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Tole didn't have to wait on the platform of Guardian Station for a train to arrive. He was glad. As much as he liked the various practitioners of magic who lived here, he simply didn't feel sociable enough to engage in small talk. Especially now.
There were three ways for Tole to get out of the metroplex and into the surrounding countryside. Four ways, actually, but forcing conversion to one of his demonic or angelic forms would be an enormous breach of conduct with very nasty consequences. So he had to make do in his human form.
He could ride the train to the Hellven Station recreational area. Although it, too, was subterranean, it had a number of concealed passages used by construction, delivery, and maintenance workers. Any of these could get him to the outskirts of the Overcity. Or he could ride the train to one of the stops that led up to the Overcity--the usual course taken by the general public--then ride the elevated rail to the edge of the metroplex.
But Tole wasn't merely a member of the Coven of Three. He was one of the Powers, and they didn't have to move about the way other Regenerie residents moved about. He could take the Tube, a secret and particularly efficient mode of transportation only the Triumvirate knew about and only the Triumvirate could use.
The Tube was buried in the bowels of Guardian Station. Rather than head for the station's platform, Tole walked to the rear of his residence. Darkness thickened behind the rows of small houses, clotting within a maze of ducts, pipes, catwalks, and humming machinery.
The Tube was just that--a wide, vertical cylinder from which other cylinders curved and branched out, starting at a height of roughlythree meters from the ground. It had no visible entrance. All Tole or Win or Zee had to do was flatten one hand on the outer surface and a portion of the Tube's wall slid open.
As soon as Tole stepped inside, control panels glowed to life. They banded the cylinder's inner walls. Tole felt a mild stab of guilt as he studied the panels. He and his comrades had agreed only to use the Tube in emergency situations. But how often did he follow rules?
When Tole determined which electronic button would direct him where he wanted to go, he pressed it.
Traveling the Tube was one of the strangest sensations Tole had ever experienced, second only to shifting shape. Invariably, his body felt like an elongated piece of chewing gum vibrating in a strong wind. It was impossible to judge how much time elapsed. It was impossible to think, period. But quickly, very quickly, he was standing upright again, in a confined black space.
Reaching out, Tole touched the nearest wall. A rectangle of dull light appeared, fresh air washed over him, and he saw ... trees. In fact, the structure he stepped out of was a tree. Sort of.
He'd been liberated. He was in the northwest Interzone.
Taking a deep breath, Tole patted the side of his cape. Yup, the flask was still there and still intact. As daylight continued to wane, he ambled through the woods, looking for any small clearing in which he could safely build a fire.
As soon as he found one, he set his flask of bourbon on the ground, took off his cape, and went around gathering kindling and larger pieces of fallen wood. Carefully heaping the twigs and branches into a wickery tent, he stood back and smiled. Damned if building a campfire--or bonfire or any kind of fire, for that matter--didn't saturate him with satisfaction. Oh, that demonic DNA.
Holding one hand over the pile of wood, he snapped his fingers, chuckling as the structure ignited.
"That is really hokey. Pissing on it would've been more original."
Tole spun around so fast, he nearly fell into his beloved fire. A tall, dapper man stood behind him. Not as tall as he--Tole was nearly six feet five--but not that much shorter, either. He peered at the face. "Ridley?"
The man looked bewildered. "Tole?"
"Ridley." Tole released his tension on a long exhalation. "Can't you sons of bitches ever announce your arrival?"
The vampire smiled. "That would be rather counterproductive, wouldn't you agree?"
"Just don't try to bite me. I'm not in the mood."
"I wouldn't dream of it. Unless you offered yourself."
"Seems you won't be dreaming of it, then." Tole bent over and grabbed his flask off the ground. "Haven't seen you around for a while. Did you leave the area?"
Ridley shoved his hands into his coat pockets. "I spent almost four months in Trieste, dealing with an estate settlement. I got back three weeks ago."
Tole's gaze slid down Ridley's trim body and back to his face. "I didn't recognize you at first. You've changed."
Different was an understatement. The vamp's previously long, pitch-black hair had been cut and styled into soft layers. A small hank of it threatened to drop over his forehead. Upturned commas of clipped hair grazed the tops of his ears. He wore a dark all-weather coat, beneath that, a businessman's shirt in some pale color and dress pants with razor-edge creases. The shirt was open at the collar. His face was clean-shaven, and he smelled wonderful--like cedar, with an underlying note of a more exotic scent.
Tole caught a glimpse of a chain around his neck from which a small, inscribed disc dangled. It looked like an amulet, crafted from white gold or platinum. Then Tole remembered that's indeed what it was. Ridley had suffered a nasty burn last fall while hooking up with some strange woman here in the Interzone. Win had designed the charm, and another Alterationist, skilled in the construction of magical jewelry, had made it.
Although it was strictly for protection and not for ornamentation, the silvery necklace perfectly complemented the dark fan of chest hair in which it nestled. The hair wasn't thick, just noticeable enough to create a masculine signature.
