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A Demon for Midwinter

By K.L. Noone

Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

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Copyright 2018 K.L. Noone

ISBN 9781634865920

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Cover Design: Written Ink Designs |

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All rights reserved.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

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For everyone who encouraged, supported, and put up with me rambling about classic rock and chicken soup—this exists because of you!

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A Demon for Midwinter

By K.L. Noone

Chapter 1

Kris Starr stepped out of the recording booth, decidedly did not swear under his breath, and found his manager waiting for him. As usual, Justin’s not-quite-human cinnamon gaze held only cheerful amusement. Any critique stayed hidden behind that effortlessly casual pose, long legs stretched out and one shoulder casually propped against the wall.

Kris sighed, “That was hideous, wasn’t it?”

“Hardly hideous.” Justin handed over lavender-infused Earl Grey tea, Kris’s scarf, and Kris’s phone, which he’d left in a taxicab that morning and had more or less written off for good. And, being brilliant and competent and properly organized in all aspects of Kris’s life, added, “Three inquiries about possible shows—none paying you enough, we can do better—one message from someone by the name of Tiffanie asking whether you remember her from the Gardens, backstage, in nineteen-ninety-two, and also your father called asking for money again. I handled it, I just thought you should know.”

Justin technically worked as an A&R person—Kris had never been sure of his exact title, only that it involved artists and repertoire and contracts and signing of new talent and development of albums—at the legendary Aubrey Records, but as the newest and youngest hire, he’d been essentially shoved into the role of managing the aging rock-and-roll disaster that was the latter half of Kris’s career, and had never once complained. Had stuck with him even as the fans and the performances and the music dwindled into shadows. Had bounced into their first meeting with wide eyes and impressively fluffy violet-edged hair and a grin: I grew up on your music, my dad loves Kris Starr and Starrlight, I wanted to sing like you when I was younger, is it true you wrote “London Always Comes Too Soon” about Nick Peters of Smokescreen?

Justin Moore was fifteen years younger than Kris Starr, who’d once been Christopher Thompson, born on a council estate in a far-off dreary corner of England. This thought occasionally depressed him. Mostly it made him smile, in a kind of distant wistful way. He couldn’t dislike Justin for it; no one could, anyway. Like disliking rainbows, or kittens, or cloudless sunshine.

“It was hideous,” he said again. “Not…clicking.”

Steve wandered out from behind sound-mixing equipment. Gave him a critical once-over. “You’re not wrong, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.”

Steve Rosen owned the near-mythical New York City recording studio he’d borrowed for this session. Steve was also an old—emphasis on the old, Kris’s brain noted—friend. This meant that, yet again Kris did not swear at him for unhelpful commentary. Not out loud, anyway.

Steve suggested, “Maybe you can come back tomorrow?” and turned lights off with a wave of his hand. Like most people, Steve had a bit of magic, in his case more kinetic: enough for localized gestures, nudges, coaxing of the world in his immediate vicinity, which because of his size tended to be a lot of vicinity. “Go out. Get drunk. Get laid. Whatever inspires you, man. Get that fire back.”

“You could call Tiffanie,” Justin said helpfully. His expression was exquisitely noncommittal, though they’d known each other for four years and Kris knew perfectly well that he wanted to laugh. Those otherworldly eyes, made even wider and prettier by coal-black eyeliner, said so.

He grumbled, “We’re not calling Tiffanie. Or Tammy. Or Tyler. Or anyone,” and ducked outside. Leather jacket like armor against the world. Elderly armor. Bruised. Hands clutching a to-go cup with tea in it, because Justin thought of things like that.

New York City glittered like a fairytale beyond the studio walls. Tall buildings and the offices of dreams: recording studios, publishing houses—the familiar baronial spires of the Randolph House media empire spiked upward like runaway arrows—and vibrant museums and festive parks. Statues and bas-reliefs on buildings. George vanquishing the demon-worm. Hannah Clarence, the weather-witch who’d helped build the city’s harbor. Various unicorns. The unicorns looked smug, in the way of magical creatures who knew their own value. The ones on the bank down the street’d been decorated with ornaments.

Holiday season had landed upon them, unicorns and all. In eye-watering color. Barreling down like a runaway train made of tinsel and spruce and harvest pies. Not everyone celebrated Midwinter the same way, of course, in this twinkling mosaic of a city, but most did. Reaffirmations of life in the midst of long nights. Joyous riotous bonfires and roasted apples and dancing. Thanks to God, or the gods, or whatever higher power someone believed might’ve once given mankind the gift of magic, to make it through the night. A woman on the corner was selling chestnuts, a sweet drift of roasted scent through oncoming evening lights.

He kicked a small pebble on the street, just because. It landed in a puddle left over from the afternoon’s drizzle and glared at him reproachfully. No patience for aging rock stars and their existential discontent.

Justin appeared at his elbow. “Leave the poor earth elementals alone, would you? I’m sorry about mentioning your exes. Not the right timing.”

“Not an elemental. Only a rock.” He finished off the tea. Slumped against the recording studio’s blank stone. Let the wall hold him up. Forty-three years old, and he felt every one of them. Plus more. Double. “Am I being ridiculous? I’m being ridiculous. Ridiculous holiday album idea. I’m turning ‘You Light My Fire’ into ‘Light My Midwinter Bonfire.’ It doesn’t even work with the rhythm.”

“Well,” Justin considered judiciously, “I won’t say I’m complaining about you recording anything, but ‘Baby, It’s Harvest Time’ did seem a little confused as far as metaphors…”

“I’m a failure. I’m a washed-up ancient relic, and I’m a failure.”

“You’re the voice—and face—of arguably the most successful and most sparkly band of the last several decades.” Justin took away the empty to-go cup, tossed it—accurately—at a trash bin, and then held out a small white paper bag. “Chestnut? And yes, present tense. People know who you are. You had an impact. You made a difference. For a lot of fans, and for people who love you.”

Kris stared at the bag. Wondered when chestnut acquisition’d happened. Justin hadn’t left his side, right? Or had he been too busy wallowing in self-pity to notice, and Justin’d had time to wander down to the corner, buy seasonal delicacies, and come back?

He was, he concluded, a terrible, self-absorbed, melodramatic person. He accepted a chestnut. “Why do you put up with me? You have other people to work with. Less pathetic. Less old.”

