The alarm went off at 7:30, as it always did. Most mornings, its shrill electronic voice wrenched Ethan abruptly from sleep into another day. This morning, dreams had wakened him well before the night paled and died. His nightmares of demons and blood-spattered walls came less often than they used to, but he didn't find that entirely a blessing. Unexpectedness made them more painful, like a sudden slap.
Prison had robbed him of easy sleep. He'd watched more than his share of dawns, this last couple of years, although by nature he was a late sleeper. Sunrise was best seen on the way to bed, not as a taunting preface to the day.
Rupert was blindly patting the night table for the clock. Ethan reached over him and switched it off. "Morning," he said, draping an arm over Rupert's waist and kissing the back of his neck. His tousled hair smelled of the rosemary-scented shampoo he liked. With an incoherent murmur, Rupert turned over and kissed him, loose-lipped and sleepy.
Morning had its compensations. This was the second best moment of the day, this rediscovery. Nothing--not snores nor sour breath nor Rupert's nightly theft of the covers--marred the relief of his presence. Their first morning kiss meant that no bad fairy had come in the night and turned all Ethan's gold back into straw. Some insomniac nights it took all his limited willpower not to accidentally nudge Rupert awake, just to check.
The kiss grew into several, and then into browsing, exploratory caresses, not quite sexual. Ethan relaxed, letting this ritual banish the night's ghosts and terrors.
"Sleep all right?" Rupert asked.
Ethan shook his head, and got a comforting kiss on the temple. "You?" Rupert never admitted to nightmares, but sometimes Ethan woke alone at night and found him in the study, reading or listening to music through headphones. At least the business of the 3:00 a.m. whiskies had stopped. That had been worrying.
It seemed to be the truth, this time. "Good." Ethan stretched hugely, wanting to go back to sleep. It always happened that way. Once day had begun, once Rupert was awake beside him, his sleepless tension eased. "I'd better get up. Student at nine."
"I'll put the kettle on."
As he hauled himself out of bed, Ethan ruefully thought of a youth full of late nights. Most of his favorite memories were set at night: voices and music heard in the dark; chiaroscuro images by streetlight; the Braille textures of clothes, hair, and skin under his hands. Sleep had been too mundane for his concern, then.
He ran the shower painfully hot and tried a new soap, scented with juniper, that was meant to be invigorating. It only made him crave a gin and tonic, preferably while sitting on a deck chair with a view of the Aegean. A minute under cold water helped a little, but he was beginning to feel a hard slog of a day coming on. For a wistful moment he thought about pulling the curtains tightly, unplugging the telephone, and going back to bed. But he had three lessons today, and Rupert had two. Unlike students, teachers can't skive off.
Glumly, he looked through the cupboard for something to wear. He could give in to the mood and dress for comfort, or fight it. A red Dolce and Gabbana shirt, one of his favorites, was the first thing his eyes fell on. All right, then, he'd fight. He paired it with black, low-slung, sexy trousers. Sexy was probably not the effect he should be going for when he'd be seeing students, but it might be amusing. Let the dewy, fresh-faced horrors see he wasn't entirely past it.
Not too bad, he decided after a long look in the mirror. Good bones and thinness served him well. There was no denying he looked his age, not the way his hair had grayed in prison. But in the circumstances, looking a well-preserved, healthy fifty merited thankfulness. Still . . . he hated the loose skin on his neck, the lines around his mouth. Rupert had laughed himself half sick the one time Ethan mentioned plastic surgery, and then taken him to bed. The reassurance of his desire, the things he'd said and somehow meant--beautiful, want you, love to look at you, love to touch you--had settled the matter. For now, anyway.
Rupert, naturally, was one of those men who got better looking with age.
And while he moped up here, his tea was probably getting cold. Ethan hastily pulled on his shoes and went downstairs to the sun-bright kitchen. Rupert was invisible behind the Guardian. He must have gone out for the papers while Ethan showered. Ethan grabbed the arts and culture section of the Times and poured himself a cup of tea, managing not to frown at the scent of bergamot. Although Earl Grey smelled gorgeous, the taste left him indifferent. He preferred a good plain Darjeeling, or, for that matter, coffee. But he and Rupert had an unspoken agreement that whoever boiled the water got to choose.
While he read about the latest scandalous addition to the Tate Modern, he sipped his tea and took a few bites of toast. Breakfast didn't interest him unless it involved fried eggs and bacon, which Rupert would only cook on weekends. "Anything new in the world?" he asked, abandoning the rest of the toast.
"Not really. Trouble in the Middle East, America and North Korea rattling sabers, and the National Health still falling apart."
"Same as yesterday, then." Political news mostly bored him. Four years in prison had confirmed his basic cynicism about governments and their good intentions. Anyway, compared to magic and the slow cycles of the mystical universe, politics was mere temporary artifice, a sandcastle built in defiance of the tide.
"More or less," Rupert answered, without looking up from the paper. He followed politics closely and really seemed to believe it mattered.
Ethan liked his artifice undiluted and self-aware: fashion, music, art. He returned to his reading, skimming a feature on recent menswear shows in Milan and then the theater listings. "That new Stoppard play's been getting very good reviews," he said casually, lobbing a hint with great and perhaps unnecessary force. There was no reason to hint; he'd only need to say he wanted to go. But getting Rupert to offer was more of a challenge.
Rupert smiled and played along, as he always did. "It has, hasn't it? Should we get tickets? I could do with a weekend in London."