Truth was, Ridley looked damned good all around. A bit like a junior executive, maybe, but a sexy one. He'd always been a striking creature. Now, he was striking in a different way.
"If you'd been around as long as I have," Ridley said, "you'd get sick of seeing yourself too. I need to change once in a while just to be able to keep living with me."
"Actually, I think you look great."
Ridley's eyes glimmered. They were nearly as dark as his hair. The lids, perennially lowered like stuck awnings, hung just at the tops of his irises, giving him a drowsy look even when his gaze shone like obsidian.
"Thank you," he said. "And ditto."
Tole wasn't used to compliments. "You're not schmoozing me to get a drink, are you?"
"Only if it's from that flask you're holding. What's in it?"
Unscrewing the cap, Tole indulged in a long swallow that set a flash fire inside his body. He offered the flask to his uninvited companion, who took it and tilted it to his lips. The sight transfixed Tole. He saw no fangs in Ridley's mouth. He only saw a handsome man's lips closing over the opening of a bottle.
The sight kindled a restless warmth that slithered through his lower abdomen.
"You seem different too," Ridley said. "Must be the hair."
"All I did was let it grow out." Self-consciously, Tole pulled his hair back. It was just past shoulder-length now, with waves he'd never noticed when it was short.
Ridley continued eyeing it. "Very nice. Much more touchable. Before, you looked like a mad cactus. Are you going to keep the blue streaks in?"
"I don't have much choice," Tole said, "unless I dye the whole mess. The colors are natural." Deep gold with blue highlights. Shit. Sometimes, when Tole caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he felt like a school mascot.
"Natural," Ridley repeated. His gaze sharpened into scrutiny. "What are the three of you, anyway? As soon as I tasted Win's blood, I could tell he wasn't a mere human. And now you, with your unnaturally natural blue hair."
The question made Tole's heart jump to his throat. "I'm really not at liberty to discuss that." The answer would have to do.
Tole lowered himself to the ground, where he sat with forearms resting on his upraised knees. He stared into the fire. If he kept his wits about him, he could make it burn, slowly and evenly, all night.
Ridley hadn't moved. At least, Tole didn't think he had. One could never tell with vampires. They were stealthy buggers, as swift and silent as an airborne contagion. Unsettled, Tole glanced over his shoulder.
Ridley was still there. He, too, gazed into the flames. "The wood isn't dwindling."
"If you're going to hang around," Tole said, "at least sit down. I'm not crazy about having an Otherbeing hovering at my back."
Ridley hesitated, then sank to the ground and stretched his legs out in front of him. He crossed his ankles and pulled his coat around his lap.
Tole slid him a glance. He really was a suave bastard, darkly alluring. Very smart too. His sense of humor, on the acerbic side, was similar to Tole's.
The firelight looked good on his face.
Taking a quiet breath, Tole shifted his eyes forward. "I suppose you're wondering what Win is up to." It was a logical assumption. They'd once had a tryst. By Win's account, it had been intensely erotic.
"Actually," Ridley said, "I'm wondering what you're up to. What are you doing out here? Did the ventilation system break down at Guardian Station or what?"
"I just needed to get away for a bit, be outside, enjoy the peace and quiet. And no, the others won't be joining me."
Picking up a thin branch, Ridley snapped it and tossed each half into the flames. He seemed irked. "What makes you think I'm waiting with bated breath for Win to show up?"
The answer required no thought. "Because you want him."
"Everybody wants him. He's by far the best-looking piece of manhood in Regenerie, but that doesn't mean I'm in love with the guy."
"Lucky for you," Tole said. "Otherwise, your heart would be broken."
Ridley snorted. "I suppose he's involved in some dalliance with your coven's boy toy."
"Pablo's not a boy and he's nobody's toy. And Win is definitely not involved in a dalliance."
"Ah. I should've known. So he's already moved past it, huh?"
"That he has," Tole said. "He's moved on to commitment. There won't be any more dalliances for Win while Pablo's around."
Mouth open in stupefaction, Ridley swiveled his head to stare at Tole. "You are shitting me."
"Nope. Win has fallen in love."
As Ridley stared, his expression began to change. Curiosity supplanted the bald shock. "Does it bother you? Is that one of the reasons you're out here?"
"I don't know."
Tole truly didn't. He didn't understand love and didn't understand his reaction to Win and Pablo. He understood physical attraction well enough, because he'd frequently experienced gnawing lust. Like this evening. He understood caring about the residents of Regenerie, for they were in his charge. But romantic love was something Tole had only a vague, secondhand knowledge of. Win had been mired in the same ignorance before Pablo came along.
It did stir Tole to see Win and Pablo kiss. Hell, to catch a glimpse of any physical contact between them. Aside from the fact they were both insanely desirable men, it was the way they touched that made Tole feel squirmy. Restrained passion and unrestrained affection virtually charged the air around them.
"It's like," he said, finishing his thoughts aloud, "they've created their own atmosphere."
"I know what you mean," murmured Ridley. "I'm not exactly a stranger to love."
The answer surprised Tole. He looked at the vampire, who now traced arabesque shapes in the dirt with a twig. Ridley seemed reflective.
