Life After Humanity

by Gillian St. Kevern

$6.99

Ben is a recovering vampire determined to pick up the pieces of the life that came to a halt when he was murdered over a year ago—even if that means distancing himself from his few remaining friends. Nate, struggling to navigate his new identity as a Class 3 Unknown paranormal, knows it will take more than mastery of his affinity with plants to convince Ben they belong together.

When Ben’s application for human status is denied, he must fight to leave the paranormal world behind him while Nate’s generous impulses drag him into conflict with a werewolf pack with designs on ruling New Camden. As Ben’s vampire family draws closer to finding him, his vampire instinct awakens—throwing his continued existence into jeopardy. The hunt for the missing werewolf continues, and Nate and Ben become pawns in Councilor Wisner’s plans to take control of the city. Their only hope is each other—if they can see that before all is lost.

Available in Print from most major retailers.

Life After Humanity

Book Info

Author: Gillian St. Kevern

Series: Thorns and Fangs, Book Three

Release Date: January 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-947904-80-4

Format: ePub, Mobi

Cover Artist: Natasha Snow

Category: Romance

Genre: Paranormal

Word Count: 119000

Pages: 329

Sex Content: Explicit

Pairing: MM

Orientation: Bisexual, Gay

Identity: Cisgender

Warning: Scenes of graphic violence.

Excerpt

Life After Humanity
Gillian St. Kevern © 2017
All Rights Reserved

Chapter One

Someone had broken in.

Ben stood in the doorway of his New Camden apartment. The door swung open at his touch, even before he’d fished his key out of his pocket. Beneath his feet, the protective wards laid around the apartment throbbed like an open wound. Someone had forced their way past Ben’s carefully laid defenses—someone who was still there.

Damnit. Ben set his briefcase down noiselessly beside the door. Just one day. One day without anything supernatural happening. Is that too much to ask?

He didn’t move, using his senses to probe the darkness beyond the door. Vampire—or werewolf? He hadn’t felt any interference with his wards until he’d reached his apartment. That ruled out a magical practitioner or any lesser supernatural being that would have needed to unpick the spell piece by piece. Please, not another demon. None of the boxes dotted around the living room were big enough to hide an intruder. Unless they crouched behind the sofa or pressed against the wall in the shadows, they weren’t in the living room.

Keeping his attention focused on the apartment, Ben fished for his umbrella stand and the cane leaning against its back. It looked benign, as if it had been forgotten by an elderly visitor, but when Ben twisted the handle, he released the long blade hidden within.

Not Ben’s first choice of weapon—the blade was too long and too dainty—but it was a weapon, able to stand up to vampire or demon. If this is a werewolf, I am in serious trouble. The stale air of his apartment lacked the distinctive ripe odor of werewolf. Still, Ben couldn’t rule it out.

Why would a werewolf break into my apartment? True, Ben had a past as a supernatural investigator for ARX and had killed a few werewolves in his time—but that was the past. There was nothing linking his life now to ARX—was there?

Ben slipped noiselessly into the dimly lit living room, heading for the sofa. Nothing there—or in the shadows. He scanned the room, but everything looked as it had that afternoon when he’d stepped out to meet his accountant. All I did was my taxes! Where’s the harm in that?

But bringing his financial records up-to-date for the year he’d been dead had taken all of the afternoon. Ample time for whoever it was to find a hiding place. Ben stood motionless in the living room, straining with his senses for any clue to the intruder.

The open doors of his apartment were in deeper shadow than the rest of the living room. Reaching for the light switch was tempting, but Ben’s eyes were now accustomed to the dark. Readjusting would cost seconds he wasn’t sure he had. His eyes fell on the stacks of paper on his living room table.

At first glance they seemed undisturbed, but a closer look revealed a few papers had drifted to the side. Disturbed by a breeze? Ben turned to the kitchen door. A sliver of light was just visible through the crack beneath.

A trap. There was nothing of interest to any supernatural being in the kitchen, so it would be the last place he searched. His guard down, his senses dull, he’d be unprepared for whatever waited beyond. Or—Ben frowned as he approached the door—was there another explanation?

A faint sizzling sound emanated from beyond the door, followed by the heavy smell of garlic.

Ben’s nose twitched. A werewolf would not cook an enemy dinner. A demon wouldn’t know how. A vampire might—but a vampire would not use garlic.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Taking a deep breath, Ben slowly levered the handle down and let the door drift open. His fear was confirmed.

