The walls of the cell were being continually sloshed over with water, which gathered in a small pool at the center of the room before tumbling out through the drain in a gurgling vortex. Water also poured from the ceiling, and ran through every layer of garment I was wearing before joining the rest of the flow. It was annoying as hell. A personal, Dresden-sized watery hell. It wasn't even the cold that was annoying. I was used to much colder showers, given my propensity to destroy every electric water heater thing I had ever attempted to use before giving up and deciding that cold showers strengthen the character anyway.
It was that I couldn't gather enough magic about me even to light a candle, admitting that it wouldn't be extinguished by the artificial rain anyway, much less gather enough magic to get the two of us out of there.
Oh yes, I wasn't alone in this predicament. Thomas, my half-brother, was with me. Usually this would be a relief, two minds are better than one and all that, except that my brother was in no condition to help me. He'd fought like a lion before this, and was currently at the limit of the unusual strength lent to him by the demon piggybacking him, and he'd exhausted much of his natural human resources too. He was injured, hungry, cold and Hungry.
My brother's Hunger, capital h, is not the kind of hunger where you feel like your stomach's going to attach itself to your back or start consuming itself, but if you can still drag yourself to the closest fast food joint you'd be fine. His... dietary requirements, so to say, are entirely different from an average human's, because he's not entirely human. To make a long story short, he feeds on life force that he takes from humans through intimate contact.
He keeps himself reasonably well fed by acting as a high class hair stylist and giving horrendously expensive scalp massages to horrendously rich clients - close skin contact, you see - and that's enough for a reasonably agitated daily life. But being the brother of Chicago's most wanted Yellow Pages wizard (okay, the only one) leads to anything but a reasonable life, which was how currently he'd drained too much of his own life force to be content with waiting until the next scalp massage. Not to mention that we were currently being held prisoners in a cell that prevented me from using my magic, and we had no way of getting out of there that I could see.
Oh, we weren't tied or bound, which made for a nice change as far as comfort and wild hopes were concerned, but it only emphasized the message loud and clear: "You're too weak to free yourselves." This was typical bad guy arrogance, which didn't make it any less accurate. Case in point: Thomas was lying on the floor, conserving what little energy he had left after he'd tried prying open the bars and, when that didn't work, seducing, bribing and threatening our captor. It didn't help that she was a vamp of the Red Court, which had traditionally shared a deep and abiding bond of hate, contempt and mutual sabotage with the White Court. I stole a glance at Thomas again. Had he actually gotten a shade paler than the last time or was it just my paranoia?
"It's not going to get better with time, wizard," hissed the voice of our captor, and I had to use whatever bits of cool I still had to stop myself from jumping mid-pace. I hadn't even heard her approach through the noise of the water and of my own turmoil of thoughts.
"Gee, thanks for letting me know, I had no idea. Got any other bits of useless advice or have you just come to goad me some more?"
Her eyes betrayed no sign of being affected by my sniping and were as cool and impenetrable as ever. Not that I wanted to soulgaze a creature like her.
"If you want to save your partner's life, wizard, you're going to have to act soon enough," she said. "I still don't see why you don't accept our reasonable offer of a nice, obedient thrall. They're going to be used for the same purpose, you know. Sooner or later, they'll meet the same fate, what with the war taking an ever higher toll on the Red Court. Why not make her agony shorter and even enjoyable. He can make it very good for her, before she... well. You know where this leads, I'm sure."
I could see Thomas clenching his fists, preparing to insult and hurl some more threats at her, threats he was currently in no condition to carry out, so I hurried and answered in his stead.
"Oh yeah, use a helpless woman like some chunk of steak? Thomas would spit in my face before he accepted this, and so would I."
"Or..." Her eyes narrowed and a predatory smile crept over her already predatory features. "Perhaps if we offered you a male thrall? It makes no difference to him feeding-wise, you know."
I tend to be a bit primitive where women are concerned, you see. Not that I'd voluntarily let harm come to men, but when women are in danger, tortured or abused, well, I go ballistic.
"The bad guys have done their homework, Harry, gotta give them that," muttered Thomas from his place on the floor.
"Yeah. Bastards," I muttered in reply, not wanting to give Thomas the satisfaction of being right, dammit. They surely knew me. But did they honestly (or dishonestly, as was the case) think I could in cold blood accept what amounted to a human sacrifice just because it was a man, not a woman thrall they were offering, as if they had any right to do so? Did they really think my morals were so low?
