[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]
No nap, he decided. At this point, he wanted one of each Sign represented on the door before he went anywhere—or at least, as many of them as he could get his hands on. He still had time this afternoon and evening, assuming the world didn’t end before that; better to be as fully prepared as possible.
He’d been scritching Ulthar absently as he considered his options, and sighed, looking down at him. “I don’t suppose you can help find me any other Signs in this house?” he asked hopefully. “Like you found that last one.”
Ulthar yawned, then flopped out on his side, eyes closing, tail thumping lightly.
Jay supposed that was a ‘no’. “Guess not.” It might have been coincidence that the cat had gone digging for the one in his mattress, or perhaps some sort of affinity through the dream magic. Or perhaps the cat could find them, but only when close, or only when interested, or who knew what else. He was a cat, after all.
It seemed like the best option for now was to talk to Ashesh. He wouldn’t want to be confrontational; as far as he knew, there were reasons behind everything that happened. And besides, it was a situation where literally nothing could be gained from being confrontational, and a lot could be lost if he pissed the guy off. Death seemed like a best case scenario.
He took a quick shower, because after the last couple of days he definitely needed it, and listened to Ulthar wailing outside the bathroom door. “I’m not drowning!” he called.
“I’m doing this willingly!”
He hurried it up, opening the door to let Ulthar in; the cat glowered at him balefully, then jumped into the wet tub and began grooming himself in there.
“Your turn, huh,” Jay said.
He dried and gelled his hair, dressed hurriedly, then headed next door.
“Hey, gorgeous,” Ashesh said, opening the door a moment before Jay could knock. He was wearing skinny jeans and a fitted shirt covered in tiny embroidered eyes, and a tie with a silver key painted on it. There was something about him which didn’t look quite the same as before, but Jay couldn’t put his finger on it. Nose more straight, maybe; eyebrows thicker, maybe; jaw thinner, maybe.
“Hey,” Jay stammered. He’d thought he’d braced himself for the sense of Ashesh’s presence, but that was all gone now. His legs were weak and he felt warm all over as Ashesh’s gaze swept over him. “I’ve, uh, learned more, and I think we should talk?”
“Sure, babe. Come in.” Ashesh’s fingers closed around Jay’s wrist, strangely hot; Jay hadn’t seen Ashesh reach for him. He tugged Jay inside. “I see you’ve found a couple Signs. Glad those keys came in handy.”
“I’ve found two,” Jay said. “Based on the markings on the door, I should find two more, and yours is one of them.”
Ashesh grinned at him, leading him into the living room and sitting way too close. “Well, you’ve come to the right place.”
Not denying it, Jay thought weakly. Like, he’d known, but this was knowing. He tried to clear his head, looking at Ashesh’s tie rather than at his face.
He thought the bow of the key winked at him.
“Okay,” Jay said, managing to keep his voice pretty even. “So, as I understand it, the problem is that my Aunt Grace had a quest to steal the flute from… from your father.”
“Parent, not father, technically, but yes,” Ashesh said.
“Except she dropped it.”
“She dropped it,” Ashesh agreed. “Now, she obeyed the terms of her Dream-Quest, so she earned her reward. So I said I’d take care of it.”
Jay blinked. “And… eight years later, that means me?”
Ashesh shrugged. “Time moves slowly in the Dreamlands,” he said, like it meant nothing to him. “And I knew you’d be along with the same talent.”
“Why not someone else?” Jay persisted. “Surely, even if it’s a rare skill, there’s enough other dreamers out there.”
“Sure,” Ashesh said. “But you don’t want to ruin your great-aunt’s peaceful dreaming afterlife by tarnishing her reputation, right? So you won’t tell anyone.”
Jay couldn’t quite keep himself from making a face, and Ashesh laughed, pinching Jay’s cheek, stinging but warm.
“I know, I know,” Ashesh said. “But listen, you get it, right?”
“Sure,” Jay said. He worked his jaw a few times to try to make the sensation fade. “But I don’t understand your… motivation. If you want the flute found, why did you have it stolen in the first place?”
Ashesh shrugged. His eyes were flickering, all of them: the ones on his face, the ones on his shirt, flicking around, blinking, moving. “It’s interesting, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you protect the Dreamlands?”
“Sure. I’m doing it right now.” Ashesh leaned his elbow on Jay’s shoulder and dangled a key between them, attached to a reversed ankh. “So find it and return it.”
Jay drew a deep breath. “Is this a dream quest?”
“No, babe,” Ashesh said. “It’s way too easy for that. It’s not like you’re stealing it from Azathoth. You’re just looking for an object that your bloodline stole, and returning it to the bloodline it rightfully belongs to. Why, do you need a reward to save the world?”
Even opening his mouth to speak, Jay couldn’t find words. He closed it, shaking his head.
“Good boy.” Ashesh leaned in, his lips brushing Jay’s, warm and tingling, then pulled away, dropping the key in Jay’s lap, where it sat, heavy and cold. “When you have it, call me. I’ll come to take it off your hands and get rid of our…” he gestured to the sky. “Problem.”
His lips were tingling, and he sort of wished he didn’t want to lean back in to make out with chaos, just to see what it felt like. He curled his fingers around the key, the Sign, feeling it pulse and throb under his fingers in a way the others hadn’t. “It’s our problem, now?”
“If it helps, I have faith in you,” Ashesh said, with a benevolent smile. “Did you want anything else?”
Jay swallowed. He did, but…
“No, thank you,” he said. “I’ve still got things to do tonight.”
“Catch you around, then.” Ashesh didn’t get up, didn’t see him out, and the break in the standard hospitality felt odd to Jay, leaving his shoulders crawling oddly with the weight of Ashesh’s gaze as he headed to the door and let himself out.
With a door between them, Jay let out a slow breath. He held up the symbol to look at it; it seemed to suck in the light, remaining obsidian-dark even in the afternoon sun.
One more Sign, he thought. From what Louis had said before, he could get it on his own, through reading The King in Yellow, but he didn’t know what effect that book might have on him. Still, if he read it, that’d give him more time in the afternoon, to spend however he wanted. Otherwise… he could probably also find a way to get Louis to give it to him directly, he assumed; he had to assume that Louis had a Sign of his own.
He rubbed his lips again to soothe the sensation that still lingered there.
[Please suggest an action in the Comments!]