Chapter Twenty-One: Nootau
Haven't We Danced Before?
The group nodded.
"A real castle?"
"What else would it be?" Edwige replied, looking over the borrowed laptop.
"I dunno. It just seems like a weird place for a business to be located." Nootau snuggled back under his blanket, happy to be in a blanket-Aegeus cocoon. Damn, he was tired. The doctor may have gotten him stitched up and tanked him to the top with blood, but all Nootau wanted was to stay in bed and sleep. Their late night excursion a couple days ago hadn't helped matters.
"Well, we are in 'old country,'" Edwige answered absently, clicking away as she focused on the screen again. "Castles in North America have always been considered quaint compared to what they have here."
No argument there.
"Of course they don't take into account the castles in Asia or South America, but that's another argument," Edwige poked at her keyboard harder. "If it's not the European Confederacy than it doesn't matter. Bastards."
Right, don't upset the Healer. He wanted her fun pain-numbing drugs as soon as he could get them again.
"Can we go there? I mean during business hours," Nootau said with a yawn. The gods above, his eyes did not want to stay open. Aegeus didn't help things by trailing his fingers up and down Nootau's chest and side. "Scope things out?"
"Might be possible," Mal said. He and Kaden bother leaned in over Edwige. "Can you click on the Visitor's Page?"
As soon as she clicked the three of them automatically moved closer to the screen. Nootau chuckled, sleepy and amused. If only the pain would ebb some. How ridiculous was it that he hurt too much to sleep?
A couple disgruntled murmurs reached Nootau's ears, making him jerk back up, startled. When had his eyes closed?
"Shhhhhh." Aegeus rubbed his hand carefully over Nootau's abdomen. "Sleep if you need to."
Oh, he needed to, but they had too much to do. "Can't."
Exhaustion had overtaken Nootau the moment he transformed back into a human. He had stayed a dragon too long. A part of him was surprised he'd made it back—otherwise he'd be a breeding jenny for the guild. What a nightmare of epic proportions. Until he didn't remember what he wasn't anymore. Another smaller, selfish part wished the dragon spirit had taken over completely.
"I don't know," Edwige replied to Mal, but her attention was firmly on Nootau. The look she gave him was of concern. She seemed determined.
Mal shrugged. "It's worth a shot. My Ranger status does open some doors."
"What's worth a shot?" Nootau asked.
Edwige frowned, pushed away from the table, and grabbed a mug. She filled it up with tea and brought it over to Nootau. He huffed. Last thing he needed was more tea. She'd been stuffing Nootau with it for days now.
"Drink," she ordered.
"Drink," Edwige said again, pushing the cup in Nootau's hand.
Edwige leaned in for a peck. "That's my guy."
"Can you sound more condescending?"
"Yes, yes I can."
The urge to run far away from Edwige and Aegeus was still there. They made him too... Comfortable. No way would that last. Their kindness really hurt at times. Nootau really didn't want to be in Switzerland. But... well, he needed to be here. Edwige and Aegeus? They should've been back in Chicago working on that family they talked about wanting.
"Drink!" Edwige ordered as she sat back down in front of the laptop.
"Yes'm. Shit! Why is this so nasty?"
"Because it's good for you."
The room laughed as Nootau tried to gulp down another swallow. Talk about nasty tasting medicine. If Nootau didn't know better he would've thought Edwige had done it on purpose. But she wasn't that mean. At least... No, she wasn't that kind of evil. Probably.
"Think you're up for some food?" Aegeus asked, tucking Nootau against him. The warmth felt nice. It was a feeling Nootau was becoming all too used to. The idea of losing it made him uneasy, and that made Nootau even more uneasy.
"What time is it?"
Gods above. Had he fallen asleep? Only him and Aegeus were in the room, curled up on the bed together. "Is it tomorrow?"
A vibration thrummed against Nootau's back.
"I know what you meant. No, you didn't sleep through the day." Aegeus placed a tender kiss against Nootau's temple. "You needed the rest so don't get too upset with Edwige, okay?"
"She drugged me."
"Everyone was ready to smack your stubborn ass down. Edwige just found a more subtle method."
