Ethan grunted as he lifted the heavy box and slid it onto the counter. He could have levitated it, but he’d managed to keep this job for a while, and didn’t want suspicions cast on him for the convenience of using magic at work.
He grabbed scissors and used one of the blades to cut open the box. On top of the contents was a single sheet of paper, with a short typewritten message.
To the curators at Foster Books,
Please find enclosed donated texts from the eclectic collection of Diana Marsden, who passed away earlier this month. We hope you will be able to find appropriate homes for them.
Clive Birtwistle, Estate Manager
As he began unloading the volumes, Ethan grabbed a notepad to scrawl titles on, to add to the store’s inventory list. Expecting a few classics, maybe a valuable early edition, the Kama Sutra if he was lucky, Ethan was surprised by the first book he inspected: The Ritual Magic Workbook. His intrigue deepened when it was followed by A Witch's Grimoire of Ancient Omens. Portents, Talismans, Amulets, & Charms. This was a peculiar collection- Ethan wasn’t even sure where they would shelve these, since as far as he’d seen, they didn’t have an occult section. He supposed he could always place them in the religion section and enjoy watching prudish Sunday school teachers clutch their pearls at the sight of the word witch. He carefully pulled out a small battered book, so old the cover had disconnected from the binding, and the yellowed pages seemed in danger of crumbling to dust in his hands. He squinted, trying to read the faded title: Gods & Goddesses for Prayer & Prosperity by Persephone McElmore. Gingerly, Ethan paged through entries for deities from a variety of ancient and modern cultures, with descriptions of their domains and suggestions of offerings to please them.
Bacchus: God of wine, parties, madness and merriment. Sounds like a fun chap, Ethan thought.
Cupid: God of love. Does it mean the creepy little cherub? he wondered.
Fortuna: Goddess of luck. Wouldn’t say no to some of that...
Janus: God of gates and doors.
Ethan looked at the corresponding illustration, a human-looking bust with two faces facing in opposite directions. One face was bearded and rugged-looking, the other softer, more feminine. He continued reading the passage below it. The god of beginnings and ends, and so of gates, doors, doorways and passages. The Romans named the month of January in his honor, when we look back on the last year and forward to the next. Janus presides over the beginnings and ends of conflict and war, drawing out the energy of chaos and returning to peace.
Brows knitted, Ethan found a scrap of paper to mark his place before turning back to the remaining books. He picked up Legends of Incense, Herb, and Oil Magic, a thin volume that smelled as if it had absorbed the scents of every herb and incense it listed. Ethan sat it on the far side of the counter, giving himself a reprieve from the overpowering aromas. He reached to the bottom of the box, using both hands to pull up the remaining hefty tome. Bound in worn leather and sealed together by a large brass clasp, there was no title, only an unusual symbol raised on the front. Ethan thought it looked somewhat like an ornate pitchfork, three-pronged with extra curls on one side. He unhinged the clasp and opened the cover. The text was not in English, nor any language Ethan could quite recognise. It was similar to the ancient Latin he had a passing knowledge of from spellwork, but if anything, these block letters seemed even more archaic, leaving Ethan to question how old this book may actually be. As he perused the pages, he began to see occasional sketched illustrations amidst the text. They ranged from innocuous depictions of sleeping humans, to a sinister rendition of a rather horrifying creature, with jagged teeth and claws and covered in what appeared to be rotting, scaly flesh.
Ethan jumped a little when he heard the door to the bookshop open, grateful once he realised the intrusion was his coworker Monty arriving to take over for the closing shift. Time had gotten away from him as he’d become engrossed in the new titles in their collection. Making a quick decision, Ethan stashed the mysterious book in his messenger bag before Monty saw it. He wanted to know more about what it might be before putting it on shelves where just anyone could pick it up. He could tell himself it was a matter of being responsible, but if he was being honest, Ethan’s curiosity was the driving force behind wanting to keep it, at least for now.
“I’ve finished cataloguing these,” he said, gesturing to the stack of books on the counter, “so you’ll just need to find somewhere to put them.”
“Cheers.” Monty replied as Ethan hoisted his bag, careful not to jostle the new addition, and strode out the front door.
“You deserve better, love.” Rupert said to the weeping brunette across the bar as he mixed her drink.
She paused in surprise, sniffling. “Wh-what?”
“Whoever’s got you sitting in a bar crying and drinking your troubles away. Forget about them.”
“I’m s-sorry.” she mumbled. “I guess I shouldn’t have come out tonight.”
“Tosh.” Rupert cooed, flashing her a winning smile. Before learning how to mix so much as a rum and coke, he’d learned that flirting elicited the best tips. He slid her glass over to her. “I went ahead and made that a double.”
