Professor Raudine finished reading the last painful sentence of a 10 page report that, after he was finished grading it – looked like it was bleeding. He very gently sat the paper down on his desk and leaned back in his office chair. It creaked and protested, but he leaned it back enough to hear his back pop. A pleased sigh escaped his lips once that business was done.  

 

It had been a couple of weeks since the doppelganger crisis had been averted, and like any other situation he had found himself in, things cooled off and calmed down on all fronts of Jean-Michel Raudine’s life.  Honestly, he should have been thankful for that and left it as it was. However, the Tasker couldn’t just let things go. Not this time. He had crossed a line, though it was out of necessity, and somewhat out of desire, it was still quite a dangerous line to cross. It left him vulnerable. It left others vulnerable.

 

He looked over at the side wall near his over coat and remembered the atlas he had “borrowed” from the Council Chamber. Did he really want to go back to looking over that thing? Shouldn’t he just leave it all be? He was found out. He was playing a very dangerous game. He usually didn’t play this kind of game unless he was sure he’d win.

 

Why? For one thing, he was a Tasker of Crimson, the policing agency for all supernatural and human interaction that also maintained the secret portals between worlds. Most of humanity knew nothing about this. That was the goal, after all; secrecy and safety.  Being a Tasker in and of itself meant that he could literally be called away to duty on order of his Councilor, the human Gabriel Kennedy, or the Director of Crimson, Ezekiel Skinner, at any time.  And after the last Council Meeting, Skinner had definitely kept him busy.  He’d been on the go and away from Gabriel most of the time. Raudine did not believe this was coincidence. Skinner had already put him on notice that he knew Jean-Michel Raudine was actually a dragon in magical disguise. Skinner even knew his dragon name – Senias of Morias.  And now, it seemed the Director was trying to keep him away from Councilor Kennedy.

 

The Kennedys and all of their extended family lived in North Carolina which was where the major North American Portal – the magical passage between worlds – was kept nice and controlled by Crimson in this region.  The Kennedy family were powerful within Crimson. Their family line had provided human Councilors each and every generation. Secretly, they had taken to being dragon mages in order to insure the clan’s survival through the centuries since before Rome fell. Senias was tied by magic to this family. He was afraid that he might be tied even moreso to the current generation’s heir.  That was the line he had crossed.

 

As a Crimson Tasker, he was not allowed to be personally involved with his Councilor. Of course, there was also that fact that he was a dragon – a supernatural being that was on the list of beings Crimson Agents were allowed to kill on sight. And that hadn’t stopped him thus-far from taking advantage of the organization. What they didn’t know wouldn’t kill him.  

 

Unfortunately, Director Skinner knew. He just didn’t know the Kennedy connection. Not yet. And Senias of Morias aka Jean-Michel Raudine had plans of getting his scaly ass out of this situation before Skinner found out anything else. At least for the last week things had quieted down. He could breathe. He could get back to a normal life – or as normal a life as one could have when one was a dragon pretending to be a human.

 

Because he was assigned to this family as a Tasker and because the Crimson HQ and Council Chamber were both nearby, Jean-Michel had actually set up a pretty decent life here.  He lived as a human most of the time – something he was not.  But life was good.

 

He had an alias to keep up. Raudine taught classes on history at the local university, and enjoyed focusing on “weird history” more than anything. He let slip a French accent here and there, but didn’t always have to focus on it. His excuse being that he had spent so much time in the little Southern township that he had lost some of his Parisian tongue.  People tended not to question it.  He could literally walk from his classes to his home. That part he enjoyed most of all –  coupled with being a very private man and not having anyone come to his home often.  

 

Or… that had been before this last mission.  After the last mission things had changed; if only for a few days. He couldn’t decide if the change had been a good one or not. Back to thinking about that line and how he had crossed it…  

 

“Jean-Michel, are you going to be burning the midnight oils again?” came the voice of an elder staff member. It had jostled Raudine from his thoughts. Benjamin was a small man with dark skin, from Honduras. He had to be in his early 70’s by now. It amazed Raudine that the human was still around and he figured it had something to do with keeping his mind busy and keeping his body active.

 

“I suppose I’m going on that, yes?” He chuckled and sat back up to move the paper over into a file folder then closed it. “Want a drink, Benny?”

 

“Why, yeah, yeah, I’d love that. You always have the best stuff.” The janitor came on into the door and settled his dust mop’s handle in the crook of the door frame. He wiped his brow with his handkerchief and then shoved it back in his pocket.

