I often think about where I went wrong,
The more I do, the less I know,
But I know I have a fickle heart and bitterness,
And a wandering eye, and a heaviness in my head.
Ezekiel frowned as he watched Pete Burke pace around his room in the medical center. Zeke sat forward, flexing his wings off of the bed. He winced slightly as the joint that had been wounded twinged. A week ago, he’d been shot twice by Urko when the gorilla general had led an invasion of the city. Urko had meant to kill Galen, but Zeke had thrown himself between the chimpanzee and the bullets. He’d sustained a minor wound to his wing and a more serious injury to his shoulder. Now he was recovered enough to be discharged from the medical center.
“Pete, will you sit down?” he admonished. “You’re going to wear a groove in the floor.”
“Huh?” Pete looked up, still worrying at his thumbnail with his teeth. He dropped his arms from where they were crossed tight across his chest and returned to the side of the bed. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” He swung his legs off the bed. “But you look like you could use a sedative.” He grabbed Pete’s arm before the other man could resume his pacing. “Hey,” he said softly, “what’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Pete lied. Zeke pulled a disbelieving face. He could feel the anxiety rolling off Pete even without the empathetic bond that flickered between them at the physical contact.
“That line might work on Alan—,” he began, but was interrupted when the door opened.
Jedediah, chief healer of the underground city of Alba, and Zeke’s best friend, came in. Zeke let go of Pete, who retreated a few steps.
“Well, Jed,” Zeke asked, “am I clear to get out of here?”
“Let’s see what the monitors have to say.” He stepped up to the panel at the end of the bed. He touched the screen to bring up the latest biodata readings. According to the instruments, Zeke’s blood volume had returned to normal after he’d lost a dangerous amount from his wounds. Although the injury to his wing was almost negligible in its threat to his life, it was still serious enough that Jed was unsure if he would regain full function of the wing. They wouldn’t know for a while yet if it would ever be strong enough for him to fly again. “Well, everything seems to be healing well.”
Jed stepped in front of Zeke and ran his hands over the other angel’s healing shoulder. He tilted his head and closed his eyes, concentrating on the sensations. Then he reached past Zeke’s head to run a hand over the tawny, feather-covered wing. Yes, he could sense the weakness of the muscles, the tenuous connections of tendons to bone.
Jed smiled at Zeke, carefully shielding his concerns from his empathic friend. “I think you can recover just as well in your own quarters at this point. You still need to take it easy, so that means absolutely no flying for now. And continue with your physical therapy.” Jed turned a critical eye on Pete. “And since you are still supposed to be on restricted activity and doing physical therapy as well, you can keep each other company, right?”
Pete’s injuries, which precipitated the entire adventure that led him and his friends to Alba, had been far more serious—would certainly have been fatal without the Alban’s advanced medical intervention. He still had gaps in his memory from the brain damage he’d suffered. He smirked at Jed, “Sure thing, doc.”
“I’ll stop by later, ahuvi,” Jed told Zeke, “and make sure you are following your healer’s orders, okay?” Zeke noticed Pete’s frown over Jed’s shoulder, but didn’t comment on it. Hopefully he’d be able to get Pete to tell him what was bothering him once they were alone.
When they arrived at Zeke’s quarters, on the same level as the medical center, the angel looked almost as nervous as Pete felt. He opened the door like he was expecting something from a bad horror movie to jump out at them. But after a moment of hesitation, he went in. Pete followed, but stopped right inside the door.
“Well, it’s getting late, I should probably let you get some rest.“ Pete fidgeted for a few moments, unsure if he wanted to leave or not. When he reached for the door control to thumb it back open, Zeke put a hand on his arm.
“Pete,” said Zeke. Pete felt like his stomach was desperately trying to migrate south toward his toes, “I think we really need to talk.”
Pete nodded, but remained rooted in place. He’d visited Zeke every day over the last week, sitting in his room for hours and hours. And somehow during all that time, they’d managed not to talk about the three-hundred pound gorilla in the middle of the room. Okay, Pete thought, that’s one idiom I just need to strike from my vocabulary completely. But now Zeke wanted to talk. Not good.
His mind raced trying to figure out what he’d done wrong. Besides everything. He’d asked Zeke to stay with him one night when he was in the medical center, then escaped into the bathroom the next morning to hide. Then he’d blown up when Zeke asked him to consider staying in the city permanently. They’d barely settled that argument when the fighting had broken out and Zeke had been wounded. Since then, he’d been acting like a mother hen guarding her chicks. Yeah, not subtle. Not even a little bit.
No. He was not doing this. He and relationships just weren’t compatible. Well, that’s fine, because obviously Zeke was going to tell him to take a flying leap. Now if he could just figure out why he felt so disappointed.
No point stalling. “Sure,” Pete said, his tone resigned as he crossed his arms.
Zeke waved toward the couch. “Come sit down, will you?”
He waited until Pete settled, still hugging his arms across his chest, before sitting opposite him in a chair. The smell of cinnamon permeated the air. Pete shifted uncomfortable in his seat. Before Zeke could say anything, Pete decided to take the upper hand.
“Look, Zeke, I know what you are going to say. I’m sorry if I misread this whole thing.” He stared at the floor. “I didn’t mean to… come on so strong; I guess I shouldn’t have assumed that you’d be interested.”
“I mean, I figured after you rooted around in my head, you’d know what I was feeling. And then that morning you took me up to the dome, that whole thing had a total ‘first date’ vibe with the walk in the garden and the flying me around and stuff.”
“So I thought you were putting on the moves. And I should know,” he tilted his head to one side with a humorless laugh, “because I’ve used pretty much the same moves myself more times than I can count. I’ve just never been on the receiving end before, and I guess I misunderstood—”
“Pete!” Zeke leaned forward, putting his hands on Pete’s legs.
Finally, Pete looked up, his face a study in misery.
“Take a deep breath. Are you under the impression I’m… upset somehow? That I’m not interested in you?”
“Well, yeah. When you said you wanted to talk, I figured—”
“You figured wrong.” Zeke smiled. “I just want to make sure that I understand what’s happening. This morning when I told you I was going home, you seemed… weird. Uncomfortable.”
“I’m sorry about that. I guess I panicked.”
“Pete, if it’s because I’m not a woman…”
“What? No, that’s not it at all.”
“Because technically, I’m not a man, either.”
“Zeke, I don’t have a problem with how you look.” He cleared his throat and squirmed again in his seat. “Believe me, it’s anything but a problem.”
Pete stood up and walked behind the sofa, pacing back and forth is short turns. “Look, I’ve never been good at relationships. As soon as things turn serious, I head for the hills.”
“We’re underground. In a desert. No hills here,” joked Zeke.
Pete smirked back. “I swore I was never going to get tied down—the old ball and chain was for guys like Alan. Me, I liked being footloose and fancy free.”
“And now? Sounds like that’s not true anymore.”
“I don’t know. I up and died, or so everyone keeps telling me. Makes a guy think, y’know? For the first time, I want something more than wham-bam-thank-ya-ma’am. Maybe someone to grow old with. Someone who’ll call me on my bullshit. Look, even if Alan and I could somehow get back to our own time, there’s not much for me there other than a statue in a park and some school in Jersey named after me.
“Then we had that fight. And you went and got yourself shot, and I felt like I was trying to breathe in a vacuum.” He reached down and rubbed his side where his own wound had been. “I didn’t know what I was going to do if you’d…” he let the thought trail off unspoken. “Damn it, Zeke.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I’m no good at talking about this stuff.”
