Partners in Every Way
by Jenn Burke
Iskandar ached all over. All over. One giant ball of ow. Not the first time, probably wouldn’t be the last, but usually…usually he could remember what had caused the discomfort. He pushed past the thoughts of kill me now, trying to find some clue in his memories.
Had they fought Mistrios again? She was the latest villain attempting to make a name for herself in the northeast and she hit like a—
No, wait. He and Kyler were in Vegas. Right, the trade show. Technogeddon. They’d been planning this for months, a mini-vacation and business trip rolled into one. They’d stepped off the plane, had dinner, gone to Technogeddon the next morning and…
Someone moaned. Right beside him. Iskandar froze. He had a giant black hole in his memory—and he’d brought someone back to his hotel room with him?
Not good, not good, not good.
The familiar nickname spoken in a voice he knew almost better than his own should have comforted him. Kyler. His best friend, his partner in fighting crime. They both hated it when the media called Kyler his sidekick, because he was easily as talented as Iskandar. Except…
Kyler was in bed with him.
Kyler. Was in his bed.
Iskandar leaped off the mattress with an inarticulate cry and backed away, brushing crimson feathers away from his face. His wings were out? He never went to sleep with his wings out. He scrambled to pull his wing-ring off the chain around his neck and slip it on the middle finger of his left hand—its usual spot—until the glint of a new ring caught his eye. Silver. Left ring finger.
Oh sweet skies…
“Isk?” Kyler blinked blearily at him, his longish red hair out of control. Creases from the pillow marred his freckled face and his blue eyes looked foggy at best. “Wha’ the hell…”
Iskandar pushed his wing-ring onto his finger with more force than necessary and shivered when his wings disappeared, magically erased as long as he wore the heirloom ring. He took another step back, wincing as his butt protested louder than any of the other aches. He could literally feel the blood drain from his head.
Kyler pushed himself up onto one elbow. The sheets fell back to reveal he wasn’t wearing a shirt. “Isk?”
“What happened yesterday?”
“I…” Kyler’s brow furrowed. “We did the Technogeddon thing?”
“Do you remember?”
“Yeah…no. Not really.” He sat up and made to scrub his face—then froze as he spotted his own ring. Iskandar held up his hand and even from here, he could see they matched. “Did we—”
“I don’t remember.”
“We couldn’t have—”
“I don’t remember.”
“Okay. Just breathe.” Kyler made calming motions with his hands. Contrary to redheaded stereotypes, he had a slow-burn temper. Iskandar could count the number of times Kyler’d lost his cool on one hand and have fingers left over. “Um…you might want to put on some underwear, though.”
Iskandar jerked his head down to see that yes, he was naked. He scrambled around, trying to find his unmentionables. A gentle throat clearing made him look up.
Kyler held up his uniform in one hand and Iskandar’s in the other. Iskandar’s stomach dropped. For the first time, he really looked around at the room they were in. It was high-end, much higher-end than the ones he and Kyler had settled into the day before. This was a suite, with an enormous king bed, whereas they’d booked two tiny things in an off-the-strip not-quite-dive.
He swallowed. “This is…”
“RedHawk and Landspeed’s room,” Kyler said, nodding, referring to their superpowered alteregos. He dropped the uniforms—calling them costumes had never worked for Iskander, though he had to admit they weren’t uniforms in the military or law enforcement sense—and reached for the remote for the flat screen TV mounted on the wall across from the bed.
“We have to.” The TV clicked on and Kyler flipped channels until he found a news program.
“—today’s Good News File has some excellent news to share. After years of speculation, RedHawk and Landspeed tied the knot in Vegas last night.” The reporter’s voice played over footage of him, wings-out in his black uniform, and Kyler in his green one smiling and laughing as they exited a chapel. They flashed their rings for the camera…
“Congratulations to the happy—”
Kyler clicked the TV off.
Iskandar continued staring at the black screen. “What about Julie?”
“We’re on a break.”
“But not broken up.”
“No, I…” Kyler gripped his hair in both hands as he bent over, tugging hard. Iskandar could almost hear him counting in his head, trying to get his thoughts in order. That was how Kyler worked. Slow thoughts, fast running. He turned his head and glanced up at Iskandar. “Can you put something on? Please?”
