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Spark and Flame

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         Ethan woke, bleary-eyed, blinking in the sunlight and turning to look for the clock. 11:47 AM . "Good lord," he mumbled, stretching.

          A pair of arms materialised around his chest, and a nose nuzzled the back of his neck.

          "Good morning," Rupert said softly into his ear.

         Ethan smiled and turned around within his embrace, coming nose to nose with his boyfriend. Rupert's soft green eyes crinkled at the corners as he planted a kiss on Ethan's cheek.

         "Why'd you let me sleep so late?" Ethan asked with a yawn.

         "It's our last morning here, I figured I'd let you enjoy it."

         Ethan glanced around the nearly-empty dormitory. A few boxes were sealed and stacked by the door, contents labeled meticulously in Rupert's hand. A box next to the bed remained open, waiting for Rupert to load the last of his books into it.

         "I'm going to try to take the boxes on the way to my exam," Rupert continued, climbing out of bed. "If you can just tidy up the room before leaving, I'll meet you at your place when I finish."

         "Our place," Ethan corrected.

         Rupert grinned. "Our place."

         "I don't see why they're making you sit for the exam anyway. There should be some kind of birthday clause."

         "Alas, if only. They've still got to test if I've retained anything after months of being distracted by you."

         Ethan gasped, mockingly offended. "As if I'm such a bad influence. I seem to remember you were the one who--"

         "Oh, would you look at the time," Rupert interrupted him, pulling a sweater over his head. "I must be heading out."

         Ethan threw a pillow at him, smacking him in the face.

         "Oi!" Rupert shouted, then rounded on Ethan. He crawled onto the bed and hovered over him before leaning down and kissing him slowly.

         "Mm," said Ethan contentedly, closing his eyes. "You're forgiven for abandoning me."

         "I'll make it up to you tonight," Rupert promised.

 

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         Rupert's hand was threatening mutiny as he tried to cram more essay onto the margins of his exam paper. He glanced around nervously; the classroom had largely emptied out as students finished the test, and left only three remaining. He pushed up his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose, hoping to repel an impending headache.

         Rupert sighed and put his pen down. There was only so much history one person could remember. He collected his things and walked to the front of the classroom, barely acknowledging the professor as he handed her the exam packet.

         He inhaled deeply as he strode out of the building, reveling in the freedom from coursework until next semester began.The quad lawn was full of students seemingly doing the same. A group of girls crowded around a fountain, giggling and glancing at the boys throwing a disc nearby.

         As he exited the quad to make his way home, Rupert felt an unsavoury prickle on the back of his neck. He turned to see a middle-aged man in a suit coat standing in the shadow of the nearby cathedral. His eyes were averted now, but Rupert felt as though he had just missed the man staring at him. His defenses raised, he dipped into his bag and grasped his stake, but left it hidden. A vampire at this time of day would be playing a high-stakes (Rupert smirked at the pun, made for no one but himself) game of risk, even in the shadows. And what kind of unholy creature of the night would hang around a huge collection of religious iconography? Rupert decided he must have been imagining things and continued on.

         He started meandering in the direction of George Street, glancing around frequently but relaxing again the further away he got from the cathedral. He took a shortcut through the covered market; he always enjoyed listening to the bartering for different goods, often hearing a different language from each booth he passed. A delicious aroma caught his nose as he approached a booth with a grill firing under giant woks, which were being slung around faster than his eyes could follow. All his kitchenware was packed away in boxes, and he'd never really known Ethan to cook…

          Seems my birthday dinner will be take-away, he thought, not minding in the slightest as he made his way to the counter.

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         Ethan pushed open the door to the music shop, his entrance barely acknowledged by a salesman who was chatting up a pretty girl customer. Perfect, Ethan thought, this will be even easier.

         He wandered the cramped path through the shop, every corner of floor and piece of wall space occupied by all manner of instruments. Woodwinds and horns on shelves, giant drum sets assembled, concert-ready. Ethan ran his fingers along a high-hat cymbal, causing the two discs to vibrate together ever so slightly. He glanced back at the salesman, who was still occupied with the girl, now showing off the different kinds of mic stands and demonstrating how to adjust them to her height.