Zeke walked around the sofa and took Pete by the shoulders. “Hey, I told you, my issues can give your issues some serious competition.” He smiled slyly. “Besides, sometimes my being an empath and knowing what you are feeling is a bonus, right?”
“Jury’s still out on that one.” But a matching grin grew on Pete’s face. “So what am I feeling now, O Great Santini?”
Zeke slipped a hand behind Pete’s head and pulled it forward until their foreheads touched. “That doesn’t take an empath to figure out.” He looked down pointedly at the bulge in the front of Pete’s pants.
Pete’s mouth met Zeke’s, tentatively moving against each other, tasting, feeling the strength of the other. When Zeke’s lips parted, Pete slipped in his tongue and ran it across the angel’s teeth, deepening the kiss with a soft grunt. He stroked his hands around Zeke’s waist, skimming under his shirt to touch skin and pull them closer together. Zeke let Pete plunder his mouth for a few moments, until he had to pull away with a gasp to breathe.
“Will you stay here with me tonight?” Zeke whispered, rubbing his hand over the nape of Pete’s neck.
“Yeah. I… ah… let’s just take it a little slow, okay? It’s been a…a long time since—” he stammered, a flush rising in his face. He was trying not to let his raging hard-on do his thinking for him.
Zeke smirked. “I don’t think either of us is ready for anything strenuous right now. Slow sounds about right. Just don’t expect me to behave myself completely like I did the last time we slept in the same bed.”
“Good. Because if you did, I think I’d be insulted.”
Zeke dipped his face in for another kiss as his hand slid down Pete’s back to cup his ass. He could feel the firm muscles bunch under the tight pants. When he pulled back with a final nip on Pete’s bottom lip, the other man chuckled.
“Definitely not feeling insulted right now.”
Pete brought a hand higher and started stroking the russet feathers one of the wings, a look of rapt curiosity on his features. Zeke’s breath whooshed out of him, but he bit down on the moan that tried to follow. “Mmm… Uh… Pete… those are very… ah… sensitive.”
“Huh? You don’t say?” His mouth twitched into a smirk.
“Yeah… Mmmmm…. Uh… “ Zeke was starting to bliss out, leaning into Pete and massaging his ass with both hands now. Suddenly, he shifted his wing so that it was out of Pete’s reach. “Bedroom. Now.”
“Already halfway there.” Pete twisted out of Zeke’s grasp and dodged around his wings with the grace of a star football player evading a tackle.
With a laugh, Zeke followed.
Skidding to a stop just inside the bedroom, Pete got a quick look at the large bed that took up most of the room. Whoa, gotta be at least a king. He spun around as Zeke caught up and stepped in close.
Zeke tugged on the fastenings of the shirt wrapped around Pete’s torso, made more difficult when Pete latched onto the junction of Zeke’s neck and shoulder—the uninjured one—and began to suck and kiss at the spot. Pete’s hands roamed over the heavy muscles of Zeke’s back.
“Pete,” Zeke breathed, closing his eyes. He finally got the shirt undone and pushed it down Pete’s shoulders, forcing him to drop his arms long enough for it to slide the rest of the way off and onto the floor. He touched Pete’s shoulder lightly, tracing his fingers over the barely visible scar that mirrored his own healing injury.
Getting the angel’s shirt off was a bit more… problematic. The whole affair had a lot more fasteners to accommodate openings for the wings. “And I thought bras were tricky,” Pete grumbled, as he finally found all the right places to pull the shirt apart. Looking at Zeke’s bare chest, Pete felt his stomach twisted nervously. It’d been a long time since he’d had this kind of intimacy with another guy, since his days in college during the late ‘60’s, when anything and everything seemed to be up for exploration. Whatever Zeke may have said about technically not being male, looking at his body, Pete couldn’t deny the masculinity of it.
He moaned into Zeke’s mouth as the angel kissed him soundly again, driving away all doubts about whether he wanted this. His dick twitched in the tight confines of his pants, and he could feel a matching hardness pressing into his thigh where he had slipped his leg between Zeke’s.
“Look this feel great, it really does,” Pete said breathlessly when they broke apart, “but you need to rest. You just got out of the hospital.”
Zeke pulled back from where he was nuzzling his way down Pete’s jawline to his neck. He blinked, then licked his lips, already reddened and puffy. “Okay. Yeah. Right.” He stepped back just enough to put some breathing room between them. “Well, you’re not going to sleep in those pants, are you?” He tugged at the waistband with a coy expression. “Just trying to get you comfortable.”
“I… I don’t think that’s a good idea for now. Going au natural,” he said with a raised eyebrow.
“Okay, okay,” Zeke sighed. A couple of steps put him in reach of a small chest of drawers. He opened the top one and pulled two bundles of fabric, tossed one at Pete. “At least let me watch you change.” He sat on the bed and held his hands up in surrender. “I promise not to touch.”
Pete held the flowing pants in front of him, then slung them over his shoulder.
“All right. Me first, huh?” he asked with a nervous smile. He took another half step back and undid his pants. He had to shimmy his hips to get the snug fabric to slide down his legs. He took a deep breath and then skimmed his underwear off, too, to join the pile of clothing on the floor. His face was almost as flushed and hot as his burgeoning erection. He hadn’t been naked in front of anyone—at least, not willingly—in over a year.
“So beautiful,” Zeke whispered. Pete blushed a deeper crimson and quickly pulled the pants on, although they hung a little loose and low on his slim hips.
“Hey, this isn’t a one man show here. Quid pro quo, Zeke.” He leaned back against the wall with a grin, hands carefully tucked behind his back.
Zeke stood and rid himself of his own pants, giving Pete his first good look at angel anatomy. The scientists who had designed Zeke’s species as hermaphrodites hadn’t made many changes to the external male structures. Zeke’s rigid cock bobbed in front of him, the head swollen and glistening. The sac that hung below was heavy and full.
As the angel slipped on the clean pants, Pete hoped the nervous feeling fluttering around his gut didn’t show on his face. Even though he always considered himself a pretty smooth operator when it came to women, being with a guy was… different. And his range of experience was definitely more limited.
Zeke’s hands settled on Pete’s hips and tugged him backward with him toward the bed. After pulling back the covers, he crawled to the middle of the bed and propped himself up on one elbow, wings curled tightly around his back, leaving plenty of room for Pete to join him. Pete knee walked his way over to Zeke, stretching out facing him,
“So now what?” Pete asked in a husky voice. Zeke ran a hand over his ribs, traveling down over the curve of his hip. The sensation made him shudder.
“Well, I think making out like horny teenagers wouldn’t be too strenuous.”
Pete smirked. Yeah, he could definitely handle that.
Zeke must have actually slept at some point, because during the night, Pete turned and was nuzzling his face into Zeke’s neck, with one of his legs tucked snuggly between Zeke’s. Snug enough that the angel could feel his morning wood pressing against Pete’s thigh. As the room slowly brightened with simulated sunlight, Zeke carefully disentangled himself from the warm body wrapped around him and got off the bed. Donning a robe, he watched the play of muscles bunching under the pale, exposed shoulders as Pete burrowed into the pillows, the sheet barely covering the swell of his buttocks.
