Philip smiled warmly as he shook hands, exchanging pleasantries and personal comments with his departing flock. He wished Mrs. Bradley good luck with her forthcoming hip surgery and informed her that he would be praying and that God's will would carry her through. He squeezed young Marguerite's arm and sent her an expression of silent encouragement, hoping that the contact would help remind her that Christ's love followed her even to school, where bullies lurked to taunt her about her port-wine birthmark. He exchanged hearty handshakes with Drew and Dave Fergus, the bluff twin brothers whose feed store would supply the hay bales needed for the harvest festival next month.
And, finally, he was alone, breathing deeply for the first time since he'd opened the doors that morning. It was tougher than he'd expected, trying to change and open minds from within this very conservative congregation, and the rise and swift spread of the Infected—people who had been given extraordinary powers all across the world—hadn't done anything to dull, blunt, or distract from the suspicion against gay men.
It was wearying, having to hide so much about himself. When he took this position, he'd thought he would be out and on his way to acceptance by now. Far from it, he was more closeted than ever, and his attempts to start an LGBT youth group had been crushed under a truckload of brimstone. His Pride Month outreach and the fundraiser for the AIDS charity hadn't gone any better, and he didn't even like to think about the time he'd tried to hire an out lesbian as church secretary.
"Am I being tested, Lord?" he asked the empty church. "Is this a test of my ability to stand firm and true on the path, or is this a sign that it is time to move on? What am I supposed to be doing?" He stopped to pick up a candy wrapper here, a dropped hymnal there, moving through the empty pews in silence as if waiting for God's reply. He sighed as he reached the front of the church and turned to sit on the stairs that led up to the dais.
He was still there, still silently begging God for guidance, when shouting drew his attention outside. Concerned, he set aside his pile of odds and ends and hurried toward the front door of the church. The sunlight was bright as he flung the church door open, and he blinked heavily as he tried to regain enough vision to assess the situation.
Three men were moving to surround a fourth, each of them reaching out to shove their target or slap at his head. One of them tried to grab the backpack that the man was carrying, and the fourth man, who looked a bit the worse for wear, clutched it hard, opening himself up for more scrapping from the other three.
Philip had seen enough.
Paul knew that he was stalling. He clutched the ring box through the fabric of his jacket and forced himself to step out of the car. He'd learned the way to Tyler's studio so well that he no longer had to read the signs along the college's pathways. The students weren't likely to care about him enough to murmur as he passed, but he felt as if they did. He put his head down and walked as quickly as he could, ignoring the student art displayed along the sides of the buildings and the flyers inviting the general public into a mysterious underground existence that seemed both appealing and terrifying.
Tyler's adjunct position came with work space for his own projects, and Paul knew that he valued it even if it was nothing more than a spare corner in the building for three-dimensional art. Paul let himself in the side door closest to Tyler's workbench and paused, knowing he had a few seconds at least before Tyler lifted his head and noticed him.
Someone blared '80s punk music. The place smelled of clay and hot glue and various chemicals. Tyler bent over a twisted blend of plastic and metal, a soldering iron in one hand, squinting beneath bright pink hair with the air of a trained surgeon.
As always, he took Paul's breath away. He seemed so impossibly cool, stunningly handsome even when he'd failed to comb his hair and he wore clothes that had likely been discarded by someone twice his age. The trailing edges of the tattoo that covered his back were just visible above the collar of his jacket, the burnt umber shade of the ink setting off the rich brown of his skin. It was cold in the studio—probably the reason he was still wearing his jacket—but he'd shoved his sleeves up to his elbows, baring his smoothly muscled forearms.
Mind-erasing lust consumed Paul, as it had the first moment he'd seen Tyler and every occasion thereafter. When he had become a priest, he had expected himself to practice abstinence. He'd found it easy to live a celibate life in seminary, and continuing that lifestyle had seemed simpler than immersing himself in the political and spiritual difficulties of forming relationships as a gay man and priest. Tyler had shown Paul how little he knew himself. A million good intentions could never have given him the power to resist Tyler's touch. He'd made an unholy mess of things, giving in to lust-addled recklessness one moment and pushing Tyler away with self-righteous determination the next. Paul could see now that this was exactly why a priest shouldn't try to separate his spiritual life from his personal life, but all he could do was hope that the bishop's instructions hadn't come too late for him to set things right.
Leo stared out the window of the carriage, watching the morning sun rise as the dirt and dust of the road flew up from the wheels, giving the outside world a hazy sheen. He could just make out the town they'd be arriving at in another half hour or so, as long as nothing went wrong like the first leg of their trip.
"Are you sure about this?"
Leo turned from the window, giving his younger brother a stiff smile. They'd been over this before. "Yes. I'll be fine, and you'll be there to ground me in case something goes wrong."
Theo gave him a tentative grin, ducking his head to hide his red eyes behind tawny hair. "Doesn't something always go wrong?"
A genuine smile tugged the corners of Leo's mouth at his brother's playful tone. He reached forward, lifting his brother's face so he could look into those eyes, so different than his own pale blue and the only feature that told everyone they weren't full brothers. "Which is why I received special permission from the Holy Priestess to bring you along. One missing priest is more than anyone needs, especially if the reports are true and lust demons are involved."
"I don't like it," Theo said, his tone bordering on petulance. "I don't want you to have to go in there and... and be raped."
"Ah." Theo had been acting out at regular intervals, and now, just before they'd be entering the town that needed their help, his brother finally said what was bothering him. He tugged his brother close, engulfing him in a hug. "I'm not our mother."
