If you must break rules, do so quietly – Matilda Frost
Most magi houses operate on the model of a confederacy. Deals are made and, things being equal, both sides honor it as long as it is productive. Some houses are weaker than others and thus fall into line beside others, who control them. The House of Frost wasn't strategically valuable – my father was strong in air magic with a minor aspect in water, while my mother was focused with earth magic. He came from an established, if diminished, house, and my mother was an artifact – a person born with talent who isn't part of a magi family. It’s more common than one might think, though the blessing tends to consume those untrained.
So spending time with people outside of your family just because you enjoyed their company was...uncommon. The appeal was now obvious to me, however.
Abelard greeted me upon my closing the front door.
“Sir. I'd become concerned,” he said in a tone that said he was reproaching me without actually saying so.
“I apologize,” I said, though apologizing to servants wasn't exactly done. “I was with peers for a meal and social time. It was interesting.”
“Excellent, Sir,” he replied. “While you were out a package arrived for you. I placed it on your bedchamber.”
“A package? That's unexpected,” I replied.
“Yes, Sir. It was checked thoroughly and arrived through an approved channel. I'm confident the package is safe.”
I thanked him and went to find out what it could be. As I strode down the hallway it suddenly occurred to me that the package could be a trap of some kind – perhaps Michael had sent deceptive packages to several properties on the chance that he'd catch me unawares. Perhaps if I'd come home from school directly he might have been right, as I was starved for some sort of contact. Having had a good evening, however, I think I was more myself. But then he didn't know where I was, and Abelard had said 'approved channels', so that eliminated Michael.
Entering the room my suspicions were laid to rest with a gentle scent filling the room. Berries, a scent well known to me as my grandmother made it such a habit to cultivate the best plants and grow large, sweet berries behind our home. As I approached the small, tissue paper wrapped package, the paper appeared to disintegrate and reform into an image of my grandmother, in miniature.
“Nicholas,” my mini grandmother said, “the Magisterium, the dried up cow flops they are, said I could send you some things from your quarters at home, considering they started this stupid test with no notice. They also allowed me to send you some fresh berries, though you know they couldn't tell they were enchanted.” Her image paused and tilted her face down slightly. “Of course you can eat them. What use would berries be if you didn't?”
I chuckled and sat on the bed.
“Now I need to inform you of some developments. Your uncle has disappeared. Michael showed up here, acting as if he owned my home, and I gave him a good thump before sending him on his way. I'm not completely sure what your uncle has done, but I have an itch that says he was trying to interfere in your test. If that's true, then Michael will be next.”
“I thought as much,” I said to her, knowing that she couldn't hear me.
“You must take precautions. I've included several small items you will find useful. Please pick up the remains of my package – don't eat the berries yet – and follow along, please.”
The paper, of course, had disappeared, and the contents of the package were now visible. I picked up several small items.
“Note the rectangular plastic card,” she said. “Normals use their own currency, as you no doubt know. You will need to purchase new clothes, and you'll want appropriate food. Use this to withdraw currency from the proper institutions or use it at a purchasing point. It draws on an account that is very well funded.”
“Thank Bahamut,” I muttered.
“Secondly you'll find a ring. It was your father’s. It works best on your thumb – don't ask me why, I think it was your father's idea. It will allow you to project an image of yourself. Experiment with it; it may be useful.”
I glanced at the ring, a plain silver band with some scarring. My father's ring, I thought. It stirred a curiosity in me, wondering how my father had acquired and used the ring.
“You'll also find a small book. I told them it was a journal, and its size fooled them, but if you enlarge it you'll find warding spells to protect you better from whatever your idiot uncle has up his smelly sleeve.”
I ran my fingers over the cover of the book. This would be very useful.
“Now. Give me your attention. Stop fingering that stupid ring.”
“I wasn't,” I protested.
“Nicholas, you're in danger. Far more than you realize. If your uncle is truly trying to sabotage you, then Michael is in on it. I know you don't trust the little shit; now would not be a time for you to let your sympathetic side take charge. You're still able to use the interchange room for education. I want you to access information on a group known as the The Defenders of the Divine. I have reason to believe that your uncle may have communicated with them, somehow, so that they may be able to find and kill you.” Her small visage stared at me very hard. “This would displease me. It would be unseemly for a woman my age to have to murder her extended family in a fit of pique.”
Odd to consider murder just a fit of pique, I thought.
