The girl he’d just met was reciting poetry to Rupert, leaning close to his ear to make herself heard over the Bowie. She was in the middle of an elaborately obscene thing about a phallic vine, twining around the poet’s mistress. Rupert giggled, nose to nose with her. She was lovely, all huge masses of dark hair over a mobile face, pale skin against her black turtleneck, clouded over by blue cigarette smoke. And obviously she had brains. He was almost certain she was making a pass at him. Perhaps he could try putting a hand on her shoulder. He edged a little closer.
Another boy ranged up behind and put an entire arm around her shoulder. “Connie, Connie, what hapless victim are you debauching with poetry now? Didn’t you promise to debauch me tonight? Come away, come away.”
The new fellow looked as if he and Connie had been stamped from a single mold. He ran one quick hand through his hair to push it away from his face, and looked up to meet Rupert’s eyes. His hand froze, and he seemed to change what he had been intending to say even as he opened his mouth.
“Introduce me to this charming youth, Cons.”
Rupert wanted to bristle. This boy was his age, if that.
“Rupert, this is my friend Ethan. Don’t believe a word he says.” Connie rolled her eyes, and flicked ash at Rupert’s feet.
Ethan removed a hand from Connie’s shoulder to shake Rupert’s. Ethan’s fingers were hot against his palm. He grinned, and launched into rapid conversation, about something Rupert didn’t entirely catch. Ethan was in constant motion, twitching, jiggling in place, dancing a little now and then, like someone had overwound his high E string and it was about to pop. He settled as he got deeper into the jam jar of wine he was drinking.
Wine never settled Rupert. Rather, it uprooted him. His rugger mates gave him one or two when they wanted him to dance, or to talk. Not that he felt like dancing now. The Bowie had been replaced by something proggy and self-indulgent in 7/8 time. And still too loud. He leaned closer to hear what Ethan was saying. He was expounding on modern economics, and the role of financial institutions in maintaining social inequities. There was something about what that lopsided smile did to his face. He looked mischievous.
“Burn them all. Scatter their assets in ashes and dust! But enough about my life goals. Who are you?”
“Beg pardon?” Rupert tugged his jumper down nervously. The hem was starting to fray, and he was afraid the ragged edge of dark wool would show against his jeans.
“You. Who are you? You’ve got the build of an athlete and cheekbones I’d kill to have. But those glasses don’t quite fit. What’s your surname, anyway, Rupert?”
Ethan flashed a smile at him that Rupert couldn’t help but return. He found himself unable to stop looking at that mouth. It promised something to him. He didn’t know what. “I, uh… Giles.”
“The patron saint of cripples, and those who fear the night. You look proof against both ailments. College?”
Connie said, “I’ll just get another drink,” and stepped away. Rupert, reminded of the existence of the glass in his hand, took a gulp, and slid a little further out of the slow grasp of his daily self.
“College? Come on, man, it’s the catechism. Tell me where you are, what you’re reading, where you came from, and we’ll get it all out and then talk about something interesting.”
“Um, Merton, history, St Dunstan’s.”
“Oh, ho! Watcher boy, then. And indeed, one who makes the night safe for us weedier types.”
“Oh!” said Rupert. Then, “Oh. So you, uh, know about…” He trailed off, making a vague gesture with his fingers.
“You could say that,” said Ethan, with that corkscrewed smile. “I’m an adept.” He snapped his fingers and let a flame dance on his palm. He closed his hand over it.
“I’m not, but, er, I, um, I know all about it.”
“I doubt that,” said Ethan. He turned aside to put his jam jar down. Rupert was afraid he’d lost Ethan’s attention already. Though he wasn’t sure why that bothered him.
“So what about you? The catechism.”
“Balliol, economics, some place you’ve never heard of. Now, wasn’t that dull?”
“Yes, actually.” The pair smiled at each other.
Somebody put the Bowie on again, louder this time. Fourth time of playing, Rupert thought.
“Bloody loud in here,” said Ethan, leaning close to make himself heard.
“I’ve got a bottle of wine in my rooms,” Rupert said, blurting it out. Then he stuck his hands into his back pockets and said, more casually, “Drinkable, I think.”
Ethan nodded, equally casual. “Let’s go.”
