8 Counterstrike

The next day at school, Chase, William, Edward and Carl were called out of the last period before lunch and found their parents, and Xavier, waiting in the conference room in the office. Last to arrive was Felicity Strong, head mistress of the school.

“Thank you all for coming. Yesterday, your sons bought tickets for the Valentine’s Dance…. News that they would be coming as couples … spread quickly. I can’t tell you how many phone calls I received from concerned parents yesterday afternoon!”

“Why don’t you tell us?” Sarah asked, scowling. “I for one would be interested in knowing how many of my child’s schoolmates have bigoted rednecks for parents!”

“Mrs. Abernathy,” Felicity began, but she was cut off.

Xavier leaned in and said, “And what exactly is their concern over how we’re raising our children?”

Felicity ran a hand through her hair and shook her head. “They don’t want their children … exposed to … public displays of immoral behavior. I’m sorry, folks! I don’t know what to say!”

Edward’s mother, in her light British accent, leaned forward and said, “SAY you aren’t doing what you seem to be planning to do!”

Felicity spread her hands in apology and said, “It’s out of my hands. The board has already spoken on this matter. A majority of the members are opposed to allowing your boys to attend together!”

Xavier sighed. “You realize that we’re the wealthiest family in this school…. It sickens me to even mention it, but….”

Felicity shook her head and sighed. “I AM SORRY, folks!”

“So am I,” William said quietly, looking up at her with dark eyes. “You disappoint me. You can tell your board that they can shove it up their asses!”

“There is no need for that kind of language, young man,” the woman snapped.

“Yes, and there is no need for you to hide behind the anonymous phone calls and sniping! There’s no need for you to throw us to the wolves! But you did! And it was easy,” William sneered with contempt.

Chase put a hand on his forearm and squeezed. “You’re right of course, but nothing you say will do any good…. She’s on their side!”

Felicity’s eyes hardened almost imperceptibly. “In any case,” she said, her voice hard, “the matter is decided.” With that, the woman walked out and left them all silent.

When the bell rang no one moved, until Chase made for the door. “Lunch time,” he said.

“You boys don’t have to go back to class if you don’t want to…. We can go home,” Sarah suggested.

“No, mom,” Chase said, turning to hug her. “I’m not letting them run me off!”

The boys all laughed darkly and followed his lead, joining their friends at lunch. When they told everyone there was general rage. “We won’t go, of course,” Amy declared, and Maria shook her head in agreement.

NO!” Chase exclaimed. “You can’t miss a good time because….”

“How could we enjoy it without you guys?” Matt asked.

Suddenly, William smiled and looked around at them all with a clear thought. “What if we have our own dance? Same time, different place? We can all have fun together, and leave these assholes with one lame dance!”

Chase smiled at him like a kid in a candy shop and threw his arms around William. “I love you,” he whispered in William’s ear, making William’s eyes tear up.

“We’re going to make it so awesome that nobody we like would even want to come to the school dance,” Matt declared. When they all looked at him, he asked, “What? William’s paying!” They all laughed at that and William shrugged. Everyone who knew why they looked so glum a few minutes earlier was now thoroughly confused. But soon, rumor would carry news of an alternative dance through the school, and the race was on.

Before lunch was over, William asked who could help his uncle move furniture around and get unpacked, and Matt, Carl, and Edward all volunteered, along with Charles.

***

That evening, Avery and James met William to train, while Sam and Chase studied Jewish prayer up at the house. About an hour into the study session, however, Sam’s cell-phone began to buzz with an alert from the Shadow Network. Sam ushered Chase down to William’s training space, and they knocked on the inner door to gain admittance.

Inside, James and Avery had just received the same message, and it was not from Sebastian, or any of the consuls. It was from Sammael:

“To my friends in the Shadow Council, the hour has come. You have begun to see the fruits of my labors in the public eye, and this shall increase from day to day. I offer you this one chance. Join me, or perish in the fight. Any vampire or warlock who wishes to take up arms in my battle may make a show of their loyalty, at a location to be announced, in one week’s time. Make no mistake: this is the last opportunity you will be given, and no mercy shall be shown again. Sincerely, Sammael”

Within moments, messages flooded through the system, frantic requests for clarification. Sebastian’s reply was immediate: “Any member of the council, or any associate, who attempts to join Sammael will be considered guilty of treason against the mortal realm, to be punished by summary execution. High Consul Sebastian.” Then Sebastian stepped out to the portal leading to William’s training area and found Sam and Avery had already filled everyone in.

Sebastian swore, “Fucking bastard! He’s going to divide us!”

They all let him cool down before Avery said, “He’s going to give all the morally compromised an out to come work for him, knowing we’ll be there too. Then he’ll watch us destroy each other.”

“Exactly,” Sebastian said.

“What if you don’t give him what he wants?” William asked.

“Then he gets an intact army of Council expatriates to spread his terror,” Sebastian responded gloomily. “The only thing we could do now is disable the Shadow Network, which would effectively cripple our ability to act with worldwide unity….”

“What if we lock him out of the system?” Chase asked.

Sebastian laughed softly and shook his head. “If we could figure out how he’s accessing it, maybe….”

“So the age of secrecy is over,” Avery said with certainty, and Sebastian nodded with heavy head. “Because we have to destroy the offenders and Sammael will make the meeting place very public.”

“I don’t see any way around it,” Sebastian said. “I’m going to have to go back to the mortal authorities…. Somehow I doubt they’re going to like the end of the status quo!”

Sam, Avery, James and Sebastian returned to the manor to strategize, leaving William and Chase alone. “It’s never boring, is it?” Chase asked.

Conferencing with Christen, Musa, Americ, and Pedro, they began to make plans for how to respond. “Where do you think he’ll call the meeting?” Musa asked.

“Some place very public to minimize his own danger and maximize the collateral damage from our response,” Christen responded.

“I concur,” Sam added. “I’d say a hotel, or perhaps a ballpark. I’d guess here in America…. More visibility, more likelihood of videos hitting the news!”

“I think we can do something about that,” Avery said, “but I don’t think you’re going to like it, Sebastian.”

Sebastian looked at him warily and shook his head. “I hope you’re not…. It’s too dangerous!”

“He’s the only one we can spare who’s powerful enough,” Avery said, exasperated. He thought Sebastian was holding the boys back to the detriment of the world.

“I’m lost,” Musa admitted. “What are you talking about?”

“Avery wants to use Chase to disrupt electrical signals in the area, killing video and internet, cell phones and the like,” Sebastian said, looking at Avery and receiving his expected nod.

“That does seem very dangerous,” Musa declared, giving Avery a dark look.

Avery shook his head heatedly. “ There are only a handful of us—Sam, Christen, Sebastian, the queen, myself— capable of shutting down city blocks worth of electrical equipment, but that would take one of our most useful fighters out of the game! Chase can’t engage wizards in combat, due to his condition, but if we put him in a secure location with guards, he could do it and free us up to fight! Or perhaps you’d rather have videos of us slaying vampires and firing off spells on the 10 o’clock news! FOR GOD’S SAKE, THIS IS A WAR, PEOPLE!”

They all looked at him and a dark anger burned in Sebastian’s eyes before he nodded stiffly. “You’re right, of course! But it doesn’t have to be easy,” Sebastian muttered with resignation. “James, as soon as I hear back about the location of that communications hub, I’m going to ask you to take the boys and a few of the young wizards on a mission to capture that location and secure it….”

James nodded seriously, because though he was excited, he was nervous too. “We’re ready….”

Sebastian sighed and shook his head. “Alright…. Christen, Musa, Pedro, our intel people are recovering information about Sammael’s network, including a unit on a boat. As we get those pinned down, I’m going to ask you to lead teams to neutralize those locations, interrogate his people, and collect intel….”

“What do you want to do with the survivors?” Christen asked.

“Make a judgment call…. If they’re true believers, get whatever information you can out of them then kill them. If they’re dupes, we’ll have to see whether they can be rehabilitated…. Otherwise, we’ll banish them to Ashaer,” Sebastian said.

Avery winced. “You should kill them instead,” he said with no small touch of anger. “It’s more humane!”

Sebastian tensed up but said, “Each of you must make the judgment call…. This is a time of martial law! But we must reasonable effort to save lives!” After a few more questions, he concluded. “Thank you all. I’ll get back to you soon!” Once he’d shut down the conference program, he looked at Sam and asked, “Anything new in Richmond?”

