Book One: A PsiCorps Novella
Torrin leaned in, nearly pressing his nose to the glass of the mirror. He recognized his face yet a stranger still stared back at him. Four years. How could you wake up with four years gone?
“Agent St. James, if you’d please return to your chair. The doctors were very clear that you could attend this meeting but only if we kept you off your feet and resting.”
Torrin straightened and turned sideways. They had only let him have a shaving mirror in the hospital. For the first time he could see all the changes at once. He’d leaned out despite the protein supplements and electro-muscular stimulation. He fit in his rookie scrubs from Psi Corp again … depressing, but it could be worse. His fiancé Sky and his field Partner Riley had worked out with him six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year to ditch the wiry frame that genetics had stuck Torrin with. He’d graduated from nicknames like beanpole and lamppost to yeti during his Psi Corp career, a significant step-up in his opinion. Now he’d been regressed to an in-between stage Riley had called “Baby Sasquatch.”
It went far beyond odd to see a body progressively younger that sported a complexion subtly lighter and therefore subtly older, but both that allegedly belonged to him. He raised his shirt and touched the tattoo in the center of his chest. The twining snakes knotted through a circle and formed a triquetra that spanned the width of his hand. The design had initially been flawless, the scales of the snakes actually texturized in a special process that had taken twelve hours. Now the symbol of his Triad had been marred … like the Triad itself. Torrin fingered the scar on the lower left side, left behind by the bullet that had nicked his heart.
“Agent St. James,” the Handler began.
“I didn’t come here to sit down, Quintus. I’m here because it’s the only way the assistant DA will let me see my fiancé and my Partner. I’ve given my testimony, it’s been recorded and ruled admissible, there’s no longer any danger that physical exertion or mental trauma will affect my memory, and even if it did, you don’t need me anymore. Now, I’d appreciate the chance to freak out a little longer about seeing my loved ones for the first time in four years. Loved ones that I might remind you—you told I was dead.”
Quintus held his hands up in surrender. “I will not go over this again. When you go into a witness security detail there are certain protocols. WitSecPsi would not take them into the program with you in a coma, and it was a sound decision. Both are at the top of their careers, both have helped to put away a great deal of criminals these last four years, and both have healed and moved on with their lives without the danger of Florini’s men hunting them down. Would you have wanted the alternative for them? Stuck in witness protection, clinging to hope, unable to move forward while you languished in a coma? Or would you have preferred all three of you out of WitSecPsi and most likely dead as Florini ordered a bomb placed in the hospital during one of their visits? This was the only option, Agent St. James.”
Perhaps, but that didn’t make it any better. “But did you have to tell them I was dead?”
“Dead was the cover story and a cover is non-negotiable. For Florini’s men to believe it, no one outside of WitSecPsi could know different. There was, and is, no way of identifying the leak. Keeping you all alive meant keeping your cover intact. I will not apologize for keeping you all alive, Agent St. James. I am, however, sorry the cost was so great.”
He wouldn’t get anything better out of Quintus, and considering it was the most he’d ever gotten, Torrin chalked it up to a win.
“I don’t know how I’m going to tell my mother. The doctors suggested I wait so her emotional stress didn’t add to mine. You’d think they’d realize waiting added to my emotional stress. Too much time to think.” Torrin rubbed his hands over his face. “I kept dreaming that I heard her voice while I was in the coma.”
Quintus went completely still, not even appearing to breathe for a moment. He shook himself out of it and began sorting through paperwork.
“Quintus.” It slid out in a snake charmer’s soothing whisper. “What did you tell my mother?”
Quintus continued shuffling papers, intently looking for something. The moment stretched out so long Torrin’s lips parted to ask a second time before Quintus spoke.
“She came to my office and said she’d have felt it if her only child had died. She told me to look her in the eyes and declare you dead and forever gone from her.” Quintus looked up from his documents. “She’s your mother. I couldn’t take away her only child.” His look became stern. “I did not, however, break your cover. I simply refrained from doing what she asked of me. As a result she began dropping off audios of herself reading stories and talking to you. She never asked me again. I never rebuffed her packages. And the doctors thought it might be good for you. So there we are.”