"Oh, geez, why didn't you say so from the beginning? That makes it all right then! Why don't we celebrate while I accept your offer to trade a life for a life as if we were at the slave market?"
Thomas was following me with his gray eyes as I paced through the room.
"I will let you think about it, instead of slapping you for your insolence," she said coolly. "But don't think too long, Dresden, or your precious brother won't need a thrall anymore, but a tombstone. You won't even be able to offer him yours, as you'll be busy lying under it."
I have a tombstone already, courtesy of the Red and Black Courts. It's a long story.
I scowled after her as she made her way out again.
"Is it true?" I asked Thomas as soon as the ominous screeching of the door was followed by a loud bang and then the rapid click-clicking of locks.
"What she said about you," I huffed impatiently. "Is it true that it makes no difference if you feed from a man?"
Thomas scowled at me in his turn. On him, it looked like a movie star scowl, a thousand mega watt scowl.
"You hate liver and onions. Wouldn’t you eat it if you were starving?"
"Um," I said. "I don't really hate it, it's just not my choice as long as there are alternatives."
"Exactly," sighed Thomas.
"But we're not talking about food-food," I said. "We're talking about..." I trailed off. "Well, isn't it like trying to feed a cat off of vegetables or something?"
Thomas rolled his eyes and threw his hands up in frustration.
"You and your narrow-mindedness. Yes, we are talking about food, and we're talking about sex. Sex, Harry, you can say it."
"Sex," I said miserably. I didn't think Thomas knew where this conversation was heading, but I knew it, even though I didn't really want to follow it. A thought had begun thrashing about in my head as soon as the Red Court vampire had said what she'd said, but I pretended not to know what the thought was telling me, even if a part of my mind had already gone there, shrieked in horror, and turned back to nag at me.
"...and of course it makes no god damn difference," Thomas went on. "Yes, Harry, I prefer women, because it's easier, and they're soft and smell nice and nobody bats an eyelid when you pick one up in the park or massage her scalp, but it makes no freaking difference if I feed off a woman or a man, and it makes no difference because we're not even considering this offer!"
"Why not?" I said, to delay the inevitable. "You heard her, you know her kind and you know it's the truth. The thralls would end up as Bloody Marys for the Red Court anyway."
"I know, yes, I'm not that stupid," at which Thomas made a face suggesting exactly what he thought about that, "I know it's all about the war and that she's trying to compromise me, us, because I'm one of the major players," and here he snorted, but I went on. "I know that, Thomas, but I'm not going to let you die just for the sake of my own bloody reputation."
"Explosive," said Thomas, and stopped me in my tracks with the incongruity of it.
"Your reputation," he said tiredly. "It's more explosive than bloody."
I gaped like a fish, then laughed feebly, but Thomas seemed serious.
"If you did accept such a bargain, it would become stained with blood, yes," he voiced, unnecessarily, and the strain in his voice twisted and wrenched at my chest. I hated to see him like this.
"There is only one way out then," I said, my own voice cracking a little, probably from the cold. "You said it didn't matter whether it's a woman or a man. Anything in your dietary requirements about wizards?"
It was my brother's turn to gape fish-like, and his eyes widened as he understood where I'd been leading the conversation all along. For once in my life I saw him look comical, although he still looked good doing it, the bastard.
"Harry, you couldn't possibly be considering what you just said."
"And why not?" I said defensively, all the more defensive, as I had to fight against my own judgment that was currently reeling in horror in the back of my mind.
"Because... Harry, it would take so long to list all the reasons why it's so wrong, tell me one thing that is reasonable about this."
"My brother, whom I am deeply attached to despite his being an ungrateful idiot, would get to live."
"And what about my brother, whom I am very fond of despite his being an even greater idiot?" he exploded, in the quiet way of someone who can't even gather enough energy for a proper argument. "Did he miss the part where I need to feed deeply, and what happens to the food," he emphasized sarcastically, "when I do that?"
"I trust my brother with his brother's life. I trust you, Thomas, and I know you can stop before it would be too late."
"I... That makes one of us," he said.
"Look, if we don't do this now, I'm going to jump you when you'll be even more tired and Hungry, and not so in control anymore, and then you'd be sure not to stop."