“Study well, Nicholas. You will bring pride with your every choice.” She paused. “You can eat the berries now.”
Her image faded and I picked up the first berry, squashing it slowly against the roof of my mouth. Sweet and filling, it made me wistful for my home and my own bed. I picked up the book she'd sent and cast a minor spell that allowed it to grow to its proper size. I opened it and scanned the pages while nibbling on the berries. I would need supplies if I were to cast any of these wards, so I closed the book for the time being and decided I would sleep and deal with these things in the morning. I undressed for the night, giving a sidelong and unpleasant look toward the window that would wake me far too soon. It made me think of the card she'd sent and I tucked it onto my pocket, planning to buy thick drapes the next day to blot out the sun.
Idly I slipped the ring onto my left thumb and held my hand away to see how it looked. I'd never worn jewelry for its own sake; only the odd imbued item used for a focus or practice. I touched the ring with my other thumb, and it seemed to flow, the surface looking more like a mirror than the beat up ring it had been. I sensed movement in my peripheral vision and glanced up to see myself, dressed down for bed, looking down at my hand. Fascinated, I stepped closer, and the image responded, straightening, but not walking. Was that a limitation? Some movement but unable to walk or run?
I studied my copy – brown hair looking unkempt, probably from grappling earlier, but also because of its length. I critically examined my shoulders and chest as they tapered down to my narrow waist – too narrow if you ask me – and to my legs. It was amazing to see myself, all the more so because of the level of detail. It was a perfect copy, though it seemed to have stopped moving. I reached forward and touched the construct and was shocked to find my vital signs duplicated as well. Curious, I used my blessing to dig into my vitals, amazed at the level of duplication. Wait, this was different. Running along the spine and into my brain was something I'd never seen before. I paused and delved back into myself, looking for – there it was.
But what was it? I couldn't see it attached to any part of my nervous system yet it was wrapped around my spinal cord. Shifting my focus I went back to my copy and traced a finger down its spine, reaching out to test whatever it was. It was so strange. I couldn't think of...and then I wondered. Is this the physical sign of someone with the blessing? I hadn't had the chance to check others in such detail since it was either practicing assessing or trying to save a life – that seemed to be how my talent went.
Lost in thought, I touched the ring again, and my doppelganger vanished.
I wasn't sure how useful it would be, but I'd hang onto it. My grandmother didn't go in for useless things – and who knew what I could learn by studying my own body?
In the morning I awoke with a ball of fire in my eyes. At some point the thin sheet I'd put over the window had fallen, and now I was awakened by blinding light. Whoever had designed the house should really be drawn and quartered. Something somewhere made a pinging noise. I sat up and stretched, performed my morning ablutions and headed for the kitchen.
“Good morning, Sir,” Abelard greeted me.
“Good morning, Abelard,” I said. Looking down at the plate of pork adjacent product, my stomach revolted. Somewhere I heard that electronic pinging again, but I ignored it for now. “Abelard. I know you're prevented from procuring different foodstuffs, but is that due to restrictions on the revenue you use to purchase? If I provided a different revenue stream would your circumstance change?”
“Servants such as myself procure from specific vendors approved by a house. I'm sorry, I wouldn't have access to different vendors and my restrictions are based on them.”
“Well. Shit.” I thought for a moment. “If I procure different foods would you be allowed to prepare them?”
“Oh, yes!” he said with some enthusiasm. “I have a large repertoire of cooking skills, sir – not that you'd know it from my opening a can and frying your...pork product.”
“Well, I'm going shopping then, I think.” I stood up and froze. “Um. Tell me, Abelard...how does one go about shopping in the land of the normals?”
Abelard was quiet for a moment. “I wouldn't know, Sir.”
I thought for a moment, wondering how to go about getting supplies. How did the card work that my grandmother had provided? How stupid would I look if I asked one of my...acquaintances how it worked? The electronic pinging I'd heard off and on finally annoyed me enough to search for the cause – which was the phone in my pocket from the night before. I touched the button on the side to wake it and used my fingerprint to open the screen. There were several notifications at the top so I swiped down to have a look at them. Some news – discarded. Weather – who cares? Something from...Tess, perhaps?
Me: I have no idea what that means
Me: Is your keyboard broken?
Tess: OMG ur so funny
Tess: We're going out to hang.
Me: A hanging? Is that wise?