“I get paid to be here. And more importantly I can tell friends that Kris Starr buys me cappuccinos at Witch’s Brew Coffee. Which you do.” Justin tossed him a smile. His hair was growing out of shorter fluffy length and into sapphire-tipped tumbles, these days; black and blue fell next to one eye in a shining perilous swoop. Kris had always found him beautiful in a sort of abstract far-off way, like admiration of modern art or morning dew: young and exquisite and untouchable.

Right now, oddly, he wanted to touch. Wanted to reach out and brush that fall of blue-black out of sparkling cinnamon eyes.

A connection. A stretch across a void. That smile.

Which he’d seen before, and somehow had never seen before, not quite this way or under this light, something he didn’t understand that shifted the world under his feet. That world became one in which he could want to run fingers through Justin Moore’s hair.

Tangible. Physical. Messy.

The fact of sudden inexplicable lust wasn’t exactly new. He knew himself and all the desires of his past.

What was new was Justin. And the way Kris wanted to keep looking at him. As if, out of nowhere, he’d seen his manager for the first time, brand new. Another ordinary evening on a city street, the taste of chestnuts lingering on his tongue, a glance, and suddenly—

And suddenly what?

Nothing. Couldn’t be anything. Never could be.

Age. Depression. A business relationship in the way. He didn’t even know whether Justin liked men. He didn’t know who or what Justin liked, in fact, other than now-classic rock—which he’d gotten from his father, oh hell—and slim-fit jeans and bright colors and eyeliner and mascara. He guessed that the eyes were a nod to some pixie or sylph in the family tree, but Justin didn’t talk about himself in any detail, and he’d never seen any evidence of actual magic.

Which, he realized belatedly and also for the first time, was strange.

Most people did have touches of magic. The lamentable Nick Peters of the infamous Starrlight song had been able to conjure fire: not much, only tiny sparks like firecrackers, but it’d made for great displays on stage. On the evening’s New York street a little girl, holding her mother’s hand, was levitating merrily while getting chocolate on her face. And Kris himself…

Justin, not keeping up with this distracted sideways train of thought, plainly felt that circumstances required more reassurance. “Honestly, it’s not hideous. It doesn’t feel like you’re happy, which is a problem, yeah, considering it’s you. But it’ll sell. People love Midwinter sentimental fluff, and Starrlight’s still a big name.”

“Me,” Kris said, and sighed again. His brain seemed to be stuck on questions about Justin today. About the fact that apparently he liked chestnuts, and brought along hot tea without being asked after a recording session, and also had very touchable hair.

“I don’t feel the happy,” Justin explained, evidently assuming that clarification was required, “and you know your empathy has trouble anyway when it’s not live, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to depress everyone at their Midwinter parties, so maybe we can work on that? Not calling yourself hideous would be a good start.”

“I’m not sure I’m even an empath anymore. Tired. Worn out. Antique.”

“You were always a better projective talent than you were receptive.” Justin put his head on one side. Stray curls of hair met the breeze and drifted happily upward. His jacket was also leather, but punk-rock stylish, more form-fitting, and above all newer; Kris hid a wince. “You could make crowds laugh, or cry, or hold their breath, or sing along…we all felt what you feel.”

“You shouldn’t’ve even been at those concerts. You’re a kid.” He started walking, mostly to be in motion. Heading half-consciously for Witch’s Brew. More of those hazelnut cappuccinos. Habit.

Justin kept up effortlessly. “Dad took me to the final reunion show. It was a father-son bonding experience. Magical. Look, my point is, maybe you should reconsider the holiday album. I know they’re pressuring you to do it, nostalgia and themed sales and all, but I can tell you hate it.”

“Shouldn’t you be trying to promote my career choices?” He waved a hand. Watched lights, just coming on, flicker over the gesture: not a concert’s megawatt light show, not dazzling superstar lasers and spotlights. Only everyday holidays. Feet squarely on winter pavement. On the ground. “To support anything that’ll make a profit? For you, the record company, whatever.”

Any reasonable target of his tone would’ve been offended. Justin scrunched up that nose at him, not taking it personally. “You’re my client. I’m here to help. I’m trying.”

This was unfair. Kris wanted to stomp his feet and shout at something or somebody, or throw a proper rock-star tantrum, petty and elaborate and gratifying. Justin was being patient and compassionate and tolerant and lovely, matching annoyed strides down city pavement, and—


He’d known Justin for four years. He’d never thought, not seriously—he’d thought, yeah, fine, he’d admit that, he’d wondered sometimes, but he’d never really—never wanted

Last-gasp winter sunlight sliced through brittle air. Caught the edge of a cheekbone, a flutter of blue-black hair. Decorated smooth skin and long eyelashes with pale gold.

Justin’s phone made a sound. A snippet of some pop-punk tune Kris didn’t know. Justin also made a pleased little sound, and answered the text. “Sorry, I’m just confirming some contract details for the Enchantresses. You know the Enchantresses, right? If not you should, I’ll send you something, they’re right on the verge of breaking out, totally awesome, all five of them are related and they’re all witches and—”

“Why are you here, anyway?” Justin didn’t have to come in for recording sessions. Had a job. Other musicians. Who sent him texts. While he was walking next to Kris.

Where he didn’t need to be. He had a small tidy office in a tall modernist chunk of building surrounded by other corporate towers. Kris had been in it exactly once, the day they’d been introduced. Had hated the building and demanded, like a petulant child, that they meet elsewhere for lunches and discussions from then on.

“Because I’m helping you?” Big autumn-spiced eyes got very bewildered. A confused puppy being nudged away by a boot. A too-kind, too-attractive puppy. Oh, hell. “Because we’re friends?”

“I’m your job. You must have better things to do. Don’t the Enchantresses need you? Or some other on-the-verge almost-famous groups?”

“I don’t have anywhere to be until later, and I can do most of that from anywhere as long as I can answer the phone—and that’s not fair, come on, they’re great, you were there once too—”

The final dying sunbeam ran away behind a cloud. The sidewalk turned grittier somehow. Darker. More ugly. Kris, who knew perfectly well that he was being awful and nasty and unfair, and who couldn’t seem to stop, snapped, “So you do think I was great once.” Why why why was he growling at Justin? Because of the texting? The awful holiday album? The way he couldn’t help wondering whether that stylish leather jacket had warm enough lining, and could he offer his own, just in case?

