Khan bit into the container, letting the pressure milk the venom from his hollow fangs. The taste of the plastic cover stretched over the cup was disgusting, but he was used to the procedure now. He repeated the process a couple more times until his glands dried up.
He removed his teeth from the extraction kit and coiled his long body as he got used to the burn in his mouth. However, it faded fast and he quickly shifted back to human. His tail shrank into his body and his body tingled as his arms and legs re-grew and the world changed around him from large and sharp to the more familiar colors and size of his human vision. When the shift was complete, he rolled his shoulders.
Standing, he grabbed his clothes and pulled them on. He’d just finished buttoning his shirt when Ozzy and Viktor entered his office without knocking.
“What are you doing here so early, Khan?” Ozzy asked.
Viktor immediately narrowed in on the extraction kit, and Khan recognized the spark of morbid curiosity glinting in the griffin’s eyes. Uh-uh, not happening.
“Don’t touch that!” Khan hastily picked the glass with his venom in it up off the floor and put the sealed cover on, making it safe for the others to handle. Even a single drop would kill them in under ten minutes. Unlike in the animal kingdom, king cobra shifters were the most dangerous venomous snakes in existence.
“I wasn’t going to,” Viktor retorted. They both knew he was. “What are you doing?”
“Donating venom,” he answered shortly in a tone he hoped didn’t invite further questioning. He should have known better with these two idiots.
“Is this to do with that doctor you told us about in Italy?”
He weighed up the likelihood that they’d drop it and grunted. Like that would happen.
“What’s his name?” Viktor asked in a singsong voice that grated on Khan’s ears.
Khan didn’t answer. God, it was much better when he was in his cobra skin and not able to hear these two fools as much. One of these days, he was going to get fed up of the jokes and eat them while they were asleep in their recliners.
“Oh, got it. His mystery man is Dr. Casey Jameson,” Ozzy read out, holding up the delivery box Khan had already labeled and addressed, ready to take to Casey. Khan snatched it out of the bear’s big hands and put it away on the desk by the door. Unfortunately, Scott’s new mate, George, came through the door and caught sight of the sender information sticker as he walked past the desk and into the room.
“Who is Anonymous Jones? Is that your porn star name? Because if it is, I have to tell you it needs work,” George said with a frown.
Khan glared at the butterfly shifter and wished that he’d never told George that he was family. Since then, George had been just as annoying as the rest of his ragtag group of adopted siblings.
“Don’t get involved,” he warned. It was bad enough fending off questions from the bear and the griffin.
“Mean.” George rolled his eyes and ignored him, picking up the box to have a closer look.
“Yeah, don’t be grumpy or he’ll get Scott to hound your ass for the next few weeks. Hell, Merlin made one comment about George’s wings and our dragony friend is now on shit duty for a month guarding one of the big-ass sisters.”
“Who are the big-ass sisters?” Khan regretted asking as soon as the question had left his lips. He’d heard Merlin had gone on another job, but not what it was.
“Don’t ask me. Apparently, they’re famous, but I only see talentless, shallow idiots made of plastic and silicon.” George waved away the comment and sat in his chair, whirling around and lifting his feet.
Shoving George’s feet off his desk, he then carefully packed up his venom, placing the cup into a Styrofoam container before taping it up then putting it into the cardboard delivery box.
“Hey, here he is. One Dr. Casey Jameson, twenty-five years old from Connecticut, before he moved out to the city for university. Boy genius who graduated with a PhD at nineteen. He’s hot, especially the ash-blond hair and stunning hazel eyes. You may be punching above your weight there.” Ozzy handed the phone over to Viktor.
George hopped up from the chair to peek at the screen.
“He is hot.” George gave him a thumbs-up and smiled.
“The only reason I’d kick him out of bed would be to fuck him on the floor,” Viktor said with a whistle of appreciation. The words seized his blood and Khan’s cobra hissed its displeasure. His gums ached as though he was in his other form and ready to strike down his prey.
“Touch him and I’ll break your fingers,” Khan said evenly, despite the rage surging through him at the thought of someone encroaching on his territory.
Images of Viktor flirting with Casey, charming him into bed and touching Casey entered Khan’s mind and he lost his temper. His snake took over and he shifted, slithering out of his clothes toward Viktor.
“Oh, shit!” George jumped away from Viktor and the phone, and Khan detected the butterfly’s heart racing wildly.