Out to the living area, he started punching requests for breakfast into the servitor. He just about had all the food set out on the table when the door buzzed. He called quietly for it to open. Alan Virdon stood in the doorway.
“Hi, Alan,” Zeke greeted him warmly. “Want some breakfast?”
Alan was a little taken aback by Zeke’s casual attire. “Actually, I was looking for Pete. I… uh, I missed him at his quarters, and the computer said he was here.”
“Yeah,” Zeke answered, failing to notice the confused frown that crossed Alan’s face as he retrieved coffee from the servitor. “He’s still asleep. I was just about to wake him, if you want to stick around and eat with us.”
“No, no, that’s okay. I’ve have to… uh, go talk to Darius.” He started edging toward the door. “Just tell Pete I’ll catch up with him later, okay?”
“Sure.” Zeke shrugged. A couple of minutes later, Pete appeared in the bedroom doorway still wearing Zeke’s loose baggy pants slung low over his hips, raking his hands through his tousled hair.
“Hey, did I hear voices?” He inhaled deeply. “Coffee? I tell you, I missed a lot of things over the last year, but coffee is definitely high on the list.” He took the mug that Zeke offered and sipped. “Mmm.”
“Yeah, Alan was just here looking for you.”
Pete’s face fell. “Alan? Here?” He put the coffee mug back down on the table. “Shit.”
“What? What’s the matter?”
Pulling a hand down over his face, Pete replied, “I just wasn’t ready for Alan to know about this yet, that’s all.”
“What?” Pete’s expression grew stormy.
“Why does it bother you?”
“Look, Zeke, Alan’s my best friend. Probably knows me better than anyone else. But there are things even Alan doesn’t know, that I never told him. Things that were… frowned on by the military. Alan thinks I’m the playboy of the astronaut corps, but he doesn’t know the whole story. I just wanted a chance to talk to him about it first, that’s all.”
“So what are you saying? You’re ashamed for Alan to think we’re sleeping together?”
“No!” He shook his head. “Damn it, Zeke, it’s not that simple. It… it’s complicated!”
“Then explain it to me. Because right now, you’re acting a lot like you’re ashamed of us.”
“I just… Look, Alan’s a good guy, but he’s a bit of a square. I just didn’t want to spring something like this on him without a little warning first. I was hoping we could keep this under wraps for a while longer.”
“’This’. What exactly do you think ‘this’ is? Because I thought it was a relationship.”
Pete winced visible. “It will be. I mean, it is. I just need a little time to wrap my head around it, okay?” He voice was starting to get louder as he got more defensive. “Besides, I’m not the only one here who’s got baggage to deal with.” He stabbed a finger in Zeke’s direction.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Zeke felt his own anger stirring.
“When were you planning on breaking things off with Jed, Zeke?” he asked with a growl. “I’m not stupid, you know. I looked up what ahuvi means. We had a term for it in my day—‘friends with benefits’. When’s the last time you took advantage of that particular arrangement, exactly? Or were you planning on one last stand sometime when I’m not around?” He stood with his hand on his hips.
“What?” Zeke exclaimed. “That’s… It doesn’t… Argh.” Zeke’s cheeked burned as he stammered, unable to get a coherent sentence out. Wings fluttering anxiously, he balled up his fists and shook them in front of him. “You have no idea what you are talking about, Pete. I can’t believe you’re jealous of Jed.”
“I notice you aren’t denying it,” Pete accused. “Listen, I’m gonna split for a while, go find Al and see if he’s still willing to even be in the same room with me.” He retreated to the bedroom and re-emerged a moment later dressed in his own clothes.
Zeke didn’t even know how to begin to object and wasn’t sure he wanted to. Maybe they both needed some time to cool off. “Pete—,” he called half-heartedly as Pete punched the door control and was gone.
When the computer told him that Alan was in the Council Chamber, Pete sent a text message to come to his quarters when he was free. He stalked around the room for a while, unable to sit still. He was pissed that Zeke didn’t want to give him time to deal with Alan on his own terms. And he wasn’t ashamed of anything, damn it. He had nothing to be ashamed of, right?
Something about this situation nagged at the edges of his memory, though. Something he didn’t want Alan to know, worried that Alan’s opinion of him would be… lessened. He shook off the feeling, but couldn’t elude the headache that was starting to pound in his temples. That’s what he got for skipping breakfast. But his stomach was too knotted up to eat.
Finally, he attacked the physical therapy machine Jed had given him to strengthen his shoulder and was taking his anger out on it when Alan arrived.
Alan leaned against the wall right inside the door for a few minutes while Pete slammed the weights up and down. Finally, he cocked an eyebrow when Pete stopped to wipe the sweat off his face.
“So what’s going on?” Alan asked.
Pete laughed, a short, barking sound. “You don’t want to know.”
“You and Zeke have another fight?“
“Look, you need to get your head out of your ass or you are going to drive him away completely. Or is that what you’re trying to do?”
Pete blinked and realized his mouth was hanging open. He closed it so hard his teeth clicked together. “Uh, say what again?”
Alan knew that he just took all the wind out of the younger man’s sails. “Anyone who’s not completely blind can see he’s crazy about you, although don’t ask me why. And I thought it was mutual. So I say again, what’s going on?”
“Ok, hang on just one damn minute. What is this? Who are you and what have you done with Alan?” Pete pulled his hand down over his face. “Are you telling me it doesn’t bother you?”
“Aw hell, Pete, I’m your commanding officer. And your best friend.” Alan’s Texas twang became more pronounced when he was angry. Or uncomfortable. “Do you really think there’s anything I don’t know about you? I’ve seen you tumble a lot of women in the time we’ve known each other, but there’s a reason none of them ever stuck. Almost like you were looking for something, but in all the wrong places. If you’ve finally found what you need, who the hell am I to judge you?
“Wait a minute, you’re the good ol’ boy, born and bred in the heartland—”
“Yeah, and Sally is,” he stumbled over the tense for a moment, “a California girl. She slapped that nonsense right out of my head very early in our relationship. As long as you didn’t get yourself in trouble with the Air Force or NASA, my official position was I didn’t care what you did in your off time. Well, I don’t see any stars or bars on anyone’s shoulders around here. So don’t think that excuse holds any water, either.”
“And you’re just fine with all this?” Pete wasn’t sure he believed his ears.
“Well.” Alan cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t say ‘fine’.”
Pete rolled his eyes. “I knew there was a ‘but’ in there somewhere.”
“Okay, first of all—technically speaking—he’s a different species. But from what I’ve read, everything is fairly compatible; this is how they were designed. I am concerned about how fast this relationship is progressing. This is not one of your one-night stands. Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
Pete’s lips tightened, and for a moment, Alan feared another outburst. “Goddamnit, Al, I hate it when you get all reasonable.” He was still trying to process Alan’s revelation and acceptance. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I thought it was just an epiphany, right? I’m supposed to come back from dying with some great insight, and it’s supposed to change my whole outlook on life.”
“And it well may. But good god, Pete, it’s been less than month. You still don’t have all your memories back, and who knows if they ever will come back completely. Just take it nice and slow and give yourself time to heal, too.”
“Well, I think I may have already screwed the pooch on this one, anyway. I said some things I really shouldn’t have,” he admitted, looked abashed.
“Face it, buddy, your mouth doesn’t always wait for your brain to engage completely before going off. I think Zeke is probably already aware of that endearing personality trait,” Alan teased, taking the sting out of the words. “I’m more concerned that if you go after this relationship, you better be prepared to take it seriously. And you have some serious apologizing to do. Take it from a man who spent my fair share of nights on the sofa. In the end, he’ll forgive you. But groveling may be required.”
