A.C. Thomas © 2021
All Rights Reserved
Ding. Ding. Donk.
Theo held his index finger up at the uneven chime of the ancient bell over the door—yet another harried university student bustling into his office after hours. It was practically midnight, hardly the time to ask for an extension.
Honestly, students were the worst part of teaching. Theo didn’t know why he had taken the TA position in the first place.
Okay, yes, he did. But, to be fair, Professor Gladwell looked amazing in his spectacles and fitted waistcoats, and who could blame Theo for going a little glassy-eyed whenever they had private meetings?
Well, Professor Gladwell’s wife, for one, probably.
Theo finished his note and dropped his pen into the onyx holder on his desk, preparing to give the student his full attention.
Some of his attention.
Whatever was left over while Theo drifted off on thoughts of the strain Professor Gladwell’s buttons were under on a daily basis as they tried to contain all that athleticism. Those poor, poor buttons.
He lifted his head with the bored expectation of finding another skinny, pasty academic struggling to hold armfuls of paper with desperation written all over their ink-smudged face.
In other words, someone like Theo.
This person was holding a sheaf of papers, and there the resemblance ended to every expectation Theo had.
Perhaps it was time to expand his expectations.
“I’m looking for Dr. Campbell.” The stranger’s voice curled around Theo’s ears like smoke.
Theo smiled up at him, admiring the way the lamplight glinted off of his black hair and deep bronze skin. Stars, but he was a handsome specimen.
With a flip of his hair back over his shoulder, Theo marked his place in his notebook by closing a finger in the pages. “Well, you’re certainly in the right place for it! Though I suppose that depends on which Dr. Campbell you are looking for. There are three of us in my immediate family alone. Although, Campbell isn’t a terribly uncommon name, so there could easily be many more Dr. Campbells than I’m entirely unaware of.”
The stranger looked like he very much regretted initiating this conversation. Theo was, unfortunately, familiar with the expression being directed his way.
The stranger shook his head slightly, as though Theo’s chatter were water in his ears. Something else Theo was extremely familiar with.
He leaned in slightly, casting a wide shadow across Theo’s cluttered desk when his bulk blocked out the light beside the door. “Dr. Campbell. Where is he?”
Theo traced the impressive line of the stranger’s shoulders underneath his unusual many-layered black leather coat before offering his free hand to shake. “I am Dr. Campbell. Pleased to meet you! My brother is also Dr. Campbell, and my father is Dr. Campbell as well, though they would be less pleased to meet you. Nothing against you, personally, they just aren’t terribly fond of interacting with strangers. Or people in general, to be honest. Sometimes I think they can barely tolerate me!”
The stranger winced as if he could relate to the sentiment and quietly responded, “Dr. Campbell has been described as a thin male with green eyes, red hair, and pale skin.”
His deep voice sank into Theo’s bones like the pleasant rumble of a hovercoach over cobblestones.
Dark, hooded eyes skipped over Theo as his visitor described each feature, as though checking off a list in his head, ignoring Theo’s offered hand.
Theo dropped it to the desk with a shrug; the slight couldn’t hamper his enjoyment of this diversion from his research. “I’m afraid that doesn’t narrow it down even the slightest bit. My brother and I are identical twins, and we definitely favor our father, to the eternal dismay of our poor mother. My dismay as well, to be honest. It would have been ever so nice to have her chestnut hair rather than this glaring beacon I’ve got atop my head. I tend to stick out like a redheaded thumb.”
The stranger sucked in a breath through clenched teeth, square jaw held tight as his broad shoulders rose and fell in a long, measured sigh.
Theo felt like sighing himself at the sight. The man really was uncommonly beautiful.
He could happily watch those shoulders move for hours. He even had some suggestions regarding the nature of the movement.
His attention was brought to the desk when the stranger slapped a battered manuscript on top of his notebook—an older heatbound copy, of all things. The stranger’s fingers were marked with ink, tattooed on the metacarpals between each knuckle with Hangul letters in beautiful calligraphy. Theo had never seen the like.
