House of Frost

Chapter 3

By Dabeagle


One idiot is an inconvenience. A group of them is a disaster or a meeting of the Magisterium. But I repeat myself. - Matilda Frost

I alternated sitting in a few different places for lunch, but by the end of the week I was back at my first table with Tess and her group. They didn't say much to me; it seemed as though they were deep into their own discussions and their phones. I found myself sitting next to Alan/Alison, who was dressed in what I'd consider to be male clothing. I suddenly wondered what that must be like – do they wake in the morning and make a decision on what gender they most identify with that day? Does the feeling persist? Sometimes for days or weeks? Or might it change midday, and what does that feel like?

I leaned closer to them, not that I was concerned about others suddenly being interested in what I said, but because it seemed...rude to be loud. “How are you?” I asked them.

“Good,” they said with a bob and smile. “How do you like this shit hole we call a school?”

“Well...I think I've seen shittier holes,” I said slowly and they burst out in giggles, futilely covering their mouth and trying to hold themselves in check.

I reviewed what I'd said in my head and realized my mistake. “I, uh, not exactly what I meant,” I said, blushing.

“Well, it would,” they said, pausing to stifle another giggle. “It would answer the question about which team you play for.”

I looked at her blankly.

They waved their hands. “Moving on!”

I chuckled at my mistake. “I was actually wanting to ask you something, if it would be all right?”

They raised an eyebrow. “Okay. What's the question?”

“I'm curious about your...state of being? How do you...know who you are when you wake up? Or does it change throughout the day?”

They looked back at me thoughtfully. “Hell if I know.”

I widened my eyes and they laughed.

“I wish I knew the answer to that myself,” they said. “I Sometimes a situation or place makes me feel strongly one way or another, but to be honest...sometimes answers most of your questions. Sometimes I feel this way and....”

“Sometimes that way? I see. That seems confusing.”

“I need you to tell me this?” they asked, laughing. “I try not to think about it a lot. I's a part of me I don't really understand yet, but I'm still dealing with everything else everyone else deals with, too – like school and social bullshit and trying not to ruin my life, as my dad keeps telling all his kids that we will do!”

I chuckled as they grinned back.

“Thank you,” they said.

“For what?”

“For being nice.” They blushed. “Sometimes people can be real dicks about asking me things – or just trolling me. It gets old. Now, will you tell me more about your eyes?”

I smiled a little. “My family is like this – genetics,” I said. Then, perhaps with a bit of some trickster pulling my chain I added, “but my family says when I find my other half, my eyes will change color.”

They melted a bit in their seat. “That is so fucking cool. My family's tradition is just to wear green once a year and get drunk many times a year.”

We both laughed and shared a secret smile, one perhaps of knowing something secret or important about the other. In fact what I'd said was true enough. While they'd asked about my wearing contacts to make them look as they did, I was intrigued by the various eye colors of the normals. My own were a washed out, very light...blah color, as was true for all magi until they did indeed bond. Then my eyes would blend those of my bonded's family and my own. I suppose it was romantic in a sense, but what if you didn't like their eye color? Then you were stuck with it.

“I think your eyes are interesting because they could almost be many things,” they continued. “Like sometimes they could be really light blue, or sometimes you think there is something covering a brown color. I think it's so interesting, because I have a cousin that has albinism, and your eyes are like hers, but at the same time not.”

I hummed in thought. “I never thought about there being a similarity with albinism.” The conversation wafted away as we finished our meal, and I turned the idea over in my head. Was the state of young magi eyes somehow connected to albinism? Or something similar? It didn't seem likely, only because what I said had been true – when I bonded, my eyes would reflect that.

In study hall I again decided to decipher more of Mr. Halstead. “So are there really not enough students for you to teach? What about advanced classes?”

He raised an eyebrow at me. “Am I a riddle to you, Mr. Frost?”

I smiled. “More like an enigma. I'll let you know if I reach the 'riddle' stage.”

He chuckled. “Advanced classes, at least in the last several years, are even worse. In the standard classes you get odd requests from parents like 'I'm not sure my son is bathing; would you smell him and let me know.'”

My eyes went wide. “You can't be serious!”

“That's mild,” he scoffed. “People have threatened me for teaching their children things – demanding I teach the 'other side' of things like slavery. The stupidity of their children is actively encouraged by their parents.”

“I've never had that happen,” I said. Everything I'd learned prior to this schooling was from various master magi, but never once did my grandmother interfere with a subject being taught. On occasion she would expound further, but she never made mention that there were things I shouldn't learn.

“Entitled parents breed entitled, lazy children.” He sighed. “Teaching has been eaten whole. First there are accommodations – which I don't begrudge – but they take time. You can only teach as fast as the slowest learner can learn, so the ones who understand quicker are bored. Then they get in trouble because they are fidgety. You can't have extra help in the classroom to help balance helping the slower ones keep up and managing the quicker ones due to costs.” He raised an eyebrow. “But then you get Mrs. My Baby Would Never! And Mr. My Child Is Perfect! Those lead to 'my child should get an A because they are my child'. Oh believe me, Mr. Frost – education is broken. Why, if you burst into tears right now, I could be sued for giving you a simple hug because you appeared to be in need of one.”

