Hearts are strange things, strong and resilient, yet fragile and foolish. Be wary of when your heart chooses someone, especially if it's without your knowledge – Matilda Frost
The first week in October I felt a sadness that was hard to pin down. A crispness was creeping into the air, especially in the mornings, but it wasn't until I was in the grocery store and saw a display of fresh berries that I realized my malaise was homesickness. For a few difficult moments it took everything I had not to teleport home and call the whole thing off. The desire to sit with my grandmother and eat some of her fresh berries with a hot cup of tea was overwhelming. But then I thought how disappointed she'd be that I'd failed, and if I went back I doubt it would be to a welcome with berries and tea.
It sounded silly to say, but the small card my grandmother had gifted me worked like magic. I swiped or handed the card to clerks in exchange for goods and was eating in a manner I was more accustomed to. Abelard, for his part, was just as good a cook as he'd implied; I think we were both much happier with our meal situation.
Being homesick was making me more reliant on my new friends, even though the likelihood was low I'd get to keep them once my trial was done.
I spent some of my time in the evenings using my father's ring, which I'd named the ring of duplication. I would study my body and compare it to the images of my normal friends. I didn’t have them there for comparison, but my phone gave me access to many, many images of them. Brad, of course, was well muscled for his age, and I knew him to be in excellent health. Although I had no doubt having him close or in a bed would feel good in the moment, I was understanding better what Cara and Donna had been arguing about with respect to people in relationships – especially ones that were supposed to be your friends.
Jay's images without a shirt were somewhat older, perhaps due to whatever it was that was bothering him and the weather being colder. His shape was more like a barrel as opposed to the fullness of Brad's musculature. He looked to be sturdy, the type to wobble but not fall. His legs were thick like his chest, though he didn't seem to be nearly as muscled as Brad.
Ty was a lighter built version of Brad. His waist was narrower and his muscles smaller, but attractively visible. When I compared their images to mine, I noted that they carried more body fat than I did, and that made my muscles stand out more. The people I'd grown up with in school didn't look like me either, but I'd thought to eliminate fat from my system at one time. Of course I began to feel cold all the time, and a lack of body fat had actually endangered my system – messing around with a bodily system with a lack of knowledge can kill you.
But looking at my friends I rethought how much is too much, especially in terms of appearance. My initial thinking was a little murky, but I think I'd justified the loss of fat as a defensive measure; my body would be able to move better with less fat. However, the body needs a certain amount of fat to remain healthy, and I may still be walking a fine line, especially if I look unusual – and others may see that if I'm still here long enough for Brad to get his wish and have me join the wrestling team, so I decided I'd need to gain a little body fat to fit in better.
Al had been very excited and overly animated about going to the fall dance. The next few weeks were mostly a flurry of school and getting ready for the dance, which I didn't understand at all. The dance would be a few hours at most; why was it essential for things to be so perfect? I did understand that this was important to the others, so I must be missing something.
The third week of October found me in odd sorts. I hadn't been attacked in several weeks, which actually made me feel more like someone was planning an ambush. Perhaps I'd done a good job of scrambling the memories of that would-be assassin when he'd made his last attempt. Yet I felt a tension – my cousin, loose cannon that he was, could strike at any time. The one thing I thought I could do about that was to study the imbued tracker I'd taken from the assassin to see what I could find out.
I wasn't an expert on imbuing an item or imbued items themselves. I did know it took a fair amount of talent, patience and material to properly craft one. Imbued items could be handled by just about anyone for their assigned task. Certain magi, like Michael, could use an imbued item for things like teleporting to a predetermined location or whatever the item was crafted for. This item was poorly made to the point of being shoddy – the person either didn't know how to make the item well or was long out of practice – maybe both.
When an imbued item is made the blessing is woven into and around the object, so it can be seen sort of like threads in a garment. Different types of magic leave different patterns – fire, air, water, death and so on all look different. The item was crafted primarily with air magic, which I've heard is touchy to begin with. The materials used were poor – and by that I mean the container for the blessing, not just the crafting itself. The container was literally a mint tin. Had it been more solid it would have been harder to imbue, but far better quality. So the person didn't know, didn't care or was in a hurry.