Theo winced in his hold, but settled when Leo didn't release him. "I know," he grumbled into Leo's chest.
"Besides, I've done this before, and I'm more than willing to do it again." He smirked at the shocked look on Theo's face.
"But... but no one wants to—"
Leo held up a hand. "Yes, they do. I've caught people before in the middle of sex with a demon, and when the sex was done, no matter what anyone else said, most of the people weren't being controlled in some way. You've been spending too much time with Father Pascall."
"I like Father Pascall." Theo sulked as he relaxed into Leo's chest, snuggling close just like when they were children. Though, now, Theo was just as tall as he was, if not as broad.
"I know you do," Leo said congenially, pushing some of the hair off of Theo's forehead to give him a kiss. "But that doesn't mean the Father is good for you."
Brother Andrew walked in, head bowed, hands in his sleeves, making no noise with his sandals. He was always obedient, always silent. The word around the monastery was that the Bishop favored him, which turned his brothers against him. That the foundling was commonly held to be the Bishop's nephew made his life doubly difficult.
"Good morning, Your Excellency." He went to one knee and kissed Leo's ring.
"And to you. This week, I thought we would explore your knowledge." Leo had decided long ago that if he was not to sit in St. Peter's Chair, then his son, groomed from early childhood, would. Politics, Church history, and theology were among the lessons they had, but most of all, Leo taught him power, the ways of seeing it, the ways of gaining it. He came down from Rochester Cathedral once a week these days to attend to matters and educate his protégé. Leo had long planned for Andrew to become a priest as well as a monk, and the time for Andrew's ordination was rapidly drawing near.
And when Andrew's eyes strayed to where Rhys was giving directions to some tenant farmers, Leo saw Andrew's desire, for he betrayed his thoughts with a single glance. This, too, was useful.
"There are many ways to power," Leo began. "Marriage is the most common among the nobility. A girl of beauty and wealth is a prize wife for any impoverished noble." He stared out the window. It was no secret that the Earl of Kent was nearly penniless, despite some of the richest crop land in the region. Leo had seen to that when Robert had refused his only son to the church. "Money makes all things happen. Money and power control the world."
"Blasphemy." Andrew's soft whisper barely reached Leo's ears. Leo smiled. The boy still believed. He would be disabused of those notions soon enough.
"Really? Do you truly think God runs things? He has not intervened since Rome fell. There have been no true miracles in over a thousand years. Men, men of vision, are the rulers of this world. Look at the pope. Alexander is a lecher and a drunk who gained the Holy Office by simony."
"God sets those he chooses to rule over his people so that they may learn," Andrew said.
"There is a Spaniard on the Throne of the Holy City. Why should there not be an English pope again one day?"
Andrew looked up sharply. A smile, slow and clever, crossed his mouth. "That is the reason for all the lessons, isn't it, Uncle? You want to be pope, as Pope Adrian IV was." Before Leo could say anything, Andrew shook his head, "Better, you want me to be pope, while you pull my strings like a puppeteer."
Too clever by half, Leo decided.
I wasn't about to walk into an exorcism smelling like come. I took five minutes to be as thorough as I could stand to be with the water never more than lukewarm and uncomfortably rough paper towels before heading back outside toward the car. At least Seb had warmed it up.
And turned on the radio. I hated giving him control of the radio; he always searched around for the song he knew would piss me off the most and stuck there. I sighed behind the steering wheel and pulled out onto the highway.
"The only boy who could ever reach me," crash-bam, "was the son of a preacher man! The only boy who could ever teach me, oh-oh, was the son of a preacher man! Yes he was, he was, oh yes he was," bang-bang-bang on the dashboard. "Sweet talkin' son of a preacher man, ooh, oooohh—"
I turned off the radio. Seb's dark eyes flashed to me, and he pouted dramatically. "Ty, I was listening to that."
"You were butchering that."
"I beg your pardon? I sing like a choir of angels. I should know."
"Funny thing," I told him as I took the next exit for Couer D'Alene, "the simile doesn't get any more ironic the more often you tell it."
"No, but your appreciation of it increases, which makes it worth the telling," Seb said with a grin. "Besides, I still hold out hope that you'll learn to love that song. It's like your theme song. Son of a preacher man," he sang at me, mocking and serious all at once. His voice really was beautiful, a perfect dramatic contralto that suited the body he was wearing right now, that of a sweet-faced young man, gangling and loose-jointed. His hair was a mess of short black spikes, and he wore silver rings through his nose, both eyebrows and along both ears. All he needed to complete the punk ensemble was a cigarette, but I never let Seb smoke in the car. I had to have some boundaries, damn it.
And I'd never learn to love that song.
"You're going to have to change soon, we'll be at the house in about ten minutes," I reminded him.
"The house at the end of the cul de sac," he parroted, having listened in on my conversation with Maria. "The one with the fake emergency vehicles and the fake emergency personnel responding to the fake gas leak."
"Fake gas leak, real emergency," I said with a shrug. It had been a few years since I'd done a job in this town, but my GPS seemed to have me on track. I always had to double check the damn thing, ever since it nearly sent me into a damn river as I fumbled my way across Iowa.
"Who summons demons in the suburbs, though? When are we going to get sent to a city? God, I'd kill to go back to Chicago. Remember last time, when we pissed off half the guys in that sports bar and had to run out into the snow before we finished our drinks, and a couple of them followed us into the alley?" Seb smiled happily. "That was so much fun."
I remembered the smell of blood in the snow, the stink of fresh urine, and the squeaking screams that somehow got around the first guy's crushed hyoid bone. "Maybe next time," was all I said.