The woman looked down at the drink, lip trembling, then her face crumpled as she burst into sobs again.
Panicked, Rupert scrambled to apologise. “I’m sorry- I didn’t mean to-”
She reached across the bar and squeezed his hand. Rupert froze, unsure of how to proceed so that she wouldn’t start crying harder. It was a slow night, and the few other patrons on the edges of the room had turned to stare at them. The woman used her other hand to wipe her eyes, then smiled wistfully at him. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.” Rupert said quietly.
“Let’s start over.” she said, still holding his hand. “I’m Diedre.”
“Rupert.” he said, unable to reach out for a handshake and instead giving her hand an awkward sort of acknowledgement grip.
A throat-clearing noise made Rupert turn toward the other end of the bar. Ethan was sliding onto a barstool, eyebrows raised toward them. Rupert gave Diedre an apologetic smile and extracted his hand, then went to Ethan.
“Thank god you’re here.” he muttered.
“If you say so.” Ethan replied. “Seemed like you were getting enough attention, though.”
“You’re not wrong.” Rupert blurted, running fingers through his hair. “You know how I am with the ladies, always making them burst into tears.”
“Jesus, Ripper, what did you do to her?”
“Nothing!” he said indignantly. “I was just-”
He trailed off as Diedre approached, sliding her drink down the bar to join them.
“Be nice.” he mumbled out of the corner of his mouth at Ethan. Ethan put his hands up in a display of innocence.
“Hi, boys.” she said, having seemingly regained some confidence since her earlier outburst. “Hope you don’t mind the company, there’s no one else here to distract me. Or at least no one as cute.”
Rupert chuckled nervously, Ethan smirked as he said “Of course, love. What brings you to this fine establishment?”
Her face darkened. “Staying out of my place for a few hours while my arsehole ex moves his shit.”
“Must be a prime idiot to be letting you go.”
“Complete tosser.” Rupert agreed.
She smiled. “I’m the one letting go. Came home to find him with some slag in our bed.”
“Good for you, standing up for yourself.” Ethan said sycophantically. “I’ll drink to that. Barkeep, give me your fruitiest cocktail. And a scotch for the lady.” Rupert rolled his eyes at Ethan’s performance as he busied himself pouring juices and spirits into a shaker.
“Sex on the Beach.” Rupert put the tall glass in front of Ethan.
Ethan pursed his lips. “If you insist.”
Diedre laughed, then drained her first drink as Rupert poured two fingers of scotch in a glass for each of them. They clinked glasses with Ethan and drank, Rupert relishing the warmth in his throat. It wasn’t top shelf by any means, but it would do.
“So Rupert,” she said with a wink, “have you got some crazy girlfriend waiting for you at home?”
Ethan snorted into his drink.
“Not exactly.” Rupert replied as he poured another round.
Ethan held open the door as Rupert half-carried a stumbling Diedre out of the bar and into the icy night air. They’d spent hours boosting her ego and helping her forget her worries, but were now faced with the challenge of getting her home safely without having any idea where she lived.
“Er, Dee-” Rupert began, “care to point us in the right direction?”
“Past the tube stop.” she mumbled, leaning on his shoulder. “Then right.”
Slowly and carefully, with crossing the road presenting a considerable obstacle, they found their way to her building. Ethan led them into the lift, silently thankful they didn’t have to attempt the stairs, then asked what floor she was on.
“Three.” came a quiet voice, Diedre almost unconscious on Rupert’s shoulder.
“Maybe we should have gone a bit easier on her.” Ethan said, wide-eyed.
“A little late for that.” Rupert grunted as he tried to keep her upright.The lift doors opened and they exited into the hallway. “Look in her purse for keys,” he told Ethan, “and don’t you dare consider stealing anything.”
“Ye of little faith.” Ethan said, smirking as he extracted a set of keys. The number 306 was written on the fob in permanent marker. They glanced around to locate the correct door, then he slid the key into the lock and turned the knob. Rupert backed into the door, pushing it open further with his shoulder as he held Diedre under her arms.
Ethan followed, grabbing Diedre’s feet and helping Rupert shift her onto a couch.
“Wouldn’t she be more comfortable in her bed?” he asked.
“Undoubtedly,” Rupert agreed, “but I’m worried if we put her there she’ll move onto her back and be in danger of choking if she vomits. At least with the couch we can leave her on her side.”
Ethan shrugged, then went about finding the bedroom for pillows and a blanket. When he returned, he saw Rupert had put a large bowl and a glass of water on the floor next to the couch. They worked together to gently lift Diedre’s head and put a pillow under it, then drape a blanket over her.
