The help wanted sign looked faded in the window. What had once been bold red letters were now pale, weak, and orange. Still, Kane took an extra moment to try to catch his reflection in the dark part of the window. His dark hair was short, shorter than it had been in a long time, and when he touched the bare skin on the back of his neck, the naked feel to it alarmed him.
Jinx appeared at his elbow. He walked like every other human, but Jinx did it quietly, softly, more like a cat. His ghost-white hair was pink under the neon light. He touched Kane’s elbow.
“Not now, Jinx,” Kane said.
Jinx grabbed his arm, this time not letting go when Kane tried to pull free. Jinx was stronger than he looked. Always had been, which meant Kane wasn’t going anywhere.
Kane stopped struggling. “What is it?”
Jinx just looked at him. His face showed concern, lips tight. He shook his head. He turned his head and coughed, breaking the normal sounds of the evening with his racking shoulders. Kane took Jinx’s head in his hands. “Don’t do this to me now, Jinx. I need you to hang on in there. This is only going to take a few minutes, but I need you to just stay with me, okay?”
Jinx was going to shake his head, but Kane wouldn’t let him go. It took every ounce of strength Kane had, but he kept his arms locked. “Yes. Jinx, yes.”
The muscles on Jinx’s neck bunched, then relaxed three times before he finally allowed himself to settle. He nodded.
Jinx nodded again.
Kane pulled him close and kissed him on the forehead. “Do this for me, just once.” Jinx nodded a third time.
Kane exhaled. His cheeks were still smooth; they’d lucked out and found a hotel’s convention centre that had bathrooms out of the way that had both deep enough sinks to wash up in, and unguarded coffee and Danish trays. They’d washed and eaten like kings.
He took one more deep breath, released Jinx, and pulled open the convenience store door. The blast of cold, conditioned air caught him in the lungs after the warm, soupy air of the night. He muffled the cough, knowing it would sound wet and phlegmy from the street.
The old man behind the counter looked at him wearily. It was a bad neighborhood — no one had to tell Kane that. He knew without being told that there was a gun under the counter. He knew — again without being told — that it was probably pointed at him. Still, he kept his face in a polite smile and approached the counter as non- threateningly as he could.
“Hi,” he said.
The man nodded cautiously, and Kane had to fight to keep the smile on his face. He wondered, briefly, if anyone would ever actually talk to him again, ever. His smile was starting to hurt. “The sign in the window, are you still looking for someone?”
Another nod, but the man barely moved. His hand moved farther away from beneath the counter.
“I’m a hard worker,” Kane said.
The man looked him over, mouth twitching. He took in the flame tattoo running up Kane’s arm, and the broken shoes on his feet, but Kane knew the jeans he wore looked new, and the shirt had been taken out of the plastic at the shelter this morning. His face hurt, and he realized what a dumb idea this was, but the man’s face suddenly softened. “You work nights?”
He’d work any time, but didn’t want to appear too eager. “Yes, sir,” he said.
The word seemed to mollify the man more than anything. “I got cameras. Out there and back here. You steal from me, boy, I won’t have you arrested. I’ll break your legs. You hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” Kane said.
The man stood up from his stool, just as the door bells chimed again. Jinx fell into the store.
Kane closed his eyes.
And Jinx was on him, tugging on his arm, hard enough to pull him off his feet. Kane turned as though he had a choice. “Jinx, I told you to wait outside,” he said, keeping his voice gentle. “You promised me.”
Jinx shook his head. His eyes were wild, terrified, and he dragged Kane half out of the store before Kane got free. He turned around, hands out, but the man was back on his stool, arms crossed. “He’s harmless, I promise you,” Kane began, damage control coming as naturally to him as understanding Jinx in the first place. The two skills were often needed around about the same time.
“Out,” the man said.
“Please –” Kane began, but the man shook his head.
The man motioned to the door with an angry fist.
“Thank you, sir,” Kane said, and took Jinx’s arm. Together, they went back into the heat of the street.
Kane waited for door to close before turning on Jinx. “You promised me!” he began, but Jinx wasn’t listening to him. He was staring across the street at the two figures staring at them from beneath the streetlight. Kane was suddenly cold, and he pulled Jinx back to him. Across the asphalt, the two vampires bent their heads together, just for a second, and then shuffled off down the street.
Jinx was shaking, even as he turned to cough again.
“They’re gone,” Kane told him. But they weren’t, and he knew it.
It was just past one. Another hour, and the streets wouldn’t be safe. They weren’t particularly safe right then, Kane knew, but at least the danger wasn’t directed at them. There were cops out. He felt them circling like sharks, and he feared them more than he did the gangs.
He led the way and found a small courtyard of what had once been a fairly nice hotel. The prostitutes were out in their garish skirts and low tops, but they only nodded at him. He didn’t like walking past them, not because of who they were or what they did, but because he was still feeling exposed from having to deal with the shopkeeper and their disappointment hurt him.
“In here,” Kane said, and he lifted the bottom branches of one of the big spruces in the courtyard. The bottom branches should have been pruned back, but it still offered a safe, warm little cave.
Jinx crawled into it first, then Kane. Inside, the ground was warm and dry. Jinx curled up almost immediately and used Kane’s lap as a pillow. The dark men were gone from his head. He only feared them because Kane did, and when they were out of sight they stopped existing.
Kane ran his fingers through the white hair just covering Jinx’s temple. Kane remembered sleeping in a bed, years ago, but Jinx only remembered them as being places of danger. He had no problem sleeping on the ground, a park bench, or doorway. Wherever Kane said it was safe, Jinx could sleep.
