TEMPLE CHEVALIER pulled his uniform collar tight. The bruises around his neck hadn’t faded, and there was no sense in giving his new partner the impression he was a sloppy fighter. It wasn’t his fault a snow demon tried to strangle him; that’s how his luck had been running. Temple couldn’t be sure he hadn’t rushed into danger to punish himself for what happened to Li. Fastening his collar, he stared at his reflection. He didn’t know if he was ready for another partner. He still missed Fu Li in so many ways. Fu Li had been one of the best warriors Temple had ever seen. Could his new partner hold a candle to Li?
It hadn’t helped that General Taglioferro had impressed upon Temple the need to be on his best behavior when he met his partner. Why the warning? Was the man overly serious like Temple’s father? Their team already had Agni for that. Was he like Temple and Agni, and from a family with generations of history in demon hunting and lorded it over everyone? Or could it simply be the new guy wasn’t a queer like the rest of the team?
Temple took a picture of Li and him off the mantle, releasing a hint of bayberry as his fingers brushed the Christmas candles. Looking from the photo and all the memories it evoked to the Christmas tree in the corner near his sofa, Temple knew he still had to get through his favorite holiday without his lover. Even with Agni and Caleb at his side, it would be so hard. He set the frame back on the mantle. Whoever the new guy was, he wouldn’t be Li.
Preparing to leave his little apartment within the walls of the Order of the Sun, Temple nearly slammed into his teammates Caleb and Agni. Caleb had his hand raised, presumably to knock. Temple eyed them sourly. “What are you two doing?”
“Taglioferro asked us along to meet your new partner,” Caleb replied, running his sword-calloused hand over his slicked-back blond hair. The gesture made Temple a little dry mouthed. Shaking the dirty thoughts out, Temple realized it made sense his teammates had joined him. Caleb was the team leader, after all. Surely he needed to be there.
“And since you’d be late to your own funeral, we’re here to hurry you up.” Agni made hurry-along motions exaggerated by the newspaper he had in hand—Temple’s paper, which he’d forgotten to pick up. Agni handed it to him. Temple set it on the door-side table, but not before he saw the headline about a couple of deaths of desperate men who’d died after drinking radiator fluid down at the Mon wharf. They had pulled out the potato they were using to detoxify the alcohol a little too soon. Under that was an article about another demon attack on a speakeasy. Hadn’t he and Caleb just cleared a speakeasy the other night?
“You’ll notice I am on time,” Temple grumbled, trying to lock his door. After a few moments of fussing with the key, a metallic clank echoed down the hall, telling him he was doomed. “Damn it, it broke again. Why do we have to live in such falling-down housing?”
“The building has been here a century. It’s bound to have problems.” Caleb shrugged. “Come on. I’m excited to meet our new teammate.”
“I’m nervous,” Temple said, walking down the old stone corridors. The Soldiers of the Sun’s complex had been built with castles in mind, well-fortified but dark and cold. “How do I explain what happened to my last partner?”
Caleb shot him a look. “It’s not your fault Li died.”
Did Caleb think Temple blamed himself? Of course he did. Temple had said it more than once. Li had been the love of his life, and Temple watched him bleed to death. Caleb probably worried Temple wasn’t dealing with his guilt. His partners knew him pretty well, but he wished they were easier to hoodwink. He wasn’t well. The closeness he’d felt since all of them had become lovers was good, but it never lasted.
“We were outnumbered,” Caleb said as he opened the exterior door. The wind caught them in its maw, blasting through the open door. The sulfurous stench of the steel mills rode the frigid air.
“Then why does it feel like it is?” As Temple’s shoulders slumped, Caleb favored him with a sharp look. Agni’s face was inscrutable as always. After a brief silence broken only by the whistle of the wind through the buildings, Temple said, “Taglioferro is an understanding guy. He knows what we get up to, but it’s not always easy to find someone with our talents who wouldn’t want to beat us for being shirt lifters.”
“Mostly it means we have to be discreet,” Agni said, turning his cool gaze on Temple. After a second his nose wrinkled. “You’re right. You have a problem.”