"I feel like an idiot, talking about this shit," Tole said.
Ridley's mouth crept into a rueful half smile. "So join the club. Feeling like an idiot--worse yet, acting like one--is part of being human. Even we so-called immortals haven't found a way to exorcise that tenacious demon."
When he realized he was starting to enjoy the vampire's company, Tole quickly swallowed more bourbon. It smoldered in his belly and addled his brain. The night was too still. Ridley's presence seemed to fill the passive darkness and own it.
Concentrating on the fire, Tole made it crackle and send up a spray of sparks. They drifted through the air like flaking stars and soon winked out.
"I wish I had some marshmallows," he said, mostly to himself.
"Just don't put an arm around my shoulders and start singing."
"I like roasted marshmallows." Tole looked at the other man, who did seem, now, like just another man. "Do you ever eat regular food?"
"Yes, a few times a week. And I enjoy it. My breed requires more than blood for sustenance."
"Well, isn't there something you really like but don't get to have very often?"
The color seemed to deepen in Ridley's cheeks. "Lentil soup."
Tole had no idea why this confession should embarrass him. "See? Now I'm not making fun of you, am I?"
"So why can't you have lentil soup as much as you want to?"
No answer came for several seconds. Then, "It gives me gas."
Tole snickered. His titters escalated into full-bodied laughter. Infected by it, Ridley leaned back on his arms and chortled into the sky. Tole, hooting, clutched his midsection and dropped onto his side. Damp dirt pressed against the side of his face. It felt good.
He felt good. Tole realized he hadn't felt this good in longer than he could remember.
"On that humiliating note..." Ridley stood, agile as a dancer, without the faintest creak from a single joint. "I suppose I should try to accomplish what I came out here to do."
Tole sat up and wiped the moist soil from his cheeks. Immediately, his mirth gave way to regret. "Good luck," he said without looking at the vampire. "And thanks for the laugh."
Ridley responded with a final, low chuckle. It sounded like he was adjusting his coat. "It was nice seeing you, Tole. I mean that."
As Ridley made his casual farewell, he lightly touched Tole's hair, his fingers slipping along and through the strands. Tole closed his eyes against a rise of gooseflesh that began on his scalp and moved down his body. He didn't want to surrender to the impulse that seized him, but surrender he did. His hand lifted to the back of his head and closed over Ridley's fingers. The vampire slid his hand forward, delicately caressing Tole's ear and temple, the hard ridge of his eyebrow and soft convexity of his eye.
"You're very warm," Ridley murmured. "I like your heat. And your latent strength."
Without lifting his hand, the vampire sank to his knees behind Tole. Now both cool hands moved like the very breath of the moon over Tole's face, deft fingertips gliding across his cheekbones and down the narrow promontory of his nose. When Ridley's fingers reached Tole's lips, they lingered there, making tiny swirls against the sensitive flesh.
A deep shiver wound through Tole's body. His shallow breathing sent veils of vapor into the cooling air.
He'd never been touched like that, ever, by anybody. It made him feel both less and more than what he was--less a demon, less an angel, and much more a man. His cock thickened, its increasing length more noticeable as it rose and butted against the loose fabric of his pants, its heft a maddening weight at his crotch.
"It isn't always about the blood," Ridley said against Tole's nape. His voice had dropped to an irresistible purr. "Sometimes, it's about the closeness. You can't imagine how much I revel in closeness. It's a rare commodity for creatures like me. And a precious one."
His hands made a fondling journey down Tole's chest, the sides of his thumbs pushing firmly against the tense nipples. The bold advance further ignited Tole. Gasping, he silently cursed himself for his weakness. A freakin' vampire. Ridley could be setting him up for a greedy, gory feed.
Still, Tole wanted him. He craved this enchanting creature. It was Ridley's last statement, he realized, that made the man's touch so potently compelling. But trust did not come easily to Tole.
He made a paltry attempt to move out of Ridley grasp. "Don't work me," he said. "Don't use me."
Ridley paused. "I'm not trying to. I thought this was what you wanted. I thought you wanted it as much as I did. When you grabbed my hand--"
"I don't know what I want." Tole blindly reached for the flask of bourbon, as if it could save him. He didn't take a drink, though, because he realized if he did, his defenses would melt away even more. Aching with need, he half wished Ridley would vanish and half wished he'd feel the searing plunge of fangs through his skin.
Neither happened. Instead, Ridley's hand unerringly found Tole's erect cock and made a brief, featherlight pass along its length. "You're as hard as I am." The soft words were accompanied by an even softer brush of lips against Tole's neck. A fine grit of whiskers made for a pleasurable contrast in textures.
The observation, as full of longing as it was lecherous, made Tole realize Ridley had never intended to take him, either by force or through manipulation. It also made him want to crush that hand against his swollen cock and push into it, until neither of them could stand another moment's restraint.
"I have to go," Ridley said tightly. "If I don't, I'm afraid I'll lose what little control I have left. You excite me, Tole. You've always excited me. Believe it or not, I just want--"