BLOOD spattered in a hot rush, leaving spots of black in my sight and filling me with dread. The weight of him pressing against me increased as he fell. I grasped to catch him, but his mass pulled us both down. Landing on top of him, I could only stare into those honey-colored eyes until the light faded from them. The scream began somewhere deep in my throat and found its way to freedom just as those eyes turned to blank pools of darkness.
Someone pulled at me, shaking me. I turned and prepared to fight. But instead of the demon I expected, light flooded my eyes, forcing me to blink away tears and the nightmare.
Seiran kneeled on the edge of my bed, worry etched on his face. Light poured from the lamp on the nightstand. Sweat dripped off me, my heart pounded like an African drum, and I could barely breathe. He reached into the bedside drawer without hesitation and brought an inhaler to my lips. Several seconds later, the pain in my lungs began to ease.
“Sorry,” I whispered, my throat feeling hoarse. How long had I been screaming?
“Wanna talk about it?” His voice was like dark chocolate and velvet all at once, belying the wide sapphire eyes and pixie haircut that made him look so young. I’d only known him for a few months but found it hard to imagine life without him now.
Originally, the dreams of Jamie’s death had been just memories of him being shot in the parking lot when Seiran had been kidnapped a few weeks ago. The bullet had grazed his side, but until the medics had come, I’d held my shirt to the wound while blood poured over my hands. Unfortunately, the dreams had evolved, and I couldn’t tell Sei that I kept having nightmares of his brother dying in new and horrific ways. He had enough issues.
Sei flicked off the bedside lamp, then shoved me over, yanking the blankets over us both. He snuggled up against me, much like I imagined a real lover would have, and let his body heat calm me.
We weren’t lovers. Never had been. Though I once had a crush on him. As the nightmares became more frequent, Seiran stayed less and less with his lover, Gabriel, simply because he believed I needed him more. And at that moment, he was probably right.
I wrapped my arms around him, catching the scent of clover honey and pulling it deep into my lungs. He wore pajama bottoms and a tank top to bed every night. Didn’t ever seem bothered that I often slept just in boxer briefs. Tonight, the soft cotton of his top was like a life preserver holding me together. If I could have stripped bare and held him against me without him thinking I wanted sex, I would have.
For two years I had wondered how to get close to the infamous Seiran Rou, then the only male in the whole world studying magic at university level. A lot had changed in the past few months. And now I was also studying magic.
I’d never tell Seiran that I used to search for him in the crowds at my track meets. He’d been an unreachable idol, strongly facing the crowds of opposition. Still so mysterious to me. When we’d met a few months ago, I realized just how hard his life had been. Yet he kept going, no matter what life threw at him.
Sei always watched the track meets. I knew now it was because he longed to be part of it. He hadn’t shown up to any of the swim practices. That would have been awkward and embarrassing, hard-on probably far too obvious to hide. He was still sort of my cheerleader and role model. He had love I could only dream of and had gotten through a past that destroyed lesser men.
He shifted in my arms, turning to face me, and brushed his fingers against my face. Was I crying? What the hell?
Sei pressed his cheek to mine and whispered soft words. “Nothing’s going to hurt you, I promise. I’ll take care of you.”
He was three inches shorter and probably forty pounds lighter than me but never hesitated to be the protector. Seiran seemed to believe that his two more years of life meant that it was his job to take care of me. As I fell asleep to his reassuring words, I hoped I’d someday get to return the favor.
THE morning came, as I should have expected. The light through the window said it was going to be a cold Minnesota day. Solstice was only a few weeks away, and my new little family would be taking its first vacation together. Skiing, snowshoeing, and maybe a little cuddling by the fire were on the menu for the weekend.
Winter sports had been my idea. Seiran was less than thrilled since he hated the cold. Jamie’s eyes twinkled with that merry spark that I’d come to learn was excitement, and Gabe wanted to get Sei away from the city for a while. So we were going on a snowy weekend trip.
