Again and Again a Beginning

by Takiguchi Aiko (滝口アイコ)
illustrated by mcruthless

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/174739.html)

Mike would have liked to say he felt something electric when it began, but it had been a pretty typical day as far as he was concerned. He’d been writing a final at the base when the call for a recon job came in and he and Henrietta played Uno in the van on the way there. Amanda was driving that time, not Zeb, and Jonathan sat shotgun, giving instructions. Jonathan always sat shotgun and he always read the M.O. in a monotone. He only became animated when planning the details.

Being human had its disadvantages. Mike wouldn’t mention that anywhere near a camera, since the agency’s psych department would drag him away for a battery of tests before Mike could convince them he vastly preferred it to the alternative, but years ago he might have known something was off just instinctively, spidey-sense style. As it was he could maybe blame the whole team for being sloppy.

“Civilian spotted squatters in an abandoned factory by the waterfront,” Jonathan was typing something entirely different into his laptop as he spoke, hands flying a little too fast for it to be code. “Heard some screaming, called the police. There have been signs of increased activity over the past four days but very limited changes in thermal readings, one or two people at most.”

“I like how he does that,” Mike said to Henri, who rolled her eyes and played a draw four. “With the talking and the typing? I like it. It’s impressive. Hey, can you pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time, Jonathan?” He’d been in such a stupidly good mood, despite having to ask for an extension on the paper.

“Yes,” Jonathan said without missing a beat. “Micah, Henri, we want this quick and clean. Basic search and bag the premises, secure the perimeter. Stay together, keep on comm. Micah, this might be a good one for testing out the new UV rounds. You’re welcome,” he added, when Mike and Zeb high-fived.

“I want to know about the recoil,” Zeb had said.

The building was classic territory. No wonder they’d been called in so early. A two-story office that probably housed a small business before the market crash, windowless and snug in fluorescent lights. Not glamorous, but practical for a nest getting a foothold in a new city. All the stuff with the goth clubs and sky scrapers with treated glass came later.

“Someone’s covered up the skylight in the lobby,” Henri noted. She’d already drawn her emei piercers, twirling them like a nervous tic. Mike cocked his sidearm and adjusted the rifle strapped to his back.

“Home sweet very depressing temporary base,” he agreed. Everything look made out of linoleum and there was a little gift shop, even. Someone had knocked an entire stand of Hershey Bars to the ground, the chocolate itself untouched.

“Movement on your six,” Henri said. She bolted past him and launched herself at the shadows near a container of dying ferns. When he whipped around, his flashlight caught on a blond ponytail. He heard a very masculine snarl.

He clicked the setting up to floodlights, making it hiss, and started radioing in, “Jonathan, at least one target sighted in…” and trailed off, because he was an idiot, but mostly because he recognized that hiss, recognized that face.

It recognized him back and smirked, throwing Henri into the wall by the wrist. She staggered, disoriented, but her assailant had lost interest by then.

“It’s little Mikey,” he said, sauntering towards him. Lucius looked the same as he always did – built like a bookcase, hair drawn back tight and douchey, and he was still named Lucius, as far as Mike knew, which said more than anything else. “Back from the dead.”

Mike pointed his laser sight at Lucius’ forehead, making a comforting red focal point. He probably wasn’t shaking. Probably. “Yeah. Me and Elvis. What the fuck are you doing here?”

Lucius ignored him and kept advancing, which Mike had more or less been expecting. “You know, I always believed those rumors about you. Useless little scrap like you, you’d turn tail and betray your clan the first chance you got.”

UV bullets, Mike reminded himself. He’d explode in a burst of sunlight. “What are you doing here, Lucius?”

And then what happened next was maybe the inversion of spidey-sense because despite the spike of adrenaline that made for a state of hyper-awareness, he hadn’t even heard a sound. But someone was behind him saying, “Oh, Micah, what do you think? Looking for you.” and everything that was strong or brave or new about Mike trembled in its foundations and collapsed.

The first thing you noticed about Grayson was a general dazzle of attraction, the overall aura of a handsome man. A movie star sheen. Or maybe the smile stood out to you, radiant and just a little too calm. Or the eyes, very blue, nothing natural, nothing human. When Mike had first met him he had thought they were contacts. He was shaking so badly now he could feel it in his teeth.

Grayson was standing with his elbow on the fake marble counter of the giftshop, head cocked just so. He always loved making impressions. He was all surfaces. “You look good, Micah. Turn the light down a little so we can talk like civilized people, if you please.”

Mike’s finger clicked the flashlight a notch down before he could register what happened. “Civilized. That’s priceless, coming from you.”

I’m not the one who burst into someone else’s home uninvited, dressed like a member of a SWAT team.” Grayson smiled benevolently at Mike’s vest. “Really. What good is that even supposed to do?”

In governmental parlance, they called Grayson a Level 5, top tier, upper extent of lethality unknown. Vamps called him a clan leader or a prince. Even Mike wasn’t sure exactly how old he was or what he could do, and he was the leading authority in the agency on the subject. “You’re supposed to be in San Francisco.”

Grayson waved a hand airlessly. “I got bored. And then I remembered how you’re never boring, Micah. I dream about you, baby. Can you even feel it anymore?”

Mike shuddered or swayed or something and then there was a howl behind them. A very satisfying howl, it turned out, because Henri was wiping the remains of Lucius’ eyeball off one of her piercers and radioing in, voice harsh and indistinct.

“One of your top brass,” Mike said, feeling some of the nausea drain out of him. “And look how easy we took him down.”

“He was expendable,” Grayson said. “You aren’t.” He touched a length of Mike’s hair although he had just been five feet away. He smelled like nothing and it was overpowering. “You really do look good, Micah. I like the muscle. Maybe I should have let you grow up a little more.”

“Maybe you should fuck yourself,” Mike said, his eyes closed tight.

“You have exactly five seconds to step away from my operative,” Jonathan said from the doorway. He’d brought a RAY with him, flicked it on and the building became flooded with light that would have incapacitated a vampire younger than fifty. His own sidearm was a Beretta, much sleeker than the tricked-out .44 Zeb had jury-rigged for Mike, and he was, as ever, impeccable. Suit perfect, not a hair out of place, intensity etched so deeply on his narrow face it almost looked like indifference.

Grayson smiled at him and stepped back, hands up exaggerated and mocking. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Hancock, I’d never do anything to jeopardize the safety of your operative. He’s a good pet soldier for you, I’m sure.” He traced into the dip of Mike’s collarbone. “Very obedient. Always willing to roll over and show his throat.”

“Velez, you can walk?” When Henri nodded, Jonathan jerked his head at Mike. “Good. You and Snow, over to me, now.” Level Fives were a strict Do Not Engage. Even if they weren’t, Jonathan wouldn’t risk a fight like this with just three agents, especially with two techs parked outside.

Mike staggered over like he had a fever, joints achey and uncooperative. Grayson would let him go for now. Jonathan barely glanced at Mike, keeping steady eye contact with a centuries-old monster who hated him personally. Jonathan had been bitten once in the line of duty, before Mike knew him, but the scar still looked fresh when he was angry. He’d never told Mike whether or not the vamp had offered to turn him, but they tended to do that to special forces, if only to be dicks.

“This isn’t your territory anymore,” Jonathan said shortly as they retreated.

“I’m not the one running,” Grayson said. Then they were out of the building and stumbling towards the van, Mike holding Henri up.

***

Mike was forty-three years old and looked, at most, twenty-six. Like most continuing ed students, he was gearing up for a second career. He’d majored in political science as an undergrad and then spent fifteen years as a vampire and now he wanted to go back to his roots, maybe do something in policy or city planning.

He’d been working for the agency for a year before they gave him clearance to enroll in night classes and getting his masters was still a hobby more than anything else, sometimes just a good excuse to avoid going to sleep. He was allowed to have his own apartment outside the base two years in, but he found a lot of reasons to avoid it.

The fact that he’d gone from living in an underground lair to, essentially, another, deeper underground lair, didn’t go unnoticed by Mike or his colleagues. Zeb and Henri and Amanda decorated his gym locker with Halloween-themed crepe paper, gave him pencils stamped with little bats. They were not big on tact and they had terrible senses of humor. Zeb’s father had been murdered by a vampire when he was a kid, so he had a personal stake in the fight. He also had a personal stake, an actual wooden stake onto which he had carved the word ‘personal.’ Plus his name was Zebulon and his grandmother sent him homemade moonshine every Christmas and Easter that so far had not made Mike go blind, despite several dedicated attempts.