The stranger put pressure on the hand he held splayed across the document, pinching the finger Theo had left inside his notebook. He yanked it out hastily as the stranger growled at him. “This Dr. Campbell.”
Absently shaking his pinched finger, Theo scanned the manuscript. The simulated parchment was stained and rumpled. It appeared to have been dog-eared at the corners over and over again, and the pages bristled with assorted tabs. All signs of a book well loved.
He tried to read the cover page, lifting the stranger’s long fingers distractedly with his thumb and forefinger until he was hit by a jolt of recognition, filled to the brim with unexpected delight. “Wherever did you get this? I wrote this years ago during my graduate studies! I’m honestly surprised that anyone outside my thesis committee has even read it. It’s such an obscure topic, after all. I had the most terrible time just—”
The stranger’s palm slammed back down on top of the document, missing Theo’s hand by a hair. “You are this Dr. Campbell?”
It appeared as though he already knew the answer and was dreading it as he squinted dubiously in Theo’s direction. There was a slight tremble in the man’s fingers as they pressed hard against the sheaf of papers.
The stranger’s eyes remained shadowed by his strong brow, but his gaze washed over Theo—a wave of heat, laser-focused and far more intense than the conversation warranted.
A frisson of caution tried to nip at Theo’s mind, sounding an awful lot like his brother hissing in his ear about good sense. He shook it off the way he usually did and leaned his chin on his hand to peer up at the stranger through his lashes. “Why, yes, I am. To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
The stranger lifted the manuscript, his fingers unmistakably trembling as he flipped through pages with a dry rustle of sim-parchment. He held the document open to a passage of translation Theo had featured in his study of long-dead languages and shook it rather rudely in his face. “This. You can read this?”
Theo launched into a recitation of the passage, finishing with a flourishing roll of the tongue. It was rare to find a fellow enthusiast on the topic, particularly one so pleasing to the eye. The stranger seemed unusually passionate about the subject, his breath quickening audibly as Theo rattled off the words of a people long gone.
Theo cocked his head to the side and reached for his pen as he opened his notebook. “If you have an interest in the topic, I keep one of my sources here in my office. Just there, on that shelf.” He gestured off to the side where his cluttered bookcase leaned heavily against the wall for much-needed support. “It’s titled An Annotated Glossary of Dead Languages by Dr. Fernsby.”
The stranger folded his sheaf of papers into his coat and walked to the bookcase in two decisive strides. Theo took the opportunity to study him further, pen hovering above his open notebook.
Quickly skipping past a few dozen sketches of Professor Gladwell standing at his lectern, he found an empty page.
As the stranger turned to face the bookcase, Theo caught a glimpse of black ink trailing up his neck to frame his sharp jawline in an odd geometric pattern of thin parallel lines intersected with tiny circles. He attempted to sketch the tattoos onto his paper.
Even more ink snaked out of the cuffs of his coat, wrapping around his wrists and stamping all the way down to his fingers with that lovely calligraphy scribed across his knuckles. Theo wrote down the characters and translated them to Core Standard in the margins.
Honor on one hand and Valor on the other. Fascinating.
Closer examination revealed a design of clustered hexagonal shapes running up the wrist of his left hand. Theo had just begun to sketch them when the stranger turned back toward him, book clutched in his fist.
Theo had never seen anyone remotely resembling the man; nothing about him said “Core,” from his sprawling ink to the look in his eye. He gave the impression of someone midway over a rickety rope bridge, unsure of every step but determined to get across.
Theo couldn’t help but find his appearance a little bit dangerous as he took in his severely handsome face framed by unevenly shaved black hair, all of it underscored by the dramatic sweep of his coat.
The impression was cemented when the man tucked the book away inside his coat and pulled his hand back out with a ray gun pointed in Theo’s direction.
Theo’s pen dropped a blot of ink onto his notebook as the man stepped closer.
The stranger’s eyes were so dark his pupils disappeared into the black of his iris. His unrelenting stare sent shivers down Theo’s spine that could not be attributed entirely to fear. “Come with me. Now.”
Theo chewed on his lip for a moment, considering, and then he turned the page of his notebook to jot down a short list of words.
