“HOW’S that feel?”
Redford touched the earpiece that Jed had put on him, making sure it was secure. “It’s good,” he confirmed. “No static this time. Did you upgrade?”
Jed had been talking about his new “toys” for the last week. Redford knew this, and he knew that Jed had bought new earpieces, but he asked nonetheless. Jed enjoyed any chance to enthusiastically show off the equipment he procured; Redford just liked listening to him talk.
Standing next to Redford, dressed entirely in black, Jed grinned at him. “Yep. Got them a few days ago. My contact sold me a few models up on the receivers. Cost a couple thousand more, but worth it.” He was wearing a matching earpiece, which he carefully tucked away under the ski mask, tugging the thick knit cover down over his face. “Remember the plan?”
Redford nodded. He pulled a carefully folded blueprint out of his pocket, giving it a final glance before handing it over to Jed. “You need to follow the yellow line,” he reminded. “It’s the quickest and the safest.”
“Following the yellow brick road, huh, Fido?” Jed smirked, studying the map briefly.
“No, it’s a line marked in yellow highlighter. There’s no brick flooring in the house.” Redford frowned in confusion. “Actually, there’s no yellow brick roads anywhere near here. What—”
“It’s a movie reference, darlin’,” Jed cut in gently, reaching out with a gloved hand to brush some of Redford’s hair from his forehead. There was a fond smile touching the corners of his eyes, the only part of him visible under the mask. “We’ll watch it tomorrow.”
Redford still didn’t get it, but he accepted the explanation. Jed made a lot of movie references, and some of them were very strange. “Okay. Well, the yellow line is the one I’ve marked out. It goes through the back door, through some of the back hallways, and into the room where Mr. Mandic keeps the paintings. I made sure to avoid the rooms where the household staff will be at this time of night.”
A smirk practically radiated from Jed, a quick laugh buried into a snort. Redford didn’t even have to ask what he was laughing about. For some reason, Jed found Mandic’s name to be quite funny. He also had expressed, over and over, his desire to make some reference to the butler doing it. Jed’s sense of humor was… strange, sometimes. Redford did enjoy hearing him laugh, though.
“Got it, Toto.” Jed nodded, tucking yet another gun away, this one hidden in his shoulder holster. “Yellow line all the way to the wizard.” One hand was held up before Redford could form the question. “I know, I know. There’s not actually a wizard. Jesus, sweetheart, we gotta get you some Garland, stat.”
Redford moved closer to the gate they were standing next to. He only gave Jed a brief, mystified glance at his further references. Much more important was handing Jed a small leather case, unfolding it for him. “Lock picks,” he prompted.
Deftly, Jed chose the medium-sized one and went to work, tapping away, twisting his wrist just so. In some of their quiet nights together, over pizza or whatever Redford had cooked for the evening, Jed would sit sprawled out in his lap and show him how to pick locks. It had looked so simple when Jed did it: tiny, graceful movements of his fingers coaxing the pins to release. Except when Redford had tried it, he hadn’t been able to get the practice lock to cooperate at all. It seemed to rely on intuition—the kind he didn’t have. Jed insisted, though, that he had the touch. So, with unwavering faith and a buoyant determination, Jed would bring out those practice locks, easy ones at first, and use his own hands to guide Redford’s. The first time he’d managed to make one click open, Jed had grinned like it was his triumph too.
“Fucking shit in a goddamn motherfucking hole.” Apparently, tonight was not going to be as easy as those lessons. Jed threw down the bent pick in a fit of pique before looking up at Redford, eyes sheepish.
Redford gave a sigh. “I’ll put a new one on the list. It’ll make us a little over budget.”
“It’s not my fault these new boots weren’t on sale,” Jed protested. “How else was I supposed to match tonight?”
Redford snorted quietly, pulling Jed’s “backup plan” box out of his duffel bag. “I’ll expense the broken one. But you get to explain to our customer why you needed it.”
“Done.” Gleefully, Jed took the box, handling it carefully, cradling it like a fussy newborn as he pulled out the low-grade explosives he’d made earlier. “This is much more fun, anyway.” Pressing the compound to the hinges of the gate, Jed set the timer and grabbed Redford’s elbow. They jogged away, Jed throwing them to the ground with urgency, plastering himself over Redford’s body. Jed’s breath was ragged on Redford’s neck, the press of him heavy and solid. Redford braced himself, waiting for the fire and heat of the explosion, wishing that Jed hadn’t felt the need to resort to such unsubtle methods.
