Jonathan wiped down the already sparkling clean countertop, ignoring Tamika’s judgemental stare. Instead he adjusted his purple nitrile gloves as he casually glanced over at the customer tables—to check if any of them needed anything, of course! And his eyes did not linger at all on a certain dark and handsome gentleman.
Reluctantly, he turned away from the counter and retreated to the kitchen. He slipped on an oven mitt and defetly removed the next batch of raspberry white chocolate muffins moments before the timer beeped. Perfect, as always.
“I still don’t get how you do that,” Tamika lingered in the doorway, turned sideways so she could talk to him while simultaneously keeping an eye on the customers.
“Practice,” Jonathan said as he continued preparing the muffins to be put on display out front. “Do anything enough times and it becomes as easy as breathing.”
Jonathan paused before putting the next batch in the oven. He hadn’t meant to sound bitter; he honestly loved baking and his little shop.
The fact that it wasn’t what he had meant to do with his life didn’t change that.
“If you say so, Vosman,” Tamika scoffed.
“Just because you can burn water, does not make cooking a magical and unknowable art.” Jonathan carried the tray of fresh muffins out to the display. He made a mental note to make more date walnut biscuits, they were selling particularly well today. “And that nickname went stale at least three years ago. As in, the second time you used it.”
Tamika ignored him in favor of taking the order of three newly arrived customers. Jonathan was fine with that as he could focus all his attention on pretending not to stare at his favorite new customer as he put the muffins away.
Mr. Dark and Handsome had only started coming into Zombean three weeks ago, but had quickly become a regular. And just as quickly, he had become Jonathan’s favorite customer.
And not just because he had a truly fantastic ass, no matter what Tamika might think. Though he had to admit it was fantastic.
No, it wasn’t just that he was gorgeous, with soulful dark eyes. And had lovely, short, dark hair, just curling on the edges, like he was a little overdue for a cut, that Jonathan imagined running his fingers through. Or the neatly trimmed beard that would undoubtedly leave a delicious burn on Jonathan’s skin. Nor even his deep smooth voice.
No, as attractive as he undeniably was, his lasting appeal had much more to do with his smile; wide, open, and genuinely friendly. He was unfailing polite to all of Jonathan’s employees and the other customers. Add in the fact that he tipped generously, and he was damned near perfect. And Jonathan most certainly was not.
Exhibit A, blatantly and shamelessly watching that fantastic ass as it walked away.
“Hey,” Jonathan called mockingly as he turned away and caught Tamika similarly staring. “Don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“Sure, doesn’t mean I can’t look,” Tamika mocked right back. Jonathan loved that she didn’t take him too seriously. He’d never want to be the kind of boss his employees couldn’t talk to freely. “Besides Em looks at his ass, too.”
“True,” Jonathan conceded. “I can’t think of anyone who’d be able to resist looking at such a fine ass.” He’d once caught Rick looking at Mr. Dark and Handsome’s ass, and Rick was the straightest straight man Jonathan had ever met.
“You know, you could totally be doing more than looking,” Tamika’s tone strove to remain lighthearted, but her expression belied her seriousness.
“Right, as if such a lovely man would give me a second look,” Jonathan didn’t flee to the kitchen. He merely needed to start the next batch of biscuits. Truly.
“But he has given you a second look,” Tamika didn’t even pretend to be anything but serious now. “And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. I can keep going, up as high as you want. The man watches you all the time.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Jonathan snapped. Stopped. Took a few deep breaths.
“You could at least try talking to him once before you decide that,” Tamika said before Jonathan could regain his calm.
“I have tried, and it never ends well. There’s always something they don't want me to know and I always find out.” Jonathan turned away to gather his ingredients. “I’d rather not have an intimate look at the, I don’t know, daddy issues or whatever it is he’s harbouring.”
“Please, you are the last person someone with daddy issues would latch onto,” Tamika ignored his indignant scoff. “That’s beside the point, and you know it. Not everyone is terrible and you are allowed to have nice things. You deserve to have nice things.”
“Tamika,” Jonathan carefully did not slam the mixing bowl down on the counter.
“Fine, I’ll let you stew in your misery,” Tamika flounced out to the public area of the café. “For today.”
Jonathan sighed and tried to let the familiar routine of baking take his mind off his presumptuous employee.
Jonathan dodged Alex’s applesauce covered hand with newly developed ease. It only took three ruined shirts to learn how to avoid that pitfall.
“Jonathan, come in, come in,” Evy pulled him in for a hug and, incidentally, within range of grabbing for her rugrat. Jonathan did not miss the gleeful look she threw at the now stained front of his shirt.
“Thank you,” he said, rolling his eyes as he handed her the dish he was holding. He hung up his jacket, tucking his gloves into the pocket.
“Jonathan, always good to have you,” Rick said as he stole the messy little delinquent from his mother. He even sounded mostly sincere.
“I’m always happy to eat food I don’t have to cook,” Jonathan said as he followed the small family into the kitchen. “Unless Evy cooked it.”
“Jonathan,” Evy swatted him as she passed, then turned to glare at her laughing husband. Rick just smiled as he set Alex in his highchair. “There is nothing wrong with my cooking.”
“Of course there isn’t,” Rick kissed her briefly before sitting himself beside Alex. “On a completely unrelated note, we’re having takeout.”
It was Jonathan’s turn to laugh. He held his hands up in surrender as Evy mock glared at him.
“Just because I’m not a good enough baker to run a café doesn’t mean I’m a bad cook,” Evy huffed. Then she smiled slyly, a look wholly unsuited to her open face. “And at least I never blew anything up while making a potion.”
“True, true.” Jonathan said with a nod. “Cooking skills don’t necessarily translate to brewing. Or vice versa, ah Rick?”
“Leave me out of this,” Rick said as he dished his food before handing Alex a prawn cracker. “I’m just a poor magicless fool whose skill at cooking begins and ends with not poisoning myself.”
“Really, you’re not as bad as all that, and neither am I,” Evy smiled as Alex held out his soggy cracker like it was a delicatessen treat. Jonathan couldn’t help but smile at the bright way Alex laughed as Evy pretended to eat his pudgy fist. “Though I do admit it is the one thing you are better at than me.”
“My, that was a grudging admission,” Jonathan spoke before digging in to his pad thai. He swallowed before continuing. “I’m not sure you deserve any of the chocolate scones I brought for dessert.”
“What, but those are my favorites,” Evy huffed as both Rick and Jonathan laughed at her. She turned to Alex and said in all seriousness, “This is the perfect example of how not to behave. You, my little man, are going to be a true gentleman.”
“Hey, I’m a gentleman,” Rick said. Evy and Jonathan shared a look, before looking at Rick. “What?”
“Of course you are, my dear,” Evy said, patting his hand. “Speaking of gentlemen, have you spoken to yours yet?”
“What?” Jonathan said, barely managing to swallow his bite rather than choke on it. He threw a pleading look at Rick who stared at the mush Alex had smeared on his tray like it was a piece of fine art. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t be silly, Emma has told me all about how you and Mr. Dark and Handsome can’t keep your eyes off of each other.”
“That’s ridiculous, I—wait, Em told you?” Jonathan tried to picture sweet, soft spoken Em gossiping and couldn’t quite manage it. “Really? I would have thought it would be Tamika.”
“Being sweet isn’t the same thing as being a saint, and she is dating Tamika.” Jonathan nodded, conceding the point. “But that’s beside the point, and don’t think I don’t know you’re deflecting. So, tell me everything.”
“Please, don’t,” Rick ignored his wife’s glare. After all, he had plenty of experience.
“There’s nothing to tell,” Evy turned her glare on Jonathan instead, but he had even more practice. Nearly a lifetime’s worth. “Come now,old mum, it’s time you realized that just because you have an exciting and busy life doesn’t mean everyone does. In fact, most people’s lives are down right dull. Which is just the way I like it.”
“Jonathan,” Evy said, trading a concerned look with Rick.
“Now don’t look like that,” Jonathan focused on Alex so he didn’t have to see what their expressions were doing. “I love the café, you know that.”
“I do,” Evy said, words slow, as if carefully weighed. “But you can’t keep ignoring what happened just because not everything that came of it was bad.”
“I’m not ignoring it,” Jonathan said, pushing the last few bites aimlessly around his plate. “I’m moving on. Even my therapist says so.”
Rick scoffed. “As if you couldn’t talk rings around that excuse for a shrink they assigned you?”
“Why thank you, Rick,” Jonathan perked up. “I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“Jonathan,” Evy tried again, frown lines pulling her brows down.
“Evelyn,” Jonathan drew her name out until it had at least six syllables. She huffed but the lines around her eyes eased. “Look, I know you’re just trying to help, but rehashing it all—again—doesn’t. Seeing you, and Alex, and even Rick helps. The café helps.
“Baking chocolate scones for you just because I know it’ll make you happy helps. Hearing about your exciting exploits at work helps.” Jonathan stopped to clear the excessive emotion from his throat. “So, let's hear it. How was your first expedition since you had Alex?”
“You’re sure,” Jonathan nodded. “Alright, well. It wasn’t that exciting, really. It was just a small tomb, no one really important. It was hardly cursed at all.”
“Hardly cursed,” Rick didn’t look up from his plate and Evy ignored his interjection completely.
“One of the apprentices could have handled it, I’m sure,” Evy’s eyes sparkled as she continued her story, with occasional asides from her husband.
