Golden Eagle – Lauren Gilley

“Sashka…” “But look at them. They’re so pretty. And they smell nice. And one will look nice, and smell pretty in our apartment! In the corner by the TV. Don’t you think?” Nikita refrained from groaning, but barely. They stood on a corner, snowflakes sifting down from a winter sky gone dark early, cold enough to crack, while rush hour traffic chugged past, cars belching exhaust and throwing up little waves of slush. The tree lot, set up in the parking lot of what had once been a pharmacy, and was probably about to be a liquor store, once the plywood came off the windows, sparkled with dozens of strands of lights, the snow settling in the branches of the trees set up on display stands. A portable trailer cranked Christmas music out into the air, and the employees wore Santa hats. Nikita’s stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten, or, more importantly, fed in more than twenty-four hours. He felt woozy, and more than a little weak, and all he wanted to do was get somewhere warm, choke down some microwaved soup, and let Sasha talk him into having a little drink from his vein. He didn’t want to haul a sap-sticky, needle-shedding tree ten blocks; not even a little bit. But he couldn’t refuse Sasha, not when his eyes got big, and his voice got excited, and he wagged his figurative tail about something. Nikita put on his sternest, chilliest expression. The one that little babushkas had quaked in front of, begging him not to take the last of their grain. Folded his arms for emphasis.

Sasha’s grin only widened, in that way that meant he knew he was about to get his way, but that he was thankful, and not going to gloat, because he was genuinely the sweetest person Nikita had ever met. “Fine,” Nik huffed, breath pluming white in front of him. “Pick one out.” Sasha gave a whoop and whirled, darted into the lot, where a couple wrapped up in furs gave him a startled glance as he shot past. Nikita sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets, trying to keep out of the way of the other pedestrians. He took a breath… And caught an unwelcome scent. Vampire. He lifted his head, and searched the sidewalk. A dozen paces down, women bundled in furs and men toting briefcases splitting around him, a man stood – a creature. Dark-haired and unremarkable, but with a wry twist to his lips, like he knew a secret, and smelling of something that drank blood to stay alive.

To stay strong. He stared right at Nikita, and tipped his head in silent greeting. Nikita felt his fangs elongate in his mouth. He swallowed a growl, just barely. One day, a vampire in this city would catch Sasha’s scent, and want to bind him as a Familiar. Whoever it was would have to kill Nikita first before that happened. The strange vampire walked toward him, and Nikita put his shoulders back, and stood up to his tallest. To his slight satisfaction, he was a half-inch taller. Though, dressed in jeans, combats, and his favorite denim jacket, the one with the Romanov seal patch sewn to the collar, he didn’t much resemble the other vamp’s moneyed look: trench coat, wool slacks, wing-tips. Nikita tensed, ready for a fight.

The vampire pulled up just an arm length away, and smiled. “Good evening.” He had a German accent. Nikita bristled. He remembered mud, and snow, and rain; the crack of Katya’s rifle, and the low rumble of a Tiger. The whistle of bombs falling; the drone of Luftwaffe. He took a breath, sinuses full of strange vampire. Not all Germans were Nazis, he told himself. Not all Germans were the reason he and Sasha were…what they were. “What do you want?” Nikita asked, and his accent rolled out thick, spurred by his anxiety; he didn’t try to check it.

The stranger’s smile widened. “So you’re suspicious. That’s healthy. My name is Gustav. And your name is Nikita Baskin.” Nikita bared his teeth. “How do you know that?” Gustav shrugged, still smiling. “Word gets around in a city like this. You kill other vampires. Your own kind.

You’re a bit of a celebrity, you know.” Nikita growled, low enough he hoped the pedestrians couldn’t hear. “What do you want?” he repeated, and let all his agitated dislike bleed through. “My, my, you’re impatient. I don’t want anything,” Gustav said, clucking. “Nothing beyond introducing myself. We aren’t like them.” He gestured at the mortals walking past them; more than a few tossed them halfway curious looks. Nik checked that he was no longer growling; he wasn’t. Softer, Gustav continued.