Pete snorted. “Yeah, don’t I know it.” He paused, then smirked. “Hey, I just thought of something. How do you think Galen’s going to react?” Galen was at the Rephaim village, helping to coordinate the gorillas’ migration to the area around the city. He wouldn’t be back for at least another week.
“Well, I think he’s your friend, and you have to admit, for an ape, he’s pretty damned open-minded. He may pester you to death with questions, because let’s face it, first and foremost, he’s got a curiosity that could kill a dozen cats. But I don’t think he’ll find it any stranger than any of your other bizarre human behavior.” He delivered the last few words in a decent imitation of Galen’s indignant tone.
“Listen, go get cleaned up. Give Zeke a little while longer to cool off, then go talk to him.” Alan chucked him on the arm. “You gonna be okay?”
“Yeah.” Pete blew out a sigh. “How am I ever going to do this Alan? Every time I open my mouth, I put my foot in it.”
“Welcome to the dance, my friend. If you can survive it, it’ll be worth it in the end.”
Pete rolled his eyes. “Oh thanks, you’re a big help.”
After Alan left, Pete stripped off his sweat-soaked clothes and stepped into the shower. As the warm water sluiced over him, he felt some of the tension drain away. He stood under the water, head back and eyes closed, thinking back on the previous night. He’d been so damn happy, sleeping with Zeke pressed up against his back, an arm draped over him, the slightest hint of feathers brushing his legs; he felt really… safe for the first time since they landed on this screwed up planet. And then it had gone to hell in a handbasket so very fast.
He thought about Alan’s accusation; maybe the older man was right—maybe he was trying to screw things up, to push Zeke away. But for the first time in his life, he really wanted a lasting relationship.
Your wants no longer matter, mouse. A dark, silken voice whispered in his ear.
Pete’s eyes popped open and his head whipped around, looking for the source of the voice. He scrubbed water out of his eyes, felt his pulse pounding in his ears. What the hell? He was reaching to turn off the water when the voice spoke again.
You haven’t learned your lesson yet, mouse. You still don’t trust me. The implied threat was mixed with a sense of intimate control, and the reaction it evoked slammed Pete back against the shower wall. His chest heaved as he tried catch his breath, but it felt constricted, like it iron bands were slowly tightening around his ribs. He pressed a hand over his heart and could feel its rapid, bounding rhythm. His back slid down the shower wall with the squeak of wet flesh on plastic as his legs folded and his vision turned gray around the edges.
Jed pushed the signal on Zeke’s door and waited for the call to enter. Instead, the door opened to a red-faced, scowling Zeke.
“Look, I don’t—” he started to growl, then his tone softened when he saw Jed. “Oh, it’s you.” He turned and walked away without inviting Jed to enter.
“Who did you think I was?” Jed asked cautiously. He’d seen enough of his friend’s bad moods to know when a tempest was brewing.
Zeke threw himself onto the sofa. “Pete,” he grunted. Jed sank slowly into the chair opposite him.
“I thought Pete was here. He was when I checked last night before stopping by.” A slow flush crept up Jed’s neck. “I didn’t want to interrupt anything…”
“Ha!” Zeke barked. “I wish you had. Would have saved us all a lot of time and trouble.”
“So… I take it you and Pete had a fight?”
The look Zeke gave him could have curdled fresh milk.
“You are supposed to be resting, not getting into arguments.”
“Yeah, well, if you want me to rest, maybe you should have ordered that… that… that infuriating jerk to stay away.”
“Would that be the infuriating jerk you’re in love with?” Jed frowned. “What happened now?”
“Oh, I don’t even know where to begin!” He started ticking off fingers. “First, evidently he’s ashamed to let his best friend know about us.” Pause. “Then, he thinks he’s figured out some big secret between you and me, and he’s jealous. Which is totally hypocritical, given the number of women he’s evidently charmed into bed in his old life. And… and… shit, Jed, I don’t even know if he’s going to be able to commit to something longer than it takes him to change his socks! He doesn’t exactly have the best track record. He admits that himself.”
“Zeke, remember that he hasn’t grown up in Alba. I think he’s coping remarkably well considering how strange this must all be to him. And the last month hasn’t exactly been easy on him. I’m sure there are still some residual effects—”
“I know, I know.” He scrubbed a hand through his short hair.
“Then cut him a break,” Jed admonished. “Give it some time, and then go talk to him. Without yelling.”
“What about you?” Zeke tried to deflect. “When are you going to tell Josh how you feel?”
Jed’s cheeked flushed deep pink. “Don’t change the subject. We’re talking about you and Pete.”
“I just want to know what your intentions are for my little brother.” His chin quivered, as a fresh wave of hurt raked through him. “Right now, I don’t even know if there is a ‘me and Pete’. Or if there ever can be. So one of us should figure out how to be happy.”
“Did you try to explain things to him? Tell him that what’s between you and me isn’t... romantic in any way?”
“He didn’t give me a chance! He stormed out of here before I could even gather my thoughts.”
“Do you want me to talk to him, tell him that he’s got nothing to be jealous of?” Jed suggested with a great deal of trepidation.
“What? No!” Zeke shook his head. “If anything, I think that’ll just make things worse.” He passed a hand over his eyes. “I don’t know what’ll help at this point. We just don’t have any common frame of reference here. I don’t understand his societal mores, and he obviously doesn’t understand ours. Maybe if I talked to Alan, he could explain. Except that Pete seems to think that Alan’s a ‘square’? Which I take to mean that he’s even more socially backward.”
“I think maybe it’s time to take a crash course in twentieth-century history.”
Pete came back to himself when he started to shiver from the water cooling on his skin. He was sitting in the shower, the remaining water pooling around him on the floor. He pushed himself up with unsteady legs and reached for a towel, His entire body shook violently, and he had to grab the edge of the sink to steady himself. As he roughly toweled off, he realized the shaking wasn’t just from cold.
I will tell you what to do, where to go, what, if anything, you can wear.
I can see I’m going to have to take extraordinary measures with you, mouse.
Just remember, you brought this on yourself.
Phrases kept rolling through his head, all in the same deep, slick voice that promised pain and humiliation if it wasn’t obeyed. The velvet glove that concealed the iron fist.
His heart was still pounding its staccato beat, and his breath came in short, desperate gasps. He tasted bile in the back of his throat and dropped to his knees in front of the toilet as he began retching. After the little water he’d drunk earlier came up, he heaved dryly a few more times before he sat back on his heels and leaned his forehead against the sink. He closed his eyes and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
On your knees, head bowed. The proper position of a slave before his master.
Phelan’s face flashed in his mind. Phelan, the human overseer who had tortured and assaulted him for weeks when he’d been sold to an orangutan named Hoffa. For weeks, while Alan and Galen had searched for him.
He could feel Phelan’s rough hands on him, could feel the gut-wrenching pain of Phelan teaching him the final lesson that he was unwilling to accept.
You are property. You are a piece of meat.
He’d been violated, again and again, completely helpless to fight back. He’d tried—the first time—until he recognized the futility of it. Phelan had been at least six inches taller than him, and outweighed him by almost a hundred pounds. But the big man had been preternaturally fast. And sharp. He had seen through Pete’s playacting, been able to read his body language and tone so he’d known the exact moment when Pete had finally broken.