Ethan smiled at Rupert, feeling tender affection for him. “You’re so good at taking care of people.”
“I grew up being told that one day I’d be in charge of keeping a teenage girl safe.” Rupert mused as they turned to leave. “Obviously that’s no longer the case, but the protective instinct is still there, I suppose.”
“Oi!” a voice shouted from the open doorway. They looked up in unison to see a man with dark hair and a five o’clock shadow leering at them. “The fuck d’ya think you’re doin’ here?” he slurred.
“We were just leaving.” Ethan said, holding his bag close and pulling Rupert’s hand in an attempt to go around the intruder. Rupert didn’t budge.
“You must be the arsehole we’ve heard so much about.” Rupert sneered, eyes narrowed. He turned to Ethan, voice lowered. “We can’t just leave her here with him around.”
“Is that whore already bringin’ home two guys at once?” the stranger bellowed.
Ethan rolled his eyes. “Hardly. Though I don’t see how it’s your concern if she did.”
“I’m her boyfriend!”
“ Was her boyfriend, if I’m understanding correctly.” Ethan stepped back toward an end table where two sets of keys lay. He picked one set up, the keys they hadn’t found in Diedre’s purse. “I assume these were yours?” he asked, dangling them for the belligerent man.
The man lunged toward him, but Rupert caught him around the middle and dragged him back into the hallway. Ethan followed, using the keys to lock the door behind him as the man struggled to escape Rupert’s grip. Once the door was secure, Rupert flung the man away from him.
“Who the FUCK do you-” he sputtered, struggling to maintain his balance after being shoved.
“We’ll just be holding onto the spare keys until we can be sure you won’t be bothering Dee again.” Ethan interrupted coolly.
“You’ve got no right-”
Rupert took a step toward the man, jabbing a finger at his chest. “ You’ve got no right to her time or attention, and yet here we are. Piss off.”
The man gaped at them, his face turning an ugly shade of maroon with anger.
Ethan turned back toward the lift, tugging on Rupert’s shirt. “Come on, Ru, let’s go home.” Rupert stared the stranger down for a moment longer, then turned to join Ethan.
“Oh, brilliant.” the man scoffed. “Locked out of my flat by a couple of fuckin’ queers.”
Before Ethan could react, he heard a considerable thud as Rupert’s fist made contact with a jaw. The man grunted loudly, swinging his arms in an attempt at retaliation. Rupert hit him again, sending him sprawling onto the floor. Ethan’s breath hitched. Ripper.
“Did you say something, mate?” Ripper asked as he stared down at the man, whose nose had begun to bleed in earnest. The man looked up at them, seething, and if looks could kill, Ethan may have been worried. Ethan had a suspicion the man realised he was outmatched, because he struggled to his feet then quickly shuffled to the stairway at the other end of the hall.
The heavy door clanged behind him before Rupert turned back to Ethan. His sandy hair was ruffled, his shirt collar upturned, but he looked as handsome as ever, perhaps moreso with the addition of the cocky grin he now displayed.
“Oh, Ripper.” Ethan purred, reaching out to touch his chest. He grabbed Rupert’s collar and pulled him in, bringing their mouths together. Ripper immediately pushed him backward, lighting Ethan’s chest up with static before kissing him deeply against the hallway wall. His tongue forced its way into Ethan’s mouth as he closed the space between their bodies. Ethan reached around Rupert and grabbed his arse, digging his fingers into the flesh and pulling him closer still. Ripper grinded against Ethan’s hip, eliciting a small moan that was quickly stifled by another kiss. They broke apart, breathing heavily, realising simultaneously that they should probably stop themselves before they ended up shagging in the hallway of a building they didn’t live in. Ethan took pleasure in how disappointed Rupert looked about this.
Rupert grabbed Ethan’s arm, sending a shockwave through it as he pulled him toward the lift, as if they couldn’t move fast enough. “Now let’s go home.”
Rupert pushed open the door with his back, pulling Ethan along with fingers hooked into his belt loops. Once inside he yanked Ethan closer and began devouring his mouth again, loving the noises of contentment Ethan gave in return. Suddenly another noise, that of a running faucet, caused them to pull apart. He glanced around to see Thomas washing dishes in the sink of their makeshift kitchen, then saw Randall several feet away, perched in a folding chair next to the beginnings of a fire in an iron pit. Both of them were staring at Rupert and Ethan.
A moment’s silence passed before Randall spoke. “Nice of you to notice that others live here, lads. Close the door, would you?”
