Stephan stared, his jaw hanging slightly open. Next to him, Ash and Michaels both had fairly incredulous expressions. Ted had needed to actually sit down. Daniel sat on the ground in front of Ted, eyes wide.
In the small clearing in front of Ted’s house, Matthias and Gabriel were sparring. Both men had stripped to the waist, and at first glance it would have seemed the outcome was a given. Matthias was several inches taller and considerably more muscular than Gabriel even before he took the form of an alpha werewolf. Matthias also didn’t rely purely on size and strength. He was a skilled fighter, having been trained by the military and educated in several forms of martial arts. And he was fast. Gabriel had a slender build, more like a swimmer or gymnast. Strong and trim, but with lean muscles. A lightweight. Except it was Gabriel tossing Matthias around like a ragdoll.
He’d been a little worried at first, but the first time Gabriel had thrown Matthias into a tree Matthias had been laughing when he got up. The big man seemed to be relishing the fact that he had a genuine challenge, and despite being locked into a seemingly brutal match the smile hadn’t left the alpha werewolf’s face. Gabriel maintained his usual calm, but there was the occasional smile that made it clear he was also enjoying the match.
“Woof.” Ash gave a small head shake as Matthias got a grip on Gabriel, only for Gabriel to use that grip as leverage to shift and wrap his legs around Matthias’s neck. Matthias hit the ground and laid there for a moment before laughing and getting back up.
“He’s agile.” Stephan nodded, then reached over and patted Ted’s shoulder. “Naked yoga pays off.” Ted made a noise that sounded vaguely affirmative and kept staring.
“Woof?” Ash glanced up at Stephan.
“Well, yeah, I mean…” Stephan shrugged. “Gabriel’s a nice guy. He’d teach you yoga if you asked.”
Ash grinned. “Woof.”
Daniel shifted and slipped to slide down a couple steps before turning bright red. “Danny?” Stephan blinked at him.
“I, uh…” Daniel managed to turn even redder. “Mental image.”
“Oh god.” Michaels immediately put his hands over his eyes and groaned as Ash started laughing.
“Oh god.” Ted’s voice was slightly breathless.
He laughed before pulling Daniel to him for a kiss. “You liked the view?”
“Just saying, if I hadn’t been gay before…” Daniel chuckled before going to turn over the steaks on the grill. “And I think Stephan might be gay now.”
“I was…” Stephan called over from where he was sitting, then held up his tablet where a movie was playing. “But Wonder Woman saved me.”
“Michaels had to go call his girlfriend so he could reaffirm his own masculinity.” Ted grinned as he brought a fresh six-pack out of the kitchen and started handing out the beers. Then he glanced up at Matthias. “Sister Doris just called. Anna wants to stay the night there and watch the meteor shower. I said it was okay.”
“She’s been getting into the star stuff lately.” Matthias smiled. “We’re going to get her a good telescope for her birthday, the kind with the digital camera attachment.”
“Nice.” Stephan opened his beer. “I’d have killed for one of those as a kid.”
“Microscope is better.” Ash took a drink of his own beer. “Under a polarizing microscope chondrite looks like stained glass due to the bits of metal in the stone, and some have little glass spheres inside made from stardust.”
“Some like stars before they fall.” Gabriel rubbed Ash’s head.
“Woof.” Ash took another drink of beer. “Stars convert hydrogen to helium, then transform helium into beryllium and carbon, then burn those to form other, heavier elements via nucleosynthesis. Supernovas expend the energy to create the heaviest, like iron and nickel, scattering them across the universe.” He leaned into Gabriel’s petting. “They die so we can live. We bleed stardust.”
“That’s…” Ted smiled.
“Beautiful.” Matthias opened his own beer.
Gabriel looked over the notes. “No.”
“The cabal can field alphas, Gabriel. In addition to vampires, witches, and fucking tanks.” Matthias leaned over the other side of the table. “Trust me, rocket launchers are absolutely a necessity.”
“Do the words ‘collateral damage’ mean anything to you?” Michaels folded his arms.
“Collateral damage is exactly what I am trying to minimize here.” Matthias shook his head. “If they come at us full bore, I want to be able to take them out before they start targeting infrastructure…”
“I said…” Gabriel raised his head. “No.”
“Lack of ordinance is going to make shit a lot harder.” Matthias gave a frustrated sigh. “Gabriel —”
“He’s right.” Daniel’s voice was quiet. “Our goal here is to stop the Cabal from killing people and getting people killed.”
“Alright, boss.” Matthias put a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “You’re right.”
“I hope we are right.” Michaels rubbed the back of his neck. “Cause uh…” He gave an apologetic shrug as he looked toward Gabriel. “I can’t cast spells or throw cars, so guns are kind of all I’ve got.”
“Laura and Erilon have been working on that for you.” Gabriel nodded to him. “At last count, they had seventeen different kinds of ammunition.” He frowned. “Might be eighteen now, Erilon requested blood samples for something.”
