CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: Challenges
Kehrseite refers to normal people, who don't know about Wesen.
Nick tiredly plops down at the kitchen table, rubbing the sleep from his eyes while he waits for Roe to bring him breakfast.
"Good morning, Mr. Burkhardt."
He looks up and takes Zuri's unexpected presence in with a simple blink. "Morning." Nick straightens and rubs his hands together when Roe places a heavenly smelling plate of food in front of him. He breathes in deeply, then digs in, thanking God and Rosalee for his lack of morning sickness.
Not much of a morning person, Theresa drags herself into the kitchen and drops gracelessly into the chair beside Nick. She grunts her thanks when Monroe places a full plate in front of her and starting eating. Knowing how much Nick misses coffee, she's been drinking strong tea to get her morning caffeine fix.
Stomach full, Nick finally addresses Zuri. "Thank you." He meets her eyes determinedly. "For yesterday, I mean."
"As I told your mate, it is my duty, Mr. Burkhardt."
Nick smiles in amusement at the formal manner she is speaking to him. "Going to call me Mr. Burkhardt forever?"
"If that is what you wish."
"Definitely not. It's already getting old. How about I call you Zuri and you call me Nick? Sound good?"
Zuri nods sharply. "Yes, Nick."
"Good." More awake and alert with food in his belly, Nick eyes Zuri. "I take it Roe told you."
"Did he tell you you are Guardian Alpha?"
"No, he did not," Zuri says with a tinge of surprise in her tone.
"Well, you are. You'll lead the others. Can you handle that?"
Zuri again nods sharply. "I will not fail you."
"If we thought you would, we wouldn't have chosen you," Nick says simply. "I don't need you to like the other Guardians or for them to like you but the three of you will need to be a team and I expect you to figure out how to do that."
Zuri accepts his demand without protest. "I will make it happen."
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When Nick finishes with work, Monroe calls Cypress and Fabian over. He already called them this morning to tell them they'd been chosen and both reacted with great excitement and gratitude.
The two men arrive together, big smiles on their faces until their eyes find the unsmiling Zuri standing in the background.
Watching their reaction, Monroe apologizes, "I forgot to tell you this morning. We chose Zuri Siyanna as our Guardian Alpha."
Cypress and Fabian's eyes go wide at the news. Fabian recovers first, donning a charming smile, he greets respectfully, "Guardian Alpha."
Zuri acknowledges him with a nod. "Guardian Beta."
Cypress takes a subtle breath. "Guardian Alpha."
Zuri greets him in the same manner as she did Fabian.
Monroe breaks the tense moment by explaining, "Zuri has been invisibly shadowing Nick."
Cypress and Fabian look at each other and then at Zuri.
Too exhausted to play mediator, Nick decides he going to take a nap and let the three Guardians work things out for themselves. Monroe and Trubel follow his lead, each leaving to do their own thing.
Alone, the three stare at each other for a minute. "May I call you Fabian? And Cypress?"
They nod, giving permission.
"Monroe and Nick chose the three of us and selected me as Guardian Alpha. I know that neither of you like me and I accept that." Zuri halts their false protests with a sharp hand motion. "Don't pretend otherwise. No one likes me, I know that. However, you must respect me and my leadership."
Cypress sobers, a pained expression on his face at her bluntness. "I do respect you as I'm sure Fabian does. I understand why they chose you to be Guardian Alpha. You're powerful and incredibly smart. You are the perfect choice." He sighs. "I don't dislike you; I don't even know you. However, I will admit to being...wary of you."
Zuri accepts his declaration easily. Most people are instinctively wary of her; she's learned to accept and expect it.
Fabian considers attempting to charm Zuri but decides against it. Her learned wariness will neutralize any attempts he'd make to charm her, especially when they are strangers. "I agree wholeheartedly with Cypress. They were right to choose you because you are the ideal choice for Guardian Alpha." He looks over at Cypress and says, "I think I can safely say that neither Cypress nor I expected to be Guardian Alpha."
Cypress nods in agreement.
*One less thing to worry about,* Zuri thinks.
"We'll follow your lead. The rest… We'll figure it out," Cypress says.
Fabian adds, "We have time to learn how to function as a team. Cy and I, we've trained together. We know each other well enough to work well together."
"Good. That will help." Zuri is drawn to her memories of training. "I am sure you've heard rumors about me. Some of them are true, some aren't." Taking a steadying breath, she admits, "I have been an outcast for most of my life. I'm used to it because it is all I know. I don't expect that to change. My focus is protecting this family, not making people like me."
Cypress's expression turns compassionate. *How lonely a life she's lived, always on the outside looking in.* He says quietly, "That's our focus as well. All we want is for them to be protected." Cypress glances between Fabian and Zuri. *And maybe in the process the three of us can become friends, maybe even family. If anyone needs companionship, it's Zuri.*
"First orders? Would you like me to help you shadow Nick?" Fabian asks. With a sideways glance at Cypress, he adds, "Big guy Cy isn't exactly the covert type."
"And you are? You're not exactly tiny yourself, Fabian."
Zuri stops their squabbling by clearing her throat. "No, I do not require either of you to help shadow Nick. However, you can stay with Monroe while Nick's working. Watch over him and help him, should he need it."
"Of course, Guardian Alpha," Cypress acknowledges.
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Monroe halts Nick's pacing by pulling him close. His arms wrap around Nick from behind and naturally settle over his stomach. "Calm down, Nicky. You don't have to be nervous. They're going to love you."
"What if?" Nick bites his lip, trying to soothe his anxiety.
Monroe rocks side to side gently, trying to comfort Nick. "Nothing is going to happen but if it does, we have Zuri, Cypress, and Fabian here. They will protect you and them." They both decided it was best for Trubel to be absent. Having two Grimms at once would only make the situation more stressful.
Nick's eyes flick over to their three Guardians. They are serious and imposing looking. Fabian breaks his stoicism to wink playfully at Nick, making him laugh and Roe growl.
Nick exhales and drops his head, the tension bleeding out of his muscles. *I can do this.* He trusts the Guardians to keep them all safe. Nick trusts Roe's judgment. Leaning back against Roe, he attempts to remain calm as they wait for Roe's siblings and their mates to arrive. Being a Grimm adds an element of danger to meeting the family Nick could do without. Meeting the family is supposed to be nerve-wracking, not life-threatening. He hopes they get out of this unharmed, or at the very least, alive.
Monroe squeezes Nick. "Come on, love." Nick follows him to the couch, sitting beside Roe to wait.
Nick jolts at the sound of the sharp rap on the door. "This is it." Taking a shaky breath, Nick centers himself and nods.
Despite having faith in his family, Monroe opens the door with Nick protectively hidden unseen behind him. Unsurprisingly, Evan and Austin are doing the same for their mates. For a tense moment, the three Alpha Blutbaden stare at each other, hovering protectively in front of their precious Submissives. "Welcome." In a sign of trust, Monroe steps aside, exposing his mate first. Nick stands firm under Evan and Austin's fierce dissecting stares. Neither is as intimidating in size as Monroe but he knows what hides under the surface. Nick refuses to flinch when Evan woges and leans threateningly close. He bares his wicked canines at Nick, daring him to react. The Grimm in him quivers at the challenge, wanting to meet it. With carefully measured restraint, Nick's welcoming but inscrutable mask doesn't flicker. Evan relents, twitching his head back to his human face. He stares a moment longer at Nick, then shifts his gaze to Monroe.
"Thank you for inviting us." Evan steps inside.
Wynn smiles welcomingly to Nick. "Hello, Nick. I'm Wynn. Don't mind my mate, Evan. It's an Alpha thing." She leans close and whispers, "They can't help themselves. You'll get used to it." She pats his arm as she moves to hug her brother.
Nick's eyes travel back to the remaining two standing on Roe's stoop, although Cameron remains behind Austin. Whereas Evan lacks subtlety, Austin has a quiet intensity about him. He is the kind Nick guesses is constantly underestimated, then he flips a switch and takes his opponent off guard. Nick will not make that mistake. "Welcome, I'm Nick." His arms hang relaxed at his sides.
Cameron moves out from behind Austin and walks forward. The muscle in Nick's jaw flutters, revealing his anxiety. To Nick's shock, Cameron wraps his arms around him in a warm hug. Nick stands still like a block of ice, gaping a little when Cameron eases back. "Welcome to the family, Nick. I'm Cameron," he says with a friendly smile. "This is Austin, my mate." Cameron pulls Austin inside.
Austin sticks out his hand and Nick shakes it. "Nice to meet you."
Studying Nick for a long moment, Austin replies, "You as well."
Monroe hugs each of them, greeting them with smiles and words of welcome. "Thank you all for coming. It means a lot to us, Nick and I both." Noticing his family wariness at the sight of the three Guardians, Monroe makes a sweeping motion with his arm. "These are our Guardians. This is Zuri, Fabian, and Cypress. Zuri is our Guardian Alpha."
Evan looks suitably impressed. "I've never met a true Guardian before. An honor to meet you three." He shakes their hands firmly, looking over his shoulder to Nick and then back to the Guardians. "Take care of him and Monroe and their pups for us, okay?"
Zuri nods sharply. "We will."
Cameron claps his hands and smiles. "Well, this is going great. No attacks or maiming. Nice and civilized. Who would have thought? A Grimm and a bunch of Wesen." He laughs lightly. "Wonders never cease."
The room falls dead silent, the Guardians subtly ready themselves to protect Nick if it becomes necessary as many sets of eyes flick to Nick.
Monroe's hearty chuckle dissipates the heavy tension in the air. "I think we have things under control, Guardians. Cypress and Fabian, feel free to go back to the house. Zuri, I'd offer you the same but you won't."
Fabian and Cypress turn to Zuri, who nods permission. The two men quickly say goodbye and leave. "I will be outside, if you need me."
"Thank you, Zuri." Nick smiles at the trust she shows in Roe's family as she exits the door quietly.
