Midwinter Alchemy

by London Lampy

Part 1

This isn't a full length sequel to "A Kind of Alchemy", the best was to describe it is as a short novella. It picks up the lives of the characters just over a year on from the start of the main story.

As he made his way through the city centre the cold air nipped at Sam's ears and nose and he pulled his scarf up to cover as much exposed flesh as he possibly could. It was lunch time and he was beginning to both want to eat and get out of the cold but he had one final stop to make before he met his lunch date.

Fran had sent him out that morning with a list so that he could order the food and drink for Fran's Midwinter's Eve party that was now only one week away. Sam had already been to the wine merchant to order champagne, wine, beer and spirits, the spirits mostly destined to end up in Fran's notoriously strong party punch; the delicatessen for a whole spiced ham and an assortment of cheeses then the bakers for six boxes of fancy rolls. Sam had saved the best to last, the cake and pastry shop, and he could smell its enticing aroma as he turned into the small cobbled street it was located on, the frosted cobbles looking like they were coated in powdered silver.

Sam knew that this year's party was going to be an awful lot better than last year's. Last year he'd got into a fist fight with his now boyfriend Ed because Sam had attempted to kiss him for the very first time and Ed was wasn't yet prepared to deal with his feelings for him. On top of that Fudge, disappointed at her mother Ava's no show, had drunk far too much of her uncle's punch and had vomited copiously down the stairs. Added to those two events Ed's grandmother, their next door neighbour Mrs Anglemol, had slipped down her outside steps and suffered ultimately fatal injuries.

Stopping outside the shop Sam looked into the window. The centrepiece of their window display was a carrousel with half a dozen gilded horses and a fluted canopy all made out of gingerbread. Set on mirrored trays around this were row upon row of jewel like bite size cakes. There were tiny macaroons in a rainbow of colours, pastel fondant fancies each one neatly striped with white icing and at the back were his very favourite, strawberry tarts. Each tart was no bigger than a shilling and contained a single hothouse grown strawberry set onto a bed of creamy vanilla custard and glazed so they shone like rubies.

The inside of the shop was blessedly warm but packed with people, mostly also wanting to place Midwinter orders. By the time Sam got to the counter to place his own order he was seriously considering buying a couple of the strawberry tarts for himself to eat on the spot, however he resisted the temptation and ordered nothing more that what Fran had requested so he could save his appetite for lunch with Victor.

Sam hadn't seen the painter for a couple of months as Victor had been on an extended trip to the Northern Continent because some of his paintings were being displayed in a gallery in the city of Kipp al Reah. Victor had been hopeful that he would manage to make some sales over there and Sam really hoped that he had. In Sam's opinion Victor was an excellent artist who deserved a lot more success than he'd had in Parnell, but Sam was also willing to admit that Victor's insistence on almost exclusively painting naked young men may be limiting his market somewhat. He had once suggested to Victor that he should extend his portfolio to include other subjects, but Victor's reply had been that he had no desire to paint things he wasn't passionate about, and Sam well knew the painter was very passionate about naked young men indeed.

Victor was already in the restaurant when Sam arrived and he was seated at a table by the window reading a newspaper, seemingly oblivious of his surroundings. This gave Sam a chance to study him without the painter noticing. Sam knew that it was hotter year round on the Northern Continent than it was on the Twin Islands and he would have expected Victor to have some sort of tan, but his skin was a pale as it had ever been and the paleness of his skin contrasted starkly with his dark hair, lashes and brows. While Victor's skin hadn't changed colour since Sam had last seen him his hair had certainly grown and it was now well below his collar and almost long enough for him to tie back into a tail if he so wished. He also hadn't been overeating while he was away, the painter looked as lean as he had done before he left.

Sam pushed open the door of the restaurant and made his way over to where Victor was sitting. When he reached the table the painter finally noticed him, gave him a warm smile and tucked his paper away. "Hello gorgeous," Victor said, standing to kiss Sam on the cheek. "How are you, and how's the equally gorgeous Ed?"

"I'm fine," Sam replied as he sat. "Ed got knocked off his bike by cart a few weeks ago, he hurt his leg and his back but he's better now. How are you, and how was your trip?"