“I think—” Justin stopped, bit his lip, crossed arms. He was nearly Kris’s height but built more lightly, a woodsprite or a dryad, slim and long-legged, though with runner’s muscle under the jacket. He did not look fragile, but he did look hurt. “You know what I meant. And I can feel—I can tell you’re not happy, you’re broadcasting it across like three blocks. Can we talk about it? Did I do something to upset you?”

“No. You—” You said we were friends. We’re not friends. You’re twenty-eight and you’re assigned to babysit me and I’m a washed-up has-been and I’ve only just realized that you’re everything nice and good in my life and I think I want to kiss you and instead I’m making you practically break down in tears on a street corner.

Kris genuinely loathed himself, for a split second, with dizzying despair. “You should go home. Or back to your office. Wherever. You can get more done if you’re not hovering over me, can’t you? Or is that part of your job too?”

Justin’s chin trembled, then set stubbornly. “Is that really what you think? That I spend time with you because the company told me to keep an eye on their longest bestselling asset?”

“Did they?”

Their eyes met. Justin said, extremely quietly, “Yes they did, but, and this is the truth, I would’ve anyway, because I like talking to you, most of the time,” and Kris understood suddenly that this was Justin angry, this low simmering calmness that hid whole pools of emotion; he understood as well that he might’ve said something unforgiveable.

He opened his mouth. Justin said before he could, “I think I am heading back to the office, actually, and I’ll be over at the Palace playing talent scout tonight, so call me before then if you need anything, I’ll answer, it’s my job.”


Justin vanished into the nearest subway entrance. Kris stared at the dark opening in growing dread, and then ran, but was accosted by a balding fan in a Sparkle Tour ‘89 t-shirt and a pen waved at his face. By the time he disentangled himself, Justin had gone.

The subway entrance snickered at him with concrete complacency. The fan wandered off with untroubled satisfaction, having either not noticed or not cared about a rock star’s preoccupation with empty air.

In utter despondence and the full awareness that his autograph’d likely be on sale on the internet the next morning, Kris went home.

Upon arriving, he stared at his building for a moment before heading in. Expensive, lavish, everything he could afford. Royalties and past record sales ensured he’d be set for life; he didn’t have to do the terrible holiday album, suggested brickwork and glass. He could spend his remaining years throwing parties and drinking the best alcohol and retiring to a tropical island. He didn’t have to work.

He didn’t have to keep trying to write songs. To pick up a guitar. To fall head over heels into music like the echo of heartbeats: life singing through veins, running under skin.

He took the elevator up to the penthouse apartment, and regarded his door blankly for a moment; it offered no wisdom, so he sighed and wandered in. Boots off. Jacket tossed over a chair. Scotch at the ready. The good stuff. Necessary.

He hadn’t been able to write well lately either. And lately was a stretch. He hadn’t been able to write.

But that wasn’t the current problem, which made a change, which was nice on the one hand and horrific on the other. Justin, he thought. Injured kindness welling up behind normally delighted eyes. Bleeding internally because all that genuine old-fashioned niceness shouldn’t ever collide with an empath in a stiletto-sharp mood.

Glass in hand, he fell into a chair and mourned aimlessly at his apartment. The apartment, being inanimate, was baffled but tried its best. Vintage brick walls. Framed posters of long-ago shows, his and others. Memories and mementos. A fridge full of produce he sometimes tried to cook, when he felt like he should. His guitars, the three he’d kept, silently poised in stands along one wall.

Starrlight had fallen apart over a decade ago, after poor Tommy’d overdosed on pink crystal and they’d not been able to settle on a good replacement drummer and Reggie’d been getting tired and sick of being, in his words, just the bass guy; he’d been wanting out, and Kris himself had said words, and Reggie’d said words, and the problem with alcohol and drugs and projective empathy was that it got too easy to push, too easy to make his friends feel the way he wanted them to feel…

Reggie’d finished out that tour, being a man who kept promises even when made under duress, and had quit on the spot after the last show.

Seven years previously, when he’d heard that Reggie’s first wife had passed away, he’d managed to find a phone number and called. He’d apologized, first of all, straight off. Reggie had taken this surprisingly well, or at least hadn’t hung up on him, and they talked more these days.

Kris had always wanted stardom. Fame. Extravagance. A name in lights, a mark on the world. They’d been young and wild as comets, back then. Like the dazzle of the city, coming on in the backdrop of his penthouse windows. Applause ran up out of the past and roared before disappearing: crowds and screams and heat, festivals and theatres and pyrotechnics dwindling to ash.

After the implosion of the band, their previous manager’d handed Kris’s solo contract off to Aubrey Records, embezzled half a million dollars, briefly disappeared, and resurfaced deceased: another overdose, another loss. And the record company, having a single third of a legendary and legendarily volatile rock band thrust upon them, had politely and deferentially plopped him into the lap of their newest bright-eyed young hire, responsible for discovering and handling the almost-famous—or, in this case, the once-famous—artists. Who managed to make every one of those artists feel valuable and appreciated and encouraged.

And Kris had insulted him. To his face. And thrown emotions in that face.

Funny, that. Justin had clearly felt what he was feeling. Had said as much. But…

One of those dangers of empathy—one he knew too well—was the ease of influence. Justin had been annoyed, obviously. The memory stung, not soothed by the efforts of mellow scotch. But he hadn’t been pushed into Kris’s sharper mood. Hadn’t shouted back or gotten sarcastic or vicious in turn. Had simply walked away.

Either his empathy seriously was getting old along with the rest of him, or Justin had…some sort of…way of not being affected. Which would be even more unusual, though undeniably useful in a profession requiring dealings with musicians and agents and entertainment lawyers and managers.

Maybe that was Justin’s particular magical skill. Not minor weather-working or levitation or five-second precognition. A wild talent. A kind of natural resistance.

Kris had never actually heard of anyone human who could do that—some pixie-types could, and most demons, but the less said about those the better; no demon stories ever ended well. Some people claimed to have impenetrable personal shields, but those people tended to be the sort who spent their lives practicing meditation and isolation on mountaintops—but that didn’t mean it was impossible. Two months ago an infant’d shown signs of localized telekinesis, when previously everyone’d believed magical talents showed up at puberty. So Justin probably wasn’t impossible either. Maybe. Conceivably.

He drank more scotch.

Justin might not want to talk about it. If he really could deflect magic, he might become some sort of test subject. A lab rat. An adorable one.