Putting his uniform back on right now was out of the question—it was comfortable, but it also meant business. And this was anything but. Iskandar marched to the bathroom instead and grabbed a towel to wrap around his waist.
When he returned, Kyler had sat up in bed, the sheets pulled up to mid-chest as he leaned against the headboard. “We can get it annulled.”
Iskandar sank onto the edge of the bed with a sigh. “No, we can’t. We’d have to lie, and—”
“Wait. Lie?” Kyler’s eyes widened. “You mean we…”
Isk nodded, cheeks heating.
“And I don’t remember?”
“I don’t either, if that helps.”
“No. No, it doesn’t!” Kyler clutched the sheets to his chest. A flush cascaded over his pale skin, starting in his neck and spreading across his shoulders and pecs. Iskandar had seen his best friend flare like this before—his temper might not be quick to burn, but when it did ignite…wow. “This is bullshit. How did this happen, Isk? Why can’t we remember?”
More heat flashed beneath Iskander’s own olive-toned skin—embarrassment. A sky-load of embarrassment. “I don’t know. I’m…I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?”
An aborted chuckle jerked past Iskander’s lips. “Because this is the worst thing that could have happened?” He focused on his towel, making sure it was secure. “I mean, I’m supposed to protect you—”
“Dammit, Isk, I don’t need—”
Iskander closed his eyes to shut out the sight of Kyler’s hurting, sky-blue gaze. It wasn’t a new argument. He knew Kyler could take care of himself, but still—he was the one who dragged his friend into the world of superhero-ing. “I don’t know why this happened, but I promise, I’m going to fix it.”
He heard shuffles as Kyler moved on the bed. After a minute, his best friend’s arm stretched across his shoulders. “You’re forgetting the promise I made,” Ky said. “We’re in this together and that means we’re gonna fix this together. Whatever it takes.”
Iskander let out a sigh of relief and leaned more strongly into Kyler’s embrace. Yes…together. They’d already proven that together, they could do just about anything.
Getting past the paparazzi camped outside the hotel—which turned out to be the Venetian, not shabby at all—was not a pleasant experience. They jostled and crowded, shouting for attention. They weren’t in the crowd long before Iskander flapped his wings and they rose above street level, heading to the rooms they’d originally booked as themselves, not RedHawk and LandSpeed. Somehow, Kyler managed to keep a smile on his face as they waved at the photographers and the fans, pretending getting married was the best thing ever.
He didn’t have to pretend too hard.
Okay, those kinds of thoughts were not helping. He stared at his reflection in the mirror above the sink in the tiny off-strip hotel they’d checked into the day before but hadn’t slept in. Sneaking in the back door so no one would know LandSpeed and RedHawk were Kyler King and Iskander El-Amin was second nature at this point. Iskander had retreated to his own room, which was fine—Ky figured they both needed a breather and a chance to work out a plan beyond smiling for the cameras.
By the way Isk had freaked out this morning, making the best of a bad situation wasn’t even something Kyler would suggest, no matter how much he wanted to. It hurt, to know that this whole accidental marriage thing was a nightmare in his best friend’s eyes. But then, Iskander had never thought of him like that, had he? Kyler had thought the night he came out as bi to Isk, about a year after they’d become friends, would have been enough to nudge that particular door open. Hey, I’m here, and I like cock! Can I have some of yours?
Instead, Iskander had smiled that gentle, wonderful smile, thanked Kyler for trusting him, and offered to be his wingman at one of the local gay clubs. Can’t get much more thanks but no thanks than that.
He looked down at the ring on his finger, twirling it with his thumb. He should take it off, but the idea of doing so sent shards of ice through his heart. Isk’s nightmare was a dream come true for him. And that so wasn’t fair, to either of them. They were friends—best friends, partners—and that had to be enough.
With a sigh, he straightened. Their relationship wasn’t the most important thing here. They still had no idea how they’d lost so much time yesterday—it would be one thing to get knocked out (that happened often enough), but to have evidence that they’d been awake and aware and doing things, with just no memory of it…
It was freaky. Thank God they hadn’t done something crazier than get married.
