Vanishing Act by Tali Spencer
Justin rounded the counter and stared at the empty booth. Glittery red vinyl seats. Check. Table set for two and two hot cups of coffee, still steaming. Check. Napkins. Husband…
Shit. Not again. Justin forced his legs to carry him to the booth, where he sat down with a plunk to stare at the two cups of coffee. Still hot. If he didn’t drink, would he have to pay?
Ethan wasn’t in the bathroom. That was where Justin had just come from and this tiny shore town diner only had the one stall. He glanced up at the waiter, who’d just come over to set down two heaping breakfast platters—eggs over easy for Justin, and a mound of chipped beef on toast for Ethan. Except there was no Ethan.
“Any chance you saw where my breakfast partner went?” Justin figured he might as well ask.
“No. He was here a moment ago.”
Not again. Ethan had promised. Promised he would stop dropping off the face of the earth only to return the next day—or days later—sporting a smile and an apology. Promised he would at least leave a note. Justin looked everywhere on the table. He unfolded the napkins and looked for pen marks, torn letters, a symbol… nothing. He looked under the sugar canister. He looked between the jellies and packets of sweetener. He pried into the crevices of the vinyl upholstery—crumb-filled and sticky and… better not to think too much about that—and looked on the floor.
Ethan was gone. Again.
“Fuck this,” Justin muttered. He should have guessed they would hit the rocks sooner rather than later. He’d known from the start Ethan guarded some kind of secret. He never explained where he went, just described it as business.
Whatever the business was, it paid for the penthouse overlooking Rittenhouse Square and a shore house in Jersey. And it didn’t require driving. Ethan required that Justin drive wherever they went. The driver’s license apparently was only for show.
He ate the eggs and bacon rather than waste them but left Ethan’s order. It was Ethan’s favorite breakfast, sure, but apparently not enough to keep him in one place long enough to eat it. After downing his coffee, Justin left the diner. Sure enough, his car was still there.
* * * *
Justin was sitting on the deck, watching sea gulls dive at the ocean, when Ethan reappeared. He always reappeared at the shore house, never the place in the city. Something about skyscrapers, baselines, and optimal horizons.
“Don’t even try it. Don’t use that sexy voice on me. I’m not going to look at you either, I just won’t.” Justin knew if he did, it would be his downfall. Two years ago he had taken one look at Ethan and been smitten for life by the man’s dark, dangerous, and otherworldly looks. A model, he’d thought him then. But Ethan had never modeled.
“It was an emergency.”
Justin rolled his eyes. “Tell me something new. You know, at least this time you only left me to pay for breakfast, not escargot and marinated pigeon at Le Meurice”—their honeymoon in Paris had been spectacular… until dinner on the second night—“or settle up the hotel bill in Bali.”
He knew Ethan was beside him because he smelled the man’s cologne. It was one of those scents he could never describe except as mysterious. And expensive.
“When we got married, I thought”—words caught in his throat—“I thought it would mean being together more, not all this… going away. You won’t even tell me where! Or how… does someone swing in to pick you up in a stealth helicopter or something?”
“It’s weirder than that.”
Justin opened his eyes and there was Ethan with his gold-kissed skin and sun-streaked brown hair, and eyes so damn deep and concerned and….
“Damn it, you’re doing it again.”
A smile crinkled the edges of Ethan’s eyes and gently tugged at his perfect lips. “Reminding you that you are the most adorable creature on Earth and I would do all within my power to be with you?”
“Except you aren’t. You aren’t with me… now, yes. But sometimes when you’re supposed to be with me, you aren’t.”
“It can’t be helped.” Ethan pulled up the other deck chair so they could sit facing each other. “That I am with you now is because I could not leave you behind. I want to be here, with you.”
“Behind?” Did Ethan have someplace else to be… or someone else to be with? “Is this the part where you try to scare me so I stop trying to find out your secret identity?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“Just tell me how you do it and where you go,” Justin said. “Because I’m going to start calling the CIA and asking what the hell is going on.”
Ethan winced. “I know. That’s why I told the Harria Council I had to synch you.”
“Synch me?” Justin sat up and leaned toward the man he loved. The man he’d married. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“Painful maybe, but not so bad. If we’re synched, then the next time there’s an emergency, you go with me.”
Justin reached for Ethan’s hand and was given it without hesitation. Their fingers twined. “I promised you, for better or worse. Where you go, I will follow and all that. But I had this idea we would communicate—”
Ethan hung his head. “I know. But there’s no good way to tell the man you love that your blood has properties that make it a regenerative for the Harrian emperor, or that the Harrian emperor is a little… accident-prone.”
Justin picked up on the inflection. “Accident prone? As in—”
“He a bit of a war-monger and gets injured a lot. And that’s when I get summoned.” Ethan opened his shirt to display the tattoo on his shoulder. A blade-like shape in blues and golds swept over his pectoral skin. Justin loved to admire the ink and tease Ethan by licking to trace its many lines. “This is synched to”—Ethan’s right hand slipped into his jacket and reappeared holding a bracelet—“this. If you will wear it, you will travel with me to Harra any time I am ordered there. I can’t refuse. That Xanthar allows me to live here as much as I do… that was my demand and, well, he surprised me. I think free will is part of the magic and he wants me to be happy. He’s been asking me to bring you to Harra for as long as he’s known about you.”
Justin took the bracelet in hand. He’d never seen anything like it—or any jewelry so beautiful. It appeared to be made of horn and gold, with dark rings of something else encircling it, along with glimmers of the same blue that burned within Ethan’s ink.
He looked again into Ethan’s eyes. “Are you human?” Justin wasn’t even sure the answer mattered, but he wanted to know.
“Just like you. I’ll tell you how all this happened later, but… I won’t force you to do anything. You can put this on, or you can think about it. Or you can refuse. I just”—Ethan leaned forward and brushed his lips across Justin’s, lingering when they opened and beckoned—“I love you, Jus. I want you to be happy, and I thought I could make it work. I’m still trying, and at least now you have answers. You know why I disappear sometimes, without warning and without leaving notes.”
“They should give you enough time to write a fucking note.”
“You’d think. But that’s not how the curse works.”
“Curse? You didn’t tell me about a curse!”
“It’s pretty simple. It all began when—”
Where Ethan had been, Justin saw only the deck chair and, beyond it, the sea. Oh, shit. Not again.
And wouldn’t you know Ethan had taken the damn bracelet with him.