This thought was in all likelihood the fault of the scotch. Conspiracy theories, government projects, demon underworlds coming to life, Justin’s open-book face keeping any sort of secret. As if.

The scotch burned low and fierce and hot as nagging guilt: you hurt him, it said, and he’s your friend, your only friend because you’re a washed-up aging rock star who doesn’t know anything about new underground punk-witch bands, and you told him to go away.

He got up and found a refill. The oncoming evening ached, built of old city bones and dull rainclouds. Thunder came back, but halfheartedly. His guitars looked at him with tired reproach.

He thought about storms and tunes and remorse, but he was tired too. No room left to turn emotion into song. Nothing good.

After a while he felt guilty enough and lonely enough that he picked up the phone. Justin hadn’t called; wouldn’t, unless he had news or a question. Because Kris’d fucked that up too.

He put the phone down. Then he picked it up again.

Reginald Jones, once upon a time Reggie Rocket, answered just before Kris would’ve given up. He sounded jauntily out of breath, all the way from California. “Hey, mate, I was in the tasting room, what’s up, then?”

“I think I’m in love with my manager,” Kris announced, and pressed cool scotch-filled glass against his forehead and shut his eyes.

“Really? Blond and pretty? Boy or girl? And did the love part happen before or after you hopped into bed together?”

“Come on, that’s unfair.”

“It’s a serious question.”

“He dyes it different colors, and no I haven’t shagged him, thanks for the faith in me. Also he hates me now.”

“Must be some kind of record. Most of us hate you two minutes in.”

Kris made a very rude gesture at the phone. “Up yours, Reg. I need advice.”

Reggie, upon retiring from music, had gone off to California, bought a vineyard, and begun experimenting with wine and reconnecting with all five children. He’d won multiple prestigious awards for the wine and had eventually talked two of the kids into joining the business. Kris, who’d never suspected that a passion for viticulture lay behind his bassist’s glittery eyeliner, had watched this respectability with some bemusement and some other emotion that wasn’t quite envy.

He didn’t care about wine and vineyards. He didn’t have children that he knew of.

But something nameless twinged in his chest whenever Reggie sent him bottles of port and invitations to visit over the holidays. He’d gone once. Happiness had radiated everywhere. Sunshine bouncing off rolling California hills. Tangible. Isolating.

He wondered suddenly what Justin did for Midwinter. Whether Justin had someone turning to him, smiling and kissing him hello, when he came home from a long day dealing with difficult artists.

“I’m not sure what I’m giving you advice about,” Reg said, over the phone. “Do you want to shag him? Do you want to apologize to him? Do you want an expensive bottle to send him when you beg for forgiveness? Or do you just want to get drunk and complain?”

“He’s bloody twenty-eight—”

“Ah, an infant.”

“—and happy and patient and brilliant and nice to everyone and I want to touch his hair. I want him to stay happy always.”

“Great woodland gods,” Reg said, “you are in love with him.”

“And he’s pissed at me.”

“What’d you do?” This question might’ve contained layers—they both knew exactly what he’d once done to Reggie—but didn’t, because Reg had forgiven if not forgotten, and had moved on. “I’m assuming it was your fault.”

“Oh, it was all my fucking fault.” He closed both eyes. Tipped his head back against the chair. “I’m a complete bastard and I told him he didn’t actually mean it when he said he was my friend and then I told him to go home and leave me alone.”

“Not only a bastard, a patronizing bastard. That’s a shit thing to say to someone who still puts up with you, y’know. Poor kid.”

“God, you’re making it worse. He’s not a kid. I’m not his fuckin’ dad.”

“You wouldn’t mind being his daddy,” Reg pointed out. “Look, you’re just gonna have to apologize, mate. Surprised he didn’t haul off and punch you one. I would’ve. If you’d sent me home.”

“No, that’s the other fuckin’…weird…thing. Also never say that again, the first bit, fuck no. But I didn’t. Send him home.”

“You said you told him to go,” Reggie said carefully, “and you know you can…push people, if you’re upset…”

“Yeah, I know—shit, I’m sorry again, you know I’m—but I didn’t. I know I didn’t. I might’ve, but I didn’t.”


Kris gritted teeth. “He didn’t just accept it and do what I said. Even if I did push him, I don’t think I did, but even if I did it didn’t take. He left, but because he wanted to. I’m sure.”

“He didn’t just—”

“Start walking away and shake it off and decide to keep going? No. He wasn’t even mad at me—well, no, he was, he is, but not like I was. Not the same mood.”

“That shouldn’t be possible,” Reg observed, which unhelpfully echoed Kris’s own conclusions. “Not as strong as you are. ‘S why we always had such good live shows. Maybe you’re getting old.”

“Thanks for that. How’s Holly?” Reg’s second wife had degrees in landscape architecture and environmental design plus a magical talent for coaxing plants to listen. She tolerated Kris with the good humor of a partner who knew her husband would never again run off to follow an old bandmate on the road.

“Splendid and smarter than I am, as usual. You coming by after Midwinter? We’ve got five out of seven collective offspring plus eleven million grandbabies running around, but we can make room. Bring your impossible kid, I’m curious.”

“He’s not my—that sounds even worse. You’ve made it worse. He’s my manager. He was sort of my friend.”

“And you love him.”

“And I think I might maybe possibly be in love with him, yes.”

“Then you need to apologize. I know you can. I believe in you. Call the kid. Tell me what happens. I need the details.”

“Go make grapes into juice with your bare feet or whatever it is you do. Leave Justin alone. I can’t call him.”

“Philistine. See if I ever send you foot juice again. Also, his name’s Justin? And why not?”

“He’s working and I’m already drunk enough to call you.”

“Fair point. Call him in the morning.”

“Maybe,” Kris conceded, exhausted. His bones hurt. His head would hurt too, if he didn’t manage to eat something. Midwinter decorations twinkled in green and gold, out in the city, separated from him by a pane of penthouse glass. Views of the world from a distance. “I don’t know.”

“Kris.” Reggie’s voice was surprisingly gentle. “You don’t deserve to be alone. You know that, right?”

“I didn’t call you to be my fucking therapist, Reg.”

“You called me for advice. Which you’re getting. Because some of us care about you. Even when you’re a complete and utter twat. Now put down the scotch, eat something, and call your cute little mysterious Justin in the morning and say sorry like a decent human being. He’ll forgive you.”

