For the first time in nine years, Alex didn't receive a Valentines card.
Not one. Not a single one sitting in his inbox, or clutched to some brave bosom waiting breathlessly for his arrival. And he couldn't help wondering: just when had the women of the office given up on him?
Maybe they'd ceased recruiting and he was left with the women who already knew him — or maybe this thing he had with Milos was wider knowledge than either of them thought. Milos, who sat working through a heap of paper utterly oblivious to Alex's quiet irritation. Sometimes he fidgeted and Alex wondered if he'd noticed too, the absence of cards and flowers ... but then he settled again and proved he didn't. For him it was just another regular, plain old office day, just like every other that passed in paperwork and silence — or paperwork and complaining, but Alex had to admit the complaining had previously been his and now Nazarian was back he had a whole lot less of it.
He almost missed it.
Now he had something to complain about, and no one to complain to. He'd seen people in the foyer exchanging cards, flowers and smiles; that neither of them were the recipient boiled frustration in his chest. After his last few journeys through it, he decided not leaving the office was better for his pride.
For God's sake, he'd always received at least one card! Whether it was from a hapless intern or some impressionable new recruit who thought Alex's good looks meant he might be interested in them simply because they were pretty, this was the first time his inbox had remained barren. He used to spend the day resolutely ignoring the cards he received — any starry-eyed women desperate enough to send him one were driven inexplicably wild by the sight of him simply sliding them back into the cubby — but to not receive any?
Not too long ago he'd used that same inexplicable excitement to take the opportunity to introduce himself to those same starry-eyed women a day later and get to know them much better . . . but he behaved himself now. And the reason, the dark elven sex-on-tap who relented to Alex's urges with only moderate amounts of grumbling, was sitting over there going through a practice file Alex was increasingly sure he no longer needed. Oh sure, Alex could go back to being nice to people, for as long as it took to get what he wanted, but he didn't think the sex-on-tap wouldn't take too kindly to it.
And it was easier to be nice to the elf than it was with the various anonymous interns. Easier than Alex expected, or was entirely comfortable with. It wasn't supposed to feel like the right thing to do, not when he'd spent years working hard on doing the wrong thing. Milos might be heedless to the day but Alex wasn't, and for once on Valentines Day Alex had an interesting, if simple, new plan: a nice home-cooked meal, then some good, vigorous fucking.
It made waiting for the end of the working day painful — God! It was so tempting to just pounce on Milos where he sat instead.
Better to behave himself. Everybody insisted restraint made the whole experience more satisfying, and while restraint wasn't a concept Alex enjoyed familiarity with, it might be worth trying once in a while. Not to mention they hadn't discussed this before work and Milos's expression whenever Alex insisted he return to the apartment with him was perfectly priceless. And given there was only five minutes until six o'clock, he'd be seeing it any minute--
"Alex, Milos." Nazarian appeared in the doorway blocking out any view of, or light from, the corridor beyond. "I need a word with you both. Something's come up."
—Or not. He barely restrained the urge to swear, and only because although Nazarian had a more lax attitude than many supervisors, Alex didn't need to push it all the time. Nazarian's use of sparring to teach Alex manners was often painful and he didn't fancy a rerun: it'd be just his luck Nazarian would want to do it today. Tonight.
He might have restrained the profanity; he didn't waste the effort to resist shoving his chair back hard enough that it bounced off wall, and from the corner of his eye he caught Milos shaking his head gently. Well, it had hardly been subtle, but Nazarian had been his supervisor for almost all of those nine years. Nazarian expected it; he'd had enough opportunities to get used to it.
Nazarian's office was emptier these days. Wherever they'd relocated his stuff while he was recuperating, the big man hadn't bothered to retrieve it now he'd returned. Nazarian's chair groaned out a protest as he lowered himself into it; Alex and Milos arranged themselves in front of the desk, Milos fidgeting as much as usual. God, the elf had been here two years but standing before Nazarian had him as twitchy as his first day.
If Milos hadn't accidentally dispatched his former landlord himself, Alex was starting to think he'd be prepared to do it for him. It was disgusting, what a wreck he'd managed to make of an already-nervous young man.