I admit, it was stunning to hear. “Why? No one tries to fix it?”

He chuckled. “This,” he said, waving his hand around in the air, “is the result of the ignorant leading the uneducated to fix things.”

I spent the rest of the study hall thinking of what he'd said. How did people let things get so far away from their purpose? Education was about institutional learning – teaching the next generation what the previous one learned and adding to it as time went by. Instead ignorance was prized somehow? What you don't know can kill you.

At the end of the day I was heading to the library to get a book for an assignment, much like a fish swimming against the tide. Once in the library I headed to the fiction section and began skimming the titles. I've never read for pleasure – just methods to help control, summon or cast more than anything else. I wasn't sure what to think of the whole idea of reading something made-up just for the fun of it.

“Looks like you made a friend out of Halstead.”

I turned, unsure of the comment were directed at me. As it happens, it was. Ty Flexen – still in shorts and a hooded sweatshirt – was looking at the shelf behind me, scanning titles himself it would seem. I turned back to the rows of books.

“I think he's interesting,” I said.

Ty snorted. “How?”

“He...has a unique perspective. He thinks in a way I'd like to understand.”

“So you can think like he does? Seems a lot of people like that – getting people to think like they do,” he said with clear annoyance.

I turned toward him. “No. Understanding him doesn't mean I agree. I understand why Hitler did what he did – but I don't agree.”

He turned toward me, wide-eyed. “What do you mean you understand?”

I frowned. “He wanted power. Apologists might say he was manipulated, but he stayed in power, so you can't say he wasn't complicit at least. But he wanted power, and he did what he did to achieve his goals – of course that leaves out the details like the human cost of his ambitions. So yes, I understand the why. I Just don't agree with any of it.”

He narrowed his eyes in thought and leaned back from me a little. “Complicit? Do you have a dictionary in your head?”

I pushed my tongue against my teeth. “I was taught differently, before. Do you not like people with a vocabulary?”

He chuckled. “Calm down, Shakespeare,” he said, grinning. “You just might want to limit who you use hundred-dollar words with around here.” He paused. “Are you looking for a book?”

Confused by his sudden change in temperament I nodded. “I need one for Mrs. Jungen's class. She wants some kind of-”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “She sprinkles in easy things like book reports to help people with their grades. If you just do your work, you won't need to do the book reports.” He leaned toward me a bit. “Are you having trouble in her class?”

“Well, no. It's just that some of the other classes have a lot of work, so I'm a little focused on them instead of – okay, I may be a little behind. I thought a quick book report, based on her suggestion, would help me.”

He tilted his head to one side. “What do you like to read?”

I coughed into my fist. “I don't have a favorite. Would you have a suggestion?”

He smiled slowly and then beckoned me to follow him. He led me across the library to a section with new books. He picked up a book, turned it to me and held it out. “This was awesome. If you like magic, you'll love this.”

Oh. A book on magic. Or what normals think of as magic. On second thought, it could be interesting. I glanced at the title – In Deeper Water by F.T. Lukens. I glanced up at him, his expression curious.

“I'll give it a try,” I said.

“Cool.” With that he was gone.


During the evenings I had little else to do besides homework, so I read the book – though the book was technically homework as well. It was fanciful, though it also had a degree of peril and had a system of working with your blessing that wasn't like my own – still, I was entertained and was pleased Ty Flexen had pointed me toward a good book.

On the final day of school for the week, I was walking down a corridor to change classes when I saw a knot of people ahead of me and heard raised voices. Skirting the edge I saw Brad – Tess's brother – and someone I didn't know in the center, clearly ready to start fighting. A circle of people means the same thing everywhere you go – they gather for the chance to see blood. Humans are barbaric, magic or no.

“I know you're doing Emma, you bastard!” Brad shouted.

Oh. That.

I felt a little bad. I hadn't intended to start a problem, but here it was. Granted, it was possible this little scene would have played out without my helping it along, but I still felt a measure of responsibility. Thinking to end this before it got out of hand, I skirted around the crowd until I was behind Kevin. I mentally prepared my attack, but was foiled when Brad set his eyes on me.

“Him! Frost! He heard Emma, the lying twunt!” Brad said thunderously.

Kevin turned toward me, a look of perplexed anger on his face. “You little fuck,” he said.

It's unwise in a fight to turn your back on your opponent. Kevin was shoved from behind, presumably by Brad. Not hard, but it was one of those things where people endlessly shove back and forth, posturing until someone comes along to stop them. That happened in my old school as well, except when tempers flared control could be lost, and someone would get seriously injured. I once healed frostbite on someone's chin after someone hit him with an icy punch.

I wasn't here to judge, but I had to make a decision – and I chose Brad. After all it was his girlfriend cheating, it was Kevin she cheated with – and he called me a little fuck. Brad and Kevin clashed and fell back from each other, snarling and snapping like children who didn't really know how to fight. I had no idea how much damage either could really do to the other, but I knew I could bring the temperature down. I slipped close enough to reach out and touch Kevin's elbow, if only for a moment.