He pushed himself off the floor and shoved his legs into his pants, not wanting to be naked a minute longer. That wasn’t him. Phelan had taken what he wanted; Pete may have surrendered, but he’d never given his goddamned consent.
Another scene flashed through his mind. Being dangled by a rope around his wrists, feet barely touching the dirt floor of the barn where he’d been kept. Being whipped. He collided with the side of the bathroom doorway as the lash bit into the skin on his back, leaving a line of fiery agony that forced a pained moan from him. He shook his head to try to clear it. No, not now. Before. The fluid trickling down his back was water, not blood. Not blood.
He stumbled into the living room and flopped limply into a chair, leaning his head back, eyes closed. Bad move. More memories forced their way into his thoughts, as all the bits and pieces fell together to complete the big picture.
He pressed his fists into his temples, even as a string of denials fell from his lips.
His eyes snapped open. Alan. Alan knew.
A surge of anger quieted the voices for a moment. He wasn’t sure which pissed him off more, that Alan knew what had happened to him at Phelan’s hands—that he’d been raped, that his traitorous dick had twitched and filled and erupted with Phelan’s cock up his ass—or that Alan hadn’t warned him about that memory lurking in the wings of his addled brain, waiting to be remembered.
“Fuck!” he shouted as he leaned forward and swept the contents of the table onto the floor. Then he reached underneath and flipped it over. He raged around the room, kicking furniture, throwing anything that came to hand.
Alan had made him promise not to try to hurt himself again. Fine. But that didn’t mean he had to suffer through this shit. He could forget, at least for a little while, about everything. About Phelan, about the last year, about Urko and Farrow and Jasko and Mikal and all the other humans he’d seen so casually slaughtered. About… Zeke.
His heart lurched. God, Zeke. How would he ever be able to look Zeke in the eye again. And with his empathic ability, as soon as Zeke touched him, he would know the whole truth. Hell, maybe he did already.
No, Alan made him promise he wouldn’t try to check out, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t take a little vacation.
He strode over to the servitor.
“Jack Daniels. One liter. Room temperature.”
“Unable to comply,” came the mechanical reply. “’Jack Daniels’ unknown.”
“Fine. Whiskey. Do you have an entry for whiskey?”
“An alcoholic beverage brewed from fermented grain and distilled to between forty and eighty percent ethanol.” Pause. “Is this what you desire?”
“Yes. One liter. And a glass.”
When the hum died, he opened the door to reveal a decanter of amber liquid and the short, squat glass.
He splashed a couple of fingers worth into the glass and swallowed it. It burned going down, making him cough. It’d been a long time since he’d had the hard stuff, and this batch was not exactly smooth. He didn’t care.
His stomach, already knotted and rolling, balked as the liquid hit it. He swallowed a few more times, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth, until it settled.
Stepping carefully over the debris scattered around the floor, he sat back on the couch. After filling the glass to the top, he set the decanter on the floor. He lifted the glass up in front of his eyes and studied the liquid.
His link bracelet beeped, letting him know that someone was trying to contact him. He touched the button that released the bracelet and pulled it off his wrist. With a flick, he threw it against the wall as hard as he could. It clattered to the floor, but stopped beeping. Then he took another gulp of his drink.
“Computer, where is Pete Burke?” Alan hoped Pete was at Zeke’s, repairing the damage from their earlier argument. But if not, he’d try to entice his friend to have a late dinner with him.
“Pete Burke’s location is unconfirmed.” The reply took him aback for a moment. The only way the central computer wouldn’t know Pete’s location was if he’d removed his link bracelet. Which, while unusual, was not necessarily cause for alarm.
“Where is his link?”
“In his quarters.”
His quarters. Not Zeke’s. Alan’s mouth quirked down on one side. That probably meant he was still sulking in his room and hadn’t swallowed his pride long enough to go apologize. Well, Alan was determined to see the two of them reconcile, even if he had to march his young friend over to Zeke’s by force.
Bypassing his own door, he stopped in front of Pete’s quarters. He thumbed the signal and leaned against the wall. When there was no answer, he frowned. Maybe he was sleeping. Or maybe Zeke had come to him.
“Computer, what is Zeke’s location?”
“In his quarters.”
Crap, Alan thought. So much for that hope. After a moment’s hesitation, he punched the control to open the door.
“What the—” he exclaimed when he saw the condition of the room. Furnishings and what few decorative items there had been were overturned or smashed on the floor. He took a step in and crunched glass under his shoes from a broken mirror. Then the smells hit him. The sharp, familiar smell of spilt alcohol, with the metallic tang of blood beneath it.
“Pete!” he called.
A quick glimpse at the floor ahead of him, and he saw the dark smear on the carpet amid a pile of jagged pieces of glass. He followed the trail around the sofa, his heart in his throat. That’s when he saw Pete’s crumpled form on the floor, fresh blood oozing from the bottom of one foot.
“Oh, god,” he breathed as he carefully knelt down, fingers searching for a pulse beneath the cold and clammy skin of Pete’s throat. It fluttered rapid and weak, but it was there. Alan leaned down to put his ear right above Pete’s blue-tinged lips, but didn’t feel or hear any air moving.
He punched a button on his link. “Jed, medical emergency, Pete Burke’s quarters.” Without waiting for a reply, Alan rolled Pete flat on his back and thrust a hand under his neck, lifting until his chin pointed at the ceiling and his lips fell open. The alcohol smell was sickly strong. Pinching Pete’s nose closed, he took a deep breath, sealed his lips over Pete’s slack ones, and exhaled. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Pete’s chest rise, then fall when he leaned back to get another breath. Airway was clear, at least he hadn’t choked on anything.
Alan continued to breath into Pete, while his mind raced to try to figure out what the hell had happened. Obviously Pete had been drinking—damn strong rotgut, too, from the smell of it—but why? When he’d left, Pete had seemed ready to do whatever was necessary to earn Zeke’s forgiveness. Had he struck out? It just wasn’t like Burke at all to give up so easily or be driven him to drink himself senseless over a romantic rejection. Or was this just more proof of Pete’s erratic behavior since his injury?
Where the hell was Jed? He was starting to feel light-headed. How long had he been breathing for Pete? A couple of minutes? Five minutes? Ten? He wasn’t going to lose him again. Not again.
He heard the hum of the door as it opened, and Jed rushed in, flanked by Miriam, both of them carrying medical cases.
“What happened?” Jed asked as he pushed an overturned table out of the way to make room to kneel next to Pete.
Alan sat back on his heels, then scooted out of the way as Miriam took his place. “I don’t know. I found him like this. He wasn’t breathing.”
Miriam opened her case and retrieved a respirator mask. She settled it over Pete’s nose and mouth, and his chest began to rise and fall regularly. Jed ran a scanner down the length of Pete’s body.
“No injuries other than the laceration on the foot.” Eyeing the overturned decanter nearby, with amber liquid still trapped in the bottom, Jed touched a control on the scanner then held it against Pete’s wrist. “Blood alcohol level… point three five percent.” He raised anxious eyes to look at Alan. “Acute poisoning.”
Jed pressed a button on his link. “Medical center. We need an emergency pod at my location.” Snatching a hypospray from his case, he attached a small vial of medicine to it and injected it into Pete’s neck. “Miriam, we need to get him to medical and detox his blood. I’m giving him a stimulant to counteract the nervous system depression. See what you can do about his foot.”
