ARTURO

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch….

 

THERE WAS a thick coating of frost on the ground around the protection of Green’s faerie hill, and Arturo had to stomp through it with authority or he would find himself on his ass. It was hard to stomp with authority and still move quietly, but Arturo had been an Amazonian god 3000 years before, and he could handle a little frost. He didn’t like it—in fact, the frost pretty much reminded him of why he missed the jungles of South America badly on occasion.

He looked around. Green’s place dwelt on that invisible line that separated the Auburn scrub oak and straw grasses from the red dirt and pine of Foresthill. Past the confines of Green’s hill, the Northern California landscape reverted from a fairy-tale English garden, capped with the Goddess grove, to the native growth—red dirt, straw-colored grasses, and sugar pine trees on the eastern side, and the occasional scrub oak to the west. He was standing to the northwest, behind the sprawling house that dug into the hill itself, where the view from the side of the hill was unencumbered by houses in any direction. He was in a thicket of trees, and his bait was in the clearing itself.

She didn’t look like bait—she looked like a tall, pretty, dark-haired woman. She was one of Adrian’s saved. Since Adrian’s passing, Arturo had truly begun to tally the number of these people. Drug use was fairly high among the bright, uneducated young in Northern California—too often, promising lives wasted away in that quest for a little rent and one more hit. Adrian had looked the part—he’d been pale in life and almost marble colored in death, and he’d appeared handsome and wasted and lost. He had often slipped under the radar at parties—both the rich ones and the poor ones—and collected lovers and broken hearts by the score. But he’d had a weather eye for people like Leah, the girl in the clearing. He’d come to the parties, chat up the lost, and occasionally he’d offer them a choice.

Vampire or were—which would you be?

The logistics were simple, even if the choice was hard. You are dying, he would say. You are spilling your life with every hit, with every drink, with every puff. I can help you change. Because the blood process that changed a person into a were-animal or a vampire cleansed the body of the drugs and kept it clean. Instant sobriety. Your life was your own again, with a few teeny tiny wrinkles that it was up to you to iron out. Mitchell Hammond would have been the first to say that besides Renny, the infected needle that had made him a were-animal was the best thing to happen to him. Leah, the werepuma in the clearing, prayed to the Goddess every morning in thanks, and very sincerely referred to Adrian as her patron saint.

Every one of Adrian’s saved under Green’s command did.

And Adrian had a talent for spotting the ones who could be saved. Arturo would suggest this one or that one from his own wanderings through the foothills underclass, and Adrian would say, sadly, “No, brother, he would go mad” or “She would waste away without a child… she may pull herself out yet” or “That one, that one would eat our throats as we slept.” And as Arturo watched, frustrated, he would eventually see that Adrian was right. In the matter of saving the lost, Adrian had always been right.

Arturo had been hard on Adrian for over forty years. He’d seen the playboy, the partier—the little kid that Green had never asked to grow up since his actual childhood had been so, so cruel. Arturo had even forbidden Adrian from seeing Cory until she’d lied to the police for him and he’d realized that the two of them were inevitable. To this day, Arturo marveled that Cory—little Corinne Carol-Anne Kirkpatrick, who’d had the dyed black hair and the five thousand earrings and the massive hostility—had possessed the wisdom to see what Arturo hadn’t seen until she’d showed him Adrian’s fineness through her own eyes.

And he had been fine, Arturo thought mournfully. Throughout the years, the number of Adrian’s saved had mounted to the hundreds. Grace had been one, although it had been cancer that almost killed her and not drugs. He had been fine, and good, and in the way we tend to minimize the qualities of our own family, Arturo had waited until the last days of his wayward brother to tell him that he was a good leader—and a good man.

So here was Leah, Adrian’s last saved, if one didn’t count Cory, and she was stretching her werepuma muscles as bait.

Arturo was nervous. He wished like hell for a cigarette, a habit he’d picked up when he came to this country. He was sidhe, a god, and his body didn’t form demeaning addictions—but that didn’t mean his fingers didn’t twitch inside his pockets. Leah was barely older than Cory, and he didn’t want her hurt. He took a deep breath and scanned the surrounding area one more time, thinking “hawk.” No hawk replied.

This alone was a problem. Arturo had a thing for hawks, since he had once been the condor god, and although that was long ago, and he had given up the ability to change into a condor when he’d left his native land, he still had the ability to talk to them. As a result, they tended to populate Green’s land and the surrounds fairly heavily. If there were no hawks around, something was definitely amiss. And if things larger than hawks were swooping down on the heads of your werecreatures, events were more than amiss—they were in chaos.

They’d fended off several attacks already—and captured the attackers—so things were most definitely in chaos.