Right now Zeb was looking very doughy and cautious, scanning Mike for something or other. It was a very preliminary whatever, waiting until the medical team arrived. Mostly for Henri, who – despite her protests – definitely had a concussion, but also to run some tests on Mike. Every four months they went after him with a needle the size of a harpoon, took tissue and hair samples, gave him an MRI and X-rayed his teeth. As far as he knew, he was the longest-lived test subject they had and there was a lot to study about him.

Right now, for example, they were pretty interested to see if exposure to a former sire had any biological or medical effect on the VRP. Mike himself couldn’t imagine how that would work, exactly. They still hadn’t figured out all the details of the scientific explanation of thralling, something to do with pheromones, and that was one of the agency’s better success stories. What had happened tonight definitely wasn’t that either, though. Enthralling was one of the few things Mike had been good at as a vampire and he could still recognize the shape and feel of the pull.

“Well you’re not…” Zeb said, reading results. “Uh, a lot of things. Pregnant! For instance.”

“You didn’t really scan him for pregnancy,” Amanda said through the base’s comm system. She was down in the garage, in charge of the team welding something back on the van that had fallen off in the route they took to avoid being followed.

“It’s a very inclusive scan!” Zeb said. “Anyway, you’re coming up normal on most everything, Mike.”

“Of course he is,” Amanda said. “You’re just fretting so you’re sticking gadgets in his face. Mike, come down here and help, it’ll take your mind off things.”

“Sorry, everyone, I need him in my office,” Jonathan cut in through the comm without even a crackle. “Micah, ASAP.”

“He’s not going to fire you,” Zeb said hurriedly as Mike shrugged on his sweatshirt.

Mike squinted. “I didn’t think he was.”

“I’m just saying,” Zeb said.

“Well now I’m worried,” Mike said, leaving the room.

The only thing about Jonathan Hancock that wasn’t completely streamlined for efficiency was the ‘Jonathan’ part; his insistence on being called by his full name probably bolstered by a lifetime of idiots like Mike making jokes about his signature. Mike had kept it up long after everyone else on the team stopped finding it funny, so clearly no one was really winning here in the sense of humor department. Right now Jonathan was at his desk. He didn’t look up from his netbook when Mike knocked on the plexiglass door and sat on the couch.

“Henri’s going to be okay,” Jonathan said finally. “I just got a call from Garrison. A minor concussion. She’s walked off worse in the field. We’ll have her back on active duty within the week.

Thank God. “Look, I know I fucked up–”

“You’d be off this assignment even if you hadn’t,” Jonathan said. It was less angry lieutenant in a cop film and more like they were resuming a conversation temporarily put on hold.

“What? No!”

Jonathan looked up. For months after the operation, he had been the only person Mike had contact with whom he had known by name. Jonathan had brought him milkshakes and BLTs and sat on very subtle suicide watch when Mike retched over the toilet bowl. “This isn’t open for discussion.”

“How is that even going to work? He’s seen me. He knows I’m here.”

“We’ll put you in a safehouse. Twenty-four hour guard. It’ll have cable, you’ll be fine.”

Mike balled his hand into a fist. “For how long, exactly?”

“Until matters are concluded.”

Jonathan rarely got this bitchy and vague unless he was extremely, extremely angry. “Until we can get him out of territory he ruled for seventy-five years, right. That’s going to be a lot of expense, keeping me in a bunker until I die.”

“It’s a lot of expense keeping you now,” Jonathan pointed out.

“Look, I get Cooper thinks–”

“Director Cooper,” Jonathan said, in a voice that made Mike’s hackles rise. “wants you on this assignment, for your information, as bait. I, however, saw you in the field tonight and could recognize how completely unprepared you were.”

“I’m prepared now!” Mike said. Then, keeping himself from yelling, “You can’t even understand how much I want him dead.”

Jonathan had come up through the CIA – one of the few things Mike knew about his history – and right now he looked like a spy. Sort of a weird mixture of dashing, dangerous James Bond and bland, patient bureaucrat most spies actually were. “We don’t have a word yet for whatever draw a sire has on a former. Whatever it is, it happened back there. You didn’t back Henri up, and you’d only slip like that if you’d been whammied by something hard.”

Mike wanted to fight back, until he realized Jonathan was giving him either an out or a left-handed compliment. “Cooper’s right about this one. Hiding me is just going to stretch this out. Right now he’s building up territory, biding his time. The longer that goes on, the more civilians are going to die. However you want to put me into play, this’ll go faster if I’m in the field.” He suddenly had a lot of trouble meeting Jonathan’s eyes. “He was pretty gracious about giving up control of the city when you gave him his walking papers. We both know why he’s back.”

Jonathan studied him for a long moment. Mike squirmed a little. Since turning back, Mike and his dick had been on speaking terms about very few things, least of all his boss.

Jonathan said finally, “If you stay active, you’re back to first-year clearance. No leaving the building without a pass and an escort.”

“Fine, you can get someone to babysit me, but no passes. I’m not a kindergartner on a potty break.”

“Passes and escort or nothing, Micah.”

Mike crossed his arms over his chest, aware it probably did make him look a little like a kindergartner. He mostly had good memories associated with Jonathan’s office. He found it easier to study on the couch in there than most places in the agency, Jonathan’s quiet presence at the desk as soothing as white noise. A few times he had fallen asleep, face mushed against the cushions or his textbook. Fewer times than that he’d woken up covered with a blanket. “Fine.”

Jonathan stood up, signalling it was time for Mike to leave. “If you show even the slightest inclination towards turning back, I’ll kill you.”

Mike looked up at the ceiling. “And this is different from normal how?”

“You won’t see it coming,” Jonathan said.

“Promise?” said Mike. Part of him was maybe a little disappointed though. He’d like to see it coming.

***

As far as Mike had been able to gather – the details were highly classified – VRP, the Vampiric Reversion Procedure, had been attempted a few dozens times and could be considered successful maybe a handful of them. Most of the failures amounted to botched science, but among the remaining were a fair amount of test subjects who ran to the nearest nest and turned themselves straight back. Vampires were pretty self-selecting and the prospect mostly attracted sadists or lunatics. After five or so of those they started screening candidates a little more carefully.

With Mike they had apparently assumed the bigger risk was something self-inflicted, considering he wasn’t given a shoelace for six months. Even then, they figured his survival instinct must be pretty strong, going by his profile. The biggest risk had been, Zeb told him once, luring him out. Which made sense: Grayson had kept him on a tight leash, often literally. Mike had never quite figured out if pissing off the main L5 they were battling at the time was something Jonathan considered a perk, unconnected to the mission at hand or the entirety of the mission at hand.

Jonathan had gotten access enough to kidnap Mike by getting himself kidnapped into Grayson’s nest, so who knew what was ever going on with that guy anyway.

Henri was the one who originally scouted him, thinking she saw some potential in Mike after she snuck up and booted him on the head when he was out prowling the alleyways. Mike couldn’t say what his initial impressions of her had been beyond annoying potential food. He had been a shitty vampire, but not because he was a good vampire, in that he had qualms about it. He had just mostly really sucked at being a vampire, in that he let a spook get the drop on him. It was like being bad at math or lacrosse. The moral component was irrelevant.

He got Henri a huge, obnoxious plush bear and sat it on the visitor’s chair in her recovery room. She laughed and punched his arm but took it home with her when she was discharged anyway. Henri was small and beautiful and there had been a time, when she and Jonathan were training him for fieldwork, that he thought it would solve a lot of problems if he had a thing for her. Mike always considered himself straight, back when he was twenty-three and applying for jobs at internet start-up companies and trying to keep things going with his college sketch comedy troupe. It turned out though that if he had a sexuality these days it was more along the lines of ‘maybe not so much right now.’ He and Henri were instead, profoundly, bros.

