Chapter 1

 

Jed

 

PLANNING A vacation, Jed was finding, was a lot fucking harder than planning a job. For one thing, it required far less calculation of the correct amount of C-4 to use and a whole lotta discussion about gas mileage. One was math that Jed was good at. The other made him want to set things on fire. Redford had also strictly limited the number of deadly weapons he was allowed to take to ten. Ten! He was practically going to be naked. The thing was, for as long as Jed had been talking about taking his dream fishing experience, he was ill prepared for the reality of the whole thing.

A reality that included searching for a cabin that had both private beach access and a king-sized bed, but one that didn’t require him to clean up after himself. Seriously, this was a vacation. If he wanted to play maid, he’d buy a feather duster and high heels and stay home. In the three months since they’d gotten off the plane from Cairo, Jed’s life had turned from plotting out the best sniper posts to deciding if they wanted to fly, drive, or take a train. Driving had won out, because public transportation seemed to frown on people taking bitchy Siamese cats and shotguns.

Dealing with vampire politics and crazy daddy issues had nothing on planning a vacation.

“Babe?” Jed was sitting on the couch, surrounded by piles of clothes, fishing gear with the tags still on, his chosen ten weapons, and two bags filled with road snacks, like a little fortress of things to pack. He’d abandoned shoving everything into duffel bags in order to page through the book Redford had insisted on purchasing. It had pictures and everything. “How do we get the worms?”

Every picture in the fishing guide had happy people with funny hats and worms. Jed had a funny hat—two of them, actually, one for him and one for Redford—but the worms he’d been kind of at a loss about. Flipping through the book, he scowled. Fifteen fucking pages of how to hold the goddamn reel and not one page on worm hunting.

Jed tossed the book aside and figured he’d just wing it. Surely he could dig for them. Worms were in the ground, right?

There was a crash, a loud, churlish yowl, and Knievel stalked out of the bedroom, tail twitching in irritation. Redford trailed after her, a long scratch on his arm, looking positively crestfallen. “She doesn’t like the life vest,” he explained as Jed vaulted over the back of the couch, immediately fussing over the wound. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to make sure it fit.”

“Fido? Shut up.” The words were biting, though his tone was anything but, absolute distress radiating from the set of his shoulders, the tenseness of his body as he herded Redford to the couch. With a muffled curse, he threw all of his piles of stuff every which way to make room for Redford to sit down. His weapons were treated with a passing iota of care, his clothes, not so much. Jed grabbed the first aid kit and started to clean off the scratch, calloused fingers gentle as he smoothed a bandage across the reddened skin. Yes, he was aware it was just a scratch. It’d barely be a mark by this time tomorrow. Didn’t stop Jed from pressing a kiss to Redford’s wrist in apology, huffing a sigh as he took the vivid-pink cat-sized life vest away from him.

“You are going to wear this,” he told the cat, who was washing herself vigorously on the opposite chair, ears flattened back. “It’s a floatation device. Everyone wears them while we fish.”

Turning back to Redford, Jed cupped his cheek, searching his eyes. He could read Redford’s face like one of the books the man loved so much, those blue-gray depths that he’d drowned in, the worried little crease between them that seemed to insist Jed lean in to kiss it away. Every line and curve of Redford’s face, Jed knew. It was like the light in Redford’s eyes was written on the very bones of him, in the breath of his lungs, in the muscle and blood that made him up. “You okay?” Jed rumbled, concerned.

A little sigh was huffed out, Redford’s lips twitching upward fondly. “I think I’ll live,” he intoned solemnly. His hand twisted up to catch Jed’s, bringing their joined fingers in to rest over Redford’s heart. “It’s just a scratch, Jed. We’ve both had far worse and been just fine.”

Inevitably, Jed’s eyes went to the scars on Redford’s face, the long, jagged tears that marred perfect pale skin, sloping over the bridge of his nose to his cheek. Leaning in, Jed kissed them, like he did every night before bed, a quiet promise to the both of them that he failed at more often than not. So Jed made it again. He wasn’t good for much, Jed knew. Fucking and fighting and pretty much nothing in between. But Redford, he was good. He was heaven, as much as a man like Jed Walker could hope to touch. He was glory, more than Jed would ever know outside of him. So he kissed those scars, he kissed the scratch their spoiled cat had given him, and he swore to himself, one more time, to never let Redford get either one again.