So could Ethan. He'd grown fond of Oxford, but there was simply no comparison. Subletting his London flat last year had felt like exile. Between visits he missed the city's myriad pleasures--the menswear floor at Harvey Nichols, the peculiar cheeses at Neal's Yard Dairy, the tatty, bustling market along Portobello Road, concerts and theater and restaurants and more gay pubs and clubs than he could count--with an almost erotic intensity. Sometimes he got homesick for the most absurd things: his newsagents, his fish and chips takeaway, even the Bayswater tube station. Ethan's nostalgic streak, once dedicated entirely to missing Rupert, had decided against a quiet retirement.
The urge to skive off came back, more insistently this time. "Maybe we could cancel our lessons next Friday? We could slip away and have a long, dirty weekend."
"And be gossiped about by our students?"
"Even better. It's been ages since anyone's gossiped about us."
Rupert smiled in a boyish, half-embarrassed way that would have looked fatuous on anyone else his age. On him, it was charming.
"You know you want to, Rupe," Ethan coaxed. "Come on. I'll even let you go to the National Gallery to stare at that Holbein painting you're so enamored of."
"That's generous of you. I assume that's in exchange for your spending half a day buying clothes?"
"It's a dirty job, but one of us has to do it. Anyway, I notice you don't complain about wearing your designer togs, only about shopping for them."
"Ethan, I'm just joking."
"I know," Ethan said, a little testily. Rupert cared, in an inept sort of way, about dressing well, but the interest embarrassed him. Fashion, like decor, was a little too queer for comfort. Ethan had given up reasoning with him about it. The silver lining was that Ethan's taste prevailed, and they had Armani, Prada and sleek modern furniture instead of corduroy and Victoriana. Still, he couldn't tolerate Rupert's acting the put-upon husband. "Be good or I'll start buying your clothes at Oxfam."
Rupert wisely changed the subject. "Well, I'll ring the theater this morning and see if I can get us decent seats. And we'd best let our students know about next week."
Capitulation. Good. "I knew I'd corrupt you, given half a chance. As the actress said to the bishop."
Ethan smiled at his folded arms and mock sternness. "Puritan."
"No." Ethan came around to Rupert's side of the table and kissed him, tasting tea and raspberry jam. "Definitely not."
Before their kisses could get too interesting, the doorbell rang. "Damn," Ethan said. "That'll be Cecilia. She would pick this morning to be punctual."
Ethan let her in, gave her a cup of tea, and chivvied her up the stairs to the top of the house where the workrooms were. The lesson did not go well. Cecilia was talented and usually diligent, but lately she'd been preoccupied with her new boyfriend. Although Ethan could sympathize with the excuse, he disliked having his time wasted. A headache was starting behind his eyes by the time she left at half-past ten, nodding biddably at his stern warning to practice.
His next student only made the headache worse. Paul tended to be sloppy, and true to form, today he made an elementary mistake in the Latin of a ward-breaking spell. The wards flared and crackled, and Ethan burnt his hand lowering them. For the rest of the lesson he set Paul to translating Cicero, ignoring his muttered asides about the elitism of Latin. Ethan considered it a compliment; magic was elitist, and best left that way, safe from dabblers. He glad when twelve o'clock came, letting him send Paul away and take some paracetamol.
Now he had a precious hour off before the next lesson. He went to the kitchen to make a bit of lunch. Romaine and some insipid October tomatoes made a passable salad, and he assembled two large sandwiches with Bayonne ham and brie. Sandwich-making pushed Ethan's culinary skills to their limit, so lunch had become his assigned meal. Rupert, who cooked very well, was hard-headed about sharing the chores equally.
As he worked, he thought about next weekend in London. Best not to overschedule, he decided, since it was meant to be a dirty weekend. Even the attraction of Harvey Nicks paled next to long lie-ins on hotel sheets, room service meals, and sex in the middle of the day. Afternoon naps, too. They'd got into the habit when Ethan was sick, and then lost it once he was well again. He missed those naps. Sleeping while other people worked was such a pleasure.
Just before half-past twelve, Ethan heard two sets of footsteps coming down the stairs, then goodbyes and a door closing. Rupert came into the kitchen, sorting through the post and humming what sounded suspiciously like "Anarchy in the UK."
"I didn't know one could hum the Sex Pistols," Ethan said.
"What? Oh, was I . . .?" He laughed. "As if we needed proof that punk is dead. They'll be playing it in elevators next."
"I take it you had a good morning?" Ethan asked as they ate.
"Not bad," Rupert said. "Chris finally got the levitation spell right. He was practically in tears of joy."
"Considering it's taken him a month, I should think so." Sometimes Ethan wondered how Rupert stood it, teaching the magical equivalent of primary school. His own advanced students were quite trying enough.
"It took me almost that long, when I was a beginner," Rupert said, stabbing a tomato wedge with his fork.
"Seriously?" Learning it had taken Ethan no more than an afternoon. It had been his first spell, and he'd found it as easy and joyous as play, as dancing.
"Well, two weeks at least. We're not all as brilliant as you." Rupert was getting rough with the salad, fork clinking loudly against porcelain, studiously not looking at Ethan. In August, the Mages' Council had refused Rupert senior magister status, and he was still pretending not to be hurt.
"And you were what, thirteen? Chris is eighteen, his focus should be better." You're a good sorcerer, Ethan wanted to say. You've got the skills, the difference between us is only power and there's no helping that. And you're twice the teacher I could ever be.
Saying it, he knew, would only give form and solidity to the ghost of an old grief.
"Regardless, Chris was happy," Rupert said. "And I was pleased to see it."
Ethan nodded and got up to plug in the kettle. He desperately wanted some coffee before his next lesson. "Did you call the theater?"
"Yes. They were almost sold out. I could only get us upper circle. We'll have to bring a telescope." Rupert started piling dishes into the sink. "Listen, Ethan. While we're in London I should probably meet with Helen Thornycroft. She sent me an e-mail the other day with about thirty complicated questions."
