slept pretty much the whole day away. He finally woke in the evening and Xav took him out to dinner because he was hungry by then too. After that it just didn’t seem right to toss him back out, so Xav let him sleep on the futon again. In the morning it seemed even weirder to ask Clint to leave, knowing he was Rayne’s kid, and knowing he didn’t have anywhere to go. So Xav let him stay, and a hesitant friendship began to develop.

The kid seemed to have endless questions about him, his life, what he did, where he’d lived. It annoyed the shit out of Xav at first, but he soon realised his curiosity was driven at least partly by a desire for attention. He just wanted someone to talk to, and since Xavier didn’t have anyone else to hang out with anyway he didn’t mind so much, although he did try and edit a lot of what he told him.

Clint seemed happy to get his feet under the table. He persuaded Xavier to touch up his roots for him, then he disappeared for a few hours and returned in the afternoon with a bag of weather-beaten clothes which he also took the liberty of putting through Rayne’s washing machine and tumble-dryer. He was not beyond chancing his arm either, and Xav came out of the bathroom later that same evening to find him no longer engrossed in the computer game he had been playing a couple of minutes ago. He tracked the youngster to the bedroom where Clint was investigating the contents of his father’s wardrobe.

“He ain’t ‘alf got some fancy gear, ‘as he?” he laughed at Xavier’s slightly impatient expression. “You reckon this would suit me?”

He held up a sheer, sleeveless black top with a slashed neck and little silver safety pins hanging from it, preening in front of the mirror inside the wardrobe door.

“No,” Xavier said, taking it out of his hands. “Not unless you’re on a stage, or working a corner,” he added as he put it back on its hanger and returned it to where it belonged.

“You’re no fun, you know,” Clint told him seriously. Then he grinned and blew Xav a kiss.

In the muted light of the bedroom and with his hair newly dyed, for a moment he looked so like Rayne that it made Xavier’s heart jump.

“It’s self-preservation. Rayne is fussy about his stuff,” Xavier said. “Which you shouldn’t be snooping through!” he added, thinking about a couple of drawers of sex toys in particular that he didn’t want to think about Clint looking into. And where were those pictures of him? After their argument Rayne had retrieved the ones he thrown in the trash bin and scooped up the rest and Xav hadn’t seen them since. He turned and made a little shooing gesture as he walked toward the door since Clint was blocking the doorway now.

“Yes mum,” Clint grinned at him. “Bet he’d do his nut if he knew you’d been letting me live here, rent free while he was off doing his thing. Serves him right for not ringing though, yeah?” before Xavier had time to comment on that last remark, or even feel stung by it, Clint was rambling on again. “Tell you what, you should come and see where I hang out usually. I’ll give you a proper tour, city of London and all that. Introduce you to some of the lads I mix with. Just to say thanks for helping me out. Would that be cool?”

It was on the tip of Xavier’s tongue to tell him no. He could not really foresee anything but trouble if he got introduced around to Clint’s friends. However, he didn’t think the casual invitation was quite as casual as Clint made it seem. He supposed there weren’t too many people that were nice to Clint, and this was sort of a way for the kid to say thanks. Besides, what else did he have to do?

“Sure.” Xav said with a little shrug.

“Cool!” Clint beamed at him. “We’ll do it tomorrow, yeah?”

He bounced back into the lounge and settled in front of his dad’s laptop again, queuing up another game.

The next morning dawned bright and clear, one of those rare autumn days when it was both sunny and not too cold. Even the city looked quite bright and pleased with itself in the sunshine and Xav took Clint to their regular café for breakfast before they set off on their travels. The boy even consented to sit outside with him, even though he muttered under his breath that it was a poncey thing to do in England.

“Only tourists and students sit out on the pavement,” he said in answer to Xavier’s quizzical look. “Fuckin mental, innit, when you’re paying in your cover charge for a roof over your head and central heating.”

