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Jay didn’t really want to read The King in Yellow anyway. That honestly felt like a cursed storyline from a creepypasta or something, like he’d read it and something would happen to him that would make Hastur claim him. If that’s how he got the Sign, he didn’t want it.
He wanted to stay neutral; if Aunt Grace had all these Signs but hadn’t fallen under the sway of any one being, then hopefully, he could too.
And if Louis told him he had to read the book… well, he’d cross the bridge when he came to it.
Jay walked past his house, heading to Louis’s instead, feeling a bit like he was going door to door collecting for charity. Spare a Sign to help save the world? He laughed weakly under his breath, ringing Louis’s doorbell.
A minute or so later, Louis answered. He was wearing jeans and a black shirt with gold trim around the wrists and collar, and looked somewhat severe in it. “Jay,” he said.
“Louis,” Jay said. “Hi.”
Louis looked past him, up at the sky. “Do you see that?”
“Yeah,” Jay said. “It’s really bad.”
“You know what it is?”
“The hordes of dancers around the throne of the blind god are free from his music.” Maybe, Jay thought, I have it in me to be a weird cultist after all. Listen to me.
In all fairness, Louis did look impressed at that. “Oh. That’s really bad.”
“It’s really bad!” Jay repeated fervently. “Listen, do you want to come over? There’s something I need to talk to you about. We could get take-out or I could make a can of soup or something. You can meet my new cat.”
Louis looked dubious. “…It’s the end of the world and you adopted a cat?”
“He’s from a city I went to in a dream. He followed me home.”
“Oh.” Louis considered that, then grabbed his keys and wallet, locking up and gesturing for Jay to lead the way.
Jay did, letting Louis in; Ulthar bounded up to meet him at the door, then paused, tail twitching curiously, hunched and slightly cautious.
“You did get a cat,” Louis said. He crouched, head tilted, watching Ulthar with curiosity, then held a hand out. Ulthar hesitated, glancing between him and Jay, but whatever he read in Jay’s body language seemed to relax him and his tail perked up a bit more as he trotted over to sniff Louis’s hand. “What’s his name?”
“Like the god?”
“What? No, what? Like the city,” Jay said, alarmed. “I don’t think he’s a god. There were a lot of cats in Ulthar, and this just happened to be one I helped out. I named him after the city because… well, I didn’t have any other ideas.”
Louis shrugged, apparently unaffected by the implications. “I’ve only heard of Ulthar as a god in passing regardless. Some sort of guardian. There are worse things to share a name with.”
That was, at least, mildly reassuring. Jay let out a breath, leading the way into the living room; Ulthar trotting after and bee-lining for a mouse toy Jay had given him earlier, and Louis ambling to bring up the rear. He sat again in the solo chair, Louis taking the love seat.
“Okay, so,” Jay said. “It’s about the Yellow Sign.”
“Ah,” Louis said. “…Should we order dinner first?”
“What? Oh. Sure. Not a lot seems to deliver out here,” Jay said, a bit thrown off. At least Louis thought they’d still be able to eat after this conversation. “Pizza, something resembling Chinese food. Which do you want?”
Louis looked at him askance, the dubious expression clear even through the mask. “…You don’t need to just order from places that offer delivery.”
“I mean, I guess if I wanted to go get take out—”
“It just depends on who you know,” Louis said. “Do you like bouillabaisse?”
“That’s, uh, fancy French hot-pot? Then, yes, I guess?”
Somehow, it seemed as though Louis was smiling, eyes crinkling. “There are similarities. All right, we’ll get it. My treat.” He pulled out his cell phone, dialing, then ordering in rapid French.
Jay stared at him, fascinated by the abilities of the rich. The world was clearly a very different place for Louis.
Louis didn’t seem to notice, finishing and hanging up the phone. “There. Alexandre will have one of the escueleries drive it over shortly.”
“Uh, well, thanks,” Jay said. “I hope it’s no trouble?”
“No trouble,” Louis said. His voice warmed. “I do this for myself often enough. It’s more pleasant to order for two.”
Jay couldn’t quite keep from blushing. “Well, yeah, thanks,” he said. “…So.”
“So. The Yellow Sign,” Louis prompted. “You haven’t read the play.”
“I haven’t, no.” Jay rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve collected three Signs. I’m trying to collect four, and… your god’s is among them. And… I’m trying to collect four because they are ones that Aunt Grace had, signs marked on her door into dreams, and since I’m trying to find something she lost, in order to save the world, I just… feel like I should try to match whatever she was doing.”
“That makes sense,” Louis said cautiously.