The rest of dinner passed swiftly with good food and good conversation. He didn’t even realize how late it had grown until Evy stood and picked up Alex. Alex waved a mush covered fist at everyone. “Which is why you’ll be doing the dishes while I clean Alex up, right?”
“What?” Rick called after her as she left the room.
“And don’t think you won’t be helping,” floated down the hall over his sister’s retreating shoulder.
“But I’m a guest,” Jonathan yelled even as he started grabbing containers to put leftovers away in.
“Family doesn’t count as guests,” Evy yelled back.
“Funny how that argument never works when I want her help cleaning up,” Jonathan grumbled goodnaturedly. Rick snorted and nodded.
Jonathan pushed open the back door of Zombean and flipped on the lights. Lingering scents of the previous day’s baking mitigated the sterilizing effect of the white and chrome accoutrements. Jonathan wished—not for the first time—that he had listened to Evy and remodeled the kitchen to be a bit more homey before opening the café. Changing it now without a complete shutdown would take much longer and be much more of a pain.
But the truth was he hadn’t really been in the right headspace to listen, and she had finally acquiesced not wanting to antagonize him when he wasn’t at his best.
Jonathan sighed and stripped off his jacket, shivering in the chill. He carefully tucked the matching black leather gloves into the inner pocket before pulling a pair of nitrile gloves on in their place. He turned the ovens on and rolled up his sleeves, knowing they would soon remove the chill from the room.
Deciding he needed something spicy to brighten up his dour mood, he grabbed the Mexican chocolate. His twist on pain au chocolat was always a good seller, but did especially well when the weather started to cool down. He gathered all the ingredients and started mixing, humming under his breath.
While the dough was resting, he started a batch of boussou la tmssou. It was undoubtedly one of his bestsellers and had earned a permanent spot on the menu. The recipe was so familiar and routine, he could and did do it on autopilot.
Shaping the dough almost invariably lead to thoughts of his parents. He had learned to cook from his father, as Evy had learned magic from their mother. Each parent had tried to teach their skills to both their children, but Jonathan was as pants at magic as Evy was at cooking.
Thinking about how put out Evy looked whenever she tried to cook and it came out burned never failed to brighten his mood. As did the rich scent of the chocolate he’d set out. Everyone in their little family was a bit of a chocoholic—they’d even managed to infect Rick. Alex had no chance at not developing the family addiction.
Jonathan sighed as he wondered how his life, all their lives, might have been different if his parents had lived long enough to meet Alex. He only vaguely remembered his own grandparents, and he was sure Evy didn’t at all, but all those memories were warm and full of love. He hated that Alex would never know that.
He just missed his parents in general. The ache had faded with time, but he knew it would never truly leave.
Jonathan shook himself out of those thoughts, dwelling on their loss was pointless. He couldn’t change it; better to focus on how happy they had been while they had been together. He turned to put the first batch of boussou la tmssou into the oven.
It had been his mother’s favorite, and one of the first things his father had taught him to make. Making it always reminded him of happier times, of the four of them together and laughing.
Jonathan smiled and hummed to himself as he continued preparing the pain au chocolat. He reached over to grab the flour without looking and was shocked to feel his forearm grazing a hand. He jerked his arm back but it was already too late.
He closed his eyes as he was inundated by a vision of a man he’d never seen. Tall and gawky, the man had shaggy blond hair and warm brown eyes. His smile was easy and open, and it matched the gentle warmth and happiness that was flooding through Jonathan. Hope—so new and fragile that Jonathan felt the desire to cup it in his hands to keep it safe from harsh reality—left him breathless.
“--nathan. Jonathan. Shit, are you okay?” Blinking to clear his vision of the unknown man—Riley, his mind whispered tratiously—Jonathan focused on Mikal’s panicked chatter to bring himself back to the here and now. “Oh, god, your scary sister is going to kill me if I broke you.”
“Evy isn’t scary,” Jonathan muttered, shifting just to feel the counter dig into his back, a more concrete feeling to ground himself on. “And you didn’t break me, don’t be so dramatic.”
“Please, Evy is plenty scary and you know it,” Mikal shot back, brown eyes peeking out nervously from behind mussed dark hair. “You’ve said so on more than one occasion yourself.”
“No idea what you’re talking about,” Jonathan injected as much cheer into his voice as possible as he turned back to the counter. He started to reach for the flour again, but instead pressed his hands flat on the counter so he wouldn’t have to see them tremble.
“If you say so Vosman,” Mikal muttered before continuing at a louder volume. “Are you okay, though? I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“I’m fine,” Jonathan scoffed and forced himself to start working again. “You just surprised me. It was my fault really, I was so focused I didn’t even hear you come in.”
“I’m still sorry,” Mikal watched him measure and mix in silence for a moment and Jonathan hoped he would drop it. “I know you hate—that.”
“Yes, well,” Jonathan carefully didn’t look at the barista as he pulled the first batch of boussou la tmssou out of the oven and slid in the next. “As I said, it wasn’t your fault. And if I have to See something, there are worse things than visions of a lovely young man.”
The sound Mikal made could only really be described as “eep.”
“Don’t worry,” Jonathan turned and smiled as Mikal turned a deep fetching shade of red. “All I saw was pretty eyes and a lovely smile, nothing compromising.”
“We haven’t done anything, yet!” Mikal blurted, then covered his face with both hands and moaned pathetically.
Jonathan, heroically, didn’t laugh at the young man. “Go get the front ready to open.”
“Yes, good, okay,” Mikal all but fled the kitchen. Once he was safely out of the room, Jonathan buried his face in the crook of his elbow and gave in to his mirth.
Jonathan tried not to let his aggravation show as Detective Inspector Miller walked through the front door. He genuinely liked the man, but today had been a day full of little irritations. Rude customers, missing regulars, misplaced items, realizing he was running short on some ingredients. Not to mention the creepy woman in the back that hadn’t stopped glaring at him since the moment he’d stepped out to the front.
Miller’s appearance was just the icing on the cake that made him seriously wish he hadn’t pretended he needed to do some work out front so he could wait for Mr. Dark and Handsome to arrive.
“Carnahan,” Miller nodded as he perused the menu. “It’s been too long.”
“Miller,” Jonathan returned with a smile that was only a little forced. “You’re looking well this fine morning.”
Miller snorted indelicately. “I look like I haven’t slept in a week.”
“True,” Jonathan said with a shrug. “But it seemed rude to comment on it.”
“Working in customer service has ruined you,” Miller shook his head, but his smile was fond. “I can remember when you were as blunt as any cop.”
Jonathan laughed a little. “Yes, well, running a café means I’m always properly caffeinated.”
“No matter what you think, caffeine cannot take the place of proper sleep,” Miller countered and waved at himself. “Point in fact.”
“Perhaps you should switch to a job that allows for both. It worked for me.”
Miller shifted subtly and looked back at the menu. Jonathan stared at the side of his face, noting new lines that had appeared since the last time he’d seen the man. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Tamika and Em watching him, not even pretending not to. He turned and frowned at them where they leaned against each other. Huffed when they just smiled brightly back at him.
“I’ll have a large black coffee and whatever that spicy muffin thing is,” Miller finally ordered once Jonathan turned his attention back to him.
“It’s a gingerbread muffin which you would think you would remember by now as it’s the same thing you order every time you come in here,” Miller just grunted. Jonathan rolled his eyes and turned to get started on the order, only to have Em literally grab the cup out of his hand. Tamika had likewise moved to the bakery displays. The two woman presented Miller with his order with identical wide smiles.
The way he shifted away from them before extending his money and accepting his food and drink shouldn’t have amused Jonathan as much as it did.
“We should go out for drinks sometime,” Miller didn’t look up at him as he placed his change in the tip jar with exaggerated care. “Catch up. Reminisce.”
“We should,” Jonathan didn’t even attempt to sound sincere. “We could do it now, even. We are in a café.”
“Yeah, some other time,” Miller shot his baristas a glance and paled. Jonathan looked over himself and wasn’t at all surprised to see their smiles hadn’t slipped at all. “I’ve got to get to work.”
“See you around,” Jonathan called at his retreating back. He saluted with his coffee as he walked away. Miller stood aside as the door opened to admit Mr. Dark and Handsome. They nodded politely as he slipped out and Mr. Dark and Handsome slipped in. Maybe it was just Jonathan being paranoid, but that had seemed more friendly than polite.
“Going on break,” Tamika’s bright voice broke his concentration, and only then did he realize that he had been staring after Miller. He turned to her as she pulled her giggly girlfriend toward the kitchen.
“What?” Jonathan belatedly demanded as the door shut behind them. He turned back to the counter abruptly. “Good morning, how may I help you?”
“Good morning,” the man’s smile was truly unfair. “I would like a large cappuccino and a slice of carrot cake.”
“Sure thing, name?” Jonathan asked as he grabbed a cup and sharpie.
“Ardeth,” Mr. Dark and Handsome replied.
“Coming right up,” Jonathan spun on his heel and set to work before he could blurt out anything embarrassing. Like comparing his voice to smooth, dark chocolate, or telling him Jonathan liked his name. At least he finally knew what it was. None of his baristas would tell him; it had vexed him enough to briefly wish he was the kind of boss his employees would be too afraid of to tease. “And here we are.”
Jonathan exchanged his order for money. He passed the change back and said, “Enjoy and have a nice day.”
Mr. Dark and Handsome—no, Ardeth—paused for a long moment before inclining his head. “And you as well.”
