Wrong. So terribly wrong.
Agent Oliver Cardoso scrambled up the hillside, unable to tell if the curses filling his mouth were silent or shouted. He couldn’t hear fuck-all over the ringing in his ears. The concussive blast of the sonic charges had closed the portal—he hoped—but these new charges were a hell of a lot less subtle than the usual ones. Out here in the middle of nowhere, if agents didn’t die at the hands of insane yeti and their own tools didn’t kill them, they could make allowances for the unexpected. But there was no way they could utilize these fucking devices anywhere near an urban center. Not if they wanted the Metaphysical Investigative Agency to remain a secret organization. These charges would crumble foundations and shatter glass. Change wasn’t always progress.
Another glance over his shoulder verified his partner, Carmichael, clawing his way up the same hillside, blond hair as tufted and messy as the short cut could get. Streaks of dirt and blood colored his face, and he shook his head as though the simple movement would cause the stuffing in his ears to fall out.
If there were any chance Carmichael hadn’t been deafened too, Oliver would have told him not to bother. Only time could mitigate the concussive effects of these goddamned prototype charges. Maybe.
The blast had been horribly reminiscent of his biggest clusterfuck, over seven years ago, when he and his then partner were both quite new to the agency. MIA had only existed for a few years prior to Oliver joining; there was so much none of them knew.
A low rumble, felt in his feet rather than heard, sent an icy chill through his gut. He paused and glanced back at Carmichael again. Carmichael’s widened blue eyes reflected horror, and as one, they both looked up at the distant, overhanging shelf of snow, high on the mountain’s peak.
“Run,” Oliver screamed, unable to resist the instinct.
They had mere minutes, if that, to crest the valley’s ridge before the avalanche was upon them. If they could make it over the rise…well, they wouldn’t be safe, but most of the crushing snow should funnel along the anciently carved glacier’s path.
In desperation, they clawed their way toward the equivalent of high ground in a flood. If the portal had been any farther west, they’d have been in the direct path and wouldn’t have a chance at all.
With their remaining strength, they clambered over the top and kept going along the ridge. The more distance they put between them and the flow site, the better.
The thunder of snow flowing past like lava penetrated the auditory blankness caused by the sonic charges. As tempting as it was to look back at the furious spectacle, Oliver refrained. They only had a couple of hours of daylight left, and he was sure as shit not camping out again. Especially in this wilderness where they didn’t do controlled avalanches and the power of this slide could easily set off another at any moment.
* * * *
As the sun set, a fiery orange blob in the sky, it lit up the tiny ski resort. Oliver’s hearing had slowly returned over the trek.
Carmichael, like the excellent operative he’d become, trailed him back to their room, silent, until they were alone.
Oliver turned and faced the man he’d brought into MIA almost three years earlier. Strangely, despite his taciturn and occasionally sullen demeanor, Carmichael made one of the best partners he’d ever had.
“Are you hurt? Can you hear okay?” Oliver let his gaze rove over Carmichael, checking for injuries and bleeding. If anything was wrong with Carmichael’s ears, they were finding a hospital tonight. He wasn’t risking another incident like his first near casualty in the field.
Their partnership had become even stronger after Carmichael settled into a serious relationship with Adam, whom they’d saved from a pack of Umbrae-infected werewolves. Oliver had come damn close to letting his admiration of Carmichael deepen into something else, despite his firsthand, painful knowledge that working agency partnerships and sexual relationships didn’t mix.
No one would ever know how Carmichael’s expression—shy yet smug—when he spoke of Adam sent a shaft of jealousy through Oliver every time. He’d been keeping people at an emotional distance for so long, there was no one to know, no one to confide those feelings in. Probably better that way, but it was so fucking lonely sometimes.
“What the fuck was that?” Carmichael’s face flushed with his fury. But his volume was normal—for Carmichael—and even though he hadn’t answered Oliver’s question, at least Oliver knew his partner’s hearing was fine. He continued to inspect Carmichael, only by sheer force of will keeping himself from lightly running his hands over the man’s limbs, checking for further injury.
“Is your hearing okay?” Carmichael asked, his tone a mixture of unwilling concern and sarcasm. “What the fuck was that?”
“Avalanche.” Oliver peeled the jacket off his state-of-the-art ski suit and threw it at the closed door. Carmichael raised an eyebrow but didn’t say a word about the uncharacteristic emotional gesture. The suit worked perfectly fine, but fear had frozen Oliver down to the bone. Safe in his room, anger began to thaw him.