Tess: OMG ur jokes are worse than my dads. Come over. Brad has his shirt off :-)
Well. It certainly beat sitting around here. “Abelard, I'll be going out. If I have any luck, we'll have a decent meal tonight.”
I stood from the table and paused. “Abelard, is there anything you'd like to eat? I assume you've been stuck with these horrible rations as well.”
“I can be sustained on most anything, Sir.”
I frowned. “But what do you like to eat?”
He hesitated and I rolled my hand, urging him on.
“I find that seafood is quite appealing, Sir.”
“Good! I'll find us some,” I said with confidence. As I put my shoes on I was reminded of my grandmother's admonishment to go to the interchange to learn about the group she'd mentioned, The Defenders of the Divine. I was also reminded of the book of wards. “Abelard, are you able to cast new wards on the home? I mean, are you allowed to procure items that will allow the casting of new wards?”
Abelard appeared to go into deep thought. “The wording of my contract states,” he said slowly, “that wards may be replaced as needed – it does not specify if they are the same wards or different ones and I am allowed to procure the materials to cast them.”
“Excellent,” I said, feeling good for the first time since I'd arrived. “I'm going to give you a book with some better wards for the home – I'll mark out a few for obscuring the building and shrouding magic being cast here and so forth. Please procure the needed reagents to cast them at your earliest convenience.”
“Of course, Sir.”
I took my phone out and went back to the conversation with Tess.
Me: About 30 mins.
Tess: Jesus, Brad wore off that fast? How about if I get Jay and Ty to take their shirts off?
I thought of my assessment of Jay and how I knew there was something wrong, though I had no idea what it was. Would Tess know? Should I ask or should I leave well enough alone? It was always a debate – whether or not to take action. When I was small if I found an ill creature, I'd simply heal it which, unbeknownst to me, was giving me practice and expertise. As a child I'd just done it without thinking of the consequences. I'd once healed a small mouse who'd been poisoned, and its reward was to go back into the house and eat more poison, because bait had been left to remove rodents from the house. Although my actions had helped in the short term, the poor thing still died in pain.
Healing a human – a normal – would bring a different complication. Most normal people don't know about magi society. Of those that did...it was complicated. Everything is complicated after a fashion, but in early times magi took their propensity toward self-interest and conceit to new levels. Bahamut. Ba'al. Zeus. Powerful magi who made names for themselves as gods in the ancient world. But gods, like kings, come and go – and so do magi. Magi these days mostly didn't seek world domination – usually a city or country is enough for even the most power hungry, because it's a pain to manage those things – or so I was told.
Healing a person can bring comparisons to attempts at the divine, which makes for its own set of problems.
My phone pinged, and I glanced down to see that I hadn't answered Tess.
Tess: What? I need to take pictures that they actually have their shirts off?
Me: No. I just have something to do before I can come over.
Tess: Too late, made them take their shorts off.
Tess: I mean shirts!
I raised an eyebrow. Shorts would have been more impressive. A picture showed up on my screen of five people – Tess, Ty, Jay, Brad and Alan/Alison. I could see their shoulders were bare, though it looked as though Tess had a bra on, and they all had some blue...thing on their faces. A cream of some kind?
Me: Why are you all blue?
Tess: Masks! You're missing the fun. Hurry upppp!
I shook my head.
I went into the interchange and glanced around at the different picture frames. Many would be preset to connect to a location, which wasn't what I needed. Instead I walked to a book case with a false front – the spines of many books showing, but they were all part of the spell for seeking information. I pressed my fingers to a title marked with a stylized 'D' and said, “Defenders of the Divine'.
The entire shelf shimmered and expanded. I took a step back as the former bookcase extended toward me by about three feet and a podium formed with a tall woman with a bun held expertly behind her head with two sticks run through. Her gaze didn't meet mine, but that was because she wasn't real – she was a librarian, a magical encyclopedia.
“The Defenders of the Divine are a group formed after the end of the American Civil War,” she said. “At the second battle of Fort Fisher a group of soldiers became aware of arcane magics used in the battle. Although they weren't positioned to take a stance on what they'd seen at the time, they formed the Defenders of the Divine shortly after the cessation of hostilities.
“The group was founded by Sylvester Hurlsmith of Missouri, who later grew to slight fame as a revival preacher. The doctrine of Defenders of the Divine dictates that magic users have taken gifts that belong solely to their god, and thus must be killed to return those powers to their god.”