 

Benny reminded him of the old days at the pub. Good working men drinking together. Those were the days. The pubs around here were full of spoiled college kids wanting a quick drunk and taking up space to watch sports games. It was detestable. Pouring the liquor he had stashed in the bottom drawer into two paper cups from the hallway water fountain, Jean slid one across the desk to Benny. He recapped the whiskey and put it away. Taking his cup, he lifted it in a toast, “To still having midnight oil for the burning.”

 

“Midnight oil!” Benny said a little louder than his host and they both took the gulp.  

 

“I was heading out but thought I’d finish up one last paper. That’s done.” He got up from the desk and made his way to the side wall. “So you have the office now, mon ami.” Raudine reached to the coat hook on the side wall below several framed papers that let people know how very qualified he was to teach.  His coat went on – a nice sport coat with patched elbows. Then, his hat, a fedora with a tweed band, went on his head. “What’ll you be doing tonight?”

 

“I have my family, friend. As soon as I leave here I’ll be home and shower and hold my wife as close as I can, and in the morning? Grandkids are coming over. I love my grandkids. You spoil them and…”

 

“Give them back.” Both of them said it, because Benny had been telling Jean-Michel the same thing for all the years he’d worked at Whitley University. Raudine reached over and took a rolled up poster from the side of a cabinet and placing it in a case, he slung it over his shoulder. But, he chuckled and nodded as he did so.

 

“When will you get you a family, Jean-Michel?” Benny asked.

 

“What most Southerners say is that I am too ornery to settle down with anybody worthwhile,” the Frenchman replied.

 

“Then you need to find you a saint that can handle that ornery streak in you, my friend. Family give you a reason, give you life forever.” the old man took out his cleaning rag and some spray from his coveralls.

 

“Bonsoir,” Raudine shook his head, leaving Benny to clean his little office. But the man’s words were still in his head. If only it were so easy. He’d tried having a family. He’d lost it.

 

As he walked down the stairwell in the Humanities building, he tried to not think about the odd odor in the place. The painted cinder-block cylinder with steps wasn’t his favorite place. Reminded him of war for some reason. The old green paint was peeling in the corners, but he never complained. He remembered when they had first painted it. Not a pleasant odor then either. His arm hit the door push-bar and soon, he was outside in the cold January wind.

 

In the small college town of Whitley was also the Crimson Headquarters and the Council Chamber for the Eastern side of North America. Whitley was unassuming and less crowded than major metropolitan areas that one might think these things were located in. It was much less of a target.

 

The buses had slowed down this late and he considered his options. Shaking his head, he began walking through the quad. The old-fashioned gas-lights made the stroll a lovely one, and the wind had calmed a bit through the trees. He always stopped and regarded the centuries-old holly tree; especially this time of year. The berries were bright red. They reminded him of something.  Or, they would have reminded him of something nice and warm – but he couldn’t quite reach whatever the memory was. There was holly, lying on the window sill. He recalled holly in the window sill of a house. That was all he could find before he lost his patience and moved onward. Coming out onto Main Street, he turned toward his home. The question was… should he go home?  

 

There was nothing wrong with his home. It was built and decorated around his tastes. It held most everything he treasured as a human.  It was warm and cozy.  It was quiet.

 

It could wait. Benny’s words had made him needy for company.

 

Instead of turning down the street that would take him further into the layers of the historic district of town, he moved on down Main. Unlike others who might have kept to the well-lit sections of town, Raudine walked without a bit of fear through the darker areas, around curves and further past the huge garden homes. These were either owned by prominent doctors, lawyers, academics, business men and women -or – they were leased by multiple students with the money to do so. The sidewalk continued and he began a descent where in there were just bus stops, trails, and smaller roads leading to quiet apartments or lodges and townhomes. There, nestled into the forested hill overlooking the creek below was a tiny coffee house he’d become accustomed to frequenting. They would be ready to close, but if Mariah or Miles were there, they’d talk to him and get him one last cup for the night; maybe let him enjoy a cigar while they got things done.  

 

He pushed the door open and the lovely young girl with bright red hair looked up. She was as pixie pretty as they came.

 

“Well, I was wondering where you’d gotten off to, Professor!” Mariah continued washing dishes in the tiny sink built into the back side front counter facing the door.  “Your usual?”

 

Raudine smiled for her and nodded before moving to the side display case. Mariah tossed him her keys. “Go ahead and lock it back while you’re at it, uh… si vous plait?”

