“Where in the world have you been, Shawn?” Kenrick's voice sounded louder in the confines of the elevator. The small space unnerved Shawn a little, having become accustomed to everything being on so much larger of a scale. The upper world was smaller than he recalled.
The sight of Kenrick dressed so casually had taken Shawn by surprise as well. He'd never seen the man dressed without being presentable, but here he was in the elevator without shoes or socks, unshaven, hair disheveled as if he'd just leapt out of bed, which considering the time, may very well have been the case.
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters. The police have been hounding me for months. My butler, Jimmy vanished and wound up dead recently and they've aimed their sights on me as a suspect because of your disappearance too. Everyone thought you were dead. There was evidence of a struggle and blood was found all over the alley next to the center.”
“I got jumped in the alley.”
“By who?” Kenrick gripped his forearm in demand before letting go as if he were reprimanding himself.
Shawn feebly shook his head. “It doesn't really matter any more.”
“Do you realize how worried we've been, how worried I've been, since you went missing?”
The elevator's rear wall became a support as Shawn leaned backwards. “I'm sorry, Kenrick. My cell got toasted. I would have told you something if I could, but there was no way to contact anyone.”
“Was someone holding you prisoner?” What an odd question to be asked, Shawn thought. It lacked any hint of sarcasm. Why would Kenrick come up with that kind of idea?
“No. Not really.”
Kenrick's eyes focused uncomfortably on him. The scrutiny was piercing. “What does that mean?”
“I can't really explain.”
Shawn sighed and scrubbed his dirty hands over his weary face. “Kenrick, please. I've been through a lot and I have to say thank you for your hospitality. But I'm really not up for playing twenty questions. If that's a problem for you, I'll find somewhere else to go.”
“All right. I'll back off. But the police are going to ask a lot of questions too. All the talk about you and Jimmy is starting to undermine my financial contacts. With my business at stake, they need to know you're alive.”
“Okay. I can do that. It's the least I can do for you giving me a place to stay. Just give me a few days before I have to jump into that pit.”
“I'll call security and tell them to keep quiet until I've contacted them.”
“Thank you. For that and giving me someplace to crash.”
“I have plenty of guest space. I would rather have you nearby. Your landlord emptied your apartment and dumped your belongings when you failed to reappear. It's already been re-rented. I don't want you on the street.”
“How do you know that?”
The older man stepped close and looked down into Shawn's weary eyes. “I never stopped looking.”
Shawn could read the desire in Kenrick's eyes, but it was the same kind that made him wary before he went underground. That kind of need was something Shawn couldn't relate to except from one male. The very idea of anyone else was unfathomable.
Also, Shawn couldn't bring himself to admit to Kenrick, this wasn't his first choice. The shelter he came across first was full and he ultimately wandered to the LGBT center. Whether he was drawn to it or had a conscious intent to appear in front of the place that grounded him all those years, he couldn't say. He considered breaking into the Center to sleep but that was a boundary he never crossed before and he wasn't planning to start now no matter how desperate he'd become.
Then there was Kenrick's skyscraper right next door.
If he had any real options at this point, he never would have landed on Kenrick's doorstep. And that was the point, he had no real options.
“Kenrick, I'm not here to get your hopes up. Nothing has changed between us. I'm here asking a friend for help.”
“And I'm helping you.”
The elevator chimed before the large doors slid open with a gentle rumble. Shawn was nearly agog with the splendor of Kenrick's home. Every detail exuded style and endless expense. If he wasn't so beaten down, he'd probably examine everything in extensive detail.
Barefoot and hair askew, Kenrick led them through the main room to a large hallway. He hoped he wasn't ruining the lush carpet with his filthy boots; it was as if he'd lost all decorum in his absence.
“Take the bedroom on the left, it has an en suite bathroom attached. The master bedroom is at the end of the hall if you need me. I'm glad to see you again, Shawn. As a friend, I'm telling you to use the shower and get some sleep. You look exhausted and you smell like a barnyard animal. Wear anything in the closet you find. They may not fit you well, but it will work for the moment. In the morning, we'll see about getting you a new cell and some suitable replacement clothes.”
Shawn frowned. “I happen to like these clothes.”
“Indulge me. In this, if nothing else.”
A ragged sigh left his chest. “Thank you, Kenrick. I really appreciate this.”
“Think nothing of it.”
Kenrick watched Shawn amble into the guest room and close the door behind him, refusing to leave until the sound of the shower could be heard. The thought of Shawn undressed and washing himself inside his home pleased him greatly. He would be gentle this time and take care this time around and not just because he needed him.