My resolve was steel, if steel trembled and had a heart to pound madly, and a brain to panic. My own mind was racing with thoughts of what was wrong with this. I was offering to serve as food for my vampire half-brother. My male, vampire half-brother, who fed through intimate physical contact from the life energy of the victim.
"Justine lived, and I'm stronger. I'm a wizard, so I have more life energy than the average human anyway."
I knew that the mention of her name would hurt him, but the thought of her was always in the back of his mind, so it was better to just get it out of the way first.
He looked like he wanted to slap me, but after a moment's pause, he slumped even further.
"I still don't know how I managed to stop then, Harry," he said quietly.
"You'll do it again now," I said firmly.
"Harry, we're brothers."
"Well, it's not like we were raised together or anything, and unless there's something about the White Court that no wizard ever got wind of, neither of us is going to get pregnant."
"Harry, you're about the straightest guy I know..."
"That's not difficult, considering your job," I piped in.
"...and you get all huffy when you even hear about something... not straight. You can't possibly tell me you're okay with this."
I sighed and rubbed at my temples. There was a mighty headache forming there, ever since this whole situation had begun. The running water did nothing to improve my mood either. The soothing susurration of waterfalls, my ass.
I knelt next to Thomas on the hard floor, where he still managed to look like he was sprawling on the wet concrete because he'd chosen to do so, not because he was at the end of his rope, and took his hand in mine.
I did not like to think of what I'd have to do either. Thomas was good-looking and handsome, like those in the sensual branch of the White Court tended to be, and a sight for sore eyes even now, almost fainted from exhaustion and Hunger, but he was a man, and my tastes had never run in that direction. I wondered what it said about me that my biggest holdup about getting intimate with my vampire half-brother was that he was male. Nothing good probably.
"No," I said finally, "I can't say I like this one bit. But the alternative is unthinkable," I said looking him in the eyes.
There would be no soulgaze, of course. We'd already soulgazed when I couldn't possibly be convinced otherwise that an unexpectedly helpful vampire was my half-brother, my own mother's older son, because I didn't want to believe that such a creature could be anything other than a lying, manipulative bastard. We'd come so far from that moment, I could barely recognize my own feelings from then. The soulgaze was, however, pure and ever-present in my memory, my mother's words and the image of the human half of my brother, forever poised to fight his demonic counterpart in a struggle for control.
Whatever he'd seen in my eyes back then, Thomas must have been reminiscing too, because he was gazing back in a slightly unfocused way. Or it could be that he was getting unfocused because of exhaustion, which meant we had to hurry.
"Weren't you protected by true love, anyway?" he tried what must have been his decisive last argument. "I'm only going to get a skin burn."
"Well," I began. I don't like to kiss and tell, but given the circumstances... "I know Captain Luccio likes me a lot, but I don't think we're quite at the love stage yet."
"Ooh," Thomas said, and an amused glint lit his eyes for a moment, before his expression soured again. "You idiot."
"And I thought you'd be so proud of me."
"Your timing is really lousy, Harry."
"I think my timing is excellent, in fact. I'm as tasty as I'll ever be, fully non-allergenic, even if a bit manlier than your usual choice."
"You wish," Thomas snorted, amused despite himself, and rolled his eyes at me.
I could hardly blame him. I'm good at bravado - the result of intense practice over a number of increasingly delicate circumstances, I guess - but even I couldn't help wincing at the sound of my own voice.
"If that's your idea of a pickup line for a White Court..." Thomas began.
"Well, it's usually you guys who do the picking up, and you don't even need lines. Give a guy a break when he's trying to s...entice," I couldn't bring myself to use the word "seduce", "his ubersexy superpowered brother."
Said brother was quiet and I bit my tongue in frustration. I had inadvertently reminded him of his predatory nature, and now he was resisting again.
"Stars and stones, Thomas!"
I removed my coat, which was entirely soaked anyway, and sat down on it gingerly, next to where Thomas was lying.
"Why can't you just accept that it's my choice, my own mulish determination to not give in to their blackmail and make it out of this rotten cave with my only family, alive, even if it kills me? Which it won't," I added hastily, "because you won't and I..."
"Shut up, Harry," said Thomas suddenly, grabbing my hand.