“Well,” I said quietly. “So much for logic.”
She continued, “The group broke into small chapters and mostly died out, except for a group whose home base we've been unable to locate with divination. They have struck twelve times in the past six years, with a magus fatality in five of those attacks. They are considered dangerous.”
“Well,” I mumbled. “Less than fifty percent. I take your point, however.”
She remained mute to my observation.
I thought for a moment. “Are there any unusual characteristics of this group? The Defenders of the Divine?”
“There are several irregularities. During their first one hundred and fifty years they didn't kill a single magus. They were marked more by drinking and rumor mongering than action. Only in the recent past have they become a concern.”
I tilted my head to one side. “What changed?”
“The archive contains no new data about ownership or membership of the group.”
“Divination has come up with nothing? That's...nearly impossible.”
She didn't reply. Then again, what could she say?
When I arrived at Tess's everyone had their clothes back in place, and their faces were no longer blue. I don't think I could ever have conceived of those words in that order before seeing the picture she sent me. Her father, with an extra day of growth on his face, smiled and greeted me. Bea was in the living room watching TV; Sadie came over to give me her doggie hello.
“Ty, you have to! Come on!” Alan/Allison was saying.
“Uh...I don't...know,” he said, glancing back at Jay.
“I'm just tired, dude. We can go after.”
Ty frowned. “You'll slack if I don't make you go.”
“You can't make me anything,” Jay retorted.
“That's not helping your case,” Ty pointed out.
“I'm taking a fucking nap – and no, you're not napping with me,” Jay said to Ty. “I don't need a fucking nurse.”
I followed the conversation with interest. Clearly Ty knew or suspected something was wrong with his friend. I was curious to know how much Ty knew – or if it was common knowledge that Jay was ill, at least within his group of friends.
“Ty,” Alan/Allison whined. “I need my Ty doll. You promised!”
Ty sighed and rolled his eyes. “Fine, fine,” he said and pointed to Jay. “You better be rested and fucking ready to go.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jay replied and headed toward his room.
Alan/Alison made a sound of victory and I followed them, Ty, Brad and Tess to the door. Ty had his own car, it seemed. We all got in and he drove.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Vinnie's,” Alan/Alison replied. “Vincent's Vintage is the full name, but you know. They have clothes and other old stuff, and once in a while I need Ty doll therapy, you know?”
“Ty...doll?” I questioned.
Ty let out a long sigh of resignation as Alan/Alison replied, “Yep! Ty lets me dress him up every few months. It's like having a doll at home with a wardrobe, but it's Ty out in public.”
I looked back at them, waiting for more. They blushed and tilted their head crookedly, then made eye contact with their head still cocked at an odd angle.
“When I told my parents how I felt about myself, they were...not really thrilled.” Ty snorted and Tess let out a sound of annoyance while Alan/Alison continued. “My dad went and took out everything from my room that was what he considered to be a 'boy toy' and has really been just...unwilling to even try to understand how awkward I already feel without their bullshit.”
“So, since they can't have any boy toys or dolls, Ty is their boy toy once in a while – and a living doll for them to dress up!” Tess said gleefully.
“Can I just say,” Ty said from the driver's seat, “I didn't think this would go on forever? I mean, I'm a good sport but...can't Brad take a turn?”
“Cara would be jealous,” Tess said with a devilish smirk.
“Not of me!” Alan/Alison replied with a laugh.
Teasing went on in this vein, and I thought it was...fun. Tess was teasing her brother while pushing him toward Cara, without Cara even being present. Alan/Alison was getting something they needed from a friend in Ty, who was clearly grousing with good nature. I didn't know a great deal about any of these people, but there were some things I could begin to assemble in my mind that would lead to a clear picture. They were a group, and they protected their group, with the possible exception of Donna in matters of romance. In magi society I wasn't aware if there were any issues around sexuality or identity as a whole, but I'd heard it was a major issue among normals. Or could be. This group seemed to be an exception, with Alan/Alison as an example, and perhaps Brad's reaction to me making a plain statement about him going shirtless as well.
Although he did then say something about another one. That sent me down another path entirely, one that was broken by my name being said aloud. And loudly.
“How about it, Nick?” Tess asked.
“Do you need clothes?”
“I, uh, actually do,” I said, caution creeping into my voice.
“Two for one; you and Ty can get boy-toyed today,” Tess said with a huge smile.