Skin contact was all I needed, and I let my assault flow into his system. He turned toward me, no doubt feeling my talent as it slithered from his elbow, up his shoulder and down into his guts. His eyelids flew wide open and he cupped both hands over his stomach.

“Oh, my god,” he said quietly, gasping. I shoved through the crowd to pass Kevin and reached for Brad. He looked at me with confusion, pulling back instinctively, but I managed to touch his forearm. I'd used spells like this before, moderating someone's system. Human bodies are enough alike that you can predict the reaction when certain things are manipulated. With Kevin I'd given him stomach cramps to cool his blood and provide him an alternative focus. I chose to soothe Brad, draining his bravado and pushing to make him think he'd forgotten something – just a vague feeling to distract him further.

“Come on, we'll be late,” I said. The crowd was breaking up, and Kevin was leaning against the lockers, breathing slowly.

“What happened to him?” Brad asked.

“Bad sushi?” I offered.

He shook his head. “Thanks for breaking that up,” he said, seeming to test the words for validity. “Coach kicks people off the team if they fight. I don't know what I was thinking – she can't cheat by herself. Still. Kevin was a friend. Once.”

We arrived late to our next class, with him feeling a bit more relaxed than I'd intended. The teacher handed out a packet of worksheets we were supposed to complete and turn in the following Monday; of course no one was working on them. I looked down on the first page, but couldn't stop my mind from going back to the altercation in the hallway.

Magi – average magi – tend to be better at one school of magic broadly speaking, or one particular trait specifically. In other words, on one end you had the Michaels of the world who could probably breathe fire – but couldn't teleport or generate so much as a cool breeze. Then there would be the 'school' type magi. Using fire as an example again, some could do all sorts of things with fire and heat, yet could also teleport, dreamwalk or many other things. There were magi who were weak in everything, called adepts, but that wasn't me either.

I would probably classify myself as a school-type magus, but others had different names for me. It depends on your perspective I guess. Some called me a death magus. I felt that to be very inaccurate. It was true I could kill with a touch, but I loathed killing. I loathed pain and death. I rejected the very concept of being identified as a bringer of death. Instead I chose to identify as a life magus – one of preservation and healing.

There are magi in the school where I honed my skills who would have blown up Kevin's intestines or filled his lungs with water. Water magi were dangerous, considering how much water is in the human body. I'd heard some of them liked to pull all of a body's moisture out through a ruptured eardrum. It was enough to make anyone's spine shiver.

Learning to swim with those sharks was the first part of your lessons as a magus. Some didn't survive, despite the controlled conditions. Those that did got their tasks from the Magisterium, like myself. It usually involved some level of getting along in the normal world as there was no real way to avoid it completely – there were just too many of them and too few of us.

What stuck with me now, though, was the feeling when I passed the spell into Kevin's skin. The sweetness of exercising my power in a prepared and controlled way, not like the overwhelming healing I'd had to do to repair my arm after Bernardice had attacked me. There is nothing quite as intoxicating as feeling the power move through you and do exactly what you'd planned for it to do.

Some magi never could control that feeling, that need to push more and more power through themselves until they lost control like an overloaded conduit. It gives meaning to the term 'going nuclear'.

By the end of the day I was tired. I had work to do and crappy food at home to not look forward to. That was to say nothing of the potential for the Magisterium – or Michael – to make another attempt to kill me. I was having a hard time puzzling that out, actually. How would Michael inherit unless my grandmother was also dead? Or was that something he'd wait for, since my grandmother could likely sink a battleship. It could explain why he was in my home, but then there are a lot of wards that would have triggered if he'd attacked anyone. I was lost in thought and walking down the front steps of the school when Tess called out to me.

“Nick! Hang on!”

I paused to wait for her. “What's up?”

She laced her arm with mine and started to walk. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Homework, I guess.”

“That's for Sunday night, come on!” she said with a laugh. “Come over to my house for dinner. Brad and Emma broke up, and I heard Kevin nearly shit himself, so it's a cause for celebration.”

“It is?” I asked, glancing at her. Her dark brown eye color blended nicely with her dark blond hair and clear complexion, and her smile was inviting.

“Oh my God, we hated her,” she said with a grin. “Brad got a hard on for her and wouldn't listen to anyone. She's a cheater – she's done it so many times it's like a joke now. Like he should know, right?”

I was about to reply when my mind stumbled over something she'd said. “Did you say dinner?”

“Yeah. Nothing fancy, but come hang out with us.” She went on to state who may or may not show up at her home for part of the evening, but I was sold on the idea of food that wasn't from a can – I hoped.

“Do you cook?” I asked.

“No. I mean yeah, but not tonight,” she said, arm still entangled with mine as we strolled down the street from the school, a thin trail of students loosely traveling down the same sidewalk. “My mom bailed on us a few years ago – she didn't really want to be a mom, but she still had kids so...oops? So my dad is the cook most of the time, and my grandma Bea lives with us.”

“Who is us?”

“Me and Brad you met – he's a year ahead, senior. My twin Jay is a junior like me and you. Then there's Georgie who is in fifth, so one of us usually walks her home.” She grinned. “Today it's me and you.”

I chuckled, not knowing what else to say. “So Brad...I saw him getting ready to fight Kevin.”