With Shawn's re-emergence, the damage to his financial standing could be repaired. His reputation could be cleared and the questions surrounding Jimmy's untimely departure could be summed up as coincidence. No one knew anything substantial about that. Shawn would need to be questioned by the police; the thought unsettled him. The detectives had better watch their manners when the time came.
Kenrick stripped off the few garments he wore, dropping them casually to the master bedroom floor before sliding between the silk sheets. Excitement aside, he felt he could now get some rest. He was happier now than he'd been in months.
* * * *
Detective Lakes looked positively impatient. Kenrick brought Shawn to the police station to make a statement and hopefully remove the inquiry regarding his vanishing. Neither he nor his partner, Detective Hartle, were pleased that he insisted Kenrick be present. Shawn had intended to answer a few questions and bring everything to a halt but true to form, both detectives seemed grated over the results they were getting.
“So you were assaulted by three men?” Hartle asked. He kept referring to a small pad he'd been taking notes in since they started.
“I think. It's a little hazy,” Shawn replied.
“And someone found you, took you home, and patched you up?”
Shawn sighed. This line of questioning was growing tiresome. “That's what I said. More than once.”
“Why won't you tell us who they are so we can corroborate your story?” Lakes growled. When Kenrick described the pair of detectives, Shawn thought he was exaggerating their tactics. Clearly, he was not.
However long they had been sitting in this room had left Shawn feeling out of sorts. There were no windows to the outside and no clock to track time. Kenrick was sitting patiently in the cheap vinyl seated chair next to him but the longer this line of interrogation went on, the more annoyed he appeared. He had the distinct feeling that if he hadn't asked Kenrick to let him do all the talking, the older man would be berating both officers for fun. Shawn wasn't feeling much more civil.
Neither detective was pleased to find out that he had been back for three days before calling, threatening Obstruction of Justice and other bullshit charges to pressure Shawn into complying. Why they felt the need to go through the charade, he didn't understand. He was contacting them, not the other way around. Even the more polite one, Hartle, was pushing Shawn's nose out of joint.
“Because they weren't involved. I wasn't their prisoner. They took care of me and made me better. I owe them a little to keep the possible publicity out of their face.” Shawn was finding it difficult to modulate the volume of his voice.
“But what if they know who attacked you?” Hartle said. “Don't you want the guys who attacked you brought in? What if they attack someone else?”
After their being a main course, that was highly unlikely. “I honestly don't care. I just want to move on.”
“Why do I feel like you're hiding something?” Lakes's attitude was taking its toll on Shawn's patience.
“Because you're a fucking cop,” Shawn snarled. “I haven't met a whole lot of you that helped me out much more than directing me to the next foster home so you'll excuse me if I don't warm up to your authority. I came here to officially let you know I was alive so you could stop harassing my friend and now you're treating me like a suspect when I'm the victim in this case. I'm alive. End of story.” The chair's metal legs left marks in the floor as he pushed back and stood. “We're done here.”
“We have more questions to ask you.”
Shawn's eyes narrowed between both men. “No you don't. You want to ask the same ones over again and again hoping I make a mistake and give you something to do. Don't think I don't see the way you look at me, like I'm a thug just waiting to wind up in jail.”
“We're not done yet.”
“Unless you're arresting me, we are. If you have more questions, feel free to contact me at Kenrick's. Until then, you can fuck off.”
“Don't leave town,” Lakes commanded.
Shawn's face twisted as he expressed his opinion with his middle finger. “Where would I go?”
Detective Lakes rushed forward and invaded Shawn's personal space in an attempt to intimidate him. After living with Rath for the last few months, that was unlikely to happen. Lakes grumbled in Shawn's face, close enough for his scent to fill Shawn's nose.
“We'll be watching you.”
With a firm hand, Shawn gently pushed Lakes back as he tilted his head for fresh air. “Dude. Shower and try some deodorant, please. For everyone's sake.” Shawn turned to Kenrick who wore a smirk that could light up the evening. “Let's go, Kenrick.”
The sound of Kenrick's expensive shoes clicking on the cheap linoleum followed Shawn as he shoved his way through the doors, leaving Detective Hartle holding back a fuming Detective Lakes. Various officers watched him leave, each one scanning him with a suspicious eye. It did nothing to quiet his frustration.
“That was very satisfying to watch,” Kenrick said.