Kane took longer to close his eyes. Jinx didn’t snore. His chest barely moved, and even then there was a horrible wet sound to his breathing. Even Kane knew that was bad. For him, sleep didn’t happen, and the more he tried, the more he felt his heartbeat pound in his chest. He was hyper-alert just before dawn when he heard someone enter the small courtyard, fine shoes crunching on the stones.
Kane crawled out from under the tree. His heart beat harder now, hard enough that it actually hurt. It was a familiar sensation, and one that he hated. Before Larkin had offered him to his alpha on bended knee, Kane had been helplessly addicted to him. The need was still there. Sometimes it wanted him to simply obey, and at other times it stole his reason and left him feeling thick-headed and queasy. He’d mostly gotten control back, if Larkin didn’t touch him. The sole streetlight visible from the park had such a filthy cover that the light barely reached the ground. Kane didn’t need the light to see the fine press to Larkin’s slacks or the well tailored jacket. He’d loosened his tie, but that was the only concession he’d made to the lateness of the hour.
“You look good,” Kane said, to be fair. Larkin did. “I still hate you.” Larkin put his hand over his cold, dead heart. “You wound me.”
“I wish,” Kane said and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Take a walk with me,” Larkin said.
Kane looked over to the east. “Isn’t it a bit late for you?”
Larkin smiled, his fangs gleaming in the moonlight. “You don’t want to walk with me?” He looked around, to the tree Kane had crawled out from. “So your little friend is still around. He doesn’t sound too well, Kane.”
Kane stood between him and the tree. “What do you want, Larkin?”
Larkin licked his lips. “Many things,” he said, and then sucked his teeth. “But for right now, I want you to come with me.”
Larkin stopped, obviously surprised. “What did you say?” “No. I’m not going with you.”
Larkin’s smile grew deeper. He cracked his knuckles, each one loud enough to make Kane jump. Kane stood his ground. Larkin loomed over him, strong enough to pick him up and throw him against the park bench. Larkin never touched him.
Kane put his hand up, barely touching Larkin’s chest, but Larkin fell back as though burned. “You don’t get to tell me what I do. I’m not your boy any more. I’m not your servant, I’m not your slave, and I’m definitely not your glass of wine.”
Larkin snarled, inches away from Kane’s throat. Kane pushed him away, and Larkin fell back. He caught himself before he landed and was back on his feet like a cat in the next second. Larkin smiled a second time, and this second smile was as cold as the grave. “The boy, he’s not doing very well.” Larkin’s voice was flat, with no pleasure or remorse at delivering the news. “His lungs are filling up. Slowly. You must hear it.”
“I do,” Kane snapped. “Of course I do.” Every breath Jinx took gave him less air to breath. His heart was working twice as hard now to pump half the oxygen, and it was struggling, too. Kane heard it, and if he followed it all the way down, it left him dizzy and…hungry.
“What do you want, Larkin?”
“They found you again. It’s time to move on. You can’t stay in San Francisco any more.”
“I made you an alpha, and you can’t keep your men off me?” He hadn’t asked to help; he hadn’t even wanted to. Larkin had served him up on a silver platter to his alpha, and it was just their combined bad luck that the alpha had already tried to feed off Jinx.
“They’re baying for your blood, Kane. Get out of Dodge. Take your little friend, too. They’ll start with him. Go home.”
“This is home,” Kane snapped.
Larkin snarled at him, obviously attempting to cow him.
Kane snarled back. He hadn’t thought his throat capable of making the sound, but it did. Overhead, birds shot out of the tree where they’d been sleeping. The sudden, irresistible urge to pin Larkin to the wall, to fuck or be fucked by him — however that sorted itself out — was undeniable. He smelled his own arousal, his own blood, and he wanted.
Larkin smiled, his fangs out and ready. “That’s interesting,” he said, and licked his lips. He reached over slowly, and pushed Kane’s shoulder, but Kane took a step back rather than rise to the bait. He had to control the need, though his entire body was now flushed.
“This isn’t home. Not anymore,” Larkin said, and reached into his wallet and pulled out more folding money than Kane had seen in a long time. “This should get you back to…what was it? Sugar Run? Go home, little boy. And pray they don’t find you.” Larkin’s threads were finer, and his shoes had more polish. But Kane knew that Larkin and his men were uprooted, just like Kane. At least Kane didn’t steal from their corpses.
Kane took the money. The next morning, they boarded the Greyhound and were on their way. Jinx slept, and coughed, and coughed in his sleep. It was painful to hear and painful to feel the way Jinx’s entire body shook when he couldn’t stop himself from coughing.
The other passengers glared at him, but he glared back until they looked away. The most they had to deal with were petty inconveniences, where a stern look often embarrassed their chosen targets to conform back to societal rules. Kane had had to worry about cops who didn’t care and men who only wanted him on his knees. He won, and for most of the trip they had the last two rows to themselves, even though it meant strangers sharing rows of seats.
The only real danger came from the four-hour layover they spent in Oklahoma. They arrived at two o’clock in the morning. It took a few seconds to wake Jinx up, and they waited for everyone to stand up, get their stuff down off the overhead racks, and get off.
It took an hour for the last of the passengers’ rides to arrive, and they spent the time just watching the drama. The affection shown seemed so genuine, but Kane could hear their flat heartbeats and smelled the lack of attraction in over half of the heart-warming reunions. “There’s no such thing as love,” Kane told Jinx, and Jinx just put his head on Kane’s shoulder.
Another hour passed. Three people came in. Two of them looked like passengers and the third was a homeless fellow. The two passengers glared at the man until he moved away. Kane made room for him on their bench, and the man nodded to him before he curled up on his half.
More people joined them at three, but they remained outside, smoking. Jinx had finally fallen asleep, but was shivering despite both jackets over him.