The door between their two rooms burst open and Ky jumped, rushing to meet whatever new threat—
It was Iskander. On his phone, with a finger held up in the universal gesture to wait. Ky focused on breathing for a minute, trying to convince his body that all this adrenaline wasn’t needed.
“Got it. Thanks, Marie. We’ll be there in twenty.” Isk disconnected and smiled at Ky. “Remember Marie? Crystalline?”
Oh right. The telepath hero who’d helped them out a few years back. “I’d forgotten she had moved down here.”
“Yes, the dry weather here is better for her arthritis. She’s free to do a reading for us this morning and help us find some answers.”
Ky closed his eyes and let out a breath. Answers would be good. Even if they were ones he didn’t want.
The purple neon “Palm Reading” sign didn’t look any different from a half-dozen other such establishments Iskander had seen in various cities across the United States. There was nothing to show that the proprietor here was a true psychic and not a con artist looking to scam innocents out of their hard-earned dollars. The idea that Marie had resorted to making money off her talent didn’t sit well with him—but maybe a better way to look at it would be that she had found a different way to help people when her body could no longer support active crime-fighting.
“Wizened” was about the best word Iskander could come up with to describe Marie. She was shorter than he remembered, with far more wrinkles scoring her face. Her long-fingered hands were gnarled and twisted and her hair, once a rich brown, had been taken over by silver and white. It had only been a couple of years since he’d seen her—had she looked this old then? When she stood, straightening with some effort from behind the small table covered in purple satin, he understood why she’d moved to Vegas and why she was no longer crime-fighting.
Her smile, though—that was still the same. Wide and welcoming.
“Iskander! Boy, it is great to see you. And Kyler!” Thin arms reached out to pull Kyler to her. She stiffened as she touched him, then pulled his head down so she could whisper something in his ear. That done, she patted his head and turned to Iskander, holding out her hands for his. “Let me look at you.”
Iskander placed his palms against hers, unsurprised when her eyes went all milky white. “Yes. Yes, I see,” she murmured. She blinked and her eyes returned to their normal blue. “Always gotta be the weird situations for RedHawk, hey.”
Iskander sputtered. “It’s not like I plan these things, Marie—”
She smirked and waved a hand in a gesture for them to sit around the table. “No, of course not. You just attract them like bees to honey.”
“So, can you help?” Kyler asked as he settled into one of the chairs. Iskander wondered briefly what Marie had said to him a moment before, but quickly put it out of his head. If Kyler wanted him to know, he’d tell him.
Marie grimaced. “There’s a…fuzzy spot, I’d guess about eighteen hours ago? I can see before and I can see after, but I can’t see that.”
Ky’s jaw clenched and he scrubbed a hand through his hair. Iskander pressed his lips together tightly. He hated seeing his friend so torn up about this…probably wondering how he was going to explain it to everyone back home. Though Kyler had revealed years ago that he considered himself bisexual, Iskander had only ever seen the man date women and he’d come to the conclusion that Ky’s confession was his awkward way of telling Iskander that he supported Isk being gay. If he’d given any sign that he was interested in Iskander…
But he hadn’t. He loved the man, unconditionally; had ever since Ky had held him that night in college when his dad had caught him on a date with his boyfriend and disowned him on the spot. He could still hear the anger and scorn in his father’s voice as he’d berated Iskander for what he called his “choice.” Their family—special, descended from royalty, marked by the gods with their wings—could not harbor such an abomination. He never thought he’d find acceptance in his college roommate. Never thought he’d find a kindred soul, someone who also had gifts, who would have his back.
There was no way he’d ever ask Kyler for more.
His heart ached at the turmoil Ky had to be feeling. And this was how he repaid him, by letting this—whatever this was—happen? Maybe it would be best not to remember what had led them here and just deal with the fallout, instead. “Marie—”
She cut off his words with a flap of her gnarled hand and held it out, expectantly. “Well, come on. It’s going to take a little more effort than my usual readings.” Her other hand was extended toward Kyler. “You too. And hold each other’s hands, please. One big happy circle of discovery.”