"For God's sake, Rupe. She's getting paid to run the Watchers' Council, so why are you doing all the work?"
"I'm not, I'm only giving advice. I've more field experience than anyone left alive, and Helen needs that knowledge."
"Well, if she needs your advice every second day, you ought to get a salary."
"They offered me one, as I recall," Rupert said, sitting down again. "They offered to make me head of the Council, and I turned it down. Because you asked me to."
The offer, made a few months after their return to England, had sent Ethan into a spectacular panic. He'd hated the thought of the Watchers taking up Rupert's attention, coming between them somehow. "You turned them down because we didn't want them in our lives. Only here they are anyway, since you won't tell that stupid woman to piss off and solve her own problems." He filled the cafetiere, slopping boiling water all over the countertop.
"The Council needs my help, Ethan. They're trying to reform, to help the Slayers instead of dominating them. I want to be part of that." His voice had become quieter, deeper, the way it did when he was unhappy. This was the answer to how Rupert stood it--he didn't. He hungered after responsibility, ached to save the world one more time. Ached for a role he'd given up and would never have again.
Ethan went over and hugged him. "You should be part of it. You're the only one of the lot with any sense." In his arms Rupert was solid, real, not an illusion; he wouldn't disappear; even the Watchers couldn't take him away. Not again. "I want our weekend for us, though, please. You and me and a hotel room and no responsibilities. If e-mail or the telephone isn't good enough, let her come down to Oxford during the week."
"Fair enough," Rupert said. Ethan tightened his hold, wishing it were already next Friday and they were installed in their hotel, with the door locked and the world excluded.
They sat together quietly, quarrel mended, while Ethan drank his coffee and Rupert ate an apple. At one o'clock, Ethan's last student of the day arrived. Matt was probably the best of his students, with a pugnacious self-confidence to go with it. Ethan liked him.
Last week, Ethan had started him on the portafacere spell. Matt worked it flawlessly now, opening a tiny trans-dimensional doorway, holding it without any apparent difficulties in control, and closing it again.
"Good," Ethan said. "Now do it again with your eyes closed."
Matt looked blank for a moment. "Um, why?"
"Think, for heaven's sake. This is not a skill you want deserting you in a tight spot."
"Oh, sorry. Right."
Smoothly, only his tense face showing the effort, Matt did the spell blind, and then again without using his hands to guide the process. His control wobbled a little when Ethan made him try it holding his breath, but he got through it well enough.
"Look, Ethan, I know how to do this," Matt said at last. "I want to open a real doorway, a larger one. I want to do a summoning."
In some ways it was a reasonable request. The highest-order magics, the ones that could reshape reality, were too difficult for a human sorcerer alone. Performing them required summoning a mystical being, a daemon, as an intermediary. The daemon lent power and manipulated energies at a quantum level that humans couldn't reach.
Ethan hadn't taught summonings yet, and he wasn't eager to. Daemons were immensely powerful--some benign, some malicious, some neutral, but all wildly dangerous.
"You're not ready yet," Ethan said sharply. "Once I'm satisfied that you can make a stable portal, we'll work on translocation, then summonings later." Much, much later.
"Matt, we're talking about some bloody difficult spellcasting. Don't think it's a lark. You could easily make a mistake, get lost in the dimensions, call up a monster or a plain old demon instead of a daemon. Or get a daemon that turns out to be too strong for you. Or lose control of the portal and rip great gaping holes in the walls between the worlds. If you do a summoning unprepared, you risk more than just your own life."
"I'm not incompetent," Matt said. He was staring at the pen he held in a clenched fist.
"No, but you're not competent enough, yet."
Matt's lip twitched like he was repressing a sneer. "Well, the Mercurius that I called a couple of nights ago seemed to respect me."
Of course he would try a summoning on his own. How could Ethan have expected anything different? "You summoned a Mercurius," he repeated blankly. The Mercurii were messenger-daemons, relatively weak and tractable. Even so, calling one up required protective circles and spells, finicking care with the portafacere, and considerable power. "What the hell do you think you're playing at?" Ethan got up from the worktable, nearly tipping his chair over backwards, and stalked around the room.
"I'm not playing at anything. I was doing magic. Isn't that what I'm meant to be doing?"
You smug little berk, Ethan thought. "Yes. Under my instruction. When you're ready for a summoning, I'll teach you how."
"And when will that be, magister? When I'm forty? I'm bored of all this practice. Let me do something."
Talent, arrogance, ambition, restless urgency. Matt had always reminded Ethan of himself.
He sat down again and waited until Matt would meet his eye. "Perhaps, if you're done with your tantrum, you'll listen to me. I'm not a fool; in fact, I know one or two things that you don't. Including how badly a summoning can go wrong." Even when it was successful. He remembered Eyghon wearing Rupert's face, distorting it to hatred; the hot spurts of arterial blood from Randall's slit throat; a steel-walled room full of stripped bones and discarded bits of human flesh. "People can die. Horribly." Impossible to say more, to give him the details that might convince him. Every memory was a Pandora's box full of woes; even with Rupert he left some of them unopened.
Matt's only reaction was to scratch his ear.
"I could bind you, you know," Ethan said. "I have the right, as your magister. And then you'd work magic nowhere but in this room, for as long I see fit."
"I damn well would."
Again Matt said nothing. He started tapping the pen against the table, then caught himself and set it down firmly.
"Listen to me, Matt. You're in a dangerous place. You're bloody Odysseus with the sirens singing around you. Chaos is calling you."