And he just plain missed the hawks. They had been like little cousins when they’d been allowed to thrive. In his spare time, he would sit in the sun during the spring and fall and watch the hawks play on the wind.

Of course, he mused bitterly, he very possibly missed Grace even more.

He was a god, he thought again irritably, but it was no use. Grace had been amusing at first—foulmouthed, quick-tempered, well-read on everything from Elizabethan poetry to how to fix a motorcycle engine. But it hadn’t been until he’d seen the way she mothered Adrian and Green that he’d really started to love her.

The sidhe of South America tended toward brutal autonomy. No one wanted to share godhood, so a sidhe rising from obscurity had to either kill the more powerful beings around him or go find a place to rule alone. That had been Arturo’s intention when he’d come to North America. The Yunwi-Tsunsdi of the Native Americans had dwindled with the humans they’d come to depend on, and North America had been ripe for the plucking. Arturo was tired of watching his humans get massacred by the rich, or by the careless, or by themselves. North America, he’d come to believe, would be more stable, and had so few fey that he’d be able to come in and rule where he ruled.

That had been his plan until he’d met Green.

He’d first seen Green when he’d driven his classic baby-blue Edsel up Green’s driveway. Green had been working his garden, casually throwing out power like a father would throw a slow softball to his child, and Arturo had actually smiled at the lovely, lovingly crafted gardens that had been carved out of this inhospitable soil and climate. He’d hidden the smile as he climbed out of the car and bowed stiffly to Green, announcing his intentions to take over as the reigning sidhe of the area.

Green had blinked, then smiled and offered a hand. “That sounds like a hard task you’ve set yourself, friend,” he’d said equably. “Why don’t you come inside, have some food and wine, and tell me why it’s my land you want, yes?”

Arturo had gotten drunk, although any sidhe would have said arrogantly that this was impossible, and had enjoyed Green’s company very, very much, because the other elf had a dry wit and a sharp mind and a surprising fierceness when his own people were threatened—and in spite of himself, Arturo had warmed to the sidhe who was supposed to be his enemy. He’d woken up the next morning in a bed full of very satisfied wood nymphs who, they had confessed, had learned how to bed a man from Green himself, and he had asked himself if, were he in charge, he could possibly make a better, safer home than the one Green had.

The answer had been no and Arturo had stayed on, but as Green’s lieutenant, and not once had he wished for Green’s status or his power. Twenty years later, when he saw Grace with all her surprising fierceness caring for Green and Adrian, he had found himself falling for her hard as he couldn’t fall for Green and Adrian. It didn’t matter. Grace was everything he loved about his home, and his leader, and the young man he’d thought of as a son.

Feathers and wind interrupted his thoughts, and he nearly turned into a tree (one of his remaining powers) in his quest for instant quiet.

Leah, whose senses were nearly as sharp as a human as they were when she wore fur and claws, heard that sound and smiled to herself, giving her long dark hair a careless flip and knowing it would come.

A hawk larger than a hawk came shrieking out of the sky, talons extended, ready to take out Leah’s throat. Closer it came, closer, and Arturo was almost screaming with fear for the girl when, between heartbeat and breath, too late for the bird to stop its dive, she changed into a giant, black-furred snarling predator who gracefully dodged the bird’s dive and with careless ease knocked the bird to the ground with a massive paw. In a bound, Leah was on top of the hawk, her jaws locked around its throat but not penetrating feathers and skin. Arturo was by her side almost before she had stilled.

“Nicely done,” he told her, and she wrinkled whiskers and fur around the burden in her mouth for what passed as a feline smile. In an easy hop, he straddled the bird and pinned its wings with his knees.

“Now listen up, my friend,” he said conversationally, pretending that the bird wasn’t struggling furiously. “You have two choices here. The first is that we can keep fighting and I will have to break your neck, and that would be too bad because I like birds. The second is that you change yourself, and we go back to my basement and you join your fellows, and we give up this idea of attacking my people, because it doesn’t work.” His voice rose in exasperation, because the damnedest part of the struggle was that it wasn’t working. So far, Green’s people had sustained negligible injuries and Arturo had captured four furious Avians. Of course, that didn’t count the missing hawks that had fled the property from the larger predators, but Arturo was fairly certain they’d come back when the Avian threat had cleared.

The Avian shrieked again, loud enough to bend metal, and Arturo remembered enough about being a bird to shout a warning to Leah. In a ten-foot standing leap, she bound upward into the air and came down hard on the soft-brown feathered mate to the hawk in his arms. The mate had been streaking toward both of them in defense of her male, claws extended and murder in her eyes, and Leah—working on adrenaline instead of planning—landed on top of her neck, which then bent sharply when the bird’s head was driven into the ground. They landed with an ominous crunch, and Arturo’s heart fell.