Jed loved his explosions. He took any chance he could to blow something up, preferably as violently as possible. Many, many times Redford had witnessed the fire and shockwave of a well-constructed explosive. Redford still got nervous every time, and now he held his breath, waiting.
The compound detonated with a very quiet pop. The gate swung open, barely creaking at the slow movement.
“Oh. That was anticlimactic,” Redford remarked.
“What?” Jed was grinning, Redford could feel it, and there was a very lewd grinding of his hips against Redford’s ass. “Like I was going to miss an opportunity to grope you.” Jumping up, Jed offered his hand to Redford, laughing behind the mask as he helped Redford up. Having his face covered didn’t stop him from leaning in for a kiss, snorting at his mistake when the material got in the way. “Later,” he demanded, backpedaling to the gate, still facing Redford. “I’m going to want that when I get back!”
Redford watched him go for a moment and then muttered into the earpiece, “You are so overdramatic. Good luck.” He dusted off his pants and took a matching blueprint out of his pocket, opening it up. He rested his fingertip on the yellow line, following where Jed would be at that moment.
“Dorothy to Toto. Come in Toto.” Jed’s voice crackled in his ear, and Redford thought he could almost make out a dark figure against the faint, reflective moonlight on the windows of the house, approaching the back doorway.
The code names changed every time. At least this time it wasn’t Sir Sexybutt. Jed was terrible at coming up with names. Redford smiled a little and answered, “Toto here. Are you just testing to see if I’d answer, or do you need something?”
Jed laughed into the mic, but he was otherwise silent. He must be approaching the door. Redford then heard a quiet click, near-silent footsteps—a benefit of the wolf side of him, he supposed. The average person probably couldn’t have picked that up.
Waiting, unseen in the pitch-black shadows the gateway to the mansion created, Redford kept studying the blueprints he held, a map of the huge place, belonging to one Mr. Mandic. Their client, Leonard O’Malley, was paying them to break in and retrieve three highly valued paintings that Mr. Mandic had. Leonard insisted that the man had stolen them for a very unfair price at an auction he’d failed to be there to manage.
Redford thought Leonard shouldn’t complain about something that was his own fault, but it was a job—one that he certainly hadn’t ever imagined himself being involved in. Jed’s line of work was entirely mercenary, though Redford would admit there was a certain thrill to it and a satisfaction that came from planning it just right. It was the kind of rush he would have never been able to experience in his old life.
Over the mic, he heard Jed mutter to himself. More footsteps, a door closing, a rustle that sounded like material being brushed aside. “Just the paintings, Jed,” Redford warned lowly.
Jed grunted something that sounded like “first edition,” but there was a reluctant sigh and the sound of leather scraping back into place. Being inside the mansion of a man who was reputed to be an avid collector was obviously proving a temptation. Redford just hoped Jed could resist. Whatever dubious morals allowed for the “reacquisition” of the paintings probably did not extend to rare books. Even Redford knew that having the police come after them for theft would not be a good outcome of this job.
He continued listening as Jed made his way through the mansion. Occasionally Redford could hear some quiet cursing, some grumbling, not loud enough for even him to make out the words. Following the yellow line on his own map, he could pinpoint when Jed had reached the paintings. The irritated growl gave it away too. There must be extra security on them.
Remaining silent so that he didn’t distract Jed, Redford leaned against the gateway, looking up at the stars again. They were bright this far out in the country, and he could make out the occasional constellation. Around him were the scents of trees and grass, of raccoons and mice. The mansion itself was a miasma of overly expensive food and perfume that just smelled like harsh chemicals to his nose. It was almost relaxing here. Or it would be, if he wasn’t busy being a little nervous about the possibility of Jed being caught.
Thankfully, that didn’t seem fated to happen. Redford could smell him before he saw him, even wolf-sharpened eyes failing to pick out Jed’s camouflaged form against the dark grass until he was closer. There was the creak of the gate, and then Jed was next to him, shoving the tubes, canvases rolled up inside, into Redford’s hands and urging him toward the car.
“Is this like the explosion?” Redford asked, eyebrows hitching upward. “Because you pretty much already played that—”
A beautifully embossed leather book was waved in front of Redford’s nose. A book Jed most certainly had not had before he went into the mansion. Redford sighed heavily and started jogging after Jed toward the car. What was it Jed always said?
At least life isn’t boring when you’re with me!
“AND how does that make you feel?”