If Nazarian noticed Milos's nervousness he made no indication of it. "I'm sorry to fetch you in at the last minute, but we've only just had a credible tip-off about this. Another farshee is planning an attack, this time in a restaurant very near to the site of the last attempt. Given the location and," he smiled faintly, "the popularity ofsaid location on this day, it's imperative you deal with this threat as quickly as possible."
Great. Alex's meticulously-planned evening ruined by another lunatic who wanted to scream people to death. Just fuckingperfect.
To Alex's surprise, it was Milos who nodded his brief assent first. "Yes, sir."
Something else he'd have strung up that bastard landlord of Milos's for, even if it had made life more convenient for everyone else: Milos's acquiescence to anyone who beat him hard enough to prove dominance. Nazarian hadn't, exactly, but he could make Milos's life difficult and Milos had quickly learned to behave himself, his nervous bravado slipping away within a couple of months of his starting work. Alex hadn't cared at the time; now, deep inside, his blood boiled.
Which was curious really. Milos's strongly negative reaction to Alex's past was nothing more than an irritation, so why was Alex so bothered by Milos's?
"Alex?" Nazarian asked, and grudgingly Alex returned his attention to their supervisor. "Any questions?"
"No, sir," he said, grabbing the file from the desk without bothering to ask permission. No reason to terrify Nazarian with unnecessary politeness. Just another farshee, no names given in the sparse intel on the top page. Milos could read the details to him on the way. "Definitely tonight?" Futile, given the threat, but he could hope . . .
"Now." Nazarian started to tidy his empty desk, a more polite dismissal than that bastard Marrok's curt orders. It was very almost subtle.
Alex wasn't going to object. Not today. The sooner they got this over and done with the sooner he could take Milos home and spend a long, long time in bed.
February's torrential rain had done them the small mercy of stuttering to a halt by the time they left the car, and the streets were lit by a garish combination of rectangles of warm light spilling from restaurant windows and the headache-inducing orange of streetlights that splashed vivid pools of light into the fresh puddles. Alex's shoes were waterproof; Milos cursed softly as a particularly deep one led to an audible squelch every other step.
Alex barely kept his smirk in check. That'd make him keener to get them off later. With luck the hapless bastard might find a couple of deeper puddles too, to soak his trouser hems . . .
The road was lined with parked cars and devoid of people because, unlike them, everyone else was sensibly inside. Each restaurant they passed displayed their customers as window dressing: the most attractive showcased for all to see, the least relegated to obscurity at the back. On his own Alex would be seated at the front, but with Milos? That would be anyone's guess: the dark elf was handsome, but his skin? His ears?
If anyone tried to shove Milos to the back, next to the toilets, they'd have Alex to answer to.
The Numero Uno was larger than the file made it sound — larger than Alex liked — and approaching the the window showed that, just like the others, it was packed with well-dressed Valentiners. From the scents that assaulted him the moment he pushed open the glass door they were on their main courses already; aromas swirling thickly through the air conspired to wring a pang from Alex's too-empty stomach and did absolutely nothing for his mood. Just when had health and safety started taking a back seat, anyway? There had to be at least five more tables than usual wedged into the drowsily-lit dining area. If the tip was wrong about the kind of 'shee, then there were ten more suspects courtesy of the greed of the season.
A few gazes drifted their way as Milos took his place beside Alex, his calm confidence a world away from Nazarian's office, then drifted disinterestedly back to their partners; the gentle murmur of conversation swelled over them. If the 'shee whose voice that could permanently quell all the others was in that number they were doing an admirable job of disguising themself, but in their black suits, neat ties and white shirts Alex and Milos probably looked just like any other forgetful couple hoping to score a missed reservation, unworthy of further attention.
One person in the room clearly felt differently: the the maître d', a neat, oiled man who appeared before them with the kind of speed those lanky bastard light elves would be jealous of, looked like he'd been pushed to the edge today and wasn't ready for any more shit. His dark gaze behind round glasses flicked from Alex to Milos and back, head to foot to head again, and his nose twitched.
If the file's intel was right, two unexpected customers were the least of his worries.
"I'm sorry," he said before Alex could even open his mouth, "do you have a reservation?" His glare returned to Milos, mouth twisting for just a heartbeat, and only the presence of customers seemed to prevent him from lifting his hands and shooing him away; Alex barely fought down the urge to plant his fist in his face and damn the consequences. He glared up at them both over the top of his glasses; "If you don't, then I'm afraid you'll have to leave—"
"There is a terrorist threat against your restaurant," Alex said bluntly, pitching his voice low enough to keep it from the ears of customers whose panic would make life significantly more difficult, but loud enough to convey his urgency. "We need to investigate—"
"I'm sorry, that won't be possible."