Monroe urges his family into the living room. "Come, sit. Make yourselves at home." He sits in his chair, tugging a blushing Nick into his lap.
From Evan's lap on the couch, Wynn looks at Nick. "How are you coping with this, Nick? It must be very strange for you."
Glancing at Roe, Nick shrugs. "I'm dealing alright. Bizarre has become my normal over the past year. Roe could tell you I had my share of freakouts. It has been a lot to take in. Finding out I was a Grimm, learning about Wesen, mating with Roe, the whole dynamics of Blutbaden mating, and the pregnancy. Finding out I'm having triplets." Nick laughs without humor.
"You never knew you were a Grimm? Your family never told you?" Evan asks, a disbelieving expression on his face.
Nick shakes his head. "Never had a clue. The first time I saw a Wesen," his eyes move over the four, "it was a Hexenbiest by the way, I couldn't believe my eyes. Freaked me out, to say the least. My aunt, a Grimm herself, didn't live long after I saw my first Wesen. If I didn't have her books and stuff and Roe, I don't know if I'd be alive right now." He avoids saying his aunt's name, not wanting to remind them of her slaughtering their great-grandmother.
"Your lack of knowledge of the Wesen world may have made it possible for you and Monroe to mate. Otherwise, one of you would likely be dead by now instead of being alive and mated with triplets on the way," Austin says in a quiet manner.
Monroe and Nick trade a look. It's a conclusion they've both considered before. "I didn't need my family to train me, not once I met Roe. He's made me into the Grimm I am today." He meets each of their eyes for a steady beat. "I'm not like those other Grimms. I don't see Wesen as animals needing to be slaughtered. I've met bad Wesen, evil, violent, dangerous Wesen. But I've also met good Wesen. Normal, everyday, helpful, kind, compassion Wesen that want to live their lives in peace like everyone else. Wesen are like Humans in there are good ones and bad. Other Grimms may see Wesen as black and white but there are more gray areas than I expected."
Wynn shakes her head. "You really are different."
Monroe puffs his chest up proudly, boasting, "He really is. A Grimm our world needs, someone who will protect all life, Wesen and Human alike." He breathes in Nick's intoxicating smell, like the woods and Monroe, deep. Scenting it is reassuring, the scent shouting Monroe's claim on Nick. It says Nick is his. "Didn't I tell you our world was changing, Sis?" Monroe settles his hand on the growing pups; they are the future, the visual proof the world is changing.
Nick rests his head against Roe's neck, letting his warmth calm his nerves as four sets of eyes settle on his stomach.
"This is really happening, isn't it? You and Nick are having hybrid pups. Sired by a Blutbad and a Grimm." Evan runs his fingers through the length of his hair, sweeping it back from his face.
Monroe eases Nick's shirt up to expose his little bump. His big hand spreads over it possessively. "It is happening. Our pups are growing, healthy and strong, inside of Nick. They will be the first of their kind, utterly unique."
Again in a nervous gesture, Evan brushes his fingers through his hair and sighs audibly. "You don't take the easy route, do you, Monroe? They're going to be coming at you from all sides. Grimms. Wesen. Humans, if they find out."
Monroe tugs the shirt down to cover Nick's bump and grabs his hand in comfort. "That's why we have the Guardians. Nick is also training another Grimm. She is staying with us. We will do everything we can to ensure we are all safe."
Nick closes his eyes to center himself, then opens them. Fierce determination burns in his gray eyes. "We cannot guarantee that we will survive, me or Roe. Our Guardians know that our pups are the most important. If," he swallows around the huge lump in his throat, "if we die, we are hoping you," Nick looks straight at Wynn and Evan, "would be willing to take care of them."
Monroe's voice burns with intensity. "We would be grateful if you took them and raised them as your own. The Guardians will go with the pups, wherever they go but we'd prefer if they went with family."
"It's a big responsibility, we know and we will understand if you want to refuse. My partner and his mate are a viable option if you decide you aren't willing to take on the responsibility."
Wynn and Evan share a long look. "Why us? Why not Austin and Cameron?"
Monroe has a simple answer. "You are my triplet, Wynn. I shared our mother's womb with you and that bond is unbreakable."
"In addition, Evan's family is large and according to Roe, accepting and very close. We hope they will adopt the pups as family as well. All we want is for them to live and be happy. They could do that with you and Wynn."
Turning to Cameron and Austin, Monroe explains, "It isn't that we don't trust you or believe you would love and protect the pups just as much as Wynn and Evan. It's—"
Cameron holds up a hand. "Stop. You do not need to explain. Neither I nor Austin is offended that you selected Wynn and Evan. It's about the pups and their safety. Evan's family and his training will offer them better protection than we ever could."
"Thank you," Monroe says gratefully.
Evan clears his throat lightly. "Could we have time to think about it?"
Monroe nods. "Please, take all the time you need. We don't expect an immediate answer."
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Nick relaxes into Roe's lap and quietly watches Roe interact with his family. Touching his stomach briefly, he smiles. He likes all of them; Wynn, Evan, Cameron, and Austin are good people. He feels a bond forming between them and has no trouble imagining trusting them with the pups by the time they are born. Nick is comforted that the pups will at least have some family. Though suspicious and wary at first, Roe's siblings and their mates have accepted him. Nick likes them and he thinks they might like him too. How the rest of Roe's family will react is a mystery. Nick has a feeling these four will be the easiest of any of Roe's family. The thought of meeting Roe's parents is almost enough to take his breath away.
Watching Evan and Wynn, Nick realizes they are a lot like him and Roe. Overt possessiveness and protectiveness is something Evan and Roe absolutely share. Like Roe does with him, Evan is constantly touching Wynn, especially her claiming bite. Nick isn't sure if it is his presence or whether it is typical for Evan to constantly thumb the mark. Evan has a more aggressive personality than Roe, blunt and straightforward but not cruel. Wynn has him wrapped around her finger, which is quite amusing to watch. Nick likes Wynn a lot. She's a strong, spunky, compassionate woman. Pushed, Nick believes she'd push back. Hard.
Nick's eyes move to Austin and Cameron. They are an entirely different type of couple. Austin is quiet, although not shy. Watchful is the word that comes to mind. He's intelligent with an inner intensity and strength. Nick can imagine how passionate he could be when he lets that intensity out. Cameron is sweet and sociable. He's impossible not to like. The type of person that can make friends wherever he goes. His relationship with Austin is closest to how Nick imagines a Dominant and Submissive type works. Evan's Dom presence is subtle but there and Cameron appears more naturally submissive than he or Wynn.
What Nick gets out of watching them is being the submissive part of a Blutbaden mating might be more flexible than he thought. Both relationships work, despite the differences in their dynamics. It's a relief to see. He doesn't feel like a Submissive, not a stereotypical one anyway. "Are Blutbaden bonds diverse?" Nick blurts out. When all eyes turn to him, Nick feels nerves bubbling up inside him. "In terms of dynamics, I mean?"
An indecipherable look passes between Wynn and Monroe. "Evan, Austin, I have a fantastic new clock. You must check it out." Monroe swiftly ushers them into his workroom, leaving Nick alone with Cameron and Wynn.
"Well, that was subtle."
Nick chuckles. "Subtly isn't Roe's strong suit."
Wynn agrees with a laugh. "It's not Evan's either. Austin is the only Alpha here that has any skill with it."
The full force of Cameron's memorizing blue eyes rest on Nick's face. "To answer your question, yes, there is diversity. However, all Blutbaden bonds have an Alpha and a Submissive."
Taking advantage of the opportunity Roe has given him, Nick asks, "All Blutbaden are either Alpha or Submissive?"
"That is simply the way we are born," Wynn explains simply.
Cameron nods. "It's our biology. But everyone is not the same. Not all Blutbad Alphas are the brutish, blunt type. Nor are all Blutbad Submissives traditional. Personalities influence the dynamics of our bonds. Take me and Austin. I like being taken care and not having to worry about being in charge. Austin favors being in control and leading our family. I trust him to know what is best for me and our children. I trust him to know the limits and not abuse the power we have gifted him. Austin is too kind-hearted to cross the line, however, if I had to, I would confront him."
"Being a Submissive doesn't mean we are under the thumbs of our Alphas. We are not slaves to their whims. I am not saying that some bonds don't twist into that." Wynn's expression turns sorrowful. "Tragically, it does happen; it's unhealthy. For Blutbaden, the meaning of our bonds is about love and care. Our biology determines our roles in the bond. Alphas take care of their Submissive and their children. They are the protectors. Submissives are the bearers, they bear the children of their mate."
Nick sighs. "So all I am is some baby-making machine for Roe?"
"Definitely not," Wynn denies firmly. "Yes, we bear the children but we are more than that. We are the heart."
"We are the soul; without us, Alphas are empty. It is through us, with us that Alphas feel complete."
"We are the glue."
Cameron's lips quirk up. "Despite their outer toughness, they are often teddy bears with their Submissives. Our Alphas would be lost without us."
Nick nods slowly. His sweet and gentle Roe would be lost without him. It's something he fears. If something happens to him, how will Roe live on? Roe was willing to die for him but is he willingly to live without him?
"Alphas are the protectors, plain and simple, but our role is more flexible. Take me in comparison to Cameron. I hold as much power as Evan. He is my family's protector but I stand beside him just as capable. I run the family."
Cameron smirks. "She's the puppeteer."
Wynn flashes a wicked grin. "Not how I would describe it but yes."
"I did notice that you've got him wrapped around your finger," Nick says with a smile.
"Everyone does. My mate is good at many things but he does not hide his adoration of me well."
Cameron holds up his hands. "Listen, I'm going to let you in on a little Submissive secret. Alphas will bend over backwards to please their Subs. They want us to be happy; bringing us pleasure makes them happy. All of them, the healthy ones at least, are wrapped around their Sub's finger, even if they don't know it."
Nick swallows thickly, remembering how willing Roe was to die if it freed him to be happy. He looks up at Roe's two siblings with wet eyes. "I realize that." Overwhelmed by the power he has over Roe, Nick's grips his hands together to prevent them from trembling.