Alan tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. He’d known Pete was upset, and he’d left him alone. He should have stayed instead of going off to Gabe’s workshop, Thinking back on their last conversation again, he wracked his brain trying to figure out if he’d said something wrong, something that would lead Pete to think that he didn’t have his back.
“Jed, did Pete and Zeke talk… since this morning?”
“Not that I’m aware. Zeke tried to contact him earlier, but he didn’t respond.”
The pod arrived. Pete was bundled into its technological embrace and whisked away to the medical area. Alan followed, still dazed and confused.
Alan was sitting and staring into space when Zeke rushed into the waiting area, looking bleary-eyed and bed tousled. “What’s going on, Alan? Jed signaled me—” His eyes grew wide and his breath hitched in panic. “Pete?”
Without waiting for an answer, he headed for the door, but Alan intercepted him, grabbing his arms.
“He’s going to be okay. Jed’s in with him now.” Alan steered Zeke toward one of the other chairs. “He… he had a little too much to drink.”
Zeke’s face darkened and his eyes flashed. “He got drunk?” The disapproval was heavy in his voice.
“He has alcohol poisoning. When I found him, he was barely breathing. Jed’s getting him stabilized.”
“What? I don’t… I don’t understand. Why would he do that?”
“You tell me. Did you talk to him since this morning?”
“No. I… I mean, I tried to call him this afternoon, but he wouldn’t answer. I figured he was still too angry. Did you talk to him?”
“Yeah, around midday. When I left, he seemed fine. He said he was going to go find you and apologize.”
Zeke looked startled. “He did?” He dropped his eyes to his hands twisting in the loose fabric of his pants. “Well, he must have changed his mind.”
Alan squeezed Zeke’s shoulder and spoke quietly, with a knowing look. “I’ve never seen him fall this hard before, Zeke. Don’t give up on him.”
Pete became aware of several sensations at the same time. First, he was laying somewhere soft and comfortable, covered by a cool sheet. Second, his mouth felt and tasted like something small and furry had died and was decomposing in it; that was the only way to explain the slimy fuzz that coated his tongue. Third, someone had been playing football with his head as the ball. And his mind was flooded with new memories that hadn’t been there the last time he’d woken.
With a throaty groan, he forced his pasty eyelids open. The room was gloomy, turning everything shades of gray, but he recognized the medical center. A mask covering his nose and mouth blew cool air into his lungs. A face swam into view, the pale skin a floating blob of brightness in the low light.
He flinched involuntarily from the light tough on his shoulder. “Pete?” Jed’s anxious voice sounded tinny, like it was coming through a bad telephone connection. He felt Jed’s fingers curl around his wrist, over the pulse point there. Then a slight pressure on his neck and warmth radiating into his chest. His head cleared.
“Pete?” Jed called again.
“Yeah.” The sound came out more like a grunt than a word, especially muffled by the mask.
Jed pulled the mask to one side. “How do you feel?”
His lips and tongue felt alien, like they didn’t really belong to him. “Like hammered shit,” he heard himself slur, although the voice didn’t sound like it was his either.
“I’ve given you everything I can to try to reduce the after effects of the alcohol, but you’re still going to be pretty sick for a while.” He clucked his tongue. “You’re lucky Alan found you when he did. The alcohol level in your blood was dangerously high. Do you even remember how much you drank?”
Pete rubbed a hand over his eyes, noticing the tube snaking from his forearm to a bag of fluid above his head. He may not remember exactly how much he drank, but he remembered what drove him to the booze.
“Where’s Alan?” He pushed the words out like a mouthful of molasses.
“Need to talk to him. Alone.”
Jed frowned, casting a baleful look at Pete for a moment. “Fine. Just for a minute. Then you and I are going to have our own little discussion.” He turned and left.
Closing his eyes, Pete rubbed at his temples, trying to quiet the ringing in his head. His stomach rolled over. When he heard the soft hum of the door, he waited until the bed dipped before opening his eyes.
“Pete—” Alan’s face was wilted, the combination of guilt, disappointment, and anxiety weighing heavily on his flesh.
“You should have warned me, Alan.” He spit he words out like an accusation.
Alan recoiled at his friend’s bitter tone. “What?” he asked, confused.
“You should have told me about what happened at Hoffa’s farm.”
Alan’s face drained, his eyes wide. “Hoffa?” He looked down at his hands, suddenly clenched into fists. “Aw, hell. You just remembered?”
“Yeah. All of it.”
“Oh god, I’m sorry,” Alan murmured. Then his head snapped up, anger warring with misery on his face. “You promised me. You promised you wouldn’t try—”
“I wasn’t trying to off myself, Alan,” he snapped. “I was just trying to fucking forget again. I don’t know what happened…I used to be able to hold it better.” Pete punched the bed next to him. “Goddamn it, Alan, why didn’t you fucking warn me?”
Alan ducked his had again, heat flushing his cheeks. “I thought about it, about asking you if you remembered it. Way I figured, either you already remembered and were coping, or you didn’t remember and maybe never would. Either way, how was I supposed to bring it up? ‘Hey, pal, do you happen to remember that time when you were r—”
“I know what happened,” Pete cut him off with a piercing look. “‘Coping’? Is that what you thought I was doing?”
“Before the accident, you seemed like you were. You were doing okay… weren’t you?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know.” He paused. “But I wasn’t anywhere near getting… close… to anyone, either. Did you tell them?” He jerked his chin toward the door.
Alan shook his head. “We all thought this was about the fight you had with Zeke. They have no idea.” He pursed his lips, considering. “Do you want me to tell them?”
“No!” Pete exclaimed. “No, I don’t want them to know. I don’t want anyone to know.”
“Zeke’s deserves an explanation. He’s chomping at the bit to get in here. He thinks this is all his fault.”
Pete closed his eyes, a pained expression on his face. “No, I don’t want him in here.” With Zeke’s empathic abilities, he’d know everything as soon as he touched Pete. There was no way he was going to let that happen. “Can’t you just tell him I’m too tired right now?” It wasn’t a lie. His eyelids felt like lead weights. Whatever pick-me-up Jed had given him was wearing off fast. “Just... just tell him it’s not his fault.”
Alan considered for a moment, his lips pressed into a thin line. But he nodded curtly. “All right, but eventually you have to talk to him yourself. Soon.”
“When?” Alan pressed.
“I said I would!” Pete winced, then sighed. “I will. Soon. But I need to sleep, figure some stuff out.” He rolled over, turning his back on Alan, and pulled the sheet up closer under his chin. “Just let me sleep.”
Alan raised his hand to pat Pete’s shoulder in comfort, then thought about the memories that had put him in the state he was in, and let the hand fall back to his side. With a frown, he got up and left the room.
“He what!” Zeke yelled, bright spots of red rising in his cheeks. “What do you mean, he doesn’t want to see me?”
“I’m sorry Zeke. I wish I knew what to say. But what happened today, it’s not your fault. You are just going to have to trust me on that.”
Zeke’s eyes narrowed with anger and suspicion. “What is it that you aren’t telling me, Alan! What is it he wants you to hide?”
Alan opened his mouth, then closed it again with a shake of his head. “I can’t, Zeke. I hope, really hope that he’ll be ready soon to tell you himself. I’m sorry.”