From the corner of his eye, Alex saw Milos's jaw drop. "Did you hear what he just said?" At least he kept his voice down, even if he'd failed to keep the incredulity from it. "Are you that happy for people to get hurt?"
"It won't do your TripAdvisor reviews any good," Alex said, plastering a bland smile across his face and privately enjoying the look of shock that flashed across Milos's. Fucking with him was still just as much fun as fucking him. "Your star rating would go right down."
The man's eyes narrowed behind his lenses. "This is the busiest night of the year barring Christmas. We can't afford to lose custom."
"I never said you'd lose custom." Unlike Milos, Alex had practice keeping emotion from his voice, but damn if it wasn't difficult to prevent exasperation creeping in. "We just need to look around and we're perfectly capable of doing it discreetly."
"He isn't." The man said tersely, with a jerk of his head to Milos.
Of all the . . .
Alex's hand wrapped briefly around the man's shirt front, fast enough no-one else saw but with enough force the maître d' paled. "We could have words in the kitchen if you prefer? Or I could just announce that the place needs evacuating now. What do you think that'd do to your takings, all these people who're only paying for their meals at the end?"
If the threat of physical violence paled him, that turned him positively white. "You're sure you can do it discreetly? Without anyone suspecting and leaving?"
All this fuss over takings. If this farshee did what Nazarian feared then the takings would be nonexistent, like the lives of the customers — and the place's reputation after the unexplained deaths of what had to be some fifty Valentiners making big soppy eyes at each other over cheap candles and cheaper food.
"Yes." Alex said, as rudely as he could manage in just one word.
"You don't need to worry," Milos added with a faint smile. He did the good cop thing well. Better than Alex ever expected, given he'd never trained him for it. "We're good at discreet."
The maître d' glanced sourly across at Milos and the smile faded from the elf's face. "Just get on with it." Before Milos could answer, the little man spun on his heel and stalked through the double doors into the kitchen. Alex was sure if he could have slammed them he would have. As it was, they swung back into the restaurant with a distinctly unimpressed creak.
"He's friendly," Milos murmured, face composed but the tips of his ears vividly flushed.
He always said he was used to it. He probably thought he was, but Alex still wasn't convinced. "The sooner we finish," Alex said, "the sooner we can get the hell out of here."
"Sounds good to me." Milos nodded and, without waiting for instruction, moved over to a table near the bar to flash both a sweet smile and his I.D. at the couple seated there.
He really was getting the hang of this.
Shaking his head, Alex summoned up his most charming, oh-so-sincere smile and did the same to the pair nearest the window.
"This is useless," Alex snapped as quietly as he could. Nonetheless the couple nearest to them twitched and glanced over, a silent reproach for silence. Why should he oblige them and their perfect night when he couldn't spend his night the way he wanted? "This place is full of idiots," he added more loudly, and was gratified to see them bury themselves more deeply in conversation, making a big show of ignoring him.
At least Milos didn't wince for once. "The farshee could be a good liar," he pointed out, more calmly than Alex felt. "We can't expect this to be easy."
Alex huffed. "Stop being reasonable. That's my job." Of course it wouldn't be easy. It was only moderately so last time because Crow couldn't resist . . . well, crowing. "We can't wait until the fucking farshee makes his move, there's no way we could be sure of stopping him in time."
"And I don't want to explain to these people what just happened," Milos said, carefully omitting the if we all survive it part. "Maybe the charming front of house has an idea when we ask to interview the staff? But," he added with a wry smile, "I think it's gonna have to be you asking. If I try I think I'll get a pan of food to the face."
Alex snorted, only just choking back a semi-unprofessional laugh that made the couple glance towards them again. A quick glare had them hurriedly returning their attention to their food. Good. If he could ruin their evening the way they'd ruined his . . . "Yes, and that's if you're lucky."
Once upon a time Milos would have taken offence. Now he just grinned, that weird almost-happy grin Alex didn't see as often he'd like. "Lead the way. I've seen what happens when you let me go first."