Rupert at least had the decency for an embarrassed grin as he backtracked to shove the heavy door shut. Ethan just looked smug as he crossed to their bedroom, returning unburdened by his shoulder bag.
“Where’d you get that?” Rupert asked, gesturing at the raised metal basin next to Randall, which had been stacked with firewood that was just beginning to glow.
“Found it at the dump.” Randall replied as he used a long poker to shift a log. “It was hell to haul back here, but hey, we’ve got a fireplace now!”
Rupert was genuinely impressed. The warehouse they lived in had never been intended for human habitation, strictly-speaking. It had been sitting empty for years when Thomas had located the owner and convinced him to rent it out to them. How this exchange occurred, Rupert didn’t know, because Thomas so rarely spoke to anyone. His stoic silence did seem to have an effect on people, though, and it had landed them a place in the middle of London they’d never have been able to afford otherwise, so Rupert wasn’t complaining. When he and Ethan had shown up on the old friends’ doorstep with little warning, Thomas and Randall were glad to have someone to fill up the third bedroom (named such insofar as it was a separate room in which you could feasibly place a bed). The four men felt it was serendipitous timing, or at least convenient enough for their shares of the rent to be cut in half, and had shifted rather easily into cohabitation.
He crossed the room and settled into the raggedy sofa, enjoying the warmth coming off the fire pit. Ethan flopped down beside him, causing the couch to groan and a small cloud of dust to shoot into the air. Ethan swung his legs onto Rupert’s lap, the weight and contact warming him more effectively than the fire. Rupert twisted to dig in the drawer of the table next to the sofa, coming out with a dimebag and rolling papers and handing them off to Ethan. Ethan’s long, nimble fingers went to work packing the paper, Rupert watching intently as his tongue darted out to lick the edge and seal it. Ethan held the joint in his mouth as Rupert pulled a lighter out from his jeans pocket. Ethan inhaled as the tip was lit, letting his eyes close as he held the smoke inside for a moment. He leaned into Rupert, exhaling smoke over his ear and sneaking a lick along the ridge. The hair on Rupert’s neck prickled as he gripped Ethan’s thigh. He made eye contact with Ethan as he was handed the joint and inhaled deeply, a euphoric weightlessness rushing to his head.
Ethan was struggling to hold in a laugh. “Did we steal some poor bird’s keys?”
“I think technically you stole them.” Rupert chuckled, looking at Ethan, who’d given in to giggling. Rupert found himself entranced by the way Ethan’s freckles on his nose crinkled together as he laughed. He wondered how quickly they could leave the living room, Thomas, and Randall without being rude. “I can take them back by tomorrow. I’m sure she’ll be too hungover to notice they’re missing before then.”
“What are you talking about?” Randall asked.
“Ripper and I found ourselves in the middle of someone else’s domestic dispute.” Ethan said casually, slinging an arm around Rupert’s shoulders. “Locked a tosser out of his ex’s flat. You know, you should bring her ‘round some time, Rip. She was fun once she stopped trying to get in your knickers.”
Rupert smirked. “Not only mine.”
“Ah, well, she wouldn’t have gotten far with me.”
“Too right.” Randall laughed. “Maybe she can transfer her affections to me.”
“You’re the epitome of romance, Randall.” Ethan teased as he took a final hit off the joint. “Come on, Ru, let’s go before he rubs off on us.”
Rupert found himself being pulled up by his arms, then slid an arm around Ethan’s waist in a fluid motion. He said “Goodnight, then.” to Thomas and Randall with a grin, Randall shaking his head and Thomas merely giving a nod of acknowledgement as Ethan led them to their bedroom and shut the door.
Ethan locked his hands behind Rupert’s neck, reminding Rupert of a secondary school slow dance. He cupped Ethan’s cheek and kissed him slowly, closing his eyes while his other hand travelled down Ethan’s back, settling on his hip. They swayed for a moment, the only noise the soft sounds their mouths were making. Rupert broke the kiss and pressed their foreheads together, opening his eyes to see Ethan’s, large and inviting in the dim room. For all the rush they’d felt in Diedre’s hallway, Rupert felt as though he had all the time in the world with Ethan now. He began to unbutton Ethan’s shirt, pausing after each was undone to kiss Ethan again. Once he’d reached the bottom and slid the shirt off Ethan’s shoulders, he ran his fingers over the smooth chest, a small smile forming in awe of how lucky he was. Rupert had largely rejected thoughts of fate or destiny when he defected from the Watchers Council for good, wishing to be rid of the toxic mindset that had controlled him for years. But when he was with Ethan, he found himself in genuine wonder at their fortuitous meeting, and how quickly they’d fallen together, as if more than random chance and youthful hormones were at play.