“No further attempts have been made…. Security is tight,” Sam answered.

“Good…. You trust the field agents watching the boys and their friends?” Sebastian asked.

“I do,” Sam affirmed.

“Good. I’ll need you to command an additional strike force for … special projects. Wizards who answer to you and I alone,” Sebastian said. “We’ll discuss the details in private later…. Let me walk you home.”

James and Avery arched their eyes and left, heading upstairs. As Sebastian walked Sam to his designated portal, neither spoke, but Sebastian followed Sam through to his office. He led the man into the sanctuary and sat in the seats nearest the ark. The moon gave a soft glow to the stained glass windows.

“Do you think they’re ready, Sam?” Sebastian asked.

“No, Sebastian,” the man answered truthfully. “But they’re as ready as Sammael’s timetable will allow, and a higher power than you or I has given them a central role in our victory….”

“Or our defeat,” Sebastian corrected.

Sam sighed. “Have you really begun to believe again after these dark millennia, only to doubt His ability?”

“I doubt many things, my friend! Not that he is able…. Only that he cares,” Sebastian admitted.

“He cares,” Sam said certainly. “Imagine Chase and William in a world where He didn’t! Look at what He’s done for you!”

A voice from the shadows startled them both. “Do not hold his faithlessness against him,” the tall, dark figure proclaimed with dry certainty. “Sometimes even I cannot believe He still cares for your kind!”

At first, Sebastian thought that it was Gamaliel, but Gamaliel’s tone was warm and paternal. “Gabriel,” Sebastian said without turning. “What’s your business here?”

The angel laughed, cold and hard, “MY BUSINESS?” Waving his arms at the arm, at his surroundings, the angel asked, incredulous, “SERIOUSLY? What is your business here, vampire, in the sanctuary of the Most High?”

“I mean, why are you here NOW?” Sebastian asked testily. “I’m having a private moment with an old friend!”

“You and I both know what’s coming, vampire,” the angel said softly. “And we both know it can’t end well for everyone! So far, you’ve acted with almost human restraint, and it must end. You can’t make an omelet without … you understand?”

“Let me get this straight, Gabe…. You’re telling me that to fight evil, I need to be less good? You’re telling me how to fight dirty for the cause of angels? A cause that, so far, no angel has seen fit to fight for?” Sebastian snarled.

“No! I’m here to tell you that it’s understood that … doing the right thing will involve some losses which are unavoidable…. But I also mean to tell you,” the angel said, pausing, as if deciding whether he should continue, “Chase must be protected, even if it means making the hardest of all possible choices! Chase must be protected, and if anything happens to him….”

“You’ll what?” Sebastian asked angrily. “You’ll glare at me angrily from the shadows in impotent rage?”

“No,” the figure hissed with fiery eyes. “I’ll tear my metaphorical wings off with my bare hands and beat you to death with them!”

And for a moment Sebastian shivered as he realized that the second most powerful angel in heaven was quite serious. “In any case,” Sebastian answered with a sigh, “my understanding of the situation is that, if anything happens to Chase, you wouldn’t have to. It would all be over!”

“Indeed,” the figure answered with a grudging smile.

“I know you don’t like me Gabe! I never much liked you either…. You caused my dearest friend, my cousin, a great deal of pain! I love Chase like I loved him, so you needn’t worry,” Sebastian said.

“I know that, vampire! I simply felt compelled … to make my feelings known,” the angel answered, his shoulders slumping.

“Feelings?” Sebastian asked with a little smile. “Last time we met, you referred to the human race, and my own, as bipedal monkeys who lived off of undeserved grace!”

Gabriel let out a little laughing grunt and nodded. “To be sure! And if it weren’t for your kind … Sammael,” he began. “Well, that’s an eternity ago now! But I can still remember his face when he realized I wasn’t with him, that I’d stand by the One in his support of … your kind!” Gabriel shook his head as if to clear his mind of some ancient pain. “Nevertheless, I’ve grown fond of the boy, and his beloved!”

“And he seems fond of you, too … Gideon,” Sebastian said. “Clever, really! Gideon and his trumpets, you and yours…. Nice parallelism!”

Gabriel shook his head, laughing. “Not parallelism…. Who do you think suggested the strategy to him?”

“I suppose looking after prophets and judges is your field, then?” Sebastian asked.

“It has been my chore,” Gabriel said, “but only now, at this late hour, my pleasure! Protect Chase, please? As you know, my powers are limited….” And then he was gone.

After a long silence, Sam said, “Strange fellow, Gabriel … or Gideon, or whoever he is!”

“He’s Gabriel. Gamaliel helped me understand him, and his ambivalence toward humankind a little better, though. Gabriel was bound to Sammael, like a soul mate….”

Sam gasped. “Good Lord! What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to ask an old wizard I know to follow the boys into action and cover their asses, preferably without getting caught,” Sebastian said with a straight face.

Sam laughed. “I see!”

***

William and Chase worked on homework, though William placed a shadowy phone call.

“Hello, my name is William Jennings. I’d like to ask whether your ballroom is free on either the Friday or Saturday night of Valentine’s Day Weekend?” After a pause, “I see! What about the following weekend? Valentine’s falls in the middle of the week, so…. Excellent! I’d like to rent the ballroom for a dance on Saturday night…. No, no, I’ll pay for the whole day so that there will be time to decorate and for the caterers to set up…. Can you put the deposit on a credit card? Thank you,” he said, pulling out the card and giving out the number as Chase listened intently.

When William hung up the phone, Chase turned toward him and walked over, easing himself into his lap. “So?”

“So what?” William asked, a laugh in his voice.

SO WHERE IS THE DANCE GOING TO BE?” Chase asked, tickling him.

William hugged Chase and asked, teasingly, “Where would you like it to be?”

“Somewhere nice,” the boy smiled.

“Done,” William declared. “I just booked a ballroom at the Jefferson Hotel!”

“Holy cow!” Chase gasped, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Wow! That’s going to be too cool!” Then he ran downstairs to find his mom, who had recently gotten home.

“He what?” a high woman’s voice asked with obvious pleasure from downstairs, so William smiled and walked down.

“We decided to have our own dance,” William said as he bounded downstairs, “so I reserved a ballroom at the Jefferson….”

“So I heard,” Sarah said with a smile, mouthing ‘Thank you’ to William silently. “Let me go get changed and we’ll figure out what to do for dinner,” she added, walking off shaking her head.

In the end, they called out for Chinese and had a quiet night at home, enjoying a moment of normal, domestic life.

***

Sebastian found Avery and James waiting expectantly, but he walked past them both, upstairs to his bedroom, and took a long, hot shower. When they heard the water come on, James looked at Avery and shrugged, heading upstairs. He stripped and reclined on the bed, waiting until the thin, white figure of Sebastian emerged, glistening damp in the moonlight.

“What’s wrong?” James asked.

Sebastian patted himself drier and explained, “I’m just not interested in explaining myself to Avery this evening. It’s all so easy for him, doing what has to be done! I’m not cut out for it anymore…. If we make it through this….”

“When,” James interrupted. “When we make it through this!”

Sebastian smiled. “Only you can make me feel that might be true,” he said, as he sidled up to James, pushing him back onto the bed and crawling on top of him.

“Chase makes you believe too,” James said, wagging his eyebrows, “but I’m the only one you get to do this with after,” he added, drawing Sebastian down for a deep kiss.

Sebastian smiled and drew back, whispering, “When we make it through this, I’m leaving the Council.”

James smiled, but his look was doubtful. “If that’s what you want…. But don’t feel like you have to, or need to, do that for me!”

“It isn’t about you,” Sebastian smiled, wiping hair from James’s face. “Well, it is! I’d just like to enjoy the world a little! Live a less brutal life … with you!”

James winked and rolled over on top of him. “Well, don’t make any rash decisions. Let’s take that vacation first and then see how THAT goes! Now, you need to relax!”

James played at pinning him down and things got interesting…. They’d cuddle later.

***

Early Friday, Larry from intel called Sebastian to report. “High Consul, I’ve just emailed you the location and a threat assessment of four safe-houses in Europe and one in Bangkok, as well as the shipboard unit….”

“Thank you, Larry! Did you prioritize the targets?” Sebastian asked. “We’ll have to coordinate and hit as many as possible all at once….”