"That was your friend and he missed," Alex grumbled. Still, experience was a great teacher. He'd told Milos that often enough, it was only to be expected that at some point he'd actually listen. Alex's own fault. Taking a deep breath, and after levelling one final glare at the back of the heads of the happy couple with as much venom as he could summon that he hoped they'd have nightmares for weeks, he shoved his way through the kitchen's swing door.
Behind him, a faint oomph told him that while some things made experience a great teacher, remembering not to stand right behind a swing door was something Milos needed a lot more practice with.
The kitchen was quieter than Alex had expected given the ridiculous amount of diners and the fuss the maître d' had made. It should have been crawling with chefs and pot-washers.
What they got instead was one exhausted-looking middle-aged man in front of a cooker and two kids that looked almost as nervous as Milos faced with Nazarian, one up to his arms in soapy water and the other staring open-mouthed over her haphazard pile of plates. That this skeleton crew had managed to feed all those oblivious customers was the most impressive thing he'd seen all month.
"Can I help you?" The maître d' slid between the agents and the staff like the most oiled slug Alex had ever had the misfortune to set eyes on.
God, if only he could belt the man. "I need to speak to your staff."
Behind his slightly-fogged glasses the small man's eyes narrowed. "No."
"It's not a request." Alex fished for the I.D. in the inner pocket of his suit jacket, but the set of the man's face told him even the sight of the government insignia wouldn't help. "I don't think you understand the seriousness of this—"
A gentle set of fingers pressed against his arm; he let his hand drop back down to his side. He'd seen it too: the faintest of gestures from the maître d' that had the other kitchen staff edging away. The clang of the back door announced the spotty pot-washer's rapid departure. As his and Milos's gaze moved in that direction, the sous chef yanked it open and vanished into the February night.
Which meant there wasn't much point in going for the chef. Oh it was tempting, yes: the man sprinted across the kitchen like all hell was after him and was through the door like a cat through a flap; there was clearly something he wanted to hide. But running didn't match the file, the threat of disruption. No, there was no point in having a captive audience, a packed room of victims, if the farshee was going to run at the first indication of trouble.
"I think I do understand the seriousness, Mr. Jaska," the maître d' said softly. The rigid, clipped tones slid from his voice.
Alex couldn't help wondering how long it had taken him to train all traces of an Irish accent from his voice. "That's funny," he found himself saying, wishing he'd had the sense to grab some earplugs even as his hand moved back to the same pocket as before, this time for the syringe that weighed against his chest. It felt too far away. Beside him he felt Milos tense, a hair's breadth from shifting his fingers to claws. "I don't recall giving you my name."
"We're very aware of who you are, Mr. Jaska," the man said with a humourless curve that rivalled Alex's own failed attempts at a smile. "And I'm sure it's not your I.D. you're going for, so if you value your hearing — and your lives — you'll stop moving."
God, it was so tempting to just lunge for the syringe. It would only be a couple of seconds. More than long enough for him to yank it free and drop this irritating little idiot. A couple of seconds in which the idiot's voice could do serious damage, if not to the couples in the room beyond, then to Milos with his ridiculous long, sensitive ears.
To his mind. A mind that, Alex had to admit, he was becoming, if not exactly fond of, then at least used to.
Wasting time training another partner after everything would just be a pain.
Shit. Shit, shit, fuck.
Heart thumping, he let his hand drop again; beside him, he heard the softest of exhalations from Milos.
The maître d's smile grew, in size if not in warmth. "You made the right choice, Mr. Jaska."
"Why are you doing this?" Alex asked, smiling the kind of tepid smile old couples seemed to find so very charming when he was trying to find the whereabouts of various dangerous people. "What does this achieve, other than pissing me off and making me even more likely to hurt you?"
"Even more?" The little man raised an eyebrow. "Well, at least you're honest."
"Why should I lie? Believe me, once this is done I'll take great pleasure in it." For one wonderful moment the maître d' blanched; maybe some of Alex's real feelings bled into that sentence. Good. He hoped it scared the little shit. "What was the point of making sure the others got away if you're planning on going out in . . . what? A blaze of glory? You've just ensured that I'll hunt them down afterwards, and if you think I'll be nice to them then you're even more deluded than I thought."
The farshee stiffened, his eyes narrowing behind his round lenses. "I'd heard rumours, Mr. Jaska, but you really are a bastard, aren't you?"