“So! Much! Fun!” Alan/Alison said, rubbing their hands together with glee. I wondered if I'd made a mistake. We stopped at a fast food business, and Ty ordered drinks for everyone. I didn't know what to get, so he picked for me. I was more interested that he gave the clerk a card not unlike the one my grandmother had sent me. I'm not sure what the clerk did with it, but they handed it back – meaning it wasn't a one time only use. That was something of a relief, because I wasn't sure where to buy things, let alone one store that sold clothes and food.
The drink was iced coffee, and it had a sweet, vanilla flavor mixed in that I liked. I closed my eyes and did a small assessment, feeling the caffeine rush through my system. I could get used to this drink, I decided, but I hadn't noticed where we'd gone – I'd have to ask Ty.
“I think someone likes iced coffee,” Brad said with a chuckle.
“It's really good,” I agreed.
“New iced coffee fiend!” Ty said with a laugh.
“You haven't ever – like ever – had an iced coffee before?” Alan/Alison asked in surprise. “Are you a Mormon or something? Will we get in trouble with your church?”
“Cthulhu, I hope not!” I said with a smile.
“Ca who?” Brad asked.
“Cthulhu. Read a book,” Tess said. Looking back to me she said, “So...religion isn't a big issue for you then.”
“No. No issue.”
Vincent's Vintage was a single building and a shabby storefront. Tess explained that it wasn't really vintage stuff, but more a mash up of whatever the owner could find. People sold things to the owner, who was actually a large woman named Meg. As we entered I was hit with the musty smell that surrounds objects that are older, unused or gather dust. Two large ceiling fans were still, looking like dusty dead starfish against a tan background of stained ceiling tiles. Just as some people come alive in restaurants or shopping centers or sporting events, Alan/Alison whirled into action – and Brad wasn't left out.
All three of us were presented with shirts to try. Tess was looking at a jewelry case, and I paused to admire Brad's chest as he'd decided a changing room wasn't required. Ty was holding up the shirt he'd been handed and sneering.
Loudly he said, “I'm not wearing animal print anything.”
“Argh!” Alan/Alison said.
Ty glanced at me and rolled his eyes. “Once Al told us all what was up, I was kind of pissed about the doll thing with their dad. So I said – an obvious mistake – they could dress me up sometime. They took that to mean whenever the mood strikes, and here I am.”
“Seems like a waste,” I said after a moment. “You only seem to own shorts and hooded sweatshirts.”
He narrowed an eye at me. “I like to be comfortable. Whose side are you on?”
I pointed to the leopard print shirt in his hand. “Will that make you uncomfortable?”
“...and filled with self-loathing,” he said and shivered before putting the shirt back on a rack.
“You and Jay seem like you share aesthetics,” I said. “Does he own pants? Do you?”
“Do you own pants?” he mimicked. “Of course I own pants. I just don't like them.”
“Oh,” I said quietly, feeling as though I'd misstepped.
“Why do you ask? Are you interested in my pants?” he asked, teasing.
“Sorry, kidding,” he said. “I hear it from my dad sometimes, especially if it's cold out. I mean, I have some jeans I wear once in a while and some stuff for something more formal, but when I say I'm comfortable and it's what I like, my dad goes all 'You look like a slob' and 'Why do I buy you nice things?', and I ask him why he keeps buying things he knows I don't like...it's just a whole thing.”
I cleared my throat. “I'm sorry. I didn't...I was just asking, really. New guy.”
He sighed. “No, I get it – I'm being sensitive, and that's me, not you.”
I smiled a little. “Well, I'll try to be less like your father in the future.”
He chuckled softly. “I'll try to be less sensitive.”
I felt awkward and decided to switch the subject. “So Jay. Trying to get him to work out?”
Ty shook his head as his gaze tracked Alan/Alison flitting from rack to rack. “He's like his dad – you saw they look alike, right? Well his dad has high blood pressure, and he has diabetes that he manages with diet and medication. Jay doesn't want to end up like that, and I don't want him to either.”
I nodded, thinking back to when I'd assessed Jay's dad. I recalled he had slightly elevated blood pressure, but no hint of diabetes. What I do is a snapshot of how they are in that moment, and if his medications were controlling things, I wouldn't see it with such a superficial scan.
“That must be tough to motivate someone,” I said.
He shook his head. “He's tired a lot lately. Something's up.”