“Yeah, he said,” she replied absently as she looked down at her phone, then pocketed it. “I'm not sure if Kevin deserves all the blame, though. Emma had to choose to cheat, so he should be pretty pissed with her too. I guess you're really, really not supposed to beat her up though, so he went for Kevin.”

I hummed in agreement. “Kevin must not be very smart if he dated a known cheater.”

She laughed. “Dated? No. Kevin was just interested in getting laid. But Brad and Kevin don't get along, so there's that, too. They were friends a long time ago, but that ended over a girl, too. He probably thought it was a pro move to bang Brad's girlfriend, but he's never going to live down practically crapping himself like he did.”

I hummed softly, thinking of that. I had been thinking of stopping the fight, but maybe that hadn't been the smart move? Instead of letting them hit each other and potentially end this portion of their feud, maybe I'd tipped the scales heavily in one direction? What were the ramifications of that? In a macro setting, negligible. But in the micro – the hierarchy of the school or in how it affected Kevin's development – it could be massive.

Something to think on.

We came to a stop in front of an elementary school. I could hear the ringing of a bell inside.

“So now we're all telling Cara she should shoot her shot with Brad, since he's single,” Tess said. I wondered if she'd said anything else while I'd been thinking of the balance of power at school?

“Isn't that kind of quick?” I asked.

“I think they've liked each other for a while,” she said thoughtfully. “But Cara should put in some face-time if she wants to stay in front of Mr. Short Attention Span.”

I wasn't sure if it was a joke or a real ailment, so I didn't respond to that.

“Alan said you had a nice talk at lunch not so long ago,” she said in a curious tone, lilting as if questioning and flirting all in one. I wasn't sure how to interpret that.

“We did have a conversation. I've never met anyone who feels as they do,” I replied.

“Non-binary. I thought it would be hard to switch the pronouns – and I still make mistakes sometimes – but they don't mind. They understand I'm going to slip up because it's different, not because I'm trying to stomp on them,” she said. Meanwhile I began to wonder if I should try to remove my arm from hers. I was spared as she did that herself and held her arm out to greet a small girl, whom she addressed as Georgie.

Georgie's hair was streaked with purple, so she looked very different from her siblings, though she seemed to talk as much as Tess did. Tess introduced me, and we continued our walk, arriving at their home some few blocks away. The home was similar on the outside to the one I was currently occupying, but there was obvious evidence of both disrepair and of occupancy. The lawn and hedges were overgrown, items were scattered in front of the home and in the grass. More than one window screen was torn and paint was peeling in places. Worse, there seemed to be a sag in the porch roof that might be considered dangerous.

We entered the home through a side door, which I was glad of – avoiding that porch roof seemed like a good idea. The door led directly into the kitchen, which was very warm. The room was unlike any kitchen I'd experienced – and I think the term shabby fit very well. The floor was cracked linoleum, the cabinets were dirty and worn, the small dinette by a window was cluttered more than any handy flat surface I'd ever noted. There was steam on the windows, a fan was rattling over the stove and pots were bubbling on the stovetop, where a squat man with short hair on both his face and the top of his head cooked.

“Dad, this is Nick,” Tess said by way of introduction.

The father held his hand out and I accepted the handshake, which was firmer than it had any right to be. “No pregnancies. Clear?”

I widened my eyes, and he burst out in a rough laugh.

“Just kidding.” His face lost his humor. “Not really.” He smiled again. “Nice to meet you, Nick.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said quietly. I did a very quick assessment before he let my hand go – high blood pressure, but otherwise healthy. My assessments were surface level – a quick check if you like. Something like what a triage nurse might do; you'd need further exam to discover root causes and treatments.

“Tess, you got homework?” her dad asked.

“You think I'm telling you after you just embarrassed me?” she called out from the next room – I hadn't even seen her leave.

From somewhere in the house a female voice thundered, yet also managed to add in a note of whining. “Nolan! Nolan, it won't work!”

“Coming, Ma,” the man said, leaving the kitchen. Something wet touched my left hand, and I glanced down to see an old dog with yellow hair washed through with the white of old age. It wagged its tail and gave me a doggy smile in greeting. I knelt down and began to stroke the dog's fur, rubbing its ears and stroking the top of its head.

“Well, hello,” I said, smiling at the dog. “Who are you?” I asked as I started to assess the animal. It took some time for me to discover the poor thing had arthritic hips and trouble with seeing and hearing. I reached out and touched the spark inside this gentle dog, stoking the energy and calming the tender nerves around the joints. I then took some of the dog's fatty material and used the body's DNA blueprint to add some cartilage to the ends of the affected bones. Unlike pulling from my own spark to rebuild my arm, this was very simple. After all I didn't have to rebuild bone, tissue, or nerves down to the cellular level. I just had to add some padding in the right spots.

Animals seem to realize my intent for them, and like many before it, this dog stayed still other than swishing its tail across the floor while I eased its discomfort and laid the groundwork to rebuild its hip joints. It wasn't a quick procedure, and I'd not have time to do more than the basics now, but if I were invited back I could help the creature a little more each time. Assessing people is second nature to me, but it's a surface check at most – like with Tess's dad. To get a real understanding takes more time, more contact, like I was having now. Actually healing takes constant contact, and the dog was only too willing to sit with me.