Jonathan watched him walk away, for once not focused on his magnificent ass. He wondered for a moment if Ardeth had been about to say something else, before changing his mind. Shaking the thought off, he forced himself to put it out of mind and get back to work.
"Taking my break," Mikal announced as he zoomed past Jonathan on his way out the back door. Jonathan blinked after him for a moment, wondering when exactly Mikal had started taking his breaks outside, in the back alley, where it was both cold and empty of anything excepting the dumpster.
He couldn't bring himself to be surprised to find Ardeth walking up to the counter just as he exited the kitchen.
"Good morning," Ardeth smiled and Jonathan couldn't help but smile back.
"Morning, what will it be today?" Jonathan asked as he exchanged dough covered gloves for clean ones.
"A large black coffee, and, hmm," Ardeth tilted his head back as he looked at the menu, baring the long line of his elegant neck. "I am in the mood for a pastry, but I can't decide which sounds best. What do you recommend?"
"Well, that's a bit difficult as I would recommend everything on the menu. It's all quite good." Ardeth laughed and Jonathan winked at him.
"While evidence would suggest that is true," Ardeth leaned on the display separating him from Jonathan, crossed arms resting on the top, "It doesn't help me much."
Jonathan mirrored Ardeth's pose. This close to the man he could detect just the hint of a cologne or aftershave. Something spicy and exciting.
"True enough. Judging from past orders I would say that while you have a giant sweet tooth, you prefer something—spicy," Ardeth nodded with a small laugh. "Than I would suggest that you try the ginger-pecan scones. The three types of ginger in it gives it a nice little kick."
"Hmmm, that sounds—scrumptious," Jonathan snorted and Ardeth's smile widened, revealing fine lines around his mouth and eyes. "I'll take two."
"Coming right up." Jonathan reluctantly turned away to get Ardeth's order. Thankfully it was simple, or Jonathan had no doubt he'd bollix it all up as distracted as he was. He nearly poured coffee on himself as it was. He paused long enough for one breath before turning back to the counter. "Here you are."
"Thank you," Ardeth exchanged his money for the cup, his fingers brushing Jonathan's in the process. Jonathan swallowed with some difficulty.
"You're welcome," Jonathan thanked habit for getting the words out without stuttering as he handed Ardeth his change. The man started to turn away before abruptly turning back.
"This may be presumptious, and do tell me if it is," Ardeth licked his lips and Jonathan was so focused on following the path of his tongue that he nearly missed what was said next. "Would you care to join me for dinner? Perhaps this Saturday?"
"Yes," Jonathan's breathe caught at the blindingly bright smile that earned him. He hadn't meant to say yes, had planned to say no if Ardeth ever asked—not that he truly had thought he would—but he didn't even think before answering. And now, seeing that smile, he couldn't take it back, didn't want too. "Yes, uh, that would be, uh, I think that would be lovely."
"Excellent," Ardeth was still beaming as he put down his coffee and pulled out his phone. "I'll text you the details?"
Jonathan rattled off his number and a moment later his phone vibrated. He pulled it out and checked the message. It read: Until Saturday.
Jonathan saved the number—as Mr. Dark and Handsome of course—and sent a :D in reply. Ardeth chuckled as he checked his own phone. They smiled at each other until someone cleared their throat. Jonathan started and turned, noticing another customer for the first time. How long had she been there?
"Ah, sorry. Welcome to Zombean, how may I help you?" Jonathan watched out the corner of his eye as Ardeth retreated from the counter to his usual table up front. He forced himself to focus on filling—he glanced at the cup in his hand—Esther's order and not staring off into to space, or at Ardeth. Mikal came slinking through the kitchen door just as he was wishing the young lady a good day.
Jonathan glared at his barista and received a bright sunny smile in return. Jonathan considered complaining about the lack of respect, but when he looked over his shoulder his eyes caught Ardeth's. He couldn't help smiling and completely forgot why he was irritated.
Jonathan was handed a squirming infant before he even had a chance to step inside, let alone take off his coat and gloves.
"Come in," Evy called over her shoulder as she darted out of the entry hall.
"Well, I wasn't expecting that," Jonathan said to Alex as he let himself in and shut the door behind him. Alex just waved a sodden stuffed squid at him, nearly beaning him in the nose.
"We're running late," Rick drawled. Jonathan turned to find his brother-in-law leaning in the doorway to the living room. He was dressed in a blue suit, complete with waistcoat and tie, looking far more elegant and refined than usual. He raised his voice before continuing. "Someone got so wrapped up in a manuscript they forgot all about the dinner tonight."
"Someone should have reminded me," Evy called as she dashed past. She paused on the stairs just long enough to throw a glare at her husband. Jonathan had to tighten his hold on Alex as he tried to lunge for his mother.
"Someone did, three times," Rick replied. The only response was a huff. "Here let me take him." Rick took Alex, blowing a raspberry and making him giggle and squirm. Jonathan smiled as he slipped off his coat, tucking his gloves into the pocket.
"I take it there will be benefactors there tonight," Jonathan said as he followed Rick into the living room. "She wouldn't be all fussed for just anything."
"Yep. There’s no other reason she'd choose a dinner party over a dusty old manuscript," Rick agreed.
It was on the tip of Jonathan's tongue to make a comment about her nearly choosing a dusty tomb over her own wedding, when something caught the corner of his eye. Hanging on the wall among all the other pictures was a new one. Or rather, an old one.
Jonathan and Evy stood together, smiling widely. He was wearing a line suit while she was wearing a sundress, and they both looked so young. It had been taken the day he received his first commendation.
"It's a good picture," Rick murmured as he came up behind Jonathan. "Looks like it was a good day."
"It was," Jonathan said and didn't flinch away from the hand Rick placed on his shoulder, even though the side of his hand briefly brushed the skin of Jonathan's neck. The only thing he felt, ever felt from Rick, was a faint buzz of presence and the warmth of skin. No one was sure why Rick was so resistant to magic, but it was a boon to both the Carnahan siblings. Evy, because she didn't have to worry about him following her into cursed tombs, Jonathan because he never wanted to have a vision of his baby sister having sex.
It had happened with his parents, once. It was once too many.
"Are you ready, Rick?" Evy breezed into the room and snatched Alex from his father. Rick sighed but refrained from pointing out he had been waiting on her.
Evy twirled around with Alex, making him giggle and her long skirt flair out. She wore a simple yet elegant black silk dress with a charcoal lace overlay. Her curls had been tamed in an elegant twist that left some free to cascaded over her shoulder.
"You look lovely tonight," Jonathan said as she joined him.
"At least someone noticed," she tossed over her shoulder along with a pointed look.
"What, I noticed," Rick objected. "I said you were beautiful."
"I wasn't even ready then," Evy said and turned away again. Jonathan caught the confused and aggrieved expression Rick's face made before he turned away as well.
"I see it didn't take you long to notice the newest to our collection," Jonathan rolled his eyes at her insinuating tone.
"I had no idea you even still had a copy of this," Jonathan grazed a lightly over the glass and felt a frisson of apprehension.
"Neither did I," Evy replied, more of her attention on bopping her son's nose than on what she was saying. "I thought I lost it years ago in one move or another, but I was looking through some boxes shoved in the back of the closet. It was tucked in with some old paper work. I imagine that's why I never found it, it got packed away with the wrong stuff.
"But now it's finally back where it belongs," Evy's proud smile melted into a frown. "Though I really need to buy a new frame for it. I can't believe I ever picked out something so—tacky."
Jonathan turned back to the picture, noticing the frame for the first time. It was ornately carved, fake antique gold. Jonathan couldn't believe he was so focused on the picture that he hadn't noticed it before. It stood out in stark contrast to the simple wood frames the rest of the pictures sported, stained a rich mahogany to match the furniture. Perhaps it was so hideous he had simply blocked it from his mind. And his memory apparently.
"As fascinating as this is," Rick stole Alex back from his wife, only to hand him off to Jonathan. "We really do need to go before we're more than fashionably late."
"Yes, right," Evy spun on her heel and marched out of the room. "Do NOT feed Alex anything other than what I put up for him, and I expect him to be bathed and in bed when we get home!"
"Of course, sister dearest," Jonathan yelled after her. The door clicked shut on Rick's goodbye. "Well, looks like it's just you and me, old chum." Alex laughed and tried to shove his squid up Jonathans nose. Jonathan took it as enthusiastic approval.
Jonathan spent the next few hours talking to someone who couldn't talk back and lamented that it was the most stimulating conversation he'd had all day.
"Hopefully, that won't hold true tomorrow," Jonathan murmured as he lay a sleeping Alex in his crib. He brushed light fingers through Alex's hair and rubbed his back gently letting the soft sleepy contentment he felt from Alex wash away the anticipation and apprehension that he felt whenever he thought about his impending date.
After a few minutes he felt restless enough to wander off. He ambled through the house, checking all the windows and doors before settling down in the living room. He pulled a book up on his phone and made himself comfortable. Despite Rick's best efforts, and glares, it would be a few more hours before he would be able to pry Evy loose from all the benefactors that wanted her time and stories and to drone on at her.
Despite his best efforts, he was unable to lose himself in the story. He frequently found himself looking up, as if expecting someone to be there. After realizing he had read the same paragraph for the third time, and still didn't know what it said he gave it up for a bad job. He set his phone aside and tried to settle his mind to see if he could figure out what was bothering him.