Alex found himself laughing, louder and with more genuine feeling than he expected. "I try." There was no way in he could see. The little man refused to remove his gaze from Alex, from his hands; Alex had no doubt that if he made even the faintest hint of a movement then Milos would be rendered deaf within a second — if he was lucky enough to survive at all.
The idea was more stomach-churning than he wanted to think about. He wasn't the kind of person who wanted to think about it. Fuck.
"You call me a bastard," Alex growled, surrendering all attempt at his most irritating bonhomie, "but I've never held a whole room of people to ransom."
"They aren't being held to ransom, Mr. Jaska. You have nothing I want, and I will kill them. We have to assert our dominance somehow."
"This again!" God, how much he wanted to phase-shift his fist into this idiot's skull. The urge grew with every passing second. "What is wrong with you people? You sound like the villain from a shitty superhero movie."
The maître d's shrug was laden with the casual arrogance Alex detested in everyone but himself. "They deserve it. They're pitiful. Powerless. And yet if they knew about us they'd hound us to the ends of the Earth. Look at how they treat things like him," he added, gesturing with his head to Milos, who raised both eyebrows and smiled the kind of faint smile Alex usually associated with the elf pretending he didn't want to punch the speaker. "And those things are everywhere. Imagine how they'd treat people like us. It's better for us to assert our dominance now, and properly. Not through elves insinuating their way into councils, or through tokenism."
Things. Things. From an Irish freak. From a human just like Alex. Someone had clearly missed the memo about protecting the weaker, more pathetic humans who couldn't do anything interesting. Alex couldn't work out what was more insulting: the casual racism, or the casual hatred of average humans.
This was beyond a joke now. They couldn't just stand there, held prisoner just as much as any of the diners a swing-door away. He could only hope Milos's absorption of his training extended beyond the niceties of interviewing.
His hand made a dive for the syringe in his pocket; the farshee opened his mouth wide, his dark eyes never leaving Alex's--
And silence reigned.
Milos stood behind the farshee, one claw laying lightly across the man's neck. "Things?"
Alex knew just how much effort Milos had to put into not slitting his throat there and then. Nothing to do with bloodthirstiness — despite that unfortunate event with his former landlord — but those claws were wickedly sharp. It took real concentration not to slip, to shiver, and accidentally apply a fresh red coating to the kitchen. Honestly, he found himself impressed.
But not so impressed he couldn't do his job. "You took your eye off the threat there, didn't you?"
. . . No, it was just that he wasn't so impressed he couldn't resist the opportunity to rub it in, even as the maître d' glared up at him, mouth a firm line. It looked like he barely dared to breathe. A surprisingly sensible course of action for such a stupid man.
"It serves you right," Alex continued, drawing the syringe from his pocket and making a great show of checking its contents. "If you're going to make such fucking stupid statements, you really ought to pay attention to what you're up against. He isn't just there to look pretty, you know." No response, of course. Alex noticed the way Milos's hand was shaking, very slightly; one wrong placement of the farshee's Adam's apple and that'd be the end of him. Not that Alex could say he'd mourn the loss. Hell, he'd process a week's paperwork to prove it wasn't Milos's fault. "And I'm sure you won't object to me subduing you." Alex stepped forward, pressing the snub nose of the syringe against the man's quivering neck without dropping the plunger. "It's nothing personal. But I can't allow this fine establishment to suffer a whole rash of one-star reviews just because of a little customer death. I'm sure you understand." He flashed his brightest, nastiest smile and slammed the little blue lever down with a fluid gesture of his thumb.
For the second time Research's finest formula took longer than Alex liked, but at least it was faster than with Crevan. The maître d' had just long enough to give Alex a look of absolute, utter loathing before he went limp.
Milos was just fast enough to shift his claws to fingers again, almost garroting the man in his attempt to catch his inert form. It was an improvement over the fine red spray Alex had half expected, half wished for. "Is it wrong I hoped he'd cut himself?"
"He'd deserve it," Alex snorted, and shoved his hands deep into his trouser pockets as Milos lowered the little runt to the ground with more care than Alex would have wasted on him. Without the little farshee's grandstanding, the kitchen was eerily silent. It should have been full of calling and clattering, the smell of cooking; all Alex could focus on, now he had time to take everything in, was the sharp yellow scent of washing up liquid barely masking the odour of leftovers. Disgusting. "There's a room full of people out there who'll be getting dinner free tonight."