“How do you know?” Pathetic, hopeful, clinging.

“I did,” Reg said, “and you said he’s a good kid. Your friend.”

After this phone call ended, amid desultory promises of future visits and keeping in better touch, Kris drifted to the kitchen. Gazed at bananas, bell peppers, bread, other foods beginning with other letters of the alphabet.

He made coffee. Black and sweet. He did not have coffee creamer or interesting flavors; Justin liked nuttiness and caramel.

He fell asleep watching a television special on classic bands of the eighties and their long ago peaks. Where are they now, he thought. In at least one case, drinking whiskey-spiked coffee and passing out on a penthouse sofa with a mobile phone clutched in one hand.

Rain spilled like grief from the building’s eaves, and slid like tears down the big glass windowpane, as he closed his eyes.

* * * *

Chapter 2

He woke the next morning to the shriek of his ringing phone. It complained insistently about not being answered; Kris blinked, whimpered as sunlight hit his eyeballs, whimpered again as his back protested about having spent the night on the couch, and flailed for electronics. “H’llo?”

“Did I wake you up I’m so sorry and also I wanted to say I’m sorry and I didn’t mean to snap at you,” pleaded Justin’s voice, in a rush.

“What—” Kris lurched more upright, stared wildly at the clock, cringed. Ten-sixteen in the morning. And Justin had called first. To apologize.

To apologize—?

“I’m really sorry,” Justin said, miserable and hurried. “That was unprofessional of me and I know you were stressed and I shouldn’t…I should…well, I should be. Um. Professional. Like you said. I have to go but I wanted to say that? And also I could call you later? With some possible tour updates? If that’s okay?”

Kris’s heart, shriveled old beast that it was, broke. Skewered by sunlight and the words I should be professional.

He got out, just in time, “Wait, no, hang on—” Justin didn’t hang up, so he kept babbling. “Don’t say you’re sorry, it’s not you, it’s my fault and I meant to call you this morning and say—shit, Justin, I’m seriously sorry. I’m a bloody moron and I was frustrated and I took it out on you and that’s not—I didn’t mean it, I swear, you are my friend, I know you are. Ah. I hope you are. Please?”

Justin was actually laughing, albeit fleetingly, by the end of this speech. “Wow. I never imagined hearing Kris Starr beg me for forgiveness…”

“I will if you want.” On his knees. On his old creaky knees at Justin’s boot-clad feet. Where his poor cracked heart already lay. “I didn’t…do to you what I…I didn’t hurt you, did I? With, um…”

“You managed to hurt my feelings,” Justin said, “but you didn’t mean to, and I shouldn’t’ve walked out on you, it’s fine—”

“No, I mean—” He bit a lip. Tasted the hangover on his tongue: scotch and whiskey and coffee, thick and stupid. “I didn’t make you leave…? Are you all right?”

“Oh.” A pause, a shuffling: papers, by the sound. “That…no, um, you didn’t. I’m—that’s not something you need to worry about. Thanks for asking, though. Kris, I really do have to go—”

“Can we get coffee?” What did that mean? Not something he needed to worry about? Was there something?

“I’m in end-of-quarter meetings all morning. Mr. Aubrey wants to yell at us for the profit margin decrease. I’m making myself late to a budget discussion to call you.”

Kris tried again. “Lunch? After you’re done?” Stripes of sunbeam, dazzling and golden, flirted with reflected clouds on his floorboards. The day would be golden too, the brittle crisp hue found in the crunch of leaves, in the harvest-orange curve of pumpkins on an autumn afternoon. “Whenever you’re free.”

“Um…I should be done around three. That’ll work, I can tell you about the possible tour dates in person…where should I meet you? Witch’s Brew?”

“I’ll come over,” Kris promised. “Meet you at the office.” And he held his breath. They both knew how he felt about that building.

“Oh,” Justin said again: startled but pleased. “If you—yes, I mean yes, that would be—thanks. You might have to wait a few minutes if we’re running late.”

“Not a problem, babe.” He put on the rock-star flippant accent for effect; earned another laugh. “You did say you wanted Kris Starr to apologize. I am.”

“You already did.” Justin’s tone got more affectionate. “I’d take the apology from Christopher Thompson, too, you know. And of course we’re friends. You don’t have to say please.”

I love you, Kris thought, sitting on his sofa with lines on his face from the cushion, with that generous forgiving heart on the other end of the line: he knew it to be true. I love you, I’m in love with you, I have to say it—

Instead he quoted, as a reply, “If that’s what it takes, baby…I’m saying please, I’m saying we, everything that you want to hear…if that’s what it takes, baby, I’ll be here…”

Justin started snickering, said, “Did you just sing your own song at me as an apology,” and then jumped in to sing along. “I’m saying white picket fence, I’m saying summers without end…oh baby, if that’s what it takes…”

“I’m saying please,” Kris finished. He’d made Justin laugh out loud. His heart put itself back together and danced to the tune of twenty-year-old ballad-rock. “Should I let you go? Budget whatever?”

“Oh fuck. Yes. Sorry. I’ll see you at three. And I’ve got your song in my head, so that’ll make spreadsheets more interesting—”

They got off the phone, mutually entertained. Not repaired, not completely. Kris couldn’t take back his own temper-tantrum, couldn’t rewind time. But he could show up with coffee. He could come to Justin’s office and make that gesture.

Ten-thirty, he thought. Hours to kill. They sprawled out like glass: flat and heavy and dangerous, clear as day and inexorable as eternity. And he was old enough to be Justin’s father, theoretically speaking at least, and no reason in the world presented itself for any hope.

He meandered into the kitchen. He made more coffee. He added scotch to vanquish the dull throb behind his eyes. Clouds unfurled like streamers across the sky, beyond windowpanes.

He didn’t know anything about love. How could he? He’d only ever loved fame: the high, the adrenaline rush, the flushed and giddy whirl of success. He’d never even found someone to settle down with, the way Reggie had not once but twice. Only music.

Justin liked music.

Clutching coffee, wearing yesterday’s clothes, he took a step toward his guitars. Drawn by some unnamed mysterious tide.

I think I’m in love, he’d said to Reg. He’d meant it half in truth and half an exaggeration; when he shut his eyes and pictured Justin’s face he remembered how hollow he’d felt, how panicked, when he’d known those wide eyes had gotten hurt—and hurt because of him.