“Thanks, Cardoso. Gee, I never would have fucking figured that out for myself.” Carmichael’s eyes flashed, and his hands clenched into fists. “I know you’re the expert, but do you think it was wise bringing the extra-noisy sonic charges with us? We set off a goddamned avalanche.”
Oliver braced himself for a punch, but it never came. “I know. Believe me, I’m going to have words with the research and development department about this.”
Carmichael began stripping off his outer layer, and instead of watching like a pathetic old fool, Oliver took off his ski pants.
“That’s all you have to say? Do we even know if we killed any innocents?”
Unlikely. Any dangerous overhang with innocents in the line of fire would have been subject to controlled slides. “I’ll have the agency look into it. You know that’s always a risk, but look at the bright side—the cleanup crew shouldn’t have any psychotic yeti to worry about.” Yeti weren’t all that different from werewolves, aside from their penchant for cold and snow.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Oliver would do more than raise a stink with the head of R&D if Carmichael was injured beyond the obvious and shallow yeti claw marks they both sported.
“Bruised only. I got hit in the back by a couple of flying rocks.”
“Broken ribs? Bruised kidneys? Should we get to a hospital?” Their extraction and cleanup crew would undoubtedly be delayed by both weather and the avalanche. If he had to, he’d get Carmichael standard medical attention and lie through his teeth about the reason for the claw marks.
“Nah. Don’t worry. Nothing to get Adam pissed at you for breaking me.”
There it went. That fucking look. The one that told anyone with eyes how in love Carmichael was with Adam.
“Good, good.” Oliver stripped off the heavy black sweater he’d worn under the ski suit and hurled it too at the door. Yes, they’d prevailed, but he was still fucking pissed at how close they’d come to getting killed. “Let me order something hot from room service.”
Carmichael stepped over his pile of wet, snowy clothes and into the bathroom. A muscle in Oliver’s back screamed as he reached for the phone and ordered coffee and hot chocolate as well as a couple of burgers. Must have pulled something.
If he had his own Adam or Carmichael, he’d have someone to lovingly massage it. But he’d realized long ago there was no point in trying to find a relationship. Carmichael was the closest he’d come in a very long time. Even if he’d reconsidered his stance on getting involved with another agency operative, it was too late now.
“Holy shit, Oliver!”
Oliver hung up the phone and turned back to Carmichael, who stood in the bathroom doorway. “What?”
The red flush of Carmichael’s anger had completely vanished. “Get the fuck in here before you bleed all over everything,” he commanded.
“Bleed?” Oliver shifted his shoulder experimentally, and the pain he’d assumed was a pulled muscle took on the characteristic of a fiery stripe along his back.
“Jesus, just get in here.”
A wave of dizziness struck, and he became aware of the sluggish drip of warm blood down his back. How the hell hadn’t he noticed this when he took off his coat and sweater? They had to be sliced to ribbons.
Carmichael ran hot water in the sink and opened up one of their first-aid kits. “Here, lean over. Rest your hands on the sink while I clean this.”
Oliver obeyed, grateful for the support. “How bad is it?” For it to still be bleeding after a couple of hours… Shit, he might need stitches, and a lot of them.
“Eh, not terrible. Probably started to scab over on the way here and stuck to your sweater. Now hold still while I clean this out.”
The gentle touches of Carmichael’s work-calloused hands gave Oliver shivers. He hoped Carmichael would misattribute them to chills from blood loss and adrenaline withdrawal. Oliver glanced up once, but the sight of blond hair over his shoulder, looking for all the world like Carmichael was ready to fuck him, had him hardening inappropriately. He’d eschewed his customary suit for this job, but he should have brought jeans instead of khakis. Jeans would at least constrain his erection to a hopefully unnoticeable state.
He grunted and bit his lip as Carmichael proceeded to pour alcohol over his wound to sterilize it. That exquisite moment of burn when a cock pushed slowly in, stretching…well, it wasn’t anything like the sting of alcohol in his wound, but the fact he was still making comparisons to sex while trying to keep from screaming convinced him the injury wasn’t that serious—and confirmed he was a fucking idiot.
More than Carmichael’s touch, it was the bittersweet memory of another blond from years ago that tore at him, a constant nagging ache over the relationship he’d fucked up royally.
