Tony opened his eyes wider, trying to make sure he didn't poke himself with the mascara brush. He had already done that once this week, and he didn't feel like a repeat tonight. The dirty mirror in the men's bathroom wasn't helping much, but he finished the job without incident. Recapping the brush, he took another look at himself. His thick, black lashes stood out in stark contrast to his pale skin. His light pink lip gloss wasn't too obvious, but it gave his mouth a subtle sheen that would definitely draw attention, just as he wanted. Damn, he thought to himself. I'm going to be beating the customers off all night looking like this.
A sharp banging on the door caused him to startle, and then the sharp voice of his boss came through the door. "If you're not out there in two seconds, I'm coming in after you," she said.
Tony had no doubt that she would, too. Ellen was many things, but delicate wasn't one of them. She'd get in the middle of a bar fight or come barging into the men's room or whatever the situation called for, and not make any apologies for doing it. It was one of the reasons he liked working for her.
With an exaggerated sigh, he pulled open the bathroom door and walked out. Ellen was standing there with her arms crossed, tapping her foot and looking at him like she was a few seconds away from ripping him a new one. "Are you done, Princess?"
"Beauty like this takes time." He looked at her, his eyebrow raised as he took in her worn jeans and plaid over-shirt. "Maybe you should follow my example and spend a few minutes on your own self."
"No, thank you," she said, then narrowed her eyes as she leaned closer. "Are you wearing glitter?"
"Oh, is it noticeable?" he asked, rubbing his fingers against his cheek. "I couldn't tell in there. The lighting's so bad, it's a wonder our customers can see well enough to aim, much less tell what they look like."
"Most of them are too drunk to notice anyway," she said. "But, really, what's with the glitter?"
"Cindy picked some up for me last time she went shopping. I wanted to give it a try and see if I liked it."
"Like the other stuff isn't enough for you?" she asked, pressing her lips together. "Nobody needs to be that shiny, much less you."
"Ellen, darling," Tony said, cocking his hip to the side and striking a pose. "I'm just enhancing my natural glow."
"Yeah, right," she said, her tone flat. "Well, how about you direct your glowing little ass behind that bar? You're already fifteen minutes late for your shift." Ellen turned, calling back over her shoulder as she walked down the hall. "And if I have any customers complaining about glitter in their drinks, you and me are going to have a discussion."
"Bitch and complain," he called out, but she didn't acknowledge him, just walked into her office and slammed the door behind her.
The place wasn't even all that busy when he walked behind the bar. There were a few customers sitting around the outer tables, and the pool tables were occupied, but at the bar itself was desolate. There were only three customers sitting far apart from each other, and Cindy had it covered. Tony didn't know why Ellen had to be such a hard-ass about him taking the time to get dolled up. When the crowds increased she would be thankful for it, since he could draw in more money with his flirting and fine looks.
"Oh, you're wearing the sparkly stuff I bought you," Cindy said when he came near, her smile getting wider. "It looks fantastic."
"Thank you," Tony said, emphasizing the words. "At least someone appreciates it."
"I always appreciate you, baby," she said, giving him a peck on the cheek. "Now take over the bar while I deal with the tables."
"Hey, Rayce, wake up!"
Blinking against the bright sunlight, Rayce unfolded himself from the uncomfortable curled position he'd taken up in the passenger side of the old Bug and yawned loudly. "Where are we?" he asked, pulling his black beanie down around his ears as he stared at the flat desert around them.
Vince handed him a breath mint and turned up the stereo. "We're almost to Phoenix. We should be at the con in a little bit. Sleep good?"
Aside from the twisting he'd had to do in order to get comfortable, Rayce had slept just fine. Problem was, he'd been asleep for far too long. He shot Vince a look. "You drove at least six hours straight. I thought we talked about that. You were supposed to let me take over after I got a short nap." He took a new bottle of water out of the back and had swallowed half of it before Vince answered him with a brief shrug.
"You looked tired. And cute." He reached for Rayce, but Rayce batted away the man's hand. "Besides, you're gonna need your energy for tonight." Vince winked at him and Rayce snorted.
"Horny bear. A full day without sex. Poor thing," Rayce teased him. Though, he admitted, he was missing Vince as well. He reached over and placed his palm on Vince's jean-clad thigh. His short, black-painted nails curled against the thick material as his fingers dug into Vince's muscle.
"You know, we could do something about the lack of sex," Vince suggested.