 

A gruff chuckle left the Frenchman. Catching the keys, he opened the display case and chose a nice cigar of his favorite making. Locking it back, he asked, “Shall I also lock the door?”  

 

“Um… no.. still got almost an hour before we lock up. They changed our hours to see what kind of business we’d get a bit later. I kind of think it’s a waste this early in the week, but maybe Thursdays through Saturdays?” she shrugged.

 

Turning to lean on the tall counter, he dropped the keys in the girl’s hand.  

 

“My pleasure, Mademoiselle. Now, mind if I smoke while you concoct my drink and clean?” His eyes were alive with flirtation when he looked upon the girl. She had always been game for it, and she was both practical and intelligent – a combo rarely found among the humans. He would’ve easily had her in his bed had he really wanted the entanglement.

 

“You flirt!” she accused playfully. “You know I love the smell of those things. And of you. By the way, you still haven’t told me what cologne you wear. I swear if I ever find out, I’ll spray my entire apartment with it.”  Mariah moved over to the side counter in the back to place a square of cheesecloth on the counter. She reached up to hop on her toes and grab down the canister with the appropriate tea in it. “Hope you don’t mind a bit more lavender in the tea. I had them order a better brand.” She place a spoonful of the loose leaves in the center of the cloth and then pulled all the sides up to tie it off using a small string.  She added heated water from the coffee maker.  They did things like this here in the little coffee shop. So far it had garnered them several local and national awards.

 

“I love lavender. Earl Grey with lavender is a favorite of mine. So long as you put a spoon of honey and some cream in it, I’ll drink it up like a kitten his milk.” Raudine moved to the one set of comfortable chairs in the place. The rest were cafe chairs and he wanted to relax, not be forced to sit bolt upright. He lit the cigar and took a good draw from it.

 

“You got it, chief.  And by the way, would love to see you drink something like a kitten drinks milk. That’d be nearly x-rated.” she giggled and reached for the honey so that it was ready for when the tea had steeped long enough.  

 

“I’m sure you would, naughty girl.” he sat and placed the poster case next to him. Taking another draw from the cigar, he just tried to let his mind calm down. He needed to look over what he had found, yes. But not in this moment. This moment was for coming to a state of calm.

 

Mariah watched the French gentleman with a glimmer in her eyes. Normally there would be a lot of back and forth between them, but he’d been missing for a week or so – and tonight he was very quiet. She wondered what he was thinking – what he’d been up to. But she wasn’t sure if she should pry.  

 

Putting the honey and the cream in the bottom of the clean cup, she stirred and then added the steeped tea and continued stirring. After getting it to the top, she placed it on a saucer and walked out to him.

 

“So…” she spoke quietly, because he damn near looked like he was meditating.

 

Raudine opened his eyes and grinned before placing the cigar aside and reached for the offered cup.

 

“Yes, ma amie?” he asked to urge her onward while taking a sip of her concoction. It fell very well over his tongue. The flavor was delightful, as always, and the warmth of the warmed milk would help his mind relax. He hoped for sleep tonight. That would be a change.

 

Mariah took a cafe seat and turned it to be closer and sat down. “Just wondered if you were okay. You look tired and stressed. I kind of got used to you, professor. I guess, I’m concerned?”

 

“Oh, there’s nothing to be concerned about, Mariah.  Je suis cava, just a bit tired and I’ve been trying to work out a puzzle. So my brain? It is…” he took a deep breath, “… also tired.” He took another sip of the tea. She reminded him of someone very special in his past. When he tried to remember, the pain in his head returned. No. Not right now.

 

“Oh? What kind of puzzle?” she asked, curiosity overcoming trepidation.

 

He motioned his head toward the poster case. She had that mischievous smile when she picked it up and wasted little time in opening it and spreading the atlas of the world out on the coffee table in front of the two comfy chairs. She cocked her head this way and that as she took in the colored markings on it.

 

“So, are these where you’ve been? Where you want to go?” she asked.

 

“Yes.” Sure, he’d go with that. Actually, the red marks on the page were indicators of the portals that Crimson was aware of and taking care of monitoring. The blue markers were portals that were not controlled by Crimson, but that he was aware of. And the yellow markings were the places that Gabriel had accidentally found while researching the locations where crossovers of the doppelgangers and in some cases… other supernaturals… from one world had been recorded in abundance. Raudine needed to get these things placed on digital format but not somewhere that Crimson could find it… or more importantly – not somewhere that Skinner could find it. He wanted to investigate this on his own. He didn’t need someone over his shoulder. Besides, it was a working theory, not fact. Not yet.