Ozzy moved away too, putting himself next to George protectively.
Khan sensed the vibrations on the air and through the ground rather than hearing the actual sounds through his ears.
“You’re on your own, birdbrain.” The bear picked up George and flung him over his shoulder before taking off as George yelped in surprise.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know! Jesus, Khan, it was a joke!” Viktor looked shocked and unsure as the others left him to his fate, flicking his gaze back and forth between Khan and the door. Khan uncoiled his body slowly with a hiss. Viktor backpedaled until he crashed into the wall, almost climbing up it in his attempt to get away from Khan as he glided closer.
Viktor slid along the wall, and Khan followed him, eyes tracking Viktor’s every movement, then he flared out his hood. When the shifter scrambled up onto the desk, knocking papers and pens on to the floor, Khan would have laughed if he was able.
Khan braced his lower body and rose until he was eye to eye with Viktor. He flicked his tongue out to taste the perspiration coming off Viktor, enjoying the spice of fear. Then Viktor changed his approach, his eyes flaring with the power of his own beast, but it didn’t scare Khan. He knew there wasn’t enough room for a griffin in this office and also that if he wanted to, he could strike before Viktor moved. He stared back and hissed as he swayed back and forth to stay balanced, standing tall at seven feet above the floor.
“I’m sorry. I won’t touch your human,” Viktor promised, cringing back against the office window.
He lowered himself back to the floor and wove his head in the direction of the door with a clear meaning for Viktor to leave. The griffin leaped off the desk and sprinted out of the room. He’d never seen Viktor move so quickly.
Lowering himself back to the soft carpet, he stewed in his anger for a while longer, unwilling to shift back or admit that he might have overreacted. He curled up into a nest under the desk, only able to tuck about half his body under there. It wouldn’t be the first time or the last that one of them had acted rashly. In a family as big and as varied as theirs, there were bound to be arguments. However, that didn’t mean he was going to be the first to apologize. Let Birdbrain be the one to extend that olive branch.
* * * *
Khan entered Casey’s lab building, still thinking about his confrontation with Viktor. He’d have to have a conversation with his brother soon. Not yet, though. It wouldn’t hurt for Viktor and the others to be reminded that he was just as dominant and dangerous as they were, more so since his bite was deadly.
The larger shifters, like Viktor, Merlin and even Aleksi, tended to forget that size wasn’t everything when it came to the food chain, and just because Khan didn’t deign to react to their overconfidence and occasional arrogant provocations didn’t mean he was less of a threat.
He took the stairs, hoping to burn off some of the excess energy. It had been a few weeks since he’d had a reason to drop in on Casey and he was eager to see the interesting human again. The offices above and below Casey’s had emptied after the renters moved on to other areas so he couldn’t use the excuse of delivering something for them and Khan’s donations didn’t need to be delivered more than twice a month.
Now the reality of seeing Casey again riled him up until his heart beat faster and his throat became dry. He reached the top of the stairs and entered the corridor. Once he’d tucked the box under one arm, he patted his tight uniform shirt smooth over his chest and stomach with his free hand.
Once he was happy with how he looked, Khan pressed the buzzer.
It took only a minute for Casey to appear on the other side of the glass door. Khan waved back uncomfortably as Casey greeted him with a huge smile and entered the code for the security alarm. He was glad that Casey had finally taken his advice about that and set it to arm the door and window when Casey was inside working.
“Hi, Roan. I was beginning to wonder if I’d see you again. I missed talking to you,” Casey said, his face easily readable and friendly as he opened the door.
“I know, it’s been a while, but there aren’t many jobs up this way when you have no neighbors.” Khan stepped inside and didn’t move away when Casey brushed up against him to close the door behind him. Casey’s once very short hair was now a few inches in length, long enough that he could see it was silky soft. “Nice hair.”
Casey shrugged his sort of apology away, blushing slightly. “You like it? The shaved look wasn’t as popular with some people as I thought it would be, so I decided to start growing it back out. Do you want me to sign now? I know I forgot last time. I hope you didn’t get into any trouble?”
“No, it was fine.” Khan played it cool. He hadn’t noticed that Casey hadn’t signed for his delivery last time. Khan was going to have to pay more attention or else Casey could begin to suspect he wasn’t a legitimate courier.