"Chaos? I haven't done any-"
"I'm not accusing you. Be quiet and listen. Magic has an aspect of Chaos, as you well know. Everything does. And Chaos calls to all of us, when we first come into our power. When we think that magic can give us everything we ever wanted. When everything else in life is just an awful dragging tedium. I know what that's like. I've felt it."
He sometimes felt it still, on bad days, when the Chaos he'd cherished in himself for years refused to lie dormant and be neglected. It shortened his temper, sent twitching irritation down his nerves, made his teeth grind and his head ache. It magnified every petty trouble and self-destructive impulse, until he wanted to smash his life to bits just to hear the crash. Once or twice he'd tried to provoke Rupert into beating him bloody; once or twice he'd nearly worked the sort of magic that would surely make Rupert leave him.
"Chaos seems to offer life without tedium," he continued. "All power and no consequences, no responsibility. I lived that life for years." His students all knew, although he didn't tell them. His return to the via ordinis was the stuff of such lovely gossip that there was no one in mystical circles who didn't know. "And I can tell you, it's not worth having."
Matt looked down, but not before Ethan saw him roll his eyes. "So you're saying that if I don't do exactly what you tell me, I'll end up a Chaos mage?"
"Don't be stupider than you must. I'm saying that you're taking risks that could get you or someone else killed. And if you don't care about that, if you work magic without concern for the risks and consequences, then yes, you will be drawn into Chaos. Because that's what Chaos is, fundamentally--irresponsibility and selfishness."
"If I want to learn, I'm being selfish?"
To hell with this. He'd had enough of talking. "Matt, you will do as I say. I'm going to make sure of it."
"You can't-" Matt half-rose from his chair.
Matt looked at him for a moment, white-faced and furious, then dropped back into his chair.
"I'm not going to bind you," Ethan said. "This time. Just monitor you. Give me your hand." He traced a sign on the boy's palm, ignoring his flinching attempt to pull away, then said the spell-words. "Facta tua videbo et sciam. Magister tuus sum, et sub auctoritate mea es." The sign glowed silver and disappeared.
"Fuck, that hurt!" Matt said, shaking his hand and blowing where the sign had been.
Ethan handed him a tube of burn ointment. "Any magic you do before our next lesson, I'll know about. So no more daemon-summoning, or I will bind you. Now go."
Matt gathered his things and put on his coat without speaking. Ethan walked him to the door and got no answer to his civil goodbye.
Trudging back upstairs to tidy the workroom, he wondered if he'd done the right thing. Maybe he'd grown too cautious. Once, dangerous magic had given him a tightrope walker's fierce joy, net-less and free and eighty feet above the concrete. But that was before he'd gone to prison and been taught fear. He was safer, saner, for that fear, but it diminished him, too. No longer a creature of air and will and death-defying gifts, he was earthbound now.
As he shelved the books and locked away the magical implements, his head began aching again. He opened the window wide and stood looking out over the garden. The big oak tree was losing its leaves, and Rupert's beloved flowers were going droopy and pale now as autumn progressed.
October already, he thought. Christ, it's almost our anniversary. One of our anniversaries. Thirty-one years, come November eighth, since we met. Five together, twenty-six lost. It could all have been different, if I'd let Eyghon alone. If I hadn't had to be clever and daring and oh so interesting. I'm a fool, I'm the swine you're not meant to throw pearls before. Even now, I am.
Ethan could hear the low murmur of Rupert's voice from the other workroom. It was soothing, usually, to hear him teaching or on the telephone or singing to himself while he did the washing-up. Usually it lullabyed Ethan into peace. But not today. Today it was starting, just barely, to get on his nerves, like a faint unscratchable itch.
A damp breeze came up, and Ethan leaned out into the air to feel it. The sky had clouded over after a fair morning, and it looked like rain. A sensible person would stay in.
After an indecisive minute, Ethan realized he was fidgeting, twisting and plucking at his fingers, unable to be still. Best to get away for a bit, rain or not. If he didn't, he'd only take it out on Rupe.
Interrupting Rupert's teaching really wasn't good, but Ethan hated leaving notes. He went down the hall to the other workroom and knocked.
Rupert appeared almost instantly, shutting the door behind him. The concern in his face made Ethan look away, ashamed.
"I need to go out, Rupe. I'm feeling a bit . . . you know."
Rupert didn't ask questions, didn't give unwelcome sympathy, only nodded. "Don't forget we're meant to be meeting Patrick and Aziz at half seven."
"I remember. If I'm not home by then, I'll meet you in the pub."
Rupert nodded again, and offered a wordless embrace that Ethan took gratefully--an embrace like gravity. If it kept him earthbound, well, that was better than flying off into cold empty space.
"Love you, Rupe." It was never easy to say. He half expected alarms to sound and a crowd of scoffing onlookers to appear out of nowhere and a spotlight to glare on his fearful nakedness. He didn't say it as often as he probably should, but always, without fail, when he needed to run away like this.
"I love you, Ethan." Rupert kissed him lightly and let him go. "See you later."
Ethan found his coat, umbrella, and mobile phone and practically sprinted from the house. Then he had to stop and choose a direction. Towards the city, he decided after a moment's thought. Today wasn't one of the purgatorial days when he needed to get well away and walk himself into exhaustion. On those days, he'd end up miles from home and have to ring Rupert to come and fetch him in the car. And Rupert did it without grumbling, a proof of love if anything was.
Of course, Rupert knew by now that Ethan's escapes wore off the worst of his prickliness and prevented any number of shouting matches. Rupert's twice-a-week workouts at the fencing salle seemed to do the same thing for him. Ethan didn't like to make the comparison, because it might mean that Rupert was sometimes as glad to get away, to be alone, as Ethan was.