When Theo’s attention fell to his notebook, the man repeated himself at an increased volume. His vowels were clipped, initial consonants rounded, almost like a citizen of the Core world Goryeo but significantly sharper. His words had a cutting edge to them Theo had never heard before.
A heavy boot kicked Theo’s desk, and the man’s handsome face twisted in anger. Theo glanced down at the chunks of mud littering his carpet.
“Your accent is absolutely fascinating. I need you to repeat these words back to me, if you please.”
Pen poised to take down the man’s answers, Theo rattled off his list of words expectantly.
The stranger’s scowl slid from his face, his eyes widening in Theo’s direction in the manner people often did when he caught them off guard.
It seemed to happen fairly frequently.
“I have a gun,” the man said, returning to his original volume if not his original vehemence.
Theo sighed, scribbling on his pad with a shake of his head that had his hair falling in his face. “No, no, that doesn’t help at all; that would take me ages to decipher. Repeat the list, if you please.”
The stranger gestured with his ray gun, raising it level with Theo’s head. His fingers had finally stopped trembling.
“I have. A gun.”
Theo used his pen to shove the tapered barrel of it away from his face in irritation. “No, you mustn’t obscure your lips that way. I need to see the movements. Now, the list, if you please.”
The stranger’s face did something decidedly odd and incredibly diverting where his features couldn’t seem to decide what direction they wanted to go, so they never went anywhere at all.
To Theo’s absolute delight, he actually repeated the first three words on the list before giving his head an emphatic shake, gesturing with the gun once more. “I don’t think you understand. This is an abduction, Dr. Campbell. You’re coming with me.”
Theo didn’t turn away from his notebook, busily adding to his notes. He sketched out the pattern the man had shaved into his close-cropped hair on the right side: three intersecting triangles. Theo directed his answer to his notebook, pen flying across the page. “Or else you intend to shoot me, I suppose, is meant to be the implication with the gun?”
A large muscle began ticking in the stranger’s clenched jaw.
“Yes,” he gritted out between even, white teeth.
Theo beamed at him, tucking his hair behind his ear with an excited wriggle. “How thrilling! Just give me a moment to jot off a quick letter for my brother, and we can be off. I must say, this coincides nicely with the due date for that stack of term papers I’ve been putting off marking. Well done, you.”
The stranger gave the aforementioned stack of papers a baffled glance as Theo turned to another page to leave a short note for his twin brother, Ari.
He was bound to be perturbed if Theo did not make it home in time for tea tomorrow after all.
Ari didn’t like it when Theo diverged from their schedule, which was a constant source of conflict as Theo was appallingly bad at keeping to a schedule. The dear thing spent most of their lives nudging Theo back on track—
The dark snarl of the stranger’s voice, crackling in the space between them like a bolt of lightning, startled Theo into dropping his pen.
The stranger tugged up a hood of soft gray material attached to his black leather coat, casting his face in shadow. He reached across Theo’s desk, plucked him from his seat one-handed, and lifted him effortlessly across his desk, scattering clutter all over the floor.
One muscular arm curled around Theo’s midsection, holding his back tightly against the man’s firm chest.
Theo ran his hands over the corded muscle of the man’s tense forearm with an appreciative hum as they started to move across the floor.
He was quite tall indeed for Theo’s coltish legs to dangle midair. It made Theo want to turn and wrap those legs around his waist. It was evident he’d have no trouble supporting Theo’s weight.
Altogether, an absolutely delicious thought. And here Theo had thought he was in for yet another lonely, boring Thursday night.
The stranger considered the door for a moment, then reached out with his gun hand to yank at the figured brass handle, prompting Theo into action.
“Oh, I almost forgot!”
He stomped down on his captor’s boot, showering the carpet with another layer of caked-on mud and debris. The arm across his stomach tightened uncomfortably as the man hissed through his teeth.
The ray gun prodded Theo’s side menacingly, but he just turned his head with an apologetic smile. “So sorry about that; I assure you it was quite necessary!”
With a noise reminiscent of a lion with a thorn in its paw, the stranger carried Theo out the door and into the cold night air.