Iskander cast an uncertain glance at Ky. Was Kyler ready for the truth?
Iskander stared at Kyler’s hand, suddenly terrified. Talking to Marie had seemed like the perfect solution. Who else would be able to dig out the truth? But now…
Now he didn’t want to know.
Something had happened yesterday that made them think getting married was a wonderful idea. The smiles caught on video hadn’t been faked. Neither had the soreness in his ass. If he stuck his hand in Kyler’s, he’d either find out that everything in the last twenty-four hours was fake…or that it was more true than he was prepared to face. Because there was something in his chest, a spark he’d tried his damnedest to ignore for years, and if it turned out that somehow it escaped its cage…
Iskander jerked to his feet and stepped back from the table, rubbing his palms on his pants. “I—” His voice failed as he looked at Kyler. “I just…I need some air.”
Ignoring Kyler’s soft protest and Marie’s louder one, he turned and strode through the main entrance, then paused on the sidewalk under the purple sign. Closing his eyes, he leaned against the window, barely resisting the urge to smack his head against the glass. Coming to see Marie again was his idea, and to get cold feet just as they were about to get some answers—
Iskander snapped his eyes open to find an unfamiliar face looming in front of him.
“Hello, RedHawk,” a deep voice growled.
Then everything went black.
Kyler tried not to flinch as Marie stroked his hand in what he assumed was supposed to be a soothing manner. “We could try it with just you,” she suggested. “I need you to clear your mind.”
He glanced back at the front of the space, where Iskander had disappeared. This little mind exploration thing really didn’t feel like something he should be doing without Isk beside him. And why had he run off, anyway? For a second there, he’d looked afraid. Was finding out the truth really so scary?
Maybe when it was something you’d dreaded, yeah. Iskander had made it clear that he didn’t want a romantic relationship and Ky had respected that. Honestly, he wouldn’t give up Iskander’s friendship for anything. No one else knew all of him. No one else truly accepted him, because there was a huge part of who he was that he kept hidden. When he’d accidentally revealed his powers in college—and Iskander taken off his ring to show his wings—it had been a lightbulb moment. Ever since, they’d been together. Platonic partners.
This felt like something they both needed to partake in. Or endure, maybe. Ky wasn’t sure which word best described it.
He pulled his hand from Marie’s. Or tried to. Suddenly, her frail hand gripped his with a strength that could not be natural. Kyler tried again, jerking his arm, and panic started to flutter in his chest.
“What the hell?” he gasped.
“I tried to do this the friendly way,” Marie said, her voice so very apologetic.
She looked over his shoulder. Instinct had his arm whipping up, faster than the eye could see, to block the attack. Though his attacker was moving forward and adrenaline rushed through Kyler’s veins, he didn’t miss any details. He never did. His brain was wired to slow down as things sped up—or maybe it was wired to process data just as fast as his body was meant to move.
The man standing before him was huge, with olive skin that reminded him of Iskander’s. This guy was far more broad than his friend, though—massive shoulders, wide face and nose, and eyes such a dark brown they appeared almost black. A scar bisected one bushy, heavy brow.
Kyler stood and tried to back up, but Marie hung on. How the hell…?
“I can’t hold him forever, moron!” she shouted at her…henchman?
He squared his shoulders and Ky did his best to prepare for another hit. But instead of striking out, the guy reached into his coat. Pulled out a gun. Fired.
Pain blazed across Kyler’s chest. He could feel himself falling…
“Why didn’t we ever really talk about this before?”
Iskander shrugged, then wrapped his wings more securely around the man in his arms. Kyler sat with his back to Isk’s chest, his breaths calm and even, as they looked out over the lights of the strip from their perch atop the Palazzo. Not the highest point in Vegas, but it was private, and that was more important right now. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I was scared, I guess, but I don’t really know why. It…doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? That we’d be quiet about this when we talk about so much else.”
“It’s always been you, Isk. You know that now, right?”