Redford stared upward, contemplating the question. The ceiling had exactly eighteen tiles, a pockmarked white plaster that wasn’t all that interesting to look at. He wondered if it had been deliberately made that way to discourage idle study, to instead direct the room’s inhabitants to concentrate on the more pressing matters. There certainly was something of greater importance he should be paying attention to. Unfortunately, it wasn’t anything to do with interior decorating.
“It’s….” Redford took a bracing breath. The ceiling wasn’t offering any answers—that was the job of the man sitting on the couch opposite. Any hopeful looks sent his way, though, were met with an unerringly calm expression. Dr. Max Alona had come highly recommended by David. Good at your sort of thing was the exact phrase he’d used. Though Jed hadn’t been all that thrilled, in the end, it couldn’t hurt to talk to someone. “It makes me feel upset.”
Max nodded, and Redford craned his neck to try to read what Max was writing down in his notepad. He had no such luck, unfortunately. “Definitely upset,” Redford continued. “It just shouldn’t be that way. There’s an order to things. And when that order is broken, I get really nervous. Is that stupid?”
“It’s not stupid to be nervous over what you perceive as chaos, Redford,” Max said gently. “But perhaps we should go back to why you’re here.”
“But Jed really doesn’t put things away,” Redford protested, shifting nervously. “Especially not his clothes. Or the towel. He just leaves everything on the floor after he uses them. It makes the bedroom very difficult to walk through, and the towel starts to smell.” The doctor—the headshrinker, Jed called him, although Redford thought Max’s head was reasonably well proportioned—simply fixed him with a bland, expectant look.
Apparently he should talk about something other than Jed’s tendency to leave piles of clothes and a wet towel lying around. Redford rubbed a hand over his face and avoided Max’s gaze, fixing his own on the floor. Like the ceiling, the floor was also rather boring to look at. He had come here for a reason, but now that he was sitting in this office and being “shrunk,” as Jed put it, he was beginning to feel not so great about this decision. Like he was squirming under a giant microscope with everyone just waiting to find his flaws.
Like he really might be crazy.
“David mentioned you were having dreams?” Max prompted, crossing his legs and leaning back. The doctor was dressed as bland as his office, tan slacks perfectly pressed, a navy sweater that looked like it should be on some department-store mannequin. But he had a friendly face, completely nonjudgmental, and he nodded encouragingly at Redford. The tip of his pen rested against his notepad as he asked, “When did they begin?”
“Um.” Redford glanced up at the doctor, a quick look, then away again, his eyes settling instead on the brightly colored parrot perched on a corner of Max’s desk. Max had introduced the parrot as Rufus. It stared back at him with black eyes, unconcerned about his silly personal issues. He thought it was nice that Max didn’t keep the parrot in a cage, even if it was a bit odd that he took it to work with him. “The dreams aren’t—they’re not why I’m here. Really. I mean I’ve had dreams, but they’re not as important as… the other things.”
Damn it, why had he thought this would be a good idea? Now that he’d come here and sat on the couch, he couldn’t think of a single thing to say that wouldn’t sound absolutely crazy. The kind of crazy that would get him locked up and sedated for the rest of his life.
“I’m hearing voices,” Redford ended up blurting out. Saying the words aloud was not the relief he’d thought it might be. A sick, twisting fear churned in his stomach instead.
For a beat, there was only silence. Max’s pen scratched lightly across the paper before he set the notepad aside with a sigh. It certainly wasn’t the look of disgust that Redford had been expecting. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, smiling faintly when the parrot hopped over and nudged its bright red head against his fingers. “Okay,” Max finally said, fixing pale-blue eyes on Redford. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me about the voices.”
THE sky was very blue outside. Redford squinted as he looked up at it, his eyes still adjusting from the low light of the psychiatrist’s office. He felt wrung out, exhausted—like he’d just taken his mind, shaken it upside down, and held out all the contents for Dr. Alona to examine. But for all of that, he did feel better. Calmer, somewhat. Nothing had been solved, but perhaps it was a start.
Not that the loud shriek of tires and the engine revving helped his almost-Zen state. Shielding his eyes against the sun with his hand, Redford looked out across the parking lot to the road beyond. A motorcycle tore through a red light amidst honks of horns and the cursing of angry drivers. The figure on the bike cheerily flipped off his fans before coming to a screeching halt in front of Redford.