Nothing sprang to mind immediately, but he couldn't shake the vague itching under his skin. The more he focused on it, the more intense it got, centering on the skin between his shoulder blades. The feeling that if he turned around he would find someone standing there was almost overpowering. He knew it was impossible, but he had to look anyway.
Even knowing he was alone, he was still faintly surprised to turn around and see no one. Unable to banish the feeling, he got up and checked the house again. Everything was shut and locked and Alex slept on peacefully. It was a full ten minutes before Jonathan was able to force himself to stop watching Alex breath and leave the room.
Back in the living room the feeling persisted against all logic. Seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, Jonathan turned his head and found himself staring at himself. All the dread he had felt upon touching the picture returned, trebled. Feeling inexorably drawn forward, he approached the picture. He could see a faint reflection of himself moving eerily, ghost like, across the glass as he came forward.
"Be jumping at my own shadow next," he told his long ago self. The longer he started at the picture, the more the smiles seemed too wide, the eyes showing too much white, the greater his sense of dread. He felt the need to touch it again, to find the source of his disquiet, to See what was hiding in the innocuous photo.
Instead, he retreated to the kitchen to see if there was everything he needed to make chocolate scones.
Jonathan adjusted his cuffs for the third time. He couldn’t help but wonder if he was over dressed. The restaurant was nice, but nothing particularly fancy. He wasn’t the only man there in slacks and a nice button up. At least he had talked himself out of a suit and tie.
He reached for his left cuff again before forcing himself to press his hands flat on the tabletop. He debated putting his gloves back on for at least the fifth time. It was rare for anything in a restaurant to last long enough or come in contact with the same person often enough to develop any impressions for him to pick up. And it was unlikely anyone would touch him either. But being in so public a space with so many unfamiliar people without the barrier of his gloves left him feeling positively naked.
Just as he was going to reach into his pocket, movement caught his eye, making him forget about them completely. The same host that had seated him was headed his way with Ardeth following in his wake. Ardeth was dressed in fitted black slacks and a black button down. The top most button was undone, somehow making the severe look seem more casual. Jonathan stood as he reached the table. The host murmured something before departing but Jonathan didn’t hear a word he said.
“Good evening,” Ardeth said as he sat. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
“No, no, you’re fine,” Jonathan hastily resumed his seat. “I was a little early. Traffic wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting.”
Truthfully, Jonathan had been so worried about being late and making a bad impression that he had left nearly an half hour before he needed to. He’d killed a little time driving around to find the best parking spot, but it had still left him sitting in his car fretting for far too long before he finally spent the last five minutes at the table worrying his cuffs.
“Ah, I am glad.” Thankfully the waitress arrived before the brief silence could become awkward. They ordered drinks and turned to their menus. Jonathan didn’t truly need to look at it, he ordered the same thing every time he ate there, but it at least gave him something to do.
The waitress returned with their drinks and bread, and left with their orders. Ardeth cut a slice of bread before offering it to Jonathan.
“Thank you,” Jonathan said, slathering on the butter and watching Ardeth. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up revealing part of his forearms. They were corded with muscle and covered with dark hair. Jonathan watched rapt as muscles shifted under skin. It was only as Ardeth raised the bread to his mouth that Jonathan realized he was still just absently holding his slice. He took a bite and met Ardeth’s eyes.
They both smiled and Jonathan forced his shoulders to relax.
“Hmm, not bad,” Ardeth said before taking another bite.
“Yes,” Jonathan replied. “But not better than mine, right?”
“Of course not,” Ardeth’s smile was genuine, and Jonathan couldn’t help returning it again.
“Thank you,” Jonathan said, still smiling. He knew he should add more to the conversation, but he couldn’t think of a single thing to say that wasn’t completely inane.
“How was the café today?” Ardeth took a sip of his water, and Jonathan had to drag his eyes away from watching the muscles in this throat work.
“Fine, fine.” Jonathan mentally shook himself. “Pretty typical really. But then, the only things that tend to stand out are rude customers and I prefer to avoid those. Though, Mikal did have a bit of a fall today.”
“Was he hurt?” Jonathan was warmed that Ardeth seemed genuinely concerned.
“No, thankfully,” Jonathan smiled as he remembered the incident. “Actually, once I realized he was fine, it was bit funny. See, he turned too sharply because he thought he saw his new beau walking past the window.”
"Ah, to be young and in love," Ardeth's smile was wistful.
"Yeah, I don't miss that at all," Jonathan couldn't help but smile at the snort of laughter that earned him. "I mostly remember being young and awkward. At least now, I'm just awkward."
Jonathan tried not to stare to openly as Ardeth threw his head back in a full throated laugh.
"You seem to be doing fine from my perspective." Anything else Ardeth might have said was interrupted by the return of their waitress. Jonathan could almost have resented her, but she came bearing offerings of food, so he could be magnanimous this once.
The first bite of steak practically melted in his mouth. Jonathan moaned in appreciation. Opening eyes he didn't remember closing, he nearly dropped his fork at the heat in Ardeth's dark eyes.
"Huhm," Jonathan cleared his throat. Ardeth finally broke eye contact to begin eating his own meal. "Enough about me, how has your day been?"
"I don't feel as if I know nearly enough about you, but we can take our time with that if you wish," Jonathan refused to blush, but his body had other ideas. He looked away as Ardeth continued, unable to hold that sincere gaze. "It was a fairly quite day, no new cases, mostly just paperwork to wrap up."
"Cases?" Jonathan echoed, feeling like the bottom had dropped out of his stomach. Ardeth arched his eyebrows for a moment before understanding dawned.
"Ah, yes, I suppose we have never spoken of my work before," Ardeth laughed lightly. "I'm a DI with the Met. Not as exciting as being a private detective or some such, I suppose, but I enjoy it."
Jonathan was aware that Ardeth was still speaking, but he couldn’t hear anything over the rushing of blood in his ears. Ardeth was a cop. He tried to remember if there had ever been anything Ardeth had said that even hinted he was a cop. But to be honest, they'd barely even spoken at all. He didn't even know the man's last name.
Ardeth laughed lightly again and paused, looking at Jonathan expectantly. Jonathan knew he should say something but he had no idea what Ardeth had been talking about. As the pause dragged on, becoming uncomfortable, Ardeth's smile dimmed and he put down his fork. He opened his mouth to say something but Jonathan beat him to it.
"This was a mistake," his voice was harsh, and louder than he’d intended. He looked around, but no one seemed to be paying them any attention.
"Jonathan?" Ardeth looked bewildered and concerned, but could Jonathan truly trust that he wasn't simply an accomplished actor as well?
"Did Miller put you up to this?" Jonathan shook his head as he stood. Did it truly matter?
"What? Jonathan, please, wait," Ardeth reached out his hand too quickly for Jonathan to dodge. He braced himself against whatever flood of emotion or vision he was about to receive. Why hadn't he worn his gloves?
"Jonathan talk to me." It was only as Ardeth spoke again that Jonathan realized that he felt—nothing. There was only the simple warmth of skin and a thrum of power. Shocked, Jonathan sat back down, staring at where their hands connected. How could he feel nothing from Ardeth? The only time this had ever happened before was with Rick, and that was because he was resistant to magic. Ardeth didn't feel quite the same, having something of the feel of power like Evy and other mages Jonathan had come into contact with. And though Evy and some others were able to mute their feelings so as not to be overwhelming, they couldn’t simply hide them altogether.
"I can't feel you," Jonathan said dully. He finally looked up from their hands to find Ardeth blinking and with his mouth slightly open. He had likely been talking until Jonathan interjected, but he had no idea what he might have been saying. "Why can't I feel you?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Ardeth shook his head slightly but never broke eye contact. He squeezed Jonathan's hand lightly. "What does Inspector Miller have to do with anything? If I have done something to upset you, I am truly sorry, but please, talk to me."
"I used to work with Miller," Jonathan wondered if he sounded as strange as he felt. "He comes by the café regularly trying to get me to come back."
"You were a cop?" Ardeth finally let go of Jonathan's hand as he sat back, expression evaluating. "I confess I was not expecting that."
"No, I wasn't," Jonathan dry washed his face, and thought how best to explain. He appreciated that Ardeth didn't interrupt with questions. "I was a consultant for the Met. I worked with many departments, but most frequently with Miller as he was one of the few that wasn't bothered working with a spook."
"Spook," Ardeth murmured before continuing at a louder volume. "You’re a psychic?"
"Yes, specifically a psychometric," Jonathan picked up his fork and poked at his dinner. He wasn't really hungry anymore, but he needed to something with his hands before he tried to grab Ardeth's to see if he could divine what was going on. "I'm surprised you didn't know. Even if Miller didn't mention me, I would think my name was still fairly well know."
"Ah, well, I must confess I never caught your last name," Jonathan was oddly satisfied to see Ardeth's discomfiture at that mutual discovery Then he laughed slightly and shook his head. "To be completely honest, for the first few weeks I came to the café I thought your name was Quin. It wasn't until your sister came in that I even learned your name is Jonathan."
"What?" Jonathan could feel his nose scrunching up with his incredualty. "Why on Earth would you think my name is Quin?"
"Because that is what it says on your name tag," Ardeth started smiling again, and Jonathan finally relaxed, thinking maybe this wasn't going to end in disaster. "I have been meaning to ask you about that?"
"That is entirely down to Tamika's extremely questionable humor and love of Star Wars," Ardeth raised his eyebrows, so Jonathan explained. "There is a character in the EU named Quinlan Vos who is psychometric."