“Yeah, well,” he muttered gruffly, covering his tenderness with a glower. “Doesn’t mean the cat’s not a bitch.”

Knievel seemed to take that as her cue. With a chirping purr she hopped lightly off the chair and wound her way around Redford’s legs, apparently in apology, before jumping into Jed’s lap. He rolled his eyes, rubbing a hand over her ears, chuckling quietly when Knievel immediately sprawled out for better cuddles. “Goddamn cat,” he said, but he was smiling again.

Jed snagged the life vest, holding it up to Knievel. She arched her neck up lazily, sniffing it twice before batting it with a paw. Jed let her fuss with it as she bit the straps, showing it who was boss. In the end, she apparently decided that having a tummy rub was distracting enough, not noticing when Jed and Redford slipped her front paws into the vest. Jed buckled it up, making sure her fur wasn’t caught in the straps.

“There you go, Miss Priss,” he crooned, setting her down on the couch. Knievel immediately fell onto one side with a mournful look, as if the life vest itself was so heavy her body was unable to hold it up.

Jed rolled his eyes at her. “You are such a drama queen.” Redford had found the jar they kept the cat treats in and Jed offered her one. With great difficulty, Knievel reached out to touch her nose to it. The martyr act didn’t last long. In a moment she was gnawing happily on the tuna fish flavored snack.

“So that’s how you get a cat into a flotation device,” Redford mused, voice that low little rumble that sent all kinds of electricity along Jed’s skin. “Bribe them.”

With a grin, Jed pulled out a matching adult-sized vest in the same eye-searing pink. “Want to see how I get a wolf into one?”

Knievel had picked out the color. Or, rather, she’d head-butted the screen when Jed had clicked onto the pink vests, but Jed figured that was good enough. Now licking her paws, Knievel looked content enough in her life jacket. Redford, however, gave Jed a horrified look, holding up one finger to stop Jed from talking.

“No,” he insisted firmly. “Just no, Jed.”

With a positively wicked smirk, Jed pounced. The life jacket was forgotten in the first flurry of movement, in Jed blanketing Redford and Redford, with a howl, rolling them off the couch onto the floor. They turned again, Jed laughing loudly as Redford got the best of him, pinning his arms in a very dirty move that involved grinding their hips together and then sitting on his chest.

“No fair,” Jed protested, but he was grinning. “Who taught you to cheat like that?”

With a smug smile that looked far too good on him, Redford leaned over, hands braced on either side of Jed’s head, knees still pinning Jed’s arms. “You did,” he said, lips just barely brushing against Jed’s.

That little coil of heat in Jed’s gut surged into flames, and he moaned softly, head tipping upward, chasing the kiss Redford was holding back. “Fuck yeah, I did,” he muttered and grinned as Redford crashed down onto him, as their mouths found each other in panting bites, in a long, slow kiss where Redford’s tongue fucked into his mouth and Jed twisted under him, desperate for more.

Redford pulled back first, ghosting his lips across Jed’s, chuffing a laugh at Jed’s frustrated growl. “There are two men outside our door,” Redford whispered.

“Good for them.” Jed narrowed his eyes, and he reluctantly turned his head to stare at the doorway. “Who—”

Redford took a deep breath, smiling suddenly. “It’s Victor.”

A knock sounded, sharp and brisk, and Jed groaned loudly. “Goddamn it.” Heaving himself upward with one last regretful look at Redford, Jed went to answer the door. “You know,” he mused conversationally, “I can’t decide if you doing that is freaky or sexy.”

Jed swung the door open, then leaned against the frame as he took in the sight of one Victor Rathbone, in all his sweater-vest-loving glory. Behind him, standing nervously at attention, was some kid with dark hair curling to the nape of his neck and thick glasses that he awkwardly shoved up onto his nose. “Princess,” Jed drawled, dismissing the flunky for now. He did look oddly familiar, but Jed didn’t feel like playing a game of Who’s Who, Nerd Edition. “I didn’t know we had a tea party scheduled.” The time since Cairo had turned the professor freaky pale again, all the better to highlight the dark circles under red-rimmed eyes. He had the decided look of a man who’d been in a bed other than his own last night. Probably one he couldn’t have found again with a map and a flashlight. So Victor was doing the whole one-night stand thing. Of course Jed recognized the signs. He’d practically invented the signs. It was a perfectly valid way of coping after a breakup with a vampire.