         Ethan turned a corner into the back room. On the walls were hanging dozens of guitars and other stringed instruments. He passed by a tiny ukulele (not bloody likely, he thought at the humorous mental image of Rupert’s hands dwarfing the instrument as he tried to strum),  a seafoam green electric bass (cool, but a bit useless for a man without a band), and then he saw it. A tan acoustic guitar of smooth wood called to him, sending tingles up his spine and down to his fingertips. It was perfect for Rupert- polished on the outside, but full of depth and potential. Ethan pulled it down from its hooks and slung the attached strap around his shoulders.

         He crept back to the corner adjacent to the front room. He rummaged in his pockets and pulled out the makeshift hex bag he’d assembled earlier: a mixture of caraway, black snake root, and dill, wrapped in a fern leaf. Holding it in one hand, he found his lighter with the other and set the bundle alight.

         “Facti sunt invisibilia,” he murmured, then blew out the flame, allowing the hex bag to smoulder and smoke.

         Ethan walked out slowly, holding his breath and still carrying the guitar, but the salesman’s and customer’s attentions did not shift. The salesman bent down and plugged a microphone into an amp, causing a squeal of high-pitched feedback as the girl clutched her ears. Ethan slipped out the front door and kept walking.

         Once he’d gotten a block away from the shop, Ethan allowed himself to exhale. The breathing turned to quiet chuckles, and then to louder laughter as he realised he’d pulled the spell off. He turned a corner, saw the pub up ahead, and began contemplating how to surprise Rupert with his gift.

 

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         Rupert shifted his bag full of food as he dug for his keys. There was a certain thrill of sneaking in and out of the flat from the fire escape, but now that he officially lived here, he thought he should try to use the actual entrance on occasion, leading up from the pub. Plus, it would have been rather impossible to jump to and climb a ladder without ending up covered in hot and sour soup. Eventually, the keys located, he turned the knob and nudged their front door open.

         “Ethan, you here?” Rupert called as he walked through the entrance hallway. “I brought Chinese fo-”

         He stopped in his tracks. On the bed was Ethan, stretched out, quite nude, with a guitar strategically placed below his waist, wearing the biggest smirk Rupert had ever seen.

         “Happy birthday, Rupert.”

         Rupert gaped. “Wha- how did you-?”

         “You said you wanted to learn to play, right?”

         “Of course, but Ethan-”

         “No buts. Your wish is my command,” Ethan said, plucking a string and waggling his eyebrows.

         Rupert knew there wasn’t enough cash lying around for this kind of thing, not on a scholarship budget and whatever money Ethan made from picking up work from time to time. But he also saw how happy Ethan was to give it to him, and truthfully, how happy it made Rupert to have anyone put that much thought into something for him.

         He smiled. “You’ve put me in a fairly difficult predicament.”

         “What’s that, love?”

         “I’d love to start tuning it up and learning immediately,” Rupert began, “but the moment I take the guitar away from you, I have a feeling my hands will be required elsewhere.”

         “Interesting feeling,” Ethan mused. “Did they ever test you for psychic powers?”

         Rupert chuckled. “I’m going to need some nourishment before that particular prediction can come true,” he said, crossing to the desk he’d brought from his dorm room. He started unloading the take-away cartons, then glanced back to the bed where Ethan wore an exaggerated pout.

        He shook his head, but was smiling as he crawled onto the bed. Rupert took Ethan’s jaw in his hands and kissed him deeply. Ethan’s mouth pushed back while sucking on Rupert’s bottom lip. Rupert broke the kiss, still holding Ethan’s face.

         “That will have to hold you over for now,” Rupert said apologetically. “Come on, I got extra spring rolls.”

         “Suit yourself,” Ethan shrugged, putting the guitar aside and sliding off the bed, unashamedly naked.

         “You’re determined to make this difficult, aren’t you?” Rupert asked as he opened a packet of chopsticks and started digging into a carton of noodles.

         Ethan claimed a box of chicken and retreated to the bed, sitting with his legs folded under each other. “Would you have me any other way?”

          “None at all.”

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         Rupert started to collect the cartons, combining them for tomorrow’s leftovers.

         “Let me take care of that,” Ethan said, jumping up from the bed. “You’re the birthday boy, you’re not supposed to be cleaning up.”