Nate stood at the counter, his back to the door. The strength implicit in his broad shoulders and muscular arms was softened—but not disguised—by the domesticity of his actions. As Ben watched, Nate lay down the knife and used the chopping board to slide his neatly diced peppers into the frying pan. At his elbow a pot boiled merrily.

Far more dangerous than any werewolf. Ben swallowed, finding it hard to speak. He felt as if he were caught in a spell, unable to do anything but watch.

Absorbed in his task, Nate seemed unaware of Ben’s presence. He was dressed down, wearing a faded T-shirt that hugged his torso. The edges of his jeans were frayed, hanging down over his bare feet. His hair hadn’t been styled, and it curled up at the base of his neck. Finished adding the mushrooms to the pan, he stirred its contents and then stretched out a hand to the basil growing in a pot on the windowsill. The window reflected his smile, inward and alarmingly personal.

Ben swallowed. Nate had broken in—so why did he feel like the intruder?

Dangerous. Ben dug his fingers into his arm. Focus! Casual worked annoyingly well for Nate, made more effective by the knowledge that Nate made a point of looking good. There were few people who got to see Nate dressed down. But Ben couldn’t think about that, or how right Nate looked in his kitchen. He had to get Nate out of his apartment before it was too late.

“What happened to seeing less of each other?”

Nate started, snatching his hand back from the basil. He turned, and Ben’s initial flash of triumph gave way to alarm. Nate’s eyes were a great weapon. Hazel and framed by dark, almost decadently soft lashes, they radiated whatever Nate felt with an immediacy that was hard to resist.

“Jesus, Ben! You scared the shit out of me—” He came to a halt. “Is that a sword?”

Ben looked down at the blade in his hand. It wouldn’t help him now. “It’s a family heirloom. Used to be my grandfather’s.” He turned back toward the front door.

“And you just keep it there by the door?” Nate followed Ben to the kitchen door to watch.

“In case of intruders.” Ben sheathed the sword and dropped the cane back in the stand. He shut the door. His heart raced. Ben took a moment to summon all his anger. I was this close to a day without anything supernatural happening! “You’d better have a good reason for breaking into my apartment.”

“I do.” Nate stood in the kitchen doorway, one hand resting against the frame.

“Let’s hear it then.”

“I had a bad feeling this afternoon. A premonition.”

Not this again! “It wasn’t a premonition.”

“It felt really real. I was just watching TV and all of a sudden, these words popped into my mind. You were gone and I wasn’t going to see you again. It really freaked me out.”

“Enough to add breaking and entering to your criminal file?”

Nate radiated hurt. He wrapped his arms around himself. “I had to see you. No one answered the door, so I tried calling. When it had been a couple of hours and you hadn’t answered your phone, I—well, I got worried.”

“And that’s when you broke in?” Ben pulled his phone out of his pocket, tapping in his pin.

“That was an accident. I had my hand on the door, and I was thinking about how much I wanted to be on the other side, and the door just…relaxed.”

Eight missed calls… Ben jerked his head up. “Relaxed?”

“I tried the handle and it opened.” Nate’s eyes settled anxiously on Ben’s. “Did I break anything?”

Ben looked down at the welcome mat beneath his feet. He didn’t need to lift it to know what he would find. His runes, intact but faintly smudged. “Only the natural laws regarding the magical properties of runes.”

Nate scratched the back of his neck. He dropped his gaze, shuffling his feet, but was unable to keep from looking up to check Ben’s expression. “Are you mad?”

Embarrassment looked wrong on Nate. Ben was reminded of a dog caught doing something he knew he shouldn’t be—and felt the tight knot of anger in his stomach undo. Curse him! If Ben was going to get out of this encounter unscathed he needed his anger. “Of course I’m mad. My apartment is my place. Coming home to find someone’s forced their way in is…not good.” Not good? That wasn’t going to convince anyone—least of all anyone with Nate’s perceptive nature.

It was hard to read Nate’s expression. “I made dinner. As an apology.”

At least he realized he needed to apologize— No! I have to be firm. “I think your apology is burning.”

“Shit!” Nate ducked back through the doorway to attend to the frying pan.

Ben took the opportunity to escape.