“Oh, how I missed your wit,” Victor said, eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “Randall, I don’t believe you properly met Journey Walker. Jed, Randall Lewis.”

“Don’t call me Journey, sweetcheeks.” Jed’s gaze went to Randall, looking him up and down. Recognition sparked. The last time he’d seen Randall, he’d been bloodied up and in a dank vampire cave. People tended to look a bit different in the daylight. “Course I remember the kid. Got his blood on my shirt. Don’t often forget shit like that.” He held out his hand, which Lewis took, giving him a firmer handshake than Jed would have expected from someone wearing a waistcoat.

“Yes. Thank you for that,” Randall started, but Jed waved him off. He hated that part. The thank-yous, the gratitude, the talking about shit like pulling people out of buildings or the details of what they’d been saved from. He just wanted to do his job and be done with it. The aftermath was what he’d always been bad at.

“I’m sure you remember my partner, Redford Reed.” Jed moved aside slightly, drawing Redford in. “Best nose in the goddamn business. If it wasn’t for him, you’d be vampire chow.” Redford shifted his weight, his shoulder bumping up against Jed’s. When Randall’s hand was offered, Redford took it tentatively—the man had made a lot of progress in becoming more confident, in becoming his own person, but he still shied away from people that he didn’t know all that well.

“Then thank you to you both,” Randall said quietly, a very real strength under his words. Jed had met a lot of people in his life, had dealt with a lot of men who thought they were strong. Whether it was due to money or position or just how much they fucking loved themselves, there were a lot of people who mistook bullying for power. This kid, though, all soft eyes and hair in his face, reminded Jed of Redford, of the wild, feral something that was wrapped in a mild cloak.

Then again, maybe it was a wolf thing. According to Redford and David, this kid was one of the real ones. Jed had no fucking clue what that was supposed to mean and how it was different from werewolves in any way, but with the way Redford was staring at Randall, he thought it might be an important distinction.

“Don’t suppose you showed up at our door to sell cookies?” Jed really hoped the answer was yes. “’Cause if it’s anything else, we’re fresh out of it. We are two hours away from a well-deserved vacation.”

Victor, ignoring things like personal space and the lack of an invitation, pushed his way past Jed into the apartment. His gaze fell upon the mess of clothes on the couch, the duffel bags, and the cat staring venomously at them. “Where would you go for a vacation? Somewhere you can play with your guns all day long? I’m sure you can do that perfectly well here.”

“Fishing,” Jed said, arms folded, eyes narrowed. “As in sun, sand, and nothing to do with whatever it is you’re here to ask. The answer is no.”

Randall blinked at him. “We didn’t even ask for anything.”

“Yet,” Jed pointed out. “Don’t think I don’t know what it means when people knock on my door all puppy eyed, with the princess over there pretending to be civil. You want something. And the answer is no.”

Walking over to the couch, Jed started grabbing the rest of his stuff and shoving it into bags, like if he did it fast enough, the inevitable wouldn’t happen. People didn’t just show up at Jed’s apartment. In fact, people never showed up at his apartment. Not unless they were delivering food, trying to shoot him, or asking for help. And he didn’t see Victor carrying a pizza or a gun. “Thanks for stopping by. Really. It was a blast. Now you and Professor Sunshine can just skip your way back to wherever you came from. Redford”—Jed struggled to zip up his duffel—“and I”—he stomped his foot down on one end of the bag, yanking the zipper harder—“are going goddamn fishing.” There. The bag was stuffed full and zipped up, Knievel was wearing her float vest, and Redford had shoes on. They were leaving.

“I need your help.” It was Randall’s voice, soft but firm, saying those four goddamn words Jed hated more than anything. Well, almost anything. I forgot the lube was still number one.

“Yeah, well”—Jed turned, leveling Randall with a glare—“I’m on vacation, sweetheart. You’re outta luck.”

There was an awkward beat as Randall glanced between him and Victor. Jed got that sick little jerk in his gut, the one that told him he was missing something. He hated it when he missed shit. Usually that wound up with him hungover in Thailand, surrounded by six passed out sumo wrestlers, without his goddamn pants. And missing his favorite gun.

He still mourned that gun.