Wynn and Cameron exchange a look, seeing the guilt in Nick's eyes.
Looking toward Roe's workroom, Nick admits softly, "He lives for me." He stares down at his stomach. "For us. Just as he would die for us."
Wynn and Cameron squeeze each other's hand in comfort. They rise together, each sitting on one of the arms of Nick's chair. Wynn takes his hand. "That is a lesson we all have learned, Nick. In their eyes, we will always be more important than they are."
Cameron puts an arm around Nick. "It's an excruciating thing to accept but nothing will change it. It's just the way our bonds work."
Nodding, Nick permits himself to find comfort in Roe's siblings' touch. He doesn't want to think of Roe trading his life for his or their child's but Nick realizes it could happen. If Cameron and Wynn are right, it is something every Submissive in a Blutbad bond knows. With the threats they will have to deal with, it is more than possible. A ball of dread settles heavily in his belly at the thought of it happening. Nick prays with all his might to any deity out there that the mix of the Guardians, Trubel, and Vivian manage to keep them all safe.
Needing to banish the dread and fear of Roe dying, Nick deliberately changes the subject. "Do Blutbaden ever have bonds that aren't Alpha and Submissive?" By Cameron and Wynn's confused expressions, Nick is guessing not.
"Blutbaden bonds are not flexible."
Cameron opens his mouth to agree, then stops and looks at Nick.
Feeling the weight of Cameron's gaze, Nick asks, "What?"
"I just wonder, will that change? What we've always known to be true is not a guarantee any longer. You and Monroe have proved that. Before you and Monroe, we knew that Blutbaden mate only with other Blutbaden. We know Blutbaden bonds are made of a single Submissive and a single Alpha but will it remain so? If we think about it, anything is possible considering a Grimm can be the mate of a Blutbad."
In agreement with her brother, Wynn smiles and nods at him. "Like Monroe said, our world is changing. Our certainties are no longer infallible. The possibilities are endless."
The monumental importance of their mating is something Nick is more than aware of. "Our mating isn't the only game changer. My partner is just a regular Human and he's soul bound to a Zauberbiest. The worlds, Wesen and Human, are not separated in the same manner they once were. Humans may not know about Wesen but that could change. At the very least, more Humans may be exposed to the Wesen world through mating."
Following Nick's line of thought, Wynn says, "Judging by you and your partner, Wesen are finding their mates among non-Wesen. The pair of you cannot be the only ones."
"What if it is a worldwide phenomenon? You may be the only ones we know about but the world is a very big place."
The thought is a troubling one. "If it is, it might be chaos. Hank, my partner, and I aren't normal. How we reacted wasn't normal. I am not the typical Grimm. If another Blutbad discovers his or her mate is a Grimm…"
Sagely, Wynn finishes, "The likelihood of it ending happily is very low. If an Alpha is forced to kill her or his Submissive, that Alpha would not survive long. Failing to protect your Submissive is one thing, difficult for an Alpha but ultimately survivable. Taking the Submissive's life with your own hands is a different story. Even without the mating being consummated, the grief would be overwhelming."
Nick scratches the stubble on his face. "What about a Submissive? What happens if a Submissive killed an Alpha?"
Cameron stands up and paces in thought. "A Submissive could triumph over an Alpha, probably easier than an Alpha would over a Submissive simply because of the Alpha's innate protective instincts. Killing their Alpha, even if it is a Grimm, would be devastating for the Submissive. Could they live with what they'd done? Yes, but it wouldn't be much of a life. The Submissive would likely always feel an emptiness inside. The Submissive would never have children either."
"The other option is the Blutbad being killed by a Grimm. Nothing abnormal there."
Nick admits Wynn is right. His kind killing a Wesen is ordinary, predictable. "I don't know the effect change will have on the Human part of the world. Hank had Roe and me as well as Sean, his mate, to help him accept what Sean is and the existence of Wesen. Other Humans may not be so lucky."
Wynn explains, "There is a reason we keep what we are from Kehrseite. Their minds often cannot deal with the shock of what we are. They often go insane."
"Chaos." Nick wonders about the changes. *Why now? Why me? Why Roe or Hank or Sean?* He contemplates why. "What's the point of change? Is there a point? Is this to reunite the worlds or to bring war?"
Cameron and Wynn trade glances. Neither of them have any answers.
Frustrated, Nick growls, "If Vivian would just tell me what she knows, maybe we wouldn't be in the dark about everything."
Nick drags himself out of his angry thoughts. "Vivian. She is Sean's aunt, a Hexenbiest Seer. She knows things."
Cameron says, "But she won't tell you anything."
"Not until the right time," Nick spits out in anger.
Wynn hides her smile. "Seers are...frustratingly obsessed with timing."
"No shit." Nick rolls his eyes. He is sick to death hearing about Seers and their timing. He wants to know what Vivian knows.
Cameron offers him a sympathetic look.
"I won't tell you to be patient. In your position, I would be just as eager to know what she knows. We," Wynn indicates herself and Cameron with a sweeping gesture, "had to worry about Grimms during our pregnancies but you have much more to worry about."
Nick stares off in thought. Wynn's right, which is why having to wait is excruciatingly difficult. Being prepared for what is coming could be the difference between life and death. Emotion wells up inside him. "The pups' lives could depend on what she knows."
Monroe hears the soft, anxious confession as he walks back in. "Nicky." He scoops up Nick and sits down, cradling him in his lap.
Nick hides his face in Roe's neck. He hates how pregnancy hormones make it harder to control his emotions.
Combing his blunt fingers through Nick's soft hair, Monroe offers him calm comfort.
He squeezes his eyes shut and confesses, "I'm scared, Roe. What if Vivian is too late?"
Rubbing his cheek against Nick's hair, Monroe tightens his hold on him. "I'm scared too."
Without notice by either man, the other couples cuddle together on the couch. They know how it feels to fear for their children but the danger Monroe, Nick, and their pups will be forced to face will be far greater.
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After work, Nick takes Trubel and Hank to the trailer. They need to learn more about the Wesen world, especially with Nick's pregnancy. Zuri is outside, probably hiding unseen in the shadows. She is exceptionally skilled at hiding. Despite knowing she's always out there somewhere, Nick never sees her unless she allows him to. How she does that, no one seems to know.
Nick glances over at Trubel, who has her nose buried in a book. She's blossomed since coming to stay with him and Roe. She's gained some needed weight from being able to eat regularly and the dark circles under her eyes have started to ease. She's even lost a bit of her twitchiness, around him, Roe, and Hank at least. Trubel isn't the tortured, loner she was when they first met.
She is an eager student. When she isn't training, she's often reading through the Grimm books. She's embraced who and what she is with little resistance. Nick isn't surprised by that in any fashion. Knowing what she is, Trubel no longer has to wonder if she is crazy. Plus, she has him, someone who sees exactly what she does. Knowing she isn't alone has to be a great comfort. It is to Nick.
Uninterested in reading through his ancestor's books, Nick turns his attention on Hank. His easy-going partner has taken everything in stride. Nick still marvels at how easy it's been for Hank to accept. He taps his lips with a finger, wondering if it was easier for him because he had Nick's knowledge to back up what he was seeing.
Nick lets his mind wander. The past months have been life-changing. Becoming a Grimm. Breaking up with Juliette. Mating with Roe. Going into heat. Getting pregnant. Learning Roe's past and running away. Meeting Vivian. His mind stutters to a stop. Vivian. Nick shifts in his seat, his back starting to ache something fierce. Pushing the pain away, he focuses on Vivian. It seems like an eternity since he saw her. *When is she going to tell us what she knows?* Every moment that goes by is a chance for them to be blindsided. Even with the Guardians and Trubel, Nick worries about the pups and Roe. No one has targeted them yet but Nick isn't counting on that lasting forever. They need to be prepared.
"What are you thinking about?"
Hank gestures vaguely to Nick's face. "You have that look on your face. Like a supervillain plotting the death of his nemesis."
The tension in his face lifts. "Supervillain? Shouldn't I be the superhero?"
"Heroes don't plot the murders of their nemesis," Hank explains seriously.
"I'm more of an antihero anyway, right?"
Hank rubs his chin in thought. "Your ancestors were more antiheroes than you are. Clearly flawed. Believed the means justified the ends. They targeted all Wesen and saw them all as deserving of extermination. Compared to them, you're Professor X."
Disgusted, Trubel shakes her head. "Getting a nerd vibe here, guys."
The sound of Roe's ringtone halts the conversation. "Hey Roe."
"Hi Nicky. Where are you? Still at the station?"
"Nah. Trubel, Hank, and I are spending some quality time at the trailer. The more we know and all that."
"You can never know too much," Roe says dryly.
Nick laughs. "True, true."
"I have news."
"Yeah? What is it?"
"Cypress, Fabian, and I have finished moving our stuff. We are officially moved in."
Nick's cheeks hurt from the wide grin on his face. It feels different than when he bought his first house. Perhaps because this will be the home his pups grow up in. "That's great, Roe." It doesn't hurt that Nick didn't have to lift a finger. The way his back is smarting, he is thankful he doesn't have to worry about lifting anything.
"Are you soon done at the trailer?"
Looking at the other two, Nick decides they are. "Yeah, we'll be home soon." Knowing he's referring to their first home, his and Roe's, and not Roe's house, makes it sound different.
"I'll be waiting."
Nick smiles and disconnects. "Let's wrap this up. Trubel, take a book. You can too, Hank, if you want." He hustles them outside. Zuri is already waiting for him, she always anticipates his moves. Nick is starting to suspect she's hiding some precognition abilities. If she doesn't, he doesn't understand how she always knows everything before he can even say anything. Nick shrugs, *Maybe I'm just that predictable.* He turns to Zuri, needing to know. "Am I that predictable?"
"You always anticipate my moves, always."
Zuri seems to consider her answer carefully. "No. You needn't worry. No one will be able to read you with the ease I do."