 

“Wow…” she was amazed. “So which is which?”

 

“The red, I have been to. But I am not done,” he replied before sipping from his cup again.  They had previously talked for some time about dreams and fantasies and travel all over the place. So this was something that was right up Mariah’s alley. “The blue are places I know of that I have contacts in – but I’ve not been. The yellow are places I would like to go someday.” He took another sip of his favorite concoction and watched as Mariah moved her dainty fingers over the map. She was telling him of the few places she had been. She was also commenting on the texture of the atlas and smiling sincerely. Without realizing it, people like Benny and Mariah? They helped him find faith once again in humanity; At least a little, tiny spec.  

 

His mind brushed upon the feeling of holding Gabriel and he tried to push that thought away. He’d done the Councilor a disservice. He’d convinced himself of this. Entanglements were dangerous.   

 

&&&&

 

For Gabriel on the other hand, it had been a long week of meetings, conference calls and contract negotiations but the end product was well worth the headaches and hassle. The young CBO of Kennedy Corp  had secured the contract with the Swiss and that meant branching out into one of the few countries that weren’t yet touched by his companies.

 

Now that all of this business was taken care of he could turn his full attention back to Council matters. With that in mind, Gabriel made his way up the walkway to the front door of the coffee shop. It wasn’t his usual choice when it came to hot beverages, but he wasn’t here for himself. He was here because he knew his Tasker liked the spot. As he opened the door he listened to the small tinkle of the door chime alerting the staff to a customer entering.

 

Removing his gloves, coat, and scarf Gabriel looked around the interior before spotting the one he had come so far out of his way for. “I’ve been trying to reach you for days Raudine. You’ve been avoiding me.” The Councilor didn’t wait to be invited before he took a seat with his Tasker.

 

Well, this was different. Raudine supposed he’d need to get accustomed to the boy tracking him down. He definitely didn’t mind. His mind had been on that one night they’d shared – well, since that night. However, Skinner had made sure to keep him hopping. He had literally portaled from around the world in time for his classes today. And then from there, he had come here, to his favorite, quiet cafe. With an appreciative gaze moving over the Councilor, he had to amend his original consideration of continuing to refer to Gabriel as a ‘boy’; even mentally.  The maps were still out on the table and he didn’t bother hiding them. After all, he’d been talking about them to Mariah when she had time between last minute customers.   

 

“Mea culpa, mon ami.  Yes. And yet it didn’t work for long, I see.” he took another sip from his cup. His eyes focused on the eyes of the man across from him.

 

“When it comes to Council matters it won’t work.” Gabriel laid his gloves neatly out on the corner of the table as he looked at Jean-Michel.

 

“I’m joking. I’ve been extremely busy, Gabriel.” Jean let his cup rest on the arm of the chair. They were keeping up with the alias because they were in public. At least Gabriel hadn’t forgotten that.  “What can I do for you?”

 

“I have Council seats vacant and that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. The lycan seat needs to be filled and we need to find out if the other is alive or not.” This was not a meeting of the personal nature, those sort of meetings were not for public places. Both of them were very private individuals. Plus, it was against the rules of Crimson for there to be anything but a professional air between them at all.  

 

“Are you really of the opinion that Jonas and the elf might be alive?” It was… very optimistic to think such.  

 

“Jonas, sadly no.” Gabriel sighed as he rubbed a hand over his face. “Minlial perhaps, it was hinted at; at least. We need to know for sure though.” He stared at the cup that was in the others hands as his mind went off in silent thought.

 

“Would you Task me with finding her and helping find new Councilors? If you task it, I am bound by my oaths to help you in this endeavor above all others.” Senias had long ago put the cigar out with only a third of it left. He smelled of the tobacco and liked it. He had actually been relaxing and wanted to get back to it. However, that tiny, filthy little voice – what remained of his conscience – told him this could be a bad situation if he ignored it for too long. He’d need to make arrangements by morning for upcoming classes. The other voice, it could be argued, was just as filthy considering it was whispering in his other ear about all the things he still wanted to do with the Councilor. This mission might give him that opportunity.  This mission was about replacing a man who lost his honorable life to a failed coup and hoping to find a missing Councilor. He shook the other thoughts from his mind when those sobering thoughts came back into focus.