Temple made a face. “Go to hell.” He fell silent as they walked across the courtyard. Fu Li had been his partner for years, and while Temple had seen other teammates die—demon hunting was treacherous work—none of them had been his lover. Li had, and in spite of his new three-way relationship with Caleb and Agni, Temple still felt Li’s loss keenly. What he had with his other teammates was more superficial, after all, just sex, no hearts. Temple thought Fu would be his partner for life. Even though his mind had known there was always a chance one of them would be killed in the line of duty, his heart had refused to entertain that idea. Temple knew he should’ve been the one to die. His brother, Leon, always said he was useless. Li should still be here, going with Caleb and Agni to meet their new partner.
Agni and Caleb let him have his peace as they made their way into Taglioferro’s office. The older Italian general, leader of their section of Soldiers, was a short, stocky man with walnut hair going steadily iron gray. Few demon hunters managed to live into their fifties, usually only the best and the luckiest. Embodying both, Taglioferro was a natural leader. He was fiddling with the steam heat when they came in.
“Have a seat, boys.” He gestured to the utilitarian chairs he had in his office. Taglioferro leaned against his desk, his eyes on Temple as they shucked out of their winter camel-hair coats. “Your new partner is only temporary.”
“Oh?” Temple scowled, not sitting down. Neither did his teammates. Did he mishear Taglioferro’s thick accent? Did Taglioferro already suspect this was going to be a bad match? If so, why rush to partner him up? Did the new soldier already have complaints based on some rumor? Maybe Taglioferro no longer had faith in him after Li’s death. Did he think Temple was a lost cause? “Why?”
“No other place to put Jo, my sister’s kid,” Taglioferro replied. “You be on your best behavior, Chevalier. I know that’s not going to afford me much, but it bears repeating.”
“Hey, I’m good,” Temple protested while his teammates snickered. He twisted around, trying to silence them with a glare, but only made it worse. He turned back to his boss. “Joe?”
“Jo Allegri.” Taglioferro turned, looking back at the door in the far corner of the office. “Jo, come on out and meet your team.”
A young woman with curly, unruly hair cut—or more likely bobby pinned—into an ill-suited bob entered the room. She wore the Sunner’s blue wool uniform, the formal version with a long skirt. Her jacket’s yellow sun emblem had been stitched at the points with sparkling crystals. Her hat was nowhere in sight, but Temple didn’t blame her. He didn’t like it either.
Temple cocked his head to the side. “Dollface, I think you lost your soldier somewhere. Where’d you leave that poor cat?”
Behind him Taglioferro chuckled softly. Temple turned his head, looking at him, as were his teammates.
She grinned, opening her suit jacket to reveal a shoulder holster on either arm. “I’m Jo, well, Guiseppina, but everyone calls me Jo.”
Temple’s jaw dropped. “But you’re a dame!”
“Nice of you to notice.” Jo closed her jacket. It wasn’t enough to hide her bosoms. They were fine bosoms, and Temple knew his boss probably thought he was staring at them. Taglioferro knew Temple liked girls as much as he did guys. “There weren’t any open teams in the ladies’ division, so Uncle Vincenzo put me here for now.”
“I did say it was temporary,” Taglioferro reminded them.
Too stunned to do anything else, Temple shrugged. At least it wasn’t a lack of faith in him by his general. He didn’t know what might happen with this, but it might be better than getting some cat who could have a problem with him being queer. Temple held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Jo. I’m assuming with those guns you’re an Annie Oakley.”
Jo tapped the pistol’s butt. “You better believe it.”
“I use a tommy gun, usually.” Sweeping his hand back, Temple added, “These are our teammates, Caleb Davies and Agni Pradesh.” Temple had no idea what to do with a lady partner, but the stare Caleb favored her with—his full lips slightly parted—and the way he hesitated—hand only half raised—told Temple that Caleb was as out to sea as he was.
Agni bowed to Jo, hands clasped chest high. “Namaste.” Leave it to Agni to take it in stride and with fine manners.
While she shook their hands, Taglioferro put his hand on Temple’s shoulder. “That’s my niece,” he said, giving him a look that said he’d be dead if he turned on his usual charms.