"Ah, and this is also why she and the others all refer to you as Vosman?" Ardeth's smile widened as he picked up his own fork, though he actually began eating again.
"She's called me that from day one and the others picked it up," Jonathan took a bite, thankful it was still somewhat warm. "When I lost my name tag a while back, she made me that one and it was too much bother to make a new one. Though I did seriously consider it when she wouldn't stop laughing about it for a week."
"It is good that they feel they can joke with you. Perhaps we could have avoided the confusion if we had introduced ourselves properly. Detective Inspector Ardeth Bay." Jonathan was simultaneously relieved and disappointed that he didn't offer his hand.
"Jonathan Carnahan, Vosman and co-owner of the Zombean Café."
"Co-owner?" Ardeth asked. Jonathan took a moment to admire the flawless arch of Ardeth's dark brow.
"Evy, my sister, helped me pay for and set everything up. She wanted me to call it O'Connell’s. I told her I was opening a cafe, not a pub." Ardeth snorted into his water glass.
“How did you get her to agree to the name Zombean instead?” Ardeth asked after wiping his mouth. “She doesn't seem the kind to just give up.”
“Oh, she isn’t, but Rick voted for Zombean so she was overruled,” Jonathan said with relish. "Back to Miller. He didn't set this up, but you do know him?"
"Indeed," Ardeth nodded and looked him straight in the eye. "And he did recommend your café to me, but it’s because everything on your menu is halal. It makes my life much easier. May I ask why? It is not very common."
"Ah, well, my mother was from Egypt, and while she wasn’t a devout Muslim, most of her family are. " Jonathan shrugged, distracted by the thought that his mother would have approved of Ardeth. “It’s habit mostly, and it’s not as if it’s terribly difficult when it comes to baking.
Jonathan looked up as the bell over the door jingled. This early on a Wednesday morning was slow enough that he could bake and run the shop himself.
"Evy," he called brightly as his sister trudged to the counter. "You're looking done in this morning."
"Thanks ever, Jonathan," Evy's curls were as tame as they ever got, but her skin was paler than usual and the bags beneath her eyes deeper. "Alex is teething, so we're none of us getting much sleep. You, on the other hand, look quite chipper today. Had another date with Mr. Dark and Handsome?"
"His name is Ardeth. You know that Evy," Jonathan turned away to make her typical drink, an iced chocolate raspberry latte, hoping the blush would abate before he turned back around. "And yes, we did go out last night."
"That was the third date wasn't it?" Jonathan turned around and almost threw the drink at her when he caught sight of her wiggling eyebrows.
"Stop that, you look ridiculous," Jonathan thumped her drink down and went to grab her a chocolate scone. He turned around to see she had followed him around the counter. He really wished she didn't own half the café so he could toss her out. "And yes, it was the third date, and nothing happened because we are not living in a romance novel."
"Oh, come on, it's traditional," Evy crowed, reaching for another scone. Jonathan half-heartedly batted at her hand. She smirked at him and turned to lean against the counter with her prize.
"Don't be ridiculous," Jonathan rolled his eyes and returned to stocking the displays. "And if I recall correctly, a certain nosey someone didn't even manage a single date before jumping a certain scruffy American."
"What can I say, we witches have loose morals," Evy rolled her eyes. He couldn't count the number of times they'd heard that nonsense growing up. "But we're not talking about me right now."
"It's not like I want to be talking about me right now," Jonathan murmured. The bell over the door tinkled again and he looked past his sister to see who was fast becoming his least favorite customer come in. "Good morning, how may I help you?"
"I'll have a large hot chai and a bran muffin." The woman's words were short and clipped, faint accent likely making them sharper than she intended.
"Name?" Jonathan asked. She had recently become a regular but he'd never served her himself.
"Anne," she answered after a long, uncomfortable pause.
"Coming right up," Jonathan said with as much cheer as he could muster and turned away as fast as he could. Though he knew it was ridiculous, he would swear he could feel her dark eyes boring into his back as he worked. When he passed Evy on the way to the bakery case she was watching the woman with a nonplussed expression.
"Here you are, enjoy," Jonathan passed coffee and muffin over. The woman stared for a moment before turning and stalking to an overstuffed armchair in the back that she seemed to favor.
"You're welcome," Evy murmured at her retreating back. Jonathan snorted but made no comment. "Does she come here often?"
"A couple of times a week. Why?" Jonathan finished the prep for the front and slipped into the kitchen to check on the next batch of biscuits. "You know, if you're not going to do any work, you really shouldn't be behind the counter."
"So you keep saying," Evy pointedly didn't move. "Is she always that rude? You'd think if she didn't like our café, she'd find somewhere else to go."
"I guess, I've never served her myself before," Jonathan restocked the cups as he tried to surreptitiously look at their sole customer. "Perhaps she's just not a morning person. She's hardly the only one." Jonathan's look was pointed.
Evy sniffed and held her cup out in silent demand for a refill. "I've no idea what you're speaking off." Jonathan huffed but turned to make her another coffee. "And even if I did, I would point out that I still manage to be perfectly polite."
"Maybe to people you're not related to." Jonathan handed her the cup and continued before she could respond. "Anyhow, I doubt that’s what you came here to discuss. Or did you just want to bum breakfast off me?"
"I own half of everything here so it's hardly bumming," Evy straightened, casting a quick look over her shoulder. Jonathan couldn't help looking as well and was disquieted to find the mysterious Anne staring back. "Anyway, no that's not why I came. We recently excavated a site and found a few items that we think were added at a later date. We were wondering if you'd be willing to try to read them. They're pretty mundane so you might not even be able to get anything off them, and it definitely shouldn't be anything distressing."
"That should be fine," Jonathan said after a brief moment of thought. "It might be nice to try my hand at readings again."
"You know the director and I would welcome you anytime you felt like trying," Evy hip checked him on the way to dispose of her cup. "And we're not the only ones. Plenty of people at the museum miss you. And others."
"You are possibly even less subtle than your husband," Jonathan repressed a sigh as she opened her mouth. "No, Evy. You know exactly why I don't work for the police anymore and I have more than made my position clear."
"You have," Evy agreed. "And there is nothing wrong with that, or with spending the rest of your life running a café." Jonathan was tempted to point out she wasn't behaving as if she truly believed that. "I wouldn't keep bringing it up if I thought you were truly happy this way. You can't let what happened with Imhotep keep defining you."
A loud screech stopped Jonathan before he could reply. He and Evy both snapped around to look for the source of the disturbance, only to see Anne, of the rude infamy, pushing a chair out of her way.
He'd been so focused on what Evy was saying, he had completely forgotten the customer was even there. They watched silently as she marched out the door. The bell jingled merrily as she exited, feeling discordant in comparison to her dark mood.
"I just want you to be happy," Evy's voice tore his attention away from watching the woman stalk away.
"I am happy," Jonathan said on a sigh. "Is my life different than what I expected or wanted? Yes. But I find more and more that I truly am happy. I enjoyed working for the Met and helping people, but the more distance I have, the more I'm able to separate the job from what happened at the end, the more I'm coming to realize I couldn't have done it much longer.
"I began dreading answering the phone because it might be a call in on a case," Jonathan dry washed his face and met Evy's eyes. "Seeing so much violence and death, all the time. It was wearing me down, and I didn't even see how much it had until I was well away from it."
"Oh, Jonathan," Evy hugged him gently, the barely there press of her temple to his cheek sending warmth and affection through him. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"Because I didn't realize just how bad it was," Jonathan shrugged and placed a kiss in her hair. "I mean, I knew it was stressful, that was obvious. I thought I was dealing with it, but it turns out I wasn't."
"But you are now," Evy pulled back just far enough to look him in the eyes.
"Yeah, I think I finally am."
"You really should let me take care of the dishes," Jonathan murmured into Ardeth's shoulder. The other man didn't seem to be having any difficulty with his given task despite the way Jonathan was wrapped around him.
"You are my guest," Jonathan couldn't help but smile when he heard the smile in Ardeth's voice. "It would be rude to make you do the dishes."
"But you're not making me, I'm offering," Jonathan pressed even closer, enjoying feeling nothing but the warmth of another body. "Beside, you cooked, it's only fair." Jonathan gave into the temptation of the skin before him and brushed a kiss just above the collar of Ardeth's shirt.
"It was no chore, I enjoyed cooking for you for a change." Ardeth turned in his arms, damp hands gripping his hips and pulling them flush.
"And I enjoyed being cooked for," Jonathan said, trapped in Ardeth's dark eyes. "Don't get me wrong, I love cooking, but it was nice to enjoy a meal that I didn't have to work for."
"And yet, here you are, trying to work for it," though Ardeth didn't laugh, Jonathan could hear the humor in his voice.
"I have a better idea," Jonathan said and leaned in to nuzzle their cheeks together. Ardeth shivered as Jonathan’s breath tickled as he whispered into his ear. "How about we leave the dishes for later."
"Hmm, I might be amiable to this plan," Ardeth's voice was a low purr of sound that sent a shiver straight through Jonathan. "What, precisely, did you want to do instead?"
Rather than answer him, Jonathan leaned in and kissed him. He kept it light, merely the press of lips on lips, and yet it was surely the most intense kiss he had ever experienced. After a minute that felt like a lifetime, Jonathan drew back just enough to look Ardeth in the eye.