The man who pulled the door open just at three-thirty looked no different from any other passenger, but Kane knew. Around him, people slept and smoked and talked in the hushed tones that only pure exhaustion could create. But Kane still heard them. He heard their heartbeats and their intake of breath and even the muscles of their throats contracting as they swallowed. From the new man, Kane heard almost nothing at all. The passive blood flow in his system made hardly a sound. He wore dark clothes, a dark jacket, and his dark hair was pulled back. His fangs weren’t out, but he licked his human teeth when he spotted Kane on the bench.
“This is a public place,” Kane said, sliding away from Jinx in case he had to move quickly. “You can’t do anything to us here.”
“These deadheads?” the vampire asked with a sneer. “I doubt they’ll even notice.”
Kane looked around. He knew the vamp was right; the struggle would only raise their interest for a few seconds before they went back to doing what they were doing. But this was Oklahoma, after all, and a dirt-road town to boot. He took a deep breath.
“Fuck off, man, I ain’t gonna suck your cock!” It was better than shouting fire in a theatre. The smokers stopped and looked into the well-lit terminal, and two of the three sleepers woke up, including the homeless guy. He reached for something in his bag, eyeing the vampire up, and the vampire pointed a long, white finger in Kane’s face.
“You’re going to regret this,” he hissed, and then took off for the door.
Everyone in the terminal watched him go. “You okay, kid?” the homeless guy asked, still with his hand in his bag.
“Yeah,” Kane said, though he resented the ‘kid.’ He’d just turned nineteen.
“Good,” the man said, and took a long time to settle down. Morning came, and with it the freedom to breathe and the bus. Jinx barely woke up long enough to re-board.
When they reached Kane’s home town, after the fourth day, the bus lurched to a stop outside the town’s only diner. They’d actually had to wait at a traffic light for the light to turn green. Three years ago, it had only been a flashing stoplight overlooking a four-way stop.
Kane shook Jinx awake, though it pained him to do so. His cough had gotten worse ever since Oklahoma City, and it was the first time he’d slept in over eighteen hours.
Still, there was no denying the fact that they were…Kane searched for the word. That they were home. The word tasted wrong in his mouth. “Come on,” Kane said, pushing Jinx’s shoulder again. “Get up.”
Jinx rocked with the push. His ice blue eyes opened, taking in the empty streets and the old style facades of the buildings, and blinked. It was the same as hundreds of other towns they’d passed through on their way from San Francisco. The only difference was they were stopping here.
Kane climbed to his feet. His knees cracked and his back felt completely disjointed. Jinx stood up, unbothered by the last thirteen hours on the road. Kane grabbed their backpack and led the way off the bus.
Jinx started to cough, racking his body and sending tremors through his shoulders. They ended as they always did, with Jinx all but throwing up, and embarrassed that he had to spit out the junk he’d just brought up. Kane waited, without saying anything, and it took Jinx another moment to have all his breath back. The paleness to his skin was nothing new, but it didn’t take long for him to regain his curiosity.
He peered down the cobbled street. Main Street, such as it was, had been two full streets, ending up in the elementary school playground, which they had annexed part of for a new drugstore. The old hardware store was gone, and with it Old Man Smithers who used to grab anything possibly needed from behind his counter. It was replaced by some chain. The grocery store still looked as though it needed a second coat of paint over the primer.
Jinx’s eyes were wide. This was a foreign country to him; he’d never been to a small town. The two farmers sitting in the window seat of the café, in their overalls and hats, were strange creatures. At least the fact that their faces were so tanned by the sun they looked like leathery masks would be a familiar sight.
“It’s not far,” Kane said. “Then we’ll get you to see a doctor.”
Jinx nodded. They took off. Before Jinx got sick, they could walk together forever, their strides almost perfectly matched even though Kane was half a foot taller, but now, when Jinx could hardly breathe with all the shit inside him, it was more of an ambling pace. Even though they were only three blocks from home, they took several stops along the way.
No one recognized him. Of that, Kane was glad. His school photo wasn’t the person he was any more. He kept his dirt-brown hair short now, he’d grown the half a foot he had on Jinx, and his shoulders were broader. He’d never been heavy, but he’d been middle-class American soft. That had all changed. He’d spent the past three years doing nothing but walking, and it had burned off the kid in the photo. Now, when people he’d probably seen a hundred times before looked at him, they only saw the spiky hair and army pants, the piercings on his lip and ears and, most noticeably, the tattoo going up his arm in flames.
The piercings were real. The tattoo wasn’t. Oh, the black markings curling up over his biceps were permanently on his skin, but it wasn’t a tattoo.
Jinx started to cough again just as they reached the driveway. Kane sat him down on the concrete planter that ran the length of the drive, the one full of spruce trees. They had been his height when they’d been planted when he was a kid, and now they stood over ten feet tall.
He waited for Jinx to be able to breathe again.
When he could, Jinx looked up and met Kane’s eyes. The distress in them was plain; he was drowning on dry land. “Can you stand?” Kane asked.
Jinx was about to try, then sat back down again.
Kane nodded. “Stay here.”
Jinx tried to stand, eyes frantic as though Kane were abandoning him on a busy freeway rather than on a walk on the edge of a cul-de-sac. Kane held his hand until the panic passed. “I won’t be a minute.”
It turned out it wasn’t any time at all. The door opened, and for a moment Kane was afraid it wouldn’t be his mother, but some random stranger who had bought the house between then and now, and the 2800-mile trip had been for nothing. That couldn’t happen. Kane stared at the woman emerging from the door, but it wasn’t until she started yelling at him that he recognized her as his mother.
He squeezed Jinx’s shoulder. “Mom,” he said softly.
She pulled back, rooted to the top stair of the front porch. She carried a broom with her, like all she would have to do is sweep them away. He supposed that mentality didn’t change, big or small town. “Who are you?”