“I wish you a good vacation, then,” Randall said, choosing his words delicately. “I actually wasn’t speaking to you.” Before Jed could get a word in edgewise, Randall turned to Redford. “Mr. Reed, I need your help. Please.”

Redford took a reactionary step backward in his surprise. “Me?” He stared at Randall, looking like he was waiting for some kind of punch line. “No, if you need help, you should ask Jed. I just help him.”

Before Jed could say anything, before he could figure out what the hell had just happened or kick Victor for that fucking smug expression on his stupid English face, Randall had moved toward Redford again, so much earnest dripping off of him it was kind of ridiculous. “I’m afraid Mr. Walker’s particular skills won’t be of any use to me. I appreciate, more than I can ever say, what you all did for me in Cairo. And believe me, I don’t want to be even more in your debt.” Randall’s eyes cut to Victor, just for a moment, color faintly touching the high curve of his cheeks. Why the fuck he was looking at Victor was beyond Jed. Unless he felt an obligation to the goddamn getaway driver, Jed’s recollection of Cairo was very different. In the “Victor doesn’t do wet work” kind of way.

“And yet you’re here,” Jed pointed out bluntly. “And I’m not sure what your point is. So spill.”

“I need Mr. Reed to help me because I need a wolf,” Randall said with a very slight shrug. “A human—no offense—is not going to be able to talk to the people we’ll need to speak with.”

Redford had progressed to wringing his hands in worry. Jed didn’t like it when Redford got that look, the pinched nervous concern, the expression that said Redford thought he wasn’t good for anything. Before he could even form the thought, Jed was there, right at his side, arm around Redford’s waist. “I—I’m not really a wolf,” Redford said in a stutter. “I mean, I was a werewolf. And now I’m not, but I’m not a real wolf like others I’ve seen.”

“I am,” Randall said very simply. “I know what you are, Mr. Reed. And you are exactly who I need. You are of Filtiarn. And you are the only one whom the Gray Lady will speak with.”

“The whosa-whatsit now?” Jed was scowling at, well, fucking everyone. Goddamn people with their goddamn problems. “We aren’t going to talk to any of your freaky furry people. We’re going fishing. Both of us. Together.” There was a meow from the couch, and Jed added, without missing a beat or lightening up his frown one bit, “All three of us.” Damn fucking right they were.

Victor gave a low sigh. “Jed, will you at least let Randall talk? He wouldn’t be coming to Redford if the matter wasn’t serious.”

“Office hours are between eight and nine every fourth Wednesday,” Jed returned. “And you must have missed the big ‘fuck off, gone fishing’ sign I put on the door, so why don’t you just see yourselves out.”

“Jed.” Redford’s voice was low. “I know we want to go fishing, but we should at least take five minutes to hear them out. The fish won’t go away if we’re five minutes late.”

Jed closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “Fine,” he growled. But he pointed his finger at both Randall and Victor. “Five minutes. Redford is going to get a vacation if I have to build an ocean, and I don’t care what you have to say about it. Five goddamn minutes.”

“You’d do that for me?” Redford looked utterly charmed.

“No, he wouldn’t. It’s quite impossible,” Victor said archly, impatient. “He—”

“If Red said he wanted the moon, I’d ride Buzz fucking Aldrin up there and get it myself,” he told Victor in a calm tone, arms folded. “He wants an ocean? I’ll flood the streets until he can swim. Impossible’s got nothing to do with it. Besides,” Jed snorted, “you can too build an ocean. What, you think Jaws was real?” Clearly a fake ocean. And a fake shark. And possibly fake boobs.

Victor fell silent with an annoyed little grimace, giving Randall a chance to speak. Randall sighed, sitting, hands folded tightly in his lap. “My brother is dying,” he told Redford simply.

And just like that, Jed shut the fuck up.

He’d gotten a lot of jobs in his life. Most of them didn’t matter. Powerful men wanting more power, rich men wanting more of whatever made them rich. War, all of it, only this time the enemies weren’t clear at all. Jed wasn’t a superhero. He wasn’t even a good guy. No one had ever come to him like this. Of course, the first time it happened, it was for Redford.

“We’re wolves, like you,” Randall continued. “It’s just me and my two brothers, and Anthony is dying. You’re the only one who can help. Will you?” After a beat, he cut a glance over at Jed. “I believe that was less than five minutes.”