Before bed last night, I’d packed, planning to sleep in, since we weren’t hitting the road until midday. It appeared Sei had the same plan, as he slept soundly beside me. The door to the apartment opened, though, and the heavier footsteps meant Jamie. Gabe, who was a vampire, wouldn’t attempt to enter our sunlit place at this time of morning.
Jamie moved around the condo for a few minutes before finally peeking into my room. I glanced at him, trying not to disturb Sei. Jamie wore a white T-shirt and tight black jeans. His long strawberry-blond hair was swept back in a ponytail. His arms bulged with the definition of a body builder. Wide shoulders tapering down to a slim waist and legs that could run a marathon showed off that he had been a model. Still could be if he wanted to. I probably had every line of him memorized. And since my best friend was asleep, I looked my fill.
Jamie didn’t flinch when he saw Sei with me. Jamie and I had never talked about it, and Seiran wasn’t the kind of guy who shared a lot with anyone. The vacation starting today might change that, since we had two cabins rented, one for Gabe and Sei and the other for Jamie and me.
“Do you want me to make breakfast, or wait for Sei?” Jamie whispered.
Breakfast, I mouthed to him.
He nodded and left the room, headed to our kitchen. The clock next to the bed read after seven. I wondered if Sei had packed yet. Extracting myself from him was a practice of patience and flexibility. After easing my way off the bed, I tiptoed across the room to open the door. I glanced back, grateful Seiran was still sleeping peacefully. The only one who seemed to be haunted by nightmares anymore was me.
In the kitchen, Jamie chopped a couple of Granny Smith apples and sliced a stack of homemade cinnamon bread. I sat down at one of the barstools to watch him. He mixed the bread and apples, adding a handful of raisins, then layered them in the bottom of a glass baking dish before pouring an egg mixture over the top. It had to be some sort of egg bake, and since a notebook was open beside him, the recipe was Seiran’s.
“If you’re going to sit around in just boxers you should turn the heat up,” Jamie said, though I don’t think he’d glanced up at me at all.
“I’m not cold.” And I wanted him to see me, even if he wouldn’t go there.
“Everything okay with you and Seiran?” he asked after he loaded the dish into the oven.
“We’re good.” Did he think Sei was cheating? “We’re not having sex, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I didn’t think you were.” He leaned against the counter, his eyes meeting mine for a second before flashing away. “You both know I’m here to help if you need me, right? With anything.”
“Yes.” Two could play at the casual game. I grabbed a magazine from my stack and flipped through it. Jamie had a strong hero mentality. I even purposely hid the fact that I had asthma from him so he wouldn’t freak out about it. And if he knew about my dreams, he’d try to do something about them. But really, what could be done? I knew enough about the psychological mind to understand dreams were just issues we tried to sort out while we slept. The question of what the issue was had to be solved first.
Though at this point I had a theory. Jamie had changed since the shooting. He’d always been the silent, stoic type, but he’d treated me like family. Now he held himself apart, like he was waiting for me to turn on Sei too. I knew it wasn't just me. He didn't trust anyone who got close to Sei. Were the dreams about the death of his trust for me? Seemed like a lot of blood and pain for such a simple concept.
I don’t know how long I’d been staring at the same page, because it had gone fuzzy. The heavy weight of Jamie’s stare burned into my shoulders, bringing my eyes up. Again he looked away, checking the oven instead. The smell of the concoction began to fill the room with the sweet homey scent I’d come to love. The coffee pot gurgled, reminding me I hadn’t had my first cup yet but had been up for almost half an hour.
While I filled my mug and took the first heavenly sip, Seiran appeared in the kitchen. His hair stood up in a hundred crazy directions, sleep lines etched across his face, and he rubbed at his eyes.
“Coffee?” I asked him.
“Tea, please,” he replied.
Jamie poured him a cup and handed him a bottle of agave to sweeten it. Sei settled in beside me at the counter, sipping his tea and staring at the food bubbling in the oven.
“Hungry,” he mumbled into his mug.
“It’s almost done. Did you pack yet?” Jamie asked.