Torrin took to his feet again. “My mother knows I’m alive, I mean, knows I’m alive and I still haven’t been able to see her? The ADA said I couldn’t even think about calling until after the close of the trial. It doesn’t make any sense if she already knows.”
“Agent St. James.” Quintus sighed. “If you will take your seat again so we are compliant with the doctors’ orders. Seeing your mother will be worked out just as seeing the rest of your loved ones has been. Right now we have to finish the WitSecPsi paperwork.”
Torrin paced around him, defiant. Quintus reached out and took Torrin’s hand. “I’ve treaded as close to the line for you as I could and still do my job to keep you safe. No one’s had it easy, Torrin, but at least we can all get through it if you’d just sit down.”
Torrin looked down to where they touched. His large, dark olive hand made Quintus’s smaller, pale one look delicate. It was hard to make someone five feet eleven inches, one hundred and ninety pounds look fragile but at nearly six and a half feet and a slimmed two hundred and twenty pounds Torrin managed it. He let his thumb stroke the milky skin along Quintus’s thumb. His long-term memory was fuzzy, but of what he had he could count the number of times his Handler had touched him with bare skin outside of a medical emergency. This would be the eighth instance in twelve years Torrin could recall. Empaths in general didn’t like skin contact with people outside their Triads … especially other Empaths.
Quintus stared at their hands as well, as if he couldn’t quite make sense of it. The silence grew. Thirty seconds, sixty, ninety seconds and then Quintus looked up at Torrin. Sky-blue eyes had gone glacial-white, and Torrin shivered beneath the gaze. Sincerity and the echo of old grief moved up his arm from where they touched, while Torrin’s anxiety and loss moved down.
“I’m sorry, Quintus. I owe you everything, including the chance to be here and be an ass. I’ll sit down.”
Quintus blinked and only clear blue skies stared out at Torrin once more. “Thank you, Agent St. James. You have my sympathy. I could not imagine how this was for you. I wish I could make it easier.”
Their hands fell away from one another—a near autonomous motion that made them separate beings again. Torrin sat down and pulled the paperwork toward him. The hard copies became a blur as they moved from point to point in Quintus’s ever-methodical manner.
“How long?” Torrin gave no qualifier or context. He didn’t need to.
“The first six years. Until it was quite clear you could not see beyond Riley and Sky. There was no room for me and so I ceased looking for it. Being your Handler became enough, Agent St. James.”
Quintus never looked up. He passed another datapad for Torrin’s thumbprint and continued on with their task. Torrin wanted to push. How do you not push when you realize someone used to be in love with you? How do you leave it alone when in the touch of a hand your glorified babysitter becomes a well of lost potential?
The first day at PsiCorps, Torrin had imprinted onto Riley and Sky like a hatchling to movement. Each had dominated their psychic categories, setting records in CyberPsi and Psychometry that still held in the Corp more than a decade later. He’d been so dazzled and swept up in their skill and confidence that Torrin had never wondered about his choice. He had never considered what would have happened if he’d just sat at a different table for breakfast that first day; just one table over in the empty seat beside Quintus.
“This is the last set.”
Torrin nodded and took the papers and datapad. Quintus read off the pertinent points aloud, and Torrin took stock of the other man. Quintus’s hair fell in thick, raven waves that captured the light and threw back blue highlights. Skin, merely pale before, shone alabaster in contrast, clear and smooth; trapped in a youth that would not begin to wane for several decades more … if then. Matte black lashes fringed midday blue eyes that sat large in his face, not quite balanced out by a strong nose and full mouth.
The curve of his neck, strong but almost slender; the set of his shoulders, masculine but streamlined, the body muscled but lean; men like Quintus danced the line between pretty and handsome. A rounding of the jaw, a certain set of the eyes, a half inch there and a quarter turn here, and Quintus had come down firmly on the side of pretty with handsome close enough to lean over and lay its head on his shoulder.
He’d noticed Quintus’s beauty before, on more than one occasion. But now his mind fought to put it in the context of a different choice, a life unlived.
“Will you require another Handler, Agent St. James?”
Torrin blinked. “What?”
“You’re staring, trapped in a thought cycle. There is a great deal on your plate right now and you have no time for what ifs. Do you require another Handler to get through the last of the trial or shall we move past this?”