         Rupert frowned. “I like taking care of things.”

         “You can take care of the dreadful lack of music this flat has had since the record player broke.” Ethan picked up the guitar and handed it to him.

         Rupert looked at the guitar, frozen. Ethan couldn’t quite place his expression.

         “What’s wrong?”

         “Nothing,” he replied quickly, to be met with an eyeroll from Ethan. “Well, okay, I just...I’m used to being good at something before other people see me do it. You’re going to be disappointed if you’re expecting anything that can be described as ‘music’ anytime soon.”

         “You could never disappoint me,” Ethan reassured him, which earned him a bashful grin from Rupert. It seemed to do the trick though, as Ethan watched his boyfriend settle onto the bed and begin tweaking the tuning pegs.

         As Ethan finished cleaning up, he heard the uncertain plucking of the strings, interrupted by attempts to tune the guitar, then starting again. He settled onto the bed next to Rupert, who was thumbing through handwritten instructions.

         “I copied them over from a library book,” Rupert muttered absentmindedly. “This is-” he placed his fingers carefully on the strings, and Ethan had a silent moment of glee as he noticed Rupert’s tongue sticking out of his mouth in concentration, “-the C chord, I think.”

         Rupert strummed, then rearranged his fingers to play a different one. Ethan shifted behind him and began gently massaging his shoulders.

         “As if you weren’t irresistible enough,” Ethan jibed. “Soon everyone will be fawning over you.”

         Rupert looked back at him, confusion clouding his face. “What?”

         “Come on . You’re already impossibly handsome and brilliant, and now you’ll be talented too, showing off your sensitive side and leaving a trail of panties in your wake.”

         Rupert looked truly horrified now as he gingerly moved the guitar aside. Ethan tried to stifle a laugh, but failed as he watched Rupert’s expression change from anxiety to irritation.

         “You’re putting me on.”

         “Truly, I’m not,” Ethan rested his head on Rupert’s shoulder. “But your reaction to the thought of others hitting on you suggests I have nothing to worry about.”

         “Were you worried?” Rupert asked, bemused.

         “Not particularly,” Ethan admitted, “but it’s nice to be reassured now and again.” He moved around Rupert and climbed onto his lap, straddling him. “Isn’t it?”

         Rupert’s eyes twinkled up at him as Ethan felt fingers dig into his hips, sending sparks up his spine and pulling him closer still.

         “It is indeed.”

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         Rupert sat up in bed, fumbling for his glasses as the persistent banging on the door threatened to knock it in.

         “In a moment!” he said irritably, throwing the covers off himself as Ethan began to stir. He made his way to the door as the knocking ceased. Opening it, Rupert’s adrenaline spiked as he recognised the man he’d suspected of watching him yesterday.

         “Who are you?” he asked sharply.

         “Good morning, young Mr. Giles,” the stranger began in a clipped tone, posh accent slipping through. “My name is Roger Wyndam-Pryce, and I am visiting as a representative of the Watcher Academy.”

         Rupert’s face darkened. “And what makes the Watcher Academy think I’m interested in one of their lackeys following me home and harassing me?”

        To his credit, Mr. Wyndam-Pryce’s expression didn’t falter. “If you’ll allow me in, I think I have something of interest to you to discuss-”

         “I doubt it,” Rupert interrupted, pushing an arm in front of Mr. Wyndam-Pryce as the latter tried to step past him into the flat. "Tell me what you came to say, then leave.”

         “Very well,” the man said, reaching into an interior pocket of his tweed jacket and unfolding a sheet of paper. “I have here a copy of the letter sent on your behalf to the Dean of Students, informing him of your intent to withdraw from the university and return to study in London.”

         Rupert took a moment to register what had been said, them snatched the letter and managed in a hoarse whisper, “You fucking what ?”

         “Your considerable talents are wasted here, Mr. Giles. You need to return to the Academy and complete your training.”

         “I left,” Rupert began, anger rising from his stomach like bile; a harsh, acidic taste that tempted him to strike Mr. Wyndam-Pryce across the face. “For good reason, it seems. You people are sick -”

          “Come now,” Mr. Wyndam-Pryce said with a simpering smile. “You still carry a stake with you everywhere, I saw you reach for it yesterday. Surely, you-”

         “How DARE you?” Rupert thundered. “I carry a stake because your disgusting excuse for a school thinks it appropriate to traumatise- no, sacrifice children in the name of education-”

         “Rupert?” Ethan called quietly from the bed, “What’s going on?”