As they stepped through the doors and made their way down the steps, the anger filling Shawn dissolved into something else. Even as pissed off as he was, he wanted to tell them the complete truth, but how was he supposed to do that? His shoulders sagged and his feet refused to move forward as the nameless souls on the street wandered around them, going about their business. Exhaustion set in as his mood lost its ability to fuel itself and left him with a crushing weight at the life he'd lost. Now he was back in a world he didn't trust and was quickly learning to hate.
Underneath, if these men had spoken to Shawn this way, Rath would probably have maimed them both in retaliation. How he missed that. A sick laugh tried to bubble forward but was snuffed out in a tide of grief. The half-breed prince's fury would never be his to witness again and that was a strangely hideous thing to accept.
Kenrick seemed taken aback when Shawn closed his eyes tight and pressed his forehead into the older man's shoulder. Perhaps if he closed them long enough, it would all vanish and he'd be in Rath's embrace once again. Kenrick placed his arms around him awkwardly as if he didn't know how to express that kind of affection, reminding him yet again what he'd given up.
“Just take me back, please.”
Shawn barely looked up as Kenrick flagged his driver and led him into the limousine.
* * * *
How can a world that lives under the sun be so innately dead inside?
That was the question Shawn kept asking himself. A week had gone by and he was forced to stop looking out over the city from Kenrick's penthouse apartment. Monoliths of brick and steel as far as the eye could see were nothing more than an endless field of gravestones with the populace skittering between them unaware of how lifeless their existences were. After a few short months underground, Shawn experienced a world of magic and monsters and somehow found a home. Surrounded by human beings, he had never felt more alone.
Below, every male, female, and child worked hard for their lives, every pleasure a reward for a job well done. Here in the sun, the people meandered about never realizing how over-privileged and undeserving many of them truly were. Few truly toiled through the day without the benefit of modern convenience and found their lives enriched by it. Being part of that rustic world and losing it made Shawn ache inside; the empty well was bottomless in its depths.
Since the interview with the police, Shawn refused to go outside, preferring the isolation of Kenrick's home. The opulence of the penthouse disconnected enough from the reality of the outside; he didn't have to face the graveyard. It was so difficult to breathe during the day.
The shower was running as hot as it was able, filling the bathroom with rolls of dense steam, but Shawn's newfound durability couldn't be burned the way he was hoping. Even as long as he'd been under the spray, it barely stung his skin. Lines of soap had long since stopped spiraling down the drain and Shawn was sadly content to watch the clear water do the same.
He stared down at the hair plastered down his chest and stomach leading to his unused penis that hadn't seen an erection since the day Rath left for Harridantha. He couldn't bring himself to care; it was fit punishment for what he'd done. He deserved to be loveless for his stupidity.
Holding onto the stem of the shower head for support, he rested his forehead against the lavish stone tile of the open shower enclosure. Shawn closed his eyes and felt the rage and misery behind his eyes that wasn't his own.
The bond with Rath was intact and just as strong as the day the doorway under the bridge closed behind him.
Was the Queen wrong or was this some cruel game she played in her eternity of boredom? She insisted he walk away, but was that just to free her son from a mate she found offensive? Shawn had hoped the connection would fade eventually and save them both a measure of suffering if they couldn't stay together.
Deep breaths and stuttered words echoed as the spray camouflaged any wetness on his face that did not come from the shower. “I'm so sorry, Rath. It wasn't supposed to be like this.”
Everything Shawn did was to save his mate. Everything he had done and said was to stall a potential vision from coming true. Restore Rath to his full strength and make him as unbreakable as the night they met. That way, even if something happened in his absence, the half-blood prince would survive.
Now he was faced with the idea that he may have been wrong and there was nothing he could do. There was no way to open the doorway and even if he remembered the words to unlock the door, there was no way he could find his way back to Garadur. It all happened so fast, but at the time he felt he had no choice. Now he had to find a way to survive knowing his plan to save Rath may very well have failed and he was left with no method to undo his handiwork.
If only Rath hadn't saved him from Tessa's attack.
* * * *
Fund raising dinners were so endlessly tiresome. If this one hadn't served a purpose, Kenrick wouldn't have suffered it.
Honestly, he wasn't even sure what charity he wrote the check for, but turning the opinion of his investors was worth every cent. Several of the executives that threatened to leave his business were present and all of them were waiting on his every word.
Under normal circumstances he found this upper tier of society to be a waste of time, except when they were necessary to his financial success. A number of people wanted to speak about the charity, which Kenrick was convinced was to send art supplies to some pathetic dirt painters in Africa or some such nonsense. He didn't bother to have anyone clarify; he didn't care. It was what the rest wanted to hear from him that was important. Rumor of Shawn's reappearance had circulated amongst the new aristocracy and Kenrick found himself besieged with questions and speculations.