"Where is our questionably ethical Healer?"
Aegeus laughed, pulling Nootau flush against him. Skin on skin certainly had it's perks. Maybe they could find more of the benefits of skinship, except Aegeus didn't seem to have any more desire to do anything other than snuggle.
"Well, where is she?"
"Edwige took Mal and Kaden on a field trip."
That doesn't sound suspicious whatsoever.
"You not going to ask?" Aegeus sounded surprised.
"She went to... Schloss Rotlicht?"
"Almost." Aegeus kissed Nootau's throat. He wouldn't say how relieved he felt knowing she hadn't plunged headlong into danger by herself, but if she hadn't gone to the castle, where had Edwige run off too? Aegeus seemed to understanding Nootau's brooding because he supplied the answer. "She went to our Underground contact for some gear."
"Would gear also mean a car?" Nootau asked. Schloss Rotlicht wasn't exactly within walking distance of their lodgings.
Aegeus snuzzled down, sticking his nose into the crook of Nootau's shoulder and neck. "Yes."
"Our lack of transportation is the only reason I was left behind, isn't it?"
"Sounds like our girl."
Nootau didn't so much as see, but feel the smile form on Aegeus' mouth.
"I like that. Mmmm-hmm. I like it a lot."
"Edwige being our girl."
* * * * *
"How long do we give him?" Aegeus asked. Splitting up the group had seemed like a bad idea, but Mal did probably have the best chance to get into Eich und Baum by himself because of his position. "I mean, it's been an hour."
Edwige gave him a glance before checking the time on the dash. "I dunno, love."
Kaden leaned in between the front seats and turned to Edwige. "If they didn't let him in, wouldn't Mal be back already?"
"I would think so," she answered.
"I wish I'd gone with him."
With worry in the wolf's voice clear, Aegeus began humming without a second thought. A habit that would get him in trouble one day. Probably already had if he thought about it. The tension in Kaden's shoulders eased. Edwige petted the little wolf's forearm, and more tension bleed away from him. Aegeus hoped she wasn't using any kind of ungent on Kaden to relax him. But he wouldn't put it past his sweetheart.
A harrumph from the back had Aegeus turning to Nootau. Idiot shouldn't have insisted on coming but he did anyway. First, he shouldn't even be up, and second, it only made Edwige worry more, which meant she'd resort to tricky treatments. Though it might not be a bad idea for her to medicate their man. They ran a chance of him being more agreeable. Maybe Edwige should crawl in back with Nootau and see if she could slip him more pain pills.
Nootau stretched and a smidgen of red bloomed across the chest wrap.
Dear gods above, why? Aegeus winced. "You all right, Nootau?"
"No, I mean—"
"I'm fine!" he snapped.
Quiet followed the outburst. Edwige stopped petting Kaden and the two of them turned toward Nootau. Their sweetheart's expression had clouded, anger mixed with worry as she looked at their third. Edwige opened her mouth, but before she could say anything too cutting, Aegeus began humming again. The tightness around her face softened, and Kaden's concern washed away as well. A squint was directed toward Aegeus but Edwige let the humming slide.
There was too much tension and worry to fight over everything. She understood that. Didn't make her happy but she knew when to go with the flow instead of arguing.
Nootau, their troubled third, huddled tighter into a ball of pain despite the calming waves Aegeus sent out. More than anything Aegeus wanted to hold him and take all the hurt away from Nootau so he could live more freely.
Though it was a selfish part of Aegeus that wanted Nootau to depend on him.
All the anger and pain made it impossible for Aegeus and Edwige to love Nootau freely if he couldn't move past it. No matter how much Edwige wanted to make life better for their third, only Nootau could claw his way back up. They'd be there—if he would let them in—every step of the way, waiting with open arms, but it still had to be Nootau to make the choice.
Hopefully Edwige's love wouldn't get battered to bits in the process. It was in a Healer's nature to love, to have an innate need to make people feel better, so they had been down this thorny path before. Aegeus knew all too well how it could end for all of them.