The next few weeks were filled with roughly fourteen hundred billion briefings and strategy sessions, but Grayson and his clan had gone underground as everyone (Mike) pessimistically assumed they would. They were avoiding all their old haunts and either hadn’t approached any local nests or scared them into silence.

“Wake up,” Zeb said, throwing Mike’s tear gas holster at him and ignoring how he hadn’t been sleeping. “You and Henri are on thrall duty.”

Rounding up thralls was pretty much housekeeping. Grab and subdue them when they were running errands for their masters during the day, wrestle them back to the base and wait for the deprogramming unit to collect them. The success rate wasn’t as grim as for reversions, hovering around sixty percent maybe. Likely though Jonathan was doing a low level sweep for intel too. Vampires didn’t tell their thralls much in the way of politics, but here and there one of them would notice something.

He was also probably punishing Mike a little bit, because Mike hated thrall duty. Thralls creeped him out even after they had been deprogrammed. You had to be pretty broken to begin with to want that kind of life.

Still there was something sort of grimly calming in how normal it felt, staking out malls and convenience stores. Thralls weren’t hard to spot, just keep your eyes open for a junkie on a mission. Sedating and zipcording them made for a pleasantly distracting afternoon. He even coaxed a conversation out of Jonathan over the comm, making fun of how he’d never seen Lost, Jonathan speculating why and when Mike had. Jonathan’s specialty was anti-humor, dry as bone and whipcord-smart with a savant’s timing.

They caught three thralls by the end of the day, two gaunt and almost drained, one a little fresher. Mike was showered and highlighting passages on the history of gerrymandering when he got called to the bullpen again.

“You’ve got a fan,” Jonathan said brusquely when he showed up. “One of the thralls is from Damien’s nest and claims she worked directly under him.”

“In more ways than one, I bet – heyoo up top!” Mike searched for a high five from the cluster of uneasy spectators. “Come on, you’re allowed to think it’s funny if I say it.”

“They would think it was funny if it were actually funny,” Jonathan said. “Anyway, she refuses to give her statement to anyone but you.”

“Did she think we shared a moment when I knocked her into the side of the post office?”

Jonathan, just barely, raised an eyebrow. “She claims she recognizes you.”

Thralls usually only lasted a matter of weeks or months, just as long as it took to drain them. Some of them though, crafty and resourceful ones, proved themselves useful enough to keep around. Mike met one going on a decade once; it wasn’t unreasonable to think this one might be telling the truth. He could feel his face turning all Precious Moments figurine on him though, eyes going big and mouth going thin and small. “Which interrogation room is she in?”

She was in Interrogation Room C, all four limbs strapped to a chair. She was in direct light and someone had thrown a rosary on her, although Jonathan and the higher-ups would kill whoever it was playing those kind of jokes. It was a pat word for it, but the thrall looked dry. She was jaundiced to where her skin resembled parchment, eerie and dusty.

She perked up when she saw him though. “Hi. You came.”

Mike shrugged. He spun the room’s other chair around and straddled it. He didn’t recognize the thrall, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. “So what’s so important?”

She ducked her head with a smile, girlishly nervous. Her hair was back in a rubber band to disguise how filthy it was. “That’s why I asked for you. You’re the only one who will understand how important all of it is.”

Mike mimed checking his watch. “And this is already officially bullshit. Are you flirting with me? Because let me tell you, that’s something I never understood about you guys. Vampires are dead. There is absolutely nothing going on downstairs. That can’t be fun for you.”

She kept smiling dreamily. “You and Grayson were so beautiful together.”

He stopped rocking the legs of his chair, a cold feeling sloshing in his stomach like ice cubes settling in a drink. “I don’t have any proof you’ve even seen me before.”

“I know where you were bitten,” she said. “A few inches below your belly button.”

It wasn’t uncommon knowledge. He’d been forced to go shirtless often enough. Still, though. “Have you seen him? Do you know where he is?”

“I want a trade,” she said.

Mike put his chin on his arms, resting on the back of the chair. “You’re getting scrubbed no matter what. I don’t have any control over that.”

She shook her head, like the information was a troublesome gnat. “That doesn’t matter. How many acolytes did you keep?”

“Let’s keep the conversation focused on you, okay sugar?”

“I’ll be back, I mean,” Her eyes were pale, like paint too diluted, but so focused on Mike he found himself struggling to meet them. “You know me. You might as well know me, you had so many like me. I am nothing but the living adoration of my master, his devotion made flesh. They’ll scrub me and I’ll go back.”

“Great,” he snapped. She wasn’t even trying to taunt him, that was the worst part. “So why are you in here trying to cut a deal with me?”

She turned sad in an instant, just unbearably sad. It didn’t stir any pity though. It felt mean and greedy at the base. “I want to know how you did it.”

“How I did what?”

“How you got them to turn you,” she said. “It’s all I ever…. It’s all I’ve wanted for so long, to be as they are. I’ve wanted it so badly and they say that’s the trick, just to want it, but I ask and it’s always no. I’ll tell you where I saw him. Just teach me to want it enough to know the right way to ask.”

Mike had just enough self-control to make it out the door. In the observation area there was a general air of alarm. Zeb was there, holding a chipped mug and raising a hand as if to touch Mike, which he ignored.

“Micah–” Jonathan began.

“No,” Mike said. She wasn’t worth punching; she was like talking to an exposed bruise already. “No. I don’t care. You tell her, anyone can tell her, fine, but I’m done here.”

Jonathan tilted his head, assessing. He was so polished, ruthless and beautiful as a samurai sword. Mike was relieved as he had never been before that Jonathan disliked him because right now he would collapse under the weight of sympathy.

“Okay?” Mike asked.

After a beat, Jonathan nodded. “Okay,” he said. Mike left.

He went to the gym and ran eight miles on the treadmill, full out. By the time he stopped it hurt to breathe, which was a good reminder. Maybe this was all part of some stupid, hokey destiny: he had forgotten to praise God for each brand new morning or cry when he saw a rainbow or whatever and Grayson coming back was just a sign he should be more thankful for the battered, medium-size miracle of this second chance.

A miracle with the skin scraped off its knuckles, he thought, getting a bottle of water. A miracle with kind of a limp. He’d been reborn and babies spent years crying and helpless with weirdly-shaped heads. His scar itched, the bite scar, and he scowled down at it. “A miracle with a broken dick.”

“What is?” Jonathan asked, sounding genuinely curious as he came in from the locker room.

“Nothing,” Mike said quickly. “Any progress with the thrall?”

Jonathan had changed into thin sweatpants and an old Dartmouth t-shirt. They were too pressed and fitted for him to be dressed down, exactly. He just looked, as always, thoughtfully appropriate for the occasion, which in this case happened to be the gym. It was more than a little annoying. Mike couldn’t tell if Jonathan was here to suss him out, exercise or maybe both. They were sparring partners as often as not. “Not really. They’re still working on her.”

“It’s been over an hour.”

Jonathan shrugged eloquently in answer. “Something she said got my attention. That question about how many thralls you had.”

“Doesn’t it say in my file?” For a moment, Mike was genuinely curious.

Jonathan leaned back against the wall. “Maybe I want to hear it from you.”

Mike scrubbed a towel over his hair to stop himself from hugging himself around the waist or choking Jonathan. “Why do you want to know? Is this official business? Because I’ll tell you if it’s on the government’s dime, whatever, but if this is just free therapy from the CIA’s top torturer…” He stopped, looking askance at Jonathan’s outreached palm. “And that’s…”

The dime appeared newly minted, oddly wholesome under the gym’s fluorescent lights. “Consider yourself on the payroll for this discussion. It doesn’t have to get messy.”

illustrated by mcruthless

Mike felt the corners of his mouth twitch. “I… really have to say, Jonathan, that was – I was not expecting a joke that bad from you.”

“Sometimes you’re an inspiration,” Jonathan said, tucking his hands loosely in his pockets after Mike had taken the dime.

“Thanks.” The coin felt cool and insubstantial in Mike’s grip. Jonathan had slept in a chair next to his hospital bed after the operation. He was pretty much the only one who didn’t laugh at Mike’s desire to get a master’s degree, and he had gotten Mike out of more than one jam with Cooper. Usually Mike tried to forget how Jonathan constantly positioned himself as a threat. He was transparent and elusive as a hologram. “Thralls? I don’t know. Dozens, probably. I didn’t keep count.”