When they had eaten and emptied the large coffee percolator (Clint had acquired a taste for coffee under Xavier’s tutelage but still couldn’t be coaxed to drink orange juice!) the boy led him off towards Kilburn where he had grown up. On his usual wanderings Xavier had somehow always gravitated down towards the river but Clint led him away from the Thames, walking for about a mile and a half, into a land fringed with tower-blocks and three or four storey, balconied courtyards that were always loud with chatter or the yelps of children. The walls of shops and garages were bright with zig-zags of graffiti here and more litter tumbled through the streets than in the area he was beginning to think of, just a little bit, as home.

He could see it in the people too, they were more casually dressed on the whole. Any suits he spotted generally belonged to harassed looking office workers and were cheaper and more crumpled than the business attire of the city bankers. The general uniform of worn denims and tee shirts or hoodies and track bottoms was the norm here. Xav was slightly conscious of being a bit over-dressed.

 

“He used to live here, you know,” Clint told him conversationally as they wandered up Kilburn High Road and Xavier took in the melting pot of colours and cultures that clashed on every street corner.

There were take-aways and delis of every persuasion, from every corner of the world. Mouthwatering aromas filled his nostrils at every turn. Indian haberdasheries sold bright swathes of coloured and hand embroidered silk. There were cabinet makers from Eastern Europe and a plumber and bathroom fitter on one corner whose name had far too many ‘z’s and ‘j’s and far too few vowels in it for Xavier to decipher.

“Rayne, you mean?” Xavier asked, slightly surprised by this. He had thought that his lover lived by the sea before coming to London.

“He lived in a squat just up the road,” Clint said, with the assurance of a tour guide. “My mum told me about it. They were always squatting places, none of them ‘ad proper jobs so they just moved into a place and kind of took over ’til somebody caught on and they got kicked out.”

That raised another question that had been bugging him since Clint kind of moved in. He ventured to ask it now.

“Where’s your Mom now? You’ve said a lot about your grandparents but why isn’t she looking out for you?”

Clint looked at him with that slightly shut down gaze that he knew well because he’d seen it on Rayne’s face so many times.

“She died,” the boy said at last and turned the conversation back to the various flats that Rayne had allegedly and illegally inhabited along the High Road.

Xavier looked shocked. He wanted to ask more but he was also conscious that this might lead to questions in turn about his own mother and as he considered his reluctance to get drawn on that he realised that maybe he had more in common with Clint than he’d thought. He was also quite shocked by the boy’s allegations though; not so much that Rayne would do something as illicit as breaking and entering but that he hadn’t been thrown in jail for it. Which led to a short discussion about the finer differences of squatting.

“Where I come from you wouldn’t dare try that without a lease first. You don’t pay the rent they get the court to come pry you out after a while. But if you just moved into some empty place, that’s called breaking an’ entering and will land you some jail time,” Xav said. “Which is partly why there’s so many large homeless populations across the country, I guess.”

Clint scoffed at that.

“It depends who owns the place, over here,” he said, with a little shrug. “Some of them are right bastards and they might make a case of it if they caught you. Some never come near a place though. There’s some nice, big old buildings that never get looked at. Companies buy ’em and they’re meant to develop ’em but they run out of money so the buildings just sit empty. Seems a shame not to make use of ’em when there’s kids sleeping rough, yeah? If the bizzies turn up you just grab as much of your stuff as possible and leg it out the back window!” He grinned at Xavier. “C’mon, I’ll show you what I mean.”

A little way further up the main road, he turned off into an alleyway behind a tall, weary looking art deco building with a high white turreted frontage that towered over the rest of the block. It looked like someone had picked it up from a street in New York and plonked it down here without checking that it would fit. Clint led Xavier through a couple of battered gateways into a long goods yard that backed onto the rear courtyards of a terraced row of buildings behind the main road. This area was both a little more grubby, and in some ways more colourful, almost garishly so. Out of the corner of his eye Xav picked up that their progress was not unobserved. Some of the seemingly empty buildings were not so empty. It occurred to Xav to ask, “You stay ’round here sometimes?”

“It’s a bit of a drop-in centre,” Clint said casually. “The old flicks got bought by some bunch of God-Botherers and they’re meant to be turning it into a church but they ‘aven’t done nothin’ to it for ages. We got in through the back where the builders’d been working. It’s far out inside, Xav.”