He shrugged his jacket off as Ethan’s hands warmed the small of his back. Ethan raised his arms and pulled Rupert’s shirt over his head, then pressed their bodies together as they kissed again, skin-to-skin contact heightening the arousal growing in Rupert’s jeans. He buried his face in Ethan’s shoulder, taking in his scent, the familiar lavender he washed his clothes in mixed with a salty, muskier essence. Rupert began to trail open-mouth kisses down Ethan’s shoulder, using his tongue to edge along the collarbone when he reached it. A gentle moan escaped Ethan as he threaded his fingers through Rupert’s, sending fire dancing into his fingertips.
Ethan lifted his head to whisper into Rupert’s ear. “I should probably cast that muffling charm.”
He gripped Ethan beneath his arse, hoisting him up and pushing him against the wall. Ethan wrapped his legs around Rupert’s waist in response, allowing Rupert to feel Ethan’s erection pressed between them. He kissed Ethan again, biting his lower lip before growling in Ethan’s ear.
“I dare you not to.”
Ethan shifted away from Rupert enough to see his face, the smile he found there both a little shy and a little wicked. Ethan leaned in to kiss him, losing the support of the wall at his back and putting his weight entirely on Rupert. Rupert squeezed him tight to keep from dropping him, and the resulting electric sensation combined with the pressure on Ethan’s cock made it twitch between their stomachs. Rupert spun them around and gently bent over to lay Ethan on the bed, disconnecting long enough to unzip and remove his jeans. Ethan mimicked him, kicking his shoes off then throwing his trousers on top of them. Rupert advanced on him again, sliding his leg between Ethan’s knees and slotting their bodies together as he lowered his weight onto him.
Rupert tangled fingers in Ethan’s hair and gently tugged as he reclaimed his mouth, Ethan groaning as he felt Rupert’s cock hard against his own. He reached between them and into Rupert’s boxers, gripping his thick erection and sliding his hand down it. Rupert inhaled sharply, breaking away from Ethan and staring down at him with a devious glint in his eyes. He backed off Ethan, then suddenly lifted him by the hips and flipped him onto his stomach. Ethan couldn’t easily see behind himself now, so when he felt fingernails lightly scraping down his hips, pulling his underwear down, the cool air was a pleasant surprise.
He felt Rupert’s weight approach again as he leaned into Ethan’s ear and whispered. “Let me take care of you.”
A pleasant tingle travelled his spine as Rupert retreated, letting his cock drag along Ethan’s spine and into the dip between his arse cheeks. Ethan heard rummaging in the bedside table, then the slick sounds of Rupert coating himself in lubricant. He felt his legs being spread, then gasped as Rupert dove between them and began using his tongue eagerly. A lube-slicked hand reached under Ethan and grabbed his cock, slowly stroking it as Ethan rose on his knees, struggling not to thrust back against Rupert’s face. Another hand replaced Rupert’s mouth, circling Ethan’s entrance with lubricant as he continued to pump his erection. A finger pushed in, causing Ethan to whimper in anticipation. As Rupert continued exploring, a second finger found the spot that caused white spots to dance around Ethan’s vision, and he let out a low, breathy moan.
The fingers withdrew, leaving Ethan feeling desperately empty. Almost immediately, he could feel the tip of Rupert’s cock aligning with the ring of muscle, and Ethan gently pushed backward to meet it.
Rupert chuckled. “I guess I don’t need to ask if you’re ready, then.”
Rupert gripped Ethan’s hips, his fingertips sending shockwaves across Ethan’s body. He pushed slowly forward, the head of his cock gaining entrance. Ethan, impatient, slid his body backward in one motion, causing both of them to hiss as their bodies deepened the tight contact. Full of Rupert’s shaft, Ethan sat up, leaning back against his lover as he turned his neck and kissed him. He looked into green irises minimised by blown-out, needy pupils. Rupert’s mouth moved to his ear, tickling it with hot, heavy breaths before grazing his teeth along the helix. Large hands reached around him, caressing his sweat-slick chest before returning one hand to his hip and one to his cock. Rupert lifted Ethan off of his lap, only to slowly pull him back down, filling him and stroking him again simultaneously. Ethan moaned as he rolled his hips, establishing a rhythm with Rupert’s thrusts. They rocked like this, sweat mingling, breath heavy, until Rupert withdrew, kissing up Ethan’s back, making trails with the tip of his tongue.