"I approve of this plan," Ardeth's voice was rough and his cheeks flushed. Jonathan swallowed hard. "Come," Ardeth said, disentangling from Jonathan except for their hands. He pulled Jonathan out of the kitchen and down the hall to a room he had yet to enter. It was as tidy and homey as the rest of the apartment, complete with a neatly made bed.
Before Jonathan could comment on the neatly made bed, Ardeth used his grip on Jonathan's hand to reel him in until they were flush against each other again. Ardeth finally let go of his hand only to reach up and cup his jaw. He tipped Jonathan's head until their foreheads were pressed together. This close the only thing Jonathan could see was the deep darkness of Ardeth's eyes.
"You have no idea what you do to me," Ardeth's voice was loud in the silence, nearly startling Jonathan into pulling away. Before he could even think to respond, Ardeth kissed him. The kiss was soft, as gentle as Ardeth's grip, and yet somehow it felt like Jonathan would be destroyed the longer it went on.
One kiss lead to another, and another, and another, until Jonathan lost all sense of anything that wasn't Ardeth's lips on his, Ardeth's hands on his jaw, the solid warmth of Ardeth's back under Jonathan's hands. So entranced was he, that Jonathan didn't even realize they had moved until the backs of his knees bumped into the edge of the bed.
The next thing Jonathan knew, he was lying back across the bed with Ardeth hovering above him. Neither of them were wearing shirts, and really, how did Jonathan miss all those buttons being undone? Ardeth traced one finger down the center of his chest until he encountered Jonathan's pants and he completely forgot to care.
"May I?" Ardeth tugged gently on Jonathan's belt, but his eyes never left Jonathan's.
"Yes," Jonathan croaked. "God, yes, please." The look the other man gave him really shouldn't be allowed, Jonathan thought muzzily, who could be expected to think under such circumstances. All thought fled as Ardeth finally turned his focus to the, ah, matter at hand. That is to say, Jonathan's pants. Which he undid and removed with the kind of alacrity Jonathan admired.
After a moment of looking at his bared body, Ardeth looked back up at Jonathan with a sly smile as he reached out and grasped his cock. Jonathan's head dropped back to the bed as he arched into the firm touch.
"May I taste you?" Ardeth's voice was rough and deeper than he'd ever heard it.
"Yes," Jonathan's response was more whimper than word. Ardeth gave him one firm stroke before skimming his hands down Jonathan's thighs to his knees. He pressed them open as he knelt before him. Jonathan propped himself up on his elbows so he wouldn't lose sight of the other man's eyes. "Ardeth, please."
Ardeth smiled like a man with a secret as he leaned in, hands firmer as they retraced their path. "As you wish," Jonathan snorted and dropped flat, one arm flung over his eyes.
"I should never have admitted that is my favorite movie," he murmured, breath stuttering as Ardeth gripped him again. Ardeth's breath caressed the head of his dick as the man laughed, sending shivers up Jonathan's spine. He was about to make some witty comment when Ardeth's mouth joined his hand. "Oh, good god."
Ardeth's tongue lavished attention on the head as his hand stoked the rest of his length. Jonathan had to look, couldn't not watch as Ardeth's lips stretched around him. He was caught in Ardeth's eyes as he gazed at Jonathan from lowered lashes. His eyes never left Jonathan's as he took him deeper, not stopping until his lips brushed the base. His hand moved down, cupping his balls and thumb pressing into his perineum.
Jonathan couldn't not reach out to him. Fingers stiff from unknowingly clenching in the sheets traced along Ardeth's jaw as he drew back. He pulled off of Jonathan's cock with a pop, grinning in satisfaction before turning and pressing a kiss to Jonathan's palm. He licked a stripe up the underside of Jonathan's cock before taking him in his mouth again.
Jonathan fell back against the bed at the first touch to his hole. Ardeth's other hand, that he was so overwhelmed he hadn't even noticed missing, made a grand reentrance. He'd acquired slick from somewhere and was gently circling his hole, not pressing in, just a light presure, teasing at the rim.
He pressed the tip of his thumb in just as he swallowed around Jonathan's cock, and the world went white. Pleasure so intense curled up his spine, igniting every nerve in his body, that for a moment Jonathan couldn't feel anything else, completely thrown out of his body.
Then the moment was over and he slammed back into his body, overly sensitized to everything. He could hear his own harsh breath, the sweat soaked sheet clinging to his back, the scrape of every single hair on his thighs as Ardeth gently rubbed circles into his flesh. He reached for the other man, eyes blearily and hands grabbing ineffectually at his shoulders.
"Up," Jonathan croaked, pulling weakly.
"As you wish," Ardeth echoed, breathlessly. He climbed to his feet gracefully and leaned over Jonathan until they were close enough to kiss. He tasted sharp and bitter, and Jonathan moaned and bit at his lips greedily. He tugged at Ardeth's belt, wishing his fingers would work. Ardeth pulled back, making Jonathan whimper. "Shh, just, let me."
A moment later Ardeth was back, fully on top of him, skin against skin, the offending pants magically gone. Jonathan wrapped his arms and legs around the other man, earning a gasp as Ardeth's hard length slid along the crease of his hip. They rocked together urgently, kisses sloppy. A short eternity later, Ardeth tensed, and Jonathan held him, brushing fleeting kisses all over his face as Ardeth shuddered through his climax.
Jonathan groaned and reached out, slapping at the nightstand in an attempt to shut off his phone's alarm. It took a moment of encountering nothing but air for his brain to wake up enough to pay attention to his surroundings. There was an unexpected warmth along his back and draped over his waist.
"What?" Jonathan couldn't stop the smile that stretched his lips at the sleepy mumble against the back off his neck.
"Sorry," Jonathan whispered as he reluctantly pulled himself away. Ardeth resisted briefly, arm tightening before letting him go. Jonathan slipped out of the warmth of the bed and shivered in the cool morning air. After a minute of fumbling about he finally located his pants and extracted his phone. He shut the alarm off and stared balefully at the time. Not since he first opened the shop did he regret the necessity of early mornings.
"Jonathan?" Ardeth was still abed, and it was so tempting to climb back in with him. Instead he walked back to the bed and leaned over to kiss him. It took a greater will than he knew he possessed to pull away.
"I have to go," Jonathan couldn't bring himself to speak above a whisper. He pushed an errant hank of hair off Ardeth's forehead. "I have to get the baking started and open the shop." He paused before asking, "Will you be by?"
"Yes," Ardeth's smile was small but genuine. He waved one hand vaguely. "Sometime—later."
"Alright, I'll see you then," Jonathan kissed him one last time before getting dressed. Ardeth watched him all the way out the door, not bothering to get up. Jonathan let himself out, locking the door before closing it, sparing a moment to wish he had a key for the deadbolt.
The streets were dark and quiet as he drove to the café. He drifted through his morning, working purely by rote, tired and mind still back with his lover. He only really came out of his daze to snap at Mikal's teasing about how oddly familiar his clothes looked.
Every time the door opened he looked up, expecting Ardeth, and felt more anxious each time he failed to appear. He chided himself, reminding himself the other man had had a busy week and deserved his rest. Just because Jonathan was feeling a little separation anxiety after finally progressing to lovers didn't mean anything was wrong.
Slipping his glove back on after sending Ardeth a totally innocent text, he decided to call Evy. It had been a couple of days since he'd talked to her, and her straightforward sensibleness had always grounded him. With a wave to Mikal he headed through the kitchen and out the back.
He leaned against the wall next to the back door and shivered as the cold immediately started to seep into his back. As he waited for Evy to answer, he reflected that it really wasn't warm enough to stay out for long.
"Hello, Jonathan," Evy's muffled voice drew him out of his thoughts. No doubt she was chewing the end of a pen as her mind was far away focused on much less mundane concerns as potential ink stains.
"Evy," Jonathan stopped, at a complete loss for anything to say. The silence stretched on, each passing moment making it harder for Jonathan to breathe. His chest felt tight, the air squeezed out of him.
"Jonathan? Jonathan!" Evy's voice cut through his head, leaving a sharp clarity behind. "Take a deep breath for me. Now let it out. Now just breathe with me."
Jonathan followed her instructions, comforted by how much she had always sounded like their mother in these moments. "That's good, you're doing great, Jonathan. Just keep breathing."
"Evy, I," Jonathan stopped speaking, throat tight, air threatening to cut off again.
"Just breathe," Evy cut in. "You don't need to say anything until you're ready. Did I tell you what Alex did yesterday?"
Jonathan shook his head even though she wouldn't see it. He stood there and breathed, letting Evy's voice wash over him, letting his mind drain of any other thoughts besides the need to listen. Minutes or days later, he leaned back, uncurling from his protective hunch, muscles spasming as he forced them to straighten.
"Evy," Jonathan murmured in the middle of a monologue about annoying administrators more concerned by budgets than discovery.
"Jonathan," she replied immediately. "Are you all right?"
"No, yes, I don't," Jonathan grunted in frustration, slamming a fist against his thigh. "Nothing is wrong, but—”
"But it feels like something is?" Evy asked. Even without her there he could imagine the concerned look on her face.
"Yes," Jonathan felt the word was forced out of him. "But I've no idea what!"
"Alright, don't move, I'm coming to get you." Jonathan could faintly here Evy as she said something to someone on the other end of the line.
"What, no," Jonathan sputtered. "Evy you have work. I have work. You can't just come babysit me because I'm feeling out of sorts."