Jonathan knew exactly how many people Grayson’s nest had killed when Mike had been a member and so did Mike, after sleepless nights spent on the agency’s database, but no one really had any way of knowing how many Mike himself was responsible for, his personal batting average. The ignorance didn’t make things better or worse, just clouded around his head like smog sometimes. Mike sat down on one of the weight benches and added. “Why bother?”

Jonathan raised an eyebrow. “Why bother keeping track of your victims?”

“Look,” Mike said, feeling waspish and tired. “I hated being a vampire because most vampires are melodramatic idiots and I’m a pain in the ass. I wasn’t more noble than the rest of them.”

Jonathan ambled over to him. “I know. Now’s a slightly different story though.”

Jonathan, Mike knew, was in many ways an uncomplicated person. The way saints were supposed to be uncomplicated, almost. He devoted himself to destroying evil, as far as Mike could tell, because if there was evil in the world, what else were you supposed to do but destroy it?

If Mike hadn’t been so desperate back then, if his strategy hadn’t been to find a nest that was partial to pretty faces, if Grayson hadn’t been the one grueling reality that defined him for those fifteen years, Mike wondered sometimes if the reversion procedure would have taken as well as it had. If he still would have welcomed it. The thrall hadn’t lied. Dress it up fancy, but vampires couldn’t turn the unwilling. At the end of the day he had looked Grayson in the eye and asked. “I need you to promise me something.”

“Yeah?”

“What you said in your office.” Mike looked up at Jonathan, smooth and inflexible and distant as marble. But just as solid too. “If I turn back – if it even looks like I’m in a situation where I have the potential to turn back – you’ll kill me. Promise me, okay?”

Jonathan studied him. The man had literally saved Mike, fought for him and with him. Mike could feel his own pulse speeding up, could visualize the pump of it sustaining the whole intricate machine.

Jonathan held his thumb and forefinger out like a gun and pressed it to Mike’s forehead. Mike’s breath caught.

“Bang,” Jonathan said. “Promise.”

***

So re: Mike’s dick being broken, the minute Jonathan left he bolted to the bathroom and jerked off until he thought he might have pulled a muscle. Which made it the first time in six months he’d done that successfully and the first time since turning back, initially overjoyed to have a working cock again but quickly becoming frustrated and chagrined with experimentation, that he’d been able to even get it up without a hand around his throat or something tying him to a bed. There were no medical papers about Mike’s awful, traitorous penis only because Mike steadfastly lied about it when asked.

It turned out the thrall had seen Grayson at the office building where they had originally encountered him. She was shipped off for deprogramming within the hour of the revelation. Mike thought it might be a little better for her if the doctors branded her incurable.

He decided to put the incident – interlude was a better word, the whole extended, mildly bizarre interlude – deep into the recesses of himself, the exception that proved the rule about his vulnerability. Mike had decided first thing after VRP that the one weakness he couldn’t allow himself was being paralyzed by the impact of it all. Still, he found himself keeping the dime with him, transferring it to the back pocket of every new pair of pants.

Besides, it wasn’t the exception that demonstrated the rule. In this usage, ‘prove’ meant ‘tested.’

Grayson came for him three nights later.

They were running a standard patrol downtown, which meant plainclothes, picking off vamps in alleyways outside of clubs. Mike had been good about his mandated escort, in part because he was very mature and levelheaded but mostly because it usually ended up being Henri anyway. The two of them usually just played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon as they went for burritos after Mike’s classes. For fieldwork though, they had to resort to borrowing from other teams and tonight was Weber, whom Mike liked fine but did not know too well.

He was all polite professionalism as they walked down McGovern Street, idly chatting with Mike about Christmas plans, but when they rounded the corner to Neuberg his expression glazed and he picked up speed without appearing to be in a hurry. He just started moving with an ease that indicated he was no longer taking his surrounding into account.

“Weber?” Mike called after him. He didn’t respond. “Pete?” He picked up pace slightly and radioed in. “Guys, might have a situation here.”

“Clarify, Mike,” Zeb said.

“Weber may have ghosted.” Mike almost lost sight of him before catching him dodging around the back of a boutique. “He just went off-route.”

“Copy that,” Jonathan said, sounding flat through the mic. “Civilians where you are?”

Five or six making their way home late at night, just enough that it could go either way, equal chance of providing cover or hostages. “Yeah.”

There was a brief pause. “Copy that. Don’t move. I can be there in three minutes. Henri can be there in five. Stay where you are, Micah, and stay in contact.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Mike muttered. He stood back to the storefront, hand resting on the grip of his side arm.

“Turn off the radio, Micah,” Grayson said, lounging by Mike’s shoulder. Over the comm he heard a frantic outburst of activity.

Mike stared straight ahead. “You realize this is just going to make them come faster.”

Grayson’s even expression didn’t flicker. “Turn off the radio or I’ll kill your fellow agent over there.”

Mike followed his gaze to where Weber was standing on the roof of a building. His face was blank, completely ghosted, making him as strange and menacing a figure as a crop circle. “Oh come on. This is just cheap even for you.”

“That’s right, Micah. Keep stalling until your friends get here,” Grayson’s tone was very passive-aggressive babysitter and the memories it brought back were Proustian in clarity and nauseating. “Radio off, though.”

Mike sighed and clicked off his earpiece. “I really hate you.”

Grayson smiled. He pressed himself to Mike’s side, radiating cold. “It feels like old times already, doesn’t it, baby?”

“Here’s a new one,” said Mike. “I don’t owe you anything. I’m not your fucking toy. The agency threw you out of town three years ago and turning human was the best thing that ever happened to me. You lost. Stay lost.”

Still with that patient little smile, Grayson wrapped stony fingers around Mike’s throat and lifted him until his toes were dangling to touch the ground. Mike clawed at his wrist, gaping for air, but Grayson’s grip was implacable. “I’m always the bad guy. I only ever did what you asked and then expected you to keep your end of the deal. You begged me and I saved you life. Be a little grateful.”

Mike saw starbursts, white hot trails smearing down his line of vision. He gurgled and kicked his legs. Grayson marched them back around behind the building. Being around Grayson was never an exercise in feeling masculine or proud, but the training had paid off because, almost instinctively when he felt the movement, he reached for his gun.

“Don’t,” Grayson said with full and ancient force. Another type of instinct kicked in immediately and Mike dropped his side arm to the ground. The night air was cold and smelled like stale fried food, sky roundly illuminated with artificial light.

“Mike!” a voice said. Mike managed to focus at a point past Grayson, which resolved itself into a watercolor blur resembling Henri. Grayson loosened his grip, just enough for Mike to gasp, but he could see a little better now. Henri had drawn her gun, which she disliked and used rarely, and was advancing slowly.

Grayson ignored her completely. He was never very interested in women in any capacity. Instead he was staring off into a shadowy corner, right where a kitchen would have had a back door if they were behind a restaurant. “Don’t lurk, Mr. Hancock! It’s rude. You really think I can’t kill you from there?”

Silence for a moment, then the sound of footsteps on gravel, and Jonathan appeared in the wan glow of the streetlight, hands in his pockets. And Mike relaxed because he was dead now and his era of personal responsibility was over.

Grayson must have sensed it – of course he sensed it – because his grip tightened again. He knocked Mike against the wall, creating another round of fireworks that momentarily blotted out reality. “Thank you. I’ll be taking Micah back with me now, if you don’t mind.”

Jonathan flickered a glance to the gun on the ground. Mike willed him to assume the worst, to think the worst of Mike. Jonathan exchanged a wordless communication with Henri, who didn’t look thrilled but kept the gun steady.

“Actually,” Jonathan said. “My supervisors and I would find that problematic.”

Grayson smiled, glossy and indolent and smug as a jungle cat who had just fed. Pleased with his position in their game. Even struggling for air, Mike could recognize how insignificant he himself was, how his main role was as a pawn in the struggle between these two greater, emblematic men. Mike kicked at Grayson, suddenly annoyed that he was dying and still a character actor in his own life.

Proving him right, Grayson just absently knocked him into the wall again, focused on Jonathan. “Your supervisors? That’s adorable. You’re so repressed. I’d have hoped that you’d at least take the opportunity to have Micah help you work through that. It’s what I made him for. To serve as a diversion, I mean. Not for you.”