“Yes, sir! It’s in the report…. I thought Bangkok might have some personal significance, given what happened at the Buddhist shrine….”

“You thought right, Larry! I’ll be taking that one, and I’m going to take a scorched earth approach,” Sebastian replied.

“As you know, sir,” Larry said, grimly, “I approve! I’m making progress with that comm center you asked about…. I should have a work-up on that for you in the next day or two….”

“Thank you, Larry! Let me know if you find anything else….” Larry hung up without further comment and Sebastian began informing leaders of the countries in which the safe-houses were located that operations would be conducted on their territories. When offered, he accepted their assistance in clearing the areas as quietly as possible in the minutes leading up to the attacks.

Then he called James and Avery down and got key personnel on the teleconference. “I have intelligence reports identifying five land-based and one sea-based targets…. How many of them can we hit simultaneously?”

“We have plenty of vampires and wizards who have already engaged the enemy, and many more ready to join the fight,” Christen said. “How many team leaders do we have?”

“Me,” Musa announced, followed by Christen, Americ and Pedro.

“If you don’t think we’ll be spread too thin, we can take them all, then,” Sebastian announced, waiting for an objection. Hearing none, he continued, “Right! Then I’m taking Bangkok! I have a personal score to settle there. It’s a mid-risk target, so I’ll only need a small contingent of back-up….”

“Sebastian,” Christen interrupted. “I’m reading here that there are four world-class sorcerers holding there with a platoon or more of commandos….”

“So … you think I should go alone to even up the odds?” he asked, laughing.

“Be serious! You can’t put yourself in any kind of danger at this critical juncture,” she said. “You’ll take a full contingent!”

“Very well,” he said, with a grin and a nod, noticing James’s sigh of relief. “The highest risk target is a safe house in Oslo! It’s well fortified, full of powerful sorcerers and necromancers, and more than a few vampires of over a century. Also, it’s in a residential neighborhood….”

“I’ll take that one,” Avery announced, and Sebastian nodded. “But Sam and his unit will be backing you up,” Sebastian added, and he could tell Avery wanted to object but decided not to. “Christen, I’d like you to take your group to Venice?”

“Sebastian, that target,” she began, but he cut her off.

“I’m sending James to join you. I’ll send him to your unit a few hours ahead of the attack for you to bring him up to speed,” he said.

Her eyes widened and she nodded, understanding why she was being sent to a relatively safe target, though by no means an easy one. “Is he ready?” she asked.

“I’ve been training with Avery,” James answered, not letting them continue to speak about him in the third person. “I can hold my own….”

“That’s true,” Avery confirmed and she nodded.

“Americ, you’ve got Bern, and Pedro, you get Budapest…. And Musa, you get to have all the fun. I need you to take the boat. Well, it’s pretty big—yacht…. Try not to sink it: I’m guessing something important is going on there, and I want to know what!” Sebastian said.

“When are we staging?” Avery asked.

“6 a.m. EST tomorrow…. We’ll all touch base at 5 a.m. to confirm ready?” Sebastian asked.

The meeting broke up. Sebastian looked at James and asked, “You’re still sure about this?” James nodded and Sebastian sighed. “Go pack a bag…. There are a couple of black combat uniforms in your side of the closet in your size. You’ll need to set out soon so you can get briefed and integrate with Christen’s team….”

James smiled and kissed him on the cheek before running upstairs. “It’s the right thing to do,” Avery said when he was gone.

Sebastian glared at him. “NO! It’s the necessary thing to do. Big difference.”

Avery shrugged and left him alone to return phone calls and begin to make his arrangements for Bangkok.

***

When Chase told their friends at lunch where their dance was going to be, the girls actually squealed. Amy and Maria made plans to find dresses on Saturday while the boys were helping Xavier unpack and arrange furniture. After that, the two fairly popular girls circulated around the cafeteria, letting their friends know that there would be an alternative dance at the Jefferson hosted by William and Chase. More than a few indicated instantly that they would be there in support of the boys, and quite a few wanted to come because the joint was swanky.

By the end of the day, a lot of kids had approached the boys asking for invitations, which were given liberally to anyone who asked nicely. It was clear that, in the coming weeks, they’d be able to have a nice crowd for their little soirée.

When they got home, Chase and William showered and dressed for services and Steve drove them to the synagogue. Sam welcomed them as always, and a few families that recognized them came up to them to say hello. Sam introduced them to a middle aged couple who invited them to come to their house for a traditional Shabbat dinner after services, so afterward, accompanied by Sam, they walked home with Ron and Sylvia Stein.

The Steins’ two children, Seth and Abigail, came downstairs when they arrived. Abigail, very outgoing and talkative, was about twelve, while Seth, quiet and withdrawn, was closer to fifteen. As they gathered around the table, Ron and Sylvia blessed their children, and Sam likewise blessed Chase and William. Then they said the blessings over the wine and challah, and sang some traditional songs before having a delicious dinner.

Over dinner, Sylvia asked, “How long have you boys been … together?”

William noticed Seth’s eyes widen in shock as Chase smiled and said, “A couple of months.” Then he told a cleaned-up version of how they met and how William had come to live with his family, as well as some of the more exciting things that had happened since.

“I’m very sorry to hear about your parents,” the woman said, “but I’m glad you found a good home!”

“Me too,” William said, squeezing Chase’s hand.

Out of nowhere, Seth, his voice sweet and smooth, asked quietly, “Is it hard for you at school? People know about you?”

“People know,” Chase said. Then, blushing, he added, “To be honest, it would be hard for us to be together and hide it….”

William chuckled. “It has been rough in some ways, and easy in others…. Turns out a lot of people like and support us. But others…. The school isn’t letting us go to the Valentine’s Dance together.”

“That’s terrible,” Sylvia exclaimed.

“It’s okay,” Chase smiled. “William is going to host a counter-dance at the Jefferson!”

“That’s … expensive,” Ron commented dryly. Then he laughed. “You’ve got style, boy!”

Then Chase added, “But you know, it’s not been any worse than before people knew…. The people who would pick on me for being gay already picked on me for other things, or for suspicion of being gay! On the whole, I think things have been better…. But that might be because the bully’s are afraid of William! And Carl….”

“Carl?” Seth asked.

“Carl’s dating our friend,” Chase answered. “He plays basketball: he’s basically a giant!”

Seth nodded and fell silent again, thinking about something as the conversation turned in other directions.

After dinner, William offered to help Sylvia clean up a bit, and Ron and Sam stepped into the living room to talk a bit about synagogue business, so Chase carefully felt his way to the stairs and went upstairs. He knocked on what he expected to be the right door and Abigail said, “Hi, Chase!”

“Sorry Abigail, I was looking for your brother…. Could you help me out?” he asked.

“Sure,” the girl said, leading him down the hall to the door and leaving him alone.

He knocked and heard the door open, but nothing else. “Seth? Do you mind?”

“Sure, come on in,” Seth said, and softly put a hand on Chase’s elbow, leading him to the desk chair, while he sat on the bed.

“Is everything alright, Seth? Was there something else you wanted to ask?” Chase asked.

He could hear the boy hold his breath for a moment before exhaling in deep release. “I was just wondering what it was like for everybody to know.”

“I thought so…. Do your parents know?” Chase asked.

“No…. Well, that’s probably one of the reasons they brought you over. I just can’t!” Seth said.

“If your parents brought William and me over to show you that they’re okay with it, what do you have to lose confiding in them?” Chase reasoned out loud.

“I don’t even like to admit it to myself,” Seth said quietly, averting his eyes.

“But you admitted it to me pretty easily,” Chase responded.

“Yeah…. But I know about you, and you’re … different,” Seth said.

Chase walked tentatively to where the boy sat and sat down next to him. “I’m not so different! I was afraid for too long, and it was only William who gave me the courage to admit who I was to those who love me…. You can trust your parents, I can tell! And you can trust me and William and Sam….”

“You mean Rabbi Roth?” the boy asked with an incredulous laugh.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Chase asked. “Not even William knows….”

“Sure,” the boy exclaimed quickly.

“I asked Rabbi Roth privately the other day if, one day, he would perform a Jewish wedding for William and me…. He didn’t even blink before saying yes!”

Seth sat thoughtfully for a moment and nodded, and Chase put a friendly arm around him. “You’re going to be okay!” Chase whispered. “Why don’t you come to our dance? I bet one or two cute guys will show up, and you never know!”