Torrin nodded. “We’re past it. I’m fine.” He looked down at the papers and started going through clauses and signing agreements. Had he ever touched Quintus intimately before they became Handler and agent? He seemed to remember touching his face while they were shielded. Had that happened? The holes and blurs in his long-term memory gaped in mocking, but Torrin could almost feel the smooth skin glide beneath his hand like silk and cream, leaving the imagination open to what the rest would feel like.
“Agent St. James!”
Torrin looked up and fought to focus. He’d begun to trance unintentionally.
“Did I project?”
Well, damn. Torrin rubbed his face and laid his forehead on the table. The cool wood calmed his thoughts. The scent brought to mind home and safety. He and Sky had bought a table similar to this one … similar. Sky and Quintus shared a similar pale beauty, though Sky’s was darker, richer, aged ivory rather than new snow. But it had looked stark against the grain of the wood as they christened the new table. Would Quintus be even more striking against the mahogany? Would his cries sound as intimate and soul-searing off the unfamiliar walls of the safe room? Black hair spilling—raven feathers on wood—the way Sky’s had fanned like rubies tossed in the sun. No, in the snow, rubies in the snow, the two of them naked against the wood.
“Agent St. James!”
Torrin’s head snapped up. His Handler was close and sometime during Torrin’s reverie he had acquired gloves. “What’s happening to me, Quintus?”
Quintus took him by the chin, tilting his head back. “You fully Tranced that time but your eyes are almost normal in color. How do you feel?”
Torrin didn’t hesitate. “Like I touched something in your mind. Something I should leave alone like a bad tooth but my tongue keeps going back to it. My tongue keeps finding you.” That didn’t make any sense. It was a thought not a person. His tongue couldn’t find Quintus. It could lick along his spine and trace the hollow of his groin before swirling around his—
“Agent St. James, I don’t know if you’re strong enough for me to follow protocol in this. What does Agent Valin do when this happens? I’ve only seen the aftermath on surveillance.”
Agent Valin, Riley, his Partner. “Riley. Riley could always pull me back.” He leaned back, closed his eyes, and reached for memories of his Partner. An immediate calm touched him, his being wrapped in the image of laughing mocha eyes and dark amber skin. Skin damp with perspiration, a jeweled glow in the candlelight, made darker by the pale hand moving beside Torrin’s own—alabaster not ivory, Quintus’s hand, not Sky’s. To see them together, the three of them, Riley’s amber lost in alabaster and ivory.
“Shut it down, Torrin!”
Torrin opened his eyes and looked at his Handler. Quintus stood against the far wall, his back pressed into the plaster as if he’d tried to push through to the other room.
“My eyes?” Torrin asked.
Torrin smiled. “Most people would have just said light green.”
“I am not most people.”
Torrin rose and Quintus tensed. “No, you’re not most people. You’re not most Empaths either.” Torrin stalked forward. “You did this.” He smiled. “You’ve been naughty, Quintus. What did you do when you touched me? What were you hiding?”
Quintus straightened under the weight of Torrin’s gaze, all prey behavior vanishing as he did what he did best—remain silent. Torrin stood across from someone who could put him back in that coma if push came to shove. But neither pushing nor shoving held Torrin’s thoughts and he continued to close the distance between them.
“You wanted me to see, to understand, but you had a barrier in place. You let me in, but kept me to the tourist routes.” He advanced on Quintus, unperturbed by the arrogant efficiency on his Handler’s face. He knew what lay beyond the mask now and it lost some of its power. “I still saw something, sensed something, didn’t I?”
“Agent St. James. Pull back, you aren’t ready for this much power flow. You’ll put yourself back in the hospital.”
Torrin reached the other man and placed a hand on the wall a few inches from Quintus’s head. “You’re right. I’m Trancing too easily, as if I’ve lost all my training. I’m not ready for this.” He placed his other hand on the wall, caging Quintus with his body. “Why would I have fallen to this so easily with the inhibitors in place? Seems odd, don’t you think? Unless of course there was something underneath the longing you showed me. Something significant enough that my mind is working its way around the blocks as best it can.”