No sense making goodbyes to their host in that din. They extracted their coats from the pile at the door. Ethan had a pea-coat. Rupert had worn his motorcycle jacket, thinking to impress if he’d managed to get anybody to leave with him. Which he supposed he had, though not in the way he’d been hoping. Down the creaking stairs, out the front door, onto the street.
“Christ!” said Rupert. It was pissing rain. Cold rain, nearly sleet, freezing in places on the street. He did the snaps at the neck of his leather jacket. Ethan buttoned his pea-coat and thrust his hands deep into his pockets. The pair scurried through the wet streets, Rupert leading the way to his tiny flat near his college. Barely worth the name, more of a bedsit, really, but it was what he let himself afford since his father’s death had turned things upside down. He wasn’t really in difficulties. The Council gave him a stipend, and he had some inherited money that he didn’t want to touch. If he let the London house, he’d be beyond comfortable. But he wanted that house to be there when he finished his degrees. It was all he had left of his father.
He fumbled with numb fingers for his key, and let them both in. Even the chilly stairs felt like a refuge after the cold and the wet. Two flights up the dim staircase, down the hall. Rupert unlocked the door, stepped inside, and switched on the lamp that stood next to his bed.
“Nothing much, I’m afraid.”
He wished he’d let himself afford better rooms. Ethan had to be sneering. At least they were neat and clean, orderly except for his desk. Rupert liked to know where everything was. But Ethan said nothing, just hung his dripping pea-coat on the coat-rack. He unlaced his boots and left them just inside the door. Rupert did the same, then padded over to his kitchen nook. Ethan followed. Nothing much there, either, but he could cook a proper meal in it.
Rupert pulled down the bottle from the cabinet. A Bordeaux, modest but indeed drinkable. Or so his friend Evans had said. Thank goodness he had real wineglasses. He pulled his utility knife from his pocket and folded out the corkscrew. Sliced the tip through the lead foil, tugged off the cap, crushed it and tossed it to the side. Twisted the point in, striving to look as if he did this routinely.
Ethan watched this process with elaborate indifference. “So you’re a Watcher?”
“Studying to be one.” Rupert tugged the cork out, and spun it squeaking off the screw. He repocketed his knife. Ethan had already poured full glasses for them both.
There was only the one chair, at Rupert’s desk. Ethan ignored it in favor of the floor, his back against Rupert’s iron bedstead, one knee folded up against his chest. Rupert sprawled down onto the center of his tatty Turkey carpet. The bottle stood between them. He tasted the wine. It was better than what they’d been drinking at the party.
“What does one study to be a Watcher?”
“Languages, mostly. As well as weapons. I’m, er, handy with a sword. Could kill you with my bare hands.” Rupert shrugged. Though he had grown up assuming that everyone around him could do the same.
“Isn’t the Slayer meant to do the fighting?”
“In theory. In practice anyone who’s near the fight needs to help.”
“Dangerous. Though magic is, too, 'course.” Ethan delivered his own shrug. “How’d you decide to be a Watcher?”
“I didn’t. It’s, um, it’s a destiny. My destiny.”
Ethan laughed. “Is that what they told you? What a recruiting line.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” said Rupert, in a huff. Outsiders rarely did. Even Councilmen sometimes seemed not to understand what Rupert felt when he saw a Slayer, or even one of the Potentials. That deep pull inside him. The longing to fight alongside her. The least Ethan could do, Rupert felt, was not mock what he didn’t understand.
Ethan seemed to notice his annoyance, because his next words were, “How do you know Connie?”
Rupert put down his wineglass and idly turned it on the carpet. “I’d just met her. Had she really promised to debauch you?” Rupert’s ears burned as soon as the question was out of his mouth. He’d just been impossibly naive. But Ethan did not seem to notice.
“She hadn’t, alas! I find it’s an effective technique, with women. Tell them they’ve sworn to do that which they long to do, but are too coy to ask for. Not that Connie is coy. Not one to make you wait a vast eternity.” Ethan sighed happily.
Rupert was suddenly glad he hadn’t hooked up with her. “So you and she already, er.”
But Ethan said, “No, no. Nothing like that. I’ve known her for a while. Intelligent woman. She had a breakup a week ago, and I was hoping she’d look my way tonight. Just my type.” He cocked his head at Rupert. “Not your type, probably. Were you plotting to take her home?”