“How am I the only one that can help?” Redford looked confused. He glanced at Jed quickly, seeking help, before looking back at Randall again. “I’m not a doctor. If he’s dying, you should go to the hospital, shouldn’t you?”

“Ah.” There was a wry twist of Randall’s lips. “That, I’m afraid, will take much longer than five minutes to explain.”

Jed hesitated before heaving a sigh. He already knew how this was going to end. Some wolf, some bright-eyed kid, comes to Redford claiming he needs help saving a dying brother? Yeah, they weren’t going fishing. Maybe he’d known that since they opened the door. All his bitching and moaning, all his talk of leaving, he’d hoped that Victor and Randall would give their polite excuses and be gone.

It never worked out that way.

Jed scooped up Knievel, unbuckled the life vest, and set it aside. “Okay,” he said, the cat prancing off his lap over to Randall, sniffing him curiously before sneezing at him and heading back to Redford. “So talk. Apparently we’ve got all day.”

Randall sagged back a bit. Even Jed hadn’t noticed how tightly wound the guy was until his shoulders eased and some of that tense worry lining his face relaxed. Randall nodded at him, glancing again at Victor. If it was for reassurance, Jed was pretty sure he was looking in the wrong place. Victor just looked satisfied that they hadn’t gotten kicked out.

“In order to understand what’s happening, you have to know why my family is rather unique among the wolf world,” Randall started, taking off his glasses to clean them. “Most wolves, true wolves, are parts of a pack.”

“And you’re a true wolf?” Jed asked, frowning. He was standing next to the wall, leaning against it, arms folded, looking almost lazy and half-asleep. His gaze, though, kept cutting between the three other men, trying to figure this out. It hit him then, all at once—he was the only human being in the room. Now that was a goddamn trip. “Which is different from a werewolf… how, exactly?” He knew the basics, but Jed figured more information couldn’t hurt.

Randall gave him a slight smile, shrugging. “How is a Homo erectus different from Homo sapiens?”

Jed burst out with a laugh, rubbing a hand across his mouth in a very failed attempt to hide his smirk. “One of them sounds like a very personal problem?” he guessed, grinning. “Or a porn title. I’ve got a little homo erection going on right here.”

Randall just gave him a vaguely bemused look. “I was more referring to the fact one of them shat in caves and drew on walls, and the other created the Louvre.”

“The former sounds exactly like Jed,” Victor mused idly. “Perhaps we have history standing across the room from us.”

Randall laughed at that, low and husky, grin crinkling up the corners of his eyes. Jed had no fucking idea what was so funny, but he glowered at them both anyway. “Okay, homo nerd-us,” he shot back. Even Redford had a small smile on his face. “How about you use non-prissy-professor language for ten minutes.”

“My apologies,” Randall said. He didn’t look sorry, though. “My point was that the werewolves are a decidedly less evolved version of a true wolf, or Cano, as named in the old Gaelic. They are the result of the Cano mixing our blood with humans.”

“But Fil was trying to fix that,” Jed said, eyes going to Redford. “Shooting them up with his blood.” Turning werewolves, who were probably lesser in the eyes of someone like Fil, constrained by the moon cycles, unable to hold their own minds, into wolves that could turn when they wanted to. And Redford, without the full dose of whatever freaky mojo, was stuck in between. He could shift to furry form when he liked, but not without pain. And his instincts were all haywire. Hell, even a shrink couldn’t seem to make that part of it better.

“That is what I gather from what Victor has told me, yes.” Randall nodded. He turned back to Redford. “And that is why you can help. My parents left their pack when my mother found out she was pregnant with my eldest brother, Anthony. They never told us exactly why, but my father talked about disagreeing with the direction the pack leaders were going in. The Gray Lady is the mother of us all, the eldest of all the packs, and she was the one in leadership when my mother and father decided to leave.”

“You realize that none of that makes sense, right?” Jed was frowning, looking over at Victor for a moment. Maybe this was more smart-people gobbledygook. “Gray Lady?”

Redford was looking intent, leaning forward on the couch. “You mean she’s the actual mother of all wolves? Was she the first? She must be incredibly old.”

A very faint smile touched Randall’s lips. “It depends on who you ask. If you study the texts, the old stories of the Cano, it talks of a pair of wolves who were the first. Filtiarn and Liadan. They brought forth the first wolves. They started the first pack. But Liadan and her mate fought, and Filtiarn was cast out, taking his favored pack mates with him.”