“They’d never accept us if they knew what we were – what we must do to survive. It’s important to stick together. To keep company with our own kind.” Nikita didn’t respond. And, the same moment Gustav’s nostrils flared in sudden interest, Sasha’s scent floated toward them. A moment later, he slid up to Nikita’s side, seemingly out of thin air, slightly bristled, projecting an energy of uncertain, but preparatory aggression. “Hello.” To anyone else, he would have sounded friendly; to Nikita’s practiced ear, he sounded downright hostile. Gustav smiled again, flashing his teeth; fangs long, just noticeable alongside his regular human teeth. “Ah,” he said, “your Familiar.

” Nikita growled – too loud this time. He didn’t care. Gustav chuckled. “Now I smell it: not your Familiar. Your companion, then.” His dark eyes danced. Nikita’s lungs opened up, ready for a proper roar. Sasha touched his arm, immediately calming. “Who are you?” Sasha asked. He could ask truly rude things, and still come across as sweet.

It was those eyes. “Why are you making Nik unhappy? Hmm? We’re Christmas tree shopping.” “I’m not trying to make him unhappy, I assure. My name is Gustav,” he said with a bow that belonged to the manners of a previous century. “And if this is Nikita, then you must be Sasha.” Sasha let out a quiet, lupine ruf of surprise. His hand tightened on Nikita’s arm; his features hardened, not a scowl, but almost. “Nice to meet you, Gustav,” he said, in a tone that Nik knew was a threat. Nikita shook his arm loose – Sasha swayed in closer, on instinct, wanting the pack-contact in the face of a possible threat – and slung it across Sasha’s shoulders, who subsided happily beneath its weight. “Did you find a tree you liked, brastishka?” he asked, gaze pinned to Gustav.

The other vampire had trouble hiding his mirth. “Yeah,” Sasha said. “I think it’s too big, though.” “Show me. We can move some furniture around.” “A moment, please,” Gustav said, before they could walk away. “I’d hoped you could meet my Familiar.” He lifted his hand above his shoulder, and signaled. A woman walked around the corner, sleek and stylish, her hair big and bouncy, in tight jeans, and killer boots, and a leather jacket, and– Oh. She was a wolf.

The wind came at their faces, and carried her scent. A bound wolf, no less. Gustav’s. “Your Familiar,” Nikita echoed, arm tightening around Sasha. Sasha in turn braced a hand against his ribs; it was both a comfort – a soothing caress, bracing, even – and a place from which he could push off if he decided to throw himself in front of Nikita and be unnecessarily protective. Maybe not unnecessary at the moment, given Nikita’s spiraling blood sugar. The woman pulled up beside Gustav, folded her arms, leaned into him a moment, familiar and comfortable. She cast a bored look across them. “This is them?” Her accent was American. “This is Hannah,” Gustav said.

Nikita didn’t comment. Neither, to his surprise, did Sasha. He only jerked a fast nod, one which left Hannah smiling for some reason. “We need to get going,” Nikita said, coldly, not caring if he was rude. He’d been rude his whole life. He was Cheka, for God’s sakes. And disliked people besides. Gustav chuckled again, for reasons he didn’t understand. “Very well, then. Remember us, if you please.

I don’t think we’ll stay in New York, but we might. I’d appreciate it if we weren’t on your kill list, Captain Baskin.” Nikita showed his teeth. “Don’t give me a reason to put you on that list.” He turned away, into the tree lot, towing Sasha with him. And kept walking until he sensed that the other immortals had moved on. He didn’t realize he was growling – low and constant – until Sasha touched his hand and said, “Nik.” “What? Oh.” He took a deep breath, and let it out as a sigh. He turned his head, trying to glance back over his shoulder even as Sasha took the reins, pulling him now, deeper into the rows of fragrant trees.

“We should turn back. Follow them.” “Why?” Sasha sounded like he was trying not to laugh. “Well, because…” He didn’t want to say it when he glanced at Sasha, and found him guileless, unconcerned. “You didn’t like them either,” he said, more than a little defensive. “I didn’t like them because you didn’t like them,” Sasha said, patiently. “But I don’t have any real problems with them. I’ll always back you up. But I’m not worried about them.” You could take the Cheka out of the USSR, he supposed… “You weren’t?” “No.