“I’ll do my best to keep her safe from the demons,” Temple promised.
“To hell with demons. Jo can handle herself. I know you, Temple. Why don’t you concentrate on your other… friends?” Taglioferro’s fingers dug into Temple’s flesh. “Touch my niece, and I’ll castrate you. Understand?”
Temple widened his eyes. That didn’t sound like a hollow threat. “Yes, sir,” he said as sincerely as he could.
Taglioferro patted Temple’s cheek. “Good boy.” He turned away from Temple and waved to Jo. “Let’s go get you settled in, Jo. You can get to know your teammates later. I have the files for your first mission. We’ll have a team meeting and go over them at fourteen hundred hours. We might have demons infiltrating high society in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Jo followed her uncle out after he cautioned Temple’s team to pull his door shut when they left.
“He said he was going to castrate me if I touched his niece!” Temple blurted out as his partners nearly doubled over, laughing at him. “I can’t believe that he partnered me with a bird,” he moaned.
“I can’t either. We all know what you’re like. You’re going to look stupid neutered.” Caleb wagged his head.
“He will get fat and doughy. With his coloration he will look like a plump snowman with a bloody head,” Agni said, rubbing his chin.
“I’m ignoring you.” Temple sighed. “A girl…. This is never going to work.”
“DOES MOM know you’ve partnered me with three guys?” Jo tossed all the clothes out of her suitcase onto her new bed. She was housed in the women’s wing, at least. Men could be nothing but a real pain.
“She knows. She isn’t happy, but she knows.” Uncle Vincenzo’s broad shoulders rose and fell. “I’ll put you on a woman’s team as soon as there’s an opening.”
Jo scowled, getting the metal hangers out of her closet. That meant one of two things: either the Soldiers got three fresh lady recruits, or someone died, opening up a space. She bet on the latter.
“Agni and Caleb should be no problem,” Uncle Vincenzo said, sitting on the bed in a spot clear of her belongings. “They are gentlemen.”
“But you partnered me with the one you worry about?” She arched an eyebrow at her uncle.
“His partner died. Temple is… friendly, if you know what I mean. The other girls will surely fill you in if you don’t.” A hint of a blush colored her uncle’s cheeks.
“I get it. He’s a cad. I have a plan, Uncle. I’m going to be the first female general in the Soldiers of the Sun. I don’t need any messy relationships getting in my way.” Jo picked up one of her blouses and jammed the hanger through the neckline. “Besides, that’s what a tin of lifesavers is for.”
“Guiseppina! Does your mother know you even know what condoms are?”
She couldn’t entirely hold in the laugh spurred on by her uncle’s fire-truck-red face. “Who do you think told me about them? Surely not Dad. He still thinks I’m ten and want a baby doll for Christmas. He’s bewildered I asked for a Colt 1911 under the tree next week. It hasn’t registered yet that I’m a soldier like Mom.”
Uncle Vincenzo snorted. “Poor man.”
Jo hung the shirt in the closet. “Besides, Temple’s a redhead. I’m not sure that does anything for me. I like dark hair, like Agni’s. Now he’s cute.”
“He’s already spoken for, I believe.” Uncle Vincenzo wagged a finger at her.
She laughed again. “I’ll keep my hands off all of them. That’ll be jake, right?”
He nodded. “That’s the best idea.”
She picked up a skirt to hang. She eyed her closet critically. Most of it was nothing but blue wool and combat boots. She did have a few pairs of trousers she loved to wear with her crisp buttoned-down shirts. Jo wasn’t a fan of fancy dresses, but necessity mandated she owned a couple of dresses and a pair of heels for those times she had to act like a lady. Sadly it reminded her more of her snippy cousins who couldn’t see demons. Their empty heads echoed with thoughts of young men. They’d be the ones for Temple’s rumored charms, at least until they realized his job meant more than them.
Speaking of the job, it was time to ask the question she truly needed answered. “Tell me about Temple. How did his partner die?”