“I was hoping. I thought maybe. Probably she went home with Michael.” Rupert reflected that if so, she’d had her fun brainless. A roll with a magnificent specimen, who liked his pleasure simple and straight. Unlike the man sitting across from him now.
“Do you often take perfect strangers home?”
“No!” Rupert blushed again.
“Really? Not blazing a trail across Oxford’s bedrooms?”
“No! No. I wouldn’t do that.”
“I do believe you. You seem like a rank sentimentalist.”
“And you’re too cynical.”
“At such a young age, too,” Ethan said. He leaned forward to refill Rupert’s glass, then re-coiled his limbs in his spot against the bed. “The last St Dunstan’s lad I knew was even stiffer than you. Was utterly shocked when I told him there’d been girls at my school. And no compulsory chapel.”
Rupert smiled into his wineglass. “I’ll wager more shocked by the chapel than by the girls. Even if Dunstan’s were mixed, we wouldn’t be allowed to speak to each other.”
“Sounds strict. I take it your head boy didn’t deal.”
“What?” Rupert laughed, nervously. “No. Dear Lord, no. They’d have killed him. Probably literally. And made us all watch,” he finished, in a murmur.
Ethan made a thoughtful noise. Rupert looked up, and saw that Ethan was gazing at him intently. “Not a place that brought you much joy, I take it.”
Rupert had never thought about it that way, or even considered the possibility. He shrugged. “It’s done with. I’m happier here. More freedom. And mates who aren’t obsessed with vampires.” He stretched himself out on his side on the carpet. “'Course, I don’t know that being obsessed with women and rugger is much better.”
Ethan laughed, and joined him on the carpet. “What are you obsessed with?”
“Studying? I do love the languages. And the history. I could be happy if-- Well.”
“And this? Obsessed with this, too?” Ethan came up from the floor holding something. Rupert squinted. A tortie pick. He took it and pocketed it guiltily.
“Yes, a bit.”
“Are you good?”
“Fair to middling. I can sing,” he added, with a flash of bravado.
“Oh my, more going on inside that handsome head than I’d thought,” said Ethan.
Ethan was easy to talk to, easier still as the wine bottle slowly emptied. Rupert was happy, lying there on his carpet, drinking and bantering with his new friend, his quick-witted friend with the beautiful hands. Rupert watched them gesture and flex as they talked. He learned that Ethan was pagan, that he took his magic seriously. Rupert told him about his Christian faith in return, and a little about what Watcher’s magic was like. They talked about music, and who’d seen what band recently. Ethan told him about the breakup of his most recent affair, with an American girl who’d gone back to finish her degree at Columbia and hadn’t replied to Ethan’s letters. Rupert expressed proper sympathy, then his own wish that he might someday have a relationship that lasted for more than two weeks.
Ethan slid down onto his side, head propped up on one elbow. “Your first kiss. Tell me about it.”
The answer stuck in Rupert’s throat at first. He rolled flat onto his back and stared at the ceiling. “My, my father’s Slayer. Under the mistletoe one Christmas. Think she knew I was mad for her and took pity on me.”
“Is she pretty?”
“She was. Beautiful. Every Slayer I’ve ever seen has been beautiful. Even the Potentials. Never known why, but it’s so. And she was… stunning.” He clenched his left hand and rubbed his thumb against the signet ring.
“I see,” said Ethan, quietly.
Before he could continue with questions and sympathy, Rupert hurried on with, “And you?”
“The head boy. I was short of cash, and he took the balance out in snogging. A sadly limited currency, though prevalent in closed societies. Not very liquid.”
“Oh,” said Rupert. “Oh.”
“How old were you the first time you made love?”
“And how old are you now?” Ethan asked, with a touch of amusement in his voice.
“Nearly twenty. Next month.” Rupert suddenly felt as if that weren’t nearly old enough. “And you?”
“I’m a month younger than you. But I was fifteen for my first time. The head boy again.”
“Er, short of cash again?”
Rupert laughed, but he wondered if Ethan were as easy about it as he made himself seem.
“Dammit, the bottle’s empty and I’m thirsty.” Ethan sounded plaintive.
Rupert uncurled himself to his feet, gracefully. He carried the bottle to his little square of kitchen counter. “I can make some cocoa, if you’d like.”
“Cocoa? On what?”
“Got a gas ring.”