“I’m not late!” Tugging off the helmet, a grin flashing infectiously as his face was revealed, Jed pointed a finger at Redford. “I am not late. You, mister, are early. Right?” Rolling up the sleeve of his leather coat, he peered down at his wrist, groaning theatrically. “Shit. I’m late. I’m so sorry, babe. Knievel wanted to come, and you know how she primps.”
Under the grins and the teasing, Jed’s eyes were worried. The man didn’t trust psychiatrists, apparently, having been through his share after his discharge from the military. David had insisted that Max Alona was the best. Jed had threatened to rip David a new one if that didn’t prove to be true, though Redford had missed the part of the conversation where Jed described exactly what would be torn. He was still wondering about it—how did one rip a new anything?
“You’re a little late, but it’s okay.” Redford smiled, leaning forward to press a light kiss to the corner of Jed’s lips. “The doctor was… helpful. I think.”
A faint frown flickered across Jed’s face, but he hooked Redford in, one hand buried in the hair at the nape of Redford’s neck. This kiss wasn’t light, and it definitely wasn’t appropriate for a public street. But at the end of it, when they pulled away, the tiniest fraction of that pinched concern had faded from Jed’s eyes. “So maybe you won’t wake up snarling at me or go chasing shiny things?” he teased, holding out a second helmet for Redford. “I gotta tell you, I don’t mind the growling one bit. It’s the fear I have that you’re gonna piddle in the corner next time you feel like marking territory.”
“I don’t—no. I’m not going to do that.” Redford frowned, though he was more embarrassed than annoyed at the teasing.
Tapping the top of a modified hard-plastic carrier on the back of the box, Jed smirked. “Ready, ’Nievel?” There was a happy chirping meow in response, and Redford could see Knievel curled up tight, staring out at him with luminescent hazel eyes. Jed had insisted that the cat loved going for rides, and it had been with great pride that he’d brought home a cat carrier designed to fit on the back of his bike. It had slats wide enough for Knievel to see through, and Redford had to admit, she did seem to enjoy her outings. Though it probably had more to do with Jed liking to take the cat out than anything else, as much as he’d protest otherwise.
It was a strange sight. Jed, a man’s man, decked out in leather that was hiding half a dozen weapons, acting like an old cat lady. Jed was an odd dichotomy of a man sometimes. “How about you, darlin’?” Jed drawled, swinging his leg over the seat and holding out a hand for Redford. “You ready to go?”
The smile came back to Redford’s lips again as he grasped Jed’s hand, taking a seat behind him on the motorcycle. He put his helmet on, wrapped his arms around Jed’s waist, getting himself secure. Riding on the motorcycle no longer terrified him, probably because he had been rigorously trained in getting used to Jed’s way of driving. Jed seemed to feel the roads were a war zone, and every single car was an enemy that must be overtaken, swerved around, or cursed at. Sometimes all three at once.
“Ready,” Redford confirmed. He reached out and smoothed a hand over Knievel’s carrier, making sure she was secure too. Before Jed revved the engine back to life, Redford lifted his visor briefly to press his lips to the back of Jed’s neck. It was a silly routine, perhaps, started on a whim. Now Redford couldn’t imagine going anywhere without the little touch. He couldn’t see Jed smile, but he could feel it in the relaxing of the muscles in his shoulders, the way the worried burnt-wood edges of his scent lessened. The engine roared, and they took off toward home.
A voice in the back of his head rustled and whispered, NoWolf-Journey-Jed happy?
Redford gritted his teeth and tried to ignore it, but he couldn’t help muttering into the back of Jed’s jacket, “Don’t call him Journey.” Thankfully for his perceived sanity, the wind rushing past their ears meant Jed didn’t hear that. He probably would have agreed, however. “Journey Walker” was, apparently, a hippie name and not suitable for a man who thought fried bologna sandwiches were a national treasure and explosions were a perfectly acceptable way to end a dispute. Redford sometimes wondered what kind of parents would give a name like that, or if Jed’s hatred of it came from more than aesthetics. Conversations like that weren’t really Jed’s strong point. Redford wasn’t even sure if Jed’s parents were alive, dead, or simply gone.
Four months ago, he and Jed had stumbled their way home from the hospital after killing Filtiarn, the Lord of Wolves, the twisted man that had tried to take Redford and make him into something new. A real wolf, Fil had said, one able to change at will, not just a half-breed werewolf. He had injected Redford with his blood, but the ritual had not been finished. Though Redford had soon discovered he could then shift to wolf at any time, he hadn’t thought much about any further consequences of that failed ritual.
Then, on the next full moon, the voices had started.