"It was very good, I sold a few paintings, had a few interesting encounters," Victor raised his eyebrows to let Sam know exactly what sort of encounters he meant, "but it's good to be home too, and to see old friends." Victor fixed Sam with his very blue eyes and Sam felt his body tingle. "So, when are you and Ed coming to visit me at the studio again?" as Victor said this Sam felt Victor's foot slide up the side of his leg.

"As soon as we're all free," Sam replied with a grin. "Ed told me I wasn't to come home without making a date for us to visit you." Sam knew that ever since Victor relived him of his virgin ass Ed had had a bit of a thing for the painter, but he didn't mind as he also felt the same way. They both liked and desired Victor very much and were secure enough with one another to admit it.

After perusing the menus a waitress came and took their lunch orders and as they waited for their food they tried to find a time when all of them were free. It wasn't easy but they settled on the afternoon of the day before Midwinter's eve, and Fran's party.

Over lunch they caught up with the events of the past couple of months and once they had finished eating, had split the bill and paid Victor wound his long grey scarf around his neck with a sigh. "Unfortunately I have something much less pleasant to do now; I have to pay a visit to my cousin. I borrowed the cost of my passage to Kipp from him and it's time to pay him back."

"If you can't afford to pay him back I'll lend you some money," Sam offered, putting on his own red and white striped scarf. It wasn't quite as elegant as Victor's, Fudge had knitted it for him and she kept miscounting her stitches so therefore it was almost as wide as it was long.

"That's a very kind offer but for once lack of money isn't really my problem. I easily made enough on the sale of my paintings to repay him; it's just that he's a colossal, condescending pain in the bum."

"Is he one of your rich relatives?" Sam asked. Victor was basically the black sheep of a very wealthy family who'd made their money from importing rubber into the Twin Islands. Not that Victor saw himself as a black sheep, as far as he was concerned he'd escaped a life of gilded boredom working for the family business by replacing it with his vocation of being an artist. Even if by doing that it did meant he was perpetually broke.

"All of my relatives are rich," Victor laughed. "However Rylance is probably the richest of the lot. When my father died he left him everything rather than me, not that I care a flying fuck about that. I hadn't spoken to the old man in years, and as far as I'm concerned Ry is welcome to it all. It's just that every time I see him he askes me when I'm going to stop playing at being a starving artist and come back to the family and do some "real" work. He just doesn't fucking get it, I'm not playing at being an artist, this is the life I've chosen." Victor's face darkened in a frown.

"Have you told him that?"

"More times than I can count, and the rest of the family too, until I feel like banging my head against the proverbial brick wall. Of course I could shut Rylance up if I really wanted to," Victor smiled a slightly evil smile. "I could tell him how I happen to know the bars he likes to frequent, and that I've been told on very good authority that he not infrequently takes young men home for the night with him, and I could offer to pass that information onto his mother for him. She's the worst kind of wealthy, sanctimonious, gossipy old bat, and I'd love to see the expression on her face when she learns that her sainted son won't be carrying on the family dynasty anytime soon, but even if I threatened him with it I wouldn't actually do it. Even my incredibly irritating cousin has a right to his privacy, but one day if he pushes me too far I might just use what I know to make him squirm a bit."

"For the god's sake, not another one!" Fran exclaimed as he read the note that Ozzy had just given him. "How many resignations does that make now?"

"Four boss," Ozzy replied, leaning back in his desk chair. "She said she'd packed her tray with bags of candied peanuts to sell in the interval, put it in the store room then locked the door. When she came back the tray had been knocked to the floor and the nuts were scattered everywhere, she says it can only have been the work of Meggie."

"Because old lady ghosts have something against peanuts?" Fran massaged his temples with his fingertips. "Isn't it far more likely that that she put the tray too close to the edge of the shelf and it fell off by itself?"

"She swears blind that's not what happened," Ozzy rapidly blinked his pure black eyes. "She was pretty shaken up by the whole thing."

"Do visks believe in this kind of nonsense?" Fran asked. The lizard people were well known for their level headedness and generally looked down on humans because as they saw it humans were ruled by their hormones and emotions.

"Yes, and it's not nonsense. If a visk dies and their body isn't properly cremated after their death and the right prayers aren't said at the burning their soul can't move on and they'll come back as a vengeful spirit. If that happens a priest has to come and perform an exorcism. A vengeful spirit like Meggie's can cause no end of trouble."

