Matheus Taylor didn’t ask to be murdered. Quin didn’t care. A seventeen-hundred old Roman, Quintus Livius Saturnius had a different view of morality than most people. Killing Matheus and hijacking his undead existence seemed perfectly acceptable to him.
Now, Matheus spends his nights running for his life, questioning his sexual orientation, and defying a mysterious new threat to the vampires within his city. Not that he set out to do any defying; he just wanted to be left alone. Unfortunately, that was never going to happen.
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Alistair caught Matheus at the bottom of the stairs. Without saying a word, he grabbed Matheus’ wrist, dragging him through the living room. Matheus’ bundle of dirty clothes went flying as he struggled to free himself.
“Ow!” said Matheus. “You’re crushing my wrist.” His heels dug furrows into the dirt floor.
“Good,” said Alistair, starting to run. He whipped down the hallway, Matheus in tow. Freddie and Lenya flattened to the walls as they flew past.
“Alistair!” Matheus yelled. “Stop!”
They took the corner. Alistair skidded to a halt, but momentum propelled Matheus past him, through the open door to Quin’s room. He slipped on something wet and chunky, pinwheeling his arms before catching his balance.
“This is your mess,” said Alistair. “You deal with it.”
He slammed the door.
The smell hit Matheus like the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. He doubledover, gagging, sour saliva filling his mouth. He spat, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Straightening, he held his breath. Quin sat huddled in the fetal position, covered in every fluid the human body produced. Matheus picked his way over to him, beginning to understand why Milo had supposed a mop.
“Volo morior. Di maledixit mihi.” Quin moaned, rocking back and forward.
Matheus knelt beside him, searching for a spot not coated with yuck. He settled for patting Quin’s ear.
“You’ll be okay,” he said. “I mean, once the puking and uh, everything is over.”
“Commodo permissum mihi vado.” Quin looked at him, but Matheus saw no acknowledgement or recognition, only desperation. Vomit glistened on Quin’s chin. Black hollows ringed his eyes; blue tinged his lips.
Matheus dredged up ten-year-old memories of Latin class.
“Vos es tutus,” he said. “Filiolus mos servo vos.“
“No, no, no.” Quin pulled his arms over his head. He rocked faster, thick sobs emerging.
“Quin?” Matheus inched closer, placing a hand on Quin’s leg. Something oozed beneath his fingers. He froze, fighting the urge to run shrieking. He stroked Quin’s leg, shuddering as the slime coated his palm. He hummed, trying for anything even approaching soothing, but he sounded like a mediation CD after it’d been run over by a tractor.
When this is over, I’m going to bathe in handsanitizer for a week, he thought.
Quin jerked, his body jackknifing as spasms ripped through him. He lurched forward, landing on his hands and knees, choking clumps of bile.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” said Matheus, glad he didn’t remember on his own turning. He’d never be able to leave the shower again. He’d singlehandedly create a national soap shortage.
Quin made a long, keening sound that crawled up the back of Matheus’ neck and filled his mouth with ashes.
“Volo morior.”Quin collapsed with a splat of things Matheus really didn’t want to think about.
“Okay,” said Matheus. Wrapping his arms around Quin’s waist, Matheus hauled him upright. He staggered as Quin’s dead weight flopped into him. “Christ, you’re heavy.”
Grunting and cursing, Matheus shifted Quin until he had his arms hooked under Quin’s armpits. He walked backward, dragging Quin into the hall.
Quin continued to moan softly, but he didn’t struggle. Matheus didn’t know if Quin was even aware of the world around him. The hallway had never seemed so long. Matheus continued walking backward. He heard a door open, then immediately close. The basement had changed from a crowded dorm to an abandoned ghost town. Matheus felt like a gunslinger on his way to fight a doomed battle. Everyone knew he needed help, but no wanted to volunteer.
About a third of the way down the hall, Matheus bumped into someone warm. Freddie had been standing outside the bedroom Matheus shared with Alistair, staring at the door. Matheus guessed Alistair had barricaded himself inside.
“Help me,” Matheus said, readjusting his grip on Quin.
Freddie looked them both up and down. He shook his head.
“Help me or I’m putting in an electric fence,” said Matheus.
“He smells terrible,” said Freddie.
“No shit,” said Matheus, regretting his poor choice of words a nanosecond later. With a grimace, he tried to shake the new layer of sludge off his shoe. Quin slipped lower, his head lolling from side to side. He flailed his arms with all the coordination of a three-month-old.
Freddie wrinkled his nose. “You smell terrible too.”