“Oh, good.” Casey sighed with relief, and Khan’s chest tightened at the thought that Casey had been worried for him.
This whole charade had started out as a way to get Casey out of his system but he was no closer to doing that now than he had been at the very beginning when he was left chasing his scaly tail after their one night together.
He absently held out the signature device and deposited the box in the regular place on the table. There was more equipment—glass petri dishes, test tubes and microscopes—than last time. The computer hooked up to all the more technical machines was also on and several things whirred and beeped intermittently in the background.
“It’s all go here. What’s up, Doc?”
Casey laughed at his joke and took his hand, pulling him excitedly over to the computer screen. “I just got the first batch of results in on my formula.”
“Really? You found a test subject?” The last time he was here, Casey had been having trouble getting the necessary permissions to take the research to the next step of trying to bond bio-nanotechnology to Khan’s venom. This was a lot of progress in a short amount of time.
“Yes.” Casey mumbled something more, but Khan didn’t catch it.
Fortunately, Casey wasn’t a good liar and Khan only had to stare at the human for a long minute to get him to spill the beans.
“I used myself, okay? The medical board wouldn’t give me permission to test my formula and the bio-nanotechnology on a live human host, but I don’t need their go-ahead to test it on myself,” Casey explained, voice fast with enthusiasm.
Khan’s heart stopped beating for a moment as he processed the information then kicked in again at double time. “What the hell!”
“No, listen. I only used a harmless virus on the surface of my skin.” Casey waved it away as if it was nothing to be concerned over then turned.
He sucked in a deep breath, covertly shifting his tongue so he could scrutinize Casey’s scent. There was no taint of illness or pain. Not even the acrid hint of medicine. Casey seemed in perfect health, just excited and marginally turned on. He changed his tongue back and stared, waiting for an explanation.
Casey clicked rapidly, whizzing the mouse arrow all over the screen. Suddenly, two photos came up on the screen labeled ‘Before’ and ‘After’. They were both images of the sole of a foot, one with a blemish, one without.
“You gave yourself a verruca and treated it?” Khan calmed down as he made sense of what he was seeing and realized that Casey was fine and the stupid human hadn’t infected himself with something life-threatening.
“Don’t you get it? That means I have evidence and proof of concept. The board has to give me final permission now, no matter who whispers in their ear.” An uncharacteristic note of bitterness crept in at the end and Khan wanted to ask what had provoked it, but the cold reality that Casey could have done something much worse and possibly not been able to reverse it overruled the small curiosity.
“Promise me you won’t do it again,” Khan pressed, grabbing Casey by the arms.
“Casey.” Khan’s voice was fierce, but he needed Casey to understand that he was serious here. This was non-negotiable.
Casey seemed surprised by his outburst. “I won’t do it again.”
He dropped his hands from Casey and stepped back, taking deep breaths so Casey’s scent would soothe him.
They fell into an awkward silence that Khan didn’t know how to fix.
Eventually, it was Casey who spoke.
“Your friend finished the scarring gel treatment last month, right? How are they?” Casey didn’t look at him as he asked the question.
“Yes, Kale has no scarring at all now. I’m grateful,” Khan said, swallowing the bite of guilt that struck him. When he’d gone to Casey as Roan asking a favor, the man had helped without hesitation. It hadn’t mattered that Casey wasn’t supposed to do it, all the man had asked was whether his friend needed it.
The scar treatment had actually been a byproduct discovered not long after he’d started providing Casey with venom and he knew Casey had started the process to get it signed off on for use in burn clinics and veterans’ hospitals. He’d seen the paperwork last time he was here and knew Casey had no plans to make a profit from it either.
“Thank you.” He gently ran the backs of his fingers over Casey’s cheek.
“That’s great. No need to feel grateful. That’s what friends are for,” Casey said with a millimeter smile, finally looking at him.
Khan relaxed as the awkwardness between them faded. He wandered back over to the computer and tapped the screen. “Show me what you’ve got, then. I know you must be dying to show off how clever you are.”
“Hey!” Casey narrowed his eyes at him in a glare, but the hard look quickly dissolved as a twitch of muscle at the corner of Casey’s mouth ruined the stern effect. “Okay, you’re right. I am. Have you got another delivery or can you stay for a while?”
“You’re my only job today.” Khan had a clear schedule for the rest of the week after coming off his last assignment.