“I want to watch you.” he said in Ethan’s ear, voice low and rough. Rupert pushed him onto his back then dragged him to the edge of the bed, standing on the floor and re-aligning himself with Ethan’s hole. He locked eyes with Ethan as he pushed in again, the new angle allowing him even deeper access. Ethan covered his mouth with his hand, biting his knuckles as Rupert’s cock reached and repeatedly pushed against his prostate. He could feel himself building up, even though Rupert had stopped stroking him. Speed increasing, Rupert’s thrusts gave no reprieve, and soon Ethan’s orgasm washed over him in waves, causing him to cry out and coat his stomach with come. Clenched around Rupert, he felt a final deep thrust as Rupert stilled, a loud moan accompanying his climax inside Ethan.
“Jesus Christ .” they heard Randall groan from the living room. Rupert collapsed on top of Ethan, both of them laughing and soaked in sweat.
His body was like white noise on a television set, electric static filling every limb. Ethan felt as though if he remained connected to Rupert, they could power all of London.
Rupert felt stirring next to him. He tightened his grip around Ethan’s chest, pulling him close and determined to delay waking for just a while longer. Ethan strained against his arms, then signed resignedly and snuggled closer.
“We got a book in at the shop yesterday-” Ethan began.
“As bookshops are wont to do.”
Ethan elbowed him in the ribs. Rupert grinned, enjoying being the one with a sarcastic retort for a change.
“Okay, okay, what was the book?” he acquiesced.
“That’s the thing,” Ethan continued, turning in his arms to face him. “I don’t know.”
Rupert opened his eyes, Ethan’s face filling his field of vision quite pleasantly. “What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I was attempting to get up and show you, but you’re being a stubborn arse this morning.” Ethan jabbed, but made no more attempts to get out of Rupert’s embrace. “It’s in some old language, something like Latin, but not enough for me to be able to read it. I was hoping you might have a better clue.”
Rupert had a decent grasp of old languages from both his Watcher training and his time studying history at Oxford. He loosened his arms around Ethan, allowing him to move.
“Do you have it here?”
Ethan leaned in and rubbed noses with him, then kissed him tenderly. Closing his eyes, Rupert was caught off guard when an icy-cold foot found its way up the leg of his pyjama pants, leaving him shrieking and scrambling away from Ethan.
“How dare you abuse my trust like that?” he said, aghast.
Ethan was shaking with silent giggles. “I guess you’re awake now.”
He slid out of the covers, giving Rupert a view of his bare arse as he crossed the room and bent to pick up his bag. Rupert was not irritated enough to reject the sight, allowing images of the previous night’s lovemaking to lazily drift across his consciousness as he retrieved his glasses from the nightstand. When Ethan returned, pulling on a pair of sweatpants, he was holding a large leather-bound book, secured together with a large clasp the likes of which had been out of fashion for a few hundred years, really, since Gutenberg’s press had made books so much easier to produce. Rupert knew if he expressed any of this to Ethan, he would probably be teased for the somewhat obscure knowledge, so he kept his mouth shut until he was handed the book to scrutinise.
The yellowed pages were covered in thick, hand-drawn characters, occasionally interrupted by illustrations Rupert found troubling. Some connection danced in the back of his mind, just out of reach. He hopped out of bed, crouching in front of the bookshelf and running his finger along the spines, turning his neck to read the titles. Ethan had thought him ridiculous for keeping all his books from Oxford when he would no longer be studying there, but Rupert felt a twinge of pride for his tiny library, and sorely hoped he would get to expand it one day. Locating his quarry, he pulled out a book he had purchased for a class on the influences on the early Roman Empire. He flipped through the pages until he reached the chapter on linguistics, returning to the bed to compare the two texts.
“I think it’s Etruscan.” he mumbled, cross-referencing.
Ethan leaned closer, inspecting the two books. “Does that mean you can translate it?”
“Not with this.” Rupert sighed. “But I can swing by the library after I give Diedre her key back. I’m sure they have something that can help.”
Ethan pulled the books onto his lap and began to study them. Rupert couldn’t remember ever seeing him so interested in the written word, which he usually found stuffy and preferred the learn-by-doing approach.
“What’s so important about this, anyway?’ Rupert asked. “Not that I’m not thrilled by your burgeoning interest in research, but-”
“You think I should have just put a mysterious ancient text on the shelves, for any passerby to pick up?” Ethan snapped.
Rupert blinked, a little taken aback. “We-well, no, of course not. I just wondered if there was maybe more to it than a concern for public safety.”
Ethan’s face softened, the corner of his mouth turning up. “Aren’t you the least bit curious what it’s about? I mean, those drawings alone-”
“Curiosity killed the cat.” Rupert quoted.