“I know,” said Matheus. “Just—Mother of Mary, stop wiggling!” He caught Quin before he hit the floor, yanking him up and grabbing fistfuls of Quin’s sodden shirt. “If you help me, I’ll tell you how to make Alistair want you.”
Matheus tried to spin around, but Quin’s legs banged into the wall and a muscle popped in Matheus’ neck. Apparently, Alistair hadn’t been in their room. Matheus decided his previous incarnation must have blown up a mirror factory.
“Save it,” said Alistair. He turned into their room, his spine as straight as a meter stick.
“Scheiße.” Matheus let Quin drop, dashing after Alistair. He thrust open the door, sending Alistair stumbling backward.
“Don’t follow me!” Alistair shouted. He shoved Matheus, but Matheus grabbed the doorframe, refusing to budge. Alistair sniffed, then looked down at his hands. He retreated across the room. “Don’t come near me,” he said.
“Just listen to me.” Matheus glanced over his shoulder to see Freddie watching with avid interest. Matheus made a face at him, then closed the door. “I was only—”
“What? Only doing what?” asked Alistair. “Handing me off to the nearest available male?”
“No, of course not. I just—”
“Did you really think that would work?”
Matheus raised a hand to his mouth, catching himself a hair’s breadth before he started chewing on a nail.
“I wasn’t trying—”
Alistair glared at him. Matheus had thought he’d seen Alistair angry before, but all his other glares paled in comparison. Matheus lost about three inches, physically shrinking in the face of Alistair’s wrath. He took a step backward, wondering if he should opt for the traditional pine casket or upgrade to walnut.
“Now Quin’s back, what the hell do you need me for?” Alistair said, in a voice laced with the sting of Africanized honeybees. “But you just can’t break things off like a man. No, you try to hand me off like a used toy to the Salvation Army.”
“I think you’re overreacting,” said Matheus.
Matheus winced. Mutant Africanized honeybees. Armed with lasers.
“You think I’m just going to hop from cock to cock?” Alistair asked.
“You’re the one who doesn’t like to be celibate,” said Matheus. The tiny, rational part of his brain screamed at him. Apologize, you moron! Don’t make excuses, don’t try to shift the blame, don’t say anything but ‘I’m sorry, Alistair. I’m an asshole.’”And you’re not exactly choosy.”
His small portion of rationality threw up its hands.
“Get out,” said Alistair. “I can’t stand the sight of you.”
“Okay, so that wasn’t the best thing to say,” said Matheus. Oh, now you listen to me, said the rational part of his brain.
“Fine.” Matheus spun around, jerking open the door.
“Matheus?” said Alistair.
Matheus risked a glance over his shoulder. He didn’t like the smug, vicious note in Alistair’s voice.
“What?” he asked.
“You ran after me,” Alistair said. “Quin is shitting out his humanity and you still ran after me.” He gave Matheus a triumphant smirk.
“Now get out,” he said.
“Fuck,” said Matheus. He lurched into the hall, slamming the door after him.
Instead of Freddie and Quin, Lenya stood there. Someone had gathered up her wisps of hair into a ponytail, then added a bright yellow bow. Her shirt, emblazed with neon pink and blue daises, matched the ribbon. Matheus blinked at the sudden onslaught of color.
“Play.” Lenya held up her arms, opening and closing her hands.
“Not now,” said Matheus. He prodded the damp patch where Quin had laid.
“The warm man took him,” said Lenya. “Play.”
“I can’t, Lenya. Go find someone else to play with.” Matheus spotted another wet spot farther down the hall. “Did Freddie go this way?”
“You suck,” said Lenya.
Matheus paused, standing over the second spot.
“Where’d you learn that?” he asked.
Lenya didn’t answer. Instead, she gave him a pout like a schizophrenic’s nightmare, and stomped off. High schools were missing a golden opportunity. If they handed out baby succubae rather than those crying dolls, the teen pregnancy rate would plummet overnight. Of course, human children didn’t get hungry and eat your friends. At least, most of them didn’t.
“Hey.” Freddie waved from the end of the hall. “Your friend’s in the shower.” He’d removed his clothes, his jeans hanging over his arm, ends trailing on the floor.
“You left him there?” Matheus maintained deliberate eye contact. He didn’t remember Bianca’s family wandering around in the nude, but maybe they’d waited until after he’dgone home. Or maybe Freddie just had a tendency toward exhibitionism.
Freddie shrugged, muscles stretching and contracting with smooth movements. He scratched his abdomen, fingers sliding through the pattern of dark hair. With a yawn, he padded down the hall toward Matheus, his shoulder knocking into Matheus’ as he passed. He stopped outside Matheus’ bedroom, and dropped onto his haunches.
