Sean could hear church bells a few blocks down, ringing out the hour. Midnight. Christmas Day. Wasn't there a song about that, hearing bells on Christmas? He couldn't remember. He was too cold to remember.
The bells chimed on, ringing out carols through the frigid air. Sean's head throbbed in time, but the sound did stir a vague thought. Holy ground. A church would be on holy ground. All he had to do was follow the bells. And Nick. Nick knew to find holy ground. Nick would be there. Waiting for him, making everything all right.
Bracing his hand against the rough concrete of the wall behind him, Sean pushed himself upward. Dizziness hit as soon as he stood. A sickening stab of pain in his temple almost made him cry out, but he remembered at the last minute how important silence was. Hunters stalked the darkness on nights like this.
The street was pliant under his feet. That was wrong, although he couldn't remember why. It certainly made walking more difficult, and silence almost impossible. Clinging to the wall, he staggered on, his hands aching from the cold and the scrape of concrete when he fell.
Images swirled disco-fast, knocking him off balance. A bar, lights dim and glinting off tinsel, red and green and gold and hung everywhere, tickling his hands, brushing the top of his head. Blood red lips, but not the blackness of real blood. Lipstick, white teeth, laughing. A drink, stronger than beer, ice clicking against his teeth. Hard, dark eyes, almost black and predatory, so hungry. Tinny Christmas music and everything tilting, sliding downward. A man, but not Nick, and he wanted Nick. Where was Nick?
On his knees again, a deep ache between his eyes, the whisper of footsteps behind him. Sean took a deep breath and forced himself up again. There was light ahead and the bells were louder. He just had to keep going. Somewhere up ahead was safety.
And Nick. He wanted Nick. Shouldn't Nick be here? Nick would know how to make everything better if Sean could only find him. Or was he gone?
He'd left before.
Around a corner, into the light, losing his balance again. Somewhere behind him, metal clanged and something--a cat?--screamed.
Then a shadow blocked the light and hands were on him.
Nick. Hands cupped his face, turning him toward the light. The brightness hurt his eyes. He tried to pull away, but Nick's fingers dug in painfully.
"Shit, you're completely out of it, aren't you?"
Nick sounded angry. Sean didn't understand why, and couldn't ask with Nick's fingers making his head throb even more. He tried again to pull away. Nick yanked him back, then hissed as he tilted Sean's head more toward the light.
"Did he hit you, too? Fuck."
Sean didn't know the answer to that, either. Why did Nick have to ask so many questions? Sean was cold and confused, and he wanted Nick to pull him close and let him be warm and quiet and still until he could think again. Instead, Nick jerked him to his feet and pressed him against the freezing wall.
"There's a church down the block. We might be safe if we can get there, but they're sure not going to let us stay with you looking like crap. They'll want to call an ambulance or something, and we'll be screwed." Nick glared at him, impatient, and Sean wondered if maybe Nick was going to leave him behind. Sighing, Nick yanked off his ski cap and pulled it down on Sean's head hard enough to make Sean flinch. "Maybe that'll hide the blood till I have a chance to get you cleaned up. Come on, he's getting closer. I can feel him."
Finally, Nick's arm around him. But hard, no warmth. Forcing him to move. Ignoring the sway of the street, pushing forward. Sean didn't understand what he had done wrong.
"Damn it, Sean, steps. Pick your feet up. Come on now, hurry."
A huge building, stairs and white pillars and light everywhere. Sean blinked. Holy ground. They'd made it. Nick was beside him.
Why did he feel so alone?
Another dawn, another shitty motel room. Nick wasn't sure he remembered what it was like to wake up in the same bed two days in a row. The only constants were Sean curled at his back and the nagging ache in his joints from the virus.
This particular room was fucking cold as well as threadbare. Sean seemed to be determined to burrow his way under Nick, seeking warmth. Sean hated the cold. Why do you think I lived in California? he'd asked the second night, and climbed in bed with Nick like he belonged there. They had taken a single every night since.
When Nick let himself think about it on quiet mornings like this, it scared him how much he had grown used to Sean's presence. He knew that Sean didn't totally get how precarious their life was. Sean understood the dangers in his mind, but he didn't feel them the way Nick did. On the one hand, there was always danger from the bastard they hunted; on the other was the threat of Nick turning into a monster himself. The slightest nudge of fate could destroy them, yet Sean never held anything back. From that day when he'd pulled up beside Nick on the highway, he'd shared both his heart and his body with Nick as if they had forever.
But they didn't. Nick could feel the fact of it growing in his blood. One day soon, they'd find his Forsaken, fight him, and probably be killed. Or the virus would turn Nick, leaving Sean to kill Nick or die. Either way, they were both screwed. That knowledge was what made him look away when Sean smiled at him, freeze when Sean reached out to him, change the subject whenever Sean started talking about a future that had both of them in it.
It didn't make him pull away when Sean's hand traced the curve of his hip down to grasp his dick, however, or keep him from returning the favor; he was only human, after all. He could convince himself that the sex was only for convenience, since they never stayed anywhere long enough to hook up with someone else and sharing a bed made jacking off difficult. But he couldn't ignore the tenderness in Sean's eyes any more than he dared return it.