Nick shakes his head. "You are psychic, aren't you?"
Zuri smiles secretively, not confirming but not denying either.
Deciding he doesn't have the energy to try to delve past Zuri's formidable defenses, Nick lets it go. As long as Zuri is the only one that can predict him with ease, he isn't going to worry about it.
Hank stops him as he's getting into his jeep. "Hey Nick."
Nick pauses, looking up questioningly.
"You should have a housewarming party. Sean and I could come over."
"Roe would like that. We could invite some of our friends." Nick told his close friends about Roe a while back. All were surprised about him dating a guy and he did discover one hidden homophobe, which he has since cut all contact with. The rest have accepted him to varying degrees of comfortability. Despite any uneasiness, they are all happy for him. Realizing something, Nick asks, "Should I avoid people from work? Because of you and Sean?"
Hank scratches his scruff thoughtfully. "I'd have to talk to Sean about it. I don't want Sean to get in trouble."
"Let us know, either way." Their relationship won't stay a secret forever, the question is whether it will be on Hank and Sean's terms or on someone else's. Nick's thoughts turn to the triplets. This housewarming may be the time to tell their friends about the coming babies. His friends can't know the whole truth but he can't suddenly show up with triplets out of nowhere with no explanation. Roe's friends, at least the Wesen ones, will know it all.
Nick pulls up the house, his and Roe's house. His spirit lifts at the sight of their new home, the ache in his back disappearing. Roe opens the door and Nick has to fight the urge to do something ridiculous like run into Roe's arms like they are in some sappy romance.
"Welcome home," Roe announces with a huge grin.
If Nick has a little extra skip in his step walking toward the house, that's his own business. He is welcomed home with a lingering kiss and a tight embrace. Nick soaks in the moment, wanting to remember it always. He takes Roe's hand and together they walk inside. *Our house.*
Before Nick can check anything out, Monroe hands him his potion and Nick takes it with a sigh. "Thanks, Roe." He doesn't enjoy the disoriented feeling of the potion, even if it is necessary to hide his pregnancy from Kehrseite.
Nick takes in every inch. The three men had done more than move everything in and unpack since Nick was last in the house. They painted walls and ceilings, added detailed touches, and fixed a few minor issues. Their new massive L-shaped couch fits perfectly in the living room and from how easily both Cypress and Fabian are able to sprawl on it with space to spare, it will be able to accommodate all of them in comfort. Nick can't wait to plop onto its comfy plushness and pass out after work. Moving onto the kitchen, Nick notes the cabinets newly painted a bold medium blue and the walls are now a mercury gray. Leaning against the island watching Nick, Monroe asks, "Like it?"
Taking another quick look, Nick nods. "It's amazing what paint can do. It's like a new kitchen. A new house. You must have spent hours painting everything."
Monroe shrugs modestly. "Fabian and Cypress have been a great help. They worked after one of them followed me back to the house." They've both been sleeping at the new house since there wasn't room at the old house for them.
Nick waves at the relaxed men. "Thanks for your help, guys."
"Our pleasure, Nick. We are at your disposal."
Fabian flexes his arm. "Good workout too." He winks at Trubel, who rolls her eyes in disgust and goes upstairs to find her room.
Cypress laughs at Fabian. "She is not digging you, bro."
"I'm wearing her down. All the ladies fall for my charm, eventually."
Zuri clears her throat and lifts a brow in challenge.
Fabian straightens hastily like a little boy given the look by his mom. "Guardian Alpha."
Nick, Cypress, and Monroe snicker at him. No one handles Fabian better than Zuri, a look or a snap of her fingers and Fabian practically stands at attention. She doesn't take any of his shit, that's for certain.
"Check the perimeter."
Fabian's on his feet in a second. "Of course, Guardian Alpha." He's out the door in a flash.
Cypress's laughter stops abruptly when she turns her serious gaze on him. He clears his throat. "Guardian Alpha?"
"Set up things in the basement, we will train tonight."
Cypress nods and disappears downstairs.
Zuri turns back to Nick and Monroe. "Continue, please."
They exchange a look and comply. Zuri has their two Guardian Betas well in hand already.
Nick sniffs appreciatively, the smell of lasagna baking teasing his nose. "Smells good, Roe."
The timer going off distracts Monroe. Nick watches him take out the perfectly browned lasagna, mouth watering at the sight and smell of it.
"It should sit for a bit before we cut into it. I'm making garlic bread as well."
Nick leans against Roe's side. "You spoil me."
"As I should, considering you are pregnant with my pups."
He tilts his head back to look up at Roe, lips curved in a smile. "It is the least you could do while I'm getting all fat and ungainly."
"You will not get fat."
Nick scoffs. "I'm going to get huge. Three Blutbaden inside me, Roe. Three. Sired by you, you big oaf."
"They will be very healthy and you, my mate, will only become more gorgeous."
"You won't think so when I look like a beached whale." Nick shudders. *I'm going to get so fat.*
Monroe pulls Nick back against him, his big hands finding his little bump. "You'll always be beautiful to me, Nicky."
Nick laughs at Roe and himself, realizing they have become that stereotypical expectant couple with Nick complaining about being fat and Roe spouting reassurances about how beautiful he is. Sad thing is he needs it. Some mornings he looks at his stomach and can't get over how fat and ugly he's getting. Roe always catches him and makes him feel better, not just with his words but the way he looks at him. Nick can see how much Roe loves his body, whether he's fit or increasing mass like nobody's business. He shakes his head at Roe's consistency with trying to look on the brighter side of things.
"And before we know it, we will have three beautiful, healthy pups."
At moments the time seems to crawl by but other times, it feels like it is flying by. "I know. Let's hope we'll be ready."
Monroe kisses Nick's neck lightly. "We will be ready."
Nick concedes they are making progress. They've moved into the house and bought another vehicle for driving the pups around. They have their Guardians. Nick exhales loudly. "We'll make it." He turns in Roe's arms and heads for the stairs. "Let's check out the rest of the house. I want to see the nursery." Monroe settles a supportive hand on Nick's lower back as they climb the stairs together. They ignore the other rooms and head straight for the nursery.
Together, they decided to have the three cribs in one room to start. Blutbaden triplets do better when they sleep in the same room when they are young. Monroe shared a room with Amanda and Wynn until he and Amanda hit puberty. Two Alphas in one bedroom with all those teenage hormones makes for a dangerous and violent mix.
Nick admires the room.
"Do you like the color?"
The walls are a soft gray reminiscent of fog. "I do." Nick points to the inviting copse of trees painted on the wall. "Who did that?"
"Trubel, she's got a fair hand. She found out I was looking for someone to paint a forest scene in the nursery. She showed me her sketchbook and I was impressed. It turned out better than I anticipated; my parents did the same for my room growing up. The woods, it's comforting to Blutbaden children. I'm assuming our children will be the same, even with your genes in the mix."
The rest of the room is pretty empty. Roe's brother, Cameron, and sister, Wynn, promised to go baby shopping with them. Nick's job makes scheduling anything difficult. *It's going to happen. Even if I have to take a day off of work.* With their help, shopping will go quicker. Both know what he and Roe will need for raising Blutbaden triplets.
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Snuggled up on the couch, Hank peeks at Sean in the corner of his eye. He can't stop thinking about Nick and the house warming. *Am I ready to be out at work? Is Sean?* Hank's mind flashes through all the changes he's gone through recently. It should freak him out but it doesn't. Hank is happier with Sean than he's ever been. They are soul bound, forever. Worrying about breaking up or getting cheated on or used by his love is a thing of the past. Sean can be trusted with his heart and his soul, just as Sean trusts him with his heart and soul.
He turns his head toward Sean. "Hmm?"
Looking concerned, Sean says, "You haven't heard a word I've said, have you? What's wrong?"
Smiling apologetically, Hank answers, "I'm thinking about what Nick said."
"Has something happened with Nick? Or Monroe? The pups are okay?"
Hank's heart warms at the thread of worry in Sean's voice. "Everyone is fine. They've officially moved into the new house. I suggested Nick and Monroe have a housewarming. We're invited to the party, of course."
"That was fast."
"Yeah. It helps when you've got three strong Wesen working together to get it done."
Sean's lips quirk up. "That does help."
"It does. The housewarming is going to be casual, I'm guessing. Just some friends." Hank bites his lip anxiously. "Problem is, Nick is thinking of inviting some people from work." He searches Sean's face for clues as to how he feels about that. His face is thoughtful but gives Hank no answers. Anxiety builds as Sean keeps silent.
"What are you asking?"
Gaze darting away, Hank answers, "What do you think about it?"
"A housewarming party is a great idea. He should invite whoever he desires."
"Of course," Hank says lamely.
They are both dancing around the issue, neither of them wanting to bring it up for fear of what the other will say. "Would you prefer we go separately?"
Hank's head snaps up at Sean's stiff tone. Uncertainty quivers in his chest. "Would you?" Hank hates the way Sean's expression turns stoic, practically feeling him pull away emotionally. Sean's eyes bore into his and Hank has no idea what he is thinking.
"It would be easier, would it not?" Sean says finally.
Unexpected hurt bursts in his chest and only Hank's experience as a detective keeps it from his face. "It would." He thought he would be okay with hiding their relationship but since he came out to Nick and his family, Hank doesn't want to be obligated to hide in his personal life. The party will have people from their professional lives but the thought of pretending he and Sean are just superior and subordinate rubs him the wrong way.
"Then it's settled."
Hank is too furious to notice the unusual bite in Sean's tone. Needing to get away from Sean before he blows up, he mutters he's going to take a shower and leaves.
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Sean watches Hank walk away from him despite his instincts screaming to stop him. He walks the other way, stopping in front of the floor to ceiling windows to stare out at the city. Sean glances toward the bathroom and the sound of the water turning on. He rests his forearm against the window and drops his head against the glass. Sean attempts to swallow back the hurt, trying to comfort himself. "Give him some time. This is new to him. He'll come around," he whispers against the window. In the past, Sean would have been fine with hiding his relationship from his coworkers. Being captain, he tends to keep his personal and professional lives separate. Few of his coworkers know anything about his personal life. Hank is different though. They are soul bound, Hank is his mate. Sean is proud to be with Hank and he doesn't want to hide his happiness, even if it means it gets out at work.