"Firstly, Meggie wasn't a visk, she's was human, and secondly she had a proper whistles and bells funeral, I know because my father paid for it. She was a kindly old woman who used to share her mint humbugs with Ava and me when we were kids. She loved this place, why the hell would her vengeful spirit be haunting The Empress? And come to that wouldn't you think if she was going to put in an appearance she'd have done it soon after she died, not years later?"

"Just saying boss," Ozzy shrugged. "If we do have a vengeful spirit we need to deal with it before things get any worse."

For about a month now the staff had become convinced that a ghost was haunting the theatre. They claimed that they'd been hearing strange noises, even odd muffled voices, late at night and in places where no people were meant to be. Also things had been reported as having been moved from where they had been placed, or had apparently disappeared altogether, and the smell of fresh pipe smoke had been reported in the upper circle. Meggie had now become the chief suspect in all of this.

Fran could understand why the old woman was getting the blame, she'd been found dead sitting in her favourite seat in the upper circle while watching a rehearsal for that night's show, her blackened briar pipe still smouldering in her cold, gnarled hand. Ever since then rumours of her ghost being seen sitting in that same seat smoking her pipe had surfaced from time to time, and occasionally people reported the scent of pipe smoke around there when no one in the area had been smoking. However this was the first time it had suggested that she'd been causing any kind of mischief.

Fran's grandfather had hired Meggie as a stage door keeper shortly after The Empress had first opened. She'd outlived him by twenty years and had still been working there in the same capacity when Fran's father was starting to talk about retirement himself. It was hardly surprising that she had died in the place, she'd been extremely elderly by then and she spent more time in the theatre than she did in her own lodgings. Fran recalled his father saying that Meggie had died in exactly the way and the place she would have chosen.

"Could you take a quick trip down to the newspaper offices and place an advert for new ushers?" Fran asked Ozzy. "Maybe you should include something about lack of belief in the occult preferred," he laughed.

"Like what boss? How should I word it?"

"No Ozzy, that was a…never mind, just put ushers needed at The Empress and the usual details, nothing else." Sometimes Fran forgot that visks had very little in the way of a sense of humour or irony.

Once Ozzy had gone Fran got back to work on the books. For once the theatre's finances weren't in terrible shape. Ava's money had bought back all the shares that Fran had sold to the odious Mother, they'd had a run of popular acts and no major repair work had needed doing in the past few months. Fran knew better than to think their days of money troubles were behind them, all it would take was a carelessly discarded cigarette to start another fire or a week of heavy rain to damage the roof and gutters, but at least they were stable right now and as a result he was sleeping a lot better and hardly ever got really bad headaches anymore. Now he just had to work out how to stop the staff from getting spooked by imagined ghosts and resigning. He was distracted from his thought on this by the door to his office opening and he looked up to see Mulligan letting himself in.

"You're back," Fran said with a grin.

"Yep," Mulligan replied, striding across the small office to kiss him.

The magician had been gone for almost three weeks performing in several theatres down on the west coast. He rarely went away for long periods of time now, three week s was about his limit and Fran was glad of this. Not that it was at all possible for him to be lonely at home with his house having three permanent residents in the shape of Fudge, Sam and Ed and one semi-permanent one in Fudge's boyfriend Earnest; but Mulligan offered a very different sort of company to the youngsters, and it was that Fran missed when he was away.

Fran pulled back from Mulligan before the kiss threatened to turn into something serious. Mulligan went and seated himself in Ozzy's chair, rested his elbow on the desk, interlocked his fingers and regarded Fran over them.

"How do you fancy coming home with me for a while, you can help me to unpack?" he asked. Fran knew that when he said unpack he actually meant undress and Mulligan was really suggesting an afternoon spent in bed.

"Can't," Fran replied with a sigh, "I've got too much work to do."

"Come on Frannie, that can wait, The Empress isn't going to collapse just because you take an afternoon off. If I remember correctly when we first got together we used to sneak off to your house in the afternoons all the time."

"Not all the time," Fran protested, "and anyway, that was because we didn't have much other choice, it was either that or find an unoccupied dressing room. Now you actually live with me and Fudge is older things are different."

"I suppose so," Mulligan regarded him with his dark eyes. "But it was fun in those days though, wasn't it."

Five years earlier

There had been a fight backstage, a dancing duo had caught a comedian in their dressing room rifling through their belongings. The male half of the duo had had laid into the comedian, who was half his size and looked like a knotted piece of string. The fight had been broken up by a magician who had dragged the dancer off the now bloody nosed comedian and Fran had spent the best part of the afternoon sorting out the ensuing mess.