A sharp knock on the door gave him a reprieve as Carmichael went to let room service in. Hanging his head, Oliver breathed deeply.
“Okay, let’s finish this up. That burger looks awesome.” Carmichael returned to the bathroom and gave his uninjured shoulder a little slap, the sound exactly like the slap of flesh against flesh during vigorous fucking. Oliver valiantly held back a groan. Dammit. Been a long time since he’d had such unruly thoughts about sex. But it had also been a long time since he’d had unruly fucking.
“I don’t know what did this, but the cut seems clean, and it’s not jagged.”
The only thing Oliver could recall was a short moment when his forward movement, away from the tidal wave of ice and snow, had been halted. “Don’t know. Perhaps a bit of stray barbed wire or the remnants of a yeti trap.” Before the residents of the tiny mountain village had been turned into yeti by the infection of the Umbrae through the portal, they were experienced mountaineers and trackers. They were plenty capable of setting traps for unwary humans.
Carmichael gave him another slap—bastard—and washed his hands. “All done. Let’s get some of that hot chocolate into you. You can use the sugar.”
He must look worse than he felt, because Carmichael hadn’t rolled his eyes when he mentioned the hot chocolate.
Oliver dropped down on the toilet seat to rest a moment, craving the small slice of solitude.
Up on the mountainside, the eerie similarity between this mission and that first truly botched mission seven years ago—involving improperly set sonic charges—had caused him almost crippling doubt.
He was forty-three, one of the oldest agents still doing fieldwork. He was tired. Tired of the secrets, tired of training green agents, tired of switching partners. He’d already refused his superiors’ request—twice—to take on a new recruit instead of Carmichael. The job was all he had in his empty fucking life, so what did it mean when he was too tired to do it?
Back in the safety of the hotel room, his self-confidence had more or less reasserted itself. He hadn’t fucked up. This time the prototype charges were at fault. The drones at research and development were going to hear from him.
* * * *
A blue flicker at the bottom of Brandon Ellison’s computer screen drew his attention and raised his heart rate. The notification of an incoming field report was the closest thing to an indulgence he allowed himself. Reading field reports shouldn’t be a highlight of his day—he shouldn’t even have access to them anymore—but those little blue alerts taunted him like waving candy in front of a toddler.
He let his cursor hover over the icon that would open up the most recent report. Each time, the anticipation curled in his belly, as good as speculating on presents before Christmas. Most current field agents he no longer knew. And for one…the rush of reading was tempered by pain. But he couldn’t stop himself, like those reports were a drug he knew was bad for him, yet he flung himself into the addiction all the same. Humiliating as his secret was, he couldn’t let an old flame sputter out.
A second before he allowed his finger to click, a flurry of e-mail notifications appeared in quick succession, too fast to read the subject lines. Could they wait? He got a lot of e-mails filled with bureaucratic minutiae and potluck invitations. An alarming number of potluck invitations. Someone needed to assign these jokers more work. One more thing on his list of changes he intended to make.
Hesitating over the icon, he swore. Instant gratification had fucked up his whole life; he could hold off until he’d dealt with his responsibilities. The ones research and development paid him to take care of.
Sighing, he moved his cursor away from the tempting blue icon, set his data to compile in the background, and pulled up his e-mail program.
Past the garbage—the whole team could use a remedial class on informative subject lines—was a flurry of messages about the prototype sonic charges the team was developing. Sonic charges. He shuddered. Probably nothing more than someone’s toes getting stepped on. Those could wait. Plenty of time to soothe ruffled feathers, although given the sheer number, especially from Parks and Kwan, he almost expected one or both of them to show up in his office. They’d better not. Nothing worse than being startled by unannounced, unplanned office drop-ins when he couldn’t hear anyone approach.
He was tempted to delete them all. Then one arrived from Senior Director Bennett, flagged as important, the subject line of prototype sonic charges
preceded by the word URGENT
in caps. Fuck. Which one of those high-strung ass kissers went over his head because they couldn’t wait an hour or two for a reply?
He opened the message with an irritated click but didn’t get a chance to read it before a hand grabbed his monitor and shook it.
Brandon slid his chair back and looked up, heart pounding. A large, angry blond man snarled at him over the monitor, but Brandon didn’t recognize him, nor could he understand the clipped words shot out through a clenched jaw. So he just stared up at the intruder. Been a long time since he’d had any occasion to dust off his self-defense training. He wasn’t even sure if he remembered enough to take such a large man down. He didn’t want to summon security.