The thought made him cringe. This time had the potential to be much worse than the others. Her heart was set on their triad being completed with Nootau. They really gotten involved with a troublesome one this time. Of course, it was the troublesome ones that were more than worth it in the end if they could pull through.
Edwige reached out toward Nootau but stopped herself, her hand forming a fist. She dropped it and turned around, her red hair covered her face. Aegeus knew if he pulled it back her cheeks would be flushed red with tears lining her eyes. He didn't because Aegeus didn't want her wrath exploding in the car.
His poor girl. Maybe he should suggest a walk.
Despite Aegeus' humming, tension imbibed the car. Nootau huddled against the window while Edwige held back tears, and poor, poor Kaden. Pup didn't know what to do with himself. He wasn't nervous per se. Just the unease seeping all around them couldn't be completely dissipated by Aegeus' humming.
"Hey guys—" Aegeus began, only to be stopped short by a car door getting hauled open.
"Sorry." Mal threw himself into the back seat and slammed the door shut, making everyone jump. He winced. "Sorry, sorry. Damn office workers been giving me the run around. Argh! Why does everything have to be so arsed?"
"Mal!" Kaden launched himself at his boyfriend, cuddling up and rubbing his head under Mal's chin.
"Whoa, Whoa." Mal wrapped his arms around Kaden and took in everyone else. "I miss something?"
Aegeus shook his head. "Not really."
"M'Kay." Mal pulled Kaden into his lap. "Well, might as well report. I managed to get a small tour after showing my Rider credentials and explaining I was here to help with some training at the local guild in Zurich. The castle is amazing. Feels old but has some new tech in places but I couldn't get a good look."
"Were you able to see the hangars?" Aegeus prodded after a lapse of silence from Mal.
"What? Oh, sort of. I saw some nesting and the outside enclosures but they really didn't want me going certain places. I got a feeling I was given a superficial tour. Like "Oh, let's entertain the bumbling Aussie Ranger since he stumbled here" kind of thing." Mal sighed and sat back, stroking Kaden absently. "Though, they were interested in seeing me train at the Zurich Guild. Said they were interested in seeing what I could do since I was brought in for some special training."
"So they like you?" Edwige asked.
"Maybe, a little."
"You think they'll let us in?" Edwige brightened as did the rest of them. Maybe they were finally going to get a break.
Hope rose before Mal flatly answered, "No."
"What?" Edwige replied, seeming to be as taken aback as Aegeus felt.
"I mean, not through the front during regular hours. Like I said, they seemed to be placating the tourist with me, but just barely and probably only because I'm a Ranger." Mal frowned before setting his head on top of Kaden. "We're going to have to break in, and we've got to take their security into account. It's not going to be easy. You think your friends from the Underground will help?"
"No," Aegeus said, desperately trying not to feel hopeless. "Once the castle was mentioned they let us know we're on our own."
"Damn. They've got a barracks and everything. We're going to have to find a different way in."
"Barracks?" Aegeus didn't like the sound of live-in guards.
"Despite being a corporate entity they are very much old school. Eich und Baum have been around a long time."
"Fucking balls!" Nootau grumbled right before he opened the car door and stumbled out.
"Nootau!" Aegeus called. They had been so focused on Mal, Aegeus hadn't been watching their walker. "Wait!"
"What's eating him?" Mal asked, sliding Kaden onto the seat and grabbing the handle.
"No!" Aegeus wrenched the door open. "Let me. More people will only agitate Nootau."
"If you're sure," Mal said.
"I am. Give me a little bit. Just... wait here." Aegeus winced. Yeah, Kaden and Edwige didn't looked pleased at the prospect of being stuck in the car again. "Just let me talk to him."
"All right, mate."
Aegeus slammed the door behind him, taking after Nootau in what he hoped was the right direction. It amazed him how easily Nootau disappeared when he didn't want to be seen. But he had run off in the direction of the lake and was limping something fierce. Hopefully that meant Nootau was just trying to find an open spot he felt secure with.
A spot where he could spew his rage. Alone. Away from anyone he might cause harm. A lonely existence.