“Why are you naked?” Matheus asked, unable to resist any longer.
“Got vomit on my shirt.”
“So you had to take off your pants too?”
“Crazies,” said Matheus, shaking his head as he headed toward the living room. “They’re all crazies.”
Matheus debated the merits of removing Quin’s clothing before or after he turned on the shower. On one hand, the water might wash away some of the gunk. On the other, removing sopping wet clothes off a sobbing, six-foot-two adult male passing in and out of consciousness didn’t sound like a stroll through the park.
Quin shivered, his arms wrapped around his chest, fingers clawing at his clothes. The wind had picked up, bringing along the smell of fresh snow. Matheus’ breath frosted in the air. The droplets of water left from his own shower had turned to shimmering ice. The slime on Quin’s body froze, forming crystalline patterns as it iced and then cracked with Quin’s movements.
Edging his way into the shower, Matheus positioned himself out of the showerhead’s spray. He switched on the water. Steam rose off Quin’s body. Sludge slid away in thick chunks, clogging the makeshift drain. Water pooled around Matheus’ feet. Crouching, trying to keep as dry as possible, he wrestled off Quin’s clothes. He tossed them into the darkness. He sure as hell didn’t plan on wasting time trying to salvage them.
Quin sobbed as Matheus lathered soap over his body. Matheus scrubbed with clinical detachment, thinking of Quin’s body as a dish that needed cleaning. He worked the washcloth between Quin’s fingers and toes, leaving the more delicate areas for last. Quin let him manipulate his limbs with only slight whimpers in protest. Matheus wiped the filth off Quin’s chest, moving lower. He didn’t understand how nurses did this on a regular basis. Bathing someone had always seemed sensual, romantic, but this only made him nauseous.
When he finished, Matheus tossed the washcloth after Quin’s ruined clothes. The water had cooled, the last of the heat fading quickly.
“Come on, Quin,” he said, pulling Quin up onto his knees. “Can you stand?” He released his grip on Quin, switching off the stream of water.
Quin wavered, then slumped forward, unconscious.
“Of course,” said Matheus. He wiped his face, flicking away the moisture. “I should have gone with the fluffy dog bed and jeweled collar.”
He rolled Quin onto his back, hoisting him into a fireman’s hold. Then, as he took his first step out of the shower, Quin did something usually done in a private stall.
“Great,” said Matheus. “That’s just great.”
Matheus slumped into the library. He pulled open the door to the basement. The stairs stretched below him, an endless journey. His feet dragged over the floorboards. He took one step, then another, then another. After an infinite span, he reached the bottom. He leaned on the railing, wanting nothing more than to drop into a bed and never leave.
“What’s on your shirt?” Eamon asked. He sat on the couch with Gwen, Salvatore lying between them.
Matheus examined the sludge streaking across his shirt.
“You don’t want to know,” he said.
Gwen sniffed. “I can guess,” she said. She stroked her palm down Salvatore’s loose curls.
“Where’s the harbinger of all evil?” asked Eamon.
“In the shower,” said Matheus. “I need some help.” He put on his best pity me face. It didn’t require a lot of effort.
“Can’t,” said Eamon with a cheerfulness that bordered on maliciousness. “Alistair’s orders.”
“That little son of a bitch,” said Matheus.
“He’s a got a point,” said Salvatore. “You’re the one who wanted Quin back. We were happy he was gone.”
“You are all pathetic,” said Matheus. “He’s not that bad. You’re all vicious death monsters with sharp pointy teeth. Stop acting like vegetarians. Why don’t you just start eating deer and fluffy bunnies?”
“Deer are gamey,” said Salvatore. “Takes ages to get the taste out of your mouth.”
Matheus groaned, letting his forehead hit the banister. “Super,” he said to the floor. “I’ll add that to the list of things about which I couldn’t give a crap. It’s a long list, but that’s going straight to the top.”
“Amazing,” said Gwen.
“What is?” asked Matheus.
“Three months with Quin and he didn’t kill you once.”
“Actually, he did kill me once,” said Matheus.
“And now you’ve killed him,” said Eamon. “Does that make you even?”
Matheus raised his head, considering this.
“No,” he said. “Not even close.”
“Are you ever going to be even?” asked Gwen.
“I think you’re using fixed scales,” Gwen said. She leaned down, brushing a kiss over Salvatore’s forehead.
Salvatore smiled up at her. Eamon watched them both, tracing circles over Salvatore’s calves. They formed a unit, balance surrounding them. Matheus saw the calm, the warmth, but he hadn’t been invited inside. He shivered, his soaked clothes freezing to his skin.
“So no one is going to help me?” he asked.