“Huh. Very handy for magic. Heating up cauldrons for the odd steaming potion, sort of thing. Never occurred to me to use it for cooking.”
Rupert eyed Ethan narrowly, but he appeared to be serious. “I cook on mine. I wish I lived someplace with an oven. Or even where I had two burners to cook on. One’s a bit limiting.”
“Alas, your prowess with the two-pan cocoa technique must be displayed on another occasion. I should be dragging myself home like the disreputable tomcat I am.”
Rupert nodded. Four in the morning. It made sense. He stood in his stocking feet on the tiny square of kitchen linoleum and watched Ethan tie his boots.
“What’s it doing outside?” Ethan asked.
Rupert stepped over and leaned against the window, hands cupped around his eyes to block out the light.
“Still pissing down,” he said. “Freezing on the street. You don’t want to go out in that. Stay, ah, you can just kip here.” Once again blurted, and he wasn’t sure why. He had the idea that if they were separated, even for an hour, whatever was happening would stop. He didn’t know what was happening, other than that he liked it. He liked Ethan. Rupert rubbed his fingers through the mess of his hair, striving again for that casual do-what-you-like attitude, and probably failing.
“Thanks,” said Ethan. “You’re a prince.”
He sat on the edge of Rupert’s bed and began unlacing his boots again. Rupert took off his glasses and polished them on his sleeve. He hadn’t thought this through all the way, obviously. Where would Ethan sleep, if not in his bed? It wasn’t as if he had a sofa. Rupert coughed, and took himself off to the lav to clean his teeth. He didn’t have a spare toothbrush for Ethan. He thought he ought to lay one in, in case this happened again. He had no idea what was going to happen next, but he already thought he’d like it to happen again.
He washed his hands and slipped out into the flat’s single room. Ethan nodded to him and came past to replace him in the washplace. He’d taken off his shirt, revealing a slim body under a singlet. Rupert stood frozen in the center of the room. He swallowed. Butterflies, suddenly, in his stomach. He forced himself into motion. The chest at the foot of the bed held a spare wool blanket and maybe another pillow, though he thought he owned only the two. He spread the blanket out on the bed.
Ethan returned, wiping his hands on his jeans. He went over to the bed and got in. He left the covers folded back. Rupert pulled his jumper over his head, exposing the worn Gibson t-shirt underneath. He folded the jumper and tucked it away in a dresser drawer, then turned back to the bed. He hesitated.
Ethan grinned at him and slid himself hard against the wall. “There’s room for the both of us. Unless you thrash in your sleep.”
Rupert swallowed and got into bed, jeans still safely on. He reached up and pulled the chain on the lamp. The light faded out. His eyes adjusted slowly. A dim glow from the streetlamp outside, caught in the streaks of rain sliding down the window. The warped pale rectangle the window cast on the ceiling. The dark arch of the foot of the iron bedstead against the wall. Now that the wine-glow had faded he could feel the chill in the room and the warmth of the body next to him in the bed. He folded his arms across his chest.
“I’m not going to bite,” said Ethan, almost in his ear. Rupert wrapped his arms tighter around his chest. “Seriously, Rupert. Relax. Go to sleep.”
He sighed, unfolded his arms, and turned onto his side, facing Ethan. The other man’s eyes were closed. Rupert felt a tiny pang of regret. He was caught between fear and a hope he hadn’t yet named for himself. Though he knew, secretly. He knew. Rupert watched Ethan’s face relax into sleep, then allowed himself to follow.
Rupert woke alone, and after a moment remembered why this was a disappointment. His usual patch of morning sun made a bright square on the white wall at the foot of his bed. Rain had stopped, then. He sat up and rubbed his face. Mild hangover, residual effects of about three hours of sleep. He touched his feet to the floor and choked back an oath. The floor was cold. The room wasn’t terrible, but it could have been warmer. He stood and stretched.
The bog went, and the door creaked open. Ethan appeared, rumpled in the singlet and yesterday’s jeans, hair everywhere.
“Oh! Good morning.”
“Thought I’d buggered off?”
Rupert shrugged, and pulled on his socks. Ethan thumped down next to him and found his shirt balled up at the foot of the bed. He buttoned it up, hiding himself away again. Rupert watched Ethan’s fingers work the buttons. Clever long fingers. He sprang up to go wash his hands before Ethan caught him staring.