There were a few young blacks and a scrawny white youth in trainers and caps playing with a basketball in the yard behind the old cinema and they paused to check out the newcomers then went back to their game. From the state of the fence around the yard, whoever owned the property had given up on repairing it. It had been patched in numerous places then just left alone.

Clint pried a section of metal cladding away from the grimy red-brick wall and revealed a doorway. He nodded towards it. “Go on, get in before someone sees us.”

This was not exactly how he’d envisioned spending his day, but Xav didn’t hesitate to slip through and Clint came in right behind him just as quickly. It was a little weird, Xavier felt a curious time slip, like he regressed a few years in Clint’s presence. He laughed at himself inwardly, and he had to wonder if the situation was reversed and they were on his home turf would he have been as easy going with Clint? Probably not. When he had been living hand to mouth on the mean streets everyone was either baggage or competition.

It was much darker inside, most of the natural light cut off, but there was enough to see the walls in the hallway they were in were painted in Day-Glo colours that swirled from floor to ceiling in shifting patterns. He imagined it would be an interesting spot at night under black lights.

As his eyes adjusted he could see that he was in a passageway leading to a lofty space where there was some light and noise filtering back down towards them. At the end of the graffitied passage a set of double doors were wedged partly open and Clint led him fearlessly through into a larger space where he could clearly hear the sound of music, a driving, pounding beat that reverberated in his chest as he walked.

Temporary lighting rigs had been slung up along the walls, hanging from rusting iron gantries overhead and in front of him was a huge curtain wall and a sequence of ropes and pulleys hanging down from it. The sound seemed to be coming from somewhere deeper in the building although there were two young men trying to fix a motorbike in the middle of the empty chamber. One of them lifted his head as Clint and Xavier came in but just waved a hand as he recognised the younger lad and went back to his bike. The other never even looked up.

“Saul and Trance,” Clint explained with a grin. “Saul broke us in here. He’s the fixer. Anything we need he can sort it. Light, water, heating, you name it. Gotta keep the lighting and noise out back here though so no one sees from the road, yeah?”

Xavier nodded bemusedly, following along and taking things in. It looked like parts of the old theatre had been gutted, parts refurbished and then partially re-gutted, and parts that still looked whole and intact from the day of its opening. Most of that was closer to the front lobby and although in shabby disrepair now you could still see through to its grander Art Deco heyday.

Besides the building itself they passed a few people sleeping (or perhaps passed out) in some of the halls, and a few rooms that were obviously being used as shelter with blankets and bags staking out territory. These rooms had at least one person keeping watch on things.

The little hidden world was familiar, and not, to Xavier. He’d known of a few places sort of like this back home, but nothing reaching this scale. This had taken effort, and co-operation. It was dirty but not completely trashed and filthy, it may not be a safe place but it was somewhat guarded. It was quite a bit more then a flop pad for tweeked out huffers and junkies, and Xav realised right away without even having talked to anyone that there was a sort of community here.

They walked through to where the auditorium was; the stage and some of the seating still intact although the screen was long gone. Here there were more people, a few sitting or hanging out in clusters, an arid smell of cigarettes, cannabis, and spilled beer perfuming the air.

This was where the music was coming from. Xav’s attention was drawn up to the stage where about twenty or thirty kids, ranging in age from maybe a little younger than Clint to a few years older than himself were formed in a loose circle in the centre of which one or two took turns dancing.

Xav watched the dancers as they approached the group, since Clint had spotted someone he knew and was headed in that direction anyway. He introduced Xav to a couple guys, who gave Xav the distinct impression that he would not have been allowed to just walk in here like this without Clint. That was okay with Xav though, he understood the way it was. Clint chatted with them a bit while Xavier paid half attention, mostly watching what was going on in the centre.

They had been standing there about a half-hour when Clint leaned over to him, indicating the guy currently doing some windmills in the centre while the gathering ooo-ed and cheered him on. “That’s Spence. He’s really fuckin’ good, yeah?”

“He’s got some tricks, yeah,” Xavier said in a mellow undertone.