“Aww… damn it…,” he said and looked over to where Leah was nosing the still body of the giant bird and emitting little growl-whines when it didn’t move. Slowly, oh so slowly, it turned, and there was the body of a brown-haired woman who had been beautiful in life but now was only pitiful, lying on her stomach with her head cocked at an unnatural angle and her eyes wide open as her body fought for and lost its last breath.

The bird beneath him shifted and changed, and the voice that came from the fully clothed human beneath Arturo was anguished, devastated, and bereft.

No man, vampire, or elf could have stood still and heard that cry without being moved.

With a sigh, Arturo moved his knees from the fallen Avian’s arms and was too saddened to be pleased when he didn’t struggle to escape but stayed, face buried in the frost, and howled his grief.

“Was it worth it, my brother?” Arturo asked softly, not expecting an answer. “Was it worth it, to follow a false promise of power?”

The man only howled again and sat up to his haunches, then sank, weeping, into the frosty ground. His hand reached out and made a helpless, stroking gesture toward the dead woman, and then he sobbed again.

Arturo sighed. Grace might know what to do, he thought, but that was probably because he missed his lover and wanted to lose himself in her and away from this sadness. The truth was that he needed Green. Goddess, did he miss his leader. They had four already, held prisoner in the basement, away from sunlight and wind and pining to death. He had a house full of weres—mostly feline—who were just dying to sink their claws into these giant nuisances and maybe munch on a little California-fried werecondor as well. And now he had this one, bereft and heartbroken, and he had no idea how to comfort him. Green could do it. Green would do it well, Arturo thought, frustrated with his own limitations. No one understood heartbreak and the will to live like Green.

But he wouldn’t trouble his leader with this, not today. Grace called him every night, and he knew how to lead well enough on his own. But, Goddess, did he pray, every minute, for Cory to come back to Green, and Green to come back to his hill where he belonged.

 

CORY

Cory, Don’t Go.

 

I WAS suffocating. I was burning. I was naked in the snow and freezing. I was alone, all alone, oh Goddess, so alone. I was surrounded by lovers, and someone was trying to rip them out of my arms.

I’d die first.

I kept trying to tell people that and they wouldn’t listen.

A new body, a different taste—cool, spicy, sweet. I didn’t know this one. I’d never had it inside me. But it knew me. It called me Adrian.

And Adrian answered, and told me that I needed to wake up.

“But you just came to bed,” I teased him, holding on to his cool hand as he moved away from me.

“Things to do, luv,” he said cockily. He leaned over me, autumn-sky eyes bright and clear, and I could feel his lips on mine, taste him in my mouth, smell him—bubblegum, clean vampire, copper-penny blood, me. Another kiss on my hair and he was gone.

“Adrian, don’t go!” I sat up in bed, feeling like I’d said the words, but suddenly aware that my throat was parched and I couldn’t say anything. Green was lying under my grandmother’s quilt with me, naked, on my right, and Bracken was lying, also naked, on my left. And Adrian had been gone from all of us for a long time.

“Shit,” I said through a cracked throat and fell abruptly back into bed, feeling as though I might crumble into dust at any moment.

“Jesus, Cory,” said a soft female voice over by Bracken. “You’re awake.”

“No, I’m not,” I croaked. “I’ve been taken over by the undead. This is an illusion.”

Renny made a courtesy laugh in the back of her throat, but it didn’t sound happy.

“That should have been funny,” I told her weakly. Why couldn’t I sit up again? I peered over toward Renny, and Max and Nicky were asleep on a green-and-red brocade couch next to her. Since when was there a couch in my room? I squinted toward the clock, but it was covered up by water bottles and one of our crockery soup bowls with something in it, which was odd, because normally the sprites would have cleaned something like that up.

“It’s only funny because you haven’t been here for the last six days,” she muttered, her voice choked. What had made Renny cry, I wondered. We had all been so careful not to make her cry, these last months.

Six days? “What’s wrong, puss?” I asked. Suddenly she loomed over me, holding a thermos of something in her hands.

“Here—drink,” she muttered. Her flyaway brown hair was more of a mess than usual, and she had bags under her eyes I could ship to Paris. She looked like hell.

“What is it? What’s wrong… shit….” Because she’d dumped it down my throat and it was chicken broth with some herbs in it that were probably regulation elf, and it was all I could do not to just spit it up, sans dignity, all over myself. I swallowed instead, and some more, and then I pushed it away. “I’m full,” I said after a moment. “What happened to you?” I looked around at all of the unconscious men. “What happened to everyone?”

She made a sound between a laugh and a sob and put her hand over her mouth. “You happened to us, you stupid dork,” she said after a moment. “Jesus, Cory—do you have any idea what you’ve put us through?”