When Rupert came back from the lav, hair wet at the edges, Ethan was poking around his bookshelves, at the paltry collection of demonologies. “Lesser and Greater Wards, an Introduction. Huh.” He opened it and began flipping.
“My father has a better library,” Rupert said. “Or did. It’s mine now, I suppose. Going to have to put it in storage.”
Ethan returned the book on warding, and peered at his bottom shelf. “Cookbooks?”
“I like to cook. And read about cooking.” He couldn’t do much in this flat.
“You like to cook, you’ve got cheekbones that could kill, you play sport, you’re a nice straight-laced church-going boy. Why has some woman not snatched you up?”
Rupert stared, and stuttered out something about not having met anyone yet.
“Even the stammer is endearing. Good thing I drove Connie away or she’d have them posting banns this morning. Oh, do close your mouth, Rupert.” Ethan nudged him with an elbow. “Brekkers? Shall we go out?”
“Haven’t got time for it. Tutorial at ten. Cocoa’s still on offer. Or there’s Wheetabix.”
“Cocoa’d set us up. Ta.”
Rupert busied himself with the routine of making cocoa. Ethan lounged against the wall and watched him. Two tin mugs set out, twice the usual milk from the tiny icebox. Sugar, cocoa, measured carefully because someone else was drinking with him. Pan on the flame turned low, to avoid scalding the milk. He stirred with a battered spoon.
“Like doing magic.”
“You’re doing a working. Are you paying attention to how you stir? Three clockwise, two anti-clockwise, then three the other way. Ritual. You have a cocoa ritual.”
Rupert flushed. He seemed to be spending half his time with Ethan embarrassed out of his mind. Now that he paid attention, he supposed he did have a bit of an unconscious routine. A meditative thing. He caught himself testing the temperature his usual way, with a little finger dipped into the milk. Ethan didn’t appear to mind. Rupert poured from the pan. The milk hissed as it ran over the lip of hot metal, loud in the quiet room. Then the sound of filling mugs. Then Ethan’s voice, “Aqua vitae. Distilled by gas-ring.”
Rupert looked at him over the rim of his own tin mug. Their eyes met. Rupert held his gaze steady this time, though his heart was pounding as if he’d sprinted a mile. Then Ethan tipped up his mug. Rupert watched his throat work as he swallowed.
His wool coat today, Rupert thought, no more messing about with trying to look good while it was so bloody cold. He followed Ethan down his own stairs to the street. Sharp slicing wind, pale sun, pinched faces huddled in scarves, red noses. Rupert squinted against the sunlight. His head was still bad.
“Filthy,” said Ethan, and Rupert couldn’t argue. The pavement was crusted with ice, melted to gray slush where the sunlight had lingered. The pair crunched their way along toward the university. Ethan shared a house across town, he said. They stopped at the corner where their ways parted. Rupert was reluctant to let Ethan go without expectation of seeing him again.
But Ethan spoke first. “What’s your plan for the day? After your tute. Meet for lunch?”
Rupert thought over what he needed to do. Tutorial, home to bathe and change, then a paper he needed to read by Monday. “Can’t. Work. I need to do some reading at the Cam. Meet there? Entrance? Say, at four?”
“You’ll be there?” Ethan kicked at the ice under his foot, not looking at Rupert.
“Yes! Yes, I’ll be there.” Rupert was relieved to realize that Ethan was as nervous as he. Ethan touched a hand to Rupert’s elbow, then trotted away. Rupert checked his watch. “Vae!” he said. He spun and broke into an all-out run down the treacherous pavement.
Rupert spent the afternoon asleep face-down on his notebook, the paper on pre-Roman copper and bronze casting techniques going neglected. His resolution to study had come to naught. He came to with a start and checked his watch immediately. He sighed in relief. Fifteen minutes yet before he had to meet Ethan. He rubbed at his face. It wasn’t like him to fall asleep studying, but he hadn’t been sleeping well for months. Not since his father and Angelina had died. At first it had been nightmares about their bodies, all torn and bloody on tables in the Council morgue. Recently his dreams had been troubled by images of demons, shadowy things creeping out into the world. All his fault, in the dreams, because he’d failed his Slayer.
He’d slept all right last night, though not for long enough. No dreams.
