Charmed Shirtless... A tale from the Shadow Guild
“If you go in without me again, I’ll ask for a transfer.” Oscar Lovecraft took off his shirt, pulling it over his head in a smooth movement that was the same way he did everything: spare, efficient, but with a hint of grace that his time at Rosewood had imbued in him. Ballet always left its mark, and Oscar had only developed more muscular perfection over the last seven years since we’d graduated. It was really hard not to stare at that smooth skin beneath corded muscles, but somehow I managed. He opened the potion bottle marked with protection runes and started slathering it over his chest like it was green sunscreen. Apparently, he expected some bullets and curses flying his way during this capture. He’d better put that stuff on thick.
“If you want to transfer to another department, I’m sure they’d love you over in extractions or containment. You’d make a super sexy prison guard.” I kept my words light, like the thought of him moving on so easily didn’t bother me.
“I want—” he ground out with his most irritated scowl as he tossed me the potion bottle and turned around so I could get his back. “—My partner to respect me as her equal. We go in together. We come out together. That’s why we’re called partners, because we work together. If you think you don’t need backup from me because you’re some elite Senior Council heir, you should get someone that you respect as an equal so you can—”
I cuffed the back of his head with the potion bottle, cutting him off. “Oops. It left a mark.” I ran a hand through his hair, rubbing the green stuff into his scalp before pulling away and rubbing my fingers together. “Green. If you can’t keep up with me, you’re welcome to find another department where the cadence is more your speed.”
He grumbled under his breath, but he didn’t say anything else while I finished running my fingers through his hair. I mean, rubbing the protection lotion over his scalp. His strong neck was corded, tense, full of stress that I didn’t want to think about, but how could I not when his bare skin was under my hands?
This is why you shouldn’t ever work with anyone you’d dated. I started rubbing green lotion on his back, and suddenly we were on the cliffs over the aquamarine waters, soaking in the sun, the breeze, the loneliness that wasn’t loneliness because we were together. How long was I rubbing green goop on his back, sucked back to Cancun and our last vacation together as a couple before we started working together, a five year contract for me that contained a no-dating-coworkers clause. I’d been unaware that he was going to join the Shadow Guild. No, I’d been completely convinced that he’d never, ever, in a million years work for the Senior Council or any one of its many subsidiaries. The Shadow Guild was technically part of the Lower Council, at least that’s where our paychecks came from, but everyone knew that Madam Occulus ran it.
For two years and three months, I’d been working in close proximity to a mage that I wasn’t allowed to touch. I mean, I could touch him, as evidenced by the way I very thoroughly encased him in the protective lotion, but it was only business. If I attempted anything that wasn’t purely work related, I’d start reacting to the clause. It usually started in my arms, since that’s what I’d been touching him with the last three times, spreading acid through my veins, and it would eventually transform all my flesh to ashes. It hurt, but sometimes not touching him hurt worse.
He turned around and grabbed my wrist, dark eyes almost black, dark, brooding, intense. “Tell me that you won’t go in without me again. I want your word as an elite Pinhouse peer.”
His hand felt good, strong, somehow protective instead of threatening. I loved his hands, particularly on me. Two years and three months. I swallowed hard and raised my chin. “Aw, you make it sound like you missed me.”
“Yeah. I missed you, but that pain/paralysis combo spell didn’t. It still bothers you when you reach into your back holster. You’re going to put yourself into an early retirement if you aren’t careful.” He pulled me closer, eyes drawn to my shoulder where the curse had hit before it spread through the rest of me.
My heart pounded faster and faster while I stared at him, trying to find words that made sense. I wasn’t a word person, particularly when emotions rose to the surface. “Maybe I’m looking forward to retirement.” That would be one way to get out of the no-dating clause. That was what had hurt the worst, the way he’d acted when I’d seen him on my first day in charge, the fact that he’d signed the no-dating clause knowing that he’d be working with me. Like it didn’t make much difference to him if we were practically living together or strictly platonic partners. I’d thought that dating for almost five years meant something to him, even if I wasn’t one of his serious permanent options.
I’d spent every day with him in the moment, refusing to look at the future when the present was so absolutely perfect. I mean, it wasn’t perfect. We didn’t see each other much because we both had school and work, and he had errands he’d run for his father, and I’d have family events that involved political maneuvering and my cousin Jackal. As an aside, don’t name your children, ‘Jackal,’ because you’re asking for misery. Anyway, that month together wandering around the coastline of Cancun had been the best days of my life. But he just nodded easily, like that was the plan, to date for almost five years and then work together like that wasn’t awkward when we inevitably moved on with other people. I mean, for him it was inevitable. He wanted a family, children, he’d been very clear about it, and I’d been equally clear about not being interested in marriage or children, so yeah. I’d always known it would end, I’d just been willfully unaware of how fast things would change.