 

What is wrong with me? Ben leaned against his bathroom counter, letting the cold marble soothe his racing thoughts. The locked bathroom door wasn’t much of a defense—not if what Nate had said about the door opening for him was true. How does that even work? His powers are related to plants… Ben’s eyes widened. The wooden door? He hadn’t thought about it, but if Nate could command dead wood as well as living—

I’m not thinking about this. Ben pulled his attention firmly back to the present. He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, purposefully calming his racing thoughts. Think ordinary thoughts. Human thoughts.

His cheeks felt hot. Ben glanced in the mirror and discovered he had color in his face. For once, he looked normal.

Damnit, Nate! Ben splashed water on his cheeks.

It wasn’t fair. He could go days without feeling anything—not anger, not joy, not even hunger. But five minutes with Nate and his body raced with conflicting emotions. This is the most human I’ve felt all week—and it’s because of Nate.

Ben caught his lip between his teeth. It would be easy—very easy—to lean on Nate’s strength, let himself be caught up in the maelstrom of feeling Nate produced.

No. I have to do this myself. Ben roughly toweled his face dry.

“Hey, Ben?” Nate’s voice sounded outside the door. “You want to eat in the dining room or the kitchen?”

The thought of the long living room table surrounded by unpacked boxes did not appeal, but the intimacy of the tiny kitchen table was too great a risk coupled with Nate’s familiarity. “The dining room.”

Nate still hesitated. “The table’s got all your papers on it.”

“Leave them,” Ben said immediately. “I’ll clear a space.”

Not until he heard Nate’s footsteps depart did Ben realize what a mistake he’d made. Stupid! He’d agreed to dinner—accepting Nate’s apology at the same time.

Every time I give in, it gets harder to say no. Ben gave his reflection a critical glance. He was still more flushed than he was comfortable with, but it would have to do. He couldn’t risk Nate making himself any more at home.

His briefcase was still by the door. Ben set it on the table, quickly stacking the papers on the table and placing them out of sight within the case. Luckily, anticipating a long wait in his accountant’s office, he’d taken his application for humanity with him. If Nate had seen it…

Hold on to that thought. Ben snapped the briefcase shut. This is an intrusion.

“Sorry about that. I didn’t want to put you out.” Nate reappeared. He had a steaming plate in either hand.

“Then maybe you shouldn’t have broken into my apartment.” Ben kept his voice firm. He’d given way enough for one evening. He deliberately set down two place mats on opposite sides of the wide table.

“I haven’t told you the whole story.” Nate set the plates down and went back for cutlery. “Right after the premonition—”

“It wasn’t a premonition.” Ben sat.

“Weird feeling then.” Nate handed him a knife and fork, before walking back the length of the table to his own place. “Ethan called.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “I can see why that would be unsettling.” Ethan was Nate’s notoriously antisocial twin brother.

“Hey.” Nate frowned at Ben even as his mouth twisted in amusement. “Ethan can use a phone when he wants.”

“He just doesn’t want to very often?” Unlike Nate, a confirmed people person, Ethan could go hours without saying more than a couple of words. He was happiest working in his orchard alone with his plants.

“Yeah.” Nate’s grin faded. “He had news. Someone came to the farm last night. Someone—off.” Nate glanced at Ben. “I think it was Hunter.”

A cold jolt shot through Ben’s entire body. His heart began to thump again, not with the heat of awareness of Nate’s presence, but a cold stab of fear. He couldn’t be found by his vampire family. Not now. “What makes you think that?”

“The description matches. The guy had a nice car and clothes, and black hair. He asked about you.”

Ben forced his throat muscles to relax. “What did Ethan tell him?”

“Nothing.” Nate raised a hand, his fingers grasping for the right word. “He said the guy felt—rotten. He didn’t like him. He told him to leave.”

“Your brother always did have a talent for hospitality.” Ben pinched the bridge of his nose. “How did he trace me? Did you—”

“The only one who knows where we were is Aki,” Nate said. “And he doesn’t know exactly where. I don’t give my address out to anyone.”

At least Nate had that much sense. Aki was not Nate’s best friend based on his ability to keep his mouth shut. “The police. The sheriff’s department in Little River had my ARX record. So did the team from Chinquapin. If they’d requested confirmation from ARX, that would be logged. Hunter must have seen my name in the records and decided to look into it.”

“You think that’s all it is?” Nate pushed the pasta around on his plate. “You don’t think he’s investigating us?”