He walked quickly, not really seeing the houses and shops that he passed. The confrontation with Matt forced its way back into his thoughts. It felt like a script he knew by heart. Like history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as more fucking tragedy. Time to change the script, even if it meant giving in and teaching Matt what he wanted. If he tried to hold him back, it would only goad the boy into experimenting on his own, dancing blithely through the minefield. At least Ethan could give him a metal detector and a map.
His frustration began, slowly, to dissipate as he walked. There was no point looking for reasons for these moods. They came, and then eventually they went. Like plagues of bloody locusts. Luckily Rupert took them in stride and didn't seem to read anything into them. In his place, Ethan would have been second-guessing his second guesses, piling paranoia upon insecurity. Who'd have imagined that Rupert, after decades spent hating himself for being queer, would turn out to be the stable one? Of course, anyone who wasn't stable compared to Ethan's quivering edifice of neuroses was far gone indeed.
By the time he reached the city center, his mood had improved from black clouds and thunder to mild overcast. He spent a couple of hours on a wander through Oxford, admiring his favorite bits of architecture and watching the people. The tourist herds were thinning as the season changed, although there were still many guidebooks, cameras, and souvenir t-shirts to be seen. When a gaggle of Germans stopped Ethan for directions to Magdalene College, he deliberately sent them in the wrong direction. They'd find something to interest them at Keble, no doubt.
Passing a jeweller's window, he noticed a pair of handsome amber cuff links that would be perfect for Rupert, so he stopped and bought them. A half-remembered bit of Marlowe whispered in the back of his mind, something about coral clasps and amber studs. If these delights thy mind may move, come live with me and be my love.
Perhaps he'd save them for an anniversary gift. No, they weren't nearly extravagant enough for that. Ethan wanted to top last year's gift, a seventeenth-century edition of Giordano Bruno's Cantus Circaeus. That might be untoppable, as it brought together books, magic, and their own history, but he was determined to try.
Tonight was good enough for the cuff links. He loved giving presents, especially unexpected ones, and Rupert, now he had a job again and didn't feel dependent, liked getting them. Never mind that the job was beneath him and paid something less than a pittance. Never mind that Ethan's money could have given them leisure. Rupert connected work and self-respect in some mysterious, confusing way. It had to be his father's fault.
Ethan wandered into Blackwell's as dusk was gathering. The bookshop was as mobbed as ever, bustling with students trying to chat one another up over avant-garde verse and Eastern European poststructuralist philosophy. A little discreet shoving cleared him a path to the mystery section, where he picked up the latest by Reginald Hill. In literary fiction, he found dozens of novels about the tribulations of saucy thirtysomething women, and dozens of thick ambitious tomes translated from the Latvian or Urdu, but nothing that actually appealed.
Ethan drifted aimlessly through biography, history, the occult (laughable of course), guidebooks, and encyclopedias, finally washing ashore in the gay and lesbian section, which was hidden in a discreet corner. At least it was less crowded here.
Most of the books were too tedious even to open: dreadful-looking novels, massive academic volumes with the word "queering" in the title, gay history and psychology and book after book on coming out. In Ethan's youth being queer had made him . . . not exactly an outlaw, but certainly a radical and a threat. Now he was a market niche. The wonder of progress.
Eventually he picked up a book of erotic short fiction because he liked the dust jacket. The contents, as he leafed through, turned out to be surprisingly well-written and even, unlike most literary erotica, sexy. Reading distracted him pleasantly for some time, so that he was startled when someone brushed against him. "Sorry," the man said, reaching for another copy of the book Ethan was holding. "Is it any good?" he asked with a smile.
Ethan gave him a quick appraising glance. He was handsome, vaguely Mediterranean-looking, about Ethan's own age. A slower, up-and-down examination revealed a strong, reasonably trim, broad-chested body under an expensive coat. "Very," Ethan answered, smiling back.
"Not as good as the real thing, though." The smile widened.
"No, not that good."
It would be so easy, Ethan thought. Move a little closer, touch his arm, ask his name. I could have this man naked in minutes. He's gorgeous; I'd love to see his body, touch it, taste it. And he'd be a wild, dirty fuck, a sweaty, screaming, tear-the-sheets fuck. He's got that look.
Desire hit his system like the drug it was, the body's own designer cocktail of polysyllabic chemical joy. With a touch he could have more. He could have mad intoxicated rapture.
Ethan gave the man one last, regretful smile, and walked away.
It wouldn't matter, really, if Ethan fucked this man and a hundred more like him. His love for Rupert was indelible, tattooed on his soul in rare and brilliant inks. Nothing short of mutilation would erase it.
Yet it would matter to Rupert. It would break his heart, and drive him away. If ever a man was built for monogamy, Rupert was. And Ethan was hypocritically glad that no other man had ever had him.
Rupert had been shocked and hurt even to learn Ethan's history. They'd talked about it one tense night just after their return to England. Ethan was expecting his HIV test results the next day, and his fear made him say more than he should have.
"Thousands?" Rupert had asked, appalled. "How can you have slept with thousands of men?"
"A different one every night, for years and years." Or two, or three, or, one memorable night in a New York bathhouse, seven. "It adds up."
"In twenty-five years you had nothing but one-night stands?"
More like twenty-minute stands, in most cases, but Ethan had known better than to say it. "Well, no, not quite. I think my longest relationship lasted about three weeks. He looked like you." That was all Ethan could remember about him.
"Am I meant to be flattered?" Rupert had got up from his chair and walked to the other side of the room, not looking at Ethan.
"For Christ's sake, Rupe. Am I meant to apologize for things I did after you left me?"