If he let himself love Sean, then losing him would be unbearable. Nick just wasn't that brave.
It was pretty fucked up of him, he knew that. It was also bound to backfire when Sean finally decided that he'd waited long enough for Nick and his issues to get their collective head out of their collective ass. Sean would leave, and Nick would end up alone anyway. Nick dreaded seeing him go, but not as much as he dreaded watching him die.
And maybe, in its own weird way, that was a form of love. But it was a fucking cowardly kind of love, nothing like what Sean was offering. What Sean deserved.
The only time they'd ever talked about it was the night they'd been stuck in a blizzard somewhere in Kansas. That motel room had looked a hell of a lot like this one, like all the ones before and after. But being trapped in the room, the cable knocked out by the storm and only a couple of six packs of beer to entertain them, had relaxed something in Nick.
Maybe he was a little drunk. Maybe his brain had turned to mush after hours of sweet, languorous fucking. But when Sean whispered, "love you, love you," between kisses like he always did, Nick didn't pretend he hadn't heard.
Sean was lying on top of him, pressing kisses against his neck and collarbone and chest. With one hand, Nick cupped his face, forcing him to stop.
"You can't," he said, his voice sounding a little desperate even to himself.
"You can't." Nick paused, trying to find the words in his lazily spinning brain. "The virus, fuck, I could turn at any time."
Sean blinked at him, his brain obviously not working any faster than Nick's. "I'm not in love with the virus, idiot. Anyway, once we finally catch up to that Forsaken son of a bitch and kill him, we won't have to worry about the virus anymore."
"But you don't know we'll find him in time. You don't know we'll survive any of this."
Shrugging, Sean pulled himself free of Nick's grasp and settled down on his chest with a contented sigh.
"Dude, I don't know a lot of things. Why let that stop me?"
"Because I could turn into a fucking vampire and try to suck you dry?"
Sean raised his head to give Nick an innocent look. "Isn't that what you were doing a few minutes ago?"
"Asshole." Nick swatted the back of his head.
"One thing I do know, you can do that as much as you want." Sean lay back down, tracing the outline of Nick's nipple with his finger. "Seriously, dude, when we fought the last one? At the end, when you were down and I was hurt and I could hear him just outside my mind, telling me to give up? I wanted to. The virus was tearing me apart from the inside, I felt like I'd been run over by a semi, and I've never been so scared in my life because the fucker just wouldn't die. For a moment, I just wanted to let him kill me. But you know why I didn't?"
Nick closed his eyes. His memories of that fight were kind of vague; he'd lost a lot of blood even though the bullet hadn't hit anything vital. He hadn't been able to see anything from his position on the floor, so he'd just laid there, waiting for the Forsaken to come over and finish him off. He could still remember the rush of relief when Sean appeared instead.
"Why?" he asked, his voice hoarse.
"Because he would have gone after you next, and you weren't in any condition to fight him off. I had to do something. Whatever it took to keep him away from you. I couldn't let him hurt you any more. So I kept fighting." Sean pinched Nick's nipple lightly, making him gasp. "The way I see it, if I hadn't already loved you, we might have lost."
"It's not that simple," Nick said, gritting his teeth against the electricity that shot straight from his chest to his dick.
"Sure it is."
Then Sean pinched his nipple again, and that was the end of the conversation. Sean seemed to think it resolved something. He touched Nick more, quick, absentminded caresses that Nick could almost ignore. He started talking more about the future, too, until Nick finally told him to fuck off before he jinxed them both. For Nick, the only thing resolved was that Sean was a fucking optimist. Nothing else had changed, and nothing could until he finally faced down his Forsaken.
The church's vestibule was warm and smelled of cedar. Music spilled out of the double doors that led to the sanctuary. Bright light, everywhere. Sean squeezed his eyes shut as dizziness hit again. If he could just lie down, just for a few minutes . . .
"Come on." Nick dragged him forward again.
He stumbled after, his eyes stinging with helpless frustration. Why was Nick so angry? He acted like he hated Sean. Hated having to help him, even though it wasn't Sean's fault the floor kept shifting under him. Was it?
There was a door, dark stained wood, and more stairs. Nick pushing him up. Another door, the music suddenly loud. And then finally, he was able to sit. Even with his vision blurring and twisting, he had spent enough time squirming next to his mother on Sunday mornings to recognize a pew when he sat in one. A rail stretched in front of him, and then open space. It confused him, made him dizzier, so he closed his eyes. The pew stretched out invitingly beside him. He sighed and let gravity pull him down.
He couldn't have been there more than a minute when Nick was dragging at him again, making him sit up.
"Don't go to sleep on me yet, baby. I don't know what he gave you or how hard he hit you. I need you to stay awake, okay?"
Nick's voice had turned gentle. Sean blinked at him, even more disoriented. Wasn't he mad? But he looked more worried than angry. His hands were tender as he pulled Sean close and guided his head to rest on Nick's shoulder. Sean wanted to ask him why, what was going on, but the words wouldn't form on his tongue.