The police had taken the comedian away, whose defence was that he'd been looking for his gag book that had gone missing earlier that day. However as he'd been found with a pair of the female half of the dancing duo's earrings in his pocket no one really believed him.

Fran had just managed to persuade the dancers to stay on for that night's show by offering to double their fees as compensation. He hated having to spend the money but with the comedian off the bill now if another act pulled out he'd have to offer the audience a partial refund, and that would cost him even more. As soon as they had left his office there was another knock at the door.

"Come in," he called out, hoping that it might be his office assistant Ronald with a much needed cup of tea. Ronald had been his father's assistant before he retired and much to his annoyance often treated Fran like his employee, not the other way around, but the man did know how to make a good cup of tea. It wasn't Ronald though, but the magician who'd had a hand in breaking up the earlier fight and Fran crossed his fingers that he wasn't after more money too. Another pay out and they would be at a loss on tonight's show.

"I was wondering if I could have a word with you?" the man asked. His voice was deep and had a purring quality to it that Fran found rather appealing. In fact the man was altogether rather appealing. He looked to be in his early forties with neatly cut short dark hair that was greying at the temples and dark brown eyes set in a handsome, masculine, olive skinned face. He was tall and muscular appearing under his well cut suit and his form filled the office doorway.

"Certainly, come in and take a seat," Fran indicated Ronald's chair while pushing away all thoughts of how attractive the man was. His life was far too busy for any kind of relationship, and even if it wasn't there was Fudge to consider, she was at a very awkward age. Having recently turned twelve his niece was feeling the lack of her mother in her life more than she had in many years and she hardly needed to have to deal with her uncle suddenly acquiring himself a boyfriend as well.

"I'm sorry," Fran said once the man was seated. "I can't remember your name, we have so many acts through here each week I find it hard to keep track of everybody."

"Mulligan," the man said, leaning across the desks and holding out his hand for Fran to shake. The hand was warm and smooth and a lot bigger than Fran's was, and when Fran realised that he had been shaking it for slightly too long he quickly said his own name, pulled his hand back and asked Mulligan how he could help him.

"I believe that the police took Tommy Tomas away, am I right?"

"Yes," Fran nodded. "They arrested him for theft."

"Did you mention anything to them about my part in proceedings, are they likely to want me to make a statement?"

"Um…" Fran thought back. The comedian had been locked into his dressing room while Ronald went out to find a policeman, or police man and woman as it actually turned out to be. One of the people who took Tommy Tomas away was a tall, fierce looking white blond police woman. He couldn't recall saying anything to her or her partner about Mulligan's part in what happened, and he told him so.

"Good," the magician nodded. "Can I impose on you not to if the police should need to talk to you again? I don't have a good history with the law and I'd rather not spend any time with them if I can possibly avoid it." Mulligan gave Fran a smile that did something warm and pleasant to his insides.

"I don't think they had any interest at all in the person who broke the fight up," Fran replied. "However I'm not going to lie to them if they do ask, but I won't volunteer your name either, that's the best I can offer."

"Thank you, and I wouldn't ask any more of you than that."

"And I wouldn't offer more." Fran really didn't want to get on the wrong side of the police, but he couldn't see how not mentioning Mulligan to them would make any difference to their case against the comedian.

"I've one more thing to ask you before I go if you don't mind," Mulligan said.

"Try me." Fran assumed that Mulligan was now about to ask for more money, but there was no way he was getting it, not after Fran had agreed to withhold information from the police for him.

"I was wondering, would you perhaps like to have drink with me after the show tonight?"

As Fran threw the master switch to cut all the power to the electrical lights in the building he considered, for perhaps the hundredth time, whether agreeing to go out for a drink with Mulligan had really been a good idea. The man was very attractive, there was no doubt about that, and Fran knew that he'd been swayed by this and his voice and hadn't been thinking with any of his usual common sense at all.