Seth giggled and shrugged. “Maybe….”

“Excellent,” Chase said, and told the boy his phone number and email address. “Can you help me downstairs?” he asked.

“Sure,” Seth said, and took his arm, but Chase again draped his arm across the boy’s shoulder as he led him to the stairs and helped him down, though Chase didn’t really need it.

A few minutes later, Chase called his dad and told him where to pick them up. They weren’t far from home, but walking alone at night didn’t appeal to him, and they soon bid everyone a goodnight.

Once they were home and in their room, William asked, “Seth’s okay?”

“Yeah,” Chase smiled. “He’s scared….”

“I know how he feels, but it’s a waste of time. His family loves him,” William said.

“I told him,” Chase said. “I also invited him for Valentine’s! Maybe around different kinds of kids he can lighten up.”

“You’re good, Chase!” William said with an appreciative hug.

***

When all the planning was done, Sebastian went upstairs to find James, who was playing pool with Chris and Steve in the game room, chatting and joking around like a normal teen.

“Sorry to interrupt, James, but it’s almost time,” Sebastian said, as he entered, forcing a smile to his lips. Steve and Chris both looked concerned but told their buddy to be careful and gave him a hug. Then Sebastian led him out and to their room. “I just wanted a few minutes alone with you before you go,” Sebastian said as he sat down with James on the bed.

James wrapped his arms around Sebastian and squeezed. “I’ll be fine,” he whispered.

“Be safe,” Sebastian said, reclining his head against the boy’s firm chest. “Be careful and watch your back!”

“You too…. I worry about you too, you know,” James laughed, running his fingers through Sebastian’s hair.

“Yeah, well, I’ve survived four millennia of battles and intrigue…. This is all kind of new to you,” Sebastian whined.

“Well, I guess it’s a good thing I’m really powerful and prophecy boy,” James said, kissing Sebastian’s head with a laugh.

***

Each team leader spent the rest of the day briefing their teams and giving them a rundown of the targets, before running through a few training exercises. James impressed Christen and her captain, and easily fit in with her soldiers, who were, by and large, a few years older than him. That didn’t stop more than a few of the young ladies, and one or two of the young men, from noticing him. His experience with football allowed him to follow the diagrams and battle plans fairly easily, and in training he showed himself to be a capable attacker and a top-notch defender. It helped that none of the others knew any angelic magick, much less the powerful defensive spells Chase had taught him.

After training, he stayed with the soldiers in their barracks and joined them for dinner. He was having a nice time chatting with a few of the younger soldiers when one of their older comrades, perhaps twenty-two, walked up and asked, “So how did you weasel your way onto this mission? We’re an elite team, we’ve been together for over a year, and you just walk in like you own the place!”

“I’m sorry,” James said. “I’m just following orders, and my orders were to accompany your team on this mission. I understand you are a special force, and I don’t mean any….”

“Don’t give me that! You’re angling for a place on this team, but you haven’t paid your dues,” the young man, a first lieutenant named Spencer sneered.

James stood and turned until he was nose-to-nose with the man and said, “Listen, Lieutenant Spencer, I don’t know you, or who you think you are, or who you think I am, but I have NO DESIRE to join this team. I have a happy home and a good relationship out east…. I’m just here to help and learn, and if you have a problem with that….”

“Is there a problem?” barked Captain Morgan, Christen’s second-in-command for the operation, asked as he walked into the dining hall.

Lieutenant Spencer snapped to attention. “No, sir! I was just asking the … our guest … what he did to get on this mission sir!”

“Do you doubt the judgment of your leaders, lieutenant?” the big man barked angrily.

NO SIR! But this kid,” Spencer began.

James cut him off. “Sir! If I may?” The man nodded, to the surprise of the young lieutenant. “If the lieutenant has a problem with me, maybe it would be best if we demonstrate our skills? One-on-one?”

The captain nodded with a smile and said, “Finish your dinner, then it’s back to the mats, people, for a little extra ‘training’!”

James sat back down with the young soldiers who were whispering madly. At last one of the young women whispered, “Be careful! He’s dangerous! He’s an excellent dualist….”

James smiled and nodded. “I won’t underestimate him….”

“You are young,” one of the other women said uncertainly. “Have you ever dueled before, seriously?”

James smiled and nodded, pink spilling into his cheeks. He’d had no intention of getting into the issue of his identity with these folks. He didn’t want to be treated differently. “I’ve dueled in training, with other students and with the masters.”

“Who trained you?” the first young woman asked, but he shook his head.

“It isn’t important…. I’ll tell you later if you really want to know,” he said with a cryptic smile. After dinner was cleared, the soldiers returned to the training room and set out the floor mats, while James and Lieutenant Spencer changed into training uniforms. When they emerged, their mat was encircled by soldiers, and they both noticed Christen among the observers.

Captain Morgan walked out onto the mat and announced, “Until one of you surrenders, or gets … neutralized! GO!”

As James expected, Spencer didn’t even allow the man to clear a path before going offensive, fast and sloppy, firing a ball of electricity just over James’s left shoulder. James just smiled and circled across from him, making no other motion of hand or mouth, except to reach up and touch the sigil pendant at his neck and infusing it with a powerful jolt of energy. Then he raised his right arm at the young solder aggressively, prompting the young man to toss off another powerful energy ball, at which point James yelled, “Verso!” The ball reversed its course, flying back at its source with all its original speed, striking Spencer square in the chest and sending him flying back a few feet, stunned.

He hurried back to his feet and circled across from James more warily, muttering a curse under his breath that would have proved devastating, but James heard a few of the words and knew what was coming, so he dropped to his knee and sent a wave of energy through the ground, knocking the young man on his ass once more.

Now Spencer was angry and lashed out with lightning against his young opponent. James, seeing his murderous rage, knew it was time to end this, so he conjured up a cyclone, just as Avery had taught him, but he made it small and controlled, and he made it spring up around the offending soldier. And then, in a show of sheer power, he set it on fire, so a raging inferno swirled around the young man, just far enough from him to keep from injuring him badly. At last, a voice cried from inside, “I yield!”

James let the spell drop, and Spencer’s knees buckled. James walked up to him and reached out a hand, which Spencer grudgingly took, and helped him up. “Who the hell are you?”

The others had drawn in to hear the exchange, and James shook his head. “You should be polite to all people, so you never have to ask that question in embarrassment.” Spencer blushed as Christen looked at him pointedly. “My teachers include my boyfriend.”

“You’re a fag?” the young man asked, surprised.

Christen looked like she was about to melt the young soldier, but James held up his hand. “I don’t think he meant that as badly as it sounded,” he said graciously, and Spencer shook his head.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,” Spencer said. “I guess, I don’t know, it seems even more impressive because of that….”

“That’s ignorance,” James said, not meaning to put the man down but to explain. “We’re just like you, most of us, anyway. As I was saying, my main teachers are my boyfriend, Sam, and Avery….”

“Should I know these people?” Spencer asked.

James smiled and let it hang in the air, before answering, “The name I go by these days is James van der Meer, taking my boyfriend’s last name…. Sam is Rabbi Sam Roth, and Avery is Avery Salazar…. Ring any bells?”

The man’s face turned red, and James heard some of the onlookers gasp.

“You’re … uhm, you’re Sebastian’s partner, James?” Spencer asked. James nodded and the man grabbed his hand tightly and whispered, “Please forgive me? I’m sorry….”

James laughed and squeezed his hand, shaking his head. “It’s forgotten…. Work on that temper and try to treat people like they weren’t your worst enemy until you know! You’re lucky I didn’t really kick your ass!” Spencer nodded and walked off alone to the locker room to change, and he must have left out the back, because James didn’t see him come out again.

Some of the soldiers had built a fire down by the lake near the complex, and James walked down with some of them to relax before the morning’s adventure. As the evening wore on, the soldiers gradually dropped off, but James had little need for sleep that night so he stayed up. When most of the soldiers were asleep, he noticed one man sitting down by the water, alone and apart from where the others had gathered.

As he walked down, he called out, “Lt. Spencer?”

“Yeah,” the man answered without turning.

“Mind if I join you?” James asked, and the man shook his head. But what else could he say?

James sat down near him and after a moment, the man said, again, “I’m really sorry!”