“Mom, it’s me, Kane,” Kane called.
She didn’t believe him, not at first, but he stood up, away from Jinx, and her eyes widened. “Kane,” she said, and ran down the four steps. She hit the grass running and he was in her arms the next second. She seemed fragile and smaller than he remembered. Her bones were much closer to the surface. Once she could have picked him up and swung him around. Now he was afraid he was going to break her.
“Mom, we have to go to the hospital.”
She pulled away. “Why?” she demanded.
“My friend,” Kane said, motioning to where Jinx sat, hugging his knees. He was older than Kane was, but sitting there, hugging his knees, he looked twelve. “We couldn’t afford the medicine to make him better. We had to come home.”
His mother covered her mouth. “Is he…sick?”
“Yes,” Kane said, deliberately misunderstanding the question. “He has a cough. A nasty one. He needs antibiotics. Please, Mom, he’s really not well.”
“Okay,” she said. “Get in the car. I’ll be there in a second.”
“Thank you,” Kane said. Jinx wasn’t looking well at all. He’d been coughing less, the longer the bus ride, but part of that was, Kane knew, that Jinx had just given up. It hurt too much to cough, so the gunk just sat there and made him worse.
“Come on,” Kane said, and helped Jinx up. Jinx’s hand wavered like an old man’s, and Kane wouldn’t let him stand up alone. He supported the weight of them both, and got into the backseat of his mom’s old Mercury rather than have Jinx sit alone.
It was only a five-minute drive to the hospital; they were on the same avenue, except it was just on the other side of the main street. He wouldn’t even let his mother park in the small parking lot off to the side, but had her drive right up into the overhanging emergency bay. “What would people think?” she asked him as he slid across the seat.
“I don’t know, Mom, that it was an emergency?” Kane said, controlling the slight annoyance that he felt. Jinx was now struggling to breathe, and losing the battle. He left his mother to sort out forms and payment options, and went with Jinx directly in for the x-rays.
Within the hour, Jinx had an IV in his arm. He looked so small in the cranked up bed, and the oxygen tent around him looked like something out of E.T. He was asleep, and had been for ten minutes, but Kane didn’t want to let go of his hand.
“Can we talk now?” his mother asked.
Kane nodded. He supposed he owed her that, at the very least.
“Who is he?”
“I told you. My friend.”
“Just your friend?”
“I don’t think you know what that word means where I’m from, Mom. What we’ve been through? There’s no such thing as just a friend.”
Kane didn’t bother to correct her. “Is he home?” he asked, voice wavering for the first time. His father, John — he hadn’t thought of him as ‘Dad’ for years — had been gone for most of his childhood. Only through the support of Kane’s grandfather — John’s dad — could his mother afford to keep the house and raise her two sons.
“Yes,” his mom said. “I’m sorry, Kane.”
Kane looked up. His mouth twitched. “I assume you’ve talked with him.”
“Am I…” Kane almost couldn’t ask the question. He couldn’t allow himself to be rejected again. It would be so much easier to wait here until Jinx could breathe again and get back on the shining bus to somewhere else entirely. He touched the tattoo-like burn on his arm. The past few years hadn’t gone well for either of them. “Am I welcome back?”
She covered her mouth again, like she always did. John was a drunk when he was back, and the screaming fights were almost always one-sided. “Oh, Kane. I’m not going to turn you back onto the streets.”
“That didn’t answer the question, Mom.”
“Of course you’re…” Her smile didn’t die, but with the slight hesitation in her voice it might as well have. “…welcome.”
He was too tired to argue over semantics.
The doctor came in around five to check on Jinx, who hadn’t woken yet. Kane hadn’t been sleeping, but dozing in his chair. There were too many noises in the hospital for him to truly sleep. The moment the doctor entered the room, even in his soft-soled shoes, Kane was awake.
“I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it myself,” Dr. Payne said. Kane stood up. The man had been their family doctor for years. He didn’t look any older, but then he’d been ancient since Kane was a child, so that wasn’t surprising. Despite his gray hair and the crinkles around his eyes and mouth, he still moved like a much younger man. “I’m glad you’re home, Kane. Please, sit.”
Kane did so. “Thank you, sir. Is he going to be all right?”
“Well, it’s pneumonia,” Dr Payne said. “And quite advanced. Why didn’t you get him to a doctor sooner?”
Kane shook his head. “Free clinics suck.”
“He might have died.”
Kane stared at him, blankly. There was nothing he could say to change that fact. Jinx could have, quite easily.
“But we did catch it in time,” Payne said, kind again once after he’d made his point. Kane closed his eyes.
“He’ll be sleeping through the night. Why don’t we check you out now?”
Kane put his feet up on Jinx’s bed. “I’m fine.”
“You’ve been on the run for awhile,” Payne began reasonably. “There are parasites, infections…”
“…viruses…” Kane continued, so Payne wouldn’t have to.
Payne nodded. “… that you could possibly have been exposed to. It’s in your best interest to have yourself checked out, Kane. That tattoo must have taken days to complete, and I doubt it was done by a professional. I assure you absolute confidentiality.”
The mark had only taken a heartbeat to appear, but the lack of professionalism was true enough. “I understand that, but I feel fine,” Kane said, and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Take the damn tests.”
John, Kane’s father, was in the doorway of the room. He had his arms crossed over his chest, so Kane immediately relaxed his arms to his sides. John hadn’t shaved, and the light stubble on his cheeks made him look older and even more broken than he already was. John smelled of alcohol, raw whiskey but it was faint, like he’d only taken a shot to steady himself.
“I think we’re good here, John. Why don’t you wait for me out in the reception?” Payne said, trying to keep his voice light. It was not exactly the best kept secret that Kane and John reacted to each other like water on an oil fire.