When Aegeus heard the stomping a few minutes later relief swept through him. Edwige would chew him out if he'd actually lost Nootau. Her fears about him up and disappearing on them weren't unfounded. Idiot seemed hell bent on carrying the weight of the walkers on himself.
There was another snap before silence enveloped the trees surrounding Aegeus.
"You really think you can wait me out?"
"Think about it. I'm a patient man."
A sigh sounded to Aegeus' right. He moved closer.
"Where you going in this weather anyway?"
A sad chuckle came from close by.
"Please don't run. Not from us."
The plea came out a little more desperate than he wanted it too. But he was desperate.
"We'll find a way in. I promise."
"You really think so!" Nootau shouted. A loud thunk came from in front of Aegeus. "You fucking think we can just waltz in and find out who's been processing walkers for parts?"
Aegeus ducked under a low hanging branch and found Nootau sitting on a rock-ledge by the lake. Slowly Aegeus walked over to him, taking in the way Nootau held himself, as if he were flying apart. Both his arms were wrapped around his legs hugging them close to his chest, and his head tucked down in between his knees. His shoulders shook.
"No, I don't think we can waltz in," Aegeus said quietly.
"So we've come all this way for nothing."
"No, I didn't say that either."
"Mal said we'd have to break in." Nootau's voice came out hard and rough. "You really think we can break in some castle without help?"
"We can try."
"What? So you and Edwige end up in some prison?" Nootau ground out before lifting his head. His dark gaze met Aegeus'. "I won't let that happen."
"And we can't ignore something very bad is happening here." Aegeus sat down. Not too close because that would most likely cause Nootau to run again. But close enough he could reach for his third's hand. "We are making the choice here. Are you saying you don't respect us enough to understand our decision? Edwige and I could never ignore something like the walker sales. One way or another we would've ended up here if we had been the one who stumbled onto it."
"You never know."
A heavy exhalation left Nootau.
"We will find a way in. Somehow. It might take a few days—"
"And how many walkers—" Nootau began.
Aegeus squeezed his hand and talked over him. "Or not, but we will find a way in. We just have to find a different perspective. Can you give us the time we need? Please."
"We all want to make this right. Lean on us a bit, okay?"
Nootau closed his eyes, breathing in deep. After a moment he gave a jerky nod. When he opened his eyes again he cast them over the lake, remaining quiet and pensive. Aegeus hummed out of habit, and held Nootau's hand. Whatever little comfort he could give, Aegeus would make it happen.
Together they sat, overlooking the water's edge to the castle, in the most companionable silence since Nootau had been in dragon form. They had to get back to the others. Aegeus assumed Mal may have already come in search for them, but anyone could tell how much Nootau needed a moment.
Aegeus admired the stark landscape and water's edge leading up to the castle. The employees must certainly have a view... Aegeus paused, squinted and leaned forward. A snippet of their overview of the estate tickled at his memory. Did the water go directly up to the castle?
"How long have Eich und Baum been in business?"
"Centuries and centuries."
"And they have a department that does sonar research?" Aegeus bubbled with excitement.
"Yeah," Nootau said, turning toward him. "Why?"
"I think I may have found our way in."
* * * * *
"Like anyone is going to hear us."
"They do have patrols."
"Would everyone shut it?"
"This is the worst idea we've had."
Everyone was talking at once as well as over each other. Aegeus assumed it had to do with nerves. They were dealing with the Schloss Rotlicht after all.
Aegeus laughed. "I dunno. I'm pretty sure we've had worse somewhere."
Edwige huffed and crossed her arms.
Mal grinned and tucked Kaden closer to him.
Nootau, well, was Nootau standing off the the side frowning.
"I will have the ambient lamp. We've spent three days learning the routines of the guards and the submersion pool." There had certainly been a couple narrow escapes on top of it. Somehow, though, they managed to scrape by. Of course Aegeus was nervous for a different reason now. He'd managed to do the underwater scouting in relative privacy. Tonight would be different. "I say it's now or never. Everyone have their pack for their cloths? Who has Kaden's?"
Mal raised a hand. "Though it may be better if he stays in shifted form if we have to make a run for it."
"What do you say, Kaden?" Mal said, holding Kaden close. "You ready for a swim?"