*But he doesn't want that. He wants to pretend we're nothing more than coworkers. He doesn't want anyone to know about us.* Not wanting to push Hank into going public before he is ready, he'd told Hank what he thought he wanted to hear. Problem is it turns out he was right. Being right does nothing to make him feel less mad and hurt. With it comes guilt for feeling mad and hurt, which only makes him angrier. Squeezing his hands into fists, Sean barely resists the urge to smash them into the glass. Needing to blow off steam, he writes Hank a note. He changes and goes down to the gym.
Sean's mind empties as gets into a rhythm, pummeling the punching bag.
"Would you like to spar?"
Only Sean's self-control prevents him from taking a wild swing in surprise at the unexpected sound of the unfamiliar voice. He hadn't noticed anyone come in. Sean glances over, it's one of his neighbors, a handsome, stocky guy. "No thanks." He would probably end up killing the guy with the way his emotions are boiling up.
"Fight with the wife?"
Realizing this guy isn't giving up, Sean starts unwrapping his hands. "I'm not married." Lost in his thoughts, Sean doesn't notice the hopeful look on the man's face.
"Maybe we could work out together, I hate working out alone."
Annoyed, Sean wishes the guy would have picked someone else to bother. He grabs his headphones and sticks them in. "I prefer music. You'll have to find another workout buddy."
His head snaps toward the door, finding Hank standing there freshly showered. "Hank." Sean leaves his neighbor behind without a thought. "I needed to get a workout in. If you want, we could do it together?" He asks hopefully. Sean loves watching Hank work out. *Bring on his slick, sexy muscles and all that exposed skin.* As a bonus, he'd find it rather difficult to remember his anger and hurt if he's watching Hank's beautiful body move.
Hank smiles as the man stalks off. "You realize that guy was hitting on you."
Confused, Sean looks back and spots his neighbor walking angrily away. He gestures with his thumb. "That guy? He wanted to work out together."
Hank looks at him like he is an amusing, oblivious child. "He had another kind of workout in mind, I believe."
Putting aside his anger and hurt, Sean reaches for Hank. "Jealous?" He hopes not, he does not want another misunderstanding like the one with Adalind. His neighbor means even less than Adalind does to him. He's nothing. Hank, he is everything.
"No." Hank smiles back when Sean's hands come to rest around his waist. "I feel a little sorry for the guy. He might as well have been invisible for all the notice you paid him."
"He needs to work on his technique if you're right about him hitting on me. Not that it would matter when I have you." Sean gives Hank a peck and Hank's lips curve under his. He can't resist sneaking a finger under Hank's shirt to caress the supple skin of his side. Sean likes how Hank doesn't tense up when he touches him when other people are around. *Now if only he could be this free with the people we work with. Maybe he's afraid some people will hate him for being gay? Nick never said anyone reacted poorly when he came out about his relationship with Monroe. Knowing that, why would Hank be afraid?* The thoughts sober Sean's attitude and he pulls back, forcing a false smile. Hank seems to feel it too because his body language is less relaxed. "How about that workout?"
"Maybe next time. I just wanted to let you know I'm heading home. I need to wash clothes and catch up on things at him."
"Are you coming back tonight?" Sean asks nonchalantly.
Hank shakes his head. "Nah, it probably will take a while. I'll just stay at my place."
Sean opens his mouth to offer to come over but stops himself, afraid of Hank brushing him off. "Sure. I'll see you tomorrow then."
"Yeah. Tomorrow." Hank gives him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
For the second time today, Sean watches Hank walk away from him.
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Nick watches the underlying tension between Hank and Sean in confusion. Hank appears greatly relieved to leave the station and thus get away from Sean. Hank is suspiciously deep in his thoughts on the drive to the crime scene. Nick leaves him to his thoughts, although the whole time he is considering what could have happened between the two men. *A fight, most likely.* Nick glances back at Trubel; she seems to know something's up as well from Hank's body language alone.
Lucky for Hank, their focus shifts to the case as they arrive at the scene with Wu there waiting for them.
"What do we have, Wu?" Hank asks.
His eyes flick over to Trubel and narrow.
Nick mentally rolls his eyes. Wu is far too suspicious of Trubel. It would be much easier for them all if his instincts were less honed. How he knows Trubel isn't what they say she is, he doesn't know. Nonetheless, they aren't about to tell Wu he's right. With luck, Wu's suspicions will fade away before he can find out anything incriminating. Nick and Hank need Trubel, especially considering how fast Nick's pregnancy is advancing.
He turns back to Nick and Hank and read from his notebook. "Vic is Zachary Hayes, thirty-two, history teacher at the high school. Teacher of the Year award winner. Youth leader at his church. All around boy scout."
"So why is he dead?" Nick wonders.
"That you is what you two need to find out. Dog found him," Wu points to the mixed breed dog laying at the feet of a woman. "Ms. Schroeder was jogging with Buck, the dog, when he shot off the path and into a clearing. She found him barking next to the body, then she called us."
"I've run here before, there are plenty of spots along this trail better for hiding a body. This killer wanted him to be found," Hank says.
No one denies his statement. The killer made no attempt to hide the body, no, he or she, made sure Hayes was found.
As they watch, Buck sits up, nudging Ms. Schroeder shaking hand. Burying her fingers in his fur seems to calm her shaky nerves.
"I talked to her. She didn't see anything or anyone suspicious."
"How was he killed?" Hank asks.
"Well, that's where things get interesting."
Hank and Nick share a look, both wondering if this is where the hints of Wesen involvement are revealed.
"Mr. Hayes was killed somewhere else and his body dumped here. Our boy scout was tortured."
They look at the covered sheet, wondering what will be revealed underneath it.
Wu continues in his characteristic dry tone, "Most notably, they cut off his penis. While he was still alive."
Nick and Hank hold back a wince while Trubel's eyebrows raise in surprise.
"Mr. Hayes was also burned, stabbed, and strangled. He has deep wounds on his wrists and ankles from restraints." Wu pulls back the sheet to expose the naked body to their eyes. "An all out torture buffet."
The three flinch minutely at the sight of Zachary Hayes. He is covered in blood and wounds, the lack of pooled blood on the ground shows he didn't die here. The most noticeable thing, however, is his own severed penis shoved into his mouth.
Nick swallows reflexively. *Don't have to guess what the UnSub did with that then.*
"Someone really hated this guy," Trubel says. She barely resists rolling her eyes at Wu's no, shit look.
"People like this guy, who seem too good to be true, almost always are." She glances at Nick, the only person she has ever met that is exactly as good as he seems.
Nick meets her eyes, understanding passing between them. He knows she's seen a lot of bad things and her history had made her certain he would reveal his true colors. Nick likes to think the time she's spent with him and Roe has proven that he is genuine.
"More than that, monsters hide in people like this guy." Looking over the body, Hank pities the poor bastard but suspects his pity will be unwarranted. "We need to find out what Hayes was hiding. This was personal. The killer wanted him to suffer."
Nick nods thoughtfully. For once, the case is normal with no hints of Wesen involvement. If a person could consider cutting off a man's penis while he's alive and torturing someone to death to be normal.
They take the time to talk to Ms. Schroeder but as Wu said, she has nothing of substance to add. She remembers nothing out of the ordinary. With no other witnesses, they leave the scene to the medical examiner's office and the crime scene technicians.
Warrant in hand, they descend on Zachary Hayes's home. Hank whistles at the sight in front of them. "This place is torn apart."
Carefully moving through the room, Nick agrees, "Judging from this mess, they were desperate to find something, whatever it is." Nick and Hank glove up and start searching the house, while Trubel watches them work.
"Jackpot," Wu exclaims from Hayes's office.
Leaving the living room, they find Wu sitting in Hayes's desk chair with a laptop open.
Wu looks up as they enter. "Found a hard drive taped to the underside of the desk. Whoever searched this place must have missed it." The hard drive is plugged in and from the screen, it appears to be filled with video files. An unusually somber Wu announces, "Here's the dirty secret the victim was hiding." With slight hesitation as if bracing himself, he clicks open a video file.
A bed fills most of the frame. A thin teen lays naked on the bed, his movements sluggish. Zachary Hayes crawls over him, clothed only in briefs. The teen struggles as Hayes caresses his body and begs him to stop, his voice slurred. Hayes cuts off his pleas with a forceful kiss.
Bile burns up Nick's throat at the sight of the poor, drugged boy. It takes everything in him to swallow it down.
Trubel balls her hands into fists, memories from her past flashing through her mind. She had the power to fight back but this poor boy hadn't and the rest of his life will be marred by this shameful secret.
Wu cuts the video before Hayes can remove his briefs. "There are dozens more like this, marked by a name and date. The few I checked so far have been the same. Hayes has been raping boys for years."
The burning anger in Wu's voice echoes Nick's. Golden boy Zachary Hayes has scarred too many innocent young boys. He isn't surprised Hayes had gotten away with it for this long. The shame, fear, and helplessness his victims must have felt, especially being male, allowed Hayes to continue preying on young boys without consequence. Nick wishes Hayes would have had to face what he did, even the torture he endured wasn't enough in his book. If anyone touched one of his pups like that, he would do much worse to them. He and Roe would make them suffer for weeks, long after they started begging for death.
"Someone caught up with him," Hank says. Sadly, they all know one of Hayes's victims is the most likely suspect.
"We better finish searching here. We'll have to search his classroom and the church, if he has a space of his own."
Crime Scene takes the computer and the hard drive. The rest of the house is searched thoroughly. Behind the locked basement door is where Hayes took his victims.
"He soundproofed the walls," comments a technician.
His victims could have screamed and no one would have heard them, just as he no doubt screamed without hope of being heard.