Jonathan drew his gun. The movement wasn’t fluid at all and he looked angry. “Let him go, Grayson.”

“I could say that if you shoot, I’ll kill your agent up there,” Grayson said. “Should I even bother, though? We both know why you won’t hurt either him or me.”

“He’s worth more to us dead than with you,” Jonathan said.

Henri said, “Jonathan…” Her gun was still locked on Grayson.

“There was a significant word there,” Grayson said. “Us. I’ll be sporting, even. You have five seconds. Kill him.”

There were rumors Jonathan had played Russian roulette with Somalian mercenaries and killed the Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia with an ivory chopstick. He was a state-of-the-art, ten-million-dollar weapon crafted by the US government. Five seconds was a lifetime to him. The first two ticked by in silence.

“Jonathan!” Henry said sharply.

“Hold your fire, Velez,” Jonathan said. His expression was old and dark and internal as he aimed for Mike’s forehead. Mike met his eyes, trying to convey acceptance or gratitude. It might be the oxygen deprivation, but he really did feel sort of zen. This was more than he had been promised. Mike was getting to see it coming.

Something in Jonathan’s expression flickered, changed, and almost faster than Mike could follow it, he trained his gun at Grayson and shot three times.

“Wrong answer,” Grayson said. He squeezed the bullets in his hands and let the flattened discs fall the the ground. And then Grayson was moving and Mike was moving with him as the darkness licked at the corners of his vision and took over. The chaos became blessedly quiet and then there was nothing at all.

***

In the worst stranglehold of insomnia and sporadic fits of self-loathing, Mike sometimes read up on the latest research and advances in the treatment of small cell lung cancer. Great strides had been made since the mid-nineties and patients in the limited stages had a sixty to ninety percent response rate to chemotherapy. Prognosis was still bleak however. Patients with small cell carcinomas had a median survival of a year and a half to two years.

Mike’s doctors had given him four to six months. There had been discussions of chemo, but mostly in an assuaging way. Surgery had not been mentioned.

He had been twenty-three, involved in a complicated and stupid booty call relationship with an ex-girlfriend, the ink drying on his UPenn diploma. Mike had never even smoked. It was less that he hadn’t wanted to die and more that he convinced himself death was inconceivable. He was young and white and privileged. Mike had been terrified and told himself it was only anger at the suggestion that his own death should be more than theoretical.

He had been a panicky, short-sighted kid and the world had always reeled from significant decisions made by those. So Mike got himself turned into a monster and the absolute worst part was, for a while afterwards, he’d felt absolutely fantastic.

He woke up in a basement or maybe a cellar, somewhere dark and damp. Mike’s head hurt enough that he knew immediately, at least, that he was still human. He didn’t feel like he had been fed on, but he had cotton-mouth so maybe.

He groaned and someone kicked him in the stomach. He groaned louder, to be irritating.

In response, the someone grabbed his wrist and yanked it to the side, displaying the entirety of his arm. Mike went instinctively for the punch but stopped when he felt a blade on his throat. A voice said, “Just give me a reason.”

Mike forced himself to go still. His eyes had adjusted to the dark and being threatened with a knife had a bracing effect. “Corbin?”

“Shut up, fuckface,” Corbin said. Naturally, it was Corbin. With Lucius dead, he must have bumped up a slot in the ranks. He yanked Mike up by the hair until he was kneeling. Mike tried to assess his surroundings, his own physical condition. He was chained by both wrists to the floor, manacles that looked dirty and thick, bolted down. He was shirtless, but they had left on his dog tags.

“As ever, Corbin, you’re a scholar,” Mike said. The knife pressed in. “Hey, easy with that thing! I’ve got choir practice tomorrow.”

Corbin snarled, displaying a fang. It wasn’t threatening, really, just an early warning from a lazy, resting dog. “You’re lucky I’m under orders.”

“I’m lucky you’re a fucking toolbox,” Mike said, garbled. Strictly speaking, it didn’t even make much sense. Corbin just responded by pulling his arm exposed again and then, faster than Mike could credit it, slicing open the meat of his bicep.

Mike screamed. He couldn’t help it. Corbin was surprisingly quick and efficient though, given how much he hated Mike. He fished out the microchip with the ease of practice and crushed it under his stompy Matrix boots.

“There,” he said, satisfied. “Bye-bye, GPS tracking system. You’re off the map now, Mikey.”

Mike cradled his arm to his chest. The chains had just enough give that he could hold the cut closed with his other hand. He sat back on his haunches, glaring up at Corbin. “Oh my god. You people are idiots. Why the hell would you wait to do that until after we got to your safehouse? Are you even trying? Honestly, I could kill most of you with a pencil.”

“We’re nowhere near the main lair,” Grayson’s voice said, somewhere off in the shadows. Both Mike and Corbin froze. Grayson walked into the light enough for Mike to see. He had actually changed since Mike had passed out, wearing a black trenchcoat now. Mike just hated everything he was, every smug, cliched inch of him. “And we’re out of the city. We’ll be on the move soon enough. A good opportunity to take care of that transmitter and for the two of us to talk.”

“I don’t really have anything to say to you,” Mike said. “More of a series of gestures.”

Grayson folded his arms loosely, mouth curved into the beginnings of a fond little smile. “Leave us for now, would you, Corbin?”

Corbin looked pleased. He probably would have liked to stay, but he also knew he wasn’t that creative. Anything Grayson did would be a lot more satisfying in the long run. He walked up stairs and opened and closed a door. A very average-looking door. They were in a basement then. Grayson waited until the lock clicked before he moved again.

“I have to say,” he said, settling in front of Mike. “Your aptitude for making people hate you is unparalleled.”

“I wish you were dead,” Mike said.

Grayson ignored this case example of his hypothesis and went for Mike’s arm himself, twisting it from the rotator cuff. Mike winced, blood dripping down to the floor.

“That’s better,” Grayson said quietly. He bent his head down, running his tongue along the wound until it closed. His mouth felt cool and wet and Mike forced himself to think of frogs and slugs and slime.

Grayson reached a hand up to trace his jaw. “I almost want to thank you, baby. I only got to taste you as a human once and I always regretted that. Not that you don’t taste good changed, but you know how it is. It never fully satisfies. Maybe I’ll keep you human for a few weeks this time. Thrall you. Would you want that?”

“No,” Mike said. He had saved twenty-two people directly, killed the vampires feeding on them or about to feed on them. It didn’t make up for anything. It would be insulting and petty to keep a scorecard. But twenty-two people lived because of him and he tried to imagine that fact shaped as a white pillar inside him, holding him up straight.

Grayson reached his hand down to Mike’s crotch, feeling the outline of Mike’s half-hard cock. He leaned back, triumphant and thoughtful. “No, you wouldn’t, would you? It’s only fun for you if you get to struggle.”

Mike winced again and stared down at the ground to his right, blood leaving his head so fast he got dizzy. “Fuck you.”

Grayson yanked him back up by the jaw. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” His expression was momentarily wild. He always became more changeable after having eaten. Mike edged himself back as far as the give of the chains would allow. He must really have wanted to live after all though, because he left his head where Grayson put it and shut up.

Grayson’s expression evened out like sand settling in the bottom of an hourglass, satisfied. “Much better.” He flicked open the top button of Mike’s fly. “This is why I didn’t give up on you, Micah. I knew this was still here. You’re still what I made you.”

“I’m not,” Mike said because oh look, great, the pendulum had swung back again to assisted suicide. “Fuck you, I’m not. My team’s going to come and–”

“Your team.” Grayson sounded mildly exasperated. He unbuttoned two more buttons and reached in to wrap his hand around Mike’s cock, just holding it. Mike whimpered.

“Do you think your team means anything?” Grayson asked. “You think just because you had an operation and got to run around with your little army men for a few years you’ve changed? You’re still mine. My fingerprints are all over you.” He squeezed Mike’s cock and grinned brilliantly. “I’ve missed this, too. Only had it the once.”

