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Part of Jay tried to analyse this feeling of overwhelming presence. His impulse was, oddly, to trust it. The woman in the library had mentioned having an agent in town; perhaps this was that person. And if not, maybe it at least meant it was related to that dream in some way. He should, he decided, try to pay attention to that feeling when it happened.
The rest of him was finding that attentiveness, that attraction, to be really damn hot, and it was very quickly overruling the rest of him.
“Good, great,” Jay found himself saying. “Fantastic. Love the shirt.”
“Thanks!” Ashesh said. “Technophobes are my pet peeve. There’s no use in being trapped in the old ways if we don’t update them for the future.”
“I completely agree,” Jay said. “Programmer. I mean, I am a programmer.” He was making an idiot of himself, but was having a hard time not babbling. “Though right now I’m just, uh, trying to settle in here. So I’m, you know, going around, meeting the neighbors.”
Ashesh’s smile brightened, his eyes twinkling. “Well, nice to meet you,” he said. “I’m not actually one of your neighbors, but I hope you’re willing to meet me anyway.”
“Very willing.” Jay drew a deep breath and tried to calm his racing heart. “What do you mean? Just visiting?”
“Something like that. I was invited over,” Ashesh said with a shrug. “But the homeowner had to leave on a trip, so I’m staying here in the meantime.”
Jay nodded. “Housesitting, huh.”
“Sure, housesitting,” Ashesh said. He gestured. “You want to come in?”
There was no reason not to; he was here to get to know people. Even if Ashesh might not be his actual neighbor, he was still here for the time being, and he too might have some information if he was around often enough. “Sure, I’ll come wherever you want.”
Laughing, Ashesh said, “Is that so.”
His ears caught up with his mouth. “I, uh—I just meant, I’m happy to come in, but I don’t want to intrude.”
“Is that what you meant… no, it’s no intrusion, come on in. Coffee?”
Jay wasn’t sure that more caffeine was a great idea at this rate, but it was a good excuse to sit and have a conversation. “Sure,” he said. “Sounds good.”
Ashesh led the way into the living room next to the entrance, the front window looking out over his—or, Jay supposed, the owner’s—lawn. “Take a seat,” Ashesh said, gesturing to the living room generally.
Unlike Louis’s place, the furniture here was more modernized. Not exactly minimalist, and there was a rich rug in the middle of the floor, but it didn’t have a feeling of old, ostentatious wealth about it. Jay took a seat in the armchair, because the other option was the couch, and if he took that, Ashesh might sit with him, and at this point Jay didn’t trust himself to not shuffle closer.
Ashesh headed into the kitchen, and the weight of his presence lifted. Jay took a few breaths, trying to get himself under control, antsy and nervous and, frankly, horny. It was like, on seeing Ashesh, all his panic and anxiety had converted straight into hormones.
Like being a teenager all over again, he thought at himself, wryly.
Shortly after that, just when Jay had been about to pull out his phone to occupy himself, Ashesh came back in carrying two cups and a small copper pot with a long handle. It took Jay a moment to place it. “Turkish coffee?”
“I prefer it. Is that all right?” Ashesh glanced over with his brows raised, hands halted right before pouring.
“No, it’s great. I haven’t had it before myself,” Jay said. “But I mean, today’s a day for new things.”
“Oh, then you do have to try it.” Ashesh poured for them both, handing Jay a cup and then perching on the edge of the sofa cushion. “So you’re meeting the neighbors?”
Jay took a sip, overwhelmed for a moment by the rich strength of the coffee and the unexpected undercurrent of cardamom. He licked the foam off his upper lip, and tried to decide exactly what to say.
But—and maybe it was this newfound recklessness speaking, he wasn’t sure—he didn’t feel like playing coy would get him far. He needed information, and maybe he would offend Ashesh, he wasn’t sure, but being straightforward had worked for him so far.
“I just got back from meeting Louis,” Jay said. “He seems nice, if a little odd. But, ah, he told me some strange things about this town.”
“Oh, yes, he would,” Ashesh agreed. He took a sip of his own coffee with visible pleasure; Jay watched his tongue swipe some foam away from his lips. “Yes, he’s nice enough. Not one of my boys, but nice enough. What did he say?”
“Well. Uh, that there were a bunch of cults in town to elder gods.”
“True,” Ashesh said. “I mean, it’s not something most people talk about, because they don’t have to, and I’m surprised he trusted an outsider that much that quickly. Then again, you are Grace’s boy.”
Jay let out a nervous laugh. “I guess so,” he said. “I’m sort of trying to figure some things out about that.”
“Have you explored Grace’s house yet?” Ashesh asked, lifting a brow.
There was a pointed edge to that comment that gave Jay pause. “I’ve started to,” he said, with a touch more caution. “But I sort of feel like I have to split my time. Grace was obviously an important figure in this community.”
“Right, for sure,” Ashesh said, his tone gone thoughtful. “She willed you the house and everything in it, though. You’ve been at least to all the rooms?”