Shattered alcoholic beverages litter the room. A couch and a large television are set up, stacks of pornographic movies cover the TV stand. They all can imagine what happened here. Unfortunately, it isn't a unique story. A pedophile hiding behind the facade of a seemingly moral, self-less, religious man puts himself in the perfect position to find his victims. Monsters love to hide behind pious facades. A technician opens a door and finds a small, windowless room, the one where the video was shot and where he was tortured. Blood splatters the walls. The video camera is found hidden in the bookshelf facing the bed.
A technician checks the camera. "We'll check the footage carefully but it doesn't appear that the murder was recorded."
Hank, Nick, and Wu watch silently as the technicians process the room. Each of them feeling like they've failed all the victims Hayes consumed in secret.
"His possible victim pool is extensive, the school and the church would provide him with ample victims."
"Sick bastard," Trubel mutters. "Deserved what he got."
No one contradicts her and the silence is telling. Pedophile cases are always hard on everyone involved. Children, whether young or teenagers, are innocent and should be protected, not taken advantage of. Pedophiles are the scum of the Earth, something both cops and inmates can agree upon.
Thinking of the innocents involved, Nick wishes they didn't have to stir up all the bad memories for Hayes's victims but it must be done. They have to work his murder just like everyone else's. Hayes being a pedophile and rapist doesn't give his killer a free pass. If only to himself, Nick admits he has no sympathy for Hayes. He deserved to suffer far worse than he got. *No one will touch the pups,* Nick comforts himself, *the Guardians would never allow anyone to be alone with them.* Turning his thoughts back to the case, Nick doesn't anticipate many of Hayes's victims to feel anything but satisfaction at the news of his death. His victims have suffered in silence, who would believe them even if they came forward? Only with his brutal death will the truth come out. The videos should help identify victims.
With heavy hearts, Nick, Hank, and Trubel trudge to Hayes's classroom to search. Wu goes back to the station to start looking through Hayes's computer and hard drive.
They call ahead to inform the principal, Anita Lopez, about Hayes's death. She meets them at the entrance, spouting words of shock and regret.
*Just wait until you find out the monster hiding behind Zachary Hayes's facade. You won't be feeling sorry about his death then.* Nick thinks of the victim's parents and feels a pang of sympathy for them. *The betrayal of their trust will be painful.*
Once the bomb about Hayes is dropped, people will be shocked beyond disbelief. No one ever wants to believe that a man they liked, admired, and called a friend was a living, breathing monster. Him being someone they trusted with children, possibly even their own, will only make it harder. While Hank and Nick know she is wasting her sympathy, neither bothers to tell her that.
"Here is his classroom."
Hank thanks her and with reluctance, she leaves them alone. Crime Scene starts with his desk, the most obvious spot for any incriminating evidence. Hank searches through the classroom's closet while Nick looks over the rest of the room.
"This might be something," one of the techs says.
It's a list of names, all male. "We need to find these men and talk to them."
Sharing a look with his partner, Hank sees Nick is thinking the same thing he is. This might be a list of victims or even boys Hayes planned on abusing in the future.
Nick jots down the names on the list after Crime Scene bags it up. They leave the technicians to finish the search and head to the principal's office. Nick hands the list over to Lopez. "Do you recognize any of these names?"
Anita scans the list. "They are all students here, freshmen if I'm not mistaken."
"Are they all in Mr. Hayes's class?"
She brings them to the secretary. She hands over the list. "Could you check Mr. Hayes's class lists for these students?"
"Of course, Anita." The secretary checks her records. "Three out of the four have him."
"Thank you, Nancy." Anita leads them back to her office. "Does that help, Detectives?"
Hank offers her a slight smile. "Yes, thank you. Is it possible for us to speak to these students?"
Anita shakes her head. "I cannot allow you to speak to them without the consent of their parents or guardian. I can give you their parents' names and contact information."
"We'd appreciate that. Before you do that, are there any students that were close to Mr. Hayes?"
Lopez's eyes narrow in suspicion. "If you are insinuating improprieties between Mr. Hayes and his students…" The stoic expression on both Nick and Hank's faces takes her aback. "You're not? Zachary could not have—" Anita pales. "He won Teacher of the Year. The students love him."
Neither of them says a word, letting the principal draw her own conclusions.
Anita must see the certainty in their eyes because she turns green, sick at the thought of her star teacher taking advantage of his position. "Oh my god, no." Horror colors her eyes and in a flash, Anita grabs her waste basket and vomits. With shaky fingers she grabs a tissue and wipes her mouth. Anita collapses into her chair. "You are sure?"
"We cannot reveal evidence on an ongoing case but...yes, we are certain," Hank says gently.
Her eyes flutter shut. When they open, they have a hard edge to them. "If I had known," she bites out, her voice falling away as tears fill her eyes.
If Anita Lopez had known what Zachary Hayes had done, she likely would have killed him herself. However, it's doubtful she knew. Anita would have to be an amazing actress for her reactions to appear as genuine as they do.
"Anything I can do, please let me know. If you find victims," Anita shudders, "among my students, advise them that we will offer counseling, free of charge, to any who desire it."
Hank nods. "We will."
"Let me get the contact information for you. I…I will include the names of students that are close to Mr. Hayes," she spits out his name venomously, "and their parents' information."
"We appreciate it," Nick says.
She has the secretary gather the information and is quick to hand it to Hank. "Is there anything else?"
Shaking his head, Hank thanks her again, promising to let her know if there is anything more she can do. With the printed list, they leave the school.
From the back seat, Trubel states, "If Lopez had known, she might have killed him herself."
"I have a feeling she wouldn't have hidden it though."
Nick nods. "I think she'd have been proud of it, of protecting her students."
"Problem is I don't believe she knew," Hank says.
Sighing, Nick agrees. "I don't think she did either. Her reaction was genuine." He trusts his instincts in this.
They head over to the church. Searching the church yields nothing. The pastor is much like Anita Lopez in his regret over Hayes's death. The pastor offers a list of the teenagers in Hayes's youth group and their contact information without question.
"The kids loved him. He was great with them. Zachary was very driven to bring young people to the Lord."
They don't bother telling him that everything he knows about Hayes was a lie or what kind of man led the youth of his congregation. The pastor and the church's congregation will find out soon enough.
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"What have you found, Wu?"
He looks up from the computer, his face absent of his usual spunk. "Twenty-five victims and counting." Drew's lips tighten. "We are working on making identifications from the videos using the names and dates from them and their faces to find matches. Hayes has been doing this for at least twenty years."
Nick's chest goes tight. *So many victims.*
"It's going to take time." Sorrow flickers in Wu's eyes. "Do you remember the suicide last week?"
Hank answers, "Fourteen years old. Stole his grandfather's pistol and shot himself in the head." It wasn't their case but his picture was on the news and in the paper.
"He was in several videos," Wu says quietly.
Nick's body tenses, furious at the loss of an innocent life because of that dead bastard's selfish, sick need. Hank shuts his eyes at the confirmation. His hands fist, bloodlust uselessly raging through him. Neither has a doubt Hayes's abuse led to the teenager's suicide. To be a fourteen-year-old boy with no hope, whose only escape is death is such a tragedy. The boy's parents will have to be informed. It may bring them understanding of why their son killed himself but it will do nothing to lessen their grief.
"Have you checked Hayes's phone?"
Drew nods and pulls out printed papers, handing them over. "Hayes received several threatening texts. One of the threats was traced back to a phone number registered to a Erik McAllister. The threats from McAllister focused on someone named Rick."
Nick flips through the information, one of the threats reads: Stay away from Rick you bastard or I'll make sure everyone knows what you've done. Several others echo the same sentiment. "Connection to Hayes?"
"He went to the school Hayes teaches at."
"A past victim? Any idea who Rick is?" Hank asks.
Wu says, "Erik McAllister has a thirteen-year-old son named Richard."
It's obvious what he and Hank need to do. "We need to speak to him."
Phone in hand, Wu answers, "I'm sending his home and work addresses and contact information to your phones."
Their phones sound, receiving the text.
"Do we know if Rick is on one of the tapes? Or his dad, Erik?"
Wu shakes his head. "We haven't come across either. However, his video collection," he sneers, "is extensive."
They watch as Wu inhales deeply in an effort to regain his control. Seeing their unflappable colleague affected is disturbing.
More centered, Wu adds, "We also traced another of the threatening texts."
"Another victim?" Nick questions.
"This one was from Colleen Robertson, warning him that if he didn't stop, she would make him." Wu looks at Nick and Hank. "There are no females on any of the videos."
Hank strokes his facial hair thoughtfully. "Sister? Mother?"
"I checked, Colleen Robertson is nineteen years old. She has no siblings and no children."
Nick and Hank exchange a look. "She must know one of Hayes's victims. We need to talk to her as well."
"I already sent you both her information."
"Any indication what Hayes did about the threats?" Hank asks.
Wu checks his notepad, "He called both back, each call lasted several minutes."
Nick "With Hayes dead, only Robertson and McAllister know how he responded to the threats. The question is, are they going to tell us? One of them could be the murderer."
"McAllister is a more likely suspect. He's older and Hayes targeted his son. If he was a victim in the past, he could have snapped when his son was threatened by the same man that abused him," Hank supposes. "It took a lot of rage to torture Hayes to the extent he was. As a father, McAllister has the capacity."
"We can't rule Robertson out but she is only nineteen. I don't know if she would have the kind of resolve and rage needed to do what was done to Hayes."
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Nick and Hank do some research on the case. Neither can believe Hayes has gotten away with this for as many years as he has.
Wu comes to their desks, tablet in hand.
Hank asks, "What do you have for us?"
"A few things. Eric McAllister was one of Hayes's victims; Hayes is his godfather. Hayes had a whole file of videos of Eric. Must have been one of his favorite victims, he has more videos than anyone else by a mile. It went on for years."
Hank's eyes squeeze shut. "Damn it. His son?"
"None have been found with him yet."