A few hours telling what little he knew and that Shawn was safe and sound stroked the philanthropists in the crowd and seemed to begin healing the damage surrounding the police-born gossip. Many were moved by his selflessness for his wayward employee. Sheltering and caring for him, shielding him from the unwanted attention of the authorities and the press; they could understand those efforts and praise him for it. Not a single word about Jimmy Small was uttered. Kenrick was very thankful for that. Shawn had everyone's attention. It was perfect.
It was a pity he couldn't be persuaded to attend, but Kenrick wasn't surprised. Shawn's mood was leaving him mildly agoraphobic, making it difficult to convince him to go down to the lobby, let alone outside the building.
The elevator doors chimed and Kenrick stepped into the penthouse with a white plastic bag filled with a cold take-out dinner in one hand. An empty bottle of vodka sat on the bar as he headed to the living room. Shawn sat burrowed into the sofa, unshaven and gripping a coffee mug while a half-empty bottle of liquor sat on the floor beneath him.
“You couldn't even be bothered to go down to the security desk and pick up the dinner I ordered for you?” Kenrick said.
“Wasn't hungry.” Shawn didn't even look up as Kenrick sat the bag of food on the table.
“I see your mood hasn't dimmed your thirst. You couldn't even try a proper glass?”
“I'm not having a cocktail. I'm trying to get fucked up.” Shawn took a large gulp out of the mug. “It helps quiet the noise in my head.”
“I saw the empty bottle on the bar. You know that's not college-girl schnapps; that's an expensive and rather potent brandy you're inhaling.”
“I guess my tolerance is a lot higher these days.”
“I never knew you to be a heavy drinker, Shawn. With what you've drank through tonight you shouldn't be able to sit upright let alone string more than two coherent words together. This is a little beyond higher stamina. Are you going to finally tell me what happened while you were gone?”
Another mouthful of brandy vanished. “You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”
“You've changed, Shawn, and I don't mean your attitude. You're stronger than before. I've noticed how you broke a few things in your hand and now you're being extra careful with everything you touch. You should be unconscious right now rolling in your own puke, but you only seem somewhat drunk. Does this have anything to do with the elvish runes tattooed on your face and neck?”
Shawn's eyes snapped to him. “How do you know what they are?”
A smug sense of pride filled Kenrick. Clearly he had found an opening. “I can't read them, but I recognize the forms. It's been a very long time since I've actually seen any.”
Kenrick shook his head. “At least a thousand years. I've lost track.”
“Don't fuck with me, Kenrick. I don't need it right now.”
Shawn's dismissive tone made Kenrick snarl. He would tolerate many things but insubordination was never one of them. A heat of anger flushed his skin as he flipped the coffee table aside and quickly stepped in front of Shawn. The black fitted t-shirt bunched tightly in his fist as Kenrick lifted Shawn into the air, arms and legs dangling with nowhere to go. The coffee mug dropped solidly to the carpeted floor, spilling the remainder of its drink and miraculously landing in one piece.
“I am not fucking with you,” Kenrick growled. The urge to shake Shawn like a doll came rushing forward. “I'm making a point. I can smell the magic on you, in you.”
Eyes wide, Shawn gaped in shock. “How do you? What are you?”
“An unfortunate soul trapped in this body with no way home.”
Kenrick closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. Carefully, he placed the stunned man to the floor. He needed Shawn; now was not the time to lose control. The stage was set, a few answers might be had as long as he offered something in kind.
Feeling Shawn's eyes follow his every move, Kenrick righted the coffee table with a single hand before collecting the mug and a second glass from the bar, pouring fresh drinks for them both. The older man took a seat on one end of the couch and signaled Shawn to take the other.
“You're not human, are you?” Shawn asked. Kenrick paused a moment to collect his thoughts and decide what to reveal. Something very delicate was happening here.
“I used to play with the humans, play tricks and win their coins as I hid among them. Even when the others all went underground I stayed, because it was more fun here. Then something catastrophic happened to the world. I felt the quake all the way up here; I was trapped in this body and had no way out. Without warning, I was a fraction of myself. Even after all these years I can barely scrounge enough magic to age my appearance so I won't have to change my identity so often.”
“Because the queen stole the magic,” Shawn whispered.
“You've heard of her?”
Shawn nodded slowly, the liquor slowed his movements. “Yeah, I've met her. She's a bitch.”
