After forty-eight hours, Travis was released from the Warm Room. They took the IV out of his arm and replaced it with a port-a-cath for feedings once he got to MAP. Apparently vampires weren’t trusted to eat on their own for a period of time while they adjusted. The necessary incisions healed so quickly Travis barely had time to process what had happened.
His visit with his caseworker was scheduled for later that night. He’d had one full feed before a nurse escorted him to a private room. It was cold and sterile, the walls stainless steel, like an extension of the morgue, or a room police might use for questioning. It didn’t inspire confidence.
The caseworker seemed harried. Travis imagined she was much like any other social worker—overworked and undercompensated. She was looking over his files, as if she’d only then had time for it.
She looked up as he came in, then stood and held out a hand. She looked tired, dark circles under her eyes only slightly mitigated by careful application of makeup. He had a feeling she was a few years younger than she looked.
“Mr. Payne. I’m Kay, your caseworker. It’s good to meet you. My son’s a big fan.”
Not anymore, I bet.
He kept that thought to himself. He still wasn’t even close to clear on how this would affect his career. His life. “Thanks,” he said instead.
She resumed her seat and gestured toward the chair across the table. “Have a seat. I’m just looking over your file.”
“Is there anything in it I need to know?” Travis sat. The chair was too small for his ass. In its defense, he was a hockey player. He had a big ass.
“You probably know most of it already. It’s just medical history, that kind of thing.” Her smile seemed strange this time. “I’ll be your liaison throughout your assimilation process. The personnel at the MAP facility will provide me with regular reports on your progress, and I’ll work on many of the arrangements that will help you reconstruct your life. I’ll also be available to you for six months after your release from MAP to assist with further adjustment.”
“Can you get me out of MAP so I can skate?” The words blurted out of him, pointless as he knew they were.
“No, Mr. Payne. I’m sorry, but I can’t. We have to follow protocol.”
He nodded. He’d figured as much. “What about the team? When do I get back out on the ice?”
The slight shift in her features told him the news would not be good. She went from mild sympathy to complete neutrality. “I spoke to your agent, and you can speak to her in more detail once you’ve been released, but your NHL contract is null and void. According to the regulations passed in 1983 with the creation of the LVH, the NHL is reserved for humans only. You’re no longer allowed to play on NHL ice.”
No longer allowed to play. The words felt like bullets going through his chest. “God, this is bullshit.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Payne. I can’t change anything about it.” The sympathy had returned. It didn’t make Travis feel any better.
He ran a hand over his face, weary and hopeless. “I’m sorry. I know it isn’t your fault.”
Silence hung in the room for a moment, as Kay gave him a chance to absorb what she’d just told him. Finally she went on. “MAP isn’t a punishment. It really is to protect you and to protect your family.”
“Traditionally, a new vampire’s first victims are their immediate family,” she said in a flat tone. Travis saw Gretchen stretched out on his bed, eyes empty, throat open, her clothes and the sheets drenched in blood. He shivered, both appalled and aroused at the image.
I could never do that.
Oh, yes, you could.
“Isn’t that just…the myth?” He knew as he said it that he was grasping for a hope even more insubstantial than straws.
Kay’s eyes went bleak. “I’ve seen it happen.”
So she told him about the program, how his days would be structured, more or less. Gave him a pamphlet and her business card.
Then, “Do you have a lawyer?”
“Um…yes?” He hesitated. “Do I need one?”
“There’ll be an investigation into your attack. There always is. It’s routine.” She said the last quickly, as if she expected him to protest. “There could be criminal charges if you were Turned involuntarily.”
“Oh, believe me, there wasn’t one damn thing voluntary about it.”
She was silent for a moment. Her expression was carefully neutral, but there was a softness in it. “I know I’ve said this before, Mr. Payne, but I really am sorry.”
* * * *
Marc went home, driving slowly through the late-night traffic. The early-evening shifts—people who worked in vamp establishments, or the vampires themselves—didn’t produce enough traffic for a full-fledged rush hour, but it was close.
He’d bought more blood at the Sanguinarium before he’d headed out, and now sipped contentedly from his to-go container as he drove, listening to the radio. It was satellite radio, and everything about it still amazed him.