I did, and I froze in place. I hadn't shut my mouth because he'd said so. I'd shut up because I wanted to, because he wanted me to do so. The difference might be subtle, but I could well feel the implications, and I could see in his eyes that it was exactly what he wanted me to understand. I gulped.
We were both silent for a long moment. We were so close I could see each perfect thread of color in his irises, and each strand of hair that had fallen wetly over his pale forehead. Rivulets of water kept streaming down his face, making it look like a marble statue under a late September rain. Our physical proximity must have rendered the Hunger more urgent, and made the demon within inch closer to the surface.
"I..." my voice croaked and I coughed, "I don't suppose we could, uh, solve this with a scalp massage?" I said lamely.
"No, Harry, a scalp massage won't do," he said quietly, fixing an intense and pained look on me.
I drew my hand up to brush a dark curl from his eyes, and Thomas shuddered, growing even whiter.
"Harry," he said in a ragged, low voice, "please go back now."
"No," I croaked.
"Then come here, Harry, you idiot," he whispered in a completely different voice, and his voice, despite the words, caressed my ears in a way I had never felt before.
"Harry," he whispered again, making a move to tug at my t-shirt.
I once thought it would be very confusing to hear him whisper in this way to me, with the power behind the words he'd used with his sister when the two of them had been having a battle of wills. Well, it turns out I'd been very wrong.
I wasn't confused at all. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that was anything that he'd want me to do. I wanted to get close to the source of that voice, and in a totally different way than "I want to help my brother." I reached out instinctively to pull him closer, to touch him, even as a part of my mind was flailing madly, trying to get my attention and tell me just how wrong on how many levels what we were about to do was.
I was stroking Thomas' face now, surprised at how cold he really was. He wasn't cold in the way of stone, but in the way a well-chilled champagne is. The part of my mind that was still reeling back took this opportunity to point out how stupid I sounded to myself, and a little cynical, cowardly part pointed out that it didn't matter if a river was of mud or champagne when you drowned in it.
"Harry," Thomas whispered, bringing my scattered thoughts to the matter at hand. His lips were moving against the skin on my neck, and I shivered all over with something that had nothing to do with the chill of the room.
His hands were clinging to my t-shirt, and through the haze of the moment I remembered the point - skin contact. I could hardly be colder anyway, so I removed the t-shirt, feeling suddenly very, very self-conscious of where I was and who I was with. I hesitated for only a moment, then my innate bravery won over, and I reached for Thomas' shirt. He smiled faintly at me, a strange wistful smile, and I realized that he was being Thomas again, not the Hunger within him. Then the incubus took over, his eyes went a few shades whiter and his skin became glinting ivory, and I could swear that strange warm look had been an illusion. Words began forming in my mind, as if they'd been born there, words strung together like honey drops or a spider web drawing me in.
I was shocked at how much the alien voice in my head, the voice whispering of lust and need, sounded like me. I'd "heard" a psychic attack before, through a link with my ex, and knew how much the White Court could imitate the victim's inner voice. Now that I was subject to a similar invasion, albeit voluntarily, I was surprised how much it didn't matter that I knew it wasn't really me whispering all those things in my head. My skin was tingling with the need to touch and be touched, and the last clothes flew from us in a frenzied hurry.
Thomas was, of course, flawless, but there was an extra layer to that beauty I'd always admitted he had. I ached to press my hands against that pale skin, to feel those muscles taut under the tips of my fingers.
I felt lips on the sensitive skin on my collarbone, and I was again amazed at how soft and pliant those lips felt. Thomas was murmuring something, and it gave me a jolt of the most pleasant kind to recognize my name in that low lust-hazed voice. His fingers caressed and lingered over my shoulder blades and my back, then fluttered shyly over my hips. I had a slight moment of uncertainty as they approached the lower area, but as if Thomas understood, he withdrew and traced more teasing moves over my chest, and rather than relief I felt something not unlike loss.
My own hands had been mindlessly stroking here and there without direction, but I suddenly felt the need to do something, and I pressed them on Thomas's smooth back, squeezing him close to me. He moaned into my chest where he was sucking on a nipple, and then drew apart. He reached for me and pulled my head close to his, while I was unconsciously reaching for him, and we found ourselves sharing our first kiss.