Grayson started to stroke. His grip was sure and almost gentle, twisting his wrist at the end of every pull, thumb trailing over the head. He felt nothing like a frog and entirely like himself. Mike’s breathing became ragged and he stopped trying to fight, a white jolt pounding in his head. Grayson mouthed at his neck, not even a hint of teeth. This wasn’t the worst part, but it was something Mike had successfully suppressed until now. Grayson probably did love him, in the way dictated by his nature.

“That’s it,” Grayson said against his throat. “I know what you need. Do you see now? There’s no difference between what you do for me and what you do for Hancock. You’re always trying to please a powerful man.” He put a slight emphasis on the word man and sped up. Mike’s shoulders hit the wall behind him and he stared at the ceiling, gasping, trying to disconnect. Grayson just followed though, looming above him. He was wildly beautiful. “If one happens to be in front of you, you do what it takes to make him happy. In Hancock’s case, that just meant playing at the good soldier. I gave you that.”

Mike couldn’t even tell him he was wrong.

“I’ll kill him for what he did to you though,” Grayson murmured into his mouth. “Taking you away from me. I’ll kill him and paint you with his blood.”

He bit Mike’s lower lip and Mike cried out, muffled in Grayson’s mouth, and came, hips jolting. Grayson lifted his head, pleased, and wiped his hand off against Mike’s scar, content and seemingly oblivious to Mike’s making a sound halfway a sob and a hiccup.

“I’m not drinking from you,” Mike said, sounding delicate and small. He had put on twenty-five pounds of pure muscle after joining the agency. So many things he had done after joining the agency were meaningless. “You can’t force me to turn.”

Grayson nosed at the juncture of his shoulder and neck. “You’ll turn. You’ll give us the information we need to take the government down and then you’ll ask to be turned.”

Grayson bit down and drank. It was the same sort of feeling you got from picking off a scab, more powerful now that he was human. Mike never liked it, exactly. He at least had the consolation that it was too soon for him to get hard again. Mike’s mind drifted to the pull of the tides, similar to the reverse going on inside him, the stable rhythms it created on the earth.

****

Waiting out the daylight, they gave him a glass of water. It was probably drugged. Mike debated drinking it anyway – with the blood he lost he was likely dehydrated and maybe the best thing he could do in the circumstances was get a few hours of sleep. After a while though, he tipped it over and settled back against the wall.

Grayson left while he was still lying on his side, wheezing. Without an explanation, but probably to go prepare. Mike figured the true purpose of their stay here, the reason they left the tracking device on so long, was Grayson fully intended Jonathan and his team to track down Mike, force some sort of confrontation. For all their longevity, vampires tended to have small reserves of patience and Grayson had never been much one for the long game.

Jonathan likely would come. He’d be ordered to. Mike’s mind, sluggish from hunger and disappointment, plodded around in circles trying to determine the details of those orders though.

Jonathan had been mildly but openly skeptical about the chances of the VRP succeeding from the beginning. Here though, in this ridiculous place and time, a memory kept breaching Mike’s thoughts.

Two months after the operation, Jonathan had asked if Mike wanted anything. Mike answered, “A milkshake or maybe to kill myself.”

“Chocolate or vanilla?” Jonathan asked. But he had sat on the bed, looking like he was prepared to listen.

“I deserve to be dead,” Mike had said. He had felt distanced from the words, just bland facts he was sure Jonathan would second. “I don’t know if that’s the same thing as wanting to die though.”

Jonathan was silent for a minute. At the time, Mike thought he was probably judging Mike for whining, but now he recognized that expression as Jonathan giving something the full weight of his attention.

“Have you ever heard the phrase tikkun olam?” he said.

The question was unexpected enough that Mike just shook his head.

“It’s a Hebrew phrase,” Jonathan says. “It means ‘repairing the world.’ It’s supposed to be our obligation, not as sinners, not for penance, just as people. Repair the thread of the world, restore order to chaos.”

Mike choked out a dry laugh. “I’ve got a lot of repairing to do.”

Jonathan shrugged. “Like I said, it’s not about personal history. There’s just a lot of world to repair.”

Mike sat up further in the bed, sheets pooling around his stomach. “Is that why you hunt vampires?”

“That and I’m very good at it,” Jonathan said, matter-of-factly. “But it’s why I’d be interested in having you on my team when you’re recovered.”

“Okay,” Mike said. “So believe me, I’d love to stake every single one of those sons of bitches, not to mention the thought of being surrounded night and day by your effervescent wit makes me just tingle, but… you know who you’re talking to here, right? I wasn’t much of a fighter as a vampire and right now I’m basically remembering how my saliva glands work.”

“We’ll train you.”

“Why did you choose me?” Mike said. It sounded like a complaint.

Jonathan just said, “We’ve been monitoring you. We thought you had potential.”

Mike twisted the sheet in his hands. “What if I don’t? If I go back or something?”

It was an old discussion at this point, that if Mike failed out at any point, for any reason, the agency would dispose of him. But Jonathan just said, as gentle as Mike had ever heard or would ever hear him. “One thing at a time, Micah. I promise.”

Mike didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he cleared his throat. “Can I have a chocolate shake with a scoop of peanut butter thrown in?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Jonathan said.

But Jonathan hadn’t followed through on his promise. He’d left Mike exposed to his own fragility and Mike couldn’t decide whether that was a demonstration of faith or a dismissal. The agency could rescue him or kill him, fine. He’d only be devastated if they had written him off.

So he decided he may as well sulk.

He was depressed enough he almost didn’t notice when the door opened, except that was a lie. His head shot up so fast something in his neck snapped. It was Corbin, and for the brief moment the door was ajar Mike could hear gunfire.

“Vacation’s over?” Mike said. Corbin just snarled and keyed the locks. Mike’s wrists complained at their new freedom.

Corbin was in too much of a rush even to hit him, which could be either a good sign or bad. He yanked Mike up from under his armpit. Mike’s legs had gone numb and the blood rushing back had him staggering. Corbin just grunted. “We’re moving base.”

Mike played at dead weight. “Hey though – still a little sunny out there for you guys, I bet. That’s gotta suck, huh?”

“We’ve got treated windows on the cars,” Corbin said. “Stop being cute and come on.”

And this was maybe the only advantage of being the pet twink of a vampire prince for over a decade: people tended to underestimate him. “I’m thinking no,” Mike said, and punched him in the face.

He was pretty sure it broke his hand, but the impact was hard enough that Corbin let him go, reeled back a few paces. Mike didn’t waste the advantage. He bolted for the door. Whatever battle was going on up in the main house, he was probably, technically, in no condition to join it. But adrenaline was making him feel clear-eyed as a superhero and he figured the closer he got to the light, the better the chances were he would find something he could use as a weapon.

He had to wrench the door open, strength coming from the shoulders. There was a silhouette half a foot away, indistinct as Mike’s pupils adjusted. He flattened himself against the side of the stairwell, craning his head around. Behind him he could hear the quick creaks and growls that indicated Corbin had composed himself and was heading up the stairs.

Only, he fell down, crumpling like newspaper, stolen blood trickling from a bullet wound dead center between his eyes.

Mike looked back at the doorway. The shadow had coalesced into Jonathan, just looking up from the sight of his side arm. All the weapon Mike needed.

They were about an inch apart – Jonathan had fired directly over Mike’s shoulder, he realized – and the air between them felt wired, magnetized. Jonathan’s hair was in his eyes. He seemed winded or maybe startled for such a quick moment it could have been a trick of the light before his jaw hardened, slipping into his professionalism like a suit. Jonathan started assessing him, differently than he had in the alley with Grayson. There Mike could read the conflict in his face pretty plainly, but now it wasn’t about murder. His expression might as well have been in braille. Jonathan started to speak, but something behind them exploded.

They both slammed themselves to the floor. “Zeb?” Mike asked, when the ringing in his ears had died down somewhat.

“Zeb,” Jonathan confirmed. “Can you move?”

“Get me the hell out of here.”

They were in a hallway, narrow but ornate. Victorian maybe, which meant dozens of little rooms and crannies, excellent drop points. Jonathan handed him a gun. It fit so comfortably in his grip, it took half a beat for Mike to realize it was his gun, the one he had dropped in the alleyway. His stupid, easily-distracted heart zinged a little. Jonathan was talking though, so Mike forced himself to pay attention when Jonathan said, “The nearest exit is southeast of here, six hundred feet or so. There are about twenty vamps between us and it.”