“I see you've met Sadie,” Tess said, re-entering the room. She'd swapped her somewhat frilly top for an over-sized sweatshirt and left her shoes somewhere.

“Is that your name?” I asked the dog. I've been assessing myself and others for so long that I could best describe many things as bars on a graph. You can see things change – fear, stress, love, hope, anxiety and arousal for instance. I saw them more as impressions, but it makes it easier for others to understand what I see by comparing it to a visual like a bar graph. Sadie had a calm gratitude that was pretty darn high at the moment. “Are you Sadie?” I asked her, and she woofed quietly.

“So you're a dog person, huh?” Tess asked as she passed me and went to the stove to check on whatever her father was cooking. I sat on my butt and continued to subtly work on Sadie, easing the stiffness in her joints and providing some thickness to the cartilage.

“I like animals in general,” I said. “Dogs are straightforward in their wants and needs, unlike people.” Animals were also easier to work on than people. Unless it was an emergency, people were less likely to want you touching them for very long, something that my brand of healing required.

The side door opened, and Cara appeared with Donna behind her. I waved and they greeted me while continuing a conversation that had, I assumed, started before they arrived. Tess fell right into the conversation, while I just kept stroking Sadie and working on her joints. Moments later I was invited to follow Tess as they all departed the kitchen. I followed them through a living room with a love seat and a couch that had pillows and a blanket stacked on the floor by one end. Georgie was seated on the love seat with a phone, playing something, I assumed. We passed through a short hallway and into a bedroom with a twin bed to either side and tall dressers at the foot of each bed.

The girls took seats on the beds. I sat on the floor with my back up against one of the beds, Sadie settling in beside me. I resumed stroking her fur, but I was distracted when I was pulled into the conversation.

“So, Brad said you saw what happened? The fight? Did he kick Kevin's ass?” Donna asked, flipping her long red hair from her face.

“Uh, no,” I said, immediately disliking her apparent interest in someone getting harmed. “It was the usual – a push, a shove, then puff out your chest like you won.”

Cara and Tess laughed, but Donna only smiled. She said, “I heard Kevin was so scared he shit himself.”

“I heard he crapped his pants,” Cara confirmed. “I'm not sure if I should feel bad for him or not.”

“Why would you feel bad?” Donna asked.

“Emma puts out; he was just trying to get laid,” Cara reasoned. “It was shitty that he went for someone that puts out who was already in a relationship, but... where's the outrage at Emma? She cheated, not Kevin.”

“But Kevin made a moral choice,” Tess said. “I mean if you know someone is dating and you still go after them?”

“I don't know,” Donna said. “You can't let that stop you from going after the right person, can you? Polite people never get what they want; they just wait in line until it's their turn and get whatever is left.”

She wasn't entirely wrong.

“Maybe she doesn't get all the blame,” Tess conceded. “Maybe like a seventy-thirty split?”

Donna looked at me. “Did Kevin actually crap himself?”

I cleared my throat. “I was just in the crowd. I didn't see.”

“Brad said he saw you,” Cara said.

“Oh,” Tess chimed in, drawing out the word. “Brad talked to you, did he?”

“Stop!” Cara whined while smiling. “I just saw him for a minute after school.”

“Sure!” the other two said, laughing at their friend.

Tess looked over at me. “I was hoping you'd seen more. Brad was kind of confused, because he thought there was going to be a fight, but then he was relieved, because coach would have kicked him off the team. Brad said Kevin got hugely pissed when Brad pointed you out as how he knew Kevin was hooking up with Emma.”

“That much is true,” I said. “I'm not sure if I should have said anything.”

“Of course you should have!” Tess said indignantly. “You have to stick by your friends!”

I raised an eyebrow. “I barely knew you when I said that to you.”

“Just means you picked a side,” she said with a grin. “Now you're stuck with us.”

The bedroom door opened and her father looked in. “Oh, was wondering who was cackling in here.”

The girls all made replies that overlapped into something unintelligible.

“Dinner will be ready soon. Nick? You need a life line, buddy? I can hold the door while you make a break.”

I smiled as I went to work on Sadie's ears, encouraging the old ear bones to vibrate better than they had. “No, thank you.”

“Okay. If they take you apart, I tried!” he said with a grin.

“What ever,” Tess said with an eyeroll.

I circled back for a moment, wondering why Tess did invite me over – but maybe it was as simple as she'd said – according to her I'd picked a side. I was more interested in their moral discussion, so I looked to Donna since she seemed the most aggressive of the group.

“Donna, you think it would be okay for someone to hit on your partner? You wouldn't be offended?” I asked.

“I'd only be offended if he left me for her.”

I nodded slowly. “Interesting.”

“How's that?” she asked, an edge to her voice.

“Just that you're consistent,” I replied. “You think it's okay to insert yourself in someone else's relationship, but you think it's okay for someone to do the same to yours.”

“I think that's so disrespectful,” Cara said, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms around her shins. “People in relationships should be off limits.”

“If you thought like I do, Brad would be yours already. Just saying,” Donna told her.