         He gritted his teeth, now acutely aware of Mr Wyndam-Pryce’s view into their flat. The single bed with tangled sheets, a shirtless Ethan, his own tousled bed-hair. Rupert may have felt self-conscious if he had any room left for emotions other than rage.

         Mr. Wyndam-Pryce carried on, slightly ruffled by Rupert’s outburst, holding out another page on official stationary. “This is a conditional letter of acceptance for you to return to the Watcher Academy. Term begins in two months, so you should have plenty of time to pack up and relocate.” He glanced around the room, in which Rupert’s possessions were still mostly in boxes.

          “And what if I refuse? What if I stay at Oxford to finish my degree?”

          The man’s expression, if possible, became more smug. “I think we both know that won’t be happening, Mr. Giles. The Council is very influential.”

         Rupert eyed him stonily, then took the second letter from him with a wary hand. He skimmed the letter, not really taking anything in. He ran his fingers over the crest at the top, an embossed W in front of a book and a stake, circled by a Latin motto: Docere et serve in pugna contra mala.

         Suddenly, Ethan was behind him. Rupert sensed his proximity before turning to see the sheets wrapped around Ethan’s thin hips, and a look on his face that went far beyond concern. For the first time in the year Rupert had known him, including when he was being throttled by a vampire on the night they’d met, Ethan was terrified.

         A tightness in his chest, Rupert held the letter in both hands, turning back to meet Mr. Wyndam-Pryce’s eyes. He ripped the letter down the middle once, then combined the halves and tore them again. He shoved the remnants onto Mr. Wyndam-Pryce’s chest, forcing him to take a step back into the hallway.

         “Now, really!” the man huffed, affronted. “This is an extraordinarily rare opportunity you’re throwing away. My boy Wesley has had his name down since the day he was born! If it wasn’t for your family’s years of service to the Council-”

          “Then we’d all be better off, wouldn’t we?” Rupert growled. They stared each other down for several moments in contemptuous silence.

          “I’ll just have to inform the Council, and your father, you have other...interests,” Mr. Wyndam-Pryce said as he eyed Ethan, “and will not be returning.”

         “You do that,” Rupert spat, and shut the door in his face.


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         Ethan watched Rupert’s back as he stared at the door in silence. He reached out to touch him, recoiling when Rupert turned and slammed his fists onto the wall.

         “Damn it!” Rupert’s eyes were screwed up, his shoulders heaving with ragged breaths.

        Ethan chanced kneading the back of Rupert’s neck with his fingers. “Ru…I’m sorry.”

        Rupert opened his eyes and looked at him. “What are you sorry for? You didn’t bring that sodding excuse for a-”

        “I know. But that can’t have been easy. I’m just sorry that it happened. And sorry you’re going to have to march to the Dean’s office tomorrow and sort this out.”

         Rupert’s voice went from sharp to quiet. “You heard him. The Council has influence here. That means their coin purses can pay off whichever college Head they need to to withdraw me and prevent me from re-enrolling, if they want.” He hung his head, defeated. “I think I’m done here, Ethan.”

        Ethan raised his eyebrows. “I can be enthusiastic about a good old petty feud, but...why? Why would they care so much about keeping you out of school?”

        “You don’t know the Council,” Rupert said with a short, bitter laugh. ”They think if they take Oxford away, my only option will be to return to work for them.”

         “I gathered as much from Mr. Tweed Knickers.”

         “Ethan...what if they’re right? I’ve worked my w-whole life toward this,” Rupert stammered, his breath hitching. “This was al-always the plan...”

         Ethan pulled Rupert into him, wrapping arms around him tightly and knotting his fingers in Rupert’s hair. Rupert buried his face in the crook of Ethan’s neck, and they remained that way until Rupert’s chest stopped shaking. Ethan guided him toward the bed to sit down.

        “I’m going to ask you something, something you may not want to answer,” Ethan said cautiously, “but I think it will help decide what you should do next.”