Rayce licked his lips as he considered Vince's offer. He made a show of cleaning the dirt out from under his nails and looking out at the dessert for a few minutes while Vince squirmed next to him.
"You suck," Vince grumbled after a moment, apparently giving up on getting anything for the moment.
Rayce stuck his tongue out at his boyfriend. "Not yet. Really think you can control this old piece of shit car while I do it? I don't need my head bashed against the steering wheel again like you did last summer in Maine."
Vince's answer was to take one hand off the wheel and start undoing the button of his jeans. "Yeah, I've got this."
Smiling, Rayce undid his seatbelt and twisted around until he was kneeling on the seat. "We should have driven your dad's SUV," he said, trying to find places for his hands to balance in the small seat.
Vince laughed. "Next time. Though, I was thinking about that last night when we had to rent a hotel room. The Expedition has plenty of room for us to sleep in the back. We could have saved some money."
"Not to mention the dark chocolate covered honeycomb I forgot to take out of there," Rayce said, leaning forward. "Now remember, you said you wouldn't crush my head."
Vince's brown eyes were just as bright as his grin as he reached toward Rayce, latched his hand against the back of Rayce's head and pulled him forward for a quick kiss. "Yeah, babe, I'll make sure you're safe."
His scruffy beard tickled Rayce's cheek as he pulled back and smiled at him. He nipped at Vince's chin before lowering his mouth to his boyfriend's heavy cock as it bobbed proudly against his stomach. He slid one hand between Vince's thighs, balancing himself against the worn seat. They really needed to get a new car; too bad there was so much else to save up for. He shot a puff of hot air against Vince's tip and his boyfriend's hand tightened on the back of his head. Vince curled his fingers in Rayce's thick black hair and pushed down. Growling low in his throat, Rayce shot him a quick warning.
There was nothing like a nice, quiet beer after a long shift, Jeric thought. But as he ducked the flying crockery, carefully sheltering his mug from the shards, he realized this was going to be nothing like a quiet beer. The bar was like every bar in this town, full of miscreants and rowdy drunks. The differentiation between types of drunks was always blurred. He felt quite certain he'd walked his beat with about half of them, and tried to arrest the other. The guards tended to take their frustrations out on the thieves and vagabonds of Dilactra with a fistfight and broken tables rather than through bars at the nearest guard shack.
A small movement behind his chair interrupted his thoughts. He caught the delicate fingers that crept toward the pouch on the front of his belt and hauled the little thief up to face him.
"Well, well, you're awful pretty to be going for such a small prize. The one behind it is far better, I promise." The thief looked surprised to be caught, and tried to twist out of his grasp. He looked over the leather-clad girl and gave her a smile. "Pretty girl like you, I might have been tempted to offer to share what's in there." He scooped her up by the scruff of the neck. "But I have no time for those who just take."
She flew out the door of the tavern and landed with a satisfying thud on the muddy street. Jeric laughed and dusted his hands to the jeering of his peers, and then drained the last of his beer.
Jeric left the empty mug and headed out into the street. He was on Sundown Watch tomorrow, twilight to midnight, keeping the streets of Dilactra safe from thieves, arsonists, and vampires. Not that there had been a vampire attack in almost a hundred years, but it never hurt to be watchful.
The thief looked down at her leather jerkin and sighed. "Oh. Great. Of all the days to wear the tits, I go and meet the one guard who doesn't care." Vesh climbed out of the mud and dusted off the worst of it, hoping it would come out. "Congratulations, bastard. You just became target number one," she said, popping knuckles greedily. She watched as the big buffoon that had thrown her out the door strode past, resplendent in the guard's uniform. Vesh thought it was strange that her target didn't have the usual lumbering gait of the guards. A hired sword, then.
Vesh tailed him, watching as he headed for the barracks. She pulled up a hood and wove through the populace. Dilactra was an easy town to work, and Vesh had made many good marks since she came here from the southern provinces. It had been a long time since someone had caught her. She followed the guard all the way to his barracks and worked out which window was most convenient. Most of the guards would be drunk and asleep by now. It wouldn't be the first time Vesh had worked the guards' barracks. She leaned against the wall, waiting for the bruiser to head to sleep.
Vesh toyed with the little necklace she wore. Its concentric circles spun on tiny hinges as she thought about the insinuations he'd made. The guardsman had basically called Vesh a whore, and it hurt. Vesh had never thought about selling those services. It was much more profitable to just take what you wanted. No, he'd pay for that insinuation. With a flick of her fingers, Vesh's body morphed into an attractive young male. Curves were useful for staying out of trouble, but they tended to get caught on things when sneaking in and out of places. Reaching back to tighten the leathers over his chest, Vesh pulled his hair up into a knotted bundle and pulled out a set of lock picks. Time to go to work and make the big guy pay.