That was one of the things that surfaced whenever he remembered his human past—how much the world had changed. Back in the day, in Rome, it took months for news to travel from one end of the empire to the other. Now he could just flip on his computer and find out what was happening anywhere on the planet. It was mind-boggling. Sometimes he sat and stared at trending Twitter feeds all night, just letting himself feel the utter amazement, juxtaposed with the strange, hollow sense of displacement the new accessibility of the entire world brought up in him.
Marc’s apartment was in a sleekly modern building in Bucktown. The building was tall, black, and largely windowless, and had been built specifically to serve the growing modern vampire population who didn’t gravitate to old, moldy, historical buildings. Although he himself was fairly old and moldy, Marc had found the clean, black lines of the place appealed to him. Plus the high-quality blood bar in the lobby didn’t hurt, and the team subsidized his rent. A good portion of the team lived here, though they weren’t much for mingling. He might have to change that. It would be a good way to get them used to the idea of welcoming a new member. Good way for Payne to meet the troops, as well. They’d have to get him up to speed in the middle of the season, which would be a challenge the Cobras hadn’t faced during the short time Marc had been captain.
The blood bar was empty except for Chris, the bartender, and one patron who was sipping a drink and reading a book in a corner booth. The bar had an open floorplan and was visible from the front door, so Chris saw Marc when he came into the building. He waved and called Marc’s name.
Marc headed over. He was always willing to talk to Chris, even if the to-go cup from the Sanguinarium gave him a twinge of guilt. It was like bringing a cup of somebody else’s coffee into your building’s Starbucks.
Chris didn’t miss the cup, either. “Cheating on me, I see,” he said with a grin.
Marc slid into a booth. “Don’t ask me to pour it out. It’s extremely expensive blood.”
The human bartender shook his head. “As long as I’ve worked in vampire food services, I still don’t get it. Blood’s blood, far as I can tell.”
“You’re not a vampire.” The subtle differences between one blend and another were impossible to describe to someone who wasn’t a connoisseur. Some vampires didn’t even get it—mostly the younger ones.
“And I hope never to be one.” He tossed aside the rag he’d been using to wipe down the bar and leaned forward. It was his “I’m ready for you to tell me gossip” posture, so Marc wasn’t surprised by his question. “So. Tell me about your new teammate.”
Twitching an eyebrow, Marc sipped pointedly from his cup. “Nobody is supposed to know about my new teammate. Not yet.”
“Ha. Everybody in the Cobras organization knows what’s going on. And half of them live here, so don’t tell me I’m not supposed to know.”
“Then you probably know more about my new teammate than I do. You should be telling me. You follow the NHL, right?”
“Of course. And the AHL, CHL, ECHL, VHL, SVHL, KHL… You name it. Hockey, man.”
“Then hit me.”
“Hang on. I’ll go get my iPad.”
Chris’s iPad, Marc knew, wasn’t so much a work tool as it was a repository of information the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Library of Alexandria. Or maybe everybody’s iPad was like that. Marc’s wasn’t. He still hadn’t gotten comfortable with the thing, even though as a general rule he was pretty efficient with modern gadgetry.
But when Chris returned and started opening and flipping through screens with deft movements of his fingers, it was all Marc could do to follow.
“Travis Payne,” Chris said. “Right wing. Here’s his stats. Very nice, am I right?”
Marc read through the Wikipedia entry. Payne was a white-bread sort of dude, born in Minnesota to a fairly affluent family. Affluent enough to keep him in hockey gear, at any rate. He’d come up the ranks in the usual way, after being drafted at the age of nineteen by the Blackhawks. He’d done his time with the Rockford Ice Hogs, then gone up to the majors and back down several times before finally settling in at right wing for the Hawks. His playing record was good—plus/minus in the high ranges, ice time averaging nearly twenty minutes a game. He’d missed only thirteen games in his entire pro career due to injuries. No suspensions. Penalty-box time ridiculously low. He’d even won a Lady Byng last year.
Marcus shook his head. The LVH was going to eat this kid alive.
“What?” Chris sounded personally affronted by Marc’s reaction. “You guys could win the Cup with this guy. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the ass?”
“He’s…” Marc considered. “He’s soft.”
“Just because he doesn’t serve a lot of penalty minutes doesn’t mean he doesn’t play physical.” Chris flicked his fingers over the screen again. It was like magic, and it made Marc feel old. “Check this out.”