        Rupert furrowed his brow, but nodded.

        “Why did you leave in the first place?”

        Rupert closed his eyes and let out a large sigh as his hand found Ethan’s, sending a charge between their intertwined fingers. “I should have told you ages ago. I had just rather hoped it would never come up and I could just forget about the whole bloody establishment.”

        “I started at the Academy when I was ten.” Rupert continued. “That much you know. My grandmother was a Watcher, my father was a Watcher, so the moment I showed an inkling of aptitude, they shipped me off.” Ethan nodded and squeezed Rupert’s hand. ”I didn’t want to go at first- I had decided I was going to be something different, something heroic.”

         “Aren’t the Watchers heroic, in a way?” Ethan asked. “Fighting the forces of evil and all that?”    
     
        Rupert scoffed. “I’m sure they think so. But it’s all bureaucracy. A bunch of cranky elders stand around making up rules, while they make the Slayer do all the real work. Then, inevitably, the Slayer dies, and it starts all over again. Still, it didn’t take long for me to fall in line,” he sneered bitterly. “Top of my class, teacher’s pet. I was in my final year of training and Head Boy at the Academy before I left.”

        “You’d come that far...what made you change your mind?” Ethan gently prodded.

        “I’d spent seven years seeing the worst kind of creatures imaginable, hearing tales of their carnage and being conditioned to think they’d be around every corner. We’d gotten to the point where they sent students out in groups to take down supernatural threats- there’s only one Slayer, after all, but there are still other children you can take advantage of. It was only a few years ago, but I realise now that’s what we were. Children.”

        Now that Rupert had started talking it was like the floodgates were open, and Ethan didn’t want to stop him. He started to nod or make grunts in agreement as Rupert carried on.

        “You lived in London. Did you ever hear of the Highgate Vampire?”

        Ethan stared at him. “The urban legend?”

        “It’s real. Well, sort of. We were sent to investigate it one night, and we walked into a nightmare. It wasn’t a vampire.”

        “What was it?”

        Rupert took a deep breath. “A Lorophage demon. It feeds on your terror and trauma, then kills you. They Council sent a bunch of teenagers, fucked-up from years of being locked in rooms with vampires, peering into hell dimensions, and worse. Years of being told it was our destiny to get a Slayer and teach her, nurture her, but never get too close, because she’ll be dead soon anyway, ready for another to take her place.” His voice was low and angry, being pushed out through gritted teeth. “We’d seen Slayers reduced to weapons, felt ourselves being commodified too. We must have been a veritable smorgasbord of terror and trauma.”

        “I’m sorry, love, you don’t have to-” Ethan began, regretting asking him to relive this as Rupert’s grip on his hand turned to painful shocks.

        Rupert stopped him. “No, I do. The group I took with me that night- Charlotte, Lucy, Phillip- they all died. The demon drained them and it killed them. It started to feed on me, but then backup finally arrived. My father finished it off, then acted as though we were just to return home like any other evening. I was 17. A few of my friends were younger.” Tears had re-formed in the corners of Rupert’s eyes, and Ethan wanted desperately to help him, but he didn’t know anything that could help this.

        “You’d just watch your friends die. And it was the Council’s fault,” Ethan said sympathetically, but with a twinge of righteous anger.

        “My fault, too,” Rupert whispered. “I brought them there on faulty intelligence.”

        “You couldn’t have-”

        “Save it, Ethan. I’ve been having the same argument with myself since it happened.” His voice dropped, letting Ethan glimpse a heartbreaking sadness underneath. “Sometimes... I wish I’d died, too. Being the only one to escape...the nightmares only stopped when I was sleeping next to you.”

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         Silence hung between them, Rupert wondering if he’d said too much. Then Ethan gently took Rupert’s face in his hands and brought himself forward to give a slow, tender kiss. A warm glow spread from Ethan’s palms, soothing his unease. When they broke apart, Ethan's cheeks were wet with Rupert's tears.

        “So you can’t go back,” Ethan said softly.

        A weight sank into Rupert’s stomach. “I don’t know what to do. Being here, I’ve been working towards something. I’ve had enough to live on from scholarships. I had a plan for my life. Now I have nothing.”

        “You’ve got me,” Ethan mumbled.