"Yeah, ready or not."
Mal chuckled and put a kiss on top of Kaden's head. "You'll be all right. Just as long you remember to shift after you get out of the pool, not before."
"Ha, ha." Kaden took a deep breath and stripped. He handed off his attire to Mal before turning to Aegeus who was down to his briefs. "How are you not freezing your balls off?"
Edwige and Nootau both coughed, turning away. Kaden's expression blossomed into confusion. Mal watched on with a peaked interest.
Aegeus shrugged and pulled off his underwear. Nothing like tearing off a wound dressing nice and quick. "Because I don't have any."
The coughing got louder. Kaden's gaze went immediately to Aegeus' crotch then back up.
"I'm trans. So is Edwige."
She waved to Kaden. A shell-shocked looking Kaden and Mal kept their eyes up on Aegeus' face.
"Oh, um, no problem." Kaden nodded before smiling big. "Really."
"Sorry," Aegeus said, doing his best not to get self-conscious. "Should've given you a heads up. I just... yeah. Didn't." He hated how he had to explain it every time. Certain species were lucky. They could get the change. Aegeus had to come to terms he never would. "Because my mer-linage is from the greek isles, and we're the type where our legs fuse together to make our tail, we're stuck with the genitalia we're born with."
"Not your fault. Anyway, let's get—"
"Can you guys give us a moment?" Edwige interrupted as she pulled Aegeus to the side.
The guys nodded and moved over toward Nootau.
Edwige squeezed Aegeus' arm. "You going to be okay, love?"
"As soon as I'm in the water I'll be fine. It's this moment until then."
"Okay, I shouldn't have—"
"Don't. You were just being you." Aegeus leaned down and gave her a kiss. "We're fine. A bit different than a lot of people like us, but perfectly acceptable in society's terms."
"You say that."
"It's my own problem. Unfortunately it made yours too."
"Don't ever think that." Edwige smiled, putting a hand on his jaw. "I will never regret my choice. I love you. Always."
A sad, familiar twinge pulled in his chest. In a world with all kinds of humans and Beings, they certainly were a pair. Even if money wasn't the issue, his linage was.
"I love you too." Aegeus gave Edwige another kiss. "Ready to storm the castle?"
"Am I ever!" She laughed and pulled Aegeus back to their ragtag group.
Kaden looked tense but wore a friendly smile. "Ready?"
Aegeus slid into the water, sucking in a breath. "Cold."
"How cold?" Kaden glanced at the lake.
"I'll be fine once the transformation is done. You, on the other hand, will freeze your balls off."
The startled expression on Kaden's face was too much.
Aegeus laughed. "Give me a minute, and ask Mal to kiss your balls a farewell."
Kaden looked as though he was about to fall over from shock, so Aegeus turned his attention to his tail. Actually, that would be his legs which would form his tail. He pressed his feet together and squeezed his thighs tight to start the process.
Tendrils of skin webbed over the gaps and fused his legs then moved up his groin to his belly. The skin hardened. Groves similar to scales formed down his tail. The bones in his feet popped and grew, fins forming. They grew longer until they were over two feet in length. The final part of his transformation came when his dorsal fin pushed up onto his lower back before the growth slowed to a stop. He flicked it a few times to make sure everything was in working order.
"Me too!" Kaden put a toe into the water. A shiver went all through him. He frowned and pulled his foot back. "Maybe the fast method is best."
"Jump on in."
Kaden took a couple steps back then propelled himself forward. He jumped high, landing with a huge splash. The wolf immediately popped back up, his arms wrapped around his torso, and his teeth chattering.
"Fuck! This is freezing. Liar!" Kaden swept his arm, thrashing water over Aegeus.
"You know I'm a merman, right?"
"Come on." Aegeus took the ambient lamp from Edwige and affixed it to his head. "Now, put the rebreather in your mouth."
Kaden did as instructed.
"And—" Aegeus pushed out, flattening on his belly. "Grab hold of me. Yeah, like that. Once we go under, if you have any problems breathing, just tap my shoulder. Okay?"