I thought for a moment and wasn't very pleased to recall that my uncle was primarily an air magus. If the assassin after me was part of that Defenders of the Divine group, then this item might have come right from my uncle to help track me. Which means he likely made it quickly because something had gone wrong and the Magisterium had him. Did they know he'd set assassins on my trail and decided not to tell me since I was supposed to survive to succeed?
Magi are assholes.
I was also amused and confused over the things my friends were doing. Tess was still outwardly 'on the fence' about Topher Franklin, a boy who was tall and slender to the point of thinness and so pale that his light brown hair looked much darker against his skin. He had been with the group a few times and he seemed nice enough. Tess had gone on a few dates, yet still protested when put to the question with us as an audience.
Tess had been right, however, about Cara and Brad, and she's taken him in hand. Brad made me think a bit of a domesticated animal – perfectly docile with Cara, but still able to bite if need be. Al's parents were offering to rent a dress for the dance, which again struck me as odd, but they explained that they'd never gone to a dance in high school.
“The ones in middle school are the kind where you just show up and have fun; no real dates or asking anyone to go with you. Usually if people dance it's just this big mess of people instead of couples, but high school is different. People dance together, people make a big deal out of invitations,” they explained.
While I felt anxious about doing well for Al's sake, there was another complication. His name was Shawn, and he was to be Ty's date.
I formally met Shawn the weekend before the dance. I was at Tess's and had just emptied my paper plate of bones from the chicken wing portion of our 'pizza and wings' dinner when Ty arrived. Tess's father asked me to run the trash bag outside, and I was wrestling with the idea of how that actually worked – I assumed he didn't want me to actually run with the bag – when Ty arrived with Shawn. He'd introduced us and then asked Shawn to wait as he had to run to the bathroom and would then take him to meet everyone else.
“Don't want to leave you with them when I can't defend you,” he'd said in parting.
Shawn's expression became guarded as he looked at me, his gaze sweeping from my head to my feet. “So.” His tone was bored, yet icy. “You're Nick.”
“I am,” I agreed.
“Put your Halloween contacts in a little early?”
I frowned lightly. “I don't wear contacts.”
He glanced around the kitchen. “This place is a dump. You live here?”
“No,” I said, pulling the bag from the trash. Ty reappeared, and Shawn's face changed, his smile bright.
“You got garbage bag duty,” Ty noted in my direction. “I guess you're family now. Did you ever notice that weird wood lattice box thing out front?”
I thought for a moment. “That stuff that looks like a criss-cross?”
“Yeah. The front opens on a hinge, but it's a little resistant. The garbage cans are in there.”
Oh. You must move the garbage from a smaller can to a larger. But why? Instead of asking I just said 'Okay' and headed to the door.
“Who're you?” The voice was raspy and demanding – Tess's grandma Bea.
“This is Shawn,” Ty said.
“I'm Ty's boyfriend,” Shawn said. “Nice to meet you.”
“What's wrong with your face?” she demanded.
Glancing at Shawn I saw him reach a hand to his face unconsciously. “What do you mean?”
“It looks stupid,” she said, then turned, dismissing him. “Nolan! NOLAN!”
I left and closed the door just in time, feeling laughter bubbling up. Bea was always borderline rude, but I was fairly sure she'd crossed that line – and I didn't like Shawn. I didn't like how he acted differently when Ty was in the room versus when he was absent. I tried to find a quiet moment to tell Ty about it, but Shawn was ever-present.
So instead I tried that Monday in our study hall. I sat beside Ty and told him what had happened in the kitchen.
Ty looked at me at first with confusion. “He's never acted like that with me. He said everyone was nice and he liked them.”
“That may be true,” I said. “Maybe it was an initial observation, but he did say the house was a dump. He's not the same when you're not in the room.”
Ty frowned at me. “More gossip, Frost? You were right last time, but why would you say this now? Maybe you should mind your own business.”
Out of all the reactions I could have anticipated, that one I hadn't thought of. “Ty, I just-”
“Just...stop. Okay? Stop.” He requested a bathroom pass, and Mr. Halstead gave him one. I sat, confused and curious and oddly sorry to have upset Ty – and that he hadn't believed me. I wondered if I'd misunderstood Shawn's tone or if what he'd said was more common with normals than it would be with magi, but my experience with my friends told me no.