“That’s not a lot. Is your company not doing well here? I’m sure I can find something to send a couple times a week if that will help, that you’re bringing in work for them. I’d miss you if you didn’t come out here anymore.” The hint of panic and sadness in Casey’s eyes confirmed the truth of his words.
And the guilt returned in full force.
“My job is safe, don’t worry about it,” Khan said quickly, trying to shut down this area of conversation. He didn’t want to add more lies to his façade.
“Oh.” Casey clearly craved to ask more about it, his brow furrowing with confusion, but, thankfully, he shrugged it off and refocused on his research. “So, you already know that I’ve had success on the surface with the cobra venom. I extracted certain properties to kill off any layers of skin that weren’t perfect to encourage the body to reproduce cells that matched the patches of dermis that had been accepted. Then I moved on to bonding the venom to bio-nanotechnology to further select molecular targets, i.e. viruses and disease cores. I managed to treat the verruca virus on myself. Now I can go to the board and they will have to give me permission for further trials so I can experiment with patients suffering from serious diseases.” Casey excitedly explained everything, bringing up images on the reawakened screen of the bio-nanotechnology connecting with the venom molecules.
It was impressive and, admittedly, most of the science stuff went over his head, but Khan recognized the potential of a spectacular breakthrough in medicine when he saw it. But there was a sticking point. The mention of experimentation made the sides of his neck ache as if his snake hood wanted to expand while in his human form.
“Where are you going to find them?” He pointed to the trials plan on the table Casey had held up earlier.
Casey waved away the question with a relieved sigh, as if he hadn’t been sure if Khan would blow up again having mentioned the self-testing. “I already have a list of about ten people who are willing and eager to take part.”
That wasn’t a complete answer, though.
“How?” Old worries resurfaced and Khan tensed, staring at Casey, hard.
“They are individuals I’ve met who are dying and current medicine cannot do anything for them. I got to talking to a few over coffee one time and told them about what I’m doing. That was enough to get them on board for this. They know it likely won’t save them, but it could lead to a way to save those who come after them.”
It all sounded too good to be true, too convenient. Casey was holding something back from him, not being totally honest, and in his mind, Khan thought back to the investigations and headlines about the company Casey used to work for.
“And they agree to this?”
He focused his hearing on Casey’s heartbeat and let his snake senses expand to center on Casey’s skin temperature and scent. If the human lied, Khan would know.
“Yes, Roan, I wouldn’t conduct any research like this involving people without there being complete disclosure and consent,” Casey snapped, turning away as his face contorted in a look of disgust and hurt.
After silently collecting the papers spread out on the table into a tidy pile, Casey then clicked the computer off again. The stiff line of Casey’s back and shoulders screamed ‘hands off’, but Khan couldn’t leave it like this.
“No, I thought you would be different. But you’re the same as all the rest, believing the lies that follow me around until I’m so paranoid I think I’m actually being watched all the time—” Casey’s voice broke and Khan picked up on the sharp sting of disappointment coming from him.
“I’m sorry,” Khan rushed out, internally cursing himself for not being more tactful in his questioning.
“I think it would be better if you left.” Casey still didn’t turn around.
For years, Khan had managed to keep a lid on his fears, worked past them and had done his job protecting others and keeping his emotions under wraps. The only ones who saw him smile were his family and they were also the only ones he spoke to outside of terse exchanges. It was what made him good at his job, the capability to not react to anything or any situation in fear, to be discreet and an effective protector. Yet, around Casey, the hard skin he’d grown for himself was paper-thin and fragile to the point where he said things without thinking and let the hidden nightmares see daylight again after so long.
“Just leave, Roan.” Casey’s voice was quiet and sad, filled with such a depth of disappointment that Khan felt it in his soul.
He lifted a hand to reach out for Casey, but he hesitated with it a few inches away. Maybe this was for the best. This sentimentality made him vulnerable, weak. Perhaps he should break ties and simply send his venom via an actual delivery service or ask one of his brothers to do it. It would be a clean break.
“Goodbye, Casey,” he said with a torturous sense of finality.
Khan forced himself to move, despite the clawing need to stay and fix things with Casey. By the time he reached the lab door, he was both hoping and dreading in equal measures that Casey would call him back. But Casey didn’t say a word, and Khan opened the door then exited. He let the door shut behind him with a loud bang.