What I wouldn't give to have someone in my corner right now. Mark's boss (head of the Department of Dragons), his boss's boss (head of their Tampa offices), and every single doctor who had so much as sniffed in his general direction faced Mark Tavery in a semicircle, and he had no one. His genie lover had offered to miniaturize himself and hide inside Mark's suit coat collar, but he would have been caught, so Mark had smiled and said, "Luke, I'll be fine. I can always roast them if I'm in real danger."
If he couldn't have his lover here, he wanted a lawyer. No one had mentioned firing him--yet--but he needed someone in his corner who was paid to be calm and rational. It would also help if the hypothetical lawyer wasn't suffering from the effects of a delayed shedding.
"It's not a question of performance," his immediate boss, Ray, said. "Mark hasn't let this stop him or even slow him down."
For the fiftieth time since he'd sat down, Mark resisted the urge to scratch both arms.
"I wouldn't expect anything less." Jack, his boss's boss, met Mark's gaze. "Your record has always been exemplary."
Except I haven't been promoted in eight years. "Thank you." His first-ever dragon scale shedding was now three months, four days, ten hours, and--he stole a glance at Jack's huge grandfather clock--two minutes late. And unless this meeting was suddenly going to take a spin off into left field, none of the doctors could figure out why it hadn't happened on schedule.
So I'm being a little unfair. Ray didn't say it was going to start at exactly 12:01 a.m. on June first, but it should have started long before this. He closed his eyes as Jack rehashed all the old questions with the doctors. Was Mark maybe carrying some germ that could be hampering his shedding? Had they checked for all the weird permutations HIV could take on when interacting with a dragon's cells?
That second question made Mark's eyes itch, and he kept his lids firmly down just in case his blue irises started shifting to yellow-green. He hadn't been with anyone but his lover, Luke, since they'd met. The man before that had been many things, but he wasn't that. And there hadn't been a man before him since Mark was twenty-one, over ten years ago. There was no chance Mark had HIV.
His palms itched. He forced himself to count silently back from ten.
"Well, Mark," Ray said, "I guess this is just like how it was after you came to us. It took you over thirty years to even figure out that you were a dragon. I guess it's going to take you a while to decide to shed your first scales."
He'd opened his eyes at the sound of his name. Now he tried not to look away from his boss and made himself smile. He knew Ray was joking; the evidence was all over the man's face. But he kept his smile closed, fearing the number of teeth he'd inadvertently end up showing. "So I'm free to get back to my reports?" He'd been stuck behind his desk since returning from vacation on the last day of June. Behind his smile, but probably obvious to at least Jack and maybe to Ray as well, he ground his teeth.
"For now," Jack said. "But if you haven't started shedding by the beginning of October, I think we should try to induce this first time ourselves."
You can do that? His whole body exploded with a thousand pinpricks of need. Do you know what it's like to lie in bed next to your lover at night and not be able to let him touch you because anything short of a bone-breaking slap makes the itching worse? As if that wasn't enough, we're in fucking Florida in late summer, and you can do something about it and haven't?
One of the doctors touched his temple with two fingers and winced.
Mark froze and did all he could to rein in the famous Tavery temper. Shit, dragons are telepathic. Did I just...? "I'm sorry, Doctor."
"It's all right. You didn't know."
Jack leaned forward. "If we have to induce the shedding, Mark, you'll most likely have to be hospitalized. The drugs that have been developed have only been used a few times, and even in clinical trials, they've caused temporary insanity."
He felt himself blush. "I understand. Are there any other techniques I can use to encourage the shedding?"
The doctor who had touched his temple said, "The only reason dragons fail to shed is because they are ill. You are not physically ill, Mr. Tavery. Neither are you mentally ill. I am not a spiritual man myself, but when all other avenues have been thoroughly explored, the last road must lead us home."
What did spiritually ill mean for a dragon who hadn't practiced religion since childhood? He thought of Luke, for whom spirituality was a quiet, constant part of his life, and wondered if his lover could help. At this point, he'd pretend to worship a lightbulb if it would jump-start his shedding.
His mind and body jumped briefly to thoughts of his golden-haired lover, and he shifted in his chair, oh-so-casually adjusting his long shirt so it lay over the bulge in his dress pants. In the first twenty-four hours he'd known Luke, he'd seen the Adonis-like genie all but naked twice. His initial attraction had been formed by thoughts of Luke lounging on his couch, clad in nothing but a thong. When they'd first touched, it had been Luke's gentle, persistent strength that had brought down Mark's shields from within.
Okay, most of his shields. Some things just couldn't be shared, especially not if he wanted to keep Luke as his lover. But Luke would know how to help him with his spiritual problem. Luke, his golden god, knew all about patience.
Cordless phone pressed to his ear, Luke stalked through the house. "I understand what you're saying, but this situation is different." He saw the vase he'd knocked over fifteen minutes ago and magically hurled the pieces into the garbage can, scowling when they tinkled too musically. "I'm not just his boyfriend, sir. I'm a genie. I'm more than capable of protecting myself in the field. I should be allowed to join him on his missions."
"Your ability is not in question," the calm voice returned, "but the fact remains that you have no training." There was a pause. "And right now, it is a moot point. Please note that Mr. Tavery will be restricted to research until he completes a successful shedding cycle. Until that time, you are more than welcome to accompany him to the office in Tampa so long as your visits do not exceed more than two hundred twenty-five minutes each week."
That sounded like a lot of time, but Luke conjured a pen and a pad of paper in midair, did a quick calculation, and said, "That's all of Mark's lunch hours added together."
The genie used his powers to rip the pad of paper in half. He snapped the pen too, catching all the ink in a swirling sphere that he imagined splatting against the too-calm man's face. He also sent this into the garbage can. "So what's to stop me from joining SearchLight? I could accompany Mark then without trouble."