Iskander blinked his eyes open, a hundred different thoughts and sensations hitting him at once. He remembered—part of what happened, anyway. His head hurt. His eyes didn’t want to focus. Hard concrete under his hip and shoulder made his bones complain, leaving him chilled and miserable. Biting back a groan, he looked around, taking in the utilitarian elements of his prison—it looked like a makeshift one, as opposed to one with bars. The concrete floor was cold, but the air was not, suggesting that he wasn’t below ground. He sat up and pressed a hand to his head as it protested, then turned to survey the rest of the room.
Kyler lay in a rumpled heap beside him, scarlet streaks of blood garish against gauze that had been packed haphazardly to his shoulder.
“Oh skies. Oh skies, Kyler.” Iskander scrambled closer on his hands and knees, breath coming too fast, heart beating like a trapped bird in his ribcage. His hands fluttered over Ky’s chest, unsure if he should lift the gauze to check the wound. Everyone thought that LandSpeed’s metabolism should mean that he healed superfast, too, but he didn’t. Never had. If anything, minor wounds were a threat. Kyler bled so much, so fast, he ran a real risk of hypovolemic shock with a wound that, on anyone else, would mean stitches and a few days of taking it easy.
He was so damned pale. Was he still bleeding? Iskander was about to touch the gauze when Kyler’s good arm shot upward.
“Don’t,” Ky gasped, his brow furrowed with the effort of talking.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Iskander bent forward, brushing his lips against Ky’s cheek and forehead. “What happened?”
“Shot,” Kyler said, his eyes still closed, though the lines that scored his forehead were easing. Just a little. “Marie.”
“Marie?” Hadn’t he thought something like that just before… “Oh my skies. We’d been to see her before. Do you remember?”
Kyler shook his head, the barest movement against the concrete.
“I called her. While we were at Technogeddon. I remembered she’d moved here and I thought it would be good to catch up. We went to her place for a late lunch and—” He could see it, her smile, the three of them holding hands at her insistence on doing a reading for old time’s sake. Then— “Walls came down. Things I’d thought I could never tell you, I wanted to tell you. And…”
“I felt the same. I remember,” Kyler said, his voice low.
“It was real.”
“So…fucking…real.” Kyler’s eyelids fluttered.
“No, no, stay with me.” Iskander pulled Kyler close, trying not to hurt him but needing to be in contact. He pressed his hand gently to the bandage, hoping pressure would staunch any lingering bleeding. “Remember? We went back to the hotel, got our uniforms, so I could take you up to the Palazzo.”
“Didn’t get our uniforms…and run…though.”
“No, we didn’t. We made love.” And it had been…incredible. Perfect. More than the physical act, unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. “How could I have forgotten that?”
“Don’t…dunno.” Kyler’s head lolled to the side.
“Ky!” Shit. Ky needed more than Isk pressing the gauze and holding him. They needed to get out of here. Iskander shifted, placing Kyler flat on the floor again, but before he could move away, Ky’s fingers found his.
“I don’t…regret…it,” Kyler said. “Even when we didn’t…remember.”
“We’re going to do this right,” Iskander insisted. “But I need to get you to a hospital.”
Kyler tried to hang onto consciousness—though what he’d do if Iskander actually needed his help, he had no idea. He was so bloody cold. The room that surrounded them seemed like something out of a nightmare, fuzzy and unreal, but still horrific.
Sounds reached his ears, but opening his eyes had suddenly become an insurmountable task. His eyelids felt like they weighed fifteen pounds each. The world receded, more and more—but gentle arms around him, the familiar brush of wings, brought him back just enough to understand that whatever he’d had to do, Isk was back.
“Got you,” he murmured, lifting Kyler into his arms with little effort.
It was one of their secrets, this increased strength of Iskander’s when his wings were out. Isk had told him once it was related to the increased stamina and energy required to fly, power that was released into his body when he allowed his wings free. Maybe it was physiological. But Kyler always suspected it was more magic, like the ring that hid Iskander’s wings. Magic, unknown, mysterious, wonderful.
It wasn’t the first time Isk had flown with Kyler, but it was the first time he’d been carried like this, cradled in Iskander’s unwavering arms. He never had a thought about Iskander losing his grip or falling—he knew he was safe with his friend. His…husband.