None of the trio replied. Matheus didn’t know if they realized he still stood there. He stomped past the couch. He expected to find Freddie in the same spot, but he’d vanished. So had Alistair. Matheus wondered if they’d disappeared together. He changed into clean clothes, then grabbed a blanket.
Outside, Quin lay in the shower where Matheus had left him. The exodus of body fluids had finally ended. Matheus searched for a pulse, but not a trace of life remained. The deathly appearance of Quin’s face had faded, replaced with the familiar still quality Matheus remembered. He wrapped Quin’s corpse in the blanket, leaving one corner loose. Only an hour left until sunrise. Matheus tugged on the blanket, dragging Quin across the snow-covered yard into the house.
“Oh my God,” he said, pausing for a break about halfway. “I am never carrying you again. I don’t care if your legs have been amputated in a freak meat grinder incident. You can claw your way home.”
Using his last dregs of energy, Matheus got Quin into the basement. He’d tried to go slowly down the stairs, but his grip slipped. Quin bumped and banged his way down, landing in a crumpled heap of limps and blanket. At least no one saw. The trio must have gone off somewhere for alone time. Fine with Matheus. He didn’t need someone tattling to Quin that Matheus had thrown him down the stairs. He dropped Quin in Milo’s room, the closest one to the living room. Milo had gone out on some errand, refusing accompaniment, saying he’d be back the next night. Matheus decided that made his room fair game. He laid Milo’s sleeping bag beside Quin, and crawled inside.
“I really hope I don’t have to do this again tomorrow,” he said, rolling to face Quin.
One of Milo’s machines beeped. Matheus hoped that meant no. He brushed the snow out of Quin’s hair, letting his fingers trail down the sleek curve of Quin’s head to his throat. He rested his hand against Quin’s collarbone, bones pressing smooth curves into his palm.
“Please wake up,” he said.
Matheus crept into the room he shared with Alistair. He’d woken up with his hand still pressed to Quin’s chest. He waited until sunset, but Quin didn’t wake. Matheus covered him with the sleeping bag and left.
He selected a book off Alistair’s stack of thrillers. He settled into a corner, reading until he heard Alistair stirring. Lowering the book onto his knees, Matheus watched as Alistair stretched, then sat up, rubbing his hands over his head.
“Evening,” said Matheus.
Alistair jerked. His sleeping bag rustled as he turned around, rising onto his knees.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Reading,” said Matheus. He held up the book. “See?”
“I meant, what are you doing in here?” Alistair didn’t sound mad, but he didn’t sound happy to see him either.
Matheus stared down at his hands. “I came to apologize.”
“And, I’m sorry,” said Matheus. “I shouldn’t have said that to Freddie. And I shouldn’t have spoken to you like I did. So, I’m sorry.”
“That’s not good enough,” said Alistair. He spoke in a soft voice, sad, but almost kind at the same time.
“I don’t know what else to say,” said Matheus. “I am sorry. I just thought—I don’t know what I was thinking. It’d…it’d be simple, you know. You could have Freddie, and then you wouldn’t want me anymore.”
“That’s not how it works, Matheus.”
“What about Freddie?” asked Alistair. “You think he wants to be used like that?”
“I think he wants to be close to you.”
“Yeah.” Alistair rolled his eyes. “Tell me that isn’t creepy as all get out. I’ve only known the fellow a day or so.”
“Maybe he knows quality when he sees it,” said Matheus, forcing a weak smile.
“Don’t make cheesy compliments,” said Alistair, trying to hide a returning smile and not quite succeeding. “It doesn’t sound like you.”
“Right.” Matheus waited, but Alistair didn’t say anything else. “I am very sorry. I…I do care about you, I just don’t…” he trailed off.
“Yeah,” said Alistair.
“Are we okay?” Matheus wondered if his question sounded as full of desperate hope to Alistair as it did to him.
“Honestly, I don’t know what okay is anymore,” said Alistair. He rose, and crossed over to Matheus. Bending down, he rested his cheek against Matheus’, his arms circling Matheus’ neck. His breath tickled the shell of Matheus’ ear, the hint of stubble rough on Matheus’ skin.
“I wish you didn’t love me,” said Matheus.
Alistair sighed. “That makes two of us.”
“Why isn’t he awake yet?” Matheus asked. He nudged Quin’s shoulder with his toe. Outside, voices drifted in, Joan’s prominent among them. Today had been designated wire-laying day. Joan had two crews, one digging trenches to bury the cables in, the others working on the connection from the junction box a mile away. Nearly everyone had been coerced, extorted, or bribed to help. Only Matheus, Alistair, Milo, and Heaven escaped.