Nick feels for the McAllister. Hayes should have been someone he could trust, instead he abused him. "He has motive, he must have hated Hayes. If he tried to go after his son…" His fingers curl painfully into tight fists. "I would have killed him, if it'd been me. He has a lot of reasons to want Hayes dead."
"We also discovered that after the threats, Hayes watched a particular victim's video or videos repeatedly. After Eric McAllister's threat, Hayes watched the entire file of videos. After Robertson's threat, he watched a series of videos with an unidentified boy."
Hank glances at Nick. "He watched the video of the victim that threatened him." It's enough to make him sick.
Instead of being discouraged or scared by the threat, Hayes had used it as an excuse to watch and relive the victim's rape. The sick bastard got off on the threats. It's too much and Nick bolts to the nearest bathroom, bile burning his throat as he vomits. Finished, he spits into the toilet. Nick wipes his mouth with the station's rough, flimsy, cheap toilet paper and flushes it all down. He steps out and washes his hand.
Hank goes into the bathroom. "Nick? You alright?"
Nick looks at Hank. "If he wasn't dead, I'd kill the fucker myself."
"I would too. Bastard got off easy, if you ask me."
Leaning against the wall, Nick admits, "I wish we could just let his killer get away. Hayes deserved to die and the killer, they are probably one of his victims."
"I know, Nick. But the killer made his choice when he killed Hayes, it's our job to catch him, regardless of how we feel personally."
Emotion burns Nick's gray eyes shining silver. "I just think about," he looks down at his stomach, "you know."
Hank's heart squeezes in sympathy and he reaches out to touch Nick's arm. "I know." It's hard enough to think of any child being victimized but Nick must be picturing his own child being victimized in the same way. That makes it much harder.
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Nick gets a sinking feeling in his stomach as they approach McAllister's office. "Mr. McAllister? We're detectives with the Portland PD." They flash their badges. "Could we speak to you somewhere privately?" Nick and Hank exchange a brief look at the lack of reaction from their suspect.
McAllister loosens his tie and waves them into his office. Shutting the door, he inquires, "May I ask what this is about?"
Nick is tempted to answer "don't you know?" but refrains. "We're here to talk to you about your godfather, Zachary Hayes."
Rage flashes in McAllister's eyes before it disappears behind a cold, stoic wall. "I haven't seen him for years. I don't know what I could tell you about him."
"Don't you want to know why we need to talk about Mr. Hayes?" Hank asks.
"What does it matter? I don't want anything to do with him."
"Why is that?"
"We argued years ago, we haven't spoken since."
They know the real reason but it seems McAllister isn't going to make it easy on them. Nick challenges, "But you have spoken to him recently. You sent him a text threatening him to stay away from Rick. Your son, Richard, we presume?"
McAllister's hands fist but he remains silent.
"Not only that but he called you after. You spoke for three and a half minutes," Hank adds.
"I didn't like the way he looked at Rick. I just wanted him to stay away from him."
"We think it was more than that. We found the hard drive," Nick announces softly.
McAllister's eyes go wide.
Hank says, "He taped it under his desk. You must have missed it when you searched his house."
"We know about the videos. We know what he did."
"You killed him, didn't you?" Hank asks gently.
McAllister stares at him. He straightens and admits proudly, "I did. He deserved everything he got. He thought I was just going to let him do that to my boy, that I'd do nothing to stop him. The sick bastard gloated, gloated! But I stopped him; Rick is safe."
Nick wishes it wasn't true, just as he wishes he didn't have to arrest McAllister. "You are under arrest for the murder of Zachary Hayes." He reads him his rights as Hank cuffs his hands, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. That feeling grows worse when they get McAllister into interrogation. McAllister tells them how it started. His grandfather suffered a stroke and his parents wanted to go to him. Not wanting him to see his grandfather in his fragile state, they left him in the care of their next door neighbor, trusted friend, and godfather, Zachary Hayes. McAllister found out who Hayes truly was that week, as he was cuffed to a bed and raped repeatedly. He was twelve. The abuse went on for years. He was too afraid to tell anyone, including his parents. It's a terrible story and now, Rick McAllister loses his father and all Hayes's silent victims have to pick up the shattered pieces the pedophile left behind.
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Monroe senses something is wrong the moment Nick comes home. He looks from Trubel's pale face to Nick's weary one. "What happened?"
Trubel doesn't speak, simply trudging up to her room.
Nick launches into his arms, his body trembling. Monroe swings him into his arms and carries him to their room, shutting the door firmly behind them. "Talk to me."
Hiding his face in Roe's chest, Nick mumbles, "It was awful. I kept picturing our pups. I'd have killed him too. I would have! Monsters, Roe. There are monsters fucking everywhere. What the hell are we thinking bringing children into this shitstorm?"
"Nicky, you're not making sense."
"Oh, god, I don't know if I can do this. Even with everyone, how are we going to keep them safe? There's too much evil lurking out there, waiting for a chance to strike."
Monroe hugs Nick close, rocking his body in an effort to comfort. "You can do this, Nicky. You can't let evil win by giving in. We have to fight." He doesn't know exactly what happened but Nick can't give into fear. It'd be too easy to drown in it. Nick is shaking in his arms, salty, frantic tears spread wetness over his chest. All he can do is give him comfort while Nick works through whatever happened. Monroe repeatedly tells Nick he loves him and the pups as he rocks him, stroking his hair.
Pulling himself together, Nick's tears finally halt. "Pedophile case. God, Roe. He raped dozens of young, vulnerable boys. He's gotten away with it for years. No one suspected. No one had a clue! Except his victims. How the hell did he get away with this for so long?"
"Someone must have come forward, if you know what he did now?"
"One of his past victims, his own godson, tortured and killed him. Otherwise, who knows how many more there would be. He wanted to do the same to his godson's son, Roe. That's what pushed him over the edge."
Monroe takes a shaky breath, careful not to hurt Nick in his rage.
"He deserved it, Roe. The bastard deserved what he got and worse. I wish I could let McAllister go, I didn't want to arrest him. In his place, I would have done the same, worse probably. Anyone that hurts the pups? They're going to die, painfully," Nick promises darkly.
Monroe's eyes flash red, "I swear it on my life, Nicky." Anyone that touches their pups is going to be rend limb from limb.
"Do you think we've made a mistake? Our world, worlds really, are filled with monsters, both Wesen and Human. How can we keep them safe from every evil?"
"Never. Our pups could never be a mistake. Yes, there are monsters in the world but there is good, too. And we have many eyes looking out for our pups. The Guardians would die to protect them, as would we."
"I know," Nick admits softly.
"We have to have faith. We cannot let fear win. Our pups, they are a blessing. We can't let fear taint our joy or their lives and happiness."
Nick makes a small sound of agreement. After a minute, he asks in a small voice, "Can we lay down and cuddle?"
"Of course we can." Monroe strips his mate and then himself. They crawl into bed and hold each other tight, safe for the moment in their own little world.
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Pedophile cases are never easy to forget. As police captain, Sean feels as if he's failed Hayes's victims. Hayes operated in his territory and he would have kept raping young boys unchecked. Exhausted, Sean drops wearily on the couch next to Hank. The heat of his body radiates through his suit, comforting him.
"How did the meeting go?"
"As expected. No one is happy and plenty of pointing fingers." Sean drops his head back.
"Do you want a drink? I took some of your whiskey. It's damn good."
He glances over at the drink in Hank's hand. "Glenlivet Whisky, aged twenty-five years. Quite expensive," Sean admits.
"Should I have left it alone?"
"Mmm?" Realizing Hank took what he said as a reprimand, Sean waves his hand dismissively. "No. Drink whatever you want; that's what I have it for." Thinking of the mess Hayes has left behind, he doesn't notice Hank got up until a glass is pressed into his hand. Noticing the lack of ice, Sean smiles in thanks. The scent of dark chocolate and sultanas hits his nose. Humming in pleasure, Sean takes a sip, savoring the silky sweet taste.
"We should have stopped him a long time ago, Sean."
Taking another sip, he nods. "I know." The lives Hayes impacted, the innocence he destroyed. Far too many boys affected by his evil. His death changes little. His victims won't suddenly forget what happened to them. "At least his victims won't have to go through a trial; his violation of them doesn't need to be public knowledge."
"Except for Eric McAllister. His secret shame is going to be blasted all over, gossiped about at the dinner table."
"Except for him. He rejected the deal the District Attorney offered; he wants to go to trial."
Hank sips his drink. "Nick didn't want to arrest him."
"Nick sees from a different perspective. He has children on the way, I imagine he considered what he would have done in McAllister's place. As a parent-to-be, Nick likely understands why McAllister went to the extreme lengths he did, considering the threats from Wesen and Human alike to his soon to be born children. Being a Grimm and having a Blutbad as a mate, he sees from a different perspective. Monsters aren't restricted to Wesen and he knows that."
"And I don't know that?"
"I'm not saying that."
"Aren't you?" Hank challenges.
Sighing, Sean tries to calm him before they get into a big fight. "Did you want to arrest him?"
Staring down at his near empty glass, Hank appears lost in thought. "I understand why he did it, I do. He must have been desperate to save his son from what he went through."
"I hear a but."
Hank inclines his head. "But he had a choice. He could have come forward, come to us and gotten justice. He chose vengeance and he has to accept the consequences of that choice. Killing a pedophile, no matter how despicable, does not give you a free pass at murder."
"It shouldn't, no. Although few would be able to dredge up sympathy for a dead pedophile, even if he was tortured."
"I don't feel sympathetic for Hayes," Hank argues. Worked up, he paces in front of the couch. "He doesn't deserve sympathy after what he did." Hank stops abruptly, meeting Sean's eyes. "It isn't about him. It's about McAllister. He knew Hayes was a monster, knew that he wanted to abuse Rick like he did to Eric. He let Hayes destroy him. McAllister is a murderer now, forever branded by the evil he has done. Instead of raising his son, he's going to be in prison. McAllister chose vengeance over his son."