“And Líadan means gray lady in old Gaelic,” Victor injected helpfully.

Now, Jed wasn’t much good at math. But even he knew that anyone claiming to have started the whole wolf line was getting far more than the senior’s discount at Denny’s. “That’s impossible,” he told them both bluntly. “It’s a scam, or someone who just really likes the name. But what you’re saying is that—”

“What I’m saying,” Randall interjected mildly, “is that we are not human. And our lifespans are not yours. It’s impossible for you, yes, but I think you’d agree that the world is rather a lot bigger than what you’re assuming.”

Baby goddamn Jesus. Jed sat then, trying to wrap his brain around everything. So, vampires were real, they didn’t die with garlic or silver knives, crazy ass wolves did die with silver knives, and both of them apparently could live forever. That was kind of a lot more than he’d been ready to handle today. Or ever.

“You’re quiet, babe,” he murmured, nudging Redford with his foot. “What’s going on in that big brain of yours?”

“Just absorbing new information,” Redford said lowly. He nudged Jed’s knee with his own, a silent let Randall keep talking.

“I apologize,” Randall was saying, a frown pinching the corners of his lips. “This is a lot, I know. If I had anywhere else to go, I would.”

“The history lesson is fascinating and all, but I’m still missing the part where you need to involve Red,” Jed said gruffly, eyes still on Redford.

“Ah. Yes.” Randall shifted a bit, leaning forward. “I need to get help for Anthony. I need to get him back to the pack. The problem is, I don’t think the Gray Lady will let us in, because our parents left. There are rumors, though, that she is gathering up the remnants of Filtiarn’s pack, giving them refuge. While she won’t talk to me, I know she will talk to you. And you can be our ticket in to see her.”

Redford shifted slightly, and Jed took care not to say anything to interrupt—the guy needed at least two seconds of silence to indicate that it was okay for him to talk. “Earlier, you said you’d explain why you couldn’t take Anthony to a hospital,” Redford pointed out. “That’s where most people go when they’re dying, isn’t it?”

“Redford,” Randall started softly, before fading off into a sigh. “We’re not people,” he pointed out, deep-brown eyes flicking up to Redford before falling again. “Anthony has signs of Parkinson’s disease. The canine version.”

Oh. Well, yeah, that probably would be fucking difficult to explain to your average Doogie Howser. Jed snorted softly, but he didn’t speak. He just reached out to take Redford’s hand, a silent show of support. This was his gig, his play. Jed was going to let him decide what they did.

“So you want a ticket into the Gray Lady’s pack,” Redford said. “Because they have a hospital there for them? Or because you think they’ll know what to do?”

Randall fidgeted a bit, hands fiddling with the side seam of his pants before he deliberately folded them together, trying to maintain his composure. “We weren’t raised in that pack,” he explained. “Some years after our parents left the pack, they were killed by hunters, when I was young. Anthony took care of us. I don’t know how to help him, what to do, if this is curable, anything. I’m only sure that a human hospital would be a death sentence. If I can just speak to the Gray Lady, if I can plead our case, I know I can make her understand and I can get information on how to help Anthony. But I need to be let into the pack in order to do so. That’s what I need you for.”

Randall fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a white envelope. It looked rather anemic from where Jed was sitting. “This is everything I have. It’s not much, but I can figure out how to get more. Please.” Randall’s gaze was on Redford’s face, begging. This wasn’t a guy trying to pull one over on them. He genuinely thought he was pleading for his brother’s life. “Just tell me how much more you need and I’ll find a way. I promise.”

Redford had a thoughtful look as he studied the envelope. “Actually,” he remarked, “I don’t think there’d even be a budget on this one. It’s not like we need supplies or ammo or—”

“But the retainer fee,” Jed jumped in smoothly, shooting Redford a wide-eyed what are you doing look. They did not work for free. Ever. That was practically rule number one. “Half up front. Figure two days’ work at five thousand a day.”

“Really, Jed?” Victor gave him a withering look. “Randall is not exactly swimming in money.”

Randall’s cheeks flushed at that, his shoulders bunching up in shame. “I’m fine, Victor,” he said shortly, pulling himself up to his full height as he searched his pockets. He was a proud guy, though apparentl