“Bad intelligence. We were told there was only one demon in the town, and I sent in their team with no backup. There were far more demons than just one. I’m lucky I didn’t lose them all.” Uncle Vincenzo rubbed the bridge of his nose, and he seemed to age before her eyes. “Temple and Li were partners in England before they were shipped here. I think they’d been partners since he was sixteen or seventeen years old. He’s pretending he’s all right, but I know he’s taking Li’s death hard.”
Jo frowned. “That’s sad.”
“That’s part of this life.” He sighed. “I wish you and your mother couldn’t see the demons.”
She paused in hanging the skirt. “Because we’re women?”
Uncle Vincenzo turned his face away. “Women shouldn’t have to fight like this.”
Jo left the closet to kiss his forehead. “Women are capable of dealing with hardships. The Soldiers of the Sun have trusted our fighting skills for centuries, and the rest of the world is finally seeing we’re not fainting Friedas. We’ve even had the vote for a little over a decade.”
He rolled his eyes. “What a suffragette you’d have made.”
“If you want women to do nothing but the cooking, sewing, and secretarial work around the headquarters, then you should go sign up with the Knights Templar.” Jo laughed. “I warn you now: I’m a lousy secretary. Pounding on those typewriter keys gives my trigger finger cramps.”
“You may have to cramp up, then. Temple is terrible at filling out reports. Sometimes he does them in French to see if I’ll get mad enough to let him out of doing them.” Uncle Vincenzo patted her arm, his expression turning serious. “I wish no one could see past the demon facade. I wish there were no demons walking this earth, but since we’ve been fighting them since the beginning of time, I don’t see 1931 being the lucky year when it all goes away.”
“Buck up, it’ll be 1932 in a few days. Maybe you’ll get lucky then.” Jo patted his arm, going back to making her new apartment feel more like home.
“Don’t I wish. I’ll let your teammates fill you in more about Li. All I want to be sure of is that you don’t fall for Temple’s charms. Also there might be more than a few young ladies jealous of your position around here. They’d love to be partnered with Temple, which is why they aren’t.”
“Caleb is the leader of your group, so mind him.”
“And if there are any problems, you come see me.”
Jo nodded, thinking she could deal with problems on her own. “I will.”
Her uncle got up and gave her a hug. “I know you’ll do me proud.”
She squeezed him back. “Thanks.”
“WHAT DO you think of having a female partner?” Agni handed Caleb a mug of the chai he’d made on the stovetop. The battered old oven didn’t want to give up enough gas to even boil water. Caleb would need to put in a work order.
Caleb sipped the sweet and spicy tea before answering. “It’s certainly unorthodox. We’ve worked with women’s teams before, and I know they can fight. They’re just not as good at the up-close fighting, for the most part.”
“Not going to be a problem if Jo is as good with her guns as she says she is.” Agni sat next to Caleb on his couch. Even if he rarely admitted it, he loved the quiet times when he could simply sit and relax with Caleb.
“If she’s Taglioferro’s niece, she will be. His sister is in the Order too.” Caleb pulled a long face. “Though it does leave two long-distance fighters paired up. I suppose you and I are two up-close fighters.”
“We usually work as a foursome. Li was an up-close warrior as well. It’ll work out,” Agni said. “We might even be more balanced this way when we’re working as a team.”
Caleb nodded, his face settling into worried lines. “I’m more worried about Temple than anything else. He says he’s fine. We know he’s not. We probably shouldn’t have done what we did when we got snowed in on Mount Washington last week.”
Agni considered that. He wasn’t entirely sure they could have said no to Temple, even though he had to agree with Caleb. It had been too soon after Li’s death for Temple to be involved with anyone new. At the time he had considered the idea, it was good for Temple to have what he had so desperately wanted. Who knew what might have happened if the younger man tried to find solace elsewhere? “We’re his partners. We protect him. Once he starts to heal, I don’t expect he’ll need to be with us.”
Caleb frowned, sipping his tea. “And if he does?”
“You were the one who asked me to make this threesome with Temple.” Agni drummed a finger on Caleb’s knee. “I assumed you wanted to be with him.”