“I’m paying for the damn room, I’ll tell you where to meet me,” John snarled.
Payne threw up his arms. “I’ll be back in a couple hours,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” Kane said.
John pulled the stopper blocking the door and let it close behind the doctor. Kane pulled his feet off the bed. He hadn’t been aware of how tired he was, but suddenly pulling himself up so that he was standing was a Herculean task.
John looked him up and down, lip curling at Kane’s clothes. The T-shirt hadn’t been as tight when he’d left town, but he’d filled out and now it was tighter than it probably should have been. The camouflage pants hid a multitude of wears and tears, stains and frays, but despite the hard use they were still wearable. His pair of jeans hadn’t lasted the forty-two hours on the bus and had gone waxy with old sweat and use. “This is what you are now,” John said.
“Damn right,” Kane said. He was bigger than John was, and he felt stronger. If his old man tried to lay a finger on him again, Kane wouldn’t be able to stop himself from breaking the man in two. He refrained from challenging John overtly. He still needed Jinx better, and his father knew it.
“Who is he?” John asked, voice suddenly slippery. Kane wished he was on the other side of the bed, just so that he could stand between Jinx and John.
“My friend,” Kane said.
“Must be a pretty good friend.”
Kane put his hand on Jinx’s shoulder, willing him not to wake up. He didn’t have to worry. Even though the antibiotics had only been working for a couple hours, Jinx’s
breathing had already started to improve. He was so far in his dreams Kane didn’t think he could wake him if he wanted to. “He is,” Kane said, simply, and then he exhaled. “Do we have to do this now, Dad? I’m tired. I’ll come see you at work tomorrow. You can yell at me all you want then.”
John took a breath, obviously wanting to continue, but there was no way to win. Even through the closed door, Kane could hear the footsteps of other patients, hospital people. There was no way he could continue this the way he wanted and still maintain face. Sometimes, small towns did have an advantage. “Tomorrow,” John said, keeping his voice low.
Kane nodded, and then kept his gaze down. John stood over him for another minute, waiting for something, but then eventually left them. Kane waited for the door to close after his father, and he tracked the man’s footsteps to the main doors. It wasn’t until he heard no trace of him that he allowed himself to sit down again. Jinx’s face had been tight, even in his dream, but then relaxed once John was out of the building.
“Yeah, me too,” Kane said, and went into the small, attached bathroom.
The sink wasn’t large, but it was clean and he’d used much worse. Kane stripped off his shirt and washed off as well as he could. He was half way through when the door opened and the stopper was put back in its place.
Feminine footfalls followed, and a faint perfume reached him. His mother was not one for change, apparently. He didn’t bother pulling the T-shirt back on, but balled it up and went back into the main room.
His mother covered her mouth again. “What?” he asked, and pulled their battered pack out from under the bed.
She pointed to his arm first, at the burn marks she would think was a tattoo first, then at the scars running along his side and back. They were from barbed wire. He’d almost had to roll through them to get away. They’d become infected, and if it hadn’t been for Jinx bringing him rainwater at the very worst part of his shakes, he probably wouldn’t have survived.
“Oh,” he answered himself. He pulled out the biggest sweater he had, and pulled it over his head. “They’re nothing. I was being stupid.”
“Oh, Kane. What happened to you?”
“I survived,” he said.
“Your friend’s asleep, and you must be starving. They’re not going to let you spend the night here, Kane. Come home with me. We’ll at least feed you something and let you have a good night`s sleep.”
“I’m staying with Jinx.”
“I’m staying!” Kane snarled. It was stronger than he meant it to be, and he couldn’t help give it a little more push than it needed. His mother’s eyes went glassy for a moment, and then she nodded.
“If you change your mind, call us. We’ll be here to pick you up.” Her voice sounded distant.
Kane rubbed his face. “Thank you,” he said, feeling just slightly guilty. “If I have to, I’ll walk. I can make it the six blocks.”
“But it will be dark –” his mother began, and then covered her mouth again. “Of course, Kane. Whatever you want.”
He walked over to where she stood and hugged her for the first time. “Thank you,” he said softly, and was surprised by the ferociousness in his mother’s embrace. She was near tears, and broke away so that she wouldn’t give in to it in front of him. Kane watched her go, for the first time wanting to go with her. But then Jinx turned his head and coughed, so he went back to him instead.
Kane hid a yawn behind his fist, but Jinx woke up at the sound of Kane’s jaw cracking. He shook his head, telling Kane to go, but Kane took his hand. “I’m not leaving you,” he said.
Jinx looked at him again.
“And I’m not hiding in here, either.”
Another look. Kane sighed. “Mom was great,” he said. And she was. He’d never felt the lack of a parent when it was just him, Heather and Patrick. Of course, Patrick spent almost as much time at their grandfather’s as he did at home, but Kane actually preferred those evenings when he and his mom would play board games and watch television as Patrick was off hunting, fishing, or wherever.
Jinx shifted over, and Kane joined him on the bed. It was okay, being this close, when Jinx was sick. Jinx could even nestle down into Kane’s armpit, his hot, wet breath touching his skin. The discomfort only came if Jinx tried to touch him sexually, and then Kane had to get away. Yet another gift given to him by Larkin.
Payne did come back, true to his word. Jinx was awake, but not hungry, and his meal was still at the foot of his bed. The soup had been all Jinx had been able to get down, but there was no way Kane was going to eat what remained.
“How are you feeling?” Payne asked, and it was the first time since Kane could remember that someone had addressed Jinx himself, rather than through Kane. Jinx blinked, glancing to Kane, and Kane nodded. “He’s feeling better.”
Payne hesitated. “You don’t speak?”
Jinx again looked to him and nodded, so Kane was free to tell him. “Jinx doesn’t speak.”