Clint snorted at him incredulously. “He’s the best. He does these flips and all kinds of shit.”

“Mm-hm,” Xavier responded neutrally, edging a little closer to the front.

“What’re you doing?” Clint tone was suddenly wary.

“Taking a turn.” Xav said, taking his jacket off and trying not to grin at Clint’s worried expression. He knew the kid thought he was about to embarrass the hell out of him in front of his friends.

Xavier waited until a break came between dancers and made his move out from the edge with a slick little glide and float that was pretty standard but lookedreally impressive. He did some fancy footwork, switching up some of his choreography with a more freeform street style to get warmed up and when the bridge in the music came up he flipped into some aerials and flares.

The tricks weren’t really a whole lot different from what some of the others had been doing, but there was a marked difference in the way Xavier moved. He didn’t just jump out there and bust a couple flips or spins. Every movement was planned, each trick flowed smoothly into another, linking them together to make it an actual dance that fitted with the music, rather than just a handful of acrobatics or cool moves done with the music as a backdrop.

Even toning it down Xavier moved like water, an easy grace about him that made it seem like gravity just didn’t hold onto him the same way. What he did wasn’t easy but he made it look like it was easy, graceful, beautiful.

Spence settled on the lip of the stage area beside Clint whilst Xavier was working the auditorium. He nudged the younger lad and grinned.

“Where you find that one, then? Him no street?”

“Could be,” Clint grinned back. “He’s smart enough, yeah?”

“Him threads don’ say street,” Spence laughed, shaking his head. “Him too young to be yo sugar daddy, man.”

“I didn’t say he was,” Clint retorted defensively. “He’s a mate of my dad’s.”

“Yo mythic father, na?” Spencer nudged him and chuckled again. “Easter, yo don’ need to spin me no tales. We all know yo got no daddy. Yor grandaddy brung yo up right though. What yo doin’ for the pretty dancin’ boy that he takin’ care of yo so good?” He twitched the hood of Clint’s zip-up top between his fingers and pressed it to his nose, sniffing appreciatively. “Yo smell nice, baby!”

“Fuck off! He’s just a mate. I’m not doing anything for him.” Clint shoved him back and scowled at the older lad.

He hunched his shoulders and watched Xav dance in silent admiration of the way the lithe, blond American moved, so engrossed in the performance that he didn’t notice the skinny kid who was going through the pockets of Xavier’s leather over by the back of the stage. A couple of the boys who had been pulling shapes earlier now joined Xav and tried to copy his moves.

Xav paused for a bit, watching, then came back in. He was actually having fun. He knew better than to show off straight away, and he came across just right. Good, but not so good anyone was gonna get bent outta shape about it. Once the ice was broken though he could do a bit more, bring out some more impressive things like a handstand that turned into a one-armed hop and that rolled right into some air flares that were really difficult. They were like a regular flare but instead of planting the arms and rolling the legs around them you inverted at one point in the rotation and left contact with the floor entirely. That neat little manoeuvre won him some admirers, and a few got brave enough to ask him to show how he did it.

Xavier was willing enough to spend a few minutes slowing it down to demonstrate off to the side from the main group. Both tricks took a lot of upper body strength, balance, and practice but Xav showed them how to start out slow and build up to it so they didn’t face-plant or break their neck.

He danced some more then, firstly by himself and then pulling a girl that had been watching avidly in with him, others joined in and things started to take on a more relaxed party atmosphere. Xav moved between the bodies, dancing with several partners, laughing and flirting mildly, chilling out. He lost track of time, and it felt good to sort of cut loose, but when he started feeling restless he broke off to find Clint and see if he was ready to head out yet.

By this time Clint had hooked up with a couple of guys he used to go to school with and they were sharing a bottle of White Lightning and laughing like little kids about something too arcane to even explain. Clint tried to pull Xav down with them, mumbling something about maybe staying the night here.

“You get on with the lads all right, yeah?” he suggested with a grin that said industrial strength cider was not the only thing he’d ingested since they arrived. “It’ll be a laugh.”

Xavier gave him a crooked grin just shy of a smirk. “I got a warm bed waiting for me, kid. You wanna stay here and party you go ahead but I’m going home.”