Ethan was already there in the entrance when Rupert appeared. He worried he was late, had kept his friend waiting. But no: they were both early. Ethan spotted him, and they smiled at each other as Rupert hurried across. Rupert flushed again, because he was sure he knew what his face betrayed. And was that an echo he saw in Ethan’s?
Ethan just touched his elbow, as if in greeting, then gripped it to hold Rupert still. He rose on tiptoes.
“Your face is bruised. Did someone hit you?”
Rupert shrugged. Ethan’s fingers touched his face, brushing against the place where his tutor’s wedding ring had caught his cheek.
“Going to tell me you ran into a door?”
“No. It’s nothing.”
“It’s something. What? Rupert…”
“My tutor wasn’t pleased with my performance this morning. Not enough sleep, I suppose.” Four mistakes in translation, which were four more than Rupert usually made. And four more than were allowed. The Slayer couldn’t afford to have fools serving her, they always said. Exhaustion didn’t matter. The Watcher had to function in any circumstance.
“Rupert. One’s tutor is not allowed to hit one.”
“When he’s a Council tutor, he is.” Rupert shrugged again. He hadn’t ever thought about this. It was the way things were done. It was more humiliating than painful, of course. Rupert played rugby for fun, for goodness’ sake. Though the humiliation today had been sharp, with his three fellow Watcher-candidates there, to overhear the lecture about oafs who neglected study for sport, lackwits who traded on the reputations of their famous fathers. Rupert’s Slayer would be dead, his tutor had said, hand raised for the second blow. The words had hurt more.
“Come on, then. Cafe for us. You look like you need a bit of something.” Rupert allowed himself to be dragged away, out onto the cold streets. He’d been unable to eat lunch after that dressing down, but now he thought he might be able to. Ethan swept him along with a hand tucked through his elbow, around to his own neighborhood and what he said was his usual cafe. Ethan bought him tea and a muffin, and insisted on paying.
“I am in funds just now,” Ethan explained, “thanks to a small investment that worked out rather well. When the next one fails, you can return the favor.” He had an odd smile on his face when he said that, a little sharper than his usual.
Rupert took the tray. White ceramic cups on saucers. Two plates with muffins in paper. Rupert poured milk into his tea from the common jug and carried the lot over to a table against the wall. He pulled off a piece of the muffin and ate it. A few swallows later he realized he’d eaten the whole thing. Ethan grinned, and passed over his muffin as well.
“When did you eat last, oh world-devouring one?”
“Er, yesterday lunch,” said Rupert, thinking back. “I forgot dinner.”
“This’ll never do. How are you to maintain those muscles like that?”
“S’rather good,” Rupert said, once he’d chewed through most of Ethan’s muffin. He had some tea to wash it down. The tea was only middling, but it was tea and therefore soothing. He sat back, feeling much better about his life and about his prospects.
Ethan was looking down at the little wooden table, picking at the edge with a thumbnail. “Did you know I had my horoscope done the other day? No, really, by quite a good astrologer. You should get a consult done.”
Rupert played with his teaspoon. The Watchers didn’t approve, though it was just as legitimate as any other kind of divination, when the diviner had power.
“It was fascinating. I didn’t understand half of what she said about the whys and what was in what house retrograde, never do, but she said a number of things about Mercury. Mercury rising in Aquarius means good things for occultists. Also, she predicted the start of a new, ah, friendship. Tumultuous. Intense. Life-changing.”
“Oh,” said Rupert.
“Indeed. It’s all too complicated for me. Give me a pack of Tarot cards over the star charts, any day. But I rather think the first of her two predictions has come true.”
Rupert smiled hesitantly over his cup. “Never thought of myself as tumultuous before. What’s the second?”
“Loads of sex,” said Ethan, wickedly.
Rupert snorted into his tea. “Good luck with that.” He drained his cup. “What’s the plan for tonight?”
“I hadn’t really thought that far ahead.”
“See a film? Or a friend of mine is hosting something later.”
“Two of those parties in one weekend? No, thank you. Um. I know. Cook for me.” Ethan muttered it.
“Cook dinner for me. The house where I room has a kitchen. All the gear you could want. Gas cooker and all that.”
Rupert grinned. His chance to impress. “You’re on.”
