Time: After Beside a Black Tarn
The park in the middle of Helike was just like Captain Shax had said it would be. Corny hadn't believed him, that a city park would have trails and paths just for horses. Now that he had Rosa on the trails under the delicate pink and red flowered trees, he understood how it was.
Only well-heeled people owned horses on Elistrus. They weren't transportation or work partners. They were to show off. He had to admit the riders in the park had beautiful horses, but they wouldn't have lasted a day out on the range, all these glossy, long-legged prancing beasts. His sturdy little Rosa actually turned heads here. More than one rider stopped to talk about her origins and bloodline.
"Reckon you're something new for these folks," Corny murmured in Rosa's ear as he patted her neck. For her part, Rosa was in high spirits—head up, ears swiveling. She'd nipped at one stallion who'd dared get too close and threatened another with a flick of her back hooves.
Since she was tugging, Corny let her have her head on a broad well-paved path between flower gardens, a stretch where a rolling canter wouldn't endanger anyone on foot. It was all mighty pretty and a relief to find somewhere Rosa could run in the city, but it all felt so make-believe. People playing at knowing horses and pretending to be experienced riders. As Rosa cantered under the trees again, Corny slowed her to a walk. Around a bend in the road, they walked through a storm of falling blossoms and came to a carved bridge over a little stream. A familiar figure leaned on the rail, idly kicking at a support post.
If someone had asked, Corny would've said Julian looked despondent. Not a word he ever thought would fit the agent-assassin. But the expression vanished when Julian turned and spotted them, replaced by his bright, charming smile.
"Good morning, Mr. DeGroot! Lovely day."
"Morning, Julian." Corny drew Rosa up beside him. "All on your lonesome?"
"It's a perfect thinking spot." Julian turned lean back on the railing, every movement screaming grace and sensuality. Corny wondered if knew it. Yeah, he did. Part of his job was other people's reactions. "Besides everyone but Mac is still asleep and he's busy with some complicated repair or other."
"Yeah, they can be a passel of lazybones." Corny nodded and pushed his hat back. "Hop on up. We'll give you a ride back."
"On Rosa?" Julian straightened, his eyebrows drawing in as he frowned. "Won't we hurt her?"
Corny chuckled. "You don't weigh much more than dandelion fluff. Rosa won't mind. She's carried more weight in saddlebags."
"Hmm. I've never ridden."
"Ain't scared, are you? That'd be hard to believe. You zip around on those cycles faster'n Rosa could ever go."
Julian let out a soft snort. "I'm not one of those macho types, you know. Certainly not afraid to admit to a little trepidation. Hover cycles are machines. Rosa is a living, thinking being. It's a matter of control."
Corny swung down, determined now. "Heck's even learning to ride."
"Heckle has wings."
Before Julian could think of another objection, Corny gave him a boost. Julian's instinctive reflexes did the rest, though his eyes were wide and white around the edges.
"Oh. I'm up. Ah, what now?"
"Hold tight a quick spell." Corny patted Julian's knee as he shortened the stirrups, not quite as far as he would have for Heckle. Julian took him literally and clung white-knuckled to the saddle horn. "There. Put your boots in…yep. Just like that. Take up the reins—"
"What? No! I'm not driving."
"Just hold 'em loose. Relax and try to move with her instead of fighting her. Rosa knows what to do."
Corny pulled his hat down to hide his grin when Julian let out a sound suspiciously like a whimper. Cool and calm in all sorts of bad spots, it was hard to ruffle him. But Corny had to concede that every man was afraid of something. He took Rosa's cheek strap and got her moving in a slow walk to get Julian used to the feel of it.
"Can I ask you a question?"
Julian raised an eyebrow and his voice only shook a little when he said, "You can always ask. There are a lot of things I'm not at liberty to answer."
"Not that sorta question. More personal like." Corny glanced up at him, pleased to see he was already steadier in the saddle. "When did you know?"
"When did I know what?" Julian's expression remained pleasant but an edge crept into his voice. "That I was good at hunting people? That I was a boy?"
Corny tipped his hat up to scratch his head. "No. Weren't either of those. When did you know you liked men?"
"Oh, that." The smile returned. "I guess I've always known that I'm attracted to males."
"Why'd you say it that way? Males?"
Julian laughed and clutched at the saddle horn again for balance. "I'm not a speciest. Human men are delicious, but I've had more than one demon lover. Something you know a bit about. Androids. An imp once."
"That makes sense. Angels?" Corny swung up behind Julian and reached around for the reins. He got Rosa moving at a faster walk and Julian took a minute to adjust before he answered.
"Angels don't do sex. You can be sure some of them think about it, which is why there are Fallen, but angels don't. You don't get many Fallen this far out. They tend to stick closer to Earth. Ness is the first I've actually met and he hates me."
Corny took his time before he answered. Wasn't like he hadn't been watching the whole time. "Don't think Ness hates you."
"No? He certainly dislikes me to an extreme degree."
"Part of that's your own fault, you know. You and Cap'n Shax are a mite too cozy sometimes."
Julian shifted in the saddle. "We're old friends. There's a lot of history there."
"Yep. My point right there. You've known him longer, been through things he wasn't a part of. Ness is jealous and he's powerful mad at himself for being jealous and maybe mad at you for making him feel that way."
"You gotta recollect, though. Ness just started thinking about sex. He's trying to figure his way through all that still. All them new feelings. Just when he's startin' not to feel so at sea, there's you."
Julian leaned back against Corny, but it seemed more of a contemplative thing than a suggestive move. "He has nothing to be jealous of. I've told him that. How could I ever compete with an angel?"
That knocked Corny for an odd loop. A thought occurred to him that would mean big trouble. "Would you want to? I mean…do you want Shax back?"
"I never had Shax to begin with." To Corny's relief, Julian's tone was dry instead of bitter. "It's good to see him find someone. I'm glad of that."
Corny waited, certain Julian would go on. He stayed silent for the remainder of the ride back to the transport Corny had used to bring Rosa out to the park. He swung off and help Julian down, surprised again at how little such a deadly predator weighed.
"Thank you. That was…interesting."
"Did you wanna learn?" Corny undid the cinch and lifted Rosa's saddle off. "I'd be happy to teach you how to ride."
"No. Thank you." Julian rubbed at his butt as he made his way toward the transport cab. "I think I'll stick to hover bikes."