“I’m sorry, just before I came in, I thought I heard voices.”
“That was me.”
“Ah. Forgive me.” And again, unlike any other person, Payne went back to speaking with Jinx again. “You still are very sick, young man. You should have gone to a hospital weeks ago.”
Jinx shook his head. “This is only about the fifth day he’s been sick,” Kane supplied.
“Well, the infection sure took hold, then. You’ll be in here a couple days while we load you up with antibiotics.”
“You also know that your friend can’t stay here overnight. You’re already an hour past visiting hours.”
Jinx grabbed Kane’s hand.
Payne gave them both a stern look, and Kane knew it was worthless to argue the fact. He pulled his hand free and touched Jinx’s cheek. “You’ll be all right.”
Jinx shook his head.
Kane left the room and headed down the darkened halls. The hustle and bustle of the day was gone, and it left only the low beeping sounds of monitors watching over their patients and the odd muffled cough from the emergency room. There was blood here, too, but it was antiseptic and old. He shook his head, knowing that it only felt dark because this was the old part of the hospital and not the new, shining expansion. He still couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.
A hand came down over his mouth. He was pulled back and once the door slammed shut behind him, they were in complete darkness. Whoever had grabbed him let him go, and Kane tried to run. Whoever it was grabbed his arm and threw him back, and he hit the exam room bench hard with his hip. It was just his luck to hit the knob that adjusted it rather than any part of the padding, and the pain shooting up from his hip stole his breath for a moment. He heard whoever it was moving behind him; and the smell came to him. Larkin.
He refused to fumble around, but winced rather than cry out when something hit him in the chest. “So it’s not a complete transformation,” Larkin said, suddenly right behind him.
Kane jerked forward, and fell against the padded exam room table again. Larkin pinned him down, his hand casually over Kane’s neck. While Kane’s own nails were rough and dirty half the time, he could feel just how sharp Larkin’s fingernails were against his skin.
He should have been terrified. He’d been prostrated out like this, exposed, for the elder to finish once he was done with Jinx. Why he couldn’t stop his hips from moving, trying to get any amount of friction against his suddenly very hard cock was beyond him, but it felt exactly right, to be pinned down like this, waiting for his alpha to take him.
He heard Larkin laugh, though it was a brief chuckle, if that. “I see,” he said.
He should have demanded that he be let up. He should have elbowed Larkin in the solar plexus with the base of his elbow, and sent him flying. Instead, he reached up, over his head on the bench, and crossed his wrists for Larkin to take.
“Please what, Kane?”
Kane tried to snarl, but Larkin’s palm was over his mouth, and it muffled the sound to its vibrations in Kane’s throat. Larkin held him there, pressed up behind him, and then didn’t let him go to answer the question for at least a minute. It seemed longer, in the dark, chilly room. Kane did nothing to stop Larkin from kicking his legs apart, wide enough that he was now level with the bench.
Kane had to say the words. He had to, but Larkin’s hand wouldn’t move. So Kane licked the open palm, working his tongue between two long fingers, and Larkin removed his hand.
“Did you have something to say to me?”
“Fuck me,” Kane said. He arched his back, leaving himself completely open for Larkin to do whatever he wanted, and he hated himself for it.
Larkin ran his wet palm over Kane’s lower belly. His shirt had been rucked up, and the exposed skin on skin contact hurt — but in the slow, intense way that went straight to his groin.
Larkin bent over. His dick was nestled right up against Kane’s ass, and he leaned right down to Kane’s ear. “No,” he whispered, and his teeth stung the lobe of Kane’s ear. “You’re not ready yet.”
But even as he spoke, he reached into Kane’s loose pants, and unzipped them with a practiced hand. He worked his fist, still slick from Kane licking it, over Kane’s cock, and within seconds Kane had to bite into his wrist to keep from screaming again. He was coming, liquid heat spreading through his belly and thighs, and it was nothing, nothing, nothing like the awkward fumbles, trying to be quiet so that no one would know. He was sobbing, unable to stop his hips from riding Larkin’s fist, and the blood in his mouth from where he’d bitten down was too much.
Larkin held him until the last shudder finished, then took Kane’s bloody wrist. Kane, even half senseless, tried to pull away, but Larkin wouldn’t let it go. “I’ve earned it,” he snarled, and the familiar feeling of being pulled from was back. Larkin drank, not nearly as much as he could have, and then licked the wound until it stopped bleeding.
“Go,” Larkin said. “No one will harm what is yours. You have my word on that.”
Kane held the wrist to his body, though it no longer hurt. “Thank you,” he said, and fumbled his way to the door. Doctor Payne was at the nursing station as he approached, and the man glanced at his watch. “I thought you’d left half an hour ago,” he said.
Kane couldn’t look at him. The light which the doctor stood under was too bright and hurt Kane`s eyes. He couldn’t really focus on anything until he felt the cold, crisp evening air on his face and he’d left the bright lights of the parking lot.
His father wasn’t home. His mother was waiting for him by the blue light of the television. The house smelled of food. Meat, potato, a huge salad, and half a loaf of bread. He’d forgotten what fresh bread tasted like. She sat down with him as he ate, and kept his milk glass full.
He held up the glass. Milk. Cold milk. For all the times in his childhood that he’d rather have had juice or pop he wanted to go back and kick that stupid child. Half the time, in the shelters when he could convince Jinx to come in, they either served the atrocious powdered milk or worse, from a box. When he’d been with Larkin, it had always been wine.
“Are you done?” his mother asked.
Kane looked down to the dregs of the meal. “Yes,” he said, but he was still hungry, even though he knew there was no more room in his stomach. Something still gnawed at him.