Jay drew a deep breath. “But the other thing she did that I’d like to do is… well, remaining neutral. I don’t want to give any particular god a claim on me. I know having and using their Signs will draw their attention, but I don’t… want to play favorites either?” He rubbed the back of his neck, ducking his head. “So… if I can get it from you without reading the book, without… whatever ritual that is? I’d like that.”
Louis was silent for a long moment; when Jay looked up again, he saw Louis picking at the hem of his jeans. “…This is a bit awkward,” Louis said, finally. “I’m supposed to be a… harbinger. I’m supposed to drop portents, and lead you to the book. To put you in the grasp of the Feaster from Afar. I’m the messenger.”
“I know,” Jay said. “I don’t really want to be in anyone’s grasp. At most, I want to be within arm’s reach? And besides, the world is ending.”
“Besides, the world is ending,” Louis agreed slowly.
“Do you really want me to become… whatever it is after I’m in his grasp?” Jay asked.
Louis said, “But it’s what I’m supposed to do.”
It hurt, despite everything. Then again, they’d only known each other a couple of days. And he had already warned himself about Louis’s intentions. “Is that a yes?”
“It should be a yes.” Louis looked up, meeting his gaze, his own expression also strangely hurt. “…No. I’ll get you the Sign. A gift. From one equal to another. If you meet him through it, you meet him through it, not through the play’s maze.”
Jay swallowed. “So—”
“So I’m not going to sacrifice you,” Louis said. His voice, usually mild and slightly vacant, had a tinge of anger. “All right? You’re just like your Aunt, so it’ll be fine, I’m sure.”
“Hey—” Jay pushed down his own sense of offense that Louis would even consider sacrificing him to his dark god. He rose, coming over, putting a hand on Louis’s shoulder. “Thanks.”
Louis looked up at him, brows drawn down far enough they were visible even through the mask’s eye holes. “I—”
The doorbell rang, and they both jumped. Louis recovered first, rising and reaching for his wallet. “That’ll be the food,” he said. “Clear some space on the kitchen table?”
Jay fled, getting some space and catching his breath as he did as Louis had asked, shifting The Laws of the Dead aside and setting out some cutlery.
Louis joined him, setting out the two plastic containers and claiming a chair. “I hope you enjoy,” he said, tilting his mask up enough to show his mouth, soft pink lips with fine scars marked all around it.
“I’m sure I will—” Jay sat, still flustered over the whole situation. “Thanks again.”
The soup was delicious, rich and saffron-flavored, similar enough in composition to haemul jeongol to feel faintly nostalgic, while also far enough away in flavor profile that it didn’t make him homesick for his family’s cooking. They ate in near silence, broken only by Ulthar begging for seafood. Louis did not seemed compelled to speak, and Jay found himself just watching the way Louis’ spoon carried food to that scarred mouth. He wondered if he should ask.
“That really was good,” Jay admitted, when they were done. “Thanks for using your, uh, wiles to get it.”
“Wiles?” Louis sounded amused again. “If knowing the chef is being wily, sure. Let’s get your Sign.”
Louis rose, leading the way out of the kitchen and leaving Jay scrambling to get up, take the bowls away and rinse them so Ulthar couldn’t get into them, then chase after him. Louis was halfway up the stairs when Jay caught up, walking with confidence toward the office.
It felt weird that Louis knew where the office was, where the book was kept—but then, their houses were designed the same way, and Grace may well have had Louis over before, and anyway, Louis had even told Jay that he was aware of where the book was, if it had been found, if it had been read.
And Louis did in fact go right for the book, taking it down, and flipping it open. He traced patterns on the pages as he went, fingers caressing them.
“Are you—reading it? You’re not going to get in… trouble, are you?”
“It’s fine. I’ve read this before.”
Jay braced himself against the edge of Grace’s desk, watching Louis standing in the middle of the room, skimming through it, fingers moving. After a few moments, Jay shifted his gaze out the window, looking at how dark it was getting out there. When Louis was done, Jay should send him home, he thought; find some way to relax tonight so he could sleep easily, and head to the Library after.
Just when it began to take long enough that he thought he should offer Louis a seat, Louis flipped the book closed, put it down, and offered Jay a small gold coin, a key hanging from it.
The coin had the twisted, questioning triangle on it. Jay closed his fingers around it with a sense of relief washing over him. He had all four Signs and, as far as he knew, he hadn’t had to give up any part of himself to get them.
“Thank you,” he said, meeting Louis’s gaze, feeling almost shaky with relief. “Seriously, Louis. Thank you.”
“Jay…” Louis still hadn’t lowered his mask. His lips were trembling. He brushed Jay’s jaw with his fingertips, then leaned in.
Jay realized almost too late that Louis, too, was going for a kiss.
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