“No.” Zeke make a disgusted noise. “No, not good enough. He can tell me now.” He pushed past Alan and reached for the door control. Alan grabbed his arm, but Zeke shook him off with a violent jerk. He’d had enough of this immature posturing.
He stormed into the room, and after a moment of hesitation, Alan trailed behind him.
From the monitoring panel where he stood over Pete’s still form in the bed, Jed looked up, startled. He circled the bed quickly to intercept the determined intruder. “Zeke—,”
When Jed said the name, Pete’s head snapped up and turned from where he was curled up on his side. The pure terror on Pete’s face stopped Zeke as the sudden, intense emotion hit him like he’d been gut-punched. Pete was.... afraid of him? No just afraid, but terrified.
“What...what’s going on, Pete?” Zeke stammered, all his anger forgotten. The man on the bed looked like hell, the paleness of his face broken only by the dark smudges around both eyes.
Pete had curled in on himself, pulling his legs up to his chest and wrapping himself in the sheet as if it were armor. “Go away, Zeke. I...” he trailed off, the pain in his voice palpable. “Just do yourself a favor and walk out that door, and don’t look back.” His eyes dropped.
Zeke couldn’t believe his ears. Pete wanted him to leave—for good. What the hell happened? “Whatever is going on, we can get through this, together. Just like before.”
Pete winced, and Zeke could sense a whirl of emotions radiating off him. “There is no ‘together’, Zeke. There is no ‘we’. I can’t do this anymore. I’m done! Go away!”
Zeke looked from Alan to Jed, and saw identical expressions of shock. No, he wasn’t going to be pushed away again.
“You look me in the eye, Peter Burke, and you tell me you don’t care about me.”
Pete’s jaw twitched as he ground his teeth, trying to shove all his emotions as far down as he could. Brown eyes met hazel. “I don’t care about you.” Each word was carefully annunciated.
Zeke snorted in frustration. “You can’t lie to an empath.”
“Damn it, Zeke, what do you want to hear? Yeah, I do care about you. And that’s exactly why I can’t…” His voice caught in his throat. “There can’t be anything between us. I’m too messed up. You deserve somebody who’s not… who’s not broken.”
Zeke threw his hands in the air. “What does that even mean? You’re a person, not a piece of tech! You’re not broken, you don’t need to be fixed! If you’ve been through something terrible, you can get past it. You can heal, if you’ll just let someone help you!”
“Will you guys get him out of here!” Pete yelled. Jed could see the tremors wracking his patient, whether from anger or fear or something else, he wasn’t sure. But all this adrenaline-fueled emotion wasn’t doing his weakened body any good.
Jed grabbed Zeke by the arm, mindful of his healing injury. “Out, Zeke. Now.” He began using his body to force Zeke back toward the door. Alan got there first and punched open the control. With an angry shake of his head, Zeke turned and stalked out.
“Go after him, Alan. I’ll follow as soon as I can.”
About an hour later, Jed found Zeke in the darkened arboretum, lying on his back in the grass and staring through the transparent dome at the night sky. Alan sat nearby, plucking at the grass beneath him.
“What do I do now, Jed?” Zeke’s voice quavered, and even in the low light, Jed could see the brightness in his eyes.
Jed took a deep breath, and let the scolding he had planned to deliver die on his lips. He sat down cross-legged near Zeke’s head. “You let him recover. I had to sedate him, Zeke. You really shouldn’t have pushed him.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry.” Zeke pressed his knuckles over his eyes. “Maybe he’s right, maybe it would be better for me to just.... I can’t seem to get anything right here.”
“It’s not your fault,” Alan’s voice rumbled out of the dimness.
“All right, Alan. As Pete’s healer, I need to know whatever it is you know.” Jed’s voice was uncharacteristically sharp.
Alan ripped a piece of grass into small pieces and scattered them back into the turf. Jed was about to goad him again when he finally spoke. “Something happened a few months ago. Pete underwent something... traumatic. Not just physically, but psychologically as well. I thought... I thought he had gotten over it. But that memory just resurfaced today, and I think he’s reliving it all again.”
Zeke pushed himself up to a sitting position. “What happened to him, Alan?”
“Look, he swore me to secrecy. I shouldn’t even be telling you this much. But it was bad. He... lost himself for a while. And until he can talk about it....” He shrugged, struggling with his own feelings of guilt and helplessness. “But he’s angry at me for not warning him about the memory. And he’ll be even madder if he thinks I betrayed his trust. I don’t know if he’ll be willing to talk to me about it anymore. Maybe in a few days. I just don’t know.”
An uneasy silence fell over the group until Alan spoke again, as a sudden idea dawned on him.
“Look, do you guys have anyone trained to talk to people about this stuff? In my day, we called them psychiatrists. I think it might be time to call in some professional help.”
“Not really,” Jed replied. Then his head snapped up, an excited look on his face. “But I think I know someone who can do the job.” He turned a narrow-eyed look at Zeke. “He needs to rest for a couple of days, though. I don’t want him to have any more visitors until then.”
Pete’s stay in the medical center lasted another day before he grew restless and demanded that Jed let him return to his quarters. Alan showed up to help him get home and settled in, but then he disappeared without the expected lecture.
Zeke hadn’t appeared since Pete blew up at him in the medical center. Pete felt a stab of regret, but told himself—for the hundredth time—that it was for the best. Zeke deserved better.
His quarters were immaculate, all evidence of his barely-remembered, alcohol-fueled destruction spree erased. He imagined he probably had Alan to thank for that. Or maybe even Zeke. With that thought aching in his chest, he threw himself on the sofa. Eventually, he fell into a restless sleep.
When he woke, it took a few moments for him to remember where he was, and the door buzzed again before he realized what had woken him. With a groan, he pushed himself upright, resting his head in his hands while he pulled his brain out of its sleepy fog. He wasn’t just going to open the door without knowing who was on the other side. Maybe Zeke changed his mind and was here to try to convince Pete that—
The door buzzed again.
Annoyance gave him a burst of energy. Whoever was there was persistent, that’s for sure. He strode over to the door and punched a thumb at the intercom. “Who’s there?”
Oh, fuck. He couldn’t exactly tell the leader of Alba to go away, even if he was also Zeke’s parent. He leaned his forehead against the cool metal of the door. He’d just have to keep his distance from Mal, like he’d done with Zeke. Not that Mal was the touchy-feely type to begin with. He quickly backed away from the door, putting the table and chairs between them.
“Come in,” he called out.
When the door opened, Mal stood on the threshold, raising an eyebrow as he took in Pete’s position. He stepped in and to the side, rather than directly approaching the skittish man.
“I just want to talk.”
Pete gripped the back of a chair with both hands to ground himself. “Okay. Talk.”
Mal waved a hand at the couch. “Can we sit down?”
“Rather not. I like standing.”
Mal sighed. The boy was not going to make this easy. “Here’s the deal. You have a choice. Either you talk to me, let me help you deal with whatever has got your head in a spin, or I’m going to order Jed to put you back in the medical center until we can figure out how to tighten up those loose screws.” He tapped his temple.
Pete’s jaw clenched so hard, he thought it was going to crack. “Are you fucking kidding me? That’s blackmail!”
Mal crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall. “I do suppose it is. It’s also the only two options you have at this point.”
“Why you?” he asked, eyes narrowing.
“Because I’m the strongest and most experienced empath in the city.”
“And don’t you think you have a little conflict of interest?”