“What is your problem?” James asked, and the man turned to face him sharply.

“People are always trying to get some special treatment, thinking they’re better or something! They try to get on this team to get ahead…. But that endangers my men, me, all of us! Clearly you don’t need to get ahead, but I’ve seen it so many times before….”

James smiled and said, “I can respect that, but you need to reserve judgment on people ‘til you can make an accurate call!”

“I know, I’m sorry,” the man said with a soft smile. “So, what is it like, being in the middle of all that Armageddon?”

“Honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for anything…. The friendships I’ve built, the things I’ve learned, the love! Sorry, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” James said with a smile.

Lt. Spencer shook his head and laughed. “It really wasn’t like that,” Spencer said, remembering his impolitic outburst earlier. “I’ve just never met a … gay person like you! Anyway, I hear he’s something! More than a few straight guys have fallen for him, I understand….”

James laughed, and said, “I can imagine! He’s that mix of masculinity and beauty that just … well, it’s very powerful!” With that, he winked at Spencer and stood up. “You should get some rest, lieutenant! We’ve got an early morning….”

“What about you?” Spencer called after him.

Looking over his shoulder, James smiled and shook his head. “Vampire, remember?”

***

After a few hours of sleep, most of the soldiers began to stir and go through their rituals, showering, dressing, and adorning themselves with amulets and mementos and other sentimentalities that went into combat with them as a kind of mental shield. James got into his custom-made uniform. He was pulling on the boots when Lt. Spencer sat down a few feet from him at his locker, a towel wrapped around his tight waist, his hair still dripping. “Morning,” Spencer said, sounding grumpy.

“Good morning,” James said with a laugh. “Not a morning person?”

“You can say that again,” a younger soldier laughed behind them.

James chuckled and pretended to divert his eyes as Spencer dried off and pulled on his own form-fitting uniform. The man was built like a combat soldier who spent a lot of time in a gym, and his physique was breathtaking, even if he wasn’t James’s type. Then they walked to breakfast together, grabbing coffee and some light food. James noticed how much quieter everyone was this morning with action impending. Shortly, Christen and Captain Morgan entered. “I’ve just gotten off the phone with the High Consul! We’re a go in fifty-five minutes! Make your final preparations and get to the staging area in thirty! Then well cross over to Italy…. Italian police have been quietly evacuating the neighborhood overnight!”

They all finished whatever they were eating and congregated in the staging area, where Captain Morgan paired them up: James wasn’t at all surprised to find himself partnered with Spencer, who seemed unperturbed. Their portal opened into a dark alley two blocks from the safe house they were going to hit, and with quiet precision, they ringed the building and got into position.

At last, each of them heard in an ear piece, “Move on your primary objective in five, four, three, two, go, go, go!”

***

In Bangkok, Sebastian walked up to the front gate of Sammael’s safe house and rang the bell. A young man peeked out a little window and his eyes widened in surprise but couldn’t react before Sebastian blew the door in, tearing the metal doorframe from the wall and crushing the man behind the door. Simultaneously, black-clad commandos burst through every door and window on the building, which was filled with screams and the sounds small explosions and magick. Most of the agents present were low-level, but Sebastian recognized a little Korean woman as one of Chang’s governors.

As chaos reigned in the upper floors, Sebastian closed on her with fury in his eyes. “Traitor!”

Anger flickered in her eyes, replaced by fear when she saw the look on his face, saw his hand rise and turn as if he was reaching for her neck. She felt the pressure as surely as if he was wrapping his fingers around her neck. Only too late did she realize that her feet weren’t on the ground.

***

James followed Lt. Spencer into a high window off of an alley and they slipped into what appeared to be an empty office. Spencer stuck his head out carefully into an empty hall. After the all-clear signal, they met in the hall and Christen whispered, “Something’s wrong…. This place is empty and has been for a while!”

Captain Morgan motioned down at the floor, indicating he felt that there were subterranean spaces. An abandoned building would provide plenty of cover. Seers were dispatched to detect passageways and openings. If such passages did exist, this would mean that their entrance had already been announced below and that the facility’s defenses had been activated. It also meant that this target was far more advanced, and important, than they had realized, so their defense assessment was flawed. Compounding this difficulty was the minutes it took to find the entrance, a stairway behind a bookcase.

Three pairs of commandos preceded James and Spencer into the stairwell, and within moments, the floor began shaking with little explosions of force and energy. As quickly as they could, the commandos poured into the lower level and began neutralizing the opposition, which was surprisingly heavy. James and Spencer alternated their attacks and pinned down a few of the defenders while a second team circled slightly to the left and took them out. It took about ten minutes to clear the landing and get the whole force downstairs.

The underground facility was massive, but there would be no additional backup available until the simultaneous assaults began to wrap up. They made a conservative plan to sweep the facility wing by wing, covering their rear as best they could. Quick hand gestures assigned each team a room to clear on the first hallway, and as James and Spencer opened their door they paused in shock as two surprised faces looked over at them, hesitating for a moment.

James found Peter staring back at him, while Spencer was terrified by Sekhmet, still recovering from her encounter with Sebastian. Because she was not well, James was able to bring up his angelic shield before Sekhmet could cast an energy ball in their direction. The blast was so powerful that its shock wave blasted back to knock Sekhmet and Peter off their feet, giving James and Lt. Spencer a chance to get out of the doorway.

“Sekhmet,” James called to Christen, whose eyes widened.

“Set your charges for 2 minutes and retreat,” she called out to her men. “MOVE!”

Each team had a small C4 device, which they set haphazardly on load-bearing walls and at the mouths of various hallways, before beginning a hasty retreat to the stairwell. Christen covered the retreat herself, but James wouldn’t leave her behind and Spencer stuck with him. When the last man passed them, Christen dropped her shield and the three started running. “You shouldn’t have waited,” she scolded.

Sekhmet’s cry of rage halted them, and James turned to face her again, lifting his amulet in her direction and modifying the shield spell to create a wall blocking the exit behind them. Christen grabbed his arm and dragged him, but James saw Peter come running up behind Sekhmet and stopped. James looked like he would run back through the shield for a moment, but Lt. Spencer grabbed his other arm and, with Christen’s help, practically dragged him upstairs. Together they could barely move him, but Christen whispered, “Think of Sebastian.”

The bombs leveled the building and collapsed it into the underground complex, which would, with any luck, also flood quickly, given the Venetian water table. Christen and Lt. Spencer looked at each other, knowing they were missing something, and they quietly helped James back to their complex. “Take an hour and relax,” Christen called, and signaled to Spencer that he shouldn’t leave James alone.

Spencer caught up with James and put a hand on his shoulder. “What happened back there?” the soldier asked. James shook his head, pulling his arm away and walking faster. “James! Come on, man….”

James stopped but didn’t turn around. “You know who Sekhmet is? What she is?”

“I’ve been briefed…. Ancient vampire bitch, used to play goddess in Egypt?” Spencer said.

James chuckled heavily, his shoulders heaving. “ Sebastian … when he sleeps, if he dreams, she’s in his nightmares. And the boy, the boy with her, was my best friend.”

Spencer stepped around him and saw that he was crying. “What happened?” Spencer asked. James sat down and they closed the door, and he told Spencer everything: how he had met Sebastian, how they had fallen instantly into this strange relationship, and how everything had been going so well until Sammael. “And you blame yourself?”

James nodded and put his face in his hands. “If I’d never brought him into all this, if I’d let them think I was dead! And then again, if I’d noticed how bad things had gotten when he came back to us, I could have…. I guess that’s at least part of the reason why I’ve been wanting so bad to fight! I’d like to punish someone besides myself! Now it looks like I helped kill him….”

Spencer looked at him and said gloomily, “I doubt we got Sekhmet…. You don’t get to be that old by getting caught. I’m guessing she took him with her….”

“Thanks,” James said laughing weakly, rolling his eyes, “for trying to make me feel better.”

“Sometimes what we want isn’t for the best!” Spencer said with a softening smile.

“Ain’t that the truth,” James groaned, laying back on the bed and staring at the ceiling. Spencer shook his head and lay back on an empty bunk and caught a quick nap for himself.

***

The next morning, Chase and William arrived at the synagogue early and took their seats, and Sam came to sit with them for a minute. “I’m proud of what you did,” Sam said to Chase quietly.

“Did he talk to you or his parents?” Chase asked.