“Tell me,” I said gently, letting her lay me back down. “What day is it?”

She nodded faintly. “It’s 4:00 a.m. Monday morning.”

“No….” Impossible. Tuesday night did not turn into Monday morning. I tried to put that into words, but Renny shushed me.

“You’ve been sick. Goshawk attacked you when you and Bracken were alone—he tried to take your memories again.”

“Adrian,” I said in wonder, tasting that kiss as though it were yesterday—which apparently I didn’t remember. “I got him back….” Part of him, anyway.

“Yes, Adrian,” Renny said, gentle and bitter at once. “You fought Goshawk for all of them. You won. It almost killed us all.”

I felt foggy, far away. “The men… fed me,” I said after a moment. “They were so tired.”

“Yes,” Renny told me. “You wouldn’t drain them completely—they would have died to save you, and you were dying to save them. We would have lost you if Andres hadn’t showed up.”

Andres. “The head vampire, here? In my bed?” Then, to myself, “Bracken must have had a fit.” Because Bracken was possessive, and he was mine.

“Bracken would have sold you to marriage with the other if he thought that would save you,” Renny said caustically, her voice getting closer to normal.

And finally I was beginning to see what keeping me alive had cost everyone. “Green’s weak,” I said with wonder, realizing that although he was next to me, trying to give me strength, the electricity that usually coursed under my palms when I touched him and Bracken was barely a ripple to my touch now. Both Green and Bracken were barely thrumming with the vitality I’d come to treasure.

“Everyone’s weak, sweetie,” Renny said at last, seeing how upset I was. “We’re the walking dead here. The men slept next to you in shifts, to keep their energy up.”

“Max and Nicky?” I asked and saw her nod. She was mad at me for almost leaving her, I thought as Renny’s tiny, shaking hand came to brush my hair from my eyes. I fought the urge to cry. “I’m sorry,” I said weakly. “I’ve hurt everyone… I didn’t mean to….” Tears leaked down the side of my face to the pillow. “Poor Nicky,” I said after a moment, struggling to look at him to see if he was okay. I remembered flinging him away to keep him from bonding with me because that could only end up hurting him, and he’d been trying to feed me his life energy for a week. This last week must have been awful for him. For them all.

“Shhh.” And Renny was no longer angry at me. She ran her hands over my face, trying to calm me down.

“I have to pee,” I said after a bit.

“That’s good,” she said. “Your kidneys almost shut down—you weren’t giving them anything to work with.”

“That’s bad,” I corrected her. “I don’t think I can sit up.” I felt wretched, helpless, and pitiful. And I felt worse because I had reduced all these people I loved and cared about to the same state.

“I’ll call Grace, then,” she said, and to my complete mortification, Grace had to hover over the bed and scoop me into her arms so that I wouldn’t wake the sleeping men on either side of me. And then she had to help me go potty, and that was even worse. The only good part was the bath, because in spite of the fact that she assured me I’d been bathed once a day, I felt grody and full of sweat and the stink of my own sickness. Renny told me I’d been living in Bracken’s and Green’s T-shirts, and Grace thought it was because the smell of either one of the men had calmed me down as I tossed in fever. That probably boosted their egos to be so loved that even their smell was a comfort to someone they cared for. Although any emotion more sensual than “care” was somewhat of a stretch at the moment, I guessed mournfully, looking down at my wasted body.

“They’re not even cherry pits anymore,” I complained to Grace without meaning to complain, because I had lots to be grateful for.

“I’m pretty sure that’s not why all those men climbed in bed with you, honey,” she responded drolly.

“Speaking of which,” Renny said, standing by Grace with a towel, “can I keep one?’

I was so happy for her that I felt those stupid weak tears come back again. “Max?” I asked roughly. “Sure—my dance card seems to be filling up right now. Go ahead.”

“Four men isn’t ‘filling up,’ Cory—it’s pretty packed,” Renny said. Grace hoisted me dripping wet out of the tub, and I lifted my arms like a toddler while Renny wrapped me up in the towel. Both women were preternaturally strong, I knew, but I also knew that there was very little of me to woman-handle.

“Four?” I said, surprised, as Grace toweled my hair. “My last count had two.” I’m a little out of it, and everyone gets delusions of grandeur Han Solo was saying in my head, and I knew I had very little time to talk before I was physically compelled to sleep.

Grace shot Renny a look, and the two women grew very still. “What?” I asked, feeling dopey.

“Nicky,” Grace said after a moment.

