“Why am I here?” He cut off the pink-haired man.
The man frowned. The temperature in the room dropped by a few degrees.
“You’re our guest. I said as much in the letter. You did read it, did you not?”
He took a step forward. “I don’t see how that—”
A metallic chirp sounded off from somewhere to the right, behind one of the hardwood panels, and the pink-haired man skipped off down the hall.
“Hold that thought, dear!” He called out as he went.
Clng! There was the resolute clang of metal against wood.
Skrt! Followed by the blood-curdling screech of brick against marble. Blrk! A few seconds later, the injured bleating of ceramic against brick.
Then all was silent.
The pink-haired man hopped around the corner, skipping back down the hall with a faintly dopey grin. He clapped his hands together thrice in quick succession, bouncing to a stop just a few feet from him.
“Dinner is officially, ready!” He sing-songed, bobbing his shoulders this way and that, a bit like those smiley, half-deranged, yellow-eyed monkeys always slapping together their cymbals.
“I made filets, with a goat cheese crust,” he went on, sidling up to the young man.
He fought the urge to step back, holding his ground against the towering, lacy, bunny-slippered ball of energy.
“And a raspberry-currant garnish,” the pink-haired man said, inching forward and spinning in a light-footed circle, pivoting on the tips of his toes until he came to a rest, just inches from the smaller man. “They’re in season right now, you know.”
The man’s motion kicked up a current. He shivered involuntarily.
“Oh, my poor dear!” The man cooed, wrapping the towel tighter about his shoulders, despite his halfhearted attempts at shaking the man’s hands away.
“I do wish I had more of the chartreuse,” he fussed. “I’ve been meaning to make more, of course. But I haven’t had the time,” he stomped his pink-slippered feet against the rug, “There was just so much to prepare. I – no, we – wanted it to be perfect for you.”
There was a clatter above their heads. The pink-haired man sighed beside him, tilted his head up toward the paneled, winding staircase running parallel to the cement at their right, and heaved in a breath.
“Pumpkin, come downstairs!” He bellowed up the stairs, before glancing back down at Born with an apologetic smile. He gestured up to the second floor.
“You’ll have to excuse him. He gets a bit excitable when our guests first arrive.”
A voice, deeper than the pink-haired man’s, wafted down from above their heads and a bit to the right, distorted by the thin layer of cement between them.
“But I don’t have anything to wea—”
“Our guest is here.”
Before he could blink, a figure appeared at the top of the stairs. A formless shadow languishing in the glare of the first-floor fluorescents. It stood there for a moment, still as a gravestone. Born strained his eyes, struggling for a better glimpse.
If he’d met the one with bunny slippers, then what must the one in the dark be like?
But the figure lurked just out of sight, making a mockery of his efforts. He had no doubt that the demon on the second floor was watching him, taking full satisfaction in the view he had of his next victim, while withholding the same courtesy to him.
He felt naked under the scrutiny.
It was just another game, he thought, standing stock still so the man – the monster – could see just what it was his money had bought him this time around. If he was livestock, then so be it, so long as he survived slaughter season. So long as he left with the same head on his shoulders.
And if his captors were collateral in that endeavor? Oh, well. That would be a shame.
He met the shadow’s eyes. Or perhaps he hoped he did, staring up at where a man’s eyes would be.
The shadow descended the steps, slowly. Halfway down, suddenly unobscured by the wooden paneling, the fluorescents met him step for step, following his every move like some sort of loving spotlight.
He was a bit shorter than the pink-haired man and a bit leaner, too – but you wouldn’t know it, if you didn’t set them side by side. Not with the way he walked down the stairs, sauntering even. He had nearly the physique of a child and the height of one, too. But he fed off the eyes in the room. A magnet for the lights. The natural focal point.
He was just one of those people. The ones who burned everything they didn’t touch.
It was wasted on him, Born thought, curling his lip in disgust.
Him, with the long, black hair, curling precisely around the contour of his head. It would fall down nearly to the nape of his neck, if not for the latter sides of it – completely shaved off, as it were. His bangs plunged down to his eyebrows, black and bushy and sleek. There were two small, hazel diamonds embedded in his skin, relentless in their depths.
He couldn’t imagine the horrors in them.
Just below it, a pair of dark, plump lips, framed on all sides by jutting angles and protruding edges, a jawline as cutting as a claw, a cheekbone as whetted as canines. His face was a knife, his eyes a sharpening block. And then, just below, the column of his neck, dark-skinned – whether it was from a tan or the lighting or genes, he couldn’t tell – and below it, his collarbones, exposed by the buttonless holes at the top of his red button-down. It was tucked into his black jeans.
His thighs tested the give of the seams with every step. They screamed as they stretched and stretched as they screamed.
“Good evening,” he said, before stepping onto the landing at the base of the stairs.
His voice was startling. Far too deep to be real – to have its source be the petite, lean man standing before him. It had to be deeper even than Mr. Perseus’s, and the man was an absolute beast.
This wasn’t. Well …
The black-haired man stopped just short of them both, eyes still locked with the younger man. There was no sign of amusement on his face, except perhaps somewhere in the trenches of his eyes, where nothing save a wreck could find it. Born glared back at the man, unblinking, determined to meet the man blow for blow.
Whoever had said to pick your battles was a coward. There was no battle too small to take up. No battle too small to win.
“We’ve been waiting such a long while to meet you, Born,” he said. He ripped the towel from the smaller man’s shoulders before he could react, whipping it behind him. It fluttered down to the ground, and a Broom whirred to life, lugging it off somewhere out of sight and mind.
“And I must say, even after all of these months, the actuality of it is still quite the …”
He reached out with one long-fingered, dark-skinned hand. Born refused his offer.
He wouldn’t waver from his objective, eyes trained on the darker man who stood, unmoving, with his hand still outstretched. There seemed to be no shadow of a doubt as to the outcome of their standoff, in his mind at least. But he didn’t know Born.
Of a sudden, his skin began to melt.
He cried out in surprise, attention darting to the source of the threat, just as the inferno around his hand – the pink-haired man’s hand – dropped his into the black-haired man’s hold.
The black-haired man smiled, blinking several times in quick succession, as if to say:
Thanks for playing! Better luck next time!
He stooped over, eyes never leaving Born’s as he brought his lips to Born’s knuckles.
“Pleasure,” he murmured, grazing the back of Born’s hand with his moving lips. He let it fall from his grasp a second later, straightening back up.
“I wish I could say the same,” Born spat, wiping his knuckles against the side of his jeans.
He had to be more cautious. He was outnumbered.
The pink-haired man glanced at his friend. Their eyes exchanged words.
“He doesn’t disappoint, does he?” The first asked.
The black-haired man smiled up at him, a hand curling around his upper arm and lightly petting the skin of his shoulder.
“They never do, darling.”