Ethan had never told him the bad bit, the only bit he was ashamed of. Even as AIDS mowed down their generation, he hadn't used condoms unless the other man insisted. It hadn't seemed worth the bother. The thought of disfiguring cancers, fungal infections, blindness, dementia, and lingering death had failed to move him.
With Rupert he'd used condoms religiously, sickeningly aware of the risk he'd already put him in with their drunken, careless fuck four years earlier. He'd had HIV tests at two different clinics, just in case. When they both came back negative, he'd nearly burst into tears. Instead, he'd ceremoniously thrown the condoms in the trash. It was, as they'd both known, a promise of fidelity.
Ethan still courted temptation; it was a dangerous and therefore irresistible game. But he never went beyond looks and flirting. Only once had he come close to having sex with another man. That had been almost two years ago, in London. They were still trying to readjust to one another, rubbing each other's anxieties raw, having endless, operatic rows about everything and nothing. After one especially pointless quarrel, Ethan had gone out to walk off his anger and found himself, not quite by accident, on the cruisy part of Hampstead Heath. He'd been unzipping some faceless stranger's jeans when his mobile phone rang. It was Rupert, apologizing, asking him to come home.
Since then, he'd kept his hands to himself. He was naturally a greedy bastard, with all the impulse control of a nine-year-old in a sweetshop, but fear gave him self-discipline. He knew exactly what he stood to lose.
Suddenly, the few hours since he'd said goodbye to Rupert seemed like forever. For all his restlessness, Ethan hated being away for long. They needed each other as absolutely as the body needs water, as they'd discovered in July when Rupert went to California to see his 'children.' Calmly, rationally, sensibly, they'd decided that it was too risky for Ethan to go with him. Within days they were parched with thirst. An hour on the phone every night scarcely helped; it was the mirage of water in the desert, eager drinking and a mouth filled with sand. Rupert had cut the trip from three weeks to two.
Buffy, the irritating little madam, had lectured Rupert about "unhealthy dependency," and a couple of weeks later she'd mailed him a parcel of self-help books. Without telling Rupert, Ethan had sent her a copy of Wuthering Heights with a note on the inside cover: "Unhealthy is much more interesting, don't you think?"
Someone shoved rather forcefully past him, and Ethan realized he'd been blocking the aisle as he stood thinking. Blackwell's was starting to look like one of those crammed Third World buses with people spilling out the windows. He paid for the books and went to a pleasant, and mostly empty, café nearby. Over coffee and a slice of cake, he read the first chapters of his mystery novel, resisting the urge to skip ahead and see if his guess about the killer was correct.
The rain that had threatened all afternoon was pouring down as he walked to the Castle Tavern. He wondered occasionally whether the owners had been making a statement, opening a gay pub on Paradise Street. Certainly Ethan preferred it to many other versions of paradise.
It was a lovely almost-surprise to find Rupert there already, waiting. Even better, he wore a black Hugo Boss suit that Ethan especially liked on him--it made him look hard-edged and slightly dangerous. It wasn't one of Rupert's own favorites, so he'd chosen it for Ethan's sake. Amazing, how much the man could say without a word.
Kissing him was homecoming and security and desire, satisfaction and need chasing each other's tails, infinite variety that never cloyed. Ethan took his time at it, and only reluctantly let go.
"You're feeling better," Rupert said.
"Want to talk about it?"
"It wasn't anything serious. The students got on my nerves." Eventually he'd ask Rupert's advice about Matt, but not right now. "I think I'm going to turn them all into slugs."
"Behave yourself, Professor Snape."
Ethan smiled and took a long swallow of ale, then handed Rupert the little box from the jeweller's. "Got something for you."
Rupert held the cuff links up to the light to look at the amber. "These are beautiful, Ethan. Thank you. Here, help me put them on."
They didn't really go with the blue shirt he was wearing, but Ethan fastened them anyway. "I'm glad you like-" A sudden yawn cut off the last word.
"You must be exhausted, after your bad night."
"I'm a bit tired. It's all right. How was your day?"
"Not bad. My students were on their best behavior, and I got in a couple of hours work in the garden before the rain started." After a pause Rupert added, "And my father rang."
"Really? Did he send me his love? Or do I still not exist?" Last year Rupert had again come out to his father. His first coming out, while still at Oxford, had been resolutely forgotten after his chastened return to home and duty. The second time, Henry Giles had taken the news in stony silence. He'd still never so much as spoken Ethan's name. Nothing, not even Rupert's refusal to visit unless Ethan was invited too, made a difference.
Rupert shrugged apologetically. "I keep hoping he'll get better about it."
"Some hope. I wish you'd tell the old bastard to-."
"Ethan. He is my father, after all."
"And you still break your heart wanting his approval. Christ, Rupe, you're fifty years old. Time to cut the apron strings, or whatever fathers have."
"Don't you bloody well start!" Rupert took a deep breath, visibly curbing his temper. "Talking to him was difficult enough, without that."
"Sorry." They'd had this argument twenty times. They might as well give it a miss for once. Ethan squeezed his shoulder gently. "Sorry." Rupert nodded, but his face had the set look of a man in pain.
Henry, Ethan thought, you cold, nasty, narrow-minded, homophobic monster. Someday you're going to die. And I'll dance on your grave and think about how the ugliest devil in hell has you spitted on a toasting fork over the flames. I'll stand there and tell you all about what I do with your good little boy. About the way he sucks my cock, and the noise he makes when I stick my tongue in his arse, and how he calls my name when he comes.
The thought of sex was a cheerful one; maybe it would work on Rupert too. "Listen, Rupe," he said, leaning over to talk quietly in his lover's ear, "I bought something else today as well. A very mucky book. To read aloud at bedtime."
He got a smile for his trouble. "Did you?"