Fran was sure that what Mulligan really meant by a drink was a quick drink and then back to his digs for some no strings attached sex, and that wasn't going to happen. Fran hadn't had sex in four years, not because he didn't want to, or because he found it hard to find a partner, that wasn't a challenge in a city like Parnell. He knew he could have a different man in his bed every night of the week if he so wished, however he didn't like casual sex but was in no position to have relationship either. The last relationship he'd attempted had ended almost before it begun because the man he was seeing couldn't understand why Fran would want to put his niece before him, so that was that. After him Fran had pretty much given up, he couldn't imagine ever meeting a man who could put up with both his working hours and his commitment to Fudge, let alone that man being a peripatetic magician with seemingly some kind of shady criminal past. He was going to keep his date with Mulligan though, it would rude not to, but he was also going to make it very clear that he wouldn't be sharing his bed that night.

After treble locking the stage door, he wasn't taking any chances on the theatre being broken into, Fran tucked the keys into his pocket and headed off into the night. It was spring, the weather had just started to warm up and the city's streets reflected this. It seemed as if half the population of Parnell had decided to come out of hibernation and the place was as busy as in the middle of the day. When Fran arrived at the bar they'd agreed to meet in he had to push his way through a crowd just to be able to get inside and it took some hunting around to find Mulligan. For a bit Fran thought that the magician had decided to break their date and he was rather surprised at just how disappointed this made him feel, but then he spied him, sitting at a small table near to the back of the room with two glasses of beer in front of him.

"I took the liberty of buying you a drink," Mulligan said as he approched, and Fran was struck once again by just how damn sexy his voice was. "But if you'd prefer something other than beer I'll go back to the bar."

"No, a beer is fine," Fran assured him as he too sat. "But I can't stay for more than one, it's not fair on my babysitter." He thought he might as well get this out straight away rather than skirt around the subject trying to find a way to bring it up.

"You have children?" Mulligan's dark eyebrows drew together.

"No…well yes, kind of. One, my niece really, she lives with me because her mother is almost always away on tour. She's twelve now and I've been taking care of her more or less since she was born."

"By yourself?" the magician asked, taking a sip of his drink.

"Pretty much. My parents were always working and so was my sister so by default caring for her kind of fell to me, not that I mind." As far as Fran was concerned raising Fudge was the most worthwhile thing he'd ever do in his life.

"That's quite a commitment, taking on someone else's child. What about her father, is he not around?"

"He's not only not around but no one except my sister even knows who he is, I very much doubt he's even aware he has a daughter." Fran went on to explain how Ava had come back from the Northern Continent pregnant and much too far along to consider terminating the pregnancy.

"Ava Aviva," Mulligan sounded amused. "I've met your sister on the road, she's a…character."

"You're being polite," Fran laughed. "Don't worry, you're not related to her so you don't have to be nice about her."

"If memory serves me correctly she tried to bed me then threw a tantrum when I turned her down."

"Gods," Fran winced. "That's Ava…sorry."

"Don't be, I'm a grown up, I can take care of myself."

After that they chatted about inconsequential things as they drank, and all too soon Fran found that his glass was empty. "I'm sorry but I really do need to go," he looked at his watch. "Mrs Beddows is great but I don't like to take advantage of her."

Mrs Beddows had been the perfect fit for Fudge and him. She had three grown sons, a husband who worked nights at the electrical power station and she lived two streets away from them so he'd didn't even need to worry about her getting home safely late at night. She would collect Fudge from school and then cook supper for all three of them so that Fran could have a proper meal in his evening break. The woman had become a surrogate grandmother to Fudge and while she couldn't take her mother's place Fran was very grateful for there being an older woman in his niece's life who could tell her all the things about growing into a woman that he was either too shy to speak to her about, or more often didn't really understand.

"I'll walk you home," Mulligan said, draining his glass.

"You don't have," Fran replied, assuming that he'd want to be invited in when they got there.

"I know, but I'd like to. And I do just mean walk home, unless you want more."

"I…no, I don't, not right now," Fran was caught off guard by this. "All right, let's go."

For the first time ever Fran wished that his house wasn't as near to The Empress as it was and they soon reached his street. "It's this first one," he pointed up at a tall thin house on the end of a row of a dozen other identical houses.

"I'll bid you a goodnight then," Mulligan said. "But perhaps you'd like to join me for a drink again tomorrow night?"

"Yes, I would, thank you."

"Goodnight Fran," Mulligan leant down and kissed him softly on the mouth. "I'll see you tomorrow." And with that he turned left, leaving Fran to let himself into his house with what could only be described as a goofy smile on his face.