He didn’t want to lose Justin, and that was selfish. But he didn’t only want that; he wanted Justin Moore to never be hurt, by him or by anyone else. He wanted to do whatever he could to make that true.

His fingertips brushed the neck of the closest guitar. A classic: he’d played it at sold-out shows and in studios, conjuring bestselling records.

The dreadful holiday album required a digital background track. He was only singing revised lyrics over previously recorded tunes.

He caught a glimpse of his reflection in window-glass as he turned. He stopped, disconcerted for a moment, then recognized himself.

Loose brown hair in shaggy waves, one or two stray grey flickers but mostly not. Eyes the kind of brown that was nearly black, which a few interviewers and roadies’d described as soulful, expressive, soft, and poignant, and on one memorable occasion puppyish. Tiny lines fanning out at the corners, but not too deeply so. The face of a man who’d spent a life touring and drinking and sleeping in hotel rooms, but he’d stayed in shape because that’d been part of the image: sex appeal and glamour on stage. Not unattractive, or not exactly; attractive perhaps to a certain segment of the population that’d be aging right along with him.

Tired, he thought. Beaten down by time, back from a taste of godhood, shuffling around with mortals again. Definitely, yeah, mortal.

Justin Moore, on the other hand, was twenty-eight and beautiful, the kind of beauty that turned heads and stole breath away, but up close became warm and inviting rather than intimidating or cold. Lovely from the inside out, and that’d be what passersby noticed, when they noticed, when their gazes landed on him on the street or in a café.

He had known Justin for four years; he did not, he understood, know enough about Justin. He’d never learned to listen. Better at pushing. At pulling the world along with his desires.

He knew that Justin had younger siblings, though he couldn’t recall how many or how old. He knew that Justin’s father was a Starrlight fan; he knew that Justin himself loved music history, especially rock history, and adored punk bands and classic rock and roll, and would find something nice to say about even the newest overproduced electronically-altered nightclub hit. He knew that Justin had a degree in journalism from a university with an extremely impressive name; he knew those last facts not because his manager went around announcing them but because they’d talked about media contacts once and on an entirely separate occasion an alumni association’d called about a fundraising drive. The name had shown on the screen; Justin had silenced the call and explained, “Sorry, it’s the alumni people, I’ll call them back later. You were telling me about songs you’d want on a compilation album, go on?”

He stuck his head and then, when this was insufficient, himself into a very cold shower for a very quick few minutes. Tried not to picture that smile. That youthful brilliant eagerness gathered up and directed his way.

They’d talked about a best-of collection, that day. It’d happened; it’d sold well and continued to sell. Kris hadn’t worried about money for years.

Best of, he thought. Best of the past. What used to be. Has been.

He put on jeans and a lightweight silky shirt and his leather jacket. He had an image. If anyone cared.

Justin had told him he didn’t have to finish the dreadful holiday album. If he truly wasn’t happy.

Justin needed a job, which meant he needed to work with artists who actually made money, which meant artists who weren’t seriously considering a rejection of the whole concept of Midwinter and holiday cheer and happiness in general.

Kris looked at himself in the mirror, threw on a couple of leather bracelets and some eyeliner—he was seeing Justin, and he was vain enough to want to resemble the rock star he might’ve once been in those young eyes—and went out, yanking the door shut behind him.

When he arrived at the recording studio Steve made an exaggerated production out of checking the calendar. “You’re not scheduled to be here today! What is this new ambition? Did you make a Midwinter resolution, did some other empath make you feel guilty, or what?”

“You don’t know any other empaths.” Kris stole one of Steve’s donuts. Breakfast of champions. Of burned-out candleflame once-stars. “We’re rare and special. Like bloody unicorns, mate.”

“Those are mine. And how do you know I don’t know another empath? I’ve seen a unicorn, too.”

“You want it back?” Kris looked at the donut. Took another satisfyingly large bite. “We’ve all seen your American unicorns. They live in Central Park and fuck with tourists who don’t remember that unicorns have a sweet tooth. Cheeky bastards.”

“Are you only here to eat my food and insult our proud New York City wildlife? I’ll feed you to the fairy alligators. Where’s your prettier nicer other half?”

This hurt. Bruises over bruises, deepening. “He’s in meetings all day. And not my other half. Look, have you got a space I can use, or not? I want to get something done so I can show him.”

“Ah, so it is about him.” Steve heaved himself out of his chair. It creaked wearily, relieved of bulk. “In that case, yeah. Love opens doors and all that.”

“I’m not in—he’s not—” He gave up. Futile, apparently. “It’s not like that.”

“Sure it’s not. Come on, you can use room three for a couple hours.”

A couple of hours later, Kris was tired and mildly depressed but strangely exhilarated, like the letdown after a show that’d been good but not great, like a lyric recorded just before he thought of what more it could’ve been. He was doing this for Justin; he was doing something, and that set off pensive mutters of fulfilment and glum satisfaction along his bones. Martyrdom, he decided. To the tune of “Midwinter Looks Good On You,” and “Little Black Solstice Dress.”

He hated himself briefly, except he didn’t, because he was trying to do this for Justin, which should make him a better person, which would make Justin happy, which would consequently make Kris happy, but then that swung around to being selfish again.

“Not bad,” Steve called from the neighboring room. He’d been setting up the backing tracks, doing the behind-the-scenes engineering and mixing work, flipping switches and dials with and without physical hands. “You good, or you want to knock out one more? You’re doin’ something interesting with the projection, the empathic kind not the voice, it’s not empty like yesterday, I just don’t know what the hell it is. Did I say interesting? I’m interested, so that’s good.”

“Um,” Kris said. “Right, interesting, whatever.” The clock informed him that two in the afternoon was rapidly approaching, and he did some swift calculations. Time to stop for coffee, time to get to Justin’s office, and he wanted to be early…

He didn’t feel quite done; he didn’t feel satisfied. Some kind of itch, an emotion under his skin waiting to get out.

Justin had, he was pretty sure, worn a smoke-blue vintage Pictsies shirt a time or two. Pioneer punk. Classic.

He started humming, quietly. And then singing, once he’d got the words yanked out of his brain’s storage crates.

No instruments, no backing. No real plan. Flying with it. Himself and his voice and “Here Comes My Man,” and oh it felt right, it felt good, it felt

Even when he tripped over a verse, even when he started again, he wanted to laugh. Filled up by light. Radiant.