“I don't think he'd respect me for trying to break up his relationship. It should be his choice to end things, not mine,” Cara demurred.

“Well, looks like that decision was made,” Tess said with a wide grin. “Are you going to let him cool his jets, or are you going to scoop him up?”

I smiled as Sadie's ear muscles regained flexibility of a sort, amused at how Tess spoke about her brother. “Does Brad know you steer girls toward him?”

“Please!” Tess cried out, laughing. “Cara has it so bad!”

Cara smiled and blushed. “She's trying to play matchmaker. It's always a bad idea to tell her who you're interested in.”

Tess leaned forward from her perch on her bed. “Brad is a blockhead. He's not mean or anything, just a basic bro. Cara will whip him into shape, because all his girlfriends have just been people he never got to know – but she already knows what she's getting with him. She'll change him.”

I chuckled.

“You doubt me?” Tess challenged mockingly while Cara blushed harder and tried to downplay Tess's comments.

“I don't think people change very much,” I said. “They are always who they are. Maybe Brad just never connected with anyone very well, but if he does with Cara then he'll be who he would have been with whomever he connected with. In other words, he won't change – he'll just be himself for whoever that is.”

“I don't think that's true,” Donna said. “My uncle was an addict and he went to prison, but he got Jesus behind bars and now he's very anti-drugs.”

“And yet he's still an addict,” I said quietly. “He can want the drug or not intellectually, but his body will always react to it, and it will always be a temptation.”

She frowned, but didn't say anything for a moment. She hesitated and then said, “He said something like that. But his perspective changed.”

I shrugged. “I just think he traded one addiction for another.”

“You think religion is an addiction?” Tess asked, her mouth hanging down in amused shock.

“It's not something I just think,” I said quietly. “Studies you can easily find show that the pleasure centers of the brain all light up with religious experiences, love, sex and drug use. It's all about chemical reactions.”

I had an unfortunate history with chemical reactions and had done a lot of research after I'd screwed up. A lot.

Tess's dad called out that dinner was ready, and my little group made their way from the room, phones in hand and no doubt looking to prove me wrong. In the kitchen was a large woman – and I mean that in every sense. She was tall, wide and solid. She was clothed in a shapeless house dress with a faded flower print and fuzzy slippers on her feet.

“Hi!” she said in a large voice that wasn't friendly.

“Hello,” I said, trying to be polite.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

“He's Nick,” Tess said. “A friend from school. Nick, this is Grandma Bea.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Yeah,” she said slowly. “I guess it is.”

That was an interesting response, I thought.

“There you are, Sadie,” Bea said, her tone becoming milder. “I wondered where you'd gotten off to.”

“Does she like to wander?” I asked.

Bea looked up at me. “Not so much. She's old. Arthritis.” She looked down at Sadie. “But she's still a good girl, isn't she?” Bea patted Sadie on the head and turned toward her plate, which Tess's father had just placed before her.

“Okay, all people who aren't pregnant can come eat dinner,” he said and laughed at his own joke.

“Oh, guess we'd better go get tested,” Donna said with an eye roll. She looked over at me. “Of course if you got us all pregnant in about ten minutes, I'd say you're the worst lay ever!” Giggles burst out around the room. I felt mildly embarrassed, unsure of what to say.

“You wait,” Tess's dad said, but never told her what she'd be waiting for.

We took our plates out to the living room and sat on the floor. Just as we were eating – and good Bahomet, was it good! After a few weeks of something pork adjacent and things canned before they'd gone extinct, a decent meal tasted far better than it had any right to. I don't think I'd fully appreciated how bad my food situation was until I ate something so much better. School lunches weren't actually much better than what I had at home. I'm not sure anything made on such a large scale ever is.

Anyway, just as we started eating, the kitchen door opened and closed and new voices filled the air. I glanced up as three boys entered the room – Brad, a barrel chested boy on the short side with a body shape that matched Tess's father who must be her brother, and trailing behind them, Ty Flexen, still in shorts and a hoodie.

“Nick,” Brad said, nodding at me in greeting. He was dressed in workout clothes – shorts and a very sweaty shirt. He glanced at the rest of the occupants and said, “I'm going to shower.”

“You're Nick, huh? Jay,” said the barrel-chested boy.

“Hi. Nice to met you,” I said.

“I've heard you hear gossip,” he said with a little smile.

“Only when it's said in my ear,” I said, trying to say something that made me sound less like a gossip-monger.

“Oh? Emma was whispering in your ear?” Tess teased.

“No,” I said demurely. “She was just loud.” I nodded at Ty and said his name in greeting.

“Hey,” he said by way of acknowledgment.

Jay and Ty got food, and soon Brad had joined us. To my surprise and delight he'd neglected to wear a shirt. The intention may have been to entice Cara, but I was happy to enjoy it as well. It made me think for a few minutes about influencing him. The many things we feel are all based on chemicals in our bodies – they inspire hunger, love, shame, sadness, attraction – any number of things. Adjusting the way someone feels or altering – influencing – those chemical balances to suit me was something I wasn't really good at yet, but I'd be glad to try and convince Brad to climb in my bed. It would make being alone much less lonely.