Quintus arched a brow. “Is that rhetorical? For if I did indeed withhold something, if I kept you from a truth or truths your subconscious caught out of the corner of your inner eye, it would be because I thought it important that your mind rebuild in its own time. Such a firm belief would leave me unwilling or unable to answer your questions. So are you wasting your time with questions I won’t answer or questions I’m not meant to answer?”
Torrin watched his mouth move, hearing the words but regarding them as nothing more than a reason to make Quintus’s lips take interesting, enticing shapes. “You talk when you’re nervous. Why are you nervous, Quintus? Is it part of what you’re hiding?”
Quintus’s tongue snuck out to wet his lips. “Is this more rhetoric or a further exercise in frustration, Agent St. James? I’m sure it makes a difference to the doctors for the psyche evaluation. You remember the psyche evaluation? The one you must pass in order to see Riley and Sky?”
A threat lay within the statement, one significant enough to snap Torrin sober. Unfortunately it came accompanied with a realization that he recognized those enticing shapes Quintus’s lips made, not by sight but by feel.
“I’ve kissed you before. I don’t remember it but I’ve kissed you before.” Torrin leaned, his mouth hovering above Quintus’s, sharing breath. “I can feel it the way I can feel the skin of your face beneath my hand. The empty spaces in my mind are pulling at me, nature abhorring a vacuum.” His eyes closed as his mind searched. “I touched something in your thoughts, but you’ve obscured the truth about it, the depth.”
“Sky,” Quintus whispered. “You projected images of Sky as well as me. Perhaps you’ve mixed things up. There are things you don’t remember about Sky but they are not mine to tell as we’ve agreed. You do remember agreeing?”
Yes, Torrin had agreed. Some things he just needed to hear from Sky and Riley. How things had been just before. How they had moved on without him. There were truths, memories that couldn’t come from doctors and Handlers.
“I’m mixed up?” Torrin asked, putting distance between them.
“I put it forth as a distinct possibility to consider, Agent St. James.”
That was not a yes. He took back the distance between them and more, a breath above a kiss. “Every thought leads back to sex—no, to more. Memories of making love somehow circle back to you, Quintus. Choices not made, a life not lived, resonate with something beyond. Am I confusing you and Riley as well? Or do all roads lead to Rome because that’s where I’m supposed to be?”
Torrin’s body sank forward, stopped a strained thought away as Quintus gripped his hip with a gloved hand.
“Don’t. Your logic is flawed. Everything comes back to sex for those of you brought into your full abilities that way. You’d be thinking sex no matter the mystery at hand. It is your nature. You need to sit back down, Agent St. James.”
Yes, he did. “You could make me. Are you willing to put me back in the hospital?” Only silence answered and that conveyed no enough. “If I kiss you, will it feel familiar?” Torrin closed the distance and answered his own question. The lines and planes of their bodies met and moved in familiar rhythm. Threat of a kiss became promise, and the world burst from black and white to color.
No distinct thought, no decision, just the reality of taste and texture and friction. He lifted Quintus by the hips, pinning his Handler against the wall with his weight. Torrin broke the kiss long enough to pull the shirt of his scrubs over his head, and then there was nothing but the sweet taste that was citrus and mint and Empath and Quintus.
Torrin’s body chased the feel of the man against him the way his mind chased Quintus’s thoughts. The more the latter eluded him, the more frantic the former became in his desperation. His hands seared a path of memory—new and old—over the landscape of Quintus’s body, dodging belts, evading cloth and eluding buttons to bring them skin to skin.
Quintus’s barrier wavered but held, and Torrin left his Handler to stand on his own feet again. It left Torrin to kiss his way down Quintus’s body with lips, teeth and tongue, catching perfect skin to leave behind imprints of where he’d been. When the waistband of cotton boxer-briefs impeded his progress, Torrin moved them aside and captured Quintus’s length in his hand, guiding the erection to his mouth.
Quintus slipped a bare hand into his hair and gripped tight. The barrier wavered again and broke, flooding Torrin’s mind. Understanding, clear and pure, crystallized until the sparkle dazzled his inner eye. Another room, another embrace of desperation, another moment of kneeling and seeking all spread out before him for his perusal.
Torrin could see it, could see that there was more. He reached for it, sought it out and got tantalizingly close.
Then the world was made of pain.
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