“He never was an early riser,” said Alistair. He perched on the corner of Milo’s desk, swinging his legs back and forth. His clipboard slanted over the keyboard, slowing inching toward a collision with the floor. Alistair toyed with his pen, clicking the button in a disjointed pattern.
“The sun’s been down for an hour.”
“Yesterday wasn’t exactly a walk through the park.”
“Do you think he’s dead?” asked Matheus.
“We’re all dead,” said Alistair. “Dead is what you were going for.” He twirled the pen between his fingers.
“I meant really dead.” Matheus watched Alistair out of the corner of his eye. He half-expected the pen to end up in his throat. Alistair had accepted his apology, but Matheus didn’t feel forgiven. He didn’t know what made him more nervous, Alistair’s potential breakdown or Quin’s awakening.
“He’s stubborn,” said Alistair. “He’ll wake up sooner or later.”
Matheus knelt. He leaned over Quin, examining his face for signs of consciousness. He poked Quin’s cheek. The flesh dimpled, yielding like cold steak.
“This is getting dull,” he said.
“You’re bored?” Alistair raised his eyebrows, a slight twist to his pout. “But I thought Quin was your forever girl.”
“Don’t be an ass,” said Matheus.
Alistair dropped the pen, and clasped his hands to his chest. “Oh, darling, my heart, it swoons.” He hopped off the desk, and walked over to Matheus. “Maybe I should kick him a little.”
“I said, ‘a little’.”
“And when he wakes up, he’s going to find Alistair-sized footprints on his ribs. What do you think he’s going to do about that?”
“You won’t let him hurt me,” said Alistair with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“I might not be able to stop him,” said Matheus.
“Trust me, Matheus, I’m not worried about Quin finding a few bruises. There are bigger issues.” Alistair settled onto the floor, crossing his legs, his wrists resting on his knees. He smiled at Matheus, an approximation only, but Matheus appreciated the effort.
“Like what?” he asked.
Alistair bit his lip. He ducked his head, peeking up at Matheus through the strands of his hair. His shoulders rose as he inhaled, fortifying his resources for the trial ahead. Matheus braced himself as his apprehension swelled.
“Well,” Alistair said, dragging out the word with a long sigh. “I did deflower his precious sunshine.”
He tilted his head up, flashing Matheus a grin the Devil would be proud of.
Matheus deflated, then re-inflated with anger instead.
“There was no deflowering!” He said. “I was already plenty deflowered way before you came along.”
“For men,” said Alistair. “I’m both delighted and terrified.”
Matheus shook his head. “You are a weird, weird man.”
“I was his first.” Alistair waved his finger in Quin’s face. “Here that? I planted my flag in the land of Matheus and everyone else is just following my well-beaten path.”
“God,” said Matheus. “Can you hear yourself?”
“My name is tattooed on your ass,” Alistair said to Matheus. “Metaphorically.”
“You need help.”
Alistair shrugged. He poked Quin in the shoulder, snatching his hand away as Quin shifted.
“He’s waking up,” he said.
“I can see that,” said Matheus.
“Should have let me kick him,” said Alistair mournfully. “Now I’ll never get the chance.”
“Learn to live with disappointment.”
Quin’s eyes snapped open. He blinked at the ceiling, then his eyelids drifted shut. Rolling over, he tucked an arm under his head and pulled his left knee to the level of his chest. The blanket rucked up, revealing narrow feet and long legs covered in dark hair.
“Um, Quin?” said Matheus.
Mumbling something into the floor, Quin flapped a hand with careless grace. The gesture tugged at Matheus with its familiarity. The first sign that Quin had returned to himself.
“Come on, Quin.” Matheus gave Quin’s shoulder a shake. “Get up.”
Quin groaned. He squirmed, then stretched. Opening his eyes, he scratched at the dirt floor. He rubbed his fingers together, frowning at the dirt. With a jerk, he sat upright, taking in the room with a narrowed gaze.
“This isn’t Venice,” he said.
“No,” said Matheus slowly. “It’s Kenderton.”
“Never heard of it,” said Quin. He gave Matheus a once over, dismissal written clear across his face. “Alistair? What are you doing here? What have you done?”
Alistair, eyes wide, lips parted, exchanged glances with Matheus.
“Uh, I haven’t done anything,” Alistair said.
“Do you remember anything?” Matheus asked. “About Apollonia?”
“I don’t know anyone named Apollonia,” said Quin.
“Apollonia Parker. Brown hair cut in a bob, dresses like a nineteen-fifties housewife, keeps humans as pets,” said Matheus.
“I don’t know her,” said Quin. “And who the hell are you?”