“No,” Sam said, but with a smile, added, “but he will now! You’ll see…. I haven’t seen him as happy as he was last night since he was a boy!”

“He’s still a boy,” William joked.

Sam smiled sadly and said, “Only a year younger than you two….”

“I forget sometimes,” William said, darkening.

“Don’t,” Sam said, clapping him on the shoulder and giving him a squeeze. “Enjoy yourselves!”

“We do,” Chase said with an impish grin.

The rabbi shook his head, laughing, and said, with a curmudgeonly and exaggeratedly old-world accent, “Oy v’voy…. Speaking to an old man like that! Vat is zis vorld coming to?”

The boys giggled and moments later he returned with a transliterated siddur so the boys could follow along with the prayers in Hebrew spelled out in English letters.

William was beginning to be familiar with a few of the tunes for the chant and they both followed along fairly well that morning. After lunch, they hurried home to change into work clothes and met their friends at Xavier’s new house.

Maria’s boyfriend Charles, Matt, Carl and Edward were waiting for them. Chase mostly stayed out of the way and talked to them while they moved furniture around and unpacked the biggest household items, moved shelves and things like that, under Xavier’s close watch. They rearranged the living room a few times before it was just right.

When they were all done, Xavier thanked them and said, “If it was the summer I’d invite you all to hop in the pool, but you can always come back.” Then he handed the boys $50 each, and thanked them all. “Now comes the nitty-gritty…. Thanks for your help guys!”

The boys all headed to the mall to grab a bite to eat together and to catch a movie before heading home.

***

Sebastian and his men were among the first to return, and he went straight to his terminal, sending the little video he had made to the boxes of every Council member and associate. He could send a message too, he fumed to himself. Then he checked to find that only Christen’s group had returned—faster than he had expected.

He called her up and found her looking tired. “What happened?” he demanded.

“Fine, how are you?” she said with a wry smile. “Oh, our intelligence underestimated the target. It was a huge underground facility and when we got down into it, who do we run into but Sekhmet herself!”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” he said, not giving her time to say anything before turning off his computer and conjuring up a portal that opened into her office. “Is he okay?” he asked as he stepped through.

She smiled and nodded. “He’s FINE! Resting! He and his teammate Lt. Spencer walked in on Sekhmet and a boy, but James was quick enough with that super-shield…. In fact, he sealed the exit behind us and we blew the place to hell, but I thought he was going to try to face off with her when he saw that boy again!”

“What did he look like?” Sebastian asked.

“Not his type,” the woman answered, misunderstanding the question. Then she described the boy and Sebastian frowned.

“Peter,” he muttered, shaking his head.

“The Lively boy?” she asked.

He nodded. “And the traitor who gave Sammael Resheph’s fangs….”

“How did James handle that?” Christen responded.

“He didn’t! He withdrew at first and just went about life as normal…. Then he got real keen on kicking ass! Sheesh…. Let me see him?” Sebastian asked.

“Of course,” Christen said, and pointed him to the barracks she’d seen James and Spencer enter.

Sebastian entered and Spencer stirred, hopping off his cot and standing at attention. “Sir,” he barked, but quietly, making Sebastian smile at his thoughtfulness.

“At ease,” he said with a wave and a laugh. “You must be Lt. Spencer?”

“Yes, sir,” Spencer said, somewhat stiffly, to a boy who looked five or six years his junior. Looks were of course very deceiving.

“How did James do in the heat of things, lieutenant?” Sebastian asked softly, motioning for the young man to sit.

“Saved my ass, stayed behind to cover Consul Wheeler! Brave…. I thought we were going to have trouble over that Peter boy,” he added.

Sebastian raised his eyebrows. “He talked to you about that?”

Spencer shrugged and said, “I guess we got close…. After I challenged him to a duel and he kicked my ass, we got over some things….”

Sebastian’s smile was luminous, distracting Spencer from the mist in his eyes. “That sounds about right…. Thank you for watching his back!”

“Thank you for trusting us,” Spencer nodded and laughed, getting up to walk away. “I believe I have other matters,” he added, clearly leaving so Sebastian could be alone with James.

When the young man slipped out, Sebastian lay down next to James, spooning into the muscular teen and wrapping an arm around him. “Mmmm,” James said. “I love you!”

“How did you know I wasn’t Spencer?” Sebastian asked with a laugh.

“Spencer’s too big to slide in behind me like that! Anyway, I know the feel of your body,” James said as he yawned.

“I heard you did well today,” Sebastian said as he squeezed James.

“I managed to hold off Sekhmet until we could get out…. I’m guessing she got away before the explosion though,” James said.

“Much older vampires than you have been killed by her without the least trouble! That’s a good day…. She probably took Peter with her.” Sebastian felt James tense up as he said it, felt the breath catch in the big boy’s chest.

James coughed. “We’ll see. If she took him its only because he can hurt us…. I should have killed him!”

“Oh baby,” Sebastian said softly, kissing him on the back of the neck.

“Part of me wanted to kill him for what he’s done,” James admitted tearfully.

“But that’s not why you tried to go back,” Sebastian said, sounding confident.

“No…. I was going back to save him,” James said.

“And face Sekhmet alone,” Sebastian added.

“She’s still badly injured, thanks to you,” James responded.

Sebastian sighed. “Be that as it may, it would have been brave but stupid…. I don’t know what I’d do without you!”

“I just…. How can I want him dead on the one hand, but want to risk my life to save him on the other?” James asked, rolling over and burying his face in Sebastian’s slight shoulder, feeling the cool, hard muscle rippling beneath.

“You haven’t … what I mean to say is, it’s been surprising to me that we haven’t really talked about Peter since he left. I’ve had no idea what you’re feeling, James,” Sebastian said.

James nodded. “I don’t know what I’m feeling! I’ve been trying not to feel! He was my best friend, and he betrayed me, betrayed us! It’s even worse than with my dad, because dad was messed up: he never really loved anyone! But Peter was … my friend!”

Sebastian squeezed him tight. “James, you love him, and he hurt you. I … can’t take that away or make it better. But I’m glad you didn’t kill him, even if I might have in your place….”

“Why?” James asked.

Sebastian kissed his head and whispered, “Because it reminds me that what we are doesn’t have to destroy us! You’re still the sweet boy you always were!” And he felt James relax a little in his arms.

Neither James nor Sebastian knew how much time had passed when the door opened and Lt. Spencer hesitantly stuck his head in. “James? Sir? Consul Wheeler asked me to come find you. It seems that the situation is … developing….”

Sebastian got off the cot and pulled James up, and he held his hand as they walked down to Christen’s office, passing a few of the young soldiers, who gasped, their eyes wide. James shook his head, knowing everyone would know who he was in a few minutes.

“Sorry Sebastian,” Christen said as they entered. “But we seem to have a few issues that need your attention….”

“First of all, I think your message has been received loud and clear,” she said, grimly. James looked confused and Sebastian nodded unhappily to Christen, who played the clip.

The video showed Sebastian levitating the Korean woman who had worked for Chang, four wizards were pressing into her with a great force from each of the four cardinal directions. It soon became clear what they were doing as Sebastian pronounced her death sentence. “This is the fate of all who side with the darkness of evil against the interests of humans and undead alike….” Then he took out a sword and with a quick blow, bisected the female vampire with a stroke that first connected with the forehead between her eyes.

The horrible thing was that the force the wizards were exerting held the two pieces together, and the vampire survived in utter agony. Then he repeated the action, dividing front from back. Again the wizards were able to hold her body together in undying agony. The time began to stretch out and James looked away from the screen. “Turn it off,” he whispered and Sebastian nodded again.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Sebastian whispered back, and James melted into him immediately. As horrible as it was, there was no telling how many lives would be saved because of the fear this video instilled. James understood that. Coughing, Sebastian asked, “What else, Christen? Have the others returned?”

“Americ and Avery checked in. The missions were successful, but Avery’s team took some losses…. The problem is, Pedro hasn’t checked in and Avery went after him, taking anyone who wanted to volunteer. Who knows what they’re charging into?” Christen wondered.

“Budapest,” Sebastian spit with distaste. “No word at all from Pedro? What do the seers say?”

“Their vision is blocked by something powerful,” Christen said.

“Sammael,” Sebastian murmured.