“Right.” Michaels started grinning. “Well, I’ve got some gear to improve load speed and uh…”
“How many guns are you carrying these days?” Matthias smirked at him.
“Hopefully?” Michaels shrugged. “Enough.”
“It’s armor that concerns me.” Gabriel straightened, then sent a pointed look in Daniel’s direction.
Matthias immediately nodded. “Pain in the ass finding kevlar for skinny guys, but I’ve got him a couple sets now. Picked some other tactical gear that is…”
“Illegal?” Gabriel raised an eyebrow.
“Definitely a gray area.” Matthias nodded. “Mom knows a few tricks with wards, and improved things a bit. She’s no witch-wolf, but with Laura and Erilon helping out, we should be able to keep squishy folks like Sidekick Boy —”
“Sidekick Man.” Michaels glared at Matthias, though Gabriel noted that he didn’t object to being called ‘squishy’.
“A bit safer on the front lines.” Matthias rolled his eyes.
Then again, the truly squishy ones weren’t going anywhere near the front lines. “Ted is staying here. He can’t be away from the center that long, and we may need him to play mission control.”
“Would really like to leave Daniel with —”
“No.” Daniel started shaking his head.
“But…” Matthias gave Daniel a worried look. “We may need a healer.” He smiled. “At least Anna agreed to stay.”
“Saves me the trouble of locking her in the basement.” Gabriel shrugged.
Ted gave his companion a concerned look. “How are you doing?”
“I can do this.” Ash squared his shoulders. The young man had asked to accompany him to look at vehicles, and then insisted Stephan remain behind. Ash was capable of remaining by himself, or with one or two people around, but being out in public without his anchors had been beyond his ability last time he’d visited. As proud as Ted was of him for doing this, he couldn’t help but feel heart-sick at the pallor on the boy’s face.
He looked around for a distraction, then led Ash toward the corner of the lot, away from where there were more people. “A jeep might not be a bad idea. Something with four-wheel drive.” He smiled at Ash encouragingly.
“Not that one.” Ash shook his head. “That’s a yuppie jeep.” He gave Ted a smile that showed a hint of gratitude before focusing on the vehicle. “See, look how low it is. This one is a status symbol, not anything designed to actually go off road. You want it to sit higher, so it doesn’t risk scraping the undercarriage on the first rock it encounters.”
“And it has leather seats.” Ted nodded. “Those tend not to fare so well around —”
“I used to have a jeep.” Ash’s voice was quiet. When Ted looked over at him, he gave an awkward shrug. “I can’t drive anymore. Magda and Stephan both tried helping me, but it starts…” He made a soft whimpering sound and wrapped his arms around his own chest, shrinking into himself.
“Hey, hey…” Ted put a hand on his arm. “Ash, look at me.” Ash started shaking his head, and Ted firmed up his voice. “Ash. Look at me.” The young man obeyed. “You’re okay, Ash. You’re safe, and among friends.”
Ash took a few deep breaths. “Woo…” He squeezed his eyes shut, then took another deep breath before opening them again. “Thank you.” He let his arms relax, then looked back at the jeep. “It doesn’t have a proper roll-bar either.” He pointed. “That one is better.”
“Alright.” Ted took Ash’s hand and gave it a brief squeeze before releasing it again and giving him an encouraging nod. “Show me.”
“And it’s blue.” Ash smiled at him and caught his hand again before heading toward the other jeep. “Blue vehicles are pulled over 8% less than any other color.”
“Is that so?” Ted laughed softly as he let himself be dragged along.
Magda continued chatting with Tomer as they waited. It took him a bit longer to relax without the aid of the brownies, but she definitely saw why Laura held him in high regard. Rather than ask her about details and historical minutia, he asked her about people. Not the famous ones, but the ordinary people she’d known over the years. The human side of history.
Erilon chimed in now and then, reminding her she wasn’t the only one to have experienced the last few hundred years. She found herself feeling a little sorry when the assistant finally arrived. “Ah, Bridget.” Tomer stood to greet the young woman. “Where is Abigail?”
“Stopped to drop off a book.” The young brunette woman was tall and thin, and if Magda wasn’t mistaken, she’d just taken a second look at Laura’s cleavage.
“Right, right.” Tomer ushered them into his office, but left the door cracked for the other one. “Bridget, Magda here is part of a non-profit organization that will not only be assisting us with the expedition, but will be providing the remaining funding.”
Bridget’s eyes lit up, and she immediately grabbed Magda’s hand in both of hers. “Oh wow.” She smiled. “Wow. That’s wonderful. Thank you.” She glanced at Laura.
“This is my assistant, Laura —” Magda started to gesture at Laura.
“You vindictive little cunt.” An oddly accented male voice came from the doorway.
She blinked, and turned to see a handsome young man with a young black woman standing beside him. The woman was giving the man a horrified look.
Laura whirled, and her eyes went red. “Who the fuck let you out?”