 

“Consider yourself tasked Mr. Raudine.” Gabriel’s gaze went to the map and his brow creased in thought as he looked at all the marked locations. He knew what they were, but he was curious as to why the Tasker was working on this outside of Crimson. “What are you doing here?” It was a change of subject and yet Gabriel thought that perhaps not too much of a change since he thought Raudine was researching the portals in an attempt to find the pattern that included the source of entry that the doppelgangers had been brought through. The case was closed but there were still questions revolving around the doppels that had never been answered. His finger moved along lines between the marker at Whitely to one of the unknowns. More to himself as a thought than to the dragon, Gabriel muttered, “Looks like ley lines.. perhaps..”

 

“Good eye.”  Senias leaned forward, making sure the others were not watching them at the moment.  “They are on ley lines, yes. The red marks are portals known to Crimson. The blue ones are known to me. The yellow? Unconfirmed. But the ley lines and the power surges and the sightings of supernaturals in the area make me wonder.” This would be troubling to anyone in Crimson. It should be. It meant undocumented supernaturals and possibly even norms had a method of moving between worlds. There were not very many, true. But any one of them might be an issue.

 

“And are we certain the blue ones have not been used for illegal purposes like the transport of the doppels?” Gabriel was always interested in the portals that were seemingly random over the world. He had never been in agreement with the rest that the portals were random. He felt that in many cases they were created intentionally. The question was by who?

 

Raudine pointed out several, “I’ve been in contact with those who control these blue that I know of in the continental North America. Nothing leads me to believe they were used by the doppels. Mais…” his index finger held steady over a yellow spot in Whitley proper. “If this portal, the one we closed? It is dangerously close to the known one we control at HQ. We have assumed it to be the portal used. If it’s this close, why would no one at Crimson have known?”  He sat back. “That portal is so close to the one we use and protect, that there would have been interference in the energy levels; fluctuations.”

 

Rubbing the bridge of his nose, Gabriel sighed, “Perhaps there are some at Crimson that do know and are keeping the information to themselves.”

 

Raudine pointed to his head and tapped his temple with a chuckle, “A thought that I had. Seems the coordinates were listed as the location of one patchwork known only as The Guardian and had an alias of Solomon. His death was reported this very week on the inside… it was all something that happened very quietly. I have yet to see an official report published.” Official wasn’t necessary when you had contacts all throughout the Crimson hierarchy. He had begun to whisper, even though he was close to Gabriel. He didn’t like the idea that anyone would know they were discussing this. He had come here because no one from that world had ever followed him to this place before Gabriel.  He had felt safe within the confines until now.

 

“So Solomon’s dead.. And he was at the portal.” Why did it not surprise him that he hadn’t heard about this. “Any further doppels appear or troubles with them reported?”

 

“The doppels who were brought over are either listed and registered now or are not deemed a threat. They are being trained to shift without taking a life. Or… they have been eliminated.” Hence why he was no longer overseeing Gabriel’s protection as much as he had been prior to that knowledge.  Devon had said Mr. Kennedy had not been pleased with the added precautions, but Senias didn’t care.  

 

Gabriel couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “So no more threat from them then?” At the look Jean gave him, Gabriel shrugged, “I’m sure Devon is relieved that he no longer has to assign extra security to me and report to you my every movement. Just as I’m sure you are equally relieved you no longer have to keep tabs on me.” Gabriel looked at his watch,

 

“Oh, I always keep tabs on you. But I keep my distance so that you may live a comfortable life… as your grandfather wished.” Senias pointed out.

 

“What time does this place close?” He had to admit that it was quaint and pretty quiet.

 

“Mariah will stay open for me as long as I desire, oui, Mademoiselle?” Jean-Michel looked around Gabriel’s shoulder to see that the girl had been watching them. She blushed and giggled, but recovered quickly enough.

 

“If you’re paying my hourly, I can find stuff to do. But uh, I have class at 10AM so let’s not keep me past midnight, k?” she was finishing drying the cups and putting them away. “What about your handsome guest, Professor? What’ll it be?” She had never seen her buddy bring anyone with him to the cafe. This was new and intriguing to her. Maybe he was finally getting some?  And the guy was hot. Why did he look so familiar?

 

He turned his gaze back to Gabriel and motioned for him to go take a look at the menu and order. “They have teas, coffees, espresso, sparkling drinks, italian sodas, and all kinds of nasty pastries left over from the day.”  

 

Turning his charm on Gabriel gave the young woman a smile, “The name’s Gabriel Kennedy and I’d like some jasmine tea with a teaspoon of honey if you don’t mind madam.” He pulled his wallet and gave her a fifty. “Consider the change compensation for time.”