"Mm-hmm. There's a fascinating story in it about two schoolboys in the showers after football. Shocking, the things they get up to, all lathered and slippery, in all that hot water and steam. And then, when their maths teacher walks in on them—well, it's just immoral. Do you want to hear what he-"
"You two look very conspiratorial," said a new voice. Ethan looked over at the two men who'd sat down, unnoticed, at their table. Patrick and Aziz were their first and closest Oxford friends. They'd met through the Mages' Council, where Patrick worked as an archivist. Aziz was a lecturer in politics at St. Anne's College.
"You're confusing conspiracy and sex again, Patrick, love. Rupe doesn't smile like that when we're being conspiratorial."
"I stand by my adjective. It's that face of yours, Ethan. You could be talking about DIY or the stability of the euro and still look like you were up to no good."
"Thank you." Ethan arched his eyebrows and smiled provocatively. Flirtation with Patrick, who was blond, energetic, camp, and not at all Ethan's type, was one of his favorite sports. "You, of course, look as innocent as a choirboy. Who's just been getting a blow job from the priest."
"Ooh. There's a lovely thought."
"Now, now," Aziz said, exchanging a look of long-suffering patience with Rupert. "I swear you two shouldn't be allowed in the same room together."
"Quite right. Our combined looks, wit and charm risk overwhelming lesser mortals," Patrick said. Ethan grinned and mimed applause.
They had a couple of rounds of drinks, the conversation meandering from magic to university politics to the latest novel by Hanif Kureishi--his first worthwhile book in years, they all agreed. After an hour or so, they moved on to an Italian restaurant a few streets away, which offered marvelous food and uncrowded quiet. It was too expensive for students and too obscure to draw many tourists.
Over prosciutto and figs, the talk turned to the campaign for gay marriage, which after a strong start was floundering in the face of opposition from the Tories and scabrous queer-baiting in the tabloids. Aziz, who'd been heavily involved in strategy for the campaign, was taking it hard. "I never thought I'd say this, but I almost wish the Anglican hierarchy had more influence. When the Archbishop spoke out in favor . . ."
Ethan listened with half an ear to the ensuing discussion of public opinion. He was more interested in his osso buco, which was delicious, and the waiter, who was rather stunning. A couple of times he noticed Rupert looking too, which Ethan found gratifying despite a pang of jealousy. The Rupert of a few years ago would have denied ever wanting to look at a man. That he looked now was a measure of Ethan's success at unearthing deeply buried desires. Ethan had felt like an archaeologist at first, excavating Rupert's sexuality, chipping it free of the surrounding rock, blowing off the dust, restoring and polishing.
Once freed, Rupert had awakened delightedly to sensual possibilities. Not just sex, as it turned out, but food, clothes, gardens, cologne and expensive soaps and high-thread-count sheets. Ethan loved it; he encouraged it with cashmere, cuff links, foie gras, anything that would give him pleasure. Their lives should be stuffed full of delight; they had years to make up for.
After dinner Patrick wanted to go dancing, but Ethan begged off, pleading fatigue. He didn't want to waste his remaining energy in a nightclub. In the taxi home he was quiet, absently caressing Rupert's hand, basking in secret relief that gay marriage was unlikely for the next few years. Perhaps it was irresponsible, immature, ridiculous, but he didn't want to get married. Living in flagrant sin with the man he adored made him happy, mostly. What could marriage offer but a concession to middle age and respectability? He couldn't picture himself as a husband, or--god forbid--a wife. Lover, partner, yes. Emphatically. But they had that already, without asking the state for its bureaucratic blessing.
"What are you thinking about?" Rupert asked.
"You," Ethan said, leaning in against his shoulder. For a moment Rupert sat tense--he was reserved in public--but the taxi was dark and he soon relaxed. His fingers traced looping spirals over Ethan's side.
At home, Ethan wasn't surprised to be led straight up to the bedroom.
"How tired are you really, Ethan?"
"Not too tired."
"That's good." A light kiss brushed Ethan's mouth. "Because I've been wanting you all night."
"Have you?" Ethan rubbed his cheek against Rupert's, like an affectionate cat. Rupert's skin was smooth; he must have shaved again before going out.
"Oh yes. You know that." Rupert's palms warmed his back through the cloth of his shirt. "With your naughty story in the pub. And those clothes. You know how you look in those clothes. That silk shirt and those tight trousers down around your hips." Hands followed words, outlining Ethan's body, caressing his hipbones.
"Tell me," Ethan said, nuzzling his throat. Cologne dizzied him, rich with musk and sandalwood and tobacco, exotic to the nose and harsh under the tongue.
"You look sexy," Rupert said, breathing the words into his ear. "Like you want it so much you can hardly breathe. Like you're begging for me to touch you." Every word reached hot fingers into Ethan's body and toyed with his insides. "It's almost a shame to take those sexy clothes off you."
"Do it anyway," Ethan said, liking this aggressive mood. Sometimes Rupert could be too gentle, inhibited by bad memories. "Take them off me."
"I will." Rupert's fingers tightened on his hips, pulling him in closer.
There was nothing as perfect as this, nothing. No other man could ever feel so good. "Do you know how much I want you?" Ethan kissed him before he could answer, tasting every arch and hollow of his mouth, licking his teeth, sucking on his lips. He kissed him for every quarrel, every temptation, every unkind word, and every kiss they'd never have from the years they'd been apart. It was a bonfire of a kiss, fueled by old dry regrets, turning them to heat and light.
"Oh. Oh, you," Rupert said, cupping Ethan's face in his hands. Ethan kissed him again, not wanting to talk, afraid to give voice to the pleas that echoed in his head. Always love me, keep me safe, give me your soul in a golden cup. Stitch us together so you can never leave me. Heal me, make me a better man, make me deserve you. Do six impossible things before breakfast, for me.