“No,” I denied. “I threw him out of there.” Horrified, I tried to remember, as I’d leaned back on him, if Nicky had done more than just want me. “I wouldn’t have done that to him.” I swallowed hard. Nicky—with that terrible, brilliant, hopeless smile before he’d gone to Goshawk. Nicky, who had held my hand that whole awful day while we tore ass over the city, searching desperately for my other lover. Damn. I looked to Grace and Renny, hoping it wasn’t true—that he hadn’t bonded with me for life. They wouldn’t meet my eyes. Damn damn damn damn bugger-fuck it all. “Aw, Jesus….”

“It’s not just you,” Renny said after a minute, as though this were the good news. “He bonded when Green was holding him, right when you created that totally awesome hotel.” Goddess—I guess that wasn’t a fever dream either. “Either you or Green can satisfy him,” she said, as though hoping.

“That wouldn’t be fair,” I said automatically. “He’s in love with me.” Just saying it hurt. “No.” I looked at the two women, smile twisting. “I’m part of this now—he’s mine too. I can’t just forsake him.” My throat went tight, and my eyes pinched. “I love Green because he doesn’t do that to people. If I let Nicky down, I let Green down. I can’t do that.” I didn’t even want to think about the act itself. Not now, not when my body felt like it might shatter if I sat down too hard. I swallowed past the lump in my throat and risked the next question. “So, that makes three,” I said carefully.

“Andres makes four.” Renny thought this, at least, was funny.

“But not in her bed!” Grace interrupted with exasperation. They glared at each other for a minute, and I didn’t have the strength to ask about it while Grace brushed my teeth.

“I’m so confused,” I said later, sitting on the toilet seat while Grace blew my hair dry.

Grace sighed, shut off the hairdryer, and finger-combed my hair around my face. She was comfortable grooming me, I realized. It must have been a long week for everybody. “Andres healed you,” she said at last, “on the hope, mind you, that you’ll give him blood when you’re whole and well. He wants you to be a representative for Green—to sign a treaty to bind his people to Green’s people, and to your vampires.”

“They’re really yours,” I said, because leaving the vampires without their queen had been a niggling little guilt at the back of my mind since I’d left the hill in August.

“No, darling,” Grace said gently, “they’re still yours. They follow me, and they understand, but you’ve got three of Adrian’s marks and they miss him terribly, and you’re their only sunshine and they miss you. But don’t worry about that now—don’t even worry about Andres now.” She had scooped me up into her arms again, and because she wasn’t Green or Bracken, I could fully relax and be mothered. “He’s a good man and he loved Adrian, and he’ll take no for an answer.” We entered my room again, and the men hadn’t moved.

“And I can’t tell him no,” I said, knowing it was the truth. “Besides, a little blood—really—I just agreed to sleep with Nicky for, like, ever. What’s a little blood intimacy in exchange for my life?” I looked at the unconscious men, all of whom would have given their lives for me and maybe would have had to if Andres hadn’t shown up and offered them that way out. “For all of us,” I added. “He saved all of us.”

“You saved him first,” Grace reminded me, “and his whole kiss. Don’t let gratitude give him a free pass into your bed.”

“I thought you said he only wanted my blood.”

“He only asked for your blood. He wouldn’t have been able to help heal you if he hadn’t been pretty excited about the other thing.”

“I don’t even know this man,” I said wearily. “And, quite frankly, I think dealing with Green and Bracken is going to be difficult enough—especially now that Nicky and I are pretty much married. Why don’t we just let Andres suck on my neck, and try not to piss Bracken off any more than necessary?”

Grace chuckled, and Renny managed a tired guffaw. “I’ve seen you two dance, sweetie,” Grace said when she could. “If you and Brack aren’t pissing each other off, you’re just not living.”

Dimly, swimming in exhaustion, I looked again at the men who had given their lives to me—even Max, who would love Renny, had become part of my household. “And we want to live, don’t we?” I asked myself, but Grace gave me a gentle hug in response.

At last I was clean and dry and wearing one of Bracken’s old baseball shirts—the River Cats. It occurred to me in a vague sort of way that Bracken was something of a sports enthusiast, and Green was not. This could be good, I thought fuzzily, because it would make sleeping with two men in the same home a hell of a lot easier. The last lucid thought I had was that I shouldn’t go back to sleep with Bracken and Green.

“They’re so tired,” I said weakly to Grace.

“So are you, baby,” she told me briskly, doing that hovering thing and placing me between the two of them as though I’d never left. “And they’ve prayed for your health for so long, I’d hate to rob them of waking up and seeing that you’re better.”

I wouldn’t have argued with that even if I’d had the strength.

When I woke up again, it was light. I reached for Green or Bracken and found the slighter, more mortal body of Dominic Kestrel instead. I wanted Green. I wanted Bracken. I was surprised by how equal these wants were. But I saw Nicky expecting to be rejected, and I refused to do that to a friend.