“Were you…” she didn’t ask. Kane leaned in. Despite the hunger that remained, he was warm, safe, and relatively out of danger. The orgasm at the hospital, combined with the real food in his stomach, left him feeling more than a little drunk.
“Go on,” he said. “You can ask me.”
She looked down at her hands. The wedding ring, a huge rock on a band that had been resized three times to a smaller size, made her fingers look daintier than they were. Her mouth twitched, and she covered it by clearing her throat. “Were you safe out there?”
That wasn’t what he’d expected her to ask. She’d always been frank with him, even when her cheeks burned a bright scarlet and she’d talked to him about sex and protection. John had been gone for most of his teenage years, and the years without him had been so much better than the years with. “Mostly,” he said, honestly. It was the boredom of the days melding into days, one after the other with nothing changing except the weather that he’d hated.
“Why didn’t you ever come home? Or call me?”
The door slammed shut. Kane’s spine locked, and his mouth twitched like hers had. “Get out of here, you little bastard,” John snarled. Kane left his plate and went.
Jinx woke up half way through the night, aroused and sweating. He was still tired, but couldn’t sleep any more, not with the jumbled images of Kane in a dark room. He took a breath and was able to fill more of his lungs than before.
He feigned sleep for the nurse’s check, then slid out of bed. He didn’t like putting his feet down on the cold tiles and leapt as far away as he could. Icy-cold pain lanced into his arm, and for a moment he thought it was something under the bed had caught him. But then he realized it was the tubing in his arm. He bit back the cry that would bring the nurses and the dead to him.
The room overlooked a park. He moved to the window, gingerly bringing the pole with him, and leapt back.
The vampire staring back at him, Kane’s Larkin, bared his teeth.
Jinx fell back, this time watching where the pole was. “Come here,” Larkin crooned. “I won’t hurt you, and I think we should…talk.”
Jinx pulled back again. He’d felt this one with Kane, down the hall when they were together. The word in his head, the actual, hard, this-has-meaning word seemed wrong. And Kane had let it be done to him. They’d been together and hot, and Kane had spilled. Through it all, Jinx had felt as though it had happened to him. He still felt a little hard when he thought about it. Kane had needed. And Jinx hadn’t been there.
Larkin began swaying back and forth, like a snake. Kane was a mongoose. Jinx wasn’t. He was more like a helpless small animal that only sometimes made it back to its burrow. “I gave Kane my word that you would not be harmed, and I swear that you will not be.”
“Swear on what?” Jinx wanted to know, but then shocked himself by actually saying the words. He clamped his hand down over his mouth. It wasn’t that he didn’t speak; he couldn’t. The words were jumbled inside his head when he tried to put the proper meaning into them, but he’d said a full coherent sentence.
Larkin smiled. “You feel it, too. The lines are here and you can feel them.” Why? Jinx wanted to ask, but he was empty again.
“Come outside.” Larkin whispered, stepping away.
And Jinx did. How he got away from his IV or — more importantly — through the glass window, he didn’t know. But suddenly, the dewy grass was soaking his too-long pajama bottoms. The older part of the hospital backed onto a park, complete with swing sets and plastic climbing things, but it had been the location of the old, old hospital. Back when the medical equipment had been handsaws and rough alcohol. The dead remained as shades in the park. Jinx wondered if that was the reason the park looked abandoned despite the new feel to the equipment.
Then Larkin was back, or maybe Jinx had been the one to go away. The air here only smelled of night, not humans.
“You don’t belong here,” Larkin said. He was right behind Jinx, his hands on Jinx’s hips. His lips brushed Jinx’s skin on the back of his neck when he spoke. Jinx had belonged to Larkin’s alpha for so long he could barely remember not being property. It had taken him months to stop craving the first piercing of skin and the long, strong pulls that followed.
Let me go, he wanted to say, but the words scattered before he could open his mouth. The crystal structure that held their meanings shattered. He did open his mouth, but all that came out was a dissatisfied grunt.
“It will come, little Jinx. It’s weak here. You will be able to store your words soon, if you do what I say.”
Larkin pulled Jinx’s hips back. Jinx felt Larkin’s cock nestle up against the small of his back, and he fought to get away. Larkin didn’t smell of Kane; if he had, Jinx didn’t know if that would have made him stronger or weaker. He should have been dripping with Kane’s smells that had been denied to him since they’d been together, but there was nothing. Jinx stopped fighting.
“Don’t be like that,” Larkin admonished, rocking his hips. “Kane doesn’t belong here, and neither do you. It will be his idea to continue east. You only have to go with it.”
The soft rocking, along with the just-a-little-too-tight grasp, didn’t help the thickness inside Jinx go away. Kane might have resisted, but Jinx wasn’t a mongoose at all. The pain would sting, but only once.
“What the hell?” Jinx heard, and then there were awful, bouncing lights on him, blinding him. Flashlights, the voice supplied him. And security guards. He remembered security guards from before, when they swept through the safe place Kane had found for them and pushed them out into the cold again.
This one, however, caused Larkin to disappear into the darkness and the dead shades. “What are you doing out here?” the guard asked. He was an older man with silver hair, and he was armed only with a flashlight. His voice was gentle, more than even the most sympathetic guard. When he touched Jinx’s shoulder there was no pain. “Come back inside, young man. You’ll catch your death out here.”
Jinx touched his neck, knowing he’d already caught it.
The nurse at the station jumped up when they came inside through the front doors. The nurse came around the desk, his white scrubs very different from how dark his skin was, and he took Jinx’s elbow from the guard. “What are you doing out of bed?”
Jinx blinked. The nurse waited for him to answer, then looked at the guard. “He was out by the park.”
“Well, he didn’t come by me. Check to see if any of the fire doors have malfunctioned.”