Once he got a nod from the wolf, Aegeus pushed off, swimming slowly and getting used to Kaden on his back.
They had gotten as close as they dared to Schloss Rotlicht, but that also meant they were exposed far longer than Aegeus felt comfortable. They swam about fifty meters before Aegeus came to a stop by a terrace edge of the castle. He went upright and looked over his shoulder.
"Okay. We're going to go down pretty far before we get to the entrance. Just hold on. It's going to get dark and cold. It will feel like it's hard to breath. Keep using the rebreather normally. Trust me."
Kaden took the rebreather out of his mouth. "I do, Aegeus."
"Thanks." Aegeus tried not to get too emotional over the trust Kaden put in his hands.
"Okay, I'm ready."
"Then let's do this."
Kaden put the rebreather back in his mouth and gave a nod.
"Deep breath in."
A hiss of air went through the rebreather as Kaden sucked in a breath. Aegeus bent and dipped, pulling them below the dark surface with his arms. They sunk beneath the small waves, and Aegeus' gills flexed, allowing the water to flow over them. He breathed in deep, settling. Never would he become tired of how the water soothed him, made him feel, or the freedom it gave him.
The current rushed over them as Aegeus dove deeper. Kaden's grip tightened and a jerky movement followed. Aegeus slowed. If they went back up now who knew how much time it would take for Kaden to give it another shot. No tap came so Aegeus pushed on until he saw the glowing lamps around the entrance to the submersion pool.
Flicking his tail, Aegeus turned into the entry and sped up. Kaden's grip on him was rather tenuous. The sooner they got to the deck, the better. Aegeus kicked with more determination, each flick bringing them one tail closer to their goal. The tunnel curved and relief surged through him. He pushed harder to get to the surface and nearly jumped out of the water because he came up to the surface so quick.
A loud splash whooshed through the quiet room. The grip on Aegeus' shoulders fell away.
"Aw, fuck." Kaden swore softly.
Aegeus turned and found the pup floating on his back.
"That was intense."
Kaden nodded, then turned onto his belly, and kicked to the side of the submersion pool. He pulled himself up and looked around.
"I'd hope so, or this expedition is over faster than a virgin having sex the first time."
"Here." Kaden pushed the rebreather back at Aegeus. "Let me change."
Aegeus took it and waited. He wanted to make sure Kaden was really okay before he left, which meant he got the fun treat of watching Kaden shake himself out in human form before shifting to his wolf.
"Hmm." Aegeus sniffed. "Don't think you got it all. Smells like wet dog."
"Stand guard. I'll be back with the others as quickly as I can."
Aegeus flipped over and sank back under the water, flicking his tail hard. One down. Three to go.
Please, oh please, don't let them get caught.
* * * * *
"Ahh!" Nootau yanked the rebreather out of his mouth and sucked in a lungful of air. Damn, it felt weird. "Shit."
"Shhhh." Edwige hissed.
"I just... It... Oh, this feels so much better." He could breath again. Not that he hadn't been but it hadn't been a comfortable experience either.
"Yes, yes," Edwige said, offering a hand. "Now get out of there and get dressed."
"Gods above, okay." Nootau let her pull him onto the deck. He rolled onto his back. "Smells like wet dog."
A growl echoed in the pool area.
"Sorry, Kaden, but it does."
Damn wolf was so sensitive. Probably why he and Mal were so good together, they balanced each other out. Did Nootau balance Aegeus and Edwige?
"Come on lazy." Edwige's face appeared above his. "I don't feel any magic here, but that doesn't mean we won't bump into any guards. We have got to get a move on."
Cloths dropped on top of him.
"Gah! I'm not even dry."
"None of us are."
Nootau pushed up slowly. If he moved too fast, he hurt. Everything throbbed and the stitches pulled.
Mal slid down a ladder and pulled up next to Edwige. "Two guards at the doors leading out of this area. Do you have the sleeping drafts?"
"Of course." Edwige held up her bag. "Never leave home without them when storming a castle."
"This night is going to end in tears," Nootau mumbled as he pulled on his sweats.
"Well, duh," Edwige said. "Might as well have fun until the dragon shit drops."