Ethan led the way again, out onto the street, with cold air and the sky aflame from the setting sun. The slush had frozen again under their feet. Ethan’s nose and ears were red with cold before they’d gone two blocks.
Rupert assumed that Ethan’s kitchen had nothing in it, nothing at all. Ethan trailed around behind him in the market, basket over his arm, while Rupert found the olive oil and spices he needed, then searched out what produce January offered them. Not much. Shallots, at least. The off-license for a bottle of something German, white, and a little sweet, and the butcher’s for a bit of meat. Ethan again insisted on paying, again mentioning his recent good luck. Then they were crunching and sliding their way across town again. The packages nestled in Rupert’s shoulder bag, next to his books on pre-Roman metallurgy.
Ethan shared his house with four other students, he said. Only one was in evidence, a scruffy man with the beginnings of a beard, sprawled out in the common room with a textbook in the flat yellow and white of Springer-Verlag. He didn’t appear to notice their arrival, and Ethan didn’t speak to him.
Rupert spread their purchases on the kitchen table while Ethan cleared off the counter. It was surprisingly clean. Perhaps his housemates cooked, because Ethan himself seemed never to have attempted it. Rupert inventoried the cabinets and drawers, looking for pots and pans. Not much. One skillet that would do for the chicken. The knives were all dangerously dull, but Rupert was more than expert at sharpening. He did that first, bringing the least battered up to a tolerable edge. He spun it in his hand, showing off just a little. He could do a few things with a knife that would raise Ethan’s eyebrows. He checked the impulse to show off further.
Ethan opened the wine and poured. Rupert tasted it, distractedly. It would do. He set his glass on the counter, ready to use. Ethan sat at the kitchen table, glass in hand. Rupert felt him watching. He turned now and then to meet Ethan’s eyes.
He didn’t know why people were mystified by this. Cooking was easy. It wanted method, and attention to detail. Rupert, trained by the Watchers from a young age, had never known what it was to be aimless and sloppy. He prepared, laid all his tools out, held a match to the burner, and began. Wash, chop, and dice. Warm the oven. Slice the bread. Bleu cheese and a dollop of honey on each. Ethan looked dubious, but Rupert knew what he was about. The cheese again, with walnuts and segments of orange, with vinegar and olive oil, ready to dress the bit of lettuce he’d found acceptable. Heat the pan, oil and butter onto the hot metal, shallots into the oil, moving quickly now. Saute the chicken, set it aside. Put the bread in the oven to melt the cheese. Rupert deglazed the pan with the contents of his wineglass. More of the honey, and some of the dried rosemary and marjoram.
“Nearly done,” he said. “Have you got any plates?”
“Half a mo.” Ethan had his head and shoulders deep inside a cabinet. He emerged with a pair of sorry-looking red china plates and a flat box. Rupert looked over his shoulder. Ethan opened the box and extracted a fork.
“Dented pewter and cracked china! That’s the theme of our dinner.”
“No, this is actual silver,” Rupert said, surprised. He held up a butter knife to the light. “It’s just badly tarnished. Wants polishing.”
Ethan busied himself with rubbing up two forks, two knives, and two spoons while Rupert finished his sauce.
“And thus we both make the base sublime,” said Ethan. He ranged up behind Rupert at the stove. Rupert held out the wooden spoon he was using to stir. Ethan blew and tasted, then broke into the smile that made Rupert’s chest thrill. “I like yours better.”
It was time to serve on the cracked plates, sit at the rickety table, and blush again. It should be good, for something Rupert had never made before. It was a collection of standard techniques he’d used before, cooking for his amused father. And his memory of the recipe, read once in a cookbook and dreamed over, was never in doubt. Rupert watched Ethan taste the bread and grin. Once he saw his friend eating, Rupert let himself eat. It was good.
Rupert had used at most a glass of the wine, so there was plenty for them to drink. But neither man seemed inclined to do more than sip. In Rupert’s case, it was because he wanted to keep his head for whatever happened later. He’d begun to wonder what Ethan wanted, if it was at all the same as what Rupert wished for. All those shared looks might mean something else to Ethan. But the looks continued, through dinner and the washing up, slowed into thoughtful deep silences, until Rupert would blush, and look away. They stood side-by-side at the sink, brushing against each other at hip and elbow. Rupert stopped wondering.