"Cold," was the best he could manage. Except he wasn't, not like he had been before. The church was warm and Nick felt like a furnace pressed against him. It would be so easy just to close his eyes and let go.
"Sean," Nick whispered against his temple, just barely audible over the organ and voices. "Sean, listen, you can't sleep yet. I know you're tired, but it's still too dangerous. You've got to let that shit he gave you wear off first, okay?"
Okay. As long as he got to stay still, as long as Nick held onto him, he could handle anything.
"We're okay here, as long as he doesn't follow us in," Nick continued in the same whisper. "We've got the balcony to ourselves, and the sign outside said they were having services all night. If we can make it till dawn, we'll be fine."
The music changed into one deep voice, a steady cadence of the angel of the Lord and for unto us a child is born. Sean recognized the words, but they floated through his mind with no sense to them, just a vague memory of his mother's perfume.
"Scared the shit out of me when you walked out of the bar with him. I knew something wasn't right, but I couldn't get to you. Then by the time I figured out where he'd taken you, you'd already gotten away from him. Best I could do was hope you'd head for the church."
"Holy ground," Sean mumbled.
"Yeah. And we made it, baby. I thought . . ."
He stopped, stiffened, the hand on Sean's shoulder digging in painfully. Forcing his eyes open, Sean looked up at Nick, who was staring at something with a look of loathing. His stomach sinking, Sean followed his gaze to see the same man, the Forsaken he had escaped from earlier that night. Dark blond hair glinted in the church of the light, but his black eyes seemed to absorb that same light and leave a pall on everything they touched. Behind him stood the two women Sean and Nick had figured to be his followers: a blonde and a redhead, both with feral eyes. Against his will, Sean shrank back.
"I wasn't finished with him," the Forsaken said, his voice a grating whisper.
"He's mine." Nick said coolly, pressing Sean closer to him.
"That problem can be taken care of."
The Forsaken took a step forward, and Sean heard a distinct click from Nick's jacket.
"I have a gun in my pocket, high enough caliber to blow your brains all over the people trying to have their Christmas Eve service down there."
Nick shifted, and the Forsaken froze. Sean wasn't sure why. His hands were stinging where he had them clenched in fists, ready to fight.
"I don't die easily."
"On holy ground?" Nick paused as the church service went silent. Sean could feel a faint tremor in his muscles, but as the organ started again, his voice was steady. "I'll at least slow you down enough to finish the job."
The Forsaken smirked. "If you could, you'd have done it already. I know your kind, Hunter. I've killed many of you."
"I can." Nick's tone was confident, calm. "But I'd rather cut a deal."
"Oh?" One eyebrow went up. "You want to trade me the boy for your life? I might consider it."
"Touch him and you will die, asshole. Even with all those witnesses down there." Nick nodded as the Forsaken glanced over his shoulder at the floor of the church. "Yeah. I don't want to explain killing you, and you haven't survived this long by making your kills in such a public place. You'd have to kill all of them, too. No way in hell you could hide that."
The Forsaken shrugged. "I could probably find a way."
"But first you have to get past my gun."
"Shoot me, and my girls will eat your friend for supper. Literally."
"They're a lot easier to kill than you are. And he's got a gun, too."
Sean didn't, but he was at least clear-headed enough not to say so. If Nick could bluff long enough, they might just survive.
"What's your deal?"
"You leave, now, without touching either of us. We stay here till dawn. We don't hunt you, you don't hunt us. For tonight, anyway."
"You want me to just let you go."
"And avoid a fight that'll cost more than you can afford." Nick shrugged. "Take it or leave it."
The Forsaken laughed. "You've got balls, boy."
"I don't got patience, though. You leaving, or do I shoot you right now?"
With a faint incline of his head, the Forsaken turned toward the door. "We'll meet again, Hunter."
"Count on it, asshole."
On the church floor, the choir's voices rose above the organ. Nick sat, rigid, shaking, long after the Forsaken and his followers had left. Leaning against his side, Sean sighed softly as the tension drained out of him.
"Fuck," Nick murmured finally. "I thought we were dead."
He laughed, the sound faint and slightly hysterical. Sean reached up, stroking his cheek lightly with one hand. Sighing, Nick started to relax, resting his head against Sean's. Quiet, still, warmth, and Nick--Sean thought vaguely that it was the best Christmas present he'd had in a long time. Except one thing nagged at him.
"Nick? Why," he frowned, the words not wanting to come. "You could have killed him."
Nick sighed. "Not fast, and he was right. Those bitches would have been all over you. You're not exactly in any shape to fight them off."
"But he was so close."
"I'll get another chance. He won't get that far ahead of us."
"Sean." Nick shook his head. "Baby, I couldn't let them hurt you. I had to do whatever it took to keep you safe, even if it meant letting him go."
Sean smiled, leaning up to kiss Nick's cheek.
"Love you, too," he whispered, and settled back to wait for dawn.