 

“Oh… well, in that case, I’ll serve you in a fancy cup, Monsieur Kennedy,” Mariah loved the French accent – though she knew her Southern drawl probably butchered it.  She reached to the cupboard up behind the normal fare and picked a lovely purple swirled cup with a silken texture mixed with a white rough-glazed bottom. “Made this one myself.” She began packing the cloth to make him a teabag.  She put a dollop of honey in the bottom of the cup and put some of the heated water into it to dissolve just a bit of it and then added the rest of the water over the teabag.  

 

“So, are you going to make the Proffesor less lonely?” she asked very very quietly, almost conspiratorily – holding the cup from him for a moment to try and collect some knowledge playfully. After all, she had a sixth sense for these things. “He could use that.”

 

Gabriel couldn’t hold back the look of surprise at the brazen question. Tucking his wallet back into place he cleared his throat and replied, “I am not sure I’m his cup of tea.”

 

Mariah made a snortling sound in her nose and mouth as she handed the cup over the counter.

 

“Yeah right, well, I guess you’re snobby, then. Because I’m fairly certain the professor bats for more than one team.” She winked and then turned away to continue her closing regimen.  Her compassionate gaze moved over to the corner where the man sat, carefully rolling up his maps. She felt bad for him.  He’d talked of someone before. Someone that had apparently broken him. He didn’t know it, but he was a story in one of her many little stories on her blog site. She had hoped this story would have a happy ending. Maybe not yet?

 

Returning to the table Gabriel took his seat and drank from the cup. His face took on a small look of pleasure as he smiled. “Good tea.” He lifted the cup to look it over, “Lovely piece of work too. Wonder why she chooses to work here.” Gabriel sighed as he enjoyed more of the brew. “I won’t keep you much longer, I just wanted to go over things with you.”

 

“As you wish, on the Councilor situation. And as to your other quandary, she works here because it makes her happy. She’s a special sort with a latent talent in her psyche and because of it, she had a rough childhood among parents and family that saw such as something horrible to deal with or be around. She relocated here, to this area, where people accept her and her eccentricities. Mariah makes pottery, poetry, and knitting. She works here and sells things she loves to make in order to fund a class or maybe two per semester at the University. I also… may have helped her find certain unknown of grants and scholarships here and there to encourage her to continue with her education.” He had a wicked grin on his face. Yes. He had helped fund her education himself. She was a breath of fresh air among the stench of humanity. The draconic man felt it was money well spent.  

 

“How…?”

 

Senias took up his latte and smiled at Gabriel before responding, “I’ve been coming here for a couple of years and in the human perception of time, that’s a lot. She is quite the open book.”  

 

When it seemed they were alone except for the young woman behind the counter, Gabriel lowered his voice and spoke of the personal part between them, “I wanted to assure you that anything that has gone on between us will remain private. I meant what I said, I take it very seriously and want no harm coming to either of us.” His sexual life had been very private and very covert up to this point. He was taking risks with Senias and he wanted the dragon to understand that he didn’t take such lightly. “I don’t make a habit of getting drunk either just so you know.”

 

Placing the cup back in its saucer the Tasker nodded in affirmative and when he had finished his swallow, he replied, “I’m glad to know you don’t get sloshed more often. A lesser being might have taken advantage of your drunken and uncontrolled advances.” Jean-Michel thought of himself as a gentleman, even though most people thought of him as a jerk. He had his own code. Fuck them.

 

Gabriel flushed as he was reminded of how bad his behavior had been for that evening. Glancing away a moment Gabriel took a breath and sipped his tea. Gabriel spoke low and very direct as he leaned towards Senias, “I wouldn’t have objected.”

 

“I know that now, Gabriel,” he took a deep breath while Gabriel was so close. The words ran over him like cool rain in mid-August. Being close to him was thrilling and calming all at once. “At that point, you couldn’t consent. And I would never take advantage of you in such a state.” They were not in a relationship! He wasn’t about to ravage a nearly unconscious man, no matter how attracted he was to the young soul.

 

“And here I thought the point of taking me to the bar was exactly that, get me drunk and take advantage of me.” Gabriel eased back and sipped more tea. As always it seemed he was squaring off with the man. It was as if every time they were in the same room it was a battle for dominance. The question remained who’d wind up the winner?

 

“Well, fuck me for my chivalry,” the Tasker muttered. His gaze was not one to be mistaken for ‘pleased’.  But he didn’t say more considering Mari was so close, sanitizing tables. However, he was stewing over what to say next.  