“Why is it no one says the full aphorism?” Ethan said, rolling his eyes. “Satisfaction brought him back. Which is the far better lesson, in my opinion.”
Rupert smiled. “I’m inclined to agree.”
Ethan held his cigarette in his mouth so he could shift on the sofa, uncrossing then crossing his legs in the opposite direction. He couldn’t make much sense of the mystery book until Rupert got back from the library, but that hadn’t stopped him from staring intently at it for the last two hours, paging front to back, examining illustrations, then starting at the front again.
“Are you alright, mate?” Randall asked, snapping Ethan out of his daze. “You’re starting to act like Thomas.”
Thomas made a rude hand gesture toward Randall from across the room, but remained silent.
Ethan rubbed his eyes. “I’m fine. Just a little impatient, I suppose.”
“I’ve never known Ripper to fail to figure anything out he put his mind to.” Randall said from the kitchen, where he was stirring a large pot of nearly everything they had left in the fridge and pantry combined. Ethan smiled- much to Rupert’s chagrin, he’d introduced him to Randall and Thomas by the nickname, and now they never called him anything else.
He heard the door unlatch, and turned to see Rupert, struggling through the door with a stack of books half his height.
“Jesus, Ripper.” Ethan scrambled up to go help him, taking a few books from in front of Rupert’s face and sitting them on what passed for a kitchen table.
“I tried to help, but he insisted on carrying them all.” a higher voice said from the doorway. Ethan looked up to see Diedre, in a ruffled blouse and miniskirt, hair and makeup perfectly set.
Ethan smiled warmly. “Diedre. You’re looking remarkably well for someone who drank us under the table last night.”
She strode forward in her heels, pulling Ethan into an embrace and kissing his cheek. “Thanks for taking care of me.” she murmured in his ear.
Ethan made eye contact with Rupert over her shoulder, who gave a bemused sort of shrug. “Er- it was really Rupert who did the heavy lifting.”
“I’ll try not to take that as an insult.” she said playfully, casting a glance around the room. “You all live here?”
It hadn’t occurred to Ethan to be self-conscious about their less than glamorous living arrangement, but as he followed her gaze he did marvel at how cluttered the room managed to be despite being so sparsely furnished.
He decided not to acknowledge the mess. “Yeah. You know Rip and me, and that’s Randall,” he said, gesturing toward the kitchen, “and Thomas.”
Diedre’s eyes tracked across the room to Thomas, who hadn’t looked up from the armchair he’d been reading in. She crossed to the chair, leaning against the arm and very nearly finding herself in Thomas’ lap. He looked up questioningly.
“What are you reading?” she asked. Thomas held the cover up for her to see. She looked toward Rupert and Ethan. “Can’t he talk?”
Ethan opened his mouth to reply, but Thomas got Diedre’s attention back by answering in a deep monotone. “I can speak quite perfectly, ma’am. I only bother doing so when there is something worth saying, which I find to be an increasingly rare circumstance.”
Diedre raised her eyebrows, appraising him.
“On that cheery note,” Randall interjected, rubbing his hands together. “I made a stew. Does anyone want to eat?”
They surrounded the table, Ethan moving the books out of the way and bringing extra bowls and silverware from the kitchen. Randall ladled the hearty mixture among the five of them, then backtracked to the kitchen to bring bread, fresh out of the oven. Dee slid in next to Thomas, forcing him into conversation. She gesticulated as she spoke, swinging her broth-dunked bread wildly toward Thomas, who sat ramrod straight in his chair, the only movement to occasionally bring a spoonful of stew to his lips. Ethan, tickled at the juxtaposition of the two of them, rubbed Rupert’s thigh affectionately under the table.
Rupert spooned the last dregs of vegetables out of his bowl and swallowed them. “Cheers, Randall, I haven’t eaten all day.”
“Lucky for us you’ve been out then, you’re normally a grumpy git when you’re hungry.”
“You’re an annoying git all the time, what’s your excuse?” Rupert countered.
“Children,” Ethan chided, finishing his own meal and pushing his chair out. “Rupert and I have some research to do. Dee, did you come to assist?”
Diedre eyed Thomas, who actually smiled. “I’ll be alright out here.”
Ethan collected their bowls and began running water in the kitchen sink to wash them. Thomas sidled up behind him and waved him off, indicating he would take care of the cleanup. Ethan could only assume Diedre would be assisting as well. He grabbed several of the library books and followed Rupert to their bedroom, where the other books had already been spread out.