They’d been whispers at first, things that Redford ignored, thinking they were just his own mind taking unexpected turns in thought. But they’d grown stronger. Then he’d started waking up not quite himself. Yesterday morning, barely squinting through that hazy, half-asleep state, he had bolted out of bed and sprinted through the door to chase down a squirrel he had seen from the window. Jed had not been happy, since half of the bedsheets had still been tangled up in Redford’s legs and, consequently, were dragged down the hall and out into the street. Redford had been even less thrilled about his excursion once he had come to his senses, half-dressed and finding himself barking up a tree on a street corner. Their neighbors had not reacted positively.
One of the voices—the squirrel-chasing one—seemed mostly benign. It happily called Jed its own odd nickname and was content to get distracted by moving objects. The other was less so. The other was the reason Redford had been waking up snarling, had felt a flash of much more than jealousy when men had gotten too close to Jed. It wasn’t mere jealousy that had Redford biting back the urge to rip out throats.
Dr. Alona had told him that he thought the voices were a manifestation of the wolf side of him. He’d reassured Redford that he was not going crazy, but it sure felt like it. He still had no clue what to do about it, how to make them stop.
“You still in there, sweetheart?”
Redford blinked, dragging himself out of his thoughts to find Jed lightly tapping on the side of his helmet, worry scrunching up the corners of his eyes, a hopeful little smile attempting to be a smirk tugging up his lips. “Earth to Fido. We gonna sit here all day?” They were parked on the street in front of the apartment building, Jed twisted around to half face Redford, his helmet already tucked under his arm.
Tugging his helmet off, Redford rubbed a hand over his eyes, trying to get himself back to reality. Talking with Dr. Alona had just made him worry more, not less. It wasn’t exactly the result that Redford had been hoping for.
“Sorry. My head was in the clouds,” Redford offered apologetically. He got up off the bike and handed his helmet to Jed, freeing up his hands to take Knievel’s carrier. She glowered at him, gifting him with an annoyed-sounding meow. “I know. I’m sorry, ride’s over.” Redford gave Jed an amused glance as he picked the carrier up, being careful not to jostle the cat too much.
A clank sounded from within the carrier. Redford frowned in confusion, holding it up to peer through the slats. “Jed, you can’t keep a knife in the cat carrier,” he exclaimed, appalled.
“Says you,” Jed returned easily. The helmets were stowed, and Jed stole the carrier away from Redford with a kiss to his cheek, his arm wrapping around Redford’s waist as they walked upstairs. “Knievel likes a little security, don’t you, baby? Besides, it’s in a buttoned sheath, all nice and childproof.”
The cat’s purring seemed loud enough to validate that statement. Redford just huffed quietly, amused despite himself. “So Knievel likes security, but the knife is sheathed? She has paws, Jed. Not thumbs.”
“You’d better watch out, Fido.” Jed was grinning at him devilishly, eyebrows waggling as he unlocked the door to the apartment. “You’ll hurt her feelings, insulting her capabilities like that. And I will not be responsible when she shivs you.” Handing the carrier back, Jed slipped the gun out from the small of his back, quickly and handily doing a sweep of the place before he nodded for Redford to come in. No matter what was going on, how long they’d been gone, or the fact that he had more locks than door, Jed always checked the place. Redford had to wonder when that habit had started—or if Jed would ever feel safe enough to just walk into his home like a normal person.
Shaking herself off as she was released from the carrier, Knievel wound her way around both of their legs before hopping onto the counter and meowing plaintively. Despite the full food bowl, it was clear the cat was starving to death, right that very minute, and the only way to fix it was to have some of the real meat she knew they kept in the fridge. Then again, Jed was giving Redford the same look, so perhaps it was catching.
“You feed your demanding cat. I want to go collapse on the couch for a bit.” Redford sighed, making his way over to the couch. It was hard to breathe as he flopped face-first into the cushions, but the darkness it provided for his vision was somewhat relaxing. “I’ll cook in a while,” he continued, voice muffled into the couch cushion.
There was the distinct noise of the fridge opening and closing, of Jed moving around in the kitchen. A can was opened, there was the rustle of water, and then a cool rag was pressed to the back of Redford’s neck. “How about we order in,” Jed suggested quietly, running his free hand through Redford’s hair. “And you just relax. I gave her royal highness some tuna, so she’s living the good life. Maybe tonight you don’t worry about us, okay?”