Fran put the chicken into the oven hoping that it would be cooked through by the time Mulligan arrived. He'd met Mulligan after the show for three nights in a row now and throwing caution to the wind in a very un-Fran like way he'd decided to invite the magician round to lunch. Of course a restaurant would have been much easier, his cooking skills were nothing to write home about and roast chicken with potatoes and vegetables was at the very limit of his abilities, but he hadn't actually invited Mulligan over to show off his culinary prowess. He had invited him to the house because with Fudge out at school they could have the place to themselves and wouldn't be disturbed.

Last night Mulligan had walked him home again, but this time they had stopped a little way from the street and found a dark corner at the back of the closed for the night tobacconist shop to kiss in. This was no quick, soft kiss and while it had been a long time since Fran had been in that situation with anyone he couldn't ever remember being kissed quite like that before. In fact if it wasn't for the twins presences of Fudge and Mrs Beddows in the house right at that moment he would have probably invited Mulligan to spend the night.

He wanted the magician very much, he had to admit it. He wasn't sure he'd ever wanted anyone quite so much before, but it wasn't just a physical want either, he was becoming emotionally attached to the man too. Fran knew he was potentially setting himself up to get hurt, and even though Mulligan seemed to like him back he knew that the magician would only be in Parnell for a few more days before he moved on to another theatre. Even knowing all this he had decided that he had to have Mulligan in his bed and he'd just deal with the emotional consequences later.

Fran had changed the bed linen, tidied up his bedroom and even taken a trip to the pharmacy to buy a new tin of Dr Lumen's balm of a thousand uses. When he checked on his old tin, hidden away at the back of a drawer, it had dried to a hard lump and he'd had to throw it away. Fran had originally placed the new tin on the top of his bedside chest of drawers, then decided that this looked a bit too obvious so he tucked it under the pillows, but not before breaking the paper seal and unscrewing the lid just to check that this tin wasn't somehow dried up too.

Once the chicken was roasting, the vegetables prepared and the place as tidy as it was going to get without a major spring clean he settled down to wait for Mulligan to arrive. Fran couldn't believe quite how nervous he was feeling about this whole afternoon and he chided himself for his stupidity. After all he was thirty one not sixteen and he was hardly a blushing virgin. Mulligan arrived at twelve thirty precisely, the exact time Fran had suggest he come over, and he brought a bottle of wine with him. Fran showed him into the living room trying hard not to either grin like an idiot or grab his hand and drag him straight off to the bedroom.

"Is that your niece?" Mulligan asked, stepping over to the mantle piece and looking at the array of photographs of Fudge that decorated it.

"Yes, that's Fudge," Fran replied, joining him. The pictures ranged from her as a plump baby in Fran's arms right up to her most recent school photograph.

"She looks like you, but darker."

"She's half Surosian… we think," Fran laughed. "Ava claims that Fudge's father is actually a Surosian prince."

"And you don't believe her?" Mulligan sounded amused.

"No, but unfortunately Fudge chooses to."

"Oh dear," Fran led Mulligan to the sofa so that they could sit. "You two really do look very much alike though, if you were a few shades darker and didn't have a beard you'd be identical."

"That's why I grew the beard, without it I do look rather like a twelve year old schoolgirl. Although my mother says it doesn't make me look older, it just makes me look like a kid who needs his first shave."

"I like the way you look." Mulligan stroked a finger down Fran's cheek.

"I like the way you look too," Fran replied, leaning over to kiss Mulligan on the mouth. "After lunch would you like to…" he stopped, struggling to finish his sentence. Make love seemed too coy, have sex too clinical and fuck was much too blunt.

"Go to bed?" Mulligan suggested, finding the perfect phrase.

"Yes, that," Fran laughed. "After lunch would you like to go to bed…with me?"

"Yes Fran, I'd like that very much."

Much to Fran's relief the chicken was cooked perfectly and while the meal wasn't high cuisine it was a perfectly pleasant home cooked meal, and more importantly Mulligan seemed to enjoy it. As they were finishing up the wine before going back upstairs, and ultimately to bed together, Fran asked Mulligan what his problem with the police was. He felt that if they were going to become lovers he had a right to know.

"I've been waiting for you to ask about that," Mulligan said, tipping the last of the wine into Fran's glass.

"You're not some kind of crazed axe killer are you?" Fran quizzed. He was joking, or at least he hoped he was.