The guard touched his forehead. “Will do. Take care of this one.”
“Will do.” Xavier, his name tag said. Jinx held open his arm, to show Xavier the spot the IV had gone. The tape had left pink marks around the puncture wound, but the wound itself had closed with a little silver dot of a scar.
He also wasn’t coughing. The urge was still there, but it was mostly from irritation, and not from the walrus sitting on his chest.
Xavier took his arm, then his other. There wasn’t a mark on the right arm. “What happened?”
“Well, come back to bed, darling. I’ll put the needle back in.”
That’s hardly an incentive, Jinx wanted to say. He also wanted Kane, but followed Xavier back to his room.
The IV bag was empty. The tape that had secured he needle had been neatly folded back and the needle itself looked…Jinx shuddered. Clean. Licked clean. If Xavier tried to put it back into his arm, Jinx would scream until the shades in the park woke.
But, of course, Xavier didn’t. He used a clean needle, the plastic wrappings letting out a sigh as it broke sterility. Jinx knew that he didn’t need any more drugs, but he humored Xavier long enough for him to put the needle back in.
Before going to visit Jinx, Kane walked down to his father’s car dealership. Or, rather, his grandfather’s. It was only ten in the morning, but already the three salesmen were out playing cards in the staff lunchroom. When John was in town, he got the best office. When he wasn’t, it was used as a storage room. It gave the office an odd abandoned feel, even when John was there.
Leather chairs and musty invoices were the smells of his father’s office, and had been ever since Kane was a child. And always whiskey. That wasn’t a new smell, either.
John wasn’t looking at him. Kane could count on one hand the number of times John actually looked him in the eye, but when he cleared his throat, John looked up. His blue eyes were bloodshot. Blue eyes. Like his mother. Like his brother, now presumably at school.
Kane had brown eyes. Dark, chocolate brown. He’d been born eight months after his parents’ wedding. There was nothing unusual about that.
But he knew.
And John knew he knew.
“Who was he?” Kane asked.
“No one of any importance whatsoever.”
John looked away, but only to grab his check book.
Kane felt as though he’d been punched. Or maybe it was that he’d just always been punched, and any moment the first rush of cool, fresh air would fill his lungs for the first time.
“How much?” Kane asked, the voice in his throat strangled. “How much am I worth to get out of your life?”
Ten thousand dollars, apparently. Kane didn’t know so many zeros could fit on a check. He felt vaguely satisfied.
“Dad?” he said, using the name he hadn’t in years.
John ripped out the check, hand wavering. “What?”
“Fuck you.” Kane stood up.
John crumpled the check in his hand, and Kane only wished he’d had the chance to rip it up first. “I’ve never asked you for anything, and I’m not going to now.”
“Except pay for your lover’s medical bills.”
Kane didn’t correct him, though he did feel a stab of guilt. “Except for that.” John threw the crumpled check in the garbage. “Don’t come back.”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Kane snapped, and left.
He missed the feeling of his back pack over his shoulder. He missed Jinx’s easy steps beside him. It was wrong for him to be alone. It was a fifteen-minute walk to the hospital; Kane did it in ten.
Jinx looked thrilled to see him. He was a thousand times better than he had been. A million. He was shining now, like before. It was as though he’d never gotten sick. “You ready to go?”
Jinx nodded, overly enthusiastic.
Kane sat down beside him on the bed. “I’m sorry to drag you into this.”
Jinx shrugged. Kane pulled him to him, and then rubbed foreheads with him.
Footsteps came from the hall. They stopped at his door, and Kane smelled his mother’s perfume. John must have called her.
“You could have told me,” Kane said, but didn’t turn around. “You didn’t think that would have helped me at all?”
“John didn’t want you to know.”
“Who was he?”
His mother’s mouth tightened. “Just a high school sweetheart.”
“Why does John hate him so much?”
His mother sat down. “He didn’t hate him, darling, not back then. It’s complicated.”
“No, Mom, it really isn’t.”
She took a deep breath. “Before us, they were together.”
Kane looked at her. She was just like any of the other of the moms he’d known growing up. Maybe a little prettier than some, maybe a little slower to thicken at the waist, but it was hard to imagine his mother as young. And as someone who would be involved in such a complicated love triangle. Luckily, his brain short-circuited before he had a chance to even think of it much further, for his own protection.
“Have you kept in touch?”
She pulled out a battered postcard. “He moved to New York with his sister. I got this a few months later, but by then I was already married, and…”
The address was written in the same careful block print as the rest of the message. “Hank,” Kane read. “You were dating a guy named Hank?”
She stood up. “It never suited him.” She reached into her purse and pulled out another envelope. “Take it.”
Kane shook his head. Jinx pulled away.
“Kane, please. It is enough to at least get you to New York and keep you off the streets. Please.”
Jinx pulled on his shirt. “You sure?” Kane asked.
A nod. Kane took the money. “There are two bus tickets there. When you’re ready, you should go.”
“I won’t come back,” Kane said.
His mother leaned over and kissed the top of his head. “I hope you don’t mean that.”
“John made himself very clear on the subject.”
“John can go stuff himself. He usually does. It’s my house, in my name, and you, Kane, are welcome back any time you want.”
“Thanks,” he said, and refused to flush.
She stuck her hand out to Jinx. “It was very nice meeting you, young man,” she said.
Jinx stared at the hand for a second, then up at her, before carefully putting his own hand in hers. She closed her fingers around his, carefully, and shook it once.
“We good?” Kane asked.
Jinx nodded. He pulled the IV out of his arm. It should have bled more, but Jinx just put his finger over it as they walked, and eventually Kane stopped smelling his blood. No one tried to stop them as they left the hospital. It was almost as though they’d become ghosts again. Ghosts that good people couldn’t see.