Without his hearing aids, and not expecting any visitors, it took him a bit to focus on listening. Now that he was paying attention, fortunately—or unfortunately—he didn’t need any assistance hearing the ferocious man in front of him.
“What the fuck is the matter with you? Don’t you fucking test anything around here? We could have fucking been killed!” Each swear word was punctuated by a fist pounding on Brandon’s desk, making his office supplies dance.
Okay…he heard the man, but perhaps he needed help understanding him. Brandon stood and faced his accuser, although he had no idea what he was being accused of. Perhaps he’d merely missed the beginning of the conversation. That happened a lot.
The blond’s face flushed with anger, and Brandon should have been afraid. But not much scared him anymore, and he wasn’t exactly vulnerable, not here in his own office. The swirling hum of indistinct voices filled the room, interfering with the man’s voice like a radio dial tuned a tiny bit off. They wouldn’t be alone long, and the blond didn’t appear to have a weapon—beyond his clenched fists.
“Out.” Brandon wasn’t going to have a long discussion without his hearing aids in. Reaching for them now would only make him appear vulnerable or as though he were conceding to the stranger’s right to a fair hearing without an appointment. “Out, now.”
Bright blue eyes widened. Sure, Brandon might not have the same amount of muscles, but he could hold his own. He crossed his arms, and when the guy’s eyes narrowed and he loomed over the desk, Brandon figured he’d gotten his message across. Broadcasting his meaning with the fewest number of words was a skill he’d perfected over the years. Usually, though, it resulted in a cowed research attendant fleeing the room. This time it would likely end in security breaking up a brawl, because he wasn’t backing down. Not on his own turf.
“I don’t think so. Not until you tell me what that fuckup was all about.”
Fuckup? Brandon didn’t even know this guy.
“Carmichael!” came a roar from the door.
This was Carmichael? Who clearly recognized the reprimand, based on his surly yet sheepish expression. Finding himself trembling at the sound of a voice he’d never forgotten, Brandon clutched the edge of the desk and forced himself to look at the door. Oliver flicked a glance his way before returning his attention to the sexy blond Carmichael. The attractive, brusque partner Oliver hadn’t traded in once his training was complete. The first partner Oliver had kept for longer than a year, since Brandon.
Breath caught in Brandon’s lungs like a fist had clamped around his throat, and he fell back into his office chair, ignored and apparently irrelevant for the time being.
With Carmichael turned away from Brandon, his words to Oliver were indistinct, like a buzzing insect had taken up residence in Brandon’s ear, allowing him to only hear one or two words of each growled sentence. Oliver beckoned to Carmichael, and surprisingly, given his stiff, puffed-up presence, he obeyed.
With a few terse, understated gestures, Oliver proceeded to read Carmichael the riot act. Not for a second did Brandon need to hear Oliver to recognize anger. He’d seen it once or twice before, and he’d never forgotten anything about Oliver.
He stared at the two men—well, one of them, really. Oliver was a little broader in the chest and shoulders than he remembered. Tiny flecks of gray lightened the dark hair at his temples, and minuscule crinkles at the corners of his eyes testified to the seven years’ interval since Brandon had seen him last. Other than that, the man hadn’t changed a goddamned bit. The dark suit made him look so official, almost menacing, but delicious in a way Brandon hadn’t known Oliver was capable of.
One hand on his desk phone, poised to call security as he knew he should, Brandon rubbed the index finger of his other hand along his bottom lip. And stared at the bulge behind Oliver’s fly. The memories the sight of that package induced were vivid and arousing. Just another minute. Just another moment to pretend that bulge was for him and not the sexy blond hulk of man beside Oliver. Then he’d call security.
The fly of those pressed navy trousers flexed, just a bit. Surely Oliver wasn’t getting off on reprimanding Carmichael? Or had the tenor of their conversation changed while Brandon had been—oh God—ogling? His gaze flew up, and he caught Oliver staring at him, eyes almost black in their intensity. And Brandon suddenly realized how inviting his current pose must appear. As though he were deliberately enticing Oliver to… How fucking humiliating. And incorrect.