” “I’m…overreacting.” It caused a physical tightness in his chest to admit that. Nikita frowned to himself, and reached to massage the spot. He swayed a little; he really needed to eat. Sasha moved in a little closer; his own personal scent smelled a lot like the needles of the trees around them, but sharper, wilder. He smelled like the Siberia that had birthed him. “I know you worry,” he said, his fond smile taking any bite or hint of condescension out of the words. “And you have good reason. We’ve seen more evil things than most. But not every vampire is evil, Nik.

I’m sure there are plenty like you.” He rubbed both hands down Nik’s shoulders and upper arms, a fast, affectionate stroke. Nikita snorted to cover the way he wanted to lean into the gesture. Sasha was so free with touch, always ready with his physical affection. He never wanted to take advantage of that; to impose. “God, I hope they’re not like me. They’re miserable and stupid if they are.” Sasha grinned, but said, “Don’t say that. Come on.” He turned and looped his arm through Nikita’s and started forward again.

“Let me show you the tree.” “Fine, fine.” “And if Gustav and Hannah ever are a problem,” he said, softer, “then we’ll take care of it.” Nikita bumped their shoulders together in silent thanks. “I just like to leave my options open.” “I know.” And in the dazzle of lights and gently falling snow, Sasha beamed at him, glorious as a winter angel. 1 New York City Present Day “It’ll be Halloween in two weeks.” It was said hopefully, but Nikita didn’t react right away. He stared at the street a moment longer; a windy evening, pedestrians clutching the halves of their coats together, exhaust snaking up in streamers from tailpipes.

Then he dropped the blinds and turned to face his small living room with a knot that felt like dread lodged in his chest. Sasha lay on his stomach on the rug, in front of the TV, watching Entertainment Tonight. They were talking about celebrity costumes from years past, amid a host of other things Nikita didn’t care about, but tolerated for Sasha’s sake. He turned to look at Nik, tiny spark of hope shining in his eyes, but already visibly braced for a negative answer. “What?” “Halloween. In two weeks.” “I don’t care about Halloween.” “I know.” Small voice. Sasha turned back to the screen.

“But it means Thanksgiving’s close. And then Christmas.” Nikita studied him a moment, the pale flicker of his lashes in the blue of the TV light, the subtle lines of tension in his shoulders and arms. The drugs were out of his system – he was fully detoxed, according to Dr. Harvey, and what she’d been able to make of werewolf blood biology under her morgue microscope. But he didn’t eat quite enough, still; carried dark bags beneath his eyes; tired easily and early at night. Nikita hadn’t fed from him. Had been drinking pig and cow blood chilled from the fridge since they’d returned from Virginia. “We need to leave soon,” Nik said, voice frayed at the edges. “Yeah.

” Sasha lingered a moment, then finally got to his feet. ~*~ Nikita…wasn’t doing well. He was doing poorly. He was doing shitty, to be blunt. Sasha had reached a stage of anxiety over his best friend that reduced him to a clingy, whining mess; like a scolded dog trying desperately to get back into his master’s good graces, he followed Nik around as much as possible, plastering himself to his side on the couch when they watched TV, rooting up under his arm until Nik slung it around his shoulders with a sigh. At first, that sigh had been patient, but that patience was wearing thin. Last night, when Sasha spooned up behind him in bed, Nikita elbowed him back with a muttered, “It’s too hot for that.” Sasha had curled up at the foot of the bed, shivering a little, because it hadn’t been hot, and he didn’t know how to make things better. He felt he could be forgiven for his desperation… But he regretted his plan now that it was sitting across from him drinking cheap bourbon. The Wet Whistle didn’t have a dress code, per se, but it drew a crowd that tended to dress up for a night out on the town: slinky dresses, tight shirts with the top few buttons undone, artfully styled hair and expensive colognes and perfumes.