I knew there was something amiss with Jay as well, but maybe I should try to figure it out. Alan/Alison – they never make a statement about who they are feeling like when I see them, so I mentally can't decide from moment to moment what to call them – had definite ideas on the styles and fit that were best for their friends. I mused that they had said something similar about how they decide who they feel like. They found shirts with faded logos for Brad, accentuating his torso. Besides a faux leather jacket, they managed to get Ty into a pair of jeans that were quite flattering.
“You need these!” they said to Ty, who rolled his eyes.
“To make Roger notice what he lost every day!”
Ty barked out a laugh. “I moved on for the better. He moved on to whoever, but I fuckin' moved on, Al.”
“Reminding him is still valid, and these jeans are better than a commercial!”
Ty adopted a sly expression. “Al. Are you hitting on me?”
They raised a fist. “I'll hit you.”
Al, as seemed appropriate to call them, found jeans, shirts and jackets for me. Some of the jeans had enormous holes, but they were so sincere I decided they must be considered fashionable. Tess had drifted from whatever odds and ends she'd been looking at and took several pictures of us in various items, then took selfies with each of us in turn.
“Nick,” Ty said, “Zipper goes in the front.”
“What?” I looked down, feeling across the front of my pants and finding the zipper. “What are you talking about?”
“He made you question if you put your pants on right and he made you feel yourself up in public. Isn't Ty fun?” Tess said gleefully.
I looked at him with suspicion, but he just started laughing before saying something equally devious to Brad. Brad paused and pulled his shirt off, checking the tag, then frowned at Ty and said something gruffly. Okay, now I could get behind that brand of humor.
Ty handed me a white tee shirt with sleeves that only came down to my forearms. “Try it.”
I held it up. “It's too small. Look at the arms.”
“It's the style,” he said.
I narrowed my eyes, having had a measure of his sense of humor. “Al? Is this a real thing? This style of shirt?”
Al glanced up from whatever she was showing Brad. “That's a raglan. Try it on!”
I looked at Ty and he was shaking his head. “Where's the trust, Nick?”
“I'm watching you,” I said, trying to sound playful. I didn't want to go to the changing room for a single tee shirt so I copied Brad and just changed in the aisle.
Ty's eyes were a little wider than usual. “Jesus, Nick! You're shredded!”
I looked around quickly. “I'm bleeding? Where?”
“No, no! Your jokes suck,” he said. “I mean your muscles.”
I paused. “What about them?”
Ty raised an eyebrow. “You have a lot of them.”
I tilted my head. “I have the same amount of muscles as anyone else. Any male, anyway.”
Ty narrowed his eyes. “Are you trolling me?”
I sensed that I didn't fully understand what he meant. “Troll? Like...living under a bridge?”
He blinked a few times and then laughed at me. “You have to be. Tess was right – you make dad jokes.”
I did? I thought it better to get back on safer ground. “What about the shirt? Does it look good on me?” I held my arms out to either side, showing it off.
Ty nodded and smiled. “Looks good,” he said. “Hey, did you read that book I showed you?”
“I did. I enjoyed it a lot, thanks. Got a ninety-two on the book report,” I said. “Al? What do you think of the shirt?”
They came over and nodded with a smile. “Pair them with those jeans – no, those,” they said, pulling one of the pairs in my pile up to show me. “You'll look great!”
Ty adopted a smug expression. “See? I can pick out clothes.”
“Stand together,” Tess ordered, holding her phone.
“Tess,” Ty said tiredly.
“Uh uh,” she said, waving a finger at him. “Let's go.”
Ty sighed and bumped his shoulder to mine, and Tess looked at me. “Are you incapable of smiling? You have the sexy Tyler Flexen next to you.”
I raised an eyebrow and smiled as I asked him, “Is that really your title? Like your royal highness?”
He narrowed his eyes but smiled as he did. “And if it is?”
“Ohhh, good picture!” Tess said happily. Brad dropped an arm around my shoulders and then did the same to Ty, pulling us together by our necks. Tess giggled as she took more pictures as Ty and I squirmed out from under Brad's embrace.
“Me, me!” Al said, and Ty and I ended up making a seat for Al by gripping each other's arms near the elbow and holding them up. It was impossible not to assess Ty – elevated temperature and heart rate, though not fatally so. I didn't think he was sick, probably just the exertion from getting away from Brad and then holding Al up – who wasn't as light as they appeared.