 

“Can I get you anything else, fellas?” Mariah asked from the tables not far away. She had sensed the tension. Thought maybe an interruption was in order.

 

Finishing his cup, Gabriel asked politely for another as he let his.. Lover? ..Tasker? …Dragon? Well whatever he was he was pondering the situation that was for sure. “Another would be greatly appreciated.” Gabriel gave a charming smile as he handed her the cup. “Beautiful piece by the way. I’d like to purchase 4 sets if you are of a mind to sell to me.” He gave the pretty girl some of his attention so she wouldn’t feel left out. It was the least he could do seeing that she was staying late for them.

 

“Really? Thank you for the compliments. I mean, it might take me a month. I have to borrow someone else’s kiln. I at least have my own wheel…” she smiled brightly. “Would that be okay? Any special things you want me to place on the pieces for you?” She looked at the cup and saucer and held it in proper light for him to tell her what he wanted.

 

Gabriel’s dimples showed as he fell into a role he was very familiar with.

 

“I’m sure that you can come up with unique and lovely pieces. Your beautiful eyes and wonderful talent have shown in this so I’ll trust your judgement. Though, if possible, I’d like my family crest in at least two of them. I can send it over to you if you give me an address for it.”

 

“Um… sure,” she grabbed the pen out of her pocket, wishing she could turn off her blush. Looking around and not seeing a piece of paper anywhere she sighed and motioned for Gabriel’s hand.

 

The dragon smirked and watched to see if Gabriel would be able to take Mariah’s not-so-uptight way of doing things.  

 

“I’ll just give you my email,” she wrote the email address in ink on the inside of his wrist, so he’d have it but could easily clean it off later. “There you go. Easy Peasy. I guess I should look into cards, huh?” She turned but said over her shoulder, “I’ll have that Jasmine and honey back out in a minute or two, Gabriel.”  

 

As she wrote on his wrist Gabriel had to tamp down that inner grouch that wanted to scrub the stuff away. He hadn’t expected her to write on him! The fingers of his upturned hand curled as the only visible sign of his dislike for the action. The smile, though, it never slipped. Gabriel actually offered, “I’ll gladly pay for them… along with embossed note pads for you.” Being that Sen knew her so well Gabriel was attempting to be friendly or so he thought.

 

“You’re sweet, thank you,” she giggled, taking it as a commentary on not being professional and a joke.  She went about getting heated water and bagging the tea so it could steep.  

 

Sen’s eyes narrowed, but he kept as cool as he could. He wasn’t sure if he was annoyed or amused.  

 

Looking down at his wrist Gabriel put the email to memory just in case it was lost or smudged before he was able to write it down on actual paper. “Didn’t want more?” He finally looked at the dragon again.

 

“Of something with caffeine and sugar? No. It’ll keep me up all night. And the thought over other things keeps me up well enough.” He sat forward again to ask, “D’you not expect more of me than what you said earlier? You thought I took you to the bar so I could have at you?”

 

The smile slipped away as Gabriel was brought back to the previous conversation. “Honestly? I did not know what to expect from you at the time.” He drew in a very long, very deep breath and let it out just as slowly, “You have made it a point through the years to call me at your um.. most inconvenient moments. I actually thought you were going to get me drunk and try and send me home with some waitress or bartender to be honest.”

 

“It would’ve been good for a laugh, but considering what had happened that night, no. Even I have my limits. But then you barely know me, do you?” He had to remind himself of that fact often.  As much as he knew about Gabriel, the Kennedy heir knew very little about him.

 

“Your tea,” Mariah placed the cup and saucer on the small table next to Gabriel’s chair. She then went back to finish some chores behind the counter.

 

Waiting for her departure, Gabriel answered in a low whisper, “Really nothing happened that night thanks to the Weylyn’s. As to what I know of you, it seems you know a great deal more about me. That’s to be expected though considering how you’ve avoided me all these years as if I carried the plague.” He lifted his cup for a drink.

 

“So what you’re saying is, you have no idea how I would have treated you had the Weylyns not shown up?” he chuckled. “True. But for the record, I avoided you like the plague because I make mistakes when I’m around you. I drop my guard too much. And as for you being worried about how I would treat you? You had no complaints the night after the Council Meeting.”  

 

Gabriel’s chin went up a notch and he cleared his throat as he looked from the cup to Sen, “You’re correct. I don’t recall stating any such complaints. You misunderstand me yet again. I’m not the least bit worried about how you will treat me Jean-Michel. I’m used to one night stands and short discreet affairs.”