He thought about Justin’s eyes, enormous and enthusiastic and richly textured as holiday treats. About Justin singing along with him, voices mingling and messy and matching, that morning.

“Outside there’s a wind that’s blowing, inside a fire waits for you…” Steve, on the other side of the glass, opened his mouth, shook his head, said nothing and made a go on gesture.

“Outside there’s a storm that’s growing, inside I’m looking out for you…” He wasn’t looking at Steve. Wasn’t looking at anything in the room. “You’ve been gone so long, so long…you’ve been gone so long, but now I say, here comes my man, oh, here comes my man…”

He didn’t try anything fancy. No splashy embellishments or pirouettes. Sticking close to the original: to the tune, to the words, which were a vow and a hope and faith rewarded, a partner coming home at last.

He let the last repeated chorus fade. Opened his eyes, unsure when he’d closed them. Looked up, looked over at Steve: coming back to earth, faintly embarrassed, knowing it’d been unpracticed and spontaneous and likely ludicrous, himself deciding to put on an impromptu a cappella show on the spot.

“Holy shit,” Steve breathed, hushed. He was gazing at Kris as though they’d met for the first time. They’d known each other on and off for fifteen years. “Tell me you’re putting that on the album. Tell me that. Please.”

“It was just a…” He waved hands about vaguely. “Thing. Idea. We’d have to see about permissions and get copyright people involved and I’d have to sing it properly, no, come on, nobody’d even care—”

Steve was staring at him.


“You,” Steve said slowly, “you don’t think anyone would care? If they heard what I just—what you just—I barely even have a heart, ask my ex-wife, but you made me fuckin’ cry, Kris.” His eyelashes were damp, leaving wet patches on big cheeks. “I’m not sure whether I love you or hate you, but it’ll sell.”

“I didn’t do it to try to sell it.” He came around into the other room. Equipment batted digital eyes at them, electronic recording flirtation. “I didn’t—”

“No,” Steve interrupted. “No, you did it for him.”

That truth went through him like a spear of rainbows; he stopped, staggered by the impact, overjoyed and lost simultaneously. “Yes,” he said, and he knew that Justin could never know, because Justin Moore did not need the unrequested weight of Kris’s love on those cheerful uncomplaining shoulders. “You can’t share it.”

“Oh holly and oak,” Steve said, and not in a flippant way, either; Kris had never known, in fifteen years, that Steve swore by the old-fashioned sacred groves when seriously shaken. “You can’t ask me that. You can’t ask me to take that and just sit on it. I love this business as much as you do, and that—”

“As a friend. Please.”

“Kris…” Steve sighed. Given the bulk, this was a long slow ripple of a process, the surrender of continents. “Not forever. Until you say so. Or until you die or something, and then it won’t matter. Okay?”

“Fair enough, mate.” They shook on it, an impulse; Kris nearly hugged him instead, but they’d never been the hugging sort of friends. The moment quivered on the brink but did not bleed over.

The afternoon wrapped itself around him as he left, clear and bracing as autumn diamonds. Sunbeams bit like glass underwater: transparent, inviting, pointed. Kris tucked himself further into his jacket. He didn’t mind walking—he generally had an undefined submerged shark’s-fin of worry about his empathy and strangers on the subway—but he wished he’d brought gloves. Or a thicker shirt. Less style, more substance.

Which was the problem, wasn’t it, he sighed; and ducked into Witch’s Brew, where the sympathetic girl behind the counter did not recognize Kris Starr in any way other than as a loyal customer. She had a swirl of tattoo running up one arm, a suggestion of earth-magic under a university-logo shirtsleeve and the apron; she asked him where Justin was, and cooed happily when Kris explained that he was on a quest to bring coffee, in fact, to Justin. Her expression suggested that this was an act of vast and magnificent romance. Kris sighed once more, internally. If only. If it could be.

He collected two holiday-flavored pecan praline mochas, and braved the pointy sunshine again.

As always, the Aubrey Records offices made him feel shabby and inadequate. Tall walls sniffed at his jeans and leather with glass and steel disdain; spiky modern lines pulled color out of the universe and turned it grey and white. Kris resisted the urge to check for footprints behind himself; he knew the snow-blank flat floor bore a dirt-resistant charm, but he could never shake the sensation of having tracked in unwelcome boisterous emotion, trailing guitar-strings, untidy make-up, fraying-at-the-edges jewelry.

The receptionist, pale and chilly and designer-smooth as her desk, called Justin’s office for him. No answer. “Did you have an appointment, Mr. Starr?”

“Yeah. Yes. Um. Sort of. He said he’d be done around three?”

Her gaze went on a fraction too long: taking in his jeans, his age, his leather bracelets, his eyeliner, both coffees. “You’re free to wait down here.”

“Come on,” Kris attempted, “you know me. I’ve been here. It’s five to three. Can I go up?”

“I shouldn’t let you without confirmation.”

“I told him I’d bring coffee.”

She considered this. Her hair was so tightly wound, platinum-blonde and flawlessly pinned up without a ripple out of place, that Kris wondered whether it was real. “He’s been in meetings all day.”

“So coffee would help?”

“He did tell me you’d stop by, but he didn’t think you’d come up, he said you’d likely rather meet him down here and go out…”

Knife to the ribs. Scalding coffee over bare ungloved skin. Other anguished metaphors. But of course Justin would think so. Justin knew he hated the building, and had no reason to think Kris would be any better behaved than the day before.

He swallowed past the cracked lump of heart in his throat. “I’d like to apologize to him properly.”

“For what?” She studied him with professional interest: not unintrigued, but undisturbed. “He didn’t say anything about that.”

“Look,” Kris said, “I’ll wait down here if you say so, but you do know me, I’m a client, he told you I’d be here—”

“Very last-minute.”

“—and I’m trying to make it better.”

“What are you trying to make better?”

“What? Things. Us. His day. I don’t know. Please.”

Something in that plea must’ve worked; she relented. “He’ll appreciate the coffee. I’ll unlock the doors to the elevators for you.”

“Thank you,” Kris said, and meant it, and even gave her a smile because he meant it. She batted long eyelashes as if unsure what to do with this expression, but buzzed him through the glass doors to the elevator bank.