I was distracted when the moment Mr. Halstead had been waiting for might have finally happened. I missed whatever started it because of my thinking about Ty, but when a person I only knew by his surname, Connors, stood up and yelled that Mr. Halstead was an asshole, it caught my attention.
“Is that what I am?” Mr. Halstead asked. “Well. You learn something new everyday. Maybe you can explore that idea in an essay? Something for you to work on in detention.”
“Fuck detention, and fuck you,” Connors said heatedly.
“That wasn't even a decent proposal,” Mr. Halstead chided. “Maybe you should take a few deep breaths, Mr. Connors?”
“Screw this,” Connors replied and started to pack his bag.
“I'll let the office know you're on your way.”
Connors straightened up and glared. “Do you know who my father is?”
Mr. Halstead looked back in confusion. “How would I know? Didn't your mother tell you?”
Laughter erupted, and Connors yelled some more before flipping his desk on its side and storming from the room.
“Well. That should get the job done,” Mr. Halstead said quietly.
The classroom was alight with chatter, but I continued to feel confused and sad that I'd hurt Ty. The bell rang, and I stood slowly, still lost in my lack of understanding. As I exited the room, it occurred to me that the only normal person outside of my circle of friends I could ask would be Mr. Halstead. He was smart, and he could probably tell me where I'd gone wrong.
I opened the door to his room to find him quickly pulling his hand away from the top of his coffee cup. It was plain what he'd been doing – channeling a thread of fire to warm his drink.
“Mr. Halstead?” I asked.
He jutted his chin out and dropped any pretense of denying what my tone had asked. “I won't be a servant. I'm too fucking old, and I don't want it.”
I frowned as I let the door close behind me. “Mr. Halstead...I don't know what you mean.”
“Of course you do. You're on your stupid test for the Magisterium. Just creating a new servant would pass you, and you know it,” he said bitterly.
Standing beside his desk, I said, “Mr. Halstead, by Freya, I have no idea what you mean.” I paused. “I'm shocked, yes, but I'm not here for you, and I have no intent to harm you.”
“Magi never think servitude is a harm; merely an efficient use of resources,” he said sadly.
I squatted and looked at him steadily. “The home I'm in has a servant. He...didn't come out and say he was forced, only that some things are preferable to death. Is that the bargain that gets offered? To an adept like yourself?”
He looked at me from the corner of his eye. “Be careful, Mr. Frost. Once you know how the sausage is made you may find yourself without an appetite – if you have a conscience.”
“Mr. Halstead,” I said deliberately. “I give you my word I will not bind you, and if it's within my power to prevent it, I won't allow anyone else to bind you against your will.”
He chuckled humorlessly. “That's the trick, isn't it? If I'm in so much pain that I agree, then it's not against my will anymore, is it?”
The idea of hurting him was revolting. “Then I will amend my statement – I won't allow you to be bound if I can stop it in any way, knowing your position.”
He was quiet for a moment before speaking in a soft tone, “Magus promises aren't worth much.”
I sighed. “I'll leave you be, Mr. Halstead.” I stood and turned for the door.
“If you weren't here to bind me, then why did you come back then? Tell me that.”
I turned back to face him. “As you guessed, I'm on my test, however I'm...still confused by normals. I find magi easier to understand. I was hoping to get some insight from you – I was working on a story in my head to tell you how my old school was very intense and there was no real time for social development, but you may know that already.”
He rubbed the stubble of his upper lip and glanced at me. “What...social norm are you asking about?”
I related the conversation with Ty and his reaction. He asked about the interaction I'd had with Shawn and slowly shook his head.
“Mr. Frost...I urge you to walk away. Things are always complicated between magi and the rest of us – even between adepts and magi. Magi complicate everything. If I tell you what I think I know, it will only spur you to action to attempt to correct it, and you will cause more damage in your attempt to right things.” He sighed. “You have to understand something, Mr. Frost. There is no 'correct'. There is no 'fixing' people. As a species we...wander back and forth between the edges of morality and civility, and people will largely find their own way back to the center – their center. If you care for Mr. Flexen, then my advice is to let him be.”
I thought for a moment. That seemed counter-intuitive. I told him so.
“Think of it as a wound,” he said. “You may think there is a foreign body in the wound that may later cause an infection, however while you poke and squeeze in search of this foreign body you're causing discomfort. How then do you feel when the foreign body is never found? That you caused discomfort or pain on a false premise?”