It was not my first kiss with a White Court vampire. I'd once kissed Lara Raith, Thomas's older sister, with the purpose of fueling my magic. It had been the most single incendiary kiss I'd ever had, speaking strictly from a base physical and emotional level.
Until now. I'd never really considered how it would be to kiss my brother - all those "male, blood relative and vampire" hang-ups, you know? - but now that I briefly thought about it I realized that I sort of assumed it wouldn't be half as interesting as kissing his sister, simply because Lara was female and more experienced.
Oh, how wrong I'd been.
Thomas's kiss was... sweet, I realized, and spicy, and powerful like an old bourbon that lets your head stay lucid but melts your feet, and also exhilarating like gathering my magic for the most sparkling fire spell ever. I felt like I could do anything right then, any spell, no matter how powerful. Each sensation was amplified and distinct: there was the press of his lips against mine; the soft whiff of shared breath on my face; his tongue curling slyly around my own; and there was a roaring whirlpool into which everything melted together with the need coiling in my belly.
I pressed my body to his so every inch of skin would be touching skin, and I pushed, rock hard, against his hardness. Only now did he finally bring his hand around me and I moaned shamelessly in relief, then groaned my increasing need. I must have left bruises, I was clutching him so hard, and he gave as good as he got. Things got hot and bright and my pulse was thundering in my ears, and I lost track of who and what and where, until stars exploded behind my eyelids with the strength of a supernova.
I opened my eyes to find myself lying on top of him, my head nestled snugly against his chest. I tried to move and it was like lifting mountains, but I managed to move my face from his skin, and I propped myself heavily on my right elbow to look at Thomas. His lips were red and swollen, and his cheeks flushed. His eyes were the gray of a storm cloud on a summer day, and slightly unfocused; his breath came a little heavy, though he sounded almost relaxed compared to me. Little drops of sweat and water rolled on his neck. I leaned, like in a trance, to lick them, and felt Thomas arch upward into me. It was then that I realized there'd been no little voice in the back of my head telling me that I wanted to do this, and there hadn't been for a while.
I hid my face again in the crook of Thomas's neck. It was just reflex, I told myself. After all, people reacted like this to his presence before, even when he didn't turn on his lust whammy on purpose. Yeah, that was it. And I was not a closeted incestuous creep. I sighed deeply, and Thomas had the grace to keep silent. After a long moment though, my silence must have worried him, because he whispered urgently something about how was I feeling and if I was all right.
"I'm perfectly fine, considering I've just been fed on through the most mind-shattering sex I've ever had," I said, at least in my mind.
What actually came out was more like "Mhmrrngh."
"Harry?" Thomas repeated.
"Mmmmnghr!" I insisted, and gathered all my strength to take a deep breath and move aside.
I flopped heavily to my right, and Thomas followed me. His lips were still delightfully swollen, and his eyes were huge and wide, taking in my appearance. There was a short insane moment when I wanted nothing more than to pull him close and kiss him senseless again, and the rise of panic within me was almost level with the rise of need. It was just exhaustion that settled it. After the effort of changing my position, reaching up felt like having to pull the Moon closer; but I know I wanted to do it, "brother" and "male" and other such inane considerations be damned.
"'m fine. Just need to get my head together, 's all," I mumbled.
I could see hesitation flutter on Thomas's face for a frightful, immense second, then the ingrained older brother courtesy won.
"Your what? Can't lose what you never had, Harry."
"That's gratitude for you," I muttered, but the relief I felt made it sound as light as our usual banter. I hid the disappointment and regret in the deepest cave of my mind I could muster, and rolled a heavy rock above it.
Thomas looked uncomfortable for a moment, but I managed a grin, though so far from the genuine Dresden grin I was sure he could see right through me, and Thomas perceived the joking intent of my words.
"Facts speak louder than words, little brother. Time I got us both out of here," he said with a dazzling grin of his own.
There was a sticky mess between us, and the blasted water that kept pouring finally made itself useful, as it helped us get cleaner before getting into our wet clothes again. No words were said about it, of course; if Thomas's grin had a shade of bravado he wasn't feeling, or if my brother hid a similar pang of regret in the depths of his mind, I wouldn't know about it. I was tired, exhausted, and spent what little energy I had left helping Thomas get me dressed again while pretending I was merely allowing him to pay for his remark. It's a brother thing.