Milos smiled, but it faded fast. "You don't suppose they could have done something to the food? Just in case they were caught?"
Alex hesitated, just briefly, before sense kicked in. "No. We'd have known by now, and t doesn't match the blaze of glory approach." It didn't stop him sidling over to the heaped pots and pans though, inspecting the remains clinging stubbornly to the edges and floating in sud-ringed heaps on the murky water.
Milos did the same, examining the half-submerged plates with a more critical eye than Alex expected. "It looks like they put a lot of effort into it." To Alex's horror he reached out and dragged one grey finger through a particularly thick spatter of what looked like casserole, and sniffed at the sticky brown remains with a small frown. "Smells pretty good too."
"Probably took too much pride in their work to ruin it with poison. I am not touching your hand until you wash it," he added.
Milos grinned. "It's all right," he said. "I'll wipe it on his suit when we take him to the car."
Alex grinned too, moving to pick up the farshee's legs. Milos glanced over his shoulder at the three steep steps leading up to the still-flapping kitchen door and groaned. "Thanks."
For all that the night had had the potential to go badly wrong, for all that there'd be another hour's worth of paperwork and handovers for both of them when they got back, Alex found himself glad it was over, without deafness or death.
Now he could focus on getting Milos home and spending the last scraps of evening as Alex had planned.
It was gratifying to see Milos clear his plate. The last time he'd been in Alex's apartment Marrok's not-at-all-veiled racism had done a number on the elf's appetite and only Alex's best death-glare made him finish his meal. This time no prompting was needed.
Alex nodded to the plate, almost as spotless as it had been before he'd filled it. "You liked that, then?"
Milos nodded enthusiastically. The elf might be a bit dim half the time but he knew how to appeal to the ego all right — though that it was ten o'clock at night before he'd been able to eat might have played a part in his enjoyment too. Alex suspected he could have laid out a cheap ready meal and it would have been devoured with equal ferocity.
It was very almost a depressing thought; he rose and began cleaning up, determined to distract himself, only for Milos to rise too. "No, don't worry. I'll do it."
Alex raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
Milos shrugged awkwardly. "You cooked, it's only fair. And you've got a dishwasher, it's not like it'll take long to stack everything."
Alex found himself grinning. "You just want to play with the shiny toy."
"It's not like I have one," Milos said defensively, "but if you don't want me to—"
"No, no. You go and play." Plus, surprising though it was, getting out of even that simple chore was actually pretty nice. Not that he'd admit that to Milos; before his mouth could betray him he went to sit on the couch instead, and listened to the clattering of crockery with a smile he realised was only partly sardonic.
If they were in Milo's poky apartment he'd have to wait for him to do the washing up or pounce on him there and then, and as difficult as it was to restrain himself, pouncing was off the menu tonight. More delicious to wait, to let Milos come to him by himself--
The sofa dipped beside him as Milos settled into it and leaned back against Alex. "Today was so bloody long..."
Alex wrapped his right arm around Milos's slender shoulders almost without thinking about it. "I know." Too long.
Milos made a contented little sound, nestling more closely against him. His head was comfortingly heavy against Alex's chest and his voice, his gentle, quiet, and above all non-lethal voice, vibrated through Alex's relaxed muscles. "And cold. And wet. Your apartment's always so warm."
The tips of his pointed ears, poking out from the inevitably-untidy mop of blond hair, were certainly a more healthy colour than the vivid reddish-purple they'd been when they had arrived back at the office, just in time for a fresh torrential storm that even now hammered at the windows in soothing waves. "That's because my apartment's half-decent."
It took Alex a moment to realise that the damn elf had just fallen asleep on him.
He let out a deep sigh, adjusting his position so that Milos rested more comfortably against him, then let his left arm casually join the right in embracing the sleeping man. It had been a long day. So much for his plan of luring Milos into bed.
Even if this was Alex's idea of failure, he knew it was Milos's idea of heaven. He'd let it slide this time, just for once. But damnit, next year he'd get the day he'd planned.
He was almost asleep himself, lulled by the warmth of Milos's body and the regularity of his breathing, when he found himself thinking, you're already planning next year?