Ben couldn’t blame Nate for being alarmed. His family farm in Little River hid a big secret. “His main priority will be finding me. He knows you’re not what you seem, but currently he’ll be more concerned with locating us than spending time uncovering your secrets—and it would take more than one night to work out you and Ethan.”

Nate’s smile was faint. “I don’t like this. What’s to say he won’t come back? Or worse—come here?”

“That’s a possibility I’m prepared for.” Ben glanced toward the front door. “I’ve been working on a systematic upgrade of my wards. No way Hunter is getting past them.”

Nate turned his head to look. “I haven’t—screwed that up?”

“If anything, you’ve alerted me to a possible security issue.” Figuring out how Nate had breached his wards would help Ben make them stronger. “Not that I want you to make a habit of breaking in.”

Nate shook his head. “It was just Ethan’s call coming straight after my—weird feeling.” He looked at Ben. “You’re sure what I felt wasn’t…anything more?”

“Positive,” Ben said promptly. Better to nip this in the bud. “Real premonitions are incredibly rare, even among people with a proven record of psychic sensitivity. You have the magical sensitivity of a log.”

“Hey!”

Ben nudged Nate’s leg beneath the table. “You spent three days living in Gunn’s bathtub without any idea the guy was a lemur.

“To be fair, I was more concerned by the guy’s complete lack of any housekeeping skills.” Nate paused. “You’re sure—what am I saying? Of course you’re sure.” He picked up his knife and fork, digging into his meal.

Ben watched him eat. Nate’s complete confidence in his statements was unnerving—but at the same time, it eased some of the disquiet he felt. He picked up his own fork.

The silence between them grew. Good. The added distance would help. Ben applied himself to his meal. Nate had made spaghetti with a meat sauce. Ben carefully separated his noodles from the sauce before eating the pasta one at a time.

Nate finished his meal well before Ben. He looked around the apartment. “You still haven’t unpacked?”

“I’m working on it.” The remark was defensive, and Ben immediately regretted it. “I’m taking my time, making up a list of everything. For the insurance.”

“That makes sense, I guess.” Nate continued to look around. “What about that painting? You going to put it up?”

Ben felt heat rush to his cheeks. How does Nate always know? He’d unpacked the painting, determined to hang it up and make his apartment look more like someone lived there. Instead, he’d been paralyzed, unable to make the decision of where to place it. After two hours second-guessing himself, he’d left the painting leaning against the wall. “When I decide where to put it. I don’t want to leave a bunch of holes in the wall.”

Nate glanced at him. “I wondered if maybe you were having trouble adjusting to living here.”

Ben felt his heart start to beat with an awareness of danger. “Trouble?”

“The same way you’re having trouble adjusting to not being a vampire anymore.”

Ben put down his fork. “I’m not having trouble.” The words were harsher than he’d intended, but it was too late to take them back. “I hated being a vampire. Loathed every second of it. I don’t miss it!” He caught his breath.

Nate’s gaze was steady, and he met Ben’s eyes with concern. “I never said you did. It’s just… It’s been weeks and you’re still living out of boxes. You don’t go out, except on business, and a lot of the time…you don’t go out at all.”

Ben swallowed. “You’ve been watching me?”

“Not like that. But Aki and I… Well, we’re worried about you, right? So we notice things.”

“You don’t need to worry. I’m doing fine.” Ben kept his tone firm. “You’ve got to remember you and Aki might be extroverts, but I’m not. I like being on my own—living my new life the way I want to.”

“You sure living’s the right word?”

Ben narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”

Nate nodded toward the kitchen door. “Your cupboards.”

“What’s wrong with my cupboards?”

“You tell me.”

Ben shot Nate a glance, but it was impossible to read his thoughts. “All right.” He went to the kitchen, opening the pantry. The shelves held a neat stack of packets of candles, bulbs of garlic in a net, and a bulk bag of salt. “It looks fine. Everything’s tidy. A bit empty perhaps, but I am the only person living in this apartment.”

“Nothing’s missing?” Nate had followed him as far as the kitchen doorway.

Ben shook his head. “I’ve got all the basics of spell craft covered.”

“And the basics of living? You know, like food?” Nate waved toward the pantry. “Unless you plan to subsist entirely on garlic, in which case we’re gonna need to talk about that.”