We were taking turns paying, and I copied Ty's earlier actions by handing Meg my card. She swiped it through something and told me to sign my name. I did, sort of, but she never looked. We finally left the location, clothes piled into the back of Ty's car, and headed back toward Tess's home.
“Thanks for putting up with me today,” Al said to me. “Usually Ty gets roped in because he's too sweet to say no-”
“I am not,” he grumbled
“But I hope you had fun and like the clothes I picked out.”
“I needed some things,” I said. “My grandmother told me to get some new clothes, and I didn't bring that many things with me when I arrived in town.”
“Where did you move from?” Tess asked.
Shit. I'd volunteered too much. I needed to evade, but I also needed to distract. “A small town no one ever heard of,” I said with a little smile. “But I've been wondering – while you were fixing up Brad and Cara, who were you going after?”
She pressed her lips together and blew through them. “It was no work at all to get Cara and Brad going the right way.”
“Please,” Brad said, rolling his eyes. “Last time I was single you were all 'Oh, you should date Gina! She'd be so good for you!' You're always trying to fix me up.”
“You never listen, though! Look how your relationships end in flaming wrecks,” she said confidently. “If you'd listen to me, you'd be happier – just sayin'!”
Brad looked at me. “Did you hear her not answering your question? Because I heard her not answering your question.”
“Uh oh,” Al said with a grin. “They're teaming up against you!”
“Add me to that. Who you falling for, Tess?” Ty asked, teasing her.
“You, of course!” she said with a laugh. “Go for what I can't have, like always.”
“Like that guy on Insta that you were talking about?” Ty asked, teasing.
“The singer that can't sing?” Brad asked, snorting.
“He sang just fine, and you two couldn't even spell harmonize!” she fired back
“I bet it's Topher Franklin,” Brad said, feigning disinterest.
“Oh, right!” Ty said. “Someone so special he had to drop the first part of his name.”
“Please, he's a troll,” Tess said dramatically. “I have enough testosterone in my life as it is, anyway.”
Once back at Tess's Ty went in to see about getting Jay up, and I headed for my home with all my bags.
“I could drop you off if you want, so you don't have to carry all that shit,” Ty offered, pausing as he'd been heading inside.
“I'm good, thanks,” I said with a nod and smile. I carried my items, thinking of how they all interacted and how I only felt slightly out of place compared to how I'd felt my first week or so. As I walked a pleasant thought occurred to me – I enjoyed being with them. Tess was something of a mother to the group, perhaps due to her own mother apparently being absent and her grandmother being… overbearing? I wasn't sure what a 'basic bro' was, but Brad seemed like a decent sort of fellow, guided by his interests in sports and the opposite sex. Cara was a wallflower, yet she had opinions she wasn't afraid to bring up when she disagreed, as she had with Donna the night before. Donna was a bit of a wild card, almost seeming like she pushed her unpopular opinion home as a statement, like planting a flag of sorts. Al was interesting, though I felt for them and their situation at home. Ty was apparently caring, given that he was determined to make Jay exercise and how he fulfilled a need for Al. I knew less about Jay, other than he seemed easy to get along with – and that he was ill. I needed to find a way to figure out what was wrong with him.
My path from my home to Tess's was probably longer than it had to be, since I didn't really know my way around that well. I followed landmarks, walking to the elementary where we'd picked up Georgie and then to our school and then home; that was my path of landmarks. As I walked past the elementary school I began to feel paranoid. It was sort of like when I'd ducked down before the previous attack – and that only served to make me more paranoid. Instead of continuing past the school, I turned to walk to the fields behind it, where there was a playground and a grassy field for other sports or games – and fewer prying eyes.
I was about halfway to the back of the school when I heard an engine, and it sounded like it was getting louder – like someone was making it go faster. I turned just as I started to run and saw a work van, tan with flaking paint, bearing down on me. I didn't quite make it to the end of the school and the mirror of the van struck me in the shoulder as I tried to dodge behind the building, sending pain through my back and knocking me down briefly as I lost hold of my bags.
In hindsight I probably should have dropped them before starting to run, but in my defense I was new to random people trying to kill me.
Shutting down the pain of my broken shoulder blade and starting the healing process took no more than a thought. Glancing about quickly, I took off at a run for a small shed near the playground. I glanced over my shoulder. The van had skidded to a stop and was reversing, turning to aim its nose at me for another attempt. I released adrenaline into my leg muscles and increased my pace. The engine roared behind me and I slipped out of the driver's line of sight behind the building. My intention had been to come around the building to try and get to the driver's door while the van tried to maneuver to run me down again – thank Lotan I hadn't stopped to hide behind it, because the van barreled right into the structure, knocking it off its foundation and scattering playground toys everywhere.