“Or Aethon…. Of all the vampires Sammael has amassed, he’s the oldest, most powerful and most dangerous,” Christen countered.

“Either way! Avery’s already gone?” She nodded. “What about Musa?”

“No word,” Christen replied, shaking her head. Sebastian got an uneasy feeling, but pushed it aside.

“I’m going to Budapest,” he said, finally. Both Christen and James frowned and he shook his head. “We’re going to Budapest! Get your troops to suit back up and I’ll get mine here. We go in hot and heavy through a different insertion point….”

After a flurry of activity, everyone was ready to go in about thirty minutes. Sebastian would lead his team into an alley about a quarter of a mile to the east of Avery’s and Christen would lead hers into a similar alley a quarter of a mile to the west of Avery’s. This, they hoped, would allow them to discern what the threat and the damage was.

What they stepped into was a war-zone: block after block of cars burning in the streets, glass blown out of buildings, and stray energy balls buzzing about willy-nilly. James and Spencer took point and looked around the corner at the end of their alley. Bodies were strewn in the streets, some burning, some screaming and dying, vampire, wizard, and mortal alike. But a cluster of explosions announced ground zero near where Pedro’s and Avery’s teams had come through. Most of the wild energy balls were originating from there. Sebastian’s team was beginning to approach from the opposite side.

Reconnaissance quickly revealed the source of the violence—Resheph and Sekhmet were in a city park trying to fend off what remained of Pedro’s team and Avery’s reinforcements. It became immediately clear that Pedro had surprised Resheph, but then Sekhmet had arrived with backup and turned the tides.

Based on the power behind some of the spells, Avery was out there somewhere, James figured, and he did something unwise. He conjured a huge blue orb of energy and hit Resheph in the side with it. Christen’s whole team took immediate cover and began casting spells like their lives depended on it.

“What were you thinking?” Lt. Spencer asked as he sent a lightning bolt into the chest of a young vampire.

“Avery and his men are pinned down…. I wanted to draw Resheph’s fire, which will allow Sebastian to hit him from behind!” James said.

Spencer smiled. “Good plan,” and they kept up their assault. James’s initial attack had done little but irritate that ancient vampire.

“If you need a target,” James called loud enough for the enemy to hear, “hit Sekhmet! She’s injured….”

Enraged, Sekhmet now turned her attention their way as well, and James could sense Sebastian’s approach. But Resheph soon sensed him as well, rounding on the approaching team and sending a wall of fire their way.

James, in fear and anger, stood and shot a lance of fire laced with black fury directly into Resheph’s back, knocking the creature to its knees. Then, Avery struck with a powerful vortex which thrashed the enemy with heavy debris. Surrounded on three sides, even Resheph and Sekhmet knew they were outmatched, so they turned and ran, taking a few more strikes in their backs until they could turn a corner and transport themselves away.

In the smoky area where he expected to find Avery, James found himself standing in an indescribable wasteland. Wizards lay moaning at his feet, and the streets were full of blood. Avery himself had fallen to his knees, but James was confused as Avery didn’t look like he had suffered significant injuries. And then he saw, to Avery’s right, a familiar face.

He looked a lot like Avery. They’d always favored one another since they were boys. Pedro was bleeding from his mouth, a gaping hole in his chest. There would be no repairing it. Pedro grasped at Avery’s forearm and squeezed tight. “I love you, brother,” the man wheezed, his last words dying in the smoky air.

James looked away, tears burning in his eyes, and Sebastian blurred past him, motioning for Sam to help Avery and collecting Pedro’s body himself, leading them back to the manor. Moments later Sebastian returned and asked James to instruct everyone to return to base and wait for word. James passed that along to Sebastian’s men and returned to Christen’s with her soldiers, giving Sebastian time to deal with Avery alone.

In the mess hall over dinner, James sat quietly, withdrawn, despite all the anxious attempts to get him to open up about Sebastian, Avery, Sam and the others. He didn’t feel like talking.

Lt. Spencer finished up and returned his and James’s trays, returning and suggesting, “Let’s take a walk, James!”

James nodded and followed him out onto the dark grounds. They walked around the lake for a while silently. At last James spoke. “Avery mastered time to hold off his death. When he couldn’t do the same for his brother, he found a vampire to turn him…. They’ve seen five centuries together…. I can’t imagine!”

“For us, the Salazars are legend, and of course Sebastian! It’s so strange that, to you, they’re just people,” Spencer said.

James nodded. “After all I’ve seen them do, Sebastian is just the boy I love at the end of the day. Avery is the battered and nearly broken man I saw return from Ashaer…. There are others…. The cutest little blond, the most powerful person I’ve ever met, and he’s just a sweet boy!”

Spencer’s eyes widened. “Most powerful person? Says the High Consul’s boyfriend?”

James smiled. “I’ve said too much! But I trust you not to say anything…. Christen’s met him too.”

“What is he, a wizard like us, or a vampire?” Spencer asked.

“So much more,” James smiled. “You’ll see, one day!”

Spencer walked on with him, again falling silent for a long time. “Do you think…. Well, I’m just wondering, do you think Sebastian has any openings?”

James looked at him closely and shrugged. “I’ll ask…. I’d like that, though,” James smiled sincerely. The young lieutenant would be a good friend, and someone he could trust to watch his back. They walked back to the barracks and took empty cots, quickly falling into deep sleep, the day’s events having taken a great toll.

***

Avery was pacing back and forth manically in Sebastian’s office. “I’m going to kill them all,” he muttered to himself, tears streaking his cheeks.

“Avery, please sit down,” Sebastian said.

“I can’t, I can’t stop moving or I’ll lose it,” Avery said. “I can’t stop…. I’m going after them!”

“Avery! Listen to yourself! You can go after them now and get yourself killed,” Sebastian answered him, “or you can wait and we can get this right and kill them all!”

Avery stopped and collapsed into a seat, face in his hands. “He’s gone,” the man wept openly. “He’s gone, Sebastian! I’ll never see him again!”

Sebastian knelt at his feet and wrapped his arms around the man. “I’m so sorry, I know what he meant to you! I remember how hard you tried to get me to turn him….”

Avery laughed at the flood of memory, inhaling deeply of Sebastian’s familiar scent. “You know who it was, don’t you?”

“I guessed, a couple of hundred years ago, that it might be Musa,” Sebastian said softly.

“How did you know?” Avery asked.

“For a couple of hundred years, Pedro blushed whenever he was around, or at the mention of his name. I’m guessing he enjoyed his breaking-in period with his sire pretty well….”

“You know Musa,” Avery said with a wink, and Sebastian smiled back nodding.

“Why don’t you go talk to Sarah? If you need anything, you know where I am….” Avery nodded and trudged off, careful to look away from the table on which his brother’s body lay.

Sebastian picked up the phone and called a contact in the NSA to see if they could get a satellite image of the ship Musa’s team had boarded. It would be a long night, and he only wished James were with him. But he knew why the boy hadn’t returned. God, how he loved James!

The thought of Avery upstairs kept drawing him back to the depths, however. Pedro wasn’t the last friend this campaign would cost him, and in a world where relationships lasted centuries, loss was that much more acute.

***

Sammael had been in a rage as report after report came in of compromised safe houses and destroyed assets. So many of his followers were dead, Resheph injured, Sekhmet injured. But she’d told him something interesting, and now he found himself next to Peter.

“Peter, you betrayed your friends coming to me! You’ve killed in cold blood to prove your loyalty…. I need one more thing from you,” Sammael said, rubbing the boy’s bare back.

“What?” Peter asked, shivering at the touch of the cold hand. He hated everything Sammael stood for—and considered it a cruel irony that HE was using the devil—but the feeling of Sammael’s skin against his threatened to silence that inner voice.

“I need to know, does Sebastian have any weaknesses I can use to destabilize him?” Sammael asked.

Peter tensed up momentarily, but moaned as Sammael’s hand slipped beneath the sheet draped casually across Peter’s waist. “If you want to get to Sebastian, there is only one way: James.”

“James,” Sammael mused. “The boyfriend….”

“So much more than that,” Peter said. “Soul mates, true loves….” Even as he said it, he remembered how much he hated himself too—his weakness, his pain, his desire.

“Now,” Sammael said, punctuating his words with an evil smile, “you really have betrayed them!” He pushed Peter back onto the bed playfully and rolled on top of him; totally unlike he was with Andrew, Sammael was dominant but gentle, and as he kissed the boy’s neck, Peter forgot all about loathing and let himself drift away.