“I always worry about you,” Redford mumbled. The cool cloth was doing wonders for the tension headache that had been starting to creep up the back of his neck. He was thinking too hard, he knew that was the problem, but he couldn’t seem to stop doing it. “Dr. Alona says I might not be crazy after all.”
A loud snort sounded, and Redford sensed Jed settling in, sitting on the floor next to the couch. His fingertips were making light circles against Redford’s scalp, a bit awkwardly, as if Jed was making it all up as they went along. “’Course you’re not crazy,” he said stubbornly, voice hard, almost like he could convey through tone that if Jed Walker said so, then it must be true. “It’s that bastard, King Psychopants McFurlord and whatever he shot into you.” A low growl then, Jed’s whole body tightening. “Fucker. If I could kill him again, I would.”
Redford smiled against the couch cushions. He rolled onto his side and, finding that not comfortable either, shifted to sit cross-legged. “King Psychopants McFurlord? I thought his name was Filtiarn,” he said lightly.
Jed had never, not once, thought he was crazy. About this, at least. Yes, okay, Jed might have thought a crazy ward was warranted when Redford had first told him about being a werewolf, but then Jed had seen the evidence with his own eyes. Even before, though, he hadn’t thrown Redford out, hadn’t done anything but bullheadedly stick by Redford, no matter what. That hadn’t changed with the emergence of the voices and Redford’s sudden proclivity for acting a little weird at times.
Redford was more grateful than words could convey. It meant everything to him that Jed was willing to stay around and be with him, even if Redford didn’t think he was exactly the picture of sanity right now.
“I’ll have to thank David for the recommendation,” Redford added. He moved a hand to Jed’s shoulder, fingers digging lightly into the muscles there. “How was your day?”
Jed snorted lightly, but his whole body shifted back into Redford’s hands. “I didn’t shoot anyone,” he offered with a smirk, tipping his head back to look up at Redford. “And I missed you. So all in all, I’m glad it’s over.”
This would be the right moment to say the rest of it. To talk about the session, his fears about what the failed ritual had done to him. Or he could lean forward and catch that smirk with a kiss, smiling himself at the way Jed just melted back into him. This was better, just like this, to forget that there were rooms with pockmarked white ceilings where Redford had talked about voices in his head he didn’t understand. It was easier not to stutter and stammer his way through a hesitant explanation, to remind Jed that Redford might just be too broken to fix.
“No shooting people? Sounds like an uneventful day,” Redford murmured.
“You have no idea.” Jed’s lips trailed down Redford’s jaw, teeth catching gently at his throat. “I almost died of boredom. It was a sorry sight to see.”
Redford laughed quietly and sank down to sit on the floor next to Jed, wrapping an arm about his back. He leaned his cheek against Jed’s shoulder, letting his eyes fall closed as he relaxed further. It was difficult to get the psychiatrist visit out of his mind, but it was easier with Jed by his side—Jed was a very good distraction.
His life before Jed had been silent and solitary. Redford had lived with one foot permanently in the basement cage where he changed into a mindless, violent creature every full moon, his entire life revolving around it. He’d thought of nothing else, lived nothing else. Now his days were full of warm light and Jed’s rumbling voice, windows where he could see the world passing by, and the kind of companionship he’d never dared to hope he would have. Jed had saved him, in more ways than one.
“So, Chinese?” he asked, nudging his chin against Jed’s shoulder. “We should order in. Where’s the phone?”
“Oh, no, baby.” Jed smirked, kissing the top of his head and wiggling a bit to shimmy his cell phone out of his back pocket. He really did have pants that were tighter than strictly normal. Redford wondered sometimes if that was helpful to him in his work, but he wouldn’t deny that he liked the sight that Jed presented. “I’m taking care of you tonight, remember? Just you watch me work my magic.”
Unsurprisingly, Jed had all of his favorite carryout places on speed dial. He flipped through to the right number and dialed, shifting a little so he could loop his arm around Redford in return. Jed’s fingers played up under Redford’s shirt, painting circles against the warm skin at the small of his back, and he grinned into the phone. “Hey, Jimmy. It’s your favorite customer. You guys ready for this? I’m starving.” Six main dishes and an assortment of sides an entire army might find difficult finishing off later, and Jed tossed the phone aside and turned so he could get both arms around Redford, hauling him up into Jed’s lap. “Thirty minutes or less. So beats cooking.”