I frowned in concentration. “You're saying I'd be proceeding under a false assumption and with the best intentions, which would cause harm. Is that it?”
“Yes, in essence.”
“I don't understand, but...I'll trust that you do.” I felt badly that Mr. Halstead was still obviously in fear of me. I needed to put us back on equal footing. “Mr. Halstead...magi are trying to kill me.”
He slowly turned to look at me. “Why would you say that?”
“Because it's true, but also because I don't want you to fear me. I will do you no harm, and to prove it I'm handing you the knowledge that could cause me harm. A show of good faith.”
He turned back toward his desktop, but said nothing.
“I'll leave you to your coffee; it may be getting cold again by now.”
My encounter with Mr. Halstead had left me feeling somber. Of course I didn't know everything about magi society, such as it was. First you had to survive to adulthood, then you would either lead your house or be a member of it. The Magisterium is the governing body for the houses of magi, and in theory they allow representation for magi in how their society is structured. According to my grandmother, it's nothing more than a system for control, as weaker houses fall under the 'protection' of stronger houses. Independent magi can strike alliances, but the Magisterium will always side with a member house in a dispute, and those can be deadly.
That they forced adepts into the bonded role of a servant wasn't really a surprise; it was a shitty thing to do to someone, so magi did it. But having been presented with it by Mr. Halstead made me both sad and incredibly frustrated. While I'd only known Abelard for a short time, I'd come to depend on him, and the idea that he'd been forced to serve or die was eating at my conscience.
On arriving home I sought out Abelard, who was in the kitchen prepping for dinner.
“Good afternoon, Sir,” he said.
“Hello, Abelard.” I paused and then said, “I'd like to ask you some questions, however...I will respect it if you would rather not answer.”
He glanced at me in surprise, washed his hands off, and as he dried them he looked at me with interest. “That's an unusual thing to say. What is your question, Sir?”
Slowly I said, “As I'm sure you must be aware, I do not fully grasp magi society. You probably have a stronger grasp of it than I do. However...I have a teacher that I like very much at school. I discovered – quite by accident – that he's an adept.”
Abelard remained quiet, but watched me intently.
“He was...defensive? Perhaps a bit defiant?” I shrugged. “He made comments that made me think back to your own words, and I have to ask...were you forced to be a servant? How does that work?”
Finished drying his hands he hung the towel from the oven handle and studied my face. “May I ask why you wish to know, Sir?”
I frowned and pulled at my earlobe. “It makes me sick. I've never considered how servants came to be, I just thought it was a contract – like employment. I'm getting the impression it's more like slavery.”
He nodded slowly. “I see your confusion, Sir. And what would it matter if it were one versus the other?”
I tilted my head and frowned. “Slavery is an abomination. To dominate the free will of another being, to take their life and use it for your own comfort?” I hesitated and plunged forward, “In magi school there is very much an attitude of might making right. Some young magi do not survive, which for the Magisterium is sometimes the point. I...made the mistake of influencing a young man in an attempt to make him feel toward me the way I felt for him.”
Abelard looked at me solemnly. “And did that not meet your expectations, Sir?”
I straightened up. “No, it did not. In fact it's where I grew to understand what I'd done was take his free will and that there is no point to attempting a relationship if one person is a prisoner. I did him harm, though my intention was to win his heart.”
He nodded slowly, contemplatively. “When I was a young man I was in the the city park. I used to like watching the ducks as they paddled around the water of the fountain. I would warm the water when it was chilly for the little ones, as mornings can sometimes be. I'd give them seed. They were so calming to watch as they swam and dipped in the water.” He took a breath and pressed his lips together before resuming. “I had just warmed the water when Gerald Frost, your grandfather, found me – and bound me.”
I swallowed. “Was the binding voluntary?”
He pressed his lips together and sighed. “In a manner of speaking. If I didn't agree he was going to harvest me.”
I drew my brows together and my jaw dropped. “Harvest you? That's barbaric!”
“And fatal,” he said, not commenting on my opinion. “He laid the binding on me, and when your uncle married I was transferred to him.”
“Can I release you? Would you want that?” I asked quickly.
He smiled and shook his head. “Only a head of house may do so – the mantle that your grandmother and uncle have kept for you or your cousin, though I