He gave the boy’s hair a playful tussle and tried not to worry too much about him as he grabbed his jacket and meandered his way back out. Clint had obviously been taking care of himself for a while, and he was with people he knew. He would be all right… and when the fuck had he started acting like such a mother hen? Jesus!

He shook his head at himself and started walking, surprised to find that it was already well after dark outside. It hadn’t seemed like they’d been there that long but he guessed they must have. His thoughts drifted to Rayne and he wondered how he was doing. He hadn’t rung, and Xavier had thought about calling him but he hadn’t wanted to seem like he was checking up on him, or prying, especially since Rayne had said he wanted to be on his own. He knew Rayne needed this time, but a small selfish part had hoped he would have called by now. Xav missed him, he wanted to reach out to him…and yet he held back, respecting his lover’s need for space and privacy. It was not an easy thing to do and made him feel melancholy and lonely. He shook his head and firmly told himself to stop being ridiculous.

He huddled further into his jacket, the warm day had turned into a decidedly cold night and he was glad for the warmth of the leather coat as he walked.

About three blocks from the theatre Xavier noticed he was being tailed. He kept calm as he looked up the street for some place that was open that he could slip into. Unfortunately all the windows looked dark. Cursing silently for not paying better attention to his surroundings he started to walk a little faster. He crossed the street and turned down another quickly. There were three young men following him, and now they knew he was aware of them. They picked up their pace as well.

Xavier didn’t waste any more time, he broke into a run. There had been several times in his life that he’d run from potentially dangerous encounters. He’d frequented some seriously bad neighbourhoods and had had to duck and run more than once. He was pretty damn fast, and he’d known all the streets and had usually escaped harm. Unfortunately he was not familiar with the streets here. He ran blind, dashing down what he thought was a side street that turned out to be an alley with a fence at the other end.

“Fuck!” he snarled, although his feet didn’t stop moving. He made a jump for it, the forward momentum propelling him upward as he scrambled for the top. He had one sneakered foot at the ridge of the fence and he probably would have made it over and got clean away if the men chasing him had been a little bit slower or he’d had more of a lead.

The three chasing him hit the fence a second after he did though and rough hands grabbed the back of his jacket, yanking him back down.

“Where you think you’re going, huh?”

Xavier was spun around and shoved against the fence. He held up his arms defensively.

“What do you want?” he demanded, trying not to sound panicky.

“Whatever you got. Empty your pockets.”

Xavier was almost relieved. When he’d lived on the streets he’d gotten mugged before. If you handed over whatever you had it was usually quick and painless. He pulled out his wallet and gave it to the thief.

“We’ll ‘ave that leather too,” one of the other guys said.

Xavier slipped it off, a little more reluctantly. It was fuckin’ cold out!

“Twenty quid? That all you got?” the first one complained, peering into the wallet Xav had handed over. “You’re not holdin’ out on us now?”

He wasn’t, he hadn’t taken much cash with him because he didn’t think he’d need it and he didn’t have any cards here yet, now he wished he had because these guys were looking disappointed and Xav smelled imminent danger. He was dressed nice; after shopping with Aldo he didn’t own anything but ‘nice’. The Armani jeans and silk shirt looked expensive because they were. He suddenly felt a lot more uneasy and made a quick decision. He threw the jacket at the one closest to him and ran at them at the same time, trying to get back to the street.

He ducked under an arm and almost got past but they were fast too and hard hands grabbed him again.

“Let me fuckin’ go!” he yelled. “I don’t got nothin’ else!”

“Shut your fuckin’ gob!” the one that had a hold of him growled and threw him roughly up against the side of the building.

The back of his head hit the bricks and a burst of pain shot through his skull as his teeth clicked together. “That’s all I got, I swear!” he panted.

He wasn’t lying either. He didn’t have a ring or watch or even a chain on him. Nothing to appease them as they searched him quickly with rough hands. He really, really wished he had something because he could feel their frustration and anger growing. It was a sick sort of stomach dropping feeling, or maybe he’d hit his head harder than he’d thought, either way the vibe he was getting off these three was making him start to shake. He looked like money to them, and he’d wasted their time. The only thing they found was the key in his pocket, which they dropped on the ground.