“Hey, luv,” I said, remembering all the times Green had greeted me with this and how I had felt instantly better. “I understand we’re married.” I leaned into him and even Nicky, for all of his inexperience, knew how to hold a tired, sick woman when she asked for comfort.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“I’m sorrier,” I said back. I looked up and saw his face pale beneath his freckles. His hair—usually gelled and perfect—was a complete messy disaster. I felt a tug in the direction of my heart. “You know,” I said softly, “in a whole other world, it would not have been a hardship to spend my life with you.” He looked at me with sorrow-filled eyes, and I smiled a little. “It’s still not,” I told him, and he tucked his slight body next to mine as though he was learning how, and I felt him shudder. Once, twice, and then he was weeping silently, and I was shushing him.

“We’ll be okay,” I told him softly. “I won’t let you down.”

“You’ll have to have my child,” he said, voice choked with tears. “How can I make you have my child?”

I closed my eyes tight, opened them, and digested that. “I promised Green a child first,” I said, feeling my way. The sidhe willed their children into existence—they’d been practicing sidhe-safe sex with me since I’d first come to Green’s bed. I assumed they could make sure the right sperm met my egg when the time came. “Bracken will want his child too.” I couldn’t hardly believe I was saying this. Of course I had always wanted to be a mother, but I wasn’t old enough to buy beer. I wasn’t well enough to walk to a bar. But Nicky had to know if he could live. “But I could have your baby, Nicky,” I promised with a lump in my throat, hoping there could be another way. “Do we have to start today?” I meant it to be a joke and was relieved when he laughed a little through his tears.

“We’ve got about ten years,” he said.

Good—I had some time, then. I could at least finish college before I started pushing babies out like gumdrops from a pretty glass ball. “And then what will happen?”

He looked at me seriously. “The same thing that will happen if I’m deprived of love for any length of time. I molt and pine and die.”

I nodded, feeling like I was going to fall asleep again in very short order. “Green and I will take care of you, Nicky,” I said from far away. “We don’t let people down.”

I woke again and it was dark and, thank Goddess, Green was holding me and Bracken was feeding me soup.

I was so happy that it was the two of them—Green, who I loved with all my soul, and Bracken, who I loved with all my heart—that I actually started to cry into my soup.

Bracken was appalled. “Goddess, Cory!” he sputtered, putting the bowl precariously on the bed and starting after me with a napkin. “It’s just soup!”

I felt a rusty chuckle rumble in my throat and heard Green’s gorgeous laugh soft in my ear. I smiled at Bracken, and as awful as I was sure I looked, it must have held something in it—some promise of beauty, of health, and of strength—because he leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss on my lips. “Go ahead and cry, then,” he said softly, “as long as I’m not the one who made you.”

“Oh fine, take that out of the relationship, why don’t you,” I tried to snap. It was hard when I was all choked up, but it got another smile from Bracken, and I could feel Green’s chest shake beneath me, and I thought that maybe we could get through.

After a moment, I grabbed the hawk by the talons, so to speak, and said, “I’m sorry about… everything.” I was going to say “about Nicky,” but it just seemed too cruel.

“Don’t be sorry, luv,” Green said quietly, at about the time Brack said, “You should be sorry, genius!” The two of them locked eyes, and Bracken had the grace to look sheepish.

“You worried me to death, Cory,” he said, sort of like a little kid remembering his words. “And we would have had other firsts. You could have let me go.”

“Not possible,” I said quietly. I found I was looking longingly at the soup and hoping Bracken would pick it up again. “Not possible for me to let any of you go. And how dare he come in and try to make me! But I’m sorry for almost killing us all—I’m sorry I forced you guys to make that choice. I’m sorry I hurt everybody.”

“What you should be sorry for,” Green said acerbically, “is the same thing you should have been sorry for these last five months—you wouldn’t let any of us heal you.”

“That’s not true,” I told him back, standing my ground. “I just wouldn’t let any of you die for me.”

“It would have been our choice if we did,” Bracken snapped sullenly. “You just need to remember that if someone chooses to die for you, it’s because they can’t live without you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. His name hung in the air, and nobody would say it, but we all knew who this argument was about. Suddenly Green, of all of us, started swearing. “Goddamned buggering goat-fucking bastard fuckwit!” he burst out, and Bracken and I didn’t even have to ask to whom he was referring.

“If he were here right now, I’d beat the living shit out of him,” Bracken agreed. He moved the soup to the floor and wrapped his arms around my middle, laying his head on my chest. Green reached around to clutch both of us to him, and I could feel us all vibrating with laughter, with anger, with grief, and with, hardest of all, relief.

I started to laugh, and it came out faintly hysterical. “What an asshole,” I agreed weepily. “Do you think if he knew he was going to fuck us up this bad, he might have found a way not to die on us?”

