Olivia had heard some of their hushed words. The woman would stay for hours talking soothingly to the dying man. She’d hold his hand and smile at him with understanding and care.
On the second night that Olivia was there, the night before her release from the hospital, she’d heard them speak of the Contract.
“I told him about you,” Olivia said now to her Angel of Death. “As much as I knew about you.”
She paused and then said, “Except that you’re not quite human.”
A small smile curved Inanna’s voluptuous mouth.
“What a euphemistic way to put it,” she murmured.
Olivia shrugged almost imperceptibly.
“It doesn’t matter to me what you are. You’ve been a better friend to me than anyone else in my life. Except for Gabriel.”
She took a deep, steadying breath.
“Do you suppose he’ll be angry with me?”
“He has that right as the man who loves you,” the Chosen answered. “But what you do with your life is your choice.”
“That’s not what you said when we first met,” Olivia reminded her.
“It was not merely your life at stake at the time,” Inanna replied evenly.
“You were right about that,” the patient agreed. “Benji was by far the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Abruptly, she turned away, facing the ceiling instead of her visitor.
The trembling in her body began again as she flashed hot and cold. The venom was starting to wear off.
“You’ll make sure he doesn’t suspect the arrangement?” Olivia asked for what was probably the hundredth time, her voice starting to fade.
“He will not suspect.”
“He hates to be manipulated. He has so much pride.”
Inanna didn’t answer.
Yes, she knew. Gabriel’s code of honor reminded Inanna of the most ancient Dark Ones.
Steadfast. Fiercely protective. Self-sacrificing. Nurturing.
“Will you be good to him?” Olivia asked.
Inanna cocked her head a bit. Didn’t she already ask this? Nevertheless she answered, “He will lack for nothing.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Olivia sighed and closed her eyes.
Her shaking had intensified. She was idly scratching herself again.
“I want you to be kind to him. I don’t want him to be lonely. I want you to lo—”
She broke off as her panting got stronger, as she struggled to draw enough oxygen into her failing lungs, arching off the bed in a twist of pain.
“It is time,” Inanna said quietly, knowing that the patient no longer heard her.
With a gust of wind, the windows slammed shut, the lights in the hospice room blacked out. In the heavy darkness there was a flash of white fangs.
*** *** *** ***
Gabriel slid into the studio soundlessly just as the first rays of dawn filtered through the crack in the window drapes.
Benji slept peacefully in the bed, his breathing even and deep, a small warm mound under the covers topped by unruly pale blond curls.
Gabriel paused over his son’s innocent form and gently smoothed a thumb down one plump cheek.
Though he was solidly into his boyhood, Benji retained the cherubic sweetness of his toddler days. Perhaps it was the riotous blond curls. Perhaps the rosy cheeks and mouth. Just looking upon his little angel made Gabriel smile, though it was followed almost immediately by a grimace as his split lip split even deeper.
He straightened and, in one smooth motion, pulled the bloodied hoodie over his head, shucking his torn joggers a second later, and made his way, naked, to the tiny bathroom with an even tinier shower stall.
At least the water pressure in the apartment was blessedly strong.
As the blast of hot water drenched him from head to toe, Gabriel closed his eyes and raised his face into the cleansing deluge.
After two gruesome hours in Hell’s belly, and six matches later, he was ten grand richer. Enough to pay off three months of over-due rent, which Mrs. Sergeyev had been kind enough to forgive thus far without interest or eviction, plus one month advance, as well as Olivia’s hospice bills. He even had a nice little cushion left over for food and emergencies.
And all it took was three bruised ribs, bloody knuckles, a few nasty scratches, a split lip and let’s not forget—beating six men into unconscious putty with his bare hands and feet.
His shifu would be appalled.
Gabriel clenched his jaw.
He did what he had to do. He would do everything in his power to protect those he loved. As long as he could live with his conscience afterwards.
He’d made sure those men were merely unconscious, a few broken bones and concussions, perhaps, but no debilitating injuries for the long term. They would recover quickly enough to fight another day.
In truth, it didn’t have to take as long as it did to dispatch his opponents. A few well-placed jabs and kicks would have knocked them out faster. But he needed to play to the spectators. He had to look like he was struggling, on the verge of losing for a while so that the bets were stacked against him, so that his winnings in the end would be that much greater.
Dragging a fight out to look like he was weaker, taking hits without taking proportional damage, was a tricky tightrope Gabriel had to balance upon. He wondered whether he should have allowed a black eye or two and a bloodied nose to appeal more to the audience’s bloodlust. But he had to weigh that against the blood and swollen flesh disorienting his vision, which would have made the fights more dangerous, less predictable.
He couldn’t afford to lose his matches.