“I… haven’t been to the attic yet,” Jay said. He leaned back in the chair, watching Ashesh with a thrill as he licked the rim of his cup, eyes fixed on Jay’s face. “Everywhere else I’ve at least been through.”
Ashesh nodded, lips curving against the rim. “I’ve housesat for her before, so I know what you’re dealing with. Messy place. Hard to figure out where to start.”
“You housesit for a lot of people?” Jay asked.
“It’s a hobby,” Ashesh said, grinning again. He put his cup down on the table, leaning toward Jay, his hands sliding down his thighs as if to smooth his trousers. “Here, maybe I can help you.”
Ashesh turned one of his hands over, and Jay saw that he was holding a set of keys. “Here,” he said lightly, tossing them.
Jay failed to catch them, and put the half-finished cup down as he bent to pick them up instead. “What’s this?”
“The keys she loaned me before she left,” Ashesh said. “I don’t know if your set is complete, but I doubt it. These should help get you into a few places that you might not otherwise be able to.”
Sure enough, there were four keys on the ring, not just the two he’d had. “Thanks,” he said, surprised. “I have had a bit of trouble with locks.”
Ashesh nodded, leaning back in his seat and crossing one leg over his knee. “As well as the duplicates to the ones I assume you already have, that should help you in the attic and the office,” he said. “Grace would want you to be able to get around there; it’s just that she wouldn’t have wanted to risk others getting into it before you.”
“She didn’t trust others, but she trusted you?” Jay asked. He flushed a little. “I don’t mean to say that she wouldn’t! If you housesat for her, obviously there’s that, just, I don’t really know what her relationship was with anyone here. Everyone’s said she didn’t play favorites or take sides, so—”
“I’m not offended,” Ashesh said lightly. “I don’t think she was stupid enough to trust me, but she knows I meant her no harm.” He rose, stretching, then took a couple of quick steps over to Jay.
Jay squirmed as Ashesh put his hands on the arms of the chair, blockading him in with his slim body. This close, he was overwhelming; he smelled of the coffee he’d been brewing, all strong grounds and sweet cardamom, and he blocked the overhead light, casting Jay in shadow. “I—what are you…?”
Ashesh’s lips brushed Jay’s forehead lightly, sending a rush of heat through his body. “You’re delightful,” Ashesh said.
And then he tapped Jay’s leg with a book he was, apparently, holding. Jay hadn’t seen him pick it up, but he took it obediently. “You might find this useful,” Ashesh said cheerily, and stood up again.
Jay tried to catch his breath, staring down at the book with his cheeks burning. The title was The Laws of the Dead, and its author someone named Abdul Alhazred, who Jay hadn’t heard of previously. “What’s this?”
“It’ll answer your questions. Not about the specific cults here, but in general, it’s a good collection of information, if not always accurate. Maybe too much information for your purposes,” Ashesh said. He stretched again, his t-shirt riding up to show a small stretch of stomach that Jay tried not to stare fixedly at. “It’s basically an encyclopedia. Once you’ve got something to go off of—a few names of cults, servants, gods, and all that—and you’ll be able to learn more without having to go around grilling literally everyone and getting yourself in trouble.”
“Where did—how did—” Jay’s voice cracked.
“Finish your coffee,” Ashesh said, tone mischievous.
Blushing hard, Jay picked up his cup again and downed it, sucking what beverage was left between his teeth and leaving the grounds behind, though his mouth came away gritty regardless. He swallowed, and put the cup on the table. “…Thank you,” he said.
“You’re most welcome. Go and explore more before talking to me again,” Ashesh said. It was still in that light, playful tone, but there was a bit of finality to it, and Jay realized he was being dismissed.
If he’d had any doubts about that, he’d have lost them a moment later when Ashesh rose, taking both cups and putting them on his tray, then offering his free hand to help Jay up.
Fumbling keys and book, Jay took it. “But I can talk to you again?”
“Sure. Whenever I’m around, so long as you’re keeping things fresh and interesting.” Ashesh slid his hand out of Jay’s, then put an arm around him, steering him back toward the door. “Which is why I’m not sure I’ll enjoy talking to you too much more just yet. Open some locks, find some signs, talk to some more people, look some things up—any one of those things might give us a bit more of a common basis to talk about things with. As things are, you’ve barely gotten started, have you? But we don’t have much time left.”
Jay let himself be steered to the front porch again, then turned before Ashesh could get a hand on the door. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, your world will end soon,” Ashesh said. “I’d rather that not happen, but there’s only so much I can do.”
He said it so lightly, with that little smile lingering around his lips and his eyes twinkling, that Jay could hardly take it seriously. Still…
Jay put a hand on the door, resisting it closing. “One last thing?”
“Is it my phone number~? Oh, darling, you have to earn that, but I’m willing to answer your calls,” Ashesh said, almost purring.
Jay flushed again. “No. What—what cult are you in? Whose?”
“Oh, sweet child,” Ashesh said, an edge of mocking to his tone. “I’m not in a cult.”
And he shut the door.
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