He yanked his finger away from his mouth, where he was practically sucking suggestively on it, and glared at Oliver. Oliver’s lips thinned, and if warm, chocolaty eyes could become wintery, then that’s what his did as he deliberately turned his attention back to Carmichael. The strong hand on Carmichael’s bicep could have been restraint, but it looked more like a caress. Damn him. Them.
Gritting his teeth, Brandon stabbed the number for security into his phone, annoyed that his shaking fingers made him fuck it up the first time. Before he had a chance to complete the second attempt, three uniformed guards barreled into the room. Their combined voices made it utterly impossible to understand any of them. A faint sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead, the phone’s handset still clenched in his grip. Too many people. His breath became shallow and quick, his gaze locked on Oliver, who was trying to placate the guards by showing his identification.
God, not now. Not another goddamned panic attack. Not in front of Oliver and especially not in front of Carmichael, whom Oliver had stepped protectively in front of when the guards showed up. Brandon bit his lip and tried to breathe slowly and deeply.
Greg Wilson squeezed his narrow frame into Brandon’s office, making it definitely too crowded, but despite the man’s small frame and youthful appearance, he had a surprisingly penetrating voice, one that Brandon could easily hear.
Within moments Greg had quieted everyone, prevented a brawl between the guards and Carmichael, and given Brandon enough time to calm himself. His ability to run interference with just about everyone was the main reason Brandon relied on the man to be his second-in-command.
In the now—presumably—silent room, Brandon stood, drawing all eyes. He licked his lips, concentrating on enunciating his words to ensure they were clear and distinct, giving no hint of his disability—he hoped. “This is unacceptable behavior. If you have concerns, there are appropriate channels. I expect you to use them.”
He’d gotten pretty good at reading lips and thought Carmichael mouthed the word prick
, but it wasn’t loud enough for any response from the men facing him, aside from a sharp elbow jab from Oliver. Brandon frowned, and Carmichael glared back. How did Oliver handle this surly, angry man all the time? Brandon had to concede the blond was built and gorgeous, but he didn’t see Oliver compromising as much as he’d need to in order to keep a relationship on even footing. Nor could he see Oliver taking orders from an operative with so much less experience. Their partnership—and probable fucking—had to be one long, continuous battle. The Oliver he remembered was an adrenaline junkie, as were many MIA operatives, but he didn’t like disharmony.
Oliver wasn’t pleased with the dressing-down from Greg, but he nodded curtly and wrapped his fingers around Carmichael’s bicep again before ushering him out of Brandon’s office. Once the two men were gone, the guards smoothed their prickly plumage and filed out of the room, leaving Greg.
“Everything okay, Brandon?”
Brandon slumped back into his chair and nodded. He didn’t trust his voice not to give away how shaken he truly was, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to confide in Greg. Not that he had anyone else to confide in, but Greg was a colleague, not a friend or anything more, no matter the broad hints Greg had thrown out.
“Did you want—”
“Nothing. I have work to do.” Too curt, perhaps, considering Greg had saved him from having a panic attack in front of his ex-lover, but he wanted to be alone. Even though limited symptom attacks like this one were easier to hide and deal with, they left him feeling vulnerable. Figured seeing Oliver would trigger one, but it could have been so much worse. No way would Oliver—or anyone—have missed a full-fledged panic attack, adding that extra dose of humiliation to the encounter.
“Have you given any more thought to my request?”
“Yes, and having met Carmichael only convinces me he’ll be disruptive in the lab. No, you’ll have to make do with the few hours you’ve been granted each month.”
Unbelievable. He’d only met Adam, Carmichael’s boyfriend, a time or two, but he seemed like a nice young man. How he, or Oliver for that matter, put up with such a loose cannon was beyond Brandon.
“I’m not having this discussion again. Shut the door behind you.” Brandon deliberately looked at his computer, pretending to be engrossed in the screen saver, waiting for Greg to leave. The man would not stop pestering about that damned portal-seeking project of his. Today was not the day.
Greg wasn’t pleased at the casual dismissal, but despite a petulant glare, he did as bidden. For a change.
The slam of the heavy wooden door alerted Brandon to Greg’s departure, and he scrambled out from behind his desk to lock the door. No way was he dealing with one more person today.
Back at his desk, he didn’t even bother unlocking his computer. The e-mails and field report could wait; his working day was completely shot, and he needed to get out of there. He grabbed his hearing aids from the desk drawer, shed his lab coat, and left as unobtrusively as he could.