Yeah, his husband. God, he liked the sound of that.
“Love you,” he whispered into Iskander’s neck.
He heard Iskander shouting his name, but even that sound couldn’t hold back the darkness.
Waiting for Kyler to open his eyes again was torture.
The first thing Iskander had done on arrival at the hospital and handing Kyler over for care—after refusing medical treatment for the black eye the lone henchman standing guard had given him—was grab someone’s phone and contact their government liaison. Two somber-faced, black-suited women had shown up within twenty minutes, their briefcases filled with specialized medical information and confidentiality agreements. They basically took control of everything.
Thank the skies. Iskander couldn’t spare a thought for anything but Kyler.
Twenty-four hours had passed without a peep out of Ky. Iskander had dozed in the chair, jerking awake every so often as his subconscious reminded him of that moment when Ky had whispered that he loved him and then gone limp, so limp that Iskander had thought he’d been just…gone. The panic he’d felt at that, the utter helplessness…
“You twist that ring any harder and you’re going to break it,” Ky rasped. “Then bye-bye secret identity.”
Iskander looked down, unsurprised to see his fingers fastened to the ring on his middle finger. Trying to keep his thoughts and expression casual and not leap for joy that Kyler was awake and talking, Iskander smiled. “Welcome back.”
Kyler made a humming noise and Iskander reached for the cup of ice chips he’d been keeping fresh and nearby in case it was needed. “Throat dry?”
Kyler managed a small nod and Iskander carefully fed him an ice chip.
“How long?” Ky managed after the water wet his throat.
“A day. I called in the Feds—I think we might have this wing of the floor to ourselves now.”
“Liked the suite at the Venetian better.”
Iskander brushed Kyler’s red hair away from his forehead. “You scared me,” he said softly.
Kyler turned to press his forehead more firmly into Iskander’s hand, sighing. “So what’d I miss?”
“When the Feds found out you’d been hurt—and I told them that Crystalline had gone rogue in her retirement—they activated SunSpot and Devil.” Everyone had heard of that pair. They were famous for stopping a recent terrorist attack at the Hoover Dam. “They tracked her down and brought her in pretty quickly, just before she carried out what might have been the biggest heist in Vegas history. She was going to wipe everyone at the Bellagio and make off with everything in the vault.”
“Is that what she did to us?”
“I don’t think so. Seems like she wanted us distracted and out of the way, but not hurt, so she unlocked our emotional walls and just waited for the fallout. It was probably supposed to last for longer than a day.”
Kyler gestured for another ice chip. “She must’ve been scared out of her mind when we showed up again.”
“Right? I think she was planning on wiping us that time, until I walked away and she needed to take more drastic measures. Maybe. I don’t really know—I’m not interested in picking her brain for motive.”
“So how’d we end up married as RedHawk and LandSpeed?”
“You don’t remember?” Kyler shook his head tiredly and Iskander couldn’t help but brush his hair again. “It was a spur of the moment thing. Emotional walls down, right? No barriers. We figured that we could play off being superhero impersonators…but then one of my wings twitched at the chapel, so it clearly wasn’t a fake, and they figured it out. Someone called the press, and…” He trailed off with a rueful grin.
“Kinda stupid of us.”
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say we weren’t thinking very clearly.”
Kyler’s bright blue eyes met Iskander’s and everything about him just seemed to freeze. “No?” he whispered.
“No. But.” Iskander threaded his fingers through Kyler’s. “I’m thinking clearly now.”
Kyler swallowed. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Iskander got up from his chair and turned it around, close to Kyler’s bed, so he could kneel on it. Kneeling on the floor would put him too low to see Kyler’s face. “Kyler King, will you marry me?” He leaned forward, over the chair back, and pressed his forehead to Kyler’s. “This time, there will be no way we’ll forget anything. Not the ceremony, not the wedding night, nothing.”
Kyler closed his eyes and his throat worked, his jaw clenching. Iskander hoped those were happy tears Ky was holding back. “’Bout time.”
“Partners?” Iskander held his breath for a moment.
“In every way,” Ky agreed. “Yes.”