Of course, that was if things went correctly. Chemical changes can have unintended side effects, and I'd tampered with someone's chemistry before with very poor results. To be fair, some very nice results, before things had gone...wrong seems like too small a word. It's why I admit I'm not very good at it...and that I regret some things.

Conversation was fairly lively among the group, though I did wonder why we were sitting on the floor when there was a table and chairs in the kitchen. I felt like I got a partial answer when Bea wandered into the room and ordered everyone out so she could watch her shows. I followed the group; I had no real reason to return to my...home might be a strong word. Homework was all that awaited me, and avoiding it was too sweet to resist at the moment.

I found it curious we went into the garage of the home, but it wasn't set up as a garage. There were several types of old exercise equipment and a thick mat in the middle of the room. A ragged couch and love seat were pushed into a corner, and a TV was set up there as well.

“Come on, Ty,” Brad said as he walked onto the pad.

“Jay. Take care of my light work,” Ty said with a little smile.

“He's all yours!” Jay said with a snort.

Ty peeled off his hoodie, his shirt riding up to reveal a soft stomach before he pushed his shirt back down, kicked his shoes off and walked onto the mat. Brad took up a stance, likely for grappling of some kind, and Ty copied him.

“Go!” Jay said. Ty and Brad circled around each other, assessing and looking for weaknesses. Brad made a feint, Ty reacted and then Brad was on him. They crashed to the mat, twisting and turning, and Ty flipped Brad so that he landed face-down. Brad twisted out of Ty's grip, flipping himself and preventing Ty from gaining his feet. Moments later Brad had Ty in a submission hold, and Ty gave up.

“You better join up this winter,” Brad said as he stood. “You just need some time in the weight room and some training.”

Ty was sitting on the mat, his arms draped around his knees. “Nah. Then I'd have to see you more often.”

“Bitch,” Brad growled. “Let's go again.”

Ty laughed softly and gained his feet. Soon they were back at it. Brad looked to be stronger, as if he could subdue Ty in short order, but Ty was apparently stronger than he looked. I had joined the girls on the couches, which were twisted away from the TV toward the center of the room. The girls were talking, and Jay was nodding to them. They paid little attention to Ty and Brad wrestling. Watching them, I decided Ty must be balanced physically – his leg muscles were toned, and while his stomach had looked soft, he must have have fairly good upper body strength combined with some agility to stave off Brad. Brad had a nice physique – he was shirtless and therefore easy to study – and I wondered again about influencing him. If I kept it subtle I might be able to...but no. Chemistry is so individual – it's why the same doses and ingredients react differently with different people. Think allergies – what affects one person doesn't affect another in the same way.

I'd learned that the hard way at school with Jalem. I had noticed him being good looking and had made incidental contact with him plenty of times. When I had assessed his system enough, I began to nudge him toward seeing me in a romantic sense. At least I had thought it was a nudge. In a matter of a week we'd had a whirlwind of personal time, and then he'd had a breakdown. It was such a shock to go from the intense kissing to his complete withdrawal. A magus far senior to me had been able to unravel my damage, and I'd been inconsolable for what I'd put him through.

“Nick? Come on, don't wuss out,” Brad said.

Pulled from my thoughts I glanced around me. The girls were egging me forward, and Jay had his hand out to help me up.

“What?” I asked as I took Jay's hand. When I touch someone I assess them. It's so routine to me that it's more or less automatic. When I'd arrived I'd touched their father's hand and found him to be in reasonable health, but Jay...Jay was sick.

“Come on,” Brad chided, and I turned toward him.

“Beat him, will you?” Ty requested, flopping onto the cushion I'd just vacated.

“He's not that tough,” Jay said to me with a grin. “Come on, you can borrow some shorts.”

I followed Jay, realizing that the jeans I was wearing would constrict my movement. “Do you always share clothes with strangers?” I asked as I trailed him to a closet-sized space with a single bed and a hollow, doorless space with shelves for his clothes.

“Sure. We share too many things around here anyway; what's one more person?” he asked, his tone amused. He didn't seem like a person who knew he was sick, or perhaps he was just not going to share that information with a stranger – clothes, yes, but not health problems.

He handed me a pair of shorts, and I changed out of my jeans, then followed him back to the garage space. Brad was lifting dumb bells and generally showing off his upper body. Spotting me, he set the weights down and moved onto the mat. I set my shoes and pants to one side and joined him on the mat. I copied his stance, feet spread and hands wide before me, bent over a bit and knees bent.

He feinted as he had in his first match with Ty. I didn't react. He lunged low for my leg, and I pushed adrenaline to my leg muscles and launched forward, jumping over him and spinning to face him.

“Whoa!” and other exclamations came from the crowd watching. They began to chatter, teasing Brad that he had competition. He ignored them and moved closer to grapple with me. I'm not overly strong, though I'd consider my physique to be quite good. Brad was more muscled and similar in speed, and he probably had more non-lethal experience in grappling. He moved close and feinted twice before grabbing my arm and pulling me closer.

I assessed him as he pulled me down to the mat – excellent health. I rolled, sliding to one side as he tried to keep me close, and regained my feet. He stood back to his ready stance, breathing hard.