“Grayson?” Mike asked.

Jonathan glanced at Mike’s neck, the puncture wounds that stood out like a brand. Mike refused to look away. Life was dizzy and inherently unfair and Mike had been graded on a steeper curve then most. True forgiveness was not a tangled thing but acceptance always was, ambivalence making a snarled knot of the world. Still, maybe he could no longer afford to be ashamed of this.

“Haven’t seen him yet,” Jonathan said. “He’s lying low.”

“He’s by the exit,” Mike said, like he was talking to an idiot. “He’s waiting to put on a show.”

Jonathan’s mouth quirked. “I’d hate to disappoint him then.” He fished a small aerosol bottle out of a holster around his waist and gave it to Mike. “New tech. Might come in handy.”

Mike felt his face wrinkle up. “He’s not allergic to body spray.”

Jonathan started edging down the hall, sidearm raised. He was speaking in his normal bored, monotone that was somehow audible over the orchestra of destruction going on in the main section of the house. “Is this really the time?”

“You’re rescuing me,” Mike said. It felt like a non-sequiter to him, but the look Jonathan gave him over his shoulder, maybe there was meaning he gleaned from it. “Seriously though, what’s it do?”

So before he got an explanation, of course, a vampire Mike vaguely thought might be named Lacrimosa launched herself at them and Mike fired.

They bulldozed their way down the corridor, pretty much, the area too tight for much more than hand to hand and Mike had to tuck his sidearm away after a while. Vampires couldn’t be killed through most conventional means, but crushing their nose into their grey matter significantly slowed them down. The fight was messy, unchoreographed and gorgeous in the way of good drugs and bad techno. Mike and Jonathan had worked together long enough to read each other well enough and a battle like this turned tribal, brought you to the beating center of some nameless profundity.

By the time the door was in sight, Jonathan was flushed and blood-splattered and about as alive as Mike had ever seen him. He had a stake with him – an elegant mahogany thing Mike thought he had some sort of sentimental attachment to – and almost absently slayed a scrawny little vampire, barely more than five years turned. He was otherwise busy radioing in. “Henri’s team has secured the northwest entrance. They’re going to circle around the front and give us backup.”

It was an oak door, double-sided, serpentine carvings along the frame, heavy enough to keep out the wind. Like the house, the door were expensive but fairly ordinary. It only rang an ominous tone because of what Mike had invested in it. He reached around to his back pocket, an absent nervous tic now, looking for his dime. It wasn’t there. He checked his other pocket.

“Was this what you wanted?” Grayson asked.

He wasn’t quite in front of the door, he had more style than that, but he strode out of a vestibule, that coat whispering around his ankles. Very anime. He was rolling Jonathan’s coin between his fingers. It looked dirtier now, worn in those pianist hands. Mike hated almost more than anything else that, despite everything he knew about this man, his heart jumped in his throat at the sight. That Grayson still had that power over him and likely always would.

“I smelled him on you before,” Grayson said, with his standard eerie calm and its lingering threat. “I wasn’t quite sure what to think before I realized it was coming off of this. I’m sure there’s a very sweet story behind it.”

Jonathan had his gun trained on him in an instant. Mike had an immediate bout of deja-vu, dread rolling in on its heels. Jonathan’s posture was different this time, in minute ways Mike was almost surprised he could see. Less stiff in the shoulders, knuckles no longer going white around his gun. Confident where before he had been wary and unsure, and a honeyed little trickle wrapped itself around Mike’s throat. In the alley, Jonathan had been scared. Now he wasn’t.

“Micah,” he said. “The body spray.”

Mike took the split second to decide not to ask whether he should shake it first. He grabbed the aerosol container and sprayed it like a blow torch directly at Grayson. He felt silly, attacking his sire with what could possibly be hairspray, but it came out oddly viscous, speckling Grayson’s face and arms with an artificial dew. The room began to smell strange, like clean sweat or – a jarring image to cross his mind – maybe what Jonathan’s pillow smelled like, a combination of sex and sleep.

Grayson’s expression flickered several times. Mike had never seen it so unguarded. It finally went slack and Grayson staggered, grabbing at the wall for support with a little moan.

Mike turned to Jonathan. “What is this stuff? Did we just mace him?”

The corners of Jonathan’s mouth twitched, satisfied. He hadn’t spoken much this altercation, Mike was realizing, hadn’t fallen back into the protocol that could signal retreat as well as attack. Maybe – oh god – he didn’t think there was a need.

“More like roofie him,” Jonathan said. “All your thralls. It got me thinking. If you found a vampire talented enough at it, would there be a way to up the concentration enough that it could effect other vamps? Zeb and the med guys were working non-stop with a sample of your pre-VRP blood before we found your location.” Jonathan put his gun back in his holster with a flourish. He was showboating. A tentative, chalky hope wrapped itself around Mike’s chest. “Seems like it’s worked pretty well.”

“You stupid,” Grayson slurred. His eyes were dilated as he clawed his way forward along the wall. “Stupid little man. How dare you – how dare you…”

“Micah and I are leaving now,” Jonathan said. “You can make it easy or hard, it’s up to you. First I’d like my dime back, please.”

Maybe one thing Jonathan didn’t understand about thralls as deeply as Mike did was that under the worst throes of it, they became erratic. Grayson bared his fangs, terrifying in its clumsiness. His speed was certainly diminished, Mike’s eyes could follow the movement, but he still lunged himself at Jonathan faster than a human’s reaction time could credit, hands around his neck. Jonathan choked, fighting back with his knees and elbows.

And then stopped and the whining dart sound of a silenced gun. Took in a lungful of air as Grayson’s body, face registering shock or maybe realization or maybe – and this could have been Mike’s imagination – for a brief moment a deep hurt, slid lifeless to the floor.

Mike had aimed for the back of Grayson’s head, but hit his temple. The entry wound was still neat and clean. Jonathan stared at him as he was gasping for air, eyes not shuttered at all.

Mike cleared his throat, a cold anesthetization settling inside him. His broken hand was the only thing in him with nerve endings anymore, pain trickling back in. He walked over to Grayson – to the corpse – and retrieved the dime from where it had landed on the floor as he fell.

“You still want it?” He asked Jonathan. His voice was hoarse.

Jonathan shook his head. Hair fell in his face again and he didn’t smooth it back. “Keep it. I wanted it back for you anyway.”

****

The debriefing lasted, by Mike’s conservative estimate, around seven hundred million billion years.

Zeb and Amanda and Henri all smelled like scorched metal and blood when they met up again. He grabbed each one in a crushing bear hug, by the end of which they were mostly supporting his weight, when they first got back to base. They were all allowed a shower and a meal and medical attention, because the agency wasn’t heartless, before they gave their debriefings that lasted until the heat death of the universe. Being heartless and being extremely goal-oriented could often overlap on a Venn diagram. Afterwards though, the only distinct memory Mike had of the ordeal was how jubilant Zeb was that the thrall device had worked. “I get to name it now!” he kept saying.

He asked after Weber. He’d jumped but survived and was currently safe in a scrub unit. He got morphine when they set the bones in his hand. There wasn’t a lot of time for deeper reflection, which was a relief. Every time Mike tried to absorb the fact that Grayson was dead, it felt like the rules of physics had changed. His scar itched whenever he wasn’t too distracted to forget about it.

Eventually though, Cooper and her faceless superiors apparently became satisfied they understood the situation as a whole. But sitting on his bunk, blood zinging though his veins, Mike wasn’t sure he quite got it.

Because the other thing that stood out in the blur: none of them had mentioned what happened at the alley, tacitly and with no prior discussion. Mike being fed on, that was open game, but the team couldn’t admit, maybe even to themselves, that Jonathan had meant to kill Mike and then didn’t.

Maybe it was the exhaustion, emotional more than physical at this point, after enough coffee, but a creeping vine of anger about that crept up Mike’s neck, tightening.

Jonathan was in his office with the light on, apparently the only employee left after the day. The bullpen felt expansive and yellowy blue and safe, even in its emptiness, and Mike felt slightly better walking through it, watching Jonathan through the glass of his door. Jonathan was still in his full suit, cobalt-blue tie Windsor-knotted. His netbook was open, the glow making his skin look otherworldly, but his hands were in his lap. Apparently he was just staring vacantly at the screen and he barely looked up when Mike entered the office.