“Not at all. Way I see it, your potential relationship with Zeke is just extra motivation to get you well.”
“Except you can’t stand me. I think you’d be thrilled that Zeke and I aren’t together.”
Mal stared at Pete as the silence lengthened. With a scowl, he finally said, “You really think that? Look, son—”
“I’m not your son!” Pete snapped.
“No, you aren’t. But I’m trying to tell you, I’d be proud if you were.”
Pete swallowed loudly in the sudden quiet of the room. His voice was so soft, Mal could barely hear him. “You wouldn’t be, if you knew…”
“I already know everything I need to about you. Whatever happened to you, it doesn’t define you. I’ll tell you what I know.” As he spoke, he took small steps closer to Pete, still keeping the table between them. “I know you were ready to go toe to toe with me for a group of apes because an injustice had been done to them. I know that if Zeke had been just a little bit slower, you would have taken those bullets for Galen instead. I know that you are willing to throw away your own chance at any happiness to stick by Alan when he needs you. And I know you think you’re protecting Zeke by pushing him away, even though it’s ripping you up inside. Bloody hells and damnation, boy, why is it you think everyone around you matters more than you do?”
Pete’s face grew paler, his eyes pinched with pain. “Don’t say shit like that. You don’t know anything.”
“Then tell me. Tell me all the things I don’t know.” He was close enough grip the back of the chair on the opposite side of the table from Pete, mirroring him.
“I… I’m weak. The going got tough and I folded like a card table. I would have handed over Alan and Galen and my own grandmother, if it would’ve stopped—” his breath hitched, as he caught himself “—if it would have made any difference.”
“Bullshit.” He said it so calmly, but with such surety, that Pete’s anger flared.
“I’m not lying!” he yelled.
“Oh, I’m sure you believe it all. But it’s still utter bullshit.”
Pete took a step forward, circling around the table. “No, it’s not. I’ll prove it to you.” In two more long strides, he was close enough to grab Mal’s wrists, to stare into his icy blue eyes. “You want to see it all? Go ahead and take a good, long look!”
He immediately sensed someone pushing into his consciousness, although Mal’s touch was different than Zeke’s. Firmer, more insistent, but smoother, like a well-oiled knife sliding into its sheath. Pete felt no pain, just a sensation of being completely laid out, open and vulnerable. Knowing it would be futile to try to resist, he threw all the memories of Hoffa’s farm at Mal.
Mal rocked back on his heels, but didn’t withdrawal. He tilted his head to one side, his eyes closed in fierce concentration. Pete began to tremble and tightened his grip on Mal’s wrists, the contact the only lifeline that kept him from falling into an abyss.
Pete dredged up the worst scenes from that prolonged nightmare. The moment when he realized he was in deep trouble—when Phelan had whipped him for the first time. Hours of being tightly bound in a kneeling position, unable to move even a little. The first and only time he’d tried to escape, when Phelan had retaliated with the final straw that had broken him. Phelan had pinned him in the dirt like an insignificant insect, and buried himself deep into Pete’s abused body.
After that, he’d given up. He’d let Phelan do anything and everything to him that he wanted. Beatings. More ra—. Pete swallowed hard. If he couldn’t say it, couldn’t even think it, how could he face it? How could he ever learn to move beyond it?
He pushed a new wave of images and memories and emotions at Mal, of the times he’d been raped by Phelan, in the name of teaching him to submit to his ape master.
To submit. Which he’d eventually done.
Because he was weak.
The flow stopped abruptly when Mal broke the physical contact between them. Pete opened his eyes, aware for the first time of wetness on his face and an empty, hollow feeling in his gut. Malachi’s eyes fluttered open, his expression tight with shock and anger. His wings were hunched high over his shoulders, quivering with pent up emotion.
Then his face softened. “Oh god.” He stepped closer to Pete, who didn’t back away this time. “Oh god.” He reached a tentative hand toward Pete’s shoulder, not sure if the younger man would bolt and withdraw. When he made contact, he started projecting a subtle aura of strength. “You didn’t deserve that, Pete. You aren’t weak. That you’re still functioning at all is a testament to your strength, son. You didn’t give that monster anything; he took it from you. And now it’s time to start taking it back.”
Pete’s shoulders slumped, and he shook his head. “I can’t. It’s too much, too hard.”
Malachi cupped Pete’s chin and forced his head up to look him in the eye. “And when it gets too hard, your friends will carry you. You don’t have to do all this alone. Nothing you showed me here has made me think less of you, only more. There is nothing you could tell me or Alan or Galen or even Zeke that would make any of us think less of you. Did you think less of Zeke when you helped him after he was shot, when you stopped him from bleeding to death?”
“But he was weak. He got hurt from actions he chose and needed someone else to help him.” Mal tilted his head to one side and waited.
Pete pursed his lips. “I guess it wouldn’t do any good to say ‘that was different’, huh?” When Mal shook his head, Pete scrubbed a hand over his face. “Okay, I get it, I get it.” He drew a shaky breath. “But what do I do now, Malachi? Zeke—. I’ve screwed everything up so badly.”
“Nothing so badly it can’t be fixed.” He smirked and leaned in conspiratorially. “Let me tell you a little secret about that boy of mine. He’s not gonna give up on this. Once he get’s something in his head, he’s stubborn as a mule. Can’t imagine where he gets it from.”
This time, Alan thought as he watched Pete talk animatedly about Kirtland Air Force Base, we’re doing this right. When he and Galen had rescued Pete from Hoffa’s farm, Alan had tried his best to help his friend cope with the trauma he’d suffered. But with the limited knowledge of psychology he’d received in his officer’s training, Alan felt like he was out of his depth from the very beginning. Way, way out of his depth.
But now, Pete looked better. Not that it would’ve taken much from the death-warmed-over appearance he’d had a couple of weeks ago. He seemed recovered from his brush with alcohol poisoning, and he was finally getting some real help dealing with his memories of Hoffa’s farm. At Malachi’s insistence, he’d agreed to let Jed give him some medications to stabilize his mood—on the condition that he’d be able to try without them after a few months. And he met with Mal every couple of days to talk. Alan ducked his head to hide his smirk. Getting Pete Burke to talk about his feelings. He was beginning to think that Mal really was a divine angel. Or at least a miracle worker.
For the first time in a long time, Pete seemed... at peace. Content.
They were looking over some old schematics they’d found when Pete’s bracelet link beeped. He glanced at it and his eyes went wide. “Hey, we gotta wrap this up, pal. Zeke’ll be here any minute for dinner.”
“Oh?” Alan feigned indifference. But he wanted to know how things were going between them these days. Contrary to Pete’s fears about Alan’s supposed prejudices, he really just wanted the best for his friend. “Are you cooking?” he said with a skeptical tone.
“No. For your information, I’m having dinner with his family tonight. Tirzah threatened to pluck his wings if she didn’t get to meet me soon.”
Alan nodded with an amused look. “Ah. Taking you home to meet the family, huh? Boy, are you sunk.”
“Har-de-har.” Pete waved his hand at Alan. “Go ahead. Get it all out of your system. I know you’re dying to make wise cracks.”
With a chuckle, Alan stood and began gathering up the pads they’d been reading. “Nah. I’m happy for you, that’s all.”
“But I do remember someone saying something about hell freezing over before you’d ever settle down,” Alan added with a casual tone. “I hope Lucifer has some warm mittens.”