Ben snapped his head back to stare at his pantry. He felt his cheeks heat. I never even thought of that. “I—”

“While I was waiting for you to come back, I took a look at your fridge.” Nate waved his hand toward it. “Looked like you were getting low on supplies. So I went out and got you a few things.”

Ben opened the fridge. He saw a loaf of bread, a carton of eggs, a carton of milk, and a plastic container holding what remained of their dinner.

“I know your tastes are pretty simple, so I didn’t want to get too much.” Nate scratched the back of his neck. “I figured I’d stick with toast and things you could have with it.”

Ben stared wordlessly at the loaf of bread. It was a little alarming to discover just how well Nate knew him. “Thanks. I—appreciate this.” He turned his head back to look at Nate. “Did you break into my apartment, go out for groceries, and come back?”

Nate squirmed. “Maybe?”

Ben shut the fridge door and leaned against it. “You realize that’s not exactly ordinary behavior either.”

“Yeah, well.” Nate scowled. “I’m not trying to be ordinary, am I?”

Have I touched a nerve? Ben fought the impulse to apologize. This is good. Even if it felt wrong. “You’re finally working on your supernatural abilities?”

“Yeah. Matter of fact, I’ve got something to show you. Come see.” Nate led the way through the apartment to Ben’s bedroom.

Bad idea. Ben couldn’t help the jolt of interest that went through him at the memory of lying tangled with Nate in the sheets of his bed. He quickened his pace. “We’re not—”

Nate had pulled the window up and sat perched on the windowsill, his legs resting on the fire escape outside. “We’re not?” he prompted, voice deliberately innocent.

As if he doesn’t know. Ben narrowed his eyes. He was not going to play those games. Nate always won. “What is this ‘something’ you want to show me?”

The fire escape creaked as Nate slid onto it. “Out here.”

Ben leaned out the open window. He breathed in the New Camden night. The familiar smell of burnt rubber and rust met his nose. In the street beneath them, a steady stream of cars passed despite the lateness of the hour.

Ben frowned as his nose caught a smell he associated with Nate—the earthy smell of growing things. His eyes picked out dark shapes that rustled in the slight breeze. “Plants on the fire escape? I’m pretty sure that’s a hazard.”

“Relax, Mr. Landlord.” Nate had descended the stairs to the platform halfway between his room and Ben’s. “They’re not in anyone’s way. Turn the light on?”

Ben did as he was told. The light illuminated a collection of house plants. Hanging out with Nate had done wonders for Ben’s plant knowledge. He thought he recognized a few of them. “You’ll have to move these before the next safety inspection.”

“Don’t worry about that now.” Nate put his hands in the pocket of his jeans. “Watch the morning glory.”

Which was the morning glory? Ben frowned at the pots, and then he realized—one of the vines was moving. It was twined around the railing, with broad leaves and tightly wound dark-blue buds. As Ben watched, the buds unfolded into rich blue flowers, their perfume adding a sweet note to the night air. “You’re doing that?”

“Cool, right?” Nate grinned. “And no hands.”

Ben’s head jerked up, and quickly back to the plants. Nate’s eyes were flushed with pleasure, and his grin said only too clearly how pleased he was with himself. Ben’s heart lurched. “Impressive.” He hesitated. From being entirely ignorant of his powers, to refining his use of them in less than a month… It was an achievement for anyone, especially for Nate, who had resisted his supernatural abilities for most of his life. “You’ve come a long way, Nate.”

“Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even know what he is.” The fire escape creaked again as Nate shuffled. “Actually… I was thinking of celebrating my progress by going out for dinner. You want to come?”

Ben drew a deep breath. There it is. The moment he’d been dreading. “A date?”

“Not necessarily.” Nate’s shoulders hunched. The shadows hid his face, but Ben had too good an idea of his expression. “I mean, we’re friends, right? And friends do things together.”

Ben clenched the windowsill. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Why not? We’re important to each other, so why pretend otherwise? Not seeing each other is—well, it’s stupid. What are you afraid of? Getting involved? We’re already involved.”

Ben’s mouth twisted. That boat had long sailed. “It’s not that.”

“So what is it?” Nate ran a hand through his hair. “We decided we needed time to get ourselves together, right? And in that time, I haven’t seen you at all.”

“I’m working on things.”

“Are you? Because it feels like—” Nate caught himself with a rapid intake of breath.

Ben’s hands tightened on the railing. “Like I’m avoiding you?”