"I can and I will," Evy said sternly. "And I think it's more than just being out of sorts." Jonathan opened his mouth to argue but his sister barreled right on. "I'm coming and that's final. You can sulk all you want, but you will either come with me, or suffer the indignity of being dragged out by your little sister in front of your employees and customers.”
"As if my employees haven't witnessed that already," Jonathan's angry mutter went unappreciated as Evy had already hung up. As Jonathan returned to the warmth of the shop, he sent another text off to Ardeth, telling him not to stop in on his account. He tried not to worry that he had yet to receive an answer, reminding himself that it hadn't been that long and Ardeth might still be sleeping.
After calling in Em, and filling Mikal in on the change of plans, Jonathan waited for Evy to arrive in the kitchen. He cleaned what little mess was left over from the morning’s baking, then stood and stared at his silent phone, willing it to make a sound. He breathed steadily and forced himself to think through, step by step, how to make lemon chiffon cake his mother had loved. Then he unlocked his phone and started at the message thread, reading it from beginning to end.
"Jonathan," Evy strode into the kitchen. Mikal peeked in but quickly withdrew. Jonathan had no idea what his face was doing, but it couldn't be good as Evy never broke stride, walking right into a fierce hug.
"I need to go to Ardeth's," Jonathan pushed his sister back so he could meet her eyes. She nodded and led the way to the car. The drive was silent save for the needed directions. The walk to Ardeth's apartment was equally silent. They paused outside to share a look. Evy was as steady as always, and Jonathan tried to draw that calm strength into himself.
He reached out for the doorknob, and it turned easily under his hand as he knew, inevitably, that it would. One deep breath and he opened the door. He went through quickly, stepping aside and doing a visual sweep of the room. Evy followed after, stepping to the other side, hand held before her flickering with tongues of black flame.
Everything was quiet and still. Nothing looked out of place. Brother and sister moved together, quickly sweeping the apartment. No one was there, and everything looked just as it had when he’d left that morning save one, obvious addition in place of his missing boyfriend.
Set in the middle of the rumpled sheets was a simple shoe box. Jonathan waited, rocking on his heels as Evy waved her hand over it and muttered under her breath. Only once she had nodded and stepped back did he step forward. He took one deep breath and yanked the lid off.
Inside resting on a bed of fabric was a knife. It was as long as the box with a wickedly curved blade. The hilt was inset with mother of pearl and looked antique. There was a line of dried blood along the edge.
"Are you sure you should do this?" Evy asked as he stripped off his gloves. He appreciated that there was no censure in her voice. After all, she had once done something equally foolish for Rick.
He nodded but didn't pause, lifting the knife, blade in one hand, hilt in the other. Immediately he was flooded with a feeling of glee and anticipation. The temptation to fling the vile thing from him was strong, but he held on, even as he felt a quick slice of pain along his neck. The longer he held the knife, the clearer the impressions became. Soon images began flitting behind his closed lids.
It was a jumble. Unknown men, running and screaming. Ardeth's sleeping face. A woman viewed from behind, hair long and dark. A glint of jewelry, a delicate gold chain. Dark eyes, first laughing, then swirling with anger and hatred.
Then a face, a face he knew, a face he remembered wearing a bloody grin, perched above him, and the bright shock of pain as a blade sunk into his gut.
Jonathan gasped as he forced his fingers open. He dropped the knife back into the box and stumbled back, clutching his stomach. His knees collapsed, sending him to the floor. Evy tried to catch him, but only managed to slow his dissent.
"Jonathan, Jonathan!" Evy shook him sharply and he looked away from the thin line of fresh blood on his palm.
"I need," Jonathan coughed hard enough to feel as if he was going to dislodge something from his chest. "I need my phone." Evy scrabbled in his pockets before extracting it and thrusting it at him. He fumbled with it, leaving a smear of blood before he managed to place a call. He held the phone to his ear and didn't bother with a greeting. "Miller, someone's taken Ardeth. And they left me Imhotep's knife."
Jonathan stared blankly at the cup of tea in his hands; it had long since grown cold. He could hear Rick and Evy speaking nearby, but didn't have the energy to pay attention to what they were saying. Rick's firm grip on his shoulder was the only thing grounding him, keeping him firmly in the here and now and not lost in that last vision. Part of him resented it, but most of him understood that it wouldn't help.
"Imhotep is still in Belmarsh," Miller announced as he slammed into his office. "We had a mage and a spook check him out to make sure he hadn't gotten out and left an illusion or n or something in his place, but it is definitely him."
"The knife?" Evy asked as she took a place at Jonathan's other shoulder.
"The real deal. We checked evidence and found a cheap piece of shit with a very good glamour on it," Miller's tone was as disgusted as his expression. "We're going through the tapes to see if we can catch the switch, but without any idea of when it happened, it'll take forever."
"Do you have any leads?" He asked. Evy and Rick both squeezed a shoulder. Miller tossed a photo onto the table in front of them. It was a little fuzzy, obviously taken and blown up from a low res security camera. Still, the dark haired woman was instantly recognizable.
"Anne," Jonathan murmured.
"Who?" Evy asked just as Miller barked out, "You know her?"
"No, not really," Jonathan shook his head and tore his eyes away from her sharp smile. "She's a regular at the café. She's been coming in for a couple of weeks now, maybe a month or two. You remember her Evy? She was the one you called a rude bitch." Evy made a displeased sound, though he was unsure whether it was for his relating that, or her remembering the woman.
"According to the prison visitors logs her name is Anck-Su-Namun," Miller butted in before Evy could respond. He had witnessed more than one sibling snit fit, and clearly wasn't in the mood to deal with one now. "She's been visiting him for about 18 months, but she's been corresponding with him since just a few months after his incarceration."
"What, like, a serial killer fangirl?" Rick's face looked as disturbed as Jonathan felt.
Miller shrugged. "Something like that. We're going through the letters now, but he didn't keep many and I doubt there will be anything incriminating. Brown is interrogating him now, but you remember how useful that was before."
Jonathan tried not to shudder. Nothing about that time was good and he prefered not to remember it at all. "Surely, Anck-Su-Namun isn't a common name"
"It isn't," Miller shook his head and sank into the seat behind his desk. "It likely isn't her real name either, as we haven't found anything beyond a very short trail ending with the fake id she used to get in to visit Imhotep."
"Damn it," Jonathan shoved back from the table, and stalked the short distance to the other side of the room. He stood with his back to the room, not seeing the wall, but Ardeth's face slack with sleep.
"You should go home, there's nothing more you can do here." Jonathan rounded on Miller, intending to argue, but came face to face with Evy instead. She had obviously been standing just behind him. Her face was intent in a way he knew and had come to dread.
"Miller is right," Evy grabbed his hands and squeezed them, all but begging him to trust her with her eyes. "Rick and I will stay with you."
Jonathan didn't respond but allowed her to pull him out of the room. He tried not to wince as Miller squeezed his shoulder as they passed him. He remained silent the whole walk out of the police station and to the car. Rick starte the car and pulled out and Jonathan could stand it no longer.
"Evy, please tell me you have a plan," Jonathan didn't recognize his own voice, it was so strangled and desperate. "And please tell me it is better than the time you tried to actually fly on a broom."
Evy ignored his commentary beyond rolling her eyes. "The knife wasn't the only thing she left behind. There was a bit of hair, too long to be Ardeth's, caught on the door jamb. The police have it, but I managed to snag one."
"Evy," Jonathan breathed, feeling a stirring of hope before frowning. "Why haven't you done a locator spell? It's been hours."
"I tried," Evy huffed. "With her hair and Ardeth's. Nothing. She's obviously got wards of some kind up and they are blocking my spells completely, but" Evy continued talking, louder as Jonathan opened his mouth. "But, I have an idea. When you touched the knife, you were able to get a read off it. Now if she's powerful enough to block me, she should be able to block you as well with no problem. Now, I think she intentionally left a hole so you would be able to see what was going on, so, um," here Evy faltered for a moment before continuing. "So you would See what was happening to him. You can’t See anything from Ardeth himself, but if you use her hair to See through the hole she left you, I might be able to sort of piggyback along and find their location.
“Might?” Jonathan couldn’t help but get stuck on that particular word.
“Uh, question,” Rick pulled over so he could turn in his seat to view both his wife and brother-in-law. “Why aren't we explaining this to the police?”
“The legalities would take too long,” Evy waved the concern off. “But if someone happened to find out where they are and called in an anonymous tip.” Evy shrugged.
“Thank you,” Jonathan choked out. “Evy—”
“Right,” Rick barked, never one comfortable with sentiment. “You two do your,” he waved his hand vaguely between them, “thing, and I’ll drive.”
As Rick pulled back into traffic, Evy pulled out a handkerchief and gently unfolded it. The hair was a stark line against the white linen. Jonathan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Feeling more centered he peeled off his gloves,carefully reached out, and plucked it up.
Before he could take another breath, his breath was crushed out of his chest by an overwhelming sense of rage, and pleasure. He saw Anck-Su-Namun as Anne, dark eyes glaring over the rim of a coffee cup. The same eyes in a younger face, staring with wonder at something he couldn’t see. Younger still, crying, face dirty and blotchy, clothes torn and knees bloody.
With a sickening jolt, the image changed again, Anck-Su-Namun as he knew her now, kissing a man, a man he recognized when they parted. Imhotep. Another shift, she smiled with blood smeared across one check. And there, there was Ardeth. Jonathan used every focusing technique he’d ever learned to stay there, in that moment.