He forced himself closer to Rupert's body, letting his emotions settle, comforted by Rupert's hands on him. "Tell me what you want, Rupe," he said finally. "Let me give it to you."
Their cheeks were pressed together; Ethan felt the pull of muscles when Rupert smiled. "I want us out of these clothes, for a start."
Undressing each other was tangled, inefficient, and wonderful, even when Ethan just missed getting an elbow to the chin. One of the new cuff links rolled under the bed. They'd have to find it tomorrow.
Ethan closed his eyes and went exploring, searching out familiar landmarks: the smooth scar on Rupert's arm; the frightening, twisted one on his belly; the swell of his buttocks; the knobbly ladder of his spine; his firm shoulders and biceps. He'd know Rupert's body from any other, with no more than a fingertip touch in utter darkness.
Two fingers stroked Ethan's lips. He opened his mouth to them, sucking wetly, tasting salt and olives. His tongue found the rough patches--calluses from fencing--and licked. Rupert's groan rumbled through Ethan's body, setting up vibrations in his spine, his bone marrow, his fingers and toes.
Rupert's hand left Ethan's mouth and wandered down his body, across his hips and arse. "I want to put my cock right here." The wet fingers touched him, pushed inside him, while the other hand circled his cock. Knees trembling, Ethan clutched at Rupert's shoulders for support. "I want to give you a long, slow fuck. Until you beg. Until you come like a fucking supernova."
Ethan's body vibrated harder at the words, so that he thought he might shatter and collapse. "Yes. Fuck, yes." Rupert bit his shoulder, hard as steel on flint, making sparks skitter and pop under his skin. He whimpered as Rupert's fingers moved out of him, leaving him empty, and let himself be steered over to the bed.
When Rupert handed him the lube, he shook his head. "No, you do it. I want to see you touch yourself."
"Pervert," Rupert said, smiling. He filled his palm with the slick fluid, letting it warm, stroking it over his cock. His eyes closed and his head tilted back, face blank, mouth open.
Ethan watched his fist clench and move, watched him tease the head with thumb and forefinger. Yearning flayed him, left him raw and pained and somehow bereft. If only he could lose track of borders and edges, forget the walls of skin and consciousness between them, go synaesthesic and feel every sight in his own body. If only they could be one person for a little while, or maybe forever. "Please, love. Now. Please."
Being penetrated was slow, suffusing, suffocating pleasure. Rupert went slowly, letting him feel it, letting him shake and claw at the mattress. At last, deep in, he kissed over Ethan's back, teased his belly with blunt fingernails, pinched his nipples. Ethan was ready for something hard and possessive, something to breach him and break him open. Instead Rupert held him tightly and rolled them both onto their sides. At last he moved, in long, rocking, gentle thrusts, giving the slow fuck he'd promised. "D'you like this? Is it good?"
"So good. You . . . oh . . ."
Every stroke heated him, softened him, melted his whole body. He surrendered to it, going limp in Rupert's arms, feeling himself liquefy. Time dissolved along with everything else, and thought drifted and tumbled in a molten sea.
So slow, such torment, such perfection.
Hot as a fever.
Jesus, I'm burning up
Hot as a furnace.
A volcano full of liquid rock, pressure building and building.
Building to an explosion.
Heat in every vein, melting, pushing through the earth and oozing out, red glow and steam and the hiss and crackle of burning.
I'm going to explode, need to explode.
Ethan managed to find his body again, managed to move, to clench desperately at his cock, but then Rupert said "no" and pulled his hand away. "Be patient, Ethan. Feel me inside you." Hands were touching him, Rupert's hands, stroking his chest and hip and thigh and everywhere but where he needed them. "You feel so good around me. I could do this all night."
Ethan moaned and sobbed and laughed all at once.
It went on, slow, steady, maddening.
The inside of the sun.
Blindly he reached back for Rupert's arse, feeling the muscles shift and tighten at each thrust. Ethan insinuated his fingers into the sweat-slick cleft and stroked the puckered skin there.
Instantly Rupert's rhythm changed, became faster and rougher.
"Please," Ethan said. "Please, Rupe, I need, oh fuck, I need-" and then Rupert's hand was on him, sharpening the torment, catalyzing the chain reaction. He came hot and bright and flaring as a supernova, just like Rupert had promised.
Rupert was grunting and clutching his hips painfully with each hard thrust. "Ethan, oh Christ." With an indrawn gasp, he shuddered and then went still, panting into Ethan's neck.
Ethan stroked his arm with the sole finger that he was able to move. The term "afterglow" had never felt more apt. It was just possible, Ethan decided, that he was literally glowing.
After a while Rupert said, "We forgot about your book."
"Another time. Tonight I think we did well enough without it."
"I feel radioactive. We're setting off every Geiger counter in a hundred-mile radius." Ethan turned his head for a kiss. "I'll have my revenge, you cruel pricktease. Just wait until I do that to you."
"Mmm. Yes, please. Whenever you like."
Ethan laughed. "Where's the duvet gone, Rupe? We got all sweaty and now I'm freezing."
"I think it's on the floor."
"I don't suppose you'd care to find it?"
"That would mean moving. Letting you go." Sighing theatrically, Rupert turned over and rummaged around on the floor. "Here it is." He draped it over them and curled up against Ethan again, spoon-fashion, the way they always went to sleep.
"That's better." This was the best moment of the day, when they lay safely together in their bed, peaceful and sleepy. Ethan started to remind Rupert to set the alarm, then remembered that there was no need. Tomorrow was Saturday, and they could sleep in.