The last thing I wanted was for someone to track me home, so I had to finish this now. The van lurched, but something was underneath it and it was struggling to find purchase. I ran as quickly as I could to the passenger side and reached for the door, intending to climb in, but narrowly dodged a bullet fired in haste.
“Stay away!” a male voice screamed out. I took a deep breath and yanked the door open while staying out of the opening, eliciting another shot from the gun, then two more. I burst into the van, the gun going off like a cannon, and I felt the tug of the slug pushing through my right shoulder. Then my hand hit his face and I locked all his muscles. Breathing heavily, I closed my eyes and focused – the bullet was still inside. I'd have to deal with it at home where I'd have more time. Right now I needed to stop the bleeding, get my things and move.
The driver gurgled and I glanced at him, having forgotten about him as I tended to my own wounds. I touched his forearm and relaxed control of his throat, so he wouldn't choke before I was done with him.
“So, “I said with a groan of recognition, “we meet again.”
I twirled my finger around the interior of the vehicle. “Where is the device you're using to track me?”
“I know you can breath. Look,” I said with a sigh of impatience, “either give it to me, or I just set this rig on fire with you in it, and both my problems will be gone.”
He blinked twice, eyes large. “Was on the dash. Don't know.”
“Okay, fire it is,” I said.
“Nnn,” he let out a long grunt. “Hit the floor. Under a seat, maybe? Looks like a mint tin.”
I thought for a moment and then started looking around in the junk on the floor. After a moment I came up with a small box maybe three inches wide by an inch and a half tall, half an inch thick. I could feel magic on it, though I wasn't sure what kind.
“That's it. That's it!” he said, sounding relieved.
I pocketed the device while looking at him critically. While there was less chance of being spotted here compared to out on the street, I couldn't afford to spend time asking him questions – the gunfire was sure to have attracted attention from someone. “You're more of a pain than I thought last time. Let's see what we can do about making you calmer.”
He gurgled a moment as I placed a finger to his temple and pushed my blessing into his hippocampus. I pushed harder than before, to erase his short term memory and scramble his wits enough that he wouldn't be a danger to me anymore. If he kept this up, I'd have to incapacitate him permanently.
Dirty and exhausted, I climbed from the vehicle and trotted over to my dropped bags. I could hear a siren in the distance and took off running across the school field and into the small stand of trees that bordered the school grounds, then out into the neighborhood beyond. It took me a few blocks to orient myself, but I found my school and made my way home from there.
I entered the house and called out to Abelard as I went to my room and dumped the bags on the floor. I glanced at the window and groaned, having forgotten to get a curtain or drape. Well, it was early enough, and I also needed food, so I guessed I would go back out. Before I did I pulled out my phone and sent a message to Ty asking about how to craft one of the iced coffee drinks he'd bought for me earlier. I needed a shower, fresh clothes and calories. I went back into the house to find Abelard in the kitchen.
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
“Completing the order for the warding supplies. They should be here within the hour,” he said, looking up at me. “Would you like me to prepare a meal, Sir?”
“No, no,” I said. “Abelard...it's never occurred to me, but how do you get supplies? I've never seen you leave the premises.”
His expression was of mild surprise. “Well, Sir, the larder is specially warded for deliveries. The order is placed through a link.” He reached inside his shapeless shirt and withdrew an oddly asymmetrical medallion on a chain and showed it to me. “The link is tied to me through my medallion and the power of my contract. It's all quite mundane, Sir.”
I tilted my head. “Why did you become a servant, Abelard?”
He again looked surprised. “Sir...do you know how servants are made?”
I paused. “Actually, no.”
He nodded slowly. “I was an adept. I had a minor gift for water magic, but nothing else. Unable to be a magus, but with the long life that accompanies the gifts, I was...transformed.”
I paused and thought. I narrowed my eyes. “Abelard...were you...forced?”
He lifted his chin. “Many things are preferable to death. Sir.”
While I had the good grace not to open my mouth, my jaw still felt unhinged.
“Will there be anything else, Sir?”
After a moment I said, “No, thank you Abelard. I'll be going out to secure us fresh food.”