A little grease on the window's hinges let it swing quietly open. Vesh crept inside, making no more noise than a cat. He finally located the big guard's room. Quietly, he sneaked around the door, watching to see if the man had fallen asleep.
Chee, once known as Chen, huddled between the stony crags of the mountain as she watched streaks of lightning lash across the sky. The first thunderstorm after the eighteenth year—according to tradition, the day upon which a boy of the tribe was to climb up the jagged mountain by the lake and have the spirits bestow upon him the status as a true hunter of the tribe, and thus manhood. Why this was the date for such a transition, Chee never understood. The bolts of lightning and the rumbling in the skies seemed to express rage more than blessing.
Chee-Once-Known-as-Chen waited for the sky to darken before she crawled out from between the stones and continued upward along the face of the mountain. Her soul quaked with a fury similar to that of the sky. Something was not right. Even before the Specter of the Bear appeared before her, she had some vague, unseen premonition that her being there was a mistake.
When Chee arrived at the flat landing where the enchanters amongst her ancestors had set up the Ghost Pillar—a tall stone with the visage of a ghostly bear carved onto its flat face—she sat before it, cross-legged as her father had instructed. "Do not kneel, Chen," Father had said. "Do not sit with your knees pulled up. Sit so that your manhood is displayed clearly before the spirit—do not worry, it can see through your clothes. It will know." The memory of her father's words plucked like a harpist at her intangible worry.
The carved, staring eyes in the Ghost Pillar did little to settle the stirring within her. The nomadic peoples of the West no longer had enchanters like the ones who had set up this stone, using their magicks to channel a spirit of nature and bind it to that location. The enchanters had all traveled east generations ago to join the stationary cities of the strangers by the seas, and no new enchanters had taken their place. In creating Ghost Pillars like the one before Chee, they had angered Nature itself, and while the ghosts attached to the Pillars were compliant with the tribes of the West, enslaved by magicks as they were, their rogue cousins had a history of cursing enchanters and their neighbors. The people of the West were just as well off without the magickers, but though they were long gone, Chee still feared the wrath of the spirits, even the one bound to the Ghost Pillar. The intangible sensation of wrongness already clouding her mind did little to assuage her dread.
While the storm raged above, Chee closed her eyes and focused on breathing. "A man compartmentalizes his emotions, Chen," Father had always told her. "He divides and separates them from one another, locking them away tightly in his mind while he attends to the world before him." Chee had never been skilled at compartmentalizing her emotions. "Tears are for women, Chen," her father always used to tell her when she wept as a child. "Anger and joy, frustration and amusement—feeling is owned by the women. A man may only unlock his emotions when his day's work is done, and while he is alone. A man must never expose his feelings before a woman—feeling is their power, and it is a great offense to them if they see you trying to use it for your own."
Fear and uneasiness—and a distant, metallic sorrow that was faint enough that Chee almost didn't notice—shook all about through her innards. She tried to catch each feeling with her mind, pull it away from the others and lock it in a little box in her soul. Each time, however, the specific emotion she was trying to catch would latch on to another and blend. Trying to separate them out was like trying to pull apart two different colors of clay that had been twisted together and squished into a ball. She could not do it, which only frustrated her, making her feel less and less a man by the moment.
"You are no man, Chee."
Chee opened her eyes to find a hulking figure of mist and starlight standing before her. It was the Specter of the Bear, standing with its nose but an inch from her own. Chee inhaled with a shaky breath, half-expecting the ghost's own hot breath to wash over her, but the specter was a being beyond flesh and air.
"You are no man," it repeated. "Go back down the mountain, Chee. This is not your place."
"My—my name isn't Chee." For, at the time, it wasn't. "I'm Chen."
The bear's eyes sparkled a translucent green—green like the leaves in the freshness of spring, when nature's power was reborn. "No. You know you are not, even if that knowledge is nothing more than a seed in the lonely center of your mind. It will soon grow, and you will become the Chee you have always truly been. But my blessing is for the hunters, and that is not your place in this world. Go back down the mountain. Return home, Chee."
A silent bolt of lightning flashed, causing Chee to flinch at the suddenness of its sprint across the sky. When the thunder rumbled behind it and her eyes opened from their half-second blink, the specter was gone.