He had a sinking feeling they were going to take that out on him, and he was not wrong.

Xav saw the fist coming and ducked, trying to rush by them again in desperation. It missed his head but drove into his shoulder like a hammer blow, throwing him off balance.

“Hold on to the fairy fuck!” the meanest looking one of the group shouted, the one that Xav could feel the rage boiling off of like blasts of heat from an oven.

Xav’s arms were swiftly grabbed and he was yanked backwards. He squirmed and pulled trying to get away and in the struggle he didn’t see the blow coming until it exploded across the side of his face in a bright red flare of pain. He sagged for a moment but survival instinct made him continue to struggle, trying to get his arms free, to throw his weight this way and that to break their hold, but they were stronger and just gripped him harder, forcing him upright.

 

The ridged knuckles of a fist impacted with the left side of his face again, rocking his head back on his shoulders, and then jabbed again, slamming into the corner of his mouth and mashing his lips against his teeth. His head spun, he was dazed and tasted blood in his mouth and then another punch drove like a hammer blow into his stomach. Air whooshed out of Xavier and his lungs seized, his muscles turned to water but still he struggled to break free, if not to get away than at least to protect himself from the heavy fists that felt like rocks pummeling his abdomen and ribs now, striking again and again.

The taste of violence had sparked something in the thug beating him, Xav could feel and almost taste it on his tongue like the salty iron tang of his own blood in his mouth. To call it animalistic was wrong, it was far more cruel and mindless than an animal. This was a purely human emotion, the desire not just to hurt him, not just to punish him, but pound his frustrated rage into Xavier’s body until bones broke and blood sprayed and maybe until there was nothing left to pound but a lifeless pile of meat.

The blows raining down on his body took their toll, sapped all of the energy right out of him until he was less being held in place by the hands gripping him than he was being held up by them. Just when Xav was starting to feel numb, just when he was wavering on the edge of blacking out, a knee came up between his thighs, driving into his groin and Xav bent double, coughing, dropping to his knees on the pavement and clutching his balls as the two arseholes holding him finally let go of him. They were laughing maliciously and calling him filthy names, congratulating themselves of fucking up his pretty face, but Xavier only heard them distantly. The pain was roaring in his ears, throbbing with the beat of his heart.

The fucker that had been using Xav as a punching bag kicked out at him where he crouched on his knees, catching him in the side and driving him down to the pavement. Xavier curled into a defensive ball as another vicious kick landed on his midsection. He rolled, trying to get away, his ears still roaring with the pain but mixed now with the harsh curses and seething hate fueled rage coming from up above him somewhere as the hard toe of a boot found the base of his spine, the softer unprotected flesh of his kidney, the edge of his ribcage, his shoulder. There was nothing methodical to the stomping, it was a mindless beating, like an enraged toddler throwing the mother of all tantrums, only this toddler was six feet tall and two hundred pounds of muscle and the toy he was breaking was living flesh and blood. Xav curled tighter and he had time to wonder if the heel of that boot would come down on his head next. If it would smash his skull open and leave his brains smeared on the bricks of this dirty alley. Before he found out he finally, mercifully, blacked out.

The two thugs that had kept Xavier from fleeing or defending himself seemed to sense the same thing, that perhaps their friend was going a step too far, and just as he drew back his leg to kick the back of the blond kid’s head they grabbed him and pulled him back, not willing to take the step over into being an accessory to murder. The three of them stood there, breathing hard, fists still clenched, adrenaline surging. In that short pause the trio all looked down at the still, battered, unconscious form curled on the ground. None could even tell if he still breathed. The adrenaline rush began to shift from self-righteous fury into fearful self-preservation.

“Let’s get the fuck outta ‘ere,” the one now wearing Xavier’s jacket suggested hoarsely, and the other two quickly agreed. All three moved swiftly back to the street, not even looking back once at their victim who lay in a crumpled, bruised and bloodied heap next to the wall like a piece of refuse that had blown and caught there.

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