***

Sebastian was still sitting at his desk in the morning when he heard footsteps outside his office; he sighed deeply when he saw James’s face and sat back in his chair, closing his eyes. “I’m glad you’re home, baby!” Sebastian said softly.

“How’s Avery?” James said as he knelt down next to Sebastian’s chair, clasping his hand.

“He was ready to go after Sammael last night…. I talked him out of it, but I don’t know how long! Shit, James, I just don’t know what we’re going to do…. And Musa’s team is still missing. At this point, we can only assume….”

“I’m sorry,” James said softly. “I know he means a great deal to you….”

“They all do! I’d learned to live without love a long, long time ago, but they were my FRIENDS!” Sebastian proclaimed, losing control of his emotions and shedding a few tears streaked pink. “When you’ve been friends with someone for nearly a millennium…. We’ve laughed and cried together, we’ve … well, you know!” James smiled and nodded, stroking his cheek. He did know. “If he’s alive, I’ll get him back,” Sebastian said with a steely resolve, and James believed he would do whatever it took.

James stood and pulled Sebastian to his feet and led him upstairs. Avery sat on the couch, his head in Sarah’s lap as she tried to console him. As James and Sebastian passed, she smiled at them sadly. James led Sebastian upstairs and into their bedroom. “I need a shower,” James said as he quickly stripped and hopped into the big shower.

A few moments later, Sebastian slipped in behind him and they washed each other sensually. After they dried each other off, they climbed between the sheets. “I’ve lived thousands of years,” Sebastian whispered as he curled up on James, “and it’s amazing how much I’ve missed you the last couple of days….”

James wrapped an arm around him and held him tight. They kissed and just held each other for a long time, shutting out the world for a little while.

***

Afternoon came quickly, and an urgent message announced an important phone call on the secure system downstairs. Sebastian pulled on pants are ran downstairs, his chest bare. James followed a few minutes behind, stopping to smile at Horatio and Roman, Chris and Steve, who were just outside the game room, staring open-mouthed at Sebastian’s bare back. “Never gets old, does it, boys,” James teased with a wink before bounding downstairs.

He found Sebastian on the phone with Larry, the intelligence analyst. The man was apologizing frantically for underestimating the targets. “Larry, I understand! Let’s get past that…. What can you tell me about Musa?”

“Alive…. Captured…. Still on board!”

“How do we know this, Larry?” Sebastian asked, breathing a sigh of hopeful relief.

“Some communication on the channel we have access too…. They’ve been sending reinforcements, sailing it for a port in West Africa! The idea is a very public execution!”

“Shit,” Sebastian exclaimed. “The very public execution of an old vampire…. That would do it! Larry, keep tracking it and see if our friends in the government can use some satellites to find out where on the boat they’re keeping prisoners….”

“Yes sir,” Larry began, “and again, I’m sorry!”

“Larry! Get to work!” Sebastian rolled his eyes at James who giggled.

But James did reply, “You’re intimidating…. People are afraid of you, or in awe of you.” Sebastian frowned and rolled his eyes again, holding back a little laugh. “Which reminds me, how would you feel about me partnering up with Lt. Spencer? I’d like to have someone I trust watching my back on missions….”

Sebastian raised his eyebrows and said, teasing, “The lieutenant is a handsome young man!”

James smiled and said, “I hadn’t noticed….”

Sebastian nodded with a wink. “I like him! I’d rather you worked closer to home….”

James shook his head, “I’m not asking to join Christen’s militia! I’m asking you to draft Spencer here!”

Sebastian grinned and picked up the phone. “Do you think he’ll mind?”

“I don’t think so,” James answered.

Christen and Sebastian had a long phone conversation about Musa, Pedro, and Avery before he asked her about Lt. Spencer. They had a brief interchange and Sebastian put the phone down.

“What?” James asked with a cheeky smile.

“Nothing…. It seems that Spencer already had his bags packed. Seems he might have gotten the idea into his head that he’d be transferred,” Sebastian said.

James held up his hands and laughed. “Don’t look at me! It was his idea! But it is a good one….”

Sebastian nodded, “I’m glad…. Just be sure he keeps his hands to himself!”

James now rolled his eyes. “He’s real straight,” he laughed. “Besides, I’ve got all I need right here….”

***

Evening came, and Lt. Spencer arrived carrying his bags through the portal, and James showed him to a small room upstairs. “I figured I’d be bunking outside,” he said.

“If you’re going to be my wingman, you’re going to have to live inside,” James laughed. “Come down for dinner when you feel like it….”

James went downstairs and found his friends, Chris and Steve, watching television. “Guys, we’re having company for dinner…. Actually, he’ll be here for a while! Be nice and don’t torture the poor boy! He’s not like us!”

This warning, far from lessening the likelihood of an embarrassing encounter, set the two horn-dogs at attention. So when the young soldier, his brown arms bulging beneath his short-sleeved shirt, marched downstairs, they both looked star-struck. “Hi,” Spencer said, somewhat shyly. “Lieutenant Spencer…. My friends call me Spencer.”

Chris and Steve introduced themselves and Chris asked, “What’s your first name?”

Spencer’s ears reddened as he blushed. “That’s why my friends call me Spencer! Percival doesn’t have the right ring to it….”

“Ouch, dude,” Steve laughed, clapping him on the shoulder. “That’s rough…. So whatya doing here, Percy?”

Spencer laughed and said, “I’ll let you get by with that once, but after that we throw down! I’m … a sort of special forces wizard. James and I are going to be working together some….”

“That sounds … cool,” Chris said, trying to hold back his smile. “So do you have a boyfriend back home?”

“What?” Spencer asked, sputtering. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s just, most of us around here are … you know,” Chris added by way of an explanation. Seeing Spencer relax, he laughed and added, “Don’t worry, you don’t come off as gay or anything!”

“Guys! I told you to lay off,” James laughed as he came out of the kitchen. “Dinner’s ready! Come on….”

They all sat down at the table and Chris and Steve both giggled when Spencer shot up out of his chair like a bolt when Sebastian walked into the room. With a laugh, he said, “Dear Lord! At ease, lieutenant! When we’re at home and not about official business, consider yourself part of the family….”

“Yes, sir!” Spencer exclaimed, bringing another round of laughter as he engaged in making a little fun of himself.

Sarah and Avery never joined them, and the colonel popped in only briefly to grab a bite and pass a folder to Sebastian, which he opened only when dinner was finished. It was a set of battle plans for boarding and taking the ship and retrieving the prisoners. That evening he would decide which one seemed most likely to succeed, though the colonel had taken the liberty of prioritizing them.

After they finished eating, Sebastian grabbed the file and excused himself downstairs, leaving the boys to their own devices. “Do you like pool?” Chris asked. “There’s a pool table and video games upstairs….”

“Sure,” Spencer said with a smile and the boys took him upstairs and showed him around the house. James told them he’d be up in a while, and waited until they were gone before he knocked on a door he hadn’t seen open in a long time.

The Richard who answered looked like a shell of a man. While he was a decade older than James when he was turned, Richard now looked a decade older still and weak.

“Richard!” James couldn’t help but exclaim softly as he stepped inside uninvited.

Richard shrugged and closed the door, walking to sit at his little desk, his robe somewhat haphazardly arranged over him, and he motioned for James to sit on the bed if he liked. Richard didn’t look as if he cared all that much one way or the other. James sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “So I see you’re dealing with it too,” he said with more than a hint of gracious sarcasm. Richard grunted and nodded. “Richard, I need to tell you something…. I saw Peter in Venice with Sekhmet.”

The man’s eyes widened and his body tensed. “What happened?” Richard asked, the first time James had heard his voice in a long time.

And James filled him in on everything, including how he’d almost tried to go back for Peter. “If Christen hadn’t talked sense into me, I’d have rushed back in….”

“She’d have killed you,” Richard said with flat certainty. “Then where would we be?”

“Doesn’t make me feel any better … even after all he’s done,” James confided, lowering his head.

Richard nodded and sat down beside him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “There’s so much we should have done! Do you think there’s any way? Well, that’s just stupid….”

James turned to look at him and said, “If there’s any way to get him out alive, we will. I promise!”

Richard looked grateful, but added, “Don’t take any unnecessary risks….”