“You're quick,” he said with a nod. Before I could reply he was on me, faster than I'd expected. With the slightest touch I reached into his system, caused the strength to fail in his right leg, and with his weight suddenly moving left I heaved him over my hip to slam him to the ground. He moved to his right to try and stand, but I had stayed with him through the throw and pulled his arm behind him, pushing down on his neck with my other hand. The move wasn’t designed for me to stop there, but to use the arm to hold him in place while I broke his neck.

He grunted beneath me. The move wasn't designed to hold, but to end a fight, so I wasn't prepared when he rolled right, breaking my hold. He reached up with his right hand and pulled me down, and we were locked tight into a match of strength and agility. Brad was clearly king here, and I didn't want to disabuse anyone – there was no point to my winning and something to be lost if I did. So I played my part, weakening him when he got too close to winning, but more or less dragged the exercise out until he eventually pinned me.

“Jesus!” Brad said, his chest heaving like a bellows. “You have to wrestle this year! How much do you weigh?”

“Around a hundred and sixty pounds,” I said, my own breathing labored.

“I'm twenty-five pounds heavier than you, and you practically wrestled me to a draw! Have you wrestled before?”

Thinking of my self-defense classes I said, “A little.”

“He almost kicked your ass,” Jay said playfully. “He actually tossed your ass. Look, Ty recorded it.”

Ty passed his phone over and I watched the video of me throwing Brad over my hip. I should have bent my knees more and straightened my back, but it was a decent throw in a non-life-threatening situation.

“Nick,” Brad said, his hand landing on my shoulder. “You have to come over more. That was the best match I've had in a long time, and it would really help me get ready for wrestling. What do you say?”

I thought for a moment. “Well, since you've spent about seventy percent of the time I've known you with your shirt off, I guess I could do that.”

“Another one?” Brad said with a laugh.

“Amen,” one of the girls said – likely not Cara, since she seemed more reserved.

“Ugh. I have to go. Cara, walk with me?” Donna said.

“Okay,” Cara agreed and they stood. Brad was standing awkwardly. I wondered why for a moment, then remembered that he was probably shirtless for Cara's benefit, not mine. I stepped aside while Donna announced she had to use the bathroom first. Tess said we should do a video, which confused me, but Cara slipped past the group to speak to Brad while Tess started organizing Ty and myself to help her; Jay was to record.

She was teaching us some dance move she wanted us to do, having us look in a mirror to see that we were in sync. I wasn't sure what the purpose was, but it was kind of fun. Donna returned and left with Cara, and Brad went inside, to my disappointment. Tess worked with us for about twenty minutes before Jay started recording us dancing to a bit of music. It was kind of silly, I guess, but I'd seen videos of people dancing or making faces set to music; I'd just never thought I'd be in one.

“Wait, let's try with this song,” Ty said, and Tess went to work choreographing the three of us. She managed to work in Ty and I leaning back against each other's shoulders with Jay between us, looking toward the phone. Camera. Camera in the phone. Tess would then dance up behind Jay, wiggle her hands to separate Ty and me and then push Jay's shoulders down so she could sing into the lens. We had to do that repeatedly, and Ty and Jay were clowning, which was actually quite funny – especially once Tess got tired of them and started manhandling them where she wanted them to be. We did that for an hour or so, just coming up with things – or they did – to dance to and then watching some other videos or jokes that had been recorded.

“What's your snap?” Tess asked me.

“Uh.” I took my phone out and looked dumbly at the screen. “My number?”

“Snap, bro,” Ty said and glanced at my phone. I tilted it toward him and he took it from me, sliding his fingers deftly across the screen. “Bro. What do you use this for? Anything?”

“Well, not much,” I admitted.

“You don't, no apps? Like...are you an alien?” Tess teased.

“New phone, who dis?” Ty said as he laughed and began making adjustments to my phone. They spent a little bit of time showing me some things they'd downloaded to my phone, like the app they shared our videos on, apps they chatted to each other with and shared pictures. It should have been overwhelming, but it really wasn't that hard.

As I walked home that evening I thought about the way my night had gone. Friends weren't particularly common in the magi community because of the power structure. As people learned more about their talents – blessings, as my grandmother called them – most people were friendly until they gained more control over their own abilities, then they'd seek to expand their power over others. It seemed like a natural response.

I'd thought about that as it applied to what I'd done to Jalem, and now contrasted it to Cara and Brad. I don't know if Jalem would have ever found me interesting enough on my own to find out more, but magi society taught you to use your blessing to create what you wanted. I'd wanted Jalem, ergo I'd pushed him in that direction, with regrettable results. Cara may be doing the same thing by being respectful to Brad but also making herself available to him. Since he'd been digesting his breakup and taking some of that out on Kevin, maybe he was now ready to move toward a new relationship with Cara?

I'd never experienced such an evening before. I'd been surrounded by others who simply shared each other's company without creating a hierarchy of control. It had been...enjoyable, even without Brad being shirtless most of the evening – though that was certainly a plus. I felt tempted again to try to get some form of affection from him, but a new thought occurred to me. Tess said I'd picked a side. Cara was part of that side, as of course Brad was. What would it make me if I betrayed them from within?

It would make me Michael.

That thought left me troubled.

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