“Bleeding Jesus, I hope so!” Bracken said against me. “I’d hate to think we’ve been hurting so bad, so long, for someone who didn’t give a shit.”

“I give a shit,” I said into his hair. “I wouldn’t die if I could help it.”

“Just don’t leave us behind,” Bracken begged. He looked over my shoulder to Green. “Okay—you can leave him behind. But you can’t leave me.”

“Show-off,” Green said wretchedly, and I laughed in the same vein.

“I’m sorry,” I had to say it again, I felt it so deeply. “I’m so, so, so sorry.” And it was the last thing anybody said for a while as we sat on the bed and held each other.

Eventually we pulled apart, and Bracken fed me soup in a murmuring silence as I dozed off in Green’s arms. When I woke up again, there was only Green, which was fine, because I had so much to talk to him about, I couldn’t put it all in one sentence.

He was lying next to me watching me sleep, and when my eyes opened, his face creased in a sweet smile.

“You’re awake,” he said, and he sounded like a happy child.

“You’re here,” I responded, and I must have sounded the same.

We stayed like that, smiling, for a moment, and then I said, “I seem to be married to Nicky.”

Green nodded ruefully. “So do I,” he replied. “Can I tell you how proud I am about how you handled that?”

I looked away, embarrassed. “We have to take care of our own,” I mumbled. “You wouldn’t let him pine away and die—I couldn’t. Anyway,” I added, “it’s the least I could do after all the other ways I screwed up.”

He kissed my forehead. “And what ways would those be?” he asked.

“I got sick. I almost killed everybody I loved.” I gave a half laugh. “I just flunked out of school!”

Green’s eyes grew hard. “No, you didn’t,” he said flatly.

“Aren’t I supposed to be taking finals right now?” I asked in surprise.

“You took your finals. You passed,” he said, his face implacable.

“Green…,” I protested. And for the first time ever, I saw that he was angry, really angry, with me.

“You passed your finals,” he said fiercely. “You won’t take those classes over again. You won’t ever take that many classes again. And we won’t talk about this again.”

“Green…,” I said again, but this time I was hurt. He had never been angry with me before.

“You were punishing yourself,” he said, still angry. “You were punishing yourself with work, with leaving, and I didn’t see it.” His eyes, every shade of green, turned toward me, and in spite of his great age and his agelessness, he looked very young. “You were worn down before Nicky attacked you. You were exhausted. You were weak. Everything that happened afterward happened because you’ve forgotten what it’s like to live, and live happily. That won’t happen again.” He looked away for a moment, and I lay quietly in his arms as he tightened his muscles as though to get up.

“I didn’t earn my grades,” I insisted, still hurt but unwilling to be afraid of his anger. He loved me. I knew this. What was fear?

Green swore—rudely, succinctly, with heat. “Tell me, Cory,” he said after. “I’ve seen your courses—a business computer course and a score of poly sci, lit, and European history classes. What exactly are you training yourself to be?”

I flushed, even with neither of us in the mood for anything resembling lovemaking, and mumbled an answer.

“What was that?” he demanded, grasping my chin and making me look him in the eyes.

“Your queen,” I said. I hadn’t felt this hostile since I had worn twenty earrings and a black-goth haircut. “I’m training to be your queen.”

He nodded, still looking bad-tempered. “Well, Corinne Carol-Anne, you’ve just fought to save the memory of my people, fought ferociously to save an ally’s entire court, and agreed to bed a young man you are not in love with simply because he’s one of ours and you will not let him die. I’d say you aced your goddamned final, wouldn’t you?”

I flushed even more, feeling foolish. “So what’re Nicky and Renny studying for?” I asked with acid on my tongue. I was not willing to concede just yet, but I’d lost. Green knew it, and he replied with the kind laughter-crinkles in the corners of his eyes.

“They’re studying to be your subjects, lovey. I’d say they passed with flying colors, yes?”

“Fair enough,” I begrudged, only, I told myself, because I wanted to see the smile lurking in his eyes blossom. Goddess, did I need the healing of that smile.

I was denied. “No, not fair,” he said quietly. “Nothing about your first year with us has been fair.”

I had no answer for him, and one agenda. Smile at me, Green, please smile at me. “Did I really make a hotel?” I asked, out of the blue.

And that did it. “It’s a five-star masterpiece,” he said, beaming wearily at me.

“We’ll have to stay there someday,” I told him. “After the sprites fix up the honeymoon suite.”

“We’ll make it a priority,” he agreed, still chuckling.

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Smiling at me.”

He nodded. “It was the least I could do.” He waited a beat. “I have to leave for a couple of days. Will you be okay?”

No. No, I would not be okay. I needed him. “What happened?” I asked instead.