Lanny had obviously shown up straight from the gym, his leather jacket thrown over a sweatstained muscle shirt and ratty old gray joggers. Sasha had offered him a free drink, and he was now working on his third, scanning the pulsating crowd over his shoulder. “Did I, uh, interrupt your workout?” Sasha asked. He was trying to be subtle and accommodating. But. Crushing anxiety and all that. “Nah, I was done.” Lanny drained his glass and set it back on the bar, firing Sasha an expectant look over the top of it. “I said one free drink.” Lanny tipped his chin down, and his eyes got comically wide.

Like he’d been practicing compelling in his bathroom mirror and thought making a face was somehow part of it. “Don’t even try it,” Sasha huffed. “I wasn’t gonna! Man, you’re wound tight tonight.” Sasha gave him a look. “Yeah, yeah.” Lanny pulled out his wallet and slid his card over, gaze drifting back to the dance floor. “Where’s your man?” Sasha’s stomach did a little flip. Lanny talked about them like…well, he was still so freshly human. He dismissed the supernatural elements of immortal relationships, looking at it instead with human frankness. When he referenced Nikita and Sasha, he didn’t speak about them as vampire and Familiar; didn’t revere the ancient kinship of wolves and vamps born on the banks of the Tiber when the she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus.

No, he acted like they were just friends…or something more. A teasing light glinting deep in his eyes, a suggestive edge to his smirk. It wasn’t mocking, not really, but it was something. And it made Sasha’s palms sweat. As if he could sense Sasha’s sudden discomfort – and he could now, since his turning – Lanny shifted back toward the bar, smile smug. “Uh-huh.” Sasha drew up to his full height, jutting his chin out stubbornly. “This is important. If you’re just going to make jokes about us, you might as well go back to the gym.” “Home gym,” Lanny corrected.

“And no, no, I know.” He let out a breath and sobered. Cocked his head and fixed Sasha with the kind of gaze that reminded Sasha that Lanny was a detective, after all. And a good one, according to Trina. “You didn’t see him after you got snatched. Dude was freaked out.” He lifted his brows for emphasis. Sasha sighed. “I know.” Nik was still freaked out; Sasha could feel the guilt and fear buzzing under his skin when they touched.

“No,” Lanny said. “I don’t think you actually do.” Sasha bristled. “What–” “Nik hated being a Chekist, right?” Lanny pressed on. “That’s what Trina said. That he was just pretending, and he felt shitty about all the awful things he did, and he hated Stalin, and all that?” Sasha snorted. “More or less.” “Well, he didn’t seem like he hated it when he was shooting everything that moved and choking little kids to death and being a walking nightmare in general.” A low buzzing started up in Sasha’s ears. “What?” he asked, voice faint and cracked.

“You were pretty out of it when we got you back, but you saw the jacket, right?” Lanny shook his head. “All his lecturing about drinking from humans, and then he did it himself. He initiated it. Because he needed to be strong enough to get you back. He compelled people, and killed people, and drank from people – to get you back. Dude, we went all the way to Buffalo and he met his whole entire family, and all he cared about was getting you back, even if he got himself killed in the process. However he’s acting now, whatever kind of upset you’re seeing? It’s not even close to how fucked up he was before.” Sasha whimpered in the back of his throat before he could catch himself, then tried to cover it with a cough. “I…I know he feels…guilty…” “Hey, look.” Lanny’s tone softened.

“I’m not trying to make you feel bad. But I thought you ought to know that he was pretty bad off…seeing as how you guys are co-dependent soulmates or whatever.” Co-dependent. Yes, they were that. But it felt one-sided lately. Suddenly, all the fretting and the stilted conversations and the avoidance caught up with him. He felt his eyes burn and looked down at the bar top, blinking away the shameful evidence of emotion. He was a pack animal, and he hadn’t been able to act like one lately, his packmate holding him at arm’s length when he most needed to reestablish bonds and intimacy. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t confide in Lanny – in anyone else – but he’d reached a breaking point. “I,” he started again, halting, and then the dam burst.

“I’m so worried about him. I can’t get him to feed, and he doesn’t want to eat, and he doesn’t laugh anymore, and he pushes me away, and I just…” He gasped a few times and then pulled himself forcibly together, looked up at Lanny miserably through a screen of hair that had fallen over his face. Lanny said, “You mean he actually laughs?”


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