Rupert sat at his desk in the corner, opening the mystery book next to what seemed to be a dictionary of ancient languages. Ethan picked one up at random, titled The Etruscans: Their Art and Civilization. A quick glance showed him the book had lots of illustrations and photographs, which he thought might be easier to match up to those in the unknown book while Rupert tried to translate the text. He settled into bed, pushing his back against the wall, and began to turn pages.
Hours passed in relative quiet, occasionally interrupted by Rupert mumbling to himself or Ethan passing a book to him to point out something interesting. Ethan’s vision had begun to blur, the sound of Rupert’s pen scratching against his notepad sounding farther away. His head sank onto his chest, book sliding off of his lap as he slipped into unconsciousness.
Rupert put his pen down, stretching his fingers as he glanced over his work so far. He’d translated the first pages of the book, but it sounded to him more like a religious sermon than an informational text. It launched straight into devotional language toward a god he had never heard of, which excited Rupert- if Ethan had discovered an ancient culture’s deity previously lost to time, that was of huge historical significance.
He glanced toward Ethan, whose deep breathing and sunken posture suggested he had been asleep for some time. He supposed he should call it a night soon. Rupert cleaned his glasses, then softly began to read aloud what he’d copied over. Maybe the words would make more sense if he heard them spoken.
“O Eyghon, O Sleepwalker
He who walked the newborn Earth
Who takes his tributes in flesh and dreams
I call upon you-”
Rupert paused as he saw movement in his peripheral vision. Ethan was stirring, raising his head and cracking his neck.
“Good morning.” Rupert joked, standing up to join him in bed.
“You summoned me.” Ethan said in a voice entirely unlike his own, rough and gravelly instead of the smooth cadence Rupert was accustomed to.
He halted in his steps. “What?”
Ethan stretched out his arms and legs, studying his limbs as if he was seeing them for the first time. He looked around the room, then refocused on Rupert, making him feel like a specimen in a laboratory. His skin prickled, standing his body hair on end.
“This is a temporary vessel. I thank you for preparing it for me.”
“I- I didn’t mean to-” Rupert stammered, disliking the way Ethan’s usually-chocolate eyes had begun to glow brightly.
“Intent matters not.” it said shortly, face impassive. “You will be rewarded for bringing me forth.”
“Rewarded...how?” Rupert asked, uneasy.
“Power to bring you riches, bring you love.” it said, standing up and raising Ethan’s hand toward him. “Power to change mankind’s course, bend it to your will.”
The hand had reached Rupert before he had time to react, fingers splaying against his chest. An icy chill penetrated him to the bone as images began to flash in his mind. Himself, casting balls of energy toward an unknown adversary, moving so quickly and effortlessly it was impossible to follow. Ethan, turning a swarm of vampires to dust with a flick of his wrist. Diedre, setting up mystical protections around them, demons bursting into flame if they got too close.
Rupert felt himself gasp as the visions changed, showing a writhing mass of nude bodies, grinding and thrusting and moaning into each other. He saw Randall at the center, eyes glowing as an unknown figure sank their head into his lap. Rupert tensed as he figure shifted, recognising the wavy hair and devoted eyes that were usually reserved for him . A knot twisted in his stomach as he watched Ethan please Not-Randall.
Rupert threw up his arms, shaking his head vigorously as if the image wasn’t already seared into his brain. He found himself back in their room, staring at the creature in Ethan’s skin again, his gaze hardened and his breathing laboured.
“What was that?” Rupert asked sharply.
Not-Ethan’s unblinking stare remained focused on him. “Things that may come to pass. If you help me, the world is at your fingertips. You may use my power as you wish, but first I must be granted access to you .”
He frowned. “What do you mean, granted access?”
“I need vessels to walk this plane.” it said simply. “With the summoning rite you used tonight, I can present myself briefly. But soon, this vessel will reject me. We are not bound.”
“And there’s something that would allow you to stay here longer?” Rupert asked. “Teach us the magic like you showed me?”
Not-Ethan pressed its fingers to the symbol on the cover of the ancient book. “Place my mark upon your flesh. It will bind me to you and allow me to impart my gifts.”
Rupert frowned. “And if we don’t-”
He was cut short by Ethan slumping forward, Rupert diving to catch him before they both collapsed onto the floor.
“Ethan?? Eth!” he shouted, shaking him.
Ethan blinked a few times, assessing his place in Rupert’s arms and being sprawled on the ground. “Ru- what’s going on?”
Rupert heard Ethan’s voice and looked into his eyes, both back to normal, then without speaking pulled him into a tight embrace.
“Don’t crush the merchandise.” Ethan wheezed. Rupert loosened his grip, but didn’t break contact. Ethan rested his head on Rupert’s shoulder, mumbling in his ear.
“I just had the strangest dream.”