When the kitchen was neat again, Rupert took the wine bottle and the two empty classes and followed Ethan down the hall. The man in the common room had vanished, along with his textbook.
Ethan opened a door onto a dark room and gestured Rupert in. He smelled nag champa and candle wax and, if he was not mistaken, bitter ritual herbs. A match flared, and Ethan lit a candle. Rupert looked around. The room made him ashamed of his hospitality the night before. Bookshelves spilling over, a desk piled high with papers and books, more stacks of books on the thick nap of the throw rug. A little statue of a two-faced god on the windowsill. Rupert set the bottle and glasses next to it.
There was a wide bed, strewn with pillows, messy and unmade. Rupert sat on the edge and ran his hand over a silky-smooth blanket. Pleasures of the body and the mind, everywhere here satisfied. Ethan moved around lighting red pillar candles and lastly a stick of incense. The room glowed warm.
“Get comfortable,” Ethan said. He kicked off his shoes and sprawled himself onto the bed next to Rupert.
Rupert leaned forward and unlaced his boots, slowly. His breath was already coming short. There was still time to change his mind and leave. He risked a look at Ethan. The crooked smile on his face said that he knew exactly what Rupert was thinking, had known all along. He leaned forward. Rupert leaned forward to meet him.
Ethan kissed him. One brief kiss, then they both pulled back. Ethan searched Rupert’s expression for something, seemed to find what he was looking for. He took Rupert’s face in his hands and kissed him again. He tasted wonderful, of the wine and their dinner, but with something tangy and sweet far below. Angelina had tasted as good, in that one thrilling kiss she’d bestowed on him. Though this was different. Muskier. Saltier.
And forbidden. Men may not lie with men, by the law of the Council. But the law of the Council had scored a bruise across his face, had left his father and Slayer unsupported and alone in front of a pack of hellhounds.
Rupert let himself dissolve into Ethan’s arms, spin out into dizzy touch. Kisses and soft laughter when their noses bumped, when Rupert’s glasses were knocked askew, when they both reached for Ethan’s shirt buttons at the same moment.
Rupert pulled his shirt over his head. Ethan gazed at his chest, and smiled. “You young god. Give me a hundred years to praise that chest.” Ethan himself was as slim as he’d seemed under his singlet last night, all tight wiry grace. They settled next to each other on the bed again, fingers now brushing against bare skin. Ethan fingered the gold cross on its chain that Rupert always wore, against his skin.
“Power,” he murmured. “Molten metal and flame and blood and sacrifice. You carry your god with you.” He moved it aside gently, then kissed Rupert’s chest. Ethan pushed at his shoulders, and Rupert let himself topple backwards onto the bed. Ethan followed him down, rolled alongside him.
Rupert had been in this position before, with the two girls he’d made love with. With them the touching had all been prelude to the moment when Rupert entered them, the act of joining bodies. With Ethan, the play of his fingers on Rupert’s body was everything. He showed no signs of needing or wishing for anything else. Ethan touched and stroked and teased, and tightened him into a pitch of arousal he hadn’t realized possible. He tried to do the same for Ethan, but his hands were trembling too hard. He gave up and gripped Ethan’s shoulders and pressed his face into his shaggy hair.
“Please what?” Ethan mouthed his earlobe.
“Please, tell me. I need…”
“I’ll give you what you need. Give you everything.”
Much later, Rupert slipped out of bed, leaving Ethan drowsing slack on the pillows. He sat on the floor, back to the bed, thinking. He closed his hand over the crucifix. What had just happened to him? What was he now? He didn’t feel at all the same man that he’d been only a day ago. He hadn’t known he was capable of this, that he had wanted it.
He got up and moved quietly around the room, blowing out candles. Hot candle wax, incense, and now, below them, the smell of sex. He returned to bed in darkness and the afterimage of flames. Rupert pressed himself close to Ethan and pulled the blanket over them both. So good to hold someone else like this, someone he’d just made love to. Rupert kissed his forehead, stroked a slow thumb over his damp temple. Watching Ethan’s pleasure, hearing Ethan’s half-slurred words of satisfaction and gratitude, had been as sweet as his own pleasure had been. He was exhausted, exultant. In love. Could it possibly happen that fast? Eyes meeting at a party, then fire and his heart melting and reforming?
It must be possible, Rupert thought. Must be, because that’s what had just happened.