The YouTube video was titled “Best Blackhawks Hits of the Year,” and several of them featured Payne. Marc made an approving face. “Okay, that’s not bad.” He reached for the iPad. “May I?”
Chris snorfled, knowing full well that Marc completely lacked iPad-fu, but handed the tablet over. Marc poked a few icons and somehow found his way to an image gallery with numerous pictures of his soon-to-be teammate in various stages of undress.
“Oh, like that, is it?” Chris said archly.
“Hush,” Marc shot back. “Warm up my blood.”
“I can’t warm up your blood—it’s not from my kitchen.”
Without looking up, Marc dug a twenty out of his pocket and dropped it on the counter. “Okay, just this once,” said Chris, and Marc heard the sound of the microwave running.
Marc touchscreened his way awkwardly through the picture gallery. Travis Payne was an almost painfully attractive man. His features weren’t pristine, of course—he had thin scars on his face, relics of past encounters with pucks, sticks, or other players’ fists. But his mouth was wide and full, and his gray eyes drew Marc in. They were large and clear and told far too much about the person behind them.
He was big, too, with wide shoulders and a well-honed body. Scrolling down—he was starting to get the hang of this—Marc found photos of Payne half-naked, cobbled abs and all. He had scars on his shoulders, his arms, his knees, marks that told the story of a man who’d sacrificed himself for the game.
Chris set a glass on the counter. “There you go. All warm and in a flavor-neutral container.”
“Thanks.” Marc picked up the glass. The blood had been perfectly heated. “You’re an artiste.”
“I am.” He peered at the iPad. “See anything you like?”
Handing the iPad back, Marc decided not to answer. As many things as they’d chatted about over the years Marc had lived in this building, Marc’s sexual preferences were not to be counted among them. There was no point starting now. “He looks like a good dude.”
“Mm-hm.” Chris’s knowing tone amused Marc more than it irritated him. “I see how it is. You enjoy the rest of your blood that didn’t come from my kitchen.”
“I will.” Marc toasted Chris briefly, then headed for the elevators.
Back in his apartment, Marc settled down with his laptop. Still musing over Payne, he found himself remembering his own early days as a vampire. He liked to tell people his change had happened so long ago he didn’t really remember, but that was a lie. You never forgot. You might toss the memories under a metaphorical mental carpet, but they were always there.
He’d been a cohort commander at an outpost in northern Africa until he’d stuck his dick a few too many places it didn’t belong. One of those places, unfortunately, had been his legion commander’s wife. And the commander’s daughter. And son. Then one night some of the commander’s friends beat Marc to within an inch of his life and left him in a ditch. Marc had always figured he deserved it, more or less.
He hadn’t died, though. Instead he’d been picked up by a slave trader and ended up in the arena. Working to buy back his freedom, he’d become one of the most lauded fighters in the provinces, and had eventually ended up in Rome.
Before he could earn his way back to legitimacy, an affluent sponsor bought him out of the ring. Eventually, she’d Turned him. It hadn’t been the worst of fates—there was blood, hot and spicy with fear, and more sex in more permutations than even he could have imagined, which was to say a phenomenal amount. But as the world changed around him, he began to crave independence. And took it, eventually. He hadn’t seen his sire in centuries.
He flipped on the laptop and performed the same searches Chris had done on his iPad. He wanted to look at more pictures.
The Cobras had narrowly missed the playoffs this year—again. Ms. Pressman’s idea that Payne could make a difference to the team, could actually get them over that hump that had kept them out of post-season play for so long, actually had him excited.
Travis himself had Marc excited, too, and not in a way Ms. Pressman would necessarily approve of. Payne’s physique was a work of art, honed by NHL trainers to optimum performance. Marc approved of that body. A lot. Wanted it. And yet he knew it would be better to hold back, at least for now. His own blatant response made Marc feel strange, as if he’d broken Travis before they’d even met.
“Down, boy,” he muttered, partly to himself but mostly to his dick, which was showing a more-than-casual interest. He needed to behave. Ms. Pressman would be happier if he behaved. In the long run, he’d be much more likely to get his teeth into that fabulous ass more quickly if he behaved. And by his teeth, he meant his dick. And, well, his teeth.
In the meantime, helping Travis Payne adjust was going to be no hardship at all.