"If you were accepted, and if you completed all the required coursework and training over a three-year period, and if you were hired into Mr. Tavery's department, there still is no guarantee the two of you would be a team. Agents in smaller offices must sometimes work alone."
Tampa's a smaller office? But that question couldn't hold him. Three years? He'd been reading all of Mark's textbooks for the last two-plus months since Mark had gone back to work at the end of June. He did this at first because his interest was piqued, and then because he'd found less and less to do around the house after Mark's vacation ended. Didn't all that studying count for anything? Wasn't there a test he could take or something?
"I take it you're finally thinking this through," the security director out of DC said, possibly in response to Luke's silence. "Good. I appreciate how shocking it must be for you to be out of your lamp, and of course we offer counseling to all magical creatures who are dealing with unique situations--"
The back door opened. "Luke?"
His Mark sounded a little more hopeful than he had for the last two months, but also exhausted. Luke made the decimated pen and pad disappear. "Thank you for your help, sir." He hung up, poofed the phone to its cradle, and transported himself from the kitchen to the living room. Walking there would have taken less than ten seconds, but he loved making Mark jump.
"Luke, shit!" Laughing, Mark dropped his briefcase and keys. "One of these days, I'm going to put my scales on and fry your ass for doing that." His Gulf blue eyes were bright with amusement, and he brushed dark hair off his forehead with a steady hand. There was no sign of the frustration that had dogged his steps for weeks.
"Good news?" Luke asked as he levitated the briefcase and keys into their proper places. Please let it be good news. He hated having to tiptoe around Mark, and not just because he knew their fledgling relationship would have been able to take so much more if Mark hadn't been going through the dragon's equivalent of a never-ending menstrual cycle.
"Maybe." At once, Mark's eyes dimmed, and the exhaustion rushed forward in his gaze like a wave. "The doctors can't find a damn thing wrong with me." He brought up his right hand and touched Luke's face gently. "God, I want you so badly."
Unable to do any of the half a million things he craved, the genie tried something slight, praying it wouldn't torment Mark's sensitive skin. He turned his head and ran his tongue lightly across the tips of the dragon's fingers.
His lover winced, pulled his hand back, and scratched where Luke's tongue had been. "I'm sorry," he told his fingers. "If this would just fucking start already..." He sighed, stopped scratching with what looked like a tremendous effort, and met Luke's gaze. "So this one doctor suggested that I've got to try a new avenue of healing. He said that since I'm not physically or mentally ill"--he snorted, and Luke found himself smiling in return--"that I should explore my spiritual wellness. Problem is, I stopped praying to anything about the time I stopped believing in miracles." He met Luke's gaze, seemed to steel himself, and then plunged both hands into Luke's hair. "But I'll try anything. I can't stand being away from you."
Mark's jaw was clenched; Luke felt the tension in his lover's hands. His own cock had awakened at Mark's words, but he stepped back. "Doing even that much is making your skin burn."
Mark dropped his hands. "God, I hate this." He sighed and squared his shoulders. "Tell me about your One-Who-Decides."
Luke blinked. You can't just convert. Being a Listener is much more than words. But Mark would want an in-depth explanation, and Luke fumbled for a moment.
Mark grinned a little. "You look like I asked you to wear a dress. I'm not going to become a monk in your religion or anything, but if I'm going to start shedding, I need to figure out what's wrong with me. Maybe it is spiritual. Whatever that means."
"You don't believe that." Luke gestured toward the couch, sat, and waited for Mark to do the same. "Mark, I don't think that's going to help. What did you believe in as a kid?"
Mark scratched at his forehead as sweat beaded there. "My family's Jewish." His shoulders were hunched. "That's not going to work. I haven't believed in any of the laws or customs since I sang the four questions at Seder."
The sweat on his lover's brow was thicker now; Luke tried not to watch it. He wanted so badly to wipe it away and to take all Mark's discomfort with it. "You used to sing? How old were you?"
His lover was worrying at his bottom lip as if he didn't feel the sweat. Maybe compared to the itching he'd been dealing with for two months, it was nothing. "Seven or eight when I stopped, I think. My aunt had a little girl who got old enough to sing the questions. It's always the youngest child who sings. Luke, if you'll just--"
A drop of sweat trickled down Mark's nose. Except it wasn't sweat. Luke reached out and caught it before it could disappear. He held up the dark blue, triangle-shaped thing. "Mark."
His lover stared at the scale. "Or maybe talking about my Jewish heritage is just what the doctor ordered." He laughed, pushed Luke's hand aside, and kissed the genie chastely. When he drew back, he scratched his lips with his sharp teeth, but he was grinning. "Let's talk Seders, Passovers, and dreidels. The sooner we get started and the sooner I shed, the sooner I can have you inside me again." He pressed his palm firmly over Luke's crotch, and before he had to pull away and scratch, his eyes flickered briefly to a dragon's hungry yellow-green. "I miss you."
Luke moaned. "Miss you too," he managed, but his throat had half-closed. Mark spoke so casually of his shedding being over, but once it finally began in earnest, it was going to last for two weeks, during which time Luke wouldn't be able to touch him at all. Once Mark started shedding long rows of scales, he could touch Luke, but it couldn't go the other way.
The genie's balls tightened as an old hunger burned. Mark could touch him. And maybe it didn't even have to be skin to skin. He licked his lips.
"Not yet," his lover said, and he was laughing again. "Use your centuries of patience, Luke. In another couple of weeks, you'll have me back. Until then, let's talk. Do you want to hear about my brother's botched bar mitzvah or the way my sister threw a fit when she realized Moses was a man?"