"No," Mulligan laughed. "Rest assured I've never killed anyone."

Fran felt a sense of relief at hearing this. While Mulligan was quite powerfully built there was nothing about him that suggested he was a violent man, but you never knew. "Was it some kind of case of mistaken identity?" he guessed.

"No, I broke the law quite willingly." Mulligan took a large mouthful of his drink.

"Don't tell me, you're a bank robber," Fran laughed. In reply Mulligan raised his dark eyebrows and gave him a tilt of the head. "You robbed a bank!" Fran was truly shocked at this.

"That's what I was finally arrested for, but probably not in the way you're thinking. I didn't charge in with a mask over my face, a gun in my fist and demand that they hand over all their money. It was actually safety deposit boxes I stole the contents of and I suppose what I did would better be described as a con than a heist. It was all quite complicated and I had a couple of… well the police would refer to them as accomplices. I didn't just rob safety deposit boxes though, there was a whole string of cons across the Northern Continent, but the safety deposit boxes was the one I, and the others, got caught for."

"Bloody hell!" Fran stopped with his wine glass half way to his lips. "What happened?"

"We were arrested, tried and sentenced. As the ringleader I was handed down a twenty year term."

"You spent twenty years in gaol?" Fran frowned. Mulligan must have been in his early twenties when he was arrested.

"No, and this is where my problem with the police becomes apparent. I spent just one year in gaol, then I managed to let myself out."

Fran thought this through. "Do you mean you escaped?"

"Yes," the magician chuckled, "that's exactly what I mean. I came over to the Twin Islands because I've never committed any kind of crime here and my face isn't known to the authorities. However that doesn't mean I want to risk any kind of encounter with the police if I can possibly help it, I'm still a wanted man across much of the Northern Continent."

"So you came to the Twin Islands and became a magician?" this didn't seem like an obvious career progression to Fran.

"My uncle was an amateur magician and he taught me a lot of the tricks of the trade. He also wasn't entirely on the right side of the law either, he used to make quite a lot of money from playing card games with rigged decks. When you think about it the skills of a magician and the skills of a con man pretty much amount to the same thing, except that with magic the audience are willingly paying you to con them. Magic is the only way I know to make a decent living without breaking the law."

"But what about all the money you stole? Surely you don't need to work, unless the police took it all I suppose." Fran didn't think this was ethical, but supposing he'd retained the money Mulligan must be quite rich.

"No, the police hardly got their hands on a penny on it, I made sure of that, but I'm not a rich man either. The thing is Fran, for me it was never about the money. I'm not saying I had an uncomfortable life, I certainly had my fair share of luxuries, but I did it for the thrill of pulling the con off, not to get rich. For me there's no excitement in simply be an idle rich man. I could have retired on the money after I escaped from gaol, but by then I was having pangs on conscience and so I gave it all to my sister. She's the white sheep of the family, she runs a charity in Kipp dedicated to helping the very poorest people in the slums there and she's made it her life's work. She knew where my money had come from of course, but she also knew she could do a lot of good with it, and she's not above a little redistribution of wealth either."

Fran had now finished the wine and he placed his glass down on the table. Mulligan wasn't a violent criminal, and he was pleased about that, but he was still basically a criminal, and a wanted man. However on the other hand he appeared to have given up his life of crime, found another way to make a living and had given all his ill gotten money away to a worthy cause.

"With what you now know about me I'll understand if you'd prefer me to leave," Mulligan looked serious.

He considered it, but he'd always been a great believer in everyone deserving a second chance in life. And anyway, he'd already opened the Dr Lumen's, it would be a shame to let another tin go to waste.

Fran drew the bedroom curtains closed, not wanting to give the Anglemol's next door a shock if any of them should happen to venture into their yard and look upward. He almost giggled, it felt very naughty to be doing this in the afternoon while everyone else was busy at work or school. He turned round to see Mulligan sitting on the side of the bed removing his well polished black shoes. Fran slipped his own shoes off without undoing the laces then went and seated himself on the magician's lap, putting an arm around his shoulders then running a hand over the close cut hair at the nape of the man's neck.

"I haven't done this for a very long time," Fran said.

"How long?" Mulligan asked, kissing him on the cheek.

"About four years," Fran replied, starting to unbutton Mulligan's shirt.

"That is a long time, I feel privileged," from his tone of voice it sounded as if he didn't mean his statement flippantly, and Fran appreciated this.