“I was a bit swept up in the moment.” Caleb paused, his eyes not quite meeting Agni’s. “I love you. I guess I worry how you’d feel if Temple was in our bed long-term.”
“I know you love me.” Agni put his hand over Caleb’s, his lover’s skin looking so pale next to his. “Temple is hurting and needs us. I’m not the jealous type. I’ve told you that before. If Temple wants to remain with us as our lover, it’s not a bad thing. He’s a lot of fun in bed. Quite enthusiastic.”
Caleb laughed. “I’m half-afraid that enthusiasm is going to lead to an embarrassing injury for one or more of us. I’d hate to have to explain to Doctor Fletcher how we managed to do such damage.”
Agni gritted his teeth, saying, “I hadn’t thought of that. Temple is rather clumsy when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. Hopefully nothing will happen that can’t be explained away by an accident while sparring.”
“Let’s hope.” Caleb took another deep swallow of tea before adding, “I really am worried, though. Temple is suppressing his emotions. He loved Li. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and it’s going to be bad no matter what Temple says.”
“And his new partner will be poor comfort. He could just see her as an unfortunate replacement for Li. And if he thinks she might be more comforting to him because she’s a girl, there’s the whole issue of her being the general’s niece. We can’t let him do anything stupid. I’m trusting Jo will not be all that willing with someone she just met.”
“Probably not. It’s up to us to help him. We’ll just not leave him alone tomorrow and Christmas Day.”
“I’m willing to go to a Christmas service with you both,” Agni said, figuring his own gods would not mind. They seemed slightly more open-minded than the one Caleb and Temple followed.
Grimacing, Agni said, “Please do not call it that in front of Temple. I’d prefer him to think I’m grumpy. It makes dealing with him easier.”
“Until he decides that it’s up to him to cheer you up.”
Agni had to concede Caleb’s point. Leaning against Caleb shoulder, he considered what they’d gotten themselves into, not just with Temple, but now with Jo too. It would be tricky having a partner who didn’t and couldn’t know they were homosexuals. Since this team had been put together, they had been two couples, and the generals who assembled them knew that. Taglioferro probably took that into account when he considered a safe place for his niece. Temple alone had any interest in wooing women. “True. It’s going to be an interesting time with this new partner.”
“I hope interesting is all it is.”
TEMPLE STARED at his Christmas tree, practically invisible under the sheer weight of the tinsel, icicles, and ornaments he had put on it. In years past Li had helped him, pretending not to understand the whole idea. The gifts he and Li were meant to exchange rested under the tree, bought just before Li’s death. He couldn’t look at them, but he knew they were there, mocking him.
“Damn you, Li,” he rasped. “Why did you have to die?”
He couldn’t really let himself think about it. The pain echoed in his gut like a hungry beast. He had turned to Caleb and Agni to bear the weight of it with him the only way he knew how. It was always the same with him. Any time he hurt or he was afraid, he ended up in bed with someone; it really didn’t matter who. When Li was alive, he knew just what to do to bolster Temple up. Caleb and Agni had surprisingly agreed to be with him. The feeling of their hands on his body remained with Temple, but it was just a speck of light in a vast darkness.
Tears rolled down his face. Caleb and Agni weren’t Li, would never be Li. They were the best team a man could wish for, and still none of them was good enough to keep Li alive. And now he had a new partner, a damned girl. He shouldn’t hold her sex against her. He wasn’t being punished for letting his partner die. If Taglioferro said there was no room on the women’s teams, that was the truth, and soon he’d have to face a second replacement partner. How was he supposed to cope with any of this?
What if he really was to blame for Li’s death? What if he got his general’s niece killed too? Then he was just as worthless as his father always said he was. That should come as no real surprise to him. His father always seemed to be right about that sort of thing, according to the family, at any rate, and wasn’t that why he had run off as soon as he was old enough to do it successfully?
“Damn it, Li. You shouldn’t have had to die!” Temple swatted at the Christmas tree, a bright reminder of the happiness he no longer felt. It toppled. Glass ornaments shattered, and Temple’s composure did as well. Falling to his knees, he huddled up and wept.