Justin’s office sat partway up the tower and peered out over bustling cityscapes; it wasn’t one of the largest, given his relative position in the hierarchy, but wasn’t the smallest either. It possessed standard windows and comfortable chairs and what Kris assumed was exactly the permitted amount of punk-kid decoration, enough for personality, nothing offensive. A signed Black Sun poster, the one with the simple eclipse logo, hung behind the desk; Justin must’ve taken his laptop, but Kris knew it had Phantom Fighter and Girl Fawkes stickers on the back. A pen with orange troll hair lay sideways on sturdy corporate walnut; a sticky note that Kris shamelessly read upside-down said remember to ask Mike about merchandise at the Buccaneer Festival!

He hoped Justin hadn’t needed the sticky note.

He checked the clock. Three exactly. Well, Justin had said around then; might be a few minutes.

He wandered across to the windows. Watched New York City at Midwinter for a while: twinkling lights, grey sidewalks, vent-steam, tourists and shopping-bags and big coats. Tapestries of humanity on the move, in and out of each other’s lives. This area was upscale; he couldn’t read labels this far up, but in a few cases certain shades of blue or pink wrapping proclaimed the expensive origin of purchases.

He realized belatedly that he could’ve left one coffee-cup on Justin’s desk. They were warming and also occupying both his hands.

A shadow landed at the door. He turned and discovered a shiny polished example of human affluence: tall and broad-shouldered and built of well-dressed muscle, with blond hair and a heroic jawline and two white tea-scented to-go cups dwarfed by a large grip.

“Hello, then,” Kris said, because he had a reason to be here and he refused to be intimidated by towering successful Americans in fitted executive-style suits. His battered leather and jeans hugged him reassuringly. “Are you looking for Mr. Moore? He’ll be in in a few, he said.”

The new arrival cocked his head, took effortless possession of the situation and the office and the faded rock star waiting there, and laughed. “Mr. Moore. Doesn’t suit him, does it? Not that boy.”

Kris felt his eyebrows shoot up. Prickles down his spine. Instant sizzling dislike, and he couldn’t even say why. “He’s a professional acquisitions and repertoire manager. You’re in his office. Who’re you, again?”

“I’m his—”

“Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to keep you waiting—” Justin came flying through the door, a whirlwind of ruffled blue-black hair and official-looking agendas and enthusiasm. He’d dressed up for the day’s meetings: still stylish dark jeans, doubtless acceptable in the music business, but topped with a simple blue button-down shirt and a slim-fit blazer with sleeves rolled up. Rock and roll with a day job. Punk music putting on a corporate show. “Kris, if you want—oh, David!”

“Thought I’d surprise my sweet boy,” David purred, and set one tea down and stepped in and grabbed Justin’s wrist and tugged him into a kiss that went on long enough to make Kris certain that it was a display. Justin kissed back and seemed willing enough to be manhandled, but Kris was watching; the now-named David caught his eye for a second, letting his captive go.

David, upon extended inspection, was also older than Justin: not quite Kris’s own age, but late thirties, heading toward forty, he guessed. This answered at least three questions regarding Justin’s romantic inclinations, two of them promising but at least one in a way that utterly depressed his heart. Justin liked men, and older men; Justin was quite visibly not single.

“Sorry,” Justin apologized once more, pink-cheeked and breathless. His hair was falling over one eye, tumultuous sapphire against cinnabar and acorn-dust. “David is my, um, well, he’s my—”

“Boyfriend,” David cut in smoothly. If Kris’d possessed hackles, they’d be rising. “I brought you tea. I thought you could use a little pick-me-up, seeing as it’s likely to be a stressful day. Your receptionist remembers me.”

Kris looked at his own praline mocha offering. Resisted the urge to hide both coffees behind his back; didn’t know what to do with hands, elderly guitarist hands, holding disposable Witch’s Brew cups.

“Oh…thank you.” Justin looked from his boyfriend to Kris and back. Then took one of each beverage, set both on his desk, picked up the tea again, and took a sip. “That’s really nice of you.”

“Looking out for you,” David said, all affable teeth and outward fondness. “And also this guy was in your office.”

“Hey,” Kris said. “Kris Starr.”

“Oh, yeah, you were in a band, right? Back in the day? And you’re one of my boy’s clients.” David dismissed him with a nod. “Justin, you ready to say yes yet? I’m waiting.”

“No,” Justin said, expression shifting to mildly stressed, one hand running through hair. “David, this is Kris Starr of Starrlight; Kris, this is David, um, David Ross, he’s a lawyer, he does complicated things with corporate taxes for a living. David, I asked you to give me time to—”

“I always tell you not to worry about understanding what I do, sweetheart,” David said, “but you know that’s why you need me, right, so I can help?” And then, to Kris, “He is adorable, isn’t he? We met down at Velvet, you know the club, right? And he was on the dance floor, wearing these absolutely sinful skin-tight pants, just begging someone to come up and grab his ass—”

“I wasn’t really,” Justin said, in the tone of someone who’d long ago given up on this argument but would attempt it for Kris’s sake. “It was Anna’s birthday and she’d just broken up with her boyfriend and I was trying to be good company and I wasn’t looking for—”

“You were, sweetie, and it worked. I had to have him,” David confided, “I’m sure you know how that works, right? Pretty little things on tour, eyes across a crowded room, all that? And you just have to take them home.” I took this one home, his eyes said. I made him mine. The spark of defensive malice glittered: David didn’t consider him a romantic threat but wouldn’t tolerate rivals for Justin’s attention. “And six months later he won’t move in with me. I keep asking, but he wants to be independent.”

“That’s not—” Justin stopped, shook his head, gave up. “Can we talk about it later? Please. Kris is a client and we do have a meeting scheduled. I’m glad you stopped by, but I really am working.”

“Anything you want, but you’ll make me happy as soon as you say yes.” David kissed him again before leaving: deep and possessive, a declaration. Kris would’ve put ears back and hissed if he’d had any feline genes.

Justin came back and sank down on the corner of his desk, flustered, blinking, hair and jacket-collar mussed from the kiss. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t know he’d be here.”

“Since when,” Kris said, unearthing words around the gut-punch of shock and resentment and envy, “do you have a—a lawyer attached to you?”

“Since six months ago?” Big autumn-daydream eyes gave him a wounded look. “When I was late to brunch and you said I looked like I’d just gotten laid all night and I said, well, actually, and you changed the subject?”

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