        Rupert hadn’t thought it was possible for him to feel worse, but the hurt in Ethan’s eyes accomplished it.

        “Of course I do,” he said as he pressed his head to Ethan’s. “That was stupid of me to say.”

        A hint of a smirk crept onto Ethan’s face. “Well I have always been the brains of this operation.”

          “Alright then, brains,” Rupert sighed, “tell me what to do.”

         Ethan’s face settled back into sincerity. “You know how you ripped up that letter and threw it back in that tightwad Watcher’s face?”

         Rupert nodded.

         “Do that. Awards of scholarship? Rip them up. Perfectly-mapped life plan? Rip it up. Anything that’s expected of you, anything you don’t want to do, rip it up and throw it back in the world’s face. Years of being a follower, and all it’s got you is being at the mercy of others’ whims. Be a leader, an adventurer, a ripper-upper. Make your own destiny.”

        Rupert blinked, stunned by Ethan’s impassioned speech. “Did you have that rehearsed?”

        Ethan laughed. “No, but it’s how I’ve tried to live my life since I left home. It led me to you, so I’d call it a success so far.”

        “Can you tell where it’s leading next?” Rupert asked. “I’ll have to get a job, make some money somehow. But without school, I don’t see the point in staying in Oxford.”

        “We could go back to London. I’ve still got chums there, we’d have a place to stay until we got on our feet.”

        Rupert bit his lip. “The Council headquarters is in London.”

        “Everything has headquarters in London. Once you’re out of Oxford and off their radar, it will be no small feat to find you again. You’re better off blending in with millions of other lost souls.”

        Rupert closed his eyes, trying to imagine uprooting completely and starting fresh. He realised how exhausted he was now that his adrenaline was ebbing. He’d only been awake for an hour, but his confrontation with Roger Wyndam-Pryce and subsequent unloading onto Ethan had drained him.

        “You okay?” Ethan asked. “Aside from the obvious existential anxiety.”

        “I guess I’m just...tired. Maybe we can go back to sleep and start the day over.”

        “Tempting,” Ethan teased, “but I think I have a better idea.”

        Rupert raised his eyebrows. “Yeah?”

        “Not that, actually,” Ethan said as he slid to the floor and began to dig under the bed. “Maybe later.” He surfaced with two white candles, handing one to Rupert.

        “Ethan, what is this?”

        “I’ve been testing some spells, just little things. Only with myself so far. But I think I can at least solve one of your problems.” He grabbed a lighter from his bedside table and lit Rupert’s candle, then used the flame to light his own.

         Rupert was apprehensive. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

        “Of course. But I have full faith that if something goes wrong, you’ll figure out how to fix it.”

        Rupert rolled his eyes at the chipper grin Ethan wore, but still clasped his hand again, feeling it warm his own.

        “Repeat after me,” Ethan began, closing his eyes. “Amor est ex industria.”

        “Amor est ex industria,” Rupert echoed.

        They repeated this several more times, their voices growing closer together until they were chanting in unison. Rupert looked down at his hand, linked with Ethan’s, which now burned as though it was resting on top of a flame. Ethan was staring at their hands as well, the hair on his arms on end, then looked up to Rupert. The searing heat rushed up Rupert’s arm and into his chest, then dissipated, leaving him feeling vibrant and lively.

        “What was that?”

        “We...made energy, I think,” Ethan exhaled. “Do you feel better?”

        “Loads. So, the fiery feeling, that was energy?” Rupert wondered.

        Ethan pursed his lips. “I’d call it more of an electric sensation.”

        Rupert pondered this. He could recall countless times where he felt warmth from Ethan’s touch, more than was normal for regular body heat. But just now, that had felt as though his hand was engulfed in flames.

        “Was that the first time you’d felt like that?”

        Ethan eyed him with interest. “To that level of intensity, yeah. It was like you electrocuted me. But I’ve felt it from you before, just a current of static, maybe sparks.”

        “From me…” Rupert muttered. “I’m not sure if that was just general energy, because this is the first time we’ve tried to conjure it. But I’ve felt some version of heat from you, from your hands, since the day we met. And it feels like electricity to you?"

        “What do you reckon?”

        “Ethan...I think we might be feeling each other’s magic.”