The railing creaked as Nate leaned heavily against it. “I wasn’t going to say that. I don’t want to pressure you. But at the same time—”

“You can’t help feeling what you feel.” Ben breathed out. He’d been so focused on the end goal of their separation that he hadn’t stopped to think how Nate might take it.

“When I don’t hear anything from you, it’s really easy to worry. I’m not asking much. Just—an update every now and then.”

“An update.” Ben wrapped his arms around himself.

“So I know you haven’t forgotten me.”

It was impossible to think of forgetting Nate. Might as well talk about forgetting a hurricane! He’d waltzed into Ben’s life, turning it upside down, leaving Ben reeling from the sheer force of his personality. “I’m not going to forget you. As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about us.” He took a deep breath, gripping the windowsill. “I’m lodging an application for humanity.”

Anyone else would have laughed. Nate climbed the stairs to get a better view of Ben’s expression. “For humanity? You mean—being human?”

Ben’s heart thumped again as he nodded. “I want my supernatural status overturned and to be recognized as human.”

“Seriously?” Nate frowned at him. “Why is there even an application for that? You’re the most human person I know.”

It was patently untrue. Only Nate would have the nerve to lie so badly. Looking up, Ben caught Nate’s gaze and swallowed. He can’t—he doesn’t believe that? “Vampires don’t stop being vampires. This isn’t supposed to happen. I should be dead. Not moving back into my childhood home.”

“So they still want to treat you like a vampire? That’s ridiculous! What do they think you’re going to do—drink blood?” Nate thumped his hand against the railing. “Department Seven cleared you. Pulse, no aversion to crosses, garlic—hell, you walk around in daylight—”

Ben smiled faintly. Nate’s belief was somehow welcome. “I’m still on the supernatural register as a vampire.”

“But you’re obviously not a vampire.”

“Right. But the supernatural listing means I’m subject to ARX attention. As long as Saltaire thought I was dead, I was safe. But now Hunter’s looking for me, I need to get declassified as soon as possible.”

“Shit.” Nate straightened. “I didn’t even think of that.”

Ben smiled thinly. “I’ve got some time. Saltaire’s out of the country. I just have to make sure my application’s approved before he comes back—or before Hunter finds me.”

“But will your legal status really deter Saltaire? I mean—well, he is a megavampire, right? And he’s already tried to kill you once. Will a bit of red tape really stop him?”

Megavampire? Ben decided it was better to leave Nate’s appalling ignorance of the supernatural for another time. “This particular red tape, yes. Saltaire might be a law unto himself, but he’s got a code that he sticks to. Supernatural creatures, other vampires, magic-users, they’re all fair game. But he will never kill a human. That’s where he draws the line.”

“And vampires don’t change.” Nate twisted one of the morning glory’s leaves in his fingers. “What does getting classified as human entail?”

Ben shrugged. “It’s hard to say. There’s a precedent for getting declassified as a magic-user or occult specialist, but going from something like vampire… As far as I know, I’m the first to apply. I’ve got all the information they could possibly need. The results of the Department Seven examination, a medical exam, a letter confirming my identity from my father’s lawyer, but I don’t know if it’ll be enough.”

“What more could they ask for?”

Ben took a deep breath. “There’s a good chance they’ll look into my lifestyle. Including my acquaintances.”

Nate went very still. “Meaning me.”

“Whether you’re Class Three Unknown or Class Five At Risk doesn’t make a single bit of difference to me. You’re more important to me than anyone else I know,” Ben said immediately. “This won’t be forever. Just until my application is approved.”

“You should have said something. What if I’d bungled in while—I don’t know—you were being interviewed or something? I could have ruined everything.”

“I was afraid to tell you.” Ben leaned against the windowsill. “I didn’t want you to be upset. You—being human was such a big part of your identity. Watching me pursue this, knowing you can’t—”

“It’s a good thing, Ben.” Nate’s hands were warm on Ben’s shoulders. “If it gets Saltaire off your back, a very good thing.”

Holding himself apart from that warmth was too hard. Ben gave in, leaning against Nate’s chest. “You’re sure?”

“Totally.” Nate’s arms settled around him. “No one deserves a break more than you, Ben. After all the crap you’ve been through, there’s no way I’d hold this against you.”

Ben breathed out. Hearing Nate say the words made him realize just how much he’d feared his reaction. “That means a lot.”