"He did it for his son, isn't that what he said?"
"Murdering Hayes was the way he chose to protect his son; he ignored the other options."
Thinking back to their conversation about Nick and Monroe's housewarming party, Sean proposes, "Love can make people do or say things they wouldn't normally, especially if it is to protect someone they love."
"You can say that again."
Sean's brow crinkles in thought. *He sounds almost...bitter.*
Hank knocks back the last of his drink.
Concerned, Sean asks, "You alright?"
He silently leans over the bar as if a weight lays heavily on his shoulders.
Sean hates the chasm that has formed between them. He doesn't know how to bridge it. Telling Hank he wants to be open will only serve to pressure Hank and he's not ready. He's admitted that much. Sean feels foolish for feeling hurt. Logically, he knows Hank not being ready is not the same as being ashamed of them. Hank has reacted remarkably well to all the changes Sean has brought to his life. *Why can't I be satisfied with what I've got? Hank loves me. We are soul bound. Why can't that be enough?* Sean finishes his own drink. Walking up behind Hank, he hesitates for a second, then wraps around his back, his chin resting on his shoulder. "Talk to me, Hank."
Hank stays silent, stewing in his thoughts.
Hank rolls his shoulder, unseating Sean's chin from his shoulder. "I'm fine. Just need to shake off the case."
"Are you sure?" Sean senses the case isn't the only thing weighing on Hank's mind.
"I'm sure," Hank says with a hint of an edge.
Sean doesn't believe him for a second but Hank wouldn't be the first to be messed up after a pedophile case. "Okay. I'm here if you want to talk about it."
Seeing the forced smile makes Sean's stomach churn. He wants to make everything better for Hank, the problem is he doesn't know how to do it.
Hank disappears into the bedroom, only to come out again less than a minute later. "I'm going for a run."
"Want some company? I could—"
"No," Hank interrupts. At Sean's reaction, he softens his tone. "I just need some time alone to get my head back on straight."
Hank puts his earbuds in and glances back once, then leaves the apartment. Sean hates watching him go. Is it real or is he only imagining the distance between them? It seems to be expanding and he doesn't know how to bridge the gap. Needing to talk to someone, Sean calls his friend, Simone LeBeau.
"Are you busy?"
"Never for you, mon ami."
Relieved she's available, Sean says, "Can I come over?"
"Of course. I'm on the back patio."
"Thank you. I'll be there shortly." Sean hangs up and grabs his keys.
Parking in her driveway, Sean walks around the house. Simone looks elegant as ever, a glass of wine dangling from her fingers. He kisses both cheeks in greeting, taking the seat beside her.
With an absent nod, Sean takes the offered glass. They drink silently, staring at the gorgeous view from her back porch.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Sean releases a breath before forcing himself to speak. "Nick and Monroe moved into their new house and are having a housewarming party." From the corner of his eye, he sees Simone glance questioningly at him. "They will be inviting people from the station."
Simone takes another sip of wine. "No one knows about you and Hank."
Simone states, "You want that to change."
Sighing, Sean finally admits out loud he does.
"What does Hank want?"
His mind flashes back to their conversation. "We talked about it. He wants to go separately."
Simone questions, "You're sure?"
"Yes." His heart sinks, remembering how much it hurt when he realized Hank doesn't want their coworkers to know about them.
"You want to be open about your relationship."
Again, it's a statement, not a question. Simone can always be counted on to be straight to the point; it's why he went to her in the first place. "Yes."
"You told him that?"
Knowing what Simone 's reaction will be if he tells the truth, Sean keeps silent.
"You did tell him, didn't you?" she questions sharply.
He should know Simone wouldn't give up.
Simone's voice holds an edge; there is no escaping the question. She is too determined to let him wiggle out of answering. Surrendering to her will, Sean admits, "No." Deep down, Sean is waiting for the day Hank realizes being bound to him for life isn't what he wanted. The hidden dread weighs heavily on him. Admitting it to Simone would only make it seem more real. Sean doesn't want it to be real.
Simone rubs her forehead wearily. "You're an idiot." She mutters to herself in French, "Why are men such idiots?"
Sean winces at the rest of her colorful cursing. Simone looks at him, her eyes demanding his attention. Exasperated compassion is reflected in her eyes.
"The answer is simple, Sean. Talk to him."
"Hank has had to deal with a lot because of me. I don't want to push him."
"Do not make excuses, Sean."
Sean protests, "It's not an excuse."
"Isn't it? Look, I am not denying that Hank has had to cope and adapt to a great deal. However, that does not give you free reign to suffer in silence." Simone holds up her finger, quieting his protest before it leaves his lips. "This is hurting you, don't pretend otherwise. I know you too well not to see it."
She is right, much as he loathes to admit it. Sean came to her because Simone won't let him hide from the truth. "I'm trying to be understanding. He's not ready."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Talking to him about how you are feeling is the mature thing to do. What if you read the signs wrong, perhaps he also desires to be open about your relationship with your coworkers? Maybe he hates the idea of hiding as much as you do. You won't know until you talk to him about it. Hank should at least be aware that it hurts you to hide your relationship with him."
"I don't want him to change his mind simply because he feels guilty."
"Then don't let him. Be an adult, Sean, and talk to him. Find out what he really wants and why, help him understand what you are feeling. This is what a true, healthy adult relationship is about." Simone teases, "Something you'd know if you did more than sleep around prior to Hank."
Sean glares at her but she only laughs.
Sobering, Simone says, "Hank is your soulmate, trust him. Share your pain, lean on him to get you through. You aren't alone anymore and even if he does want to keep your relationship quiet for now, you still have him."
Simone is right, yet, Sean still feels resistant to opening up to Hank. It hurt enough discovering Hank wanted to hide their love, he wants to avoid having Hank confirm it. The second time will only be twisting the knife.
"Just think about it, okay?"
Happy Simone isn't pushing, Sean nods. Something relaxes in him sitting beside his friend while looking at the beauty in front of them. Neither needs to fill the silence, content to simply be.
The sound of Simone's stomach growling ends their quiet.
The side of Sean's mouth tilts up. "Hungry?"
"You forgot to eat lunch again."
"I had some cheese before you arrived."
Sean shakes his head with fond exasperation. "Come on, let's see what I can whip up quick, providing you have anything besides old takeout."
Simone rises from her chair, sniffs haughtily and glides inside. Sean rolls his eyes behind her back, following her. She's leaning against the island in her expensive and completely unused kitchen, looking elegant as she always does. Sean digs through her fridge with disgust; he starts tossing expired food. Scanning the items in the fridge, he heads to the pantry. "Do you still have the griddle your sister gave you?"
Sean turns back to the pantry, taking out ingredients. He knows the kitchen better than Simone does and quickly gathers everything. Simone comes back with an unopened box. "Open it up."
He knows better than to ask for her help; he has never met anyone who is as much a disaster in the kitchen as Simone is. She is a brilliant, capable person but the minute she tries to make food of any kind, her brain short circuits. He found that out when he tried to teach her the basics; it ended with a trip to the emergency room, both times he tried.
Leaning on her elbows, Simone watches with interest. Her complete lack of ability makes her fascinated by people who are skilled chefs.
"How your sister thought a griddle was an appropriate gift for you, I will never understand. However, I'm thankful."
Simone shrugs. "She's hopelessly optimistic that I'll learn not to set fire to the kitchen or almost slice off my finger."
"She should know better."
"Probably," Simone admits cheerfully. "What are you making?"
"Blueberry pancakes." He tests the consistency, then smiles, "With homemade buttermilk."
Simone tugs his face down to kiss him lightly on the lips. "Thank you."
"My pleasure. It's my job to make sure you have at least one homemade meal each week."
"And I love you for that."
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Hank's feet slap the pavement, the hard beat of Linkin Park's Bleed It Out driving him on. Sean's words echo in his mind. "Would you prefer we go separately?" Hank run harder. "It would be easier, would it not?" He runs full out until the burning in his lungs forces him to slow. At a walk, Numb blares in his ear, echoing the feeling in his chest. The punishing run has drained the emotion from him. Stopping, Hank leans against a wall, dropping his head back.
"It would be easier, would it not?"
His hands clench at the remembered words. His life has changed irrevocably since the night Sean drove him home. The man he was before is gone, Sean made sure of that. He took Hank's denial and confusion and put a spotlight on it. Hank doesn't resent him for forcing him to admit to his bisexuality. He's happier with Sean than he has been in any prior relationship, including his marriages. That is until now. Finding out Sean doesn't want their coworkers to know about them hurt. *He says we are soulmates but he wants to keep us a secret?* Sighing, Hank doesn't understand, it doesn't make any sense to him. *Is he afraid of backlash because he's my boss?* The thought makes him angry. They may be soul bound but he isn't going to hide forever. Pretending isn't something he is willing to do for long. Admitting he's in love with a man is preferable to hiding in the closet. He loves Sean and Sean professes to love him. That's what should matter. If their love is as true and destined as Sean claims it is, they can overcome any obstacles put in their way. *If Sean is more concerned about his career than me, then…* Hank closes his eyes and lets out a sigh. *Then maybe we aren't meant to be after all.* The thought of losing Sean almost brings him to his knees. What else should he think?
Confusion and apprehension rise up as his anger disappears. Hank changes artists, the familiar sound of Rush flooding his ears. *What do I do now?* Should he talk to Sean? Hank hears his sister's voice in his voice saying, *Of course you should, you dumbass.* Faith may not be one for monogamy but she is absolutely a believer in open communication. She would rather be brutally honest than suffer in silence. If she was here, she's no doubt tell him not the repeat the same mistakes he's made in the past.
Hank doesn't want his relationship to sour like all his other ones did. What he has with Sean is different, better, and he doesn't want to lose him. The question is what to do. *Only two choices: keep silence and suffer or talk to Sean and risk losing him.* Neither option is particularly appealing. Either way, Hank is going to have to make a choice soon. Unhappy and resigned, he starts jogging back.