He stared at me for a long time before he shook his head and moved away, pulling on a thin protective vest before shrugging on the white shirt over it. “You’re too good at what you do to retire early.”
“Right. I’m irreplaceable,” I snarled, my words dripping sarcasm.
“Seriously. No one else would have turned the Shadow Guild into a coffee haven.”
“Don’t diss the coffee shop. That’s the most noble and holy part of this business.”
His eyes glimmered with something, maybe humor, maybe mockery. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking unless it had to do with business. “Like I said.” Oscar didn’t drink coffee. He was way to conscientious about his health and had quietly installed a juicer in the shop on the main floor next to the espresso machine so Carrie could make his wheatgrass shot to-go with my double espresso black death every morning.
“Shut up and do me,” I said, throwing the bottle at him and turning around then pulled off my shirt, revealing my back to him, bare except for the band that did its best to support my pointless assets.
His hands were on me immediately. He rubbed on the lotion quickly and only as thoroughly as necessary for optimal efficacy. Of course he did. We were partners, not lovers. I had to stop obsessing about mages I couldn’t have. When he took his hands off my skin, I pulled my shirt back down and then strapped on my holsters containing various hurters that were specifically designed for minimal flashiness and non-explosive. They were technically hurters, but they weren’t war grade, or even tourney grade. They were crafted for paralyzing. They were all pretty basic because I didn’t need anything else. Penny had helped me figure out how to make them, but I made my own because she had a hard time staying basic and subtle. She was also incredibly expensive and backordered for years.
“You shouldn’t say that to a mage like me,” he murmured when I turned around to face him, pulling on my black leather jacket steeped in spells.
I frowned at him, lost until I remembered what I’d said. Oh, right. Was I blushing? I didn’t blush, at least not that you’d see through my glamour. I mostly glamoured to cover up my scars, but also to take the natural rosiness out of my cheeks. I was left looking like a corpse, but it was far better than looking like a rosy dumpling. I couldn’t glamour myself less dumpling-like. Unfortunately. But better a corpse dumpling than a rosy one. “I shouldn’t do a lot of things, but that’s never stopped me.”
He shook his head slightly then threw back another potion, grimacing and making a face of disgust before he shuddered and then transmorphed into a red Gucci bag. It would look particularly nice over my arm with the rest of my couture outfit. I frowned at the mirror, focusing at my outfit, the way it worked with my short black locks. I looked rich and slutty, also helpless and unbalanced thanks to the red booties with their extremely high heel.
My secret super power was shopping. Magical, right? I couldn’t help it. My French mother trained me in the art of shape, line, figure flattery and color theory from my first breath. Some of my first memories were of being nestled in a pile of shimmering silks while she stood on a platform being draped by one of the best dressmakers in the world, backlit by the shop windows and looking like a soft and golden angel or fairy princess. And I looked so much like her. I mean, I didn’t look like her at all thanks to glamour and dye, except for the short round part. I worked hard to stay toned while she embraced the soft boudoir thing. No, she gave off the impression of being a vulnerable, sweet, delicate, feminine woman, using the softness to cover up the iron will and slashing intellect she used to push her own agenda.
She often complained that I was too straightforward, lacking in subtlety that made it possible to manipulate and choreograph great schemes, which was true. It had taken me years to learn the truth about her, but I’d blame that on my father. He was a bit idealistic, which is why he spent so much time in his garden instead of in the Senior Council hall. If he’d married a less forceful woman, he’d never leave the Pinhouse estate at all. She could get him to do almost anything, mostly because she’d let her glamour flicker until he saw the mess his beast made of her face. He'd be so horrified and guilt-stricken that he’d let her have her way so he could run away and bury himself and his guilt in his garden.
I wasn’t going to be my father, and I couldn’t be my mother, no matter how similar we looked, so I was this, instead.
I swallowed the short-term transformation potion, which made me taller, with features that looked carefully constructed by a scalpel, along with bleached hair in the latest ombre trend. I stroked my leather bag only for a second before I stepped through the mirror, pushing through the space between worlds and coming out in the district that had been plagued by a certain thief with Darkside DNA.
I walked down the street, looking in the shop windows instead of the people around me, because shopping was life. I didn’t notice the guy half a block away who had started shadowing me. I stopped to study a particularly interesting buttery leather jacket in the prettiest shade of aqua. The shape was also good for short and busty, cropped, ladylike, so it wouldn’t swallow the waistline. My mother would look divine in it. Should I get it for her?
The thief snatched my bag and started running.
I whirled around and started after him, tripping along delicately in my impractical heels. “Stop!”