They kissed, and as they kissed they went from sitting on the edge of the bed to lying on it together. Being like this made Fran very aware of how much larger than him Mulligan was, and from what he could tell through the man's trousers it he was large there too. Mulligan had one hand on the back of his head and the other on his ass which he was squeezing. It might have been a long time since he'd been in this situation but Fran hadn't forgotten how much he liked to be touched there by another person and he suddenly wished that he was naked so that Mulligan could slide a finger or two inside him. Mulligan seemed to be thinking much the same thing because he stopped kissing Fran to suggest that they should remove their clothing.

Fran wasn't sure that he'd ever undressed quite so quickly before, he threw his clothes onto the floor then got back onto the bed and he was amused to see Mulligan taking his time, neatly hanging each item of clothing over the back of a chair as he removed it.

He watched as the magician's naked body was revealed, and he wasn't disappointed at what he saw. The skin on his body was a shade lighter than on his face and hands but it was still a beautiful smooth olive brown colour. His shoulders were broad and well muscled without looking too large, as were his arms and chest. His chest was sprinkled with a pattern of dark hair that thinned and trailed down across his stomach and all the way to his prominent erection. As soon as Mulligan joined Fran on the bed again Fran traced this line with his fingertips until he reached the other man's very stiff cock.

"This is nice and big," he said as he wrapped a hand around it, only just managing to make the tip of his index finger reach his thumb.

"So I've been told," Mulligan replied, doing the same back to Fran and making him exhale with pleasure. "Are you happy to have it inside you?"

"Gods yes." Right at that moment there was nothing he wanted more and he slid a hand under the pillow to find the tin of lube that he'd placed there earlier. "Please fuck me," Fran said, handing the tin over, "four years is far too long." Fran then let go of Mulligan's cock, rolled onto his stomach and spread his legs, not wanting to give Mulligan a chance to suggest that they did anything different.

"That is very inviting," Mulligan said, his already deep voice seeing to have dropped by an octave and Fran felt kisses being placed on his neck, back and shoulders while simultaneously slippery fingers were stroking at his entrance.

"Do you like this?" Mulligan asked as a finger eased its way inside him.

"Oh yes," Fran breathed. "I like that, oh gods, touch me there again."

He wasn't at all surprised that Mulligan was good with his hands. He'd seen Mulligan cleverly manipulate cards and coins in a way that people shouldn't be able to do, and now he was using those same skilled hands to finger fuck him. Mulligan added a second digit and kissed him at the same time, doing to Fran's mouth with his tongue what he was doing to his ass with his fingers. The man then wrapped his free arm around Fran's waist, rolled him onto his side and in one single move pulled his fingers out and replaced them with his cock, all without ever stopping kissing him.

"How the hell did you do that?" Fran questioned against his mouth, now finding himself being both fucked and spooned.

"A good magician never reveals his secrets," Mulligan said smugly, grinding his hips against Fran's behind. One of the man's hands found his cock again and Fran was impressed to note that Mulligan had even gone to the trouble of spreading a little lube over his palm.

"Oh shit, yes…fuck me hard," Fran groaned. He rarely swore like that out of the bedroom, but he'd always enjoyed talking like that during sex.

"Like this?" Mulligan thrust into him.

"Fuck…yes…like…THAT!" Fran came almost without warning, his body simply unable to cope with any more stimulation. His orgasm felt like it lasted for several minutes and it left him light headed and with the noise of his blood whooshing in his ears. As Fran was trying to get his breath back Mulligan flipped him over onto his stomach, pulled his hips with his hands until his ass was in the air then continued to fuck him for a couple more minutes until he too came with a deep groan.

When the magician finally pulled out of him Fran rolled on to his back and started to giggle. "Shit…" he laughed. "I'd forgotten just how much fun that could be."

"Thank you," Mulligan kissed him on the shoulder. "I hope it's not going to be another four years before you do it again."

"So do I," Fran replied. "In fact, I'd quite like to do it again this afternoon."

The present

"It was fun, yes," Fran conceded, thinking back to the stolen afternoons they'd spent while Fudge was at school. He looked over at Mulligan, who gave him a devilish grin. The man knew he'd won, not that it was really much of a battle.

"I can only spare an hour," Fran said flipping his ledger shut with a thud.

"We'll see," Mulligan replied, grinning again.

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