Gladly settling in on Jed’s legs, Redford pressed his forehead to Jed’s and placed a light kiss on the bridge of his nose. “Sounds good,” he murmured. “No dishes either.” Jed was terrible at doing dishes, as well as doing laundry. Or cleaning of any sort. But that was another way that Redford thought they fit, right then—Redford quite liked cleaning. Even if their one towel did sometimes get a bit musty on the floor. “Does that mean in thirty minutes I’m going to have to move?”
“Not if I have anything to say about it.” Jed had been thoroughly absorbed in a case for the past week, spending several sleepless nights poring over his maps, talking to contacts on the phone, hauling home mysterious crates filled with weapons, the kind that Redford had only seen in the explosion-filled action movies that Jed was overly fond of. It felt like it had been a very long time since they’d just sat together without Jed looking at a map over his shoulder or peppering the conversation with idle musings about how much dynamite it would take to blow up a thirty-story building.
Jed was incredibly dedicated to his work. At first, what had seemed like a complete mystery to Redford was now something he was beginning to understand. Jed had been teaching him things: how to use a gun properly, how to track people through paperwork, how to read maps. Redford had, very recently, even taken over the administrative duties. Jed, it turned out, was absolutely useless when it came to tracking profits and expenses. He just kept talking about making enough to take a fishing vacation, as if that was the benchmark for how much he should charge. The first case Redford had helped with, Jed had been thrilled at the thought of charging the customer for all the C4 he’d ordered. And had promptly doubled the order. They were still working out the kinks.
They worked in insurance fraud, item recovery, with the occasional kidnapping recovery thrown in if Jed felt like the pay was enough. Redford wasn’t too happy that Jed still killed people for money—there were some who deserved it, in his mind, others that definitely did not, but he hadn’t brought that topic of discussion up with Jed yet.
Maybe someday he would. When he wasn’t still half-scared that raising his opinion to Jed, or to anybody, would make them leave him.
“So, I finished that job today,” Jed brought up casually. He’d been absorbed in trailing fingertips along Redford’s shoulder, down the slope of his arm, smiling slightly at the goose bumps left in the wake of his touch. “We’ve got some cash in the bank, thanks to my brilliant new partner.” Here Jed leaned up to kiss Redford slowly, lips curved up into a smile that Redford found impossible not to mirror. “I think we should finally get that trip in. Come on, what do you say? Change of scenery, maybe a nice cabin by a lake somewhere? We could fish, lay out in the sun, and drink beer. Knievel would be in heaven.”
Redford muffled his laugh against Jed’s shoulder. “You’d take Knievel on a fishing trip? I’m beginning to think you’ve got the soul of an old cat lady.”
Jed pulled back, an overexaggerated, wounded expression on his face. “What are you even talking about? Of course we’d take ’Nievel. Do you have any idea how much she’d bitch at us if we went on a trip without her?” His eyes narrowed and he leaned forward, fingers slipping upward to tickle along Redford’s ribs at the same time as his teeth caught the slope of Redford’s neck, just hard enough to make the skin flush. “And why don’t you say that again, Mr. Cooked Extra Turkey For The Cat?”
Trying to look a little shifty was difficult when a grin was threatening to emerge, but Redford attempted nonetheless. Jed’s fingers were alarmingly close to the extremely ticklish part of his ribs, but he held firm. “You,” he said deliberately, “are an old cat lady. Cooking extra turkey is nothing, compared.”
His world shifted, and Redford found himself on the couch after Jed hauled him up and threw him there, fingers digging mercilessly into his ribs. The sound that Redford made was, in his own opinion, a horribly embarrassing shriek of laughter, louder than he’d ever laughed before. “Jed! Don’t—don’t you dare, stop tickling me—” There was no mercy to be found from Jed, however. He was laughing too, expression lit up in a grin of fiendish amusement.
“Oh, no, Fido,” he crowed triumphantly, straddling Redford’s hips so he could get a better tickling angle. “I warned you! There are no cat ladies here!”
Struggling was little help, but Redford tried nonetheless, trying to get his own hand up to Jed’s waist. There was a spot just above his hip that Redford wanted to exploit, but it was difficult to get any kind of coordination when he was laughing so hard that his stomach was beginning to hurt. “Jed! You evil—” He broke off into laughter again, so distracted that he didn’t notice the rustle at the back of his mind, something stretching out and baring its fangs.
A bestial snarl ripped its way from Redford’s throat, and a growl of “Journey has not proved himself yet!” He lunged, clamping one of Jed’s wandering hands between his teeth, biting down. It wasn’t the soft throat that the Other wanted, but he shook his head nonetheless, tugging, drawing blood, another rumbling growl sounding in the back of his throat.