 

“I’m not used to a lover giving a shit about me outside of sex. What I worry about is you paying a heavy price for whatever this is between us. I have plenty of people worrying over me every day. But how many do you have watching your back.” He lifted the second cup admired it a moment before drinking more of the sweet brew within.

 

“You mean, as anything other than a target? One. Maybe two.” It was actually a very simple thing for Senias to figure out.  “The second is right in front of me and that carries a lot of weight, considering I’m supposed to be looking out for him and not the other way around.” Then, the draconic man made a grunting noise. “Three. Only if you count the fang who’d probably rather ring my long scaly neck more than half the time. Or would that make it two and a half?”  He smirked.

 

There was a heavy, huff of a chuckle as Gabriel shook his head, “What is it with you two? Half the time it seems he wants you dead and the other half it seems he wants you in his bed.” There was heavy tension between the two that was worse than what they had going on.

 

“Half the time he wants me dead and half the time he wants me in his bed,” He said it very matter of factly. Sen even shrugged like it was not that big of a deal to him. He wasn’t going to tell Gabriel anything deeper, because it wasn’t just his story to tell.

 

Seeing that was the only answer he was going to get let Gabriel know where he stood with the dragon. Finish his tea Gabriel rose from his chair and carried his cup back to the counter, “Good night madam and thank you for the tea is was wonderful.”

 

“You drank it fast… don’t you want to…”

 

He pulled a card from his pocket and held it out to her. “I’ll try to email you the image of our crest. In the meantime, submit your work to this location. My mother was a collector and contributor to the art department at Whitley. There is a grant in her name that will be perfect for your work.” That said Gabriel moved to gather his coat and scarf. He hadn’t even realized that he’d left his gloves on Jean’s table.

 

Mariah had an open-mouthed shocked look on her face. “Uh… thanks?” she looked down at the card and then back up at what was happening. Had the professor pissed him off? She watched as Gabriel walked out the door.

 

“What…” surely her skills hadn’t gotten that rusty?  Looking back to the now obviously irritated professor, Mariah saw the gloves still sitting there. As Jean-Michel was getting up, ready to leave, she crossed over to the table to grab the gloves and shoved them into the professor’s hands. “Get out there! You have an excuse! Don’t you dare let him get away.”

 

“Who are you to tell me…”

 

“A friend! And you need to get laid. You’re Grumpy McGrumps lately and I should know. I see you almost every night. It’s pathetic.” She shoved on his back to try and thrust him for the door.

 

“I don’t need to get laid and you have no idea what kind of trouble this could be, Mari..” his accent was wavering, but he was trying to hold it together as the little sprite pushed and shoved him toward the door.

 

“Trouble is FUN… and he’s the good kind of trouble. Closing time!” she tickled him on the sides and he lost his fight and found himself out the door, the latch locking before he could turn back around. He growled, but Mariah smiled and waved from the window before closing the blinds.

 

“I can’t believe I just defended that child,” he grumbled and shivered before turning back around and making his way out to the gravel lot to stand in front of the Bentley.  He held up the gloves and then made his way over to Gabriel’s window when he saw it lower.  “Your gloves and, considering I don’t want to go back into the shop… may I beg a ride?”  

 

Taking the gloves Gabriel was surprised to see Jean-Michel with them.

 

“Sure get in.” He unlocked the doors so that the dragon could actually get in and once he was there, asked, “Back to your Sanctuary? Or is there another place I need to take you? The Evansworth Coven lair?” He put the car in reverse and then cut the wheel as he put it in drive. Yes it was a jab and it let Sen know how he felt about it.

 

“That really fockin’ bothers you? Did you know we’ve not been together in nearly 200 years? That I pushed him away – just like I should you…” Senias clicked his seatbelt and stared out the window.  “But I can’t.” His fingertips moved along the leather of the door, nervously.  “I can’t push you away,” he whispered.

 

Keeping his eyes on the road Gabriel listened and processed because that was how he worked best. When emotions were involved he knew sometimes he spoke stupidly and so he controlled himself, especially where this man was concerned. “You were with Evansworth a long time and pushed him away, so what makes me so different that you can’t do the same?” Slowing for a stop light Gabriel looked over at Senias as he waited for an answer.

 

Green-blue hazel eyes slowly met Gabriel’s dark brown ones. The intensity cut through all of the earlier bullshitery and deflection. Senias replied in the only fashion he could. With honesty.

 

“I don’t know.”  

 

~  Rachel Diane Adams and Dawn McClellan © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2017

Photo by: Chris Gregerson