He took the next corner, which was an alley between two buildings, and another guy started running after him, heading into the alley while I chased after them, panting and screeching. “Help! He took my bag!”
When I got into the long alley, I kept running while the thief slowed down, looking around wildly for a way out.
I started slowing too, gasping for breath while the guy who had followed the thief closed in. “Put down the bag!” he yelled at the thief in his low manly voice. Oh, my hero!
“Thanks,” I gasped as I grabbed his arm and gazed at him like a woman rescued.
He flashed a smile that showed his fangs.
I gasped for real, because fangs hadn’t been on the menu today, and then he swung me against the slimy brick wall, thunking my head against the solid surface. Ow.
“You should have let it go, my sweet,” he growled, and I smelled the blood on his breath.
“Don’t kill her,” the thief said, throwing the bag at the vampire’s back. “We can’t deal with another missing person right now.”
The undead creep twisted his neck around until it was unnaturally facing the other guy while he snarled, face becoming more deformed by the second.
I gulped because you just don’t run into vampires every day in Dayside.
“Can’t you smell her sweetness? I’m taking this one with me. I will feast on her for as long as I can make it last.”
The thief shuddered and shot me an apologetic look. “But we’re on a job. You know Moll won’t like it if you’re distracted.”
The vampire made this kind of retching sound and the guy took three steps back, like he was worried about poisonous spit. No doubt whoever had raised this creature from the dead and infected him with the blood of a Darkness creature hadn’t done the best job instilling discipline into his monster. No problem. That’s what I was here for.
“Yeah, Moll won’t like it,” I whispered, sounding as terrified as I possibly could. It wasn’t that hard, because vampires like this, a caricature of actual Darkness residents, were incredibly unstable, but I had tough skin and goop armor.
He whirled back around to face me and tried to sink his fangs into my throat. Of course, my throat wasn’t actually that high up, so he ended up planting his fangs into the brick wall instead.
I kneed him and pulled a lyzer out of my holster and threw it at the thief before I ducked under the icky vamp’s arm. I scooped up my bag and backed away so I was between the exit and both guys.
The vamp whirled around and came at me then jerked up at the last moment, swinging his head to take in his frozen comrade before he refocused on me, crouching down slightly and rocking back and forth while his shoulders shifted. “Pinhouse. Moll will pay more for you than you can imagine. She won’t mind if I spend a few weeks sipping from the nectar of your vein first.”
I licked my lips and then smiled at him while I patted my bag. “Moll sounds incredible. I can’t wait to meet her.”
My bag turned into an enormous Daysider, Oscar, whose ominous dark eyes glared down at me while we were chest to chest, way too close for work associates, particularly when we were in the middle of taking down a vampire and a thief and finding Moll’s nest. Whoever that was.
His eyes widened as he looked past me down the alley then he reversed our positions so he was standing behind me and I was left facing the vampire and the still paralyzed thief who had a rather goofy grin on his droopy face.
Something hit Oscar and exploded, sound and light a shock that sent me to my knees. I took a second to shake my head and stare at my own knees looking back at me against the disgusting alley bricks before I reached up and caught the blur of vampire by the stomach, digging my magitech claws up, through his intestines, up into his heart while his own claws were stretched out to impale Oscar through the back.
Oscar’d stayed standing after the explosion, but he was engaged with five magimech droids, holding a shimmering shield to shield us from the bullets and more exciting things while I pulled the vampire onto the ground and proceeded to rip out his heart while he scratched and hissed like a cat getting a bath.
He could have used a bath before this, but afterwards, once his decaying flesh hit the air and started mortifying at an accelerated rate, it was much worse.
After a few more explosives, I stood slowly, surveying the damage, the rubble of what had been little bots, and my own magical defeat of the vampire before I turned and headed over to the thief.
“Hey,” I said, nodding at him and wiping my hands on my pants. “Vampire gore’s the worst, amiright? Lucky for you, nothing got on you. That stuff’s worse than bullets.”
Oscar stepped between me and the thief, blocking him out with a shirt that was shredded, showing off a chest and arms that were still undamaged thanks to the goop. Witless did good work. So did Oscar’s parents, because he was a specimen of well-developed muscularity that you just didn’t see every day.
Except for me. I saw it every day because I was cursed. Literally and figuratively.
“Why did you follow an abnormal vampire into an alley? This was a trap.”
I shrugged and frowned down at my now disgusting tactical gear. “Take the prisoner in while I deal with cleanup.” Was it a trap? It didn’t matter. We were covered in green goop. And I was Pinhouse, and he was Lovecraft. If we couldn’t deal with traps, what were we even doing in this business? Seriously, though, what was he doing in the Shadow Guild? And how long could I endure being so close to something I wanted so much, that I couldn’t have?