There was a loud curse, Jed yelping in surprised pain, the laughter dying from the air. A struggle then, Jed trying to get free, an almost panicked “Red?” lost in another startled sound of agony. There was the tang of blood in Redford’s mouth, skin tearing, and then Jed fell away, holding his hand to his chest. In the air, the scent of fear was strong and bitter.
Jed was scared of him.
The red haze of fury lifted itself from Redford’s vision, his thoughts clearing. The other presence faded, but the growling remained. He lifted his eyes to look at Jed. Vivid red bloomed across his shirt, dripping from his palm down to the floor. Ragged breaths panted from Jed, and he stared at Redford, wide-eyed. For a long few moments, Redford couldn’t quite comprehend what had just happened, like his memory had been blurred and scattered.
“Red?” Jed’s voice again, worry peaking the sound of his name, something Jed had said a thousand times, a thousand different ways. It’d never sounded quite like that, though. There was pain there, under the words, as well as the fear that still hung, acrid, in the air. “Red, come on, baby. Are you okay? Please, talk to me.”
Redford used that voice like an anchor, blinking slowly, trying to sort out his muddled thoughts. “Jed, what… what did I do?” The blood caught his attention again, and horror made for a sour taste at the back of his throat. “Oh, God, Jed—I’m so sorry. I didn’t—that wasn’t me.” He scrambled up off the couch, grabbing a nearby discarded shirt, one of Jed’s, to wrap around Jed’s hand, trying to staunch the flow of blood. “Is it bad? Do you need stitches?”
“Hey,” Jed said, catching Redford’s chin to force the man’s eyes up away from the mangled mess of his palm. The pain had faded, and now the cool green depths stared calmly at Redford, assessing him, studying his face intently. “I’m fine. It’s just a bite. I’ll clean it out and it’ll be fine. Stop for a minute, babe.” Gently, Jed tugged Redford to sit. Redford went with him numbly, shocked, only vaguely feeling the fingers on Jed’s uninjured hand trailing along his jaw before he hooked a strand of Redford’s hair behind his ear. “Are you okay?” he asked again, insistent. “For a minute there….”
Trailing off, Jed laughed shortly. The sound wasn’t like the laughter of before; there was no joy or mirth in it at all. “I thought I lost you.” The admission didn’t appear to come easily for Jed, and he leaned forward, nudging his forehead against Redford’s. “You got really wolfy there.” Redford didn’t understand how Jed could be so calm and helpful after he’d just bitten Jed. The only good thing he could think of was that David had confirmed, a few months ago, that werewolf bites were only contagious on the full moon.
That was one positive thing. One thing, amongst a whole mess of very bad things that had just happened.
“I’ll help you clean your hand,” Redford mumbled, getting up off the couch again. He could taste Jed’s blood on his teeth, and it made him feel sick. The presence, the Other, had enjoyed it. Taking Jed’s other hand, Redford pulled lightly. “Bathroom?”
A faint frown flickered over Jed’s expression, and for a moment, Redford was certain he was going to push to do the whole talking thing. But in the end, he simply stood and followed behind him, grumbling under his breath about how fine he was. The bite was deep, though, as they discovered once Redford started washing it out under the tap. Jed turned an odd green-tinged pale when pressure was put on it.
“Get me my whiskey bottle,” Jed said, sagging to sit on the edge of the bathtub, his hand still held over the sink. Blood was making a Rorschach blot test on the white porcelain. “And the first-aid kit under the couch.”
Redford nodded shakily as he left the bathroom. The whiskey was easily found—easier to find than the first-aid kit—but he had to stop for a moment in the dim light of the kitchen, one hand gripping the neck of the bottle, trying to take deep breaths. Every breath carried with it the scent of Jed’s blood, strong and still bleeding, and the smell of it made nausea roll in Redford’s stomach. He’d done that. Something had fractured in his mind, and he’d bitten Jed so hard that he was still bleeding.
Dr. Alona was wrong. He was crazy. This wasn’t normal.
“Red?” Jed’s voice cut through his thoughts, the man leaning over to peer out at him through the bathroom doorway. “Stop it. I can hear you thinking from here. So don’t even go there, okay? Just bring me that damn kit.”
Jed’s cell phone rang, loud and harsh in the quiet of their apartment. Redford jumped, his heart skipping a beat at the sudden intrusion.
“And my phone! The kit and my phone, Red! And the goddamn whiskey!”