Sei nodded. He leaned over and rested his head on my shoulder. I suddenly felt really bad for waking him up with my nightmares. Maybe the trip would help, since he’d be with Gabe the whole time. But I cringed to think of what would happen if I woke Jamie up. This was going to be an interesting vacation.
Jamie finally pulled breakfast out of the oven and set it out to cool. Mornings were always simple like this: homemade food, good friends, coffee, and a sense of peace. Now if I could translate it to the rest of my life, things would be good.
By the time we’d eaten, worked out, showered, and gotten the car loaded, it was after 11:00 a.m. Gabe had rented a special SUV with heavily tinted windows so he could travel during the day. He met us in the parking garage, kissed Seiran like the two were honeymooners, then crawled in back by the luggage and wrapped a blackout blanket around himself, just in case.
Jamie drove. I sat shotgun, and Sei sat in the back, near Gabe, whispering things to him. With only a handful of stops, the trip would take six hours. Of course that depended on the weather. Every news channel predicted a cold but fairly clear few days for us. The piles of survival gear Jamie had packed meant he was ready for the worst, and having loaded up my own, I guess we were on the same page.
I didn’t remember falling asleep halfway through, though the cold-blowing snow that filled my head woke me with a start as we drove into the parking lot of the lodge. I really hoped it wasn’t an omen of things to come.
The lodge looked like something out of a magazine of luxury log-cabin homes. Thick beams of wood spiked out of the ends. One side broke off in a display of windows that covered two whole floors, and I could see a fireplace large enough to park our SUV inside. A garage stood across the parking lot, looking very unlike the lodge. But the doors were small, meaning it was more for ATVs or snowmobiles than cars.
We parked near the front door just as the last light of day streaked in red and orange lines across the horizon. By the time we had keys in hand and everyone on the snowmobiles, the moon, which had been visible for hours, was a calming crescent.
“I’ll show you the way and bring your luggage along,” said the owner, whose name was Hans. He looked like anyone’s uncle in flannel and a duck brown Carhartt coat. Our luggage was loaded into a large sled attached to his snowmobile. He revved the engine and took off slowly into the dark, headlights brightly leading the way.
I clung to Jamie, enjoying the feel of his hard body against mine, letting him drive, and watched as Sei hid his face in Gabe’s shoulder. Though we kept the speed down, it had to be a new experience. Since his mother wasn’t exactly the camping kind of person, Seiran had limited experience with some of the most normal parts of life. Something I was working to change.
The brisk air had me checking my pocket for my inhaler a half-dozen times. Cold and asthma didn’t mix well. The tightening of my lungs was more in my head than real, though. Seiran’s anxiety disorder was probably starting to rub off on me.
When we finally slid to a stop beside a duo of cabins, the chill had really descended. Hans opened the doors for us and even started a fire in each cabin before unloading our things and waving us good-bye for the night. We all gathered in Sei and Gabe’s cabin, drinking hot cocoa to ward off the chill and playing card games. By the time I decided I was tired enough for sleep it was after 1 a.m., and Sei slept curled against Gabe on the bed.
Jamie got up and stretched. “We’ll do some skiing tomorrow. It’s dark early up here so we won’t be out more than a few hours.”
Gabe nodded and stroked the hair out of Sei’s face. “I rented a room at the lodge for the weekend too. I’ll take him back tomorrow night. He seems to think we’re lost in the wilderness. Dinner and a warm bath will help.”
“With indoor plumbing. I like this wilderness,” I told them, pointing to the indoor toilets. No showers and the water pumped in, but anything was better than whipping out essential anatomy in the snow. Heading for the door, I glanced back beyond Jamie, who followed. “Night, Gabe. Tell Sei when he wakes up.”
The cabin I shared with Jamie was identical to Gabe’s: two beds, though they had only needed one. We would be using two. The fire made the place feel solid and warm, safe. I stripped out of everything but my boxer briefs and crawled into the bed furthest from the fire. The chill in the sheets made me shiver but warmed up fast enough.
Jamie moved around a while longer, the little sounds he made lulling me to sleep. For the first time in weeks, I didn’t dream of his death.