“I only heard whispers about the high-elf queen. I could never find anything concrete to confirm it. Since it happened, I haven't come across another being of magical origin. I suppose I should be fortunate my skills to acquire money had nothing to do with magic.”
“Are you an elf?”
“No. I'm older than that, but it's not important. I just manage to reinvent myself every fifty to sixty years and become my own relative. That just buys me time.”
“How can you get home? What can you do?”
“The same as always. Search the world for magical items so I can hoard a source of power. It's just a long, slow process. I'm just glad I have the lifespan to see it through. It's been so long, I've almost forgotten what I used to look like. If I can collect enough magic, I can take back my original body and find my way home.”
“You can have mine. I don't care about it.”
“It's not enough, Shawn. Even if I still had the dagger it wouldn't be. But it was stolen and I still need more. They're hard to come by.”
Shawn shrugged. “Well, yeah. The Royal Hunters collect any that surface and take them below. That dagger was how I ended up underground.”
“What do you mean?”
“The guys that stole the dagger found me in the alley. They took me down and saved me.”
“That explains the runes.”
“They were actually part of something else, but kind of. I don't know. It's been a crazy few months.”
Shawn scrubbed in face in frustration, visibly on the edge of telling Kenrick what he wanted to hear. The agitation was in the restless way he sat, constantly shifting and repositioning. The crease wearing between his eyes threatened to become permanent.
“I wish I could take you back. There's a room full of magical items that go unused that could probably be enough for you, but there's no way to get back.” Shawn exhaled and his whole body deflated. “I don't know how.”
There it was. Those last four words carried an anguish greater than all Kenrick had seen since Shawn arrived. Shawn wanted to go back. Being under was not the reason for his distress, coming back was.
“You miss being below ground.”
“Horribly.” A deep sigh filled the space between them and another piece fell into place.
“You miss someone below ground.”
The furrow in Shawn's brow grew deeper. “I don't want to talk about it.”
“You fell in love with someone below ground.”
Shawn's eyes lowered and his jaw grew rigid. “Shut up, Kenrick. Please.”
Kenrick set down his drink and shifted closer. The mug in Shawn's hands refused to sit still as his lidded eyes burned a hole through the bottom. A strong hand drifted alongside Shawn's neck, cradling his head while Kenrick's words grew softer.
“I can see how hurt you are, Shawn. I can see how sad that makes you and I want to help. I know you can't go back, so let me take care of you. I can make you forget him, Shawn. I can help you come back to the real world and we can live here with the rest of them, better than them.”
Kenrick lifted the mug from Shawn's hand and placed it on the table before moving closer still. Shawn made no move to resist as he closed the distance, so close he could smell the soap on his skin mixed with the brandy's vapors.
“If you want that so badly, Kenrick, go ahead. I don't care anymore. I'm not going to stop you.”
Kenrick surrounded the younger man and placed a soft kiss along his temple while luxuriating in the touch of his firm body. Powerful hands began to roam, quickly memorizing the ridges of each plane of muscle. Shawn made no attempt to return the kiss or lean into the touch. He simply did nothing, giving no more response than a breathing mannequin.
Pulling back, Kenrick peered into the near dead eyes of the man he desired before he climbed off the couch. Shawn sat perfectly still, refusing to move or acknowledge him.
“Put the brandy away and go to bed, Shawn. We'll talk more in the morning.”
Kenrick turned away and made quick strides to his bedroom. It was best he not stay in the same room with Shawn much longer. If this was Jimmy, he wouldn't hesitate to satisfy his neglected urges. But Shawn was necessary to undo the damage to his business and reputation. There couldn't be any risk to him this early in the game.
It wasn't as if Kenrick had given up. Too much time and energy had been invested in the tattooed man, he wasn't about to let him go now – certainly not after his reemergence had given Kenrick a renewed hope.
Jimmy had submitted to him ultimately. He may have fought and resisted along the way, but Kenrick had broken him, making him a suitable companion. Shawn had that same spark, or at least he had it. His will was shattered and the excitement of taming the wild stallion was missing. Where was the fun when the prey finally succumbed to the inevitable? Many nights Kenrick woke sticky and aroused dreaming of the day Shawn screamed, begged, and in the end given in to his every carnal pleasure. Now in the state Shawn was in, the whole dream had gone sideways and Kenrick wasn't willing to give that up.
Now it was a matter of mending his fractured soul, so Kenrick could begin the task of making Shawn into exactly what he always wanted him to be and teach him how to properly grovel at his feet.