Green sat up in bed and sighed, leaving me, still weak and struggling, prone and helpless. “Attacks at home,” he said bluntly, and I was so surprised I struggled to sit up. He put a firm hand on my chest and waggled a finger at me.

“It was to be expected,” he said soberly, catching my eyes and making sure I understood. “My location isn’t a secret, and once it became known I was here and moving events along, Goshawk would have been foolish not to try to take advantage.”

I swallowed and nodded. “So, uhm….” I couldn’t bring myself to say the word casualties. “Has anyone been hurt?”

“No—not on our side, at least,” he told me, and I relaxed against the piled pillows.

“Their side?”

“We’ve captured five, with one casualty. The mate of one of the captured Avians. Arturo is afraid they will die in captivity, and he doesn’t know what to do with them.”

The unsaid hit me—that Arturo would have killed them immediately, but he knew Green wouldn’t agree to that at all. Green was needed. Green knew how to make people want to live. “You have to go,” I said unwillingly. I’d been training to be a queen, right? Well, Guinevere had been unable to let Arthur go. I had to be able to do better than that.

“I’ll leave Lancelot here to champion you,” Green said, and I told him to stay out of my head. He only laughed. Then I told him to take Nicky, and he agreed.

“And Officer Max will drive us up. His vacation is over at the end of this week, anyway—he needs to go back to work.”

“He needs to change his job,” I said thoughtfully. The reason Max and I had never been an item was that he’d been more cop than hero. I’d guess that his steadfastness in the last few days now made him more hero than cop.

“Very probably,” Green agreed. “And I’ve let him know that if he does, we have a place for him. But for now….”

“For now, he’d probably like to get out of the place where the pigeons shitting on your car really do have it in for you,” I finished dryly.

“Indeed,” Green agreed, sitting back down on the bed again. I could feel it coming on—nappy time. I felt like such a loser, having to fall asleep every fifteen minutes. I realized that I had lost track of the day again.

“Wednesday morning,” Green said gently when I asked. “I should be back by Friday evening, Saturday morning at the latest.” But he sounded uncertain, and my heart sank a little. There would be so much to do.

“So Grace stays here?” I asked. Poor Grace—I was sure she missed Arturo.

“And Renny,” Green nodded. “And to babysit the lot of you, Andres will be here in the evenings.”

To my absolute horror, I blushed, and Green laughed at me outright. “It’s not funny,” I groused, mortified. “He’s seen me helpless. He held me as I slept, and all I know about him is he’s got a very sexy accent and good manners. I couldn’t even pick him out of a lineup!”

“You’re right, of course,” he answered gently. “But that’s not why I’m laughing.” He took one of my fretful hands as it twisted my grandmother’s quilt. Someone must have mailed it there for me, because, as I remembered, I’d left it at Green’s. “I’m laughing because you’re thinking that you’ll probably have to sleep with him too—and you want to say no, but you don’t know how.”

This wasn’t helping the blush, and I said so.

“Look, luv,” he told me kindly, “I’m not denying that the man would like to be your lover, but he very much understands that you’re spoken for.”

“Boy howdy, am I,” I retorted, and Green laughed again. And because I’d made him my other college course for the last seven months, I saw the sadness behind the laugh, and I finally realized that for all of what he believed about monogamy and love and the Goddess, it had not been easy on him to decide that we would live like this. Without another word, I took the hand that held mine and kissed it gently.

O’ue’hm,” I said, hoping that was right.

For once, it was Green who looked raw and vulnerable and distraught, and it was all I could do not to take it back, though I had said it for comfort.

“Thank you,” he said after a moment. A single tear rolled from his cheek to my hand, became crystal, tumbled down onto Gran’s quilt, and spread, making the whole quilt glow as though threaded with light. Oblivious to the small miracle of elves, Green touched his cheek to my hand. “Thank you, my o’ue’eir. It is a fine title for a lover and a leader. It is everything we are, and everything we can become. Thank you.”

Now I wanted to cry. When the tears started to leak from between my eyes, I knew that I really had to sleep soon, and then I really had to eat again. Damn, I was a slave to my physical person—and for the first time, I understood that when someone had their health, they had a hell of a lot.

“Will you be gone when I wake up?” I asked, feeling foolish and helpless to ask it.

“Yes,” he said, gathering me into his arms again. “But I’ll be here as you fall asleep.”

“When can we make love again?” I asked, feeling that faint hunger underneath all of the other bodily pulls that commanded me at the moment.

“When you can be awake for more than five minutes at a time,” he responded, his voice still clogged from the one moment when the words due’alle and due’ane remained unspoken between us.

“I’ll work on that while you’re gone,” I told him, and buried myself in his arms and his smell and the feel of his hands in my hair until oblivion rolled me under.