“So we gonna talk about it?” Mike said.

Jonathan didn’t bother feigning ignorance. “It seems I don’t have much of a choice.”

“Was it an experiment?” Mike said, angry at the sarcasm, feeling reckless and paranoid with it. “To see if I would turn? If you could trust me? Or was it orders from Cooper, keep the specimen alive even if it means he’s going to be kidnapped by a monster who tortured him for over a decade?”

Jonathan just looked so tired, the shadows under his eyes blooming indigo. “I was the one who didn’t want you in the field in the first place, Micah.”

“You promised me!” Mike said. Because that’s what it came down to, ultimately, feeling young in being betrayed and hurt. “Every step of the way, you promised me you’d save me from myself and you didn’t. I deserve to know why.”

Jonathan closed his netbook, face reflecting the tiniest bit of color again. The odd, jagged vulnerability there made the arc of Mike’s emotions swing back abruptly to shame. Because Grayson had been right, but only in the barren, superficial way he understood everything. In the house, chained and helpless in a basement that smelled like piss and banal, mildewed secrets, Mike found himself unable to avoid the sticky lump that had been threatening to smother him for years now. He loved Jonathan. Entirely, pathetically, the way a convert loves the new tenets of their faith, he loved Jonathan. And Jonathan was too cold and perfect and fundamentally good to ever return the feeling.

Jonathan rubbed his eyes arthritically. And then he said, so small and defeated Mike had to strain to hear him, “I couldn’t do it.”

Mike’s mouth went dry. “What?”

Jonathan looked at him. “You’re right. I remembered the promise. I had the kill shot. I knew the protocol. I just couldn’t do it.”

A limpid silence hung in the air, defiant and awkward at the same time. Eventually Mike asked, “Am I going to be transferred?”

Jonathan looked genuinely surprised. “Do you want to be?”

“No!” Mike said. “No. I just thought…. I don’t know what I thought.” He sat down on the couch. “I’m really messed up.”

Jonathan moved like it hurt, but he came around to perch on top of his desk. “I know.”

“I didn’t decide to turn because I’d get to kill people but I knew I would and I was okay with that. Who deems that an acceptable downside? And that’s another thing, I chose to become a vampire. I looked for Grayson on purpose because I heard he liked hot young things. I really wanted it.” Mike shook his head. “I thought Grayson being dead would fix that somehow, but… it’s stupid, I guess.”

“I know all this, Micah. I know.” Jonathan said. His arms were crossed loosely. “You didn’t have a lot of options back then.”

“I could have died gracefully,” said Mike. “Surrounded by friends and family. I don’t know.”

“I wouldn’t have met you if you did that,” Jonathan said. His voice was trying to be even, but conviction kept creeping in, running the ends of words together. “Regret your choices, you have the right. But I don’t. I wouldn’t have known you if you hadn’t decided to fight. Every single time you decided to fight.” And then, tentative, a confession: “I didn’t shoot because I don’t want you dead.”

This moment was crucial, a nexus, the fledgling exploration before a final flight. Jonathan was tense and not even really trying to hide it. Mike was feeling so many things so powerfully all that really registered was queasiness.

“I can’t get an erection unless someone’s tying me up or choking me but sometimes when that happens I kind of freak out, so I haven’t had sex in almost two years,” Mike said. If there was one thing he knew, it was shooting himself in the foot.

Jonathan’s eyebrows were raised nearly to his hairline, but still in more of a subdued way than maybe the information warranted, like he had just learned some unusual bit of protocol about the Queen’s procession. “Ah,” he said.

“Didn’t know that, did you?” Mike said, staring at the floor.

“No,” Jonathan said. “I didn’t.” He didn’t sound alarmed. If anything there was… intrigue there. Mike heard a rustle and looked up again. Jonathan was undoing his tie. “Do you think you would freak out if I were the one tying you up?”

Even without their shared history or the sharp unexpected shock of the words, even if Jonathan were just a beautiful man calmly folding his suit jacket and putting it on the desk behind him, maybe the proper use of the conditional verb would have been enough. Things being what they were though, Mike’s dick startled awake, already feeling full and heavy.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “You’re the best person I know.”

Jonathan paused momentarily at that, surprised. “Thank you,” he said, quiet and honest, before taking Mike’s arms and not-ungently holding them behind his back at the wrist. Mike felt the silk of Jonathan’s tie being pulled into boyscout-perfect knots. “Safeword is ‘geography’.”

And that just raised so many unexpected questions on its own that Mike barely even noticed when Jonathan looped the tie through the metal hook that connected the cushion to the frame of the couch and secured it. He was kneeling between Mike’s legs, dark eyes darker than before, black and full. The flush on his cheeks was like an Indian summer. He stroked Mike’s erection through his pants, confident but inquisitive. “You okay?”

“I am,” Mike gasped out. “Really okay.”

Jonathan smiled, maybe a little smug and thin, but genuinely happy, and undid Mike’s fly. He pulled his jeans and boxers down a few inches, just enough to expose his straining cock to the unforgiving air conditioning, making Mike hiss. Jonathan stopped his exploration, looking up.

“Keep going,” Mike said. “Just cold.”

Jonathan bent his head and the cold problem was solved in an instant. His mouth was a furnace, taking its time testing the flesh of Mike’s inner thighs, before sucking on his sack, outlining it with his tongue. Hot enough for a furnace but more like a fireplace, a stove. Something you’d want to gather around.

Mike was breathing in high, harsh gasps. His shoulders hurt slightly, pushed in an unnatural position, but when he tested the knots, they held tight. Keeping him secure, tethered here with Jonathan, now licking at the cut of his groin like he was savoring it.

“Please,” Mike said, rubbing his cheek against the couch leather. “Please.”

He felt Jonathan smile – two in one day – before obviously taking pity on him, sitting up further on his knees to put that amazing mouth on Mike’s cock. At first he just sucked at the head, milking the slit with his tongue, but then he went down deep, with astonishing speed. His position was like a supplicant and Mike choked off a little wail that threatened to come out and bucked his hips up. Again, Jonathan adjusted, took it. He held Mike in his mouth for a moment before he began to suck, moving his head in the rhythm.

It was so different, being held without being controlled. A hot mouth working just for him, cooler hands mapping his sides over his shirt, memorizing the territory of his body. Mike bucked again, feeling hazy and wanted, and forced out. “I’m coming soon – now. Oh god, Jonathan.”

Jonathan redoubled his efforts, tongue pressing against the vein on the underside of the shaft. Mike came with a sharp noise and Jonathan swallowed, getting most of it. But he kept his mouth on Mike’s dick as it grew soft again, almost stubbornly, and some come trickled out the side of his mouth.

Debauched, Mike thought. He had never felt so proud of himself.

Finally Jonathan sat back, wiping off his cheek with the back of his hand. He was glowing a little from sweat, maybe something else too. “I’ve wanted to do that for a while.”

“I’ve wanted you to do that for a while,” Mike said, still winded. The reasons it hadn’t happened before hung in the air between them: Mike’s guilt and moral ambiguity; Jonathan’s natural reticence or maybe some deep fear of becoming close to someone he might one day have to put down like a dog. Right now though, they felt like things the agency’s ventilation system could handle. They had repaired the world a little today and Mike had earned a dime for it. Everything else was secondary.

Jonathan rested a hand on Mike’s thigh. “Do you want me to untie you?”

“I want you to kiss me,” Mike said, finally giving in to the old, old urge to say that to this man.

Jonathan kissed him deep. He mostly tasted like wet and mouth, but there was a metallic undercurrent. It made Mike think of come and living blood and coins and he leaned into it as far as he could.


Notes

Your best work is never going to be that story you wrote about high-tech vampire hunters, but it feels good to be back in the ss*bb game.

Thanks go to the usual suspects. ladysisyphus for cheering me on. beeblebabe for helping me flesh out the world and the plot and particularly Jonathan. And special shout out to mcruthless for being such a trooper and producing an incredible work of art after I abruptly changed the deadline on her from about five months to six minutes. Go look at her work, it is simply amazing.

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