“Hang on a second.” Nate turned down the fire escape. “I’ve got something for you.”

“For me?” Ben stayed where he was. He heard the scrape as Nate opened his own window and climbed through it.

Nate’s voice floated back to him. “It’s not much. Sort of a—good luck charm.”

“I wasn’t aware your talents extended to luck. Or is this like your premonitions?”

“Careful, or I might decide to keep it.” The fire escape announced Nate’s return. He held out his hand to Ben. “Here. I was planning to put it on a piece of leather, so you could wear it if you wanted.”

It was an acorn, plump and glossy in Nate’s hand. Ben took it, relishing the smoothness of the seed. “An acorn?”

“It’s small, but it’s strong—strong enough to become an oak.” Nate glanced at him. “It’s from the tree in Mason’s Park.”

Ben’s head snapped up. “Where you got murdered?” He didn’t think he’d ever forget the horror of finding Nate’s dead body beneath the oak. “You went back there? Why?” That was the last place Ben wanted to go.

“That tree kept us safe from the revenants. And it’s where I figured out how to find you again and where you found me. It reminds me, even when the worst happens, we can—and have—overcome it.”

Finding strength in his own death? Ben caught his breath. Once again, Nate had taken him entirely unaware. “I’d never thought of it like that.”

“I usually keep it in my pocket. If I’m having a bad day, or something happens, it’s a good reminder of my own strength.”

“This is yours? Nate, I can’t take this—”

“I want you to have it. If I can’t be around to remind you how strong you are, then this is a good reminder.”

Ben’s hand tightened around the acorn. “It won’t be forever. Just until I get declassified.”

“I know.” Nate placed his hand over Ben’s. “Until then.” He leaned in.

I shouldn’t do this. Ben’s body tugged toward Nate, as if they were magnetically charged. He braced himself, but the touch of Nate’s mouth on his was still a shock. Nate was electric, the contact between them sending a buzz through Ben’s entire body. And weakened by days without any contact at all, Ben responded to it greedily. He tangled his fingers into the cloth of Nate’s T-shirt, holding him close as he sank into the kiss.

Nate hummed, a satisfied sound that rippled through Ben. How dare he sound so pleased with himself? Ben squeezed Nate’s arm in warning, as he fought for control of the kiss. It didn’t matter what he did. Nate was a master at this, and Ben’s heart pounded with awareness of how neatly he was trapped. And with Nate’s smooth lips trapping his tongue, his earthy scent mingling with the morning glory in every breath Ben took, he didn’t care—

He surged toward Nate, needing to feel more of him and collided with the edge of the ledge. Ben jerked back in pain. The arm not holding the acorn was still tangled around Nate’s shoulders—I don’t even remember when that happened—and Nate’s arms wrapped around his back. Ben took a deep breath.

And stepped back.

Nate let go as he did, straightening. The light from Ben’s bedroom caught his lips, made them shine. His eyes were almost completely dark. His cheeks were flushed, and it took him a moment to get his breathing under control.

Ben’s own chest rose and fell rapidly. He sucked in a breath, aware of just how close he’d come to succumbing to Nate’s charm. A part of him cried out to be trapped again. “Good night, Nate.” Oh fuck. He sounded shaky—far too breathless.

Nate’s mouth curved in amusement. “Night, Ben.” He turned, making his way down the fire escape. As he reached the platform beside his window, his voice floated back to Ben. “Don’t be a stranger.” His window clicked shut behind him.

Ben breathed out. He pulled the window of his room down. “Dangerous.” Every second he spent around Nate, the man got further beneath his skin.

And is that so bad? Ben tried to stamp down on the thought, but it persisted. He saved your life. Really cares about you. Wants what’s best for you—

But that was the problem. Ben took a deep breath. He didn’t know who he was. He had to figure that out first. Otherwise, he’d end up influenced by Nate.”

Is that such a bad thing?

Ben’s grip on the acorn tightened. Their relationship was too important to end up tainted, like… He swallowed. Thinking of his vampire family was always hard. He’d trusted them. Believed them. Really thought he was doing what he wanted… And now, he could never be sure just how far he’d been influenced.

Nate’s not Saltaire—or Hunter. He’s not even a vampire.

He was unknown. Ben put the acorn in his pocket and pulled the curtains firmly shut. No. It had to be this way.

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