Ardeth was bloody, hair mussed and clothes ripped. Anck-Su-Namun stood over him, knife in hand, gleeful look on her face. As he watched, she raised her hand, bringing the knife up to his eye, skimming close before suddenly diverting, leaving a shallow slice from the corner of Ardeth’s eye to his ear. Ardeth didn’t flinch but Jonathan couldn’t help trying to reach out. He tried to take the knife, to knock the madwoman away; he shouted and begged, to no effect.
Again and again she lowered the knife, leaving blood in her wake. Ardeth’s eyes were strained, lips pinched shut. Jonathan tried to speak to him, to tell him they were coming, but he couldn’t make a sound. He couldn’t hear Anck-Su-Namun laugh as she cut him. He couldn’t hear Ardeth’s hissed breaths.
He could only watch as the witch walked away, only to turn sharply and bury her blade in Ardeth’s shoulder.
“Ardeth!” Jonathan cried as he was wrenched out of the vision.
“Jonathan, Jonathan!” Evy’s grip on his hands was tight to the point of being painful. “Come back. You need to let it go, Jonathan.”
“I’m,” Jonathan coffed, shaking his head to try and dislodge the image of a bloody Ardeth that overlay his vision of Evy’s face. “I’m here. Did—did it work?”
“I think so,” Evy let go of his hand and looked around. “Something happened anyway.”
Jonathan looked around as well. “A warehouse, how cliché.” He opened the door and climbed out of the car. He listed to one side and would have fallen if Rick hadn’t grabbed him. “Right then, let’s go.”
Rick didn’t budge. “Time to call the cops.”
“You do that,” Jonathan pushed away from his brother-in-law. He swayed alarmingly but kept his feet. “I’m going after Ardeth.”
“Jonathan, you are in no condition to go into a fight,” Evy said as she rounded the car.
“She’s torturing him!” Jonathan didn’t scream but his throat felt scraped raw nonetheless. “She could be killing him right now.”
Evy and Rick shared a look. Jonathan pushed past them. No one stopped him this time and he could hear two sets of footsteps behind him. It didn’t take long to find a door, and he was almost surprised it was unlocked.
“Can anyone say trap?” Jonathan ignored Rick’s grumble and eased the door open. It opened on a cavernous space with a concrete floor and a dim light illuminating the edges and cracks between stacks of boxes. Jonathan shuffled to the first row of boxes, worried that every step would echo and reveal them.
A grunt behind him dragged his attention back to the door. Rick was just a step behind him but Evy had yet to enter the warehouse. She pressed her hand against the open air of the doorway but it repelled her, a faint shimmer of gold dancing across the space she tried to pass.
“Damn,” Evy whispered fiercely. “More wards. It’s going to take time to get through this.” He already knew what she was going to say so he turned away before she could. “Jonathan.”
Unfortunately, he had forgotten about Rick. He grabbed Jonathan by the upper arm, grip firm but not tight enough to hurt. Jonathan stared at his hand and was honestly tempted to just throw a genuine fit. He could feel time slipping away from him and the certainty that they were too late was growing by the second.
“Rick, what if it was Evy?” Jonathan looked him dead in the eye even as he hit below the belt. Rick stared at him steadily for a minute before nodding and letting him go.
“I can’t let you go alone,” Rick said, casting an apologetic look over his shoulder.
“You can’t leave Evy alone,” Jonathan countered. The itch to just go, go now, was strong, but he couldn’t abandon his sister. “She has to take the wards down so the cops can get through, but there is no way Anck-Su-Namun won’t feel that. And if she can cast wards strong enough to stop Evy in her tracks, who knows what she could throw at her to try to stop her. You need to stay and protect her so she can focus on the wards.”
“Fuck,” Rick turned away and stalked back over to his wife. Jonathan would undoubtedly feel terrible about the position he had put him in later. But now, all he could think of was getting to Ardeth.
The stacks of boxes had turned the warehouse into a veritable labyrinth. The longer he walked, the more dead ends he encountered, the tighter his chest became. The break in the stacks was so sudden that he nearly stumbled into the open space in what appeared to be the center of the warehouse.
Perhaps fifteen feet square, the space was sparse. Cables ran along the floor to two industrial spotlights. The only other things there were Ardeth, strapped into some nightmare version of a dentist's chair with the knife from his vision still buried in his shoulder, and Anck-Su-Namun, stood next to a small table with several knifes and other implements Jonathan couldn’t immediately identify.
He took everything in in a glance. Anck-Su-Namun’s back was to him as she stood over Ardeth with what appeared to be a cattle prod in hand. Before Jonathan could do anything she jab at Ardeth, laughing at the way his whole body jolted.
Jonathan’s heart jumped, slamming hard in his chest. Rage and fear mingled in his gut leaving him nauseous. Unable to stomach the thought of watching Ardeth being tortured and doing nothing, Jonathan stepped into the light.
As he moved forward he reached beneath his jacket and pulled out a Glock 17. Technically he wasn’t supposed to still have it. He’d rarely gone into the field when he worked for the Met, and only twice had he been part of an armed breach. He was meant to turn it in when he resigned, but no one had ever said anything about it. Honestly he suspected that Miller had lost the paperwork.
After all, the gun was the only reason he’d survived the night Imhotep had come for him.
“Drop it,” Jonathan advanced slowly, gun pointed at the witch’s back. Ardeth’s head snapped around at the sound of his voice. His face was a mask of horror and blood, staring at Jonathan in disbelief and fear.
“Now why would I do that?” Anck-Su-Namun didn’t drop the prod, didn’t even turn around to face him.
“Because I have a gun pointed at you right now,” Jonathan edged closer, circling to the left trying to catch a glimpse of her face. He had only taken two steps when an invisible force slammed into him. He was lifted off his feet and flung back into a stack of crates.
The world throbbed bright and red, as pain stabbed through his head and shoulders. He could hear high laughter as the world lurched sideways; his stomach, finally pushed past its limit, emptied itself.
Hands large enough to completely encircle his biceps dragged him upright and right off his feet. A disorienting spin that threatened to set him retching again and he was once again face to face with the rudest customer he’d had the displeasure to meet.
“You were saying?” Anck-Su-Namun’s smile was smug, but then she was holding up his gun, so he supposed she had every right to be. “Pathetic. How did you ever stop Imhotep? How could you have bested him?”
“I shot him,” Jonathan said. The room was listing slightly even though Jonathan was being held still by whatever construct she had siced on him. “Even warlocks can’t just shrug that off.”
Jonathan’s head snapped to the side so hard that it took a moment for the stinging pain in his cheek to register. “Did you just bitch slap me?” She sneered and hit him again. “Damn it, stop that!”
“You miserable little cockroach,” she hit him again. “You have only yourself to blame. If you had not interfered, Imhotep would be free and we would be together. This is all your fault. His suffering,” she waved a hand at Ardeth, “it is on your hands.”
“You are cracked,” Jonathan stared at her in horrified fascination. “You honestly believe that don’t you.”
“It is the truth!” She smacked him again. “You are the reason my beloved is locked away.”
“Listen lady,” Jonathan knew, knew, it would be smarter to keep his mouth shut, but he’d honestly never been any good at that. “If he hadn’t tried to kill me, I would have had no idea he was a murdering psycho. No one had any idea he was killing people.”
“He had to kill you,” she growled, pretty face twisted into something dark and dangerous. “He knew they would call you in eventually. He knew you would See him. He knew you would try to stop him, so he had to kill you, to stop you from interfering.”
“No one had any idea those cases were linked, it would have been years, if at all before I was asked to consult,” Jonathan blinked rapidly to stave off the darkness at the edges of his vision. “Also, it would all be a moot point if he wasn’t going around murdering people. He’s got no one to blame but himself.”
Anck-Su-Namun made an inarticulate sound of rage and lunged for him, only to be brought up short.
“Release him,” Ardeth growled. One arm was wrapped around her chest, pinning her arms to her sides. In his other hand was a knife pressing into the skin of her neck. “Call off your creature!”
Anck cursed and spat, writhing in Ardeth’s grip. Ardeth held fast, shifting with her and never losing grip. She gave a wild toss of her head before freezing. Jonathan watched in fascination as a bright red line of blood slid down the column of her throat.
The frozen tableau was broken by multiple yells coming from what seemed every direction at once as nearly half a dozen people burst upon the scene. Evy and Rick, Miller and Brown, and more people he didn’t recognize. Anck-Su-Namun began cursing and fighting again as they advanced. Ardeth turned to face them, dragging the madwoman around with him.
Jonathan shifted to try and see what was going on and was nearly sick again. He closed his eyes against the whirling of the room and swallowed thickly. He let the yelling wash over him without trying to take any of it in.
He stumbled as the grip on his arms suddenly disappeared, before a new touch steadied him. He opened his eyes to find Ardeth standing in front of him, dark eyes intent on his own.
“Did you pull that knife out of your shoulder and cut yourself free?” Jonathan blurted.
Ardeth laughed warmly as he gathered Jonathan into his arms. Jonathan gratefully leaned into the warm chest and fisted his hands into the remains of Ardeth’s shirt.
“You’re alright,” Jonathan murmured.
“We’re alright,” Ardeth responded. Jonathan breathed and let himself relax, let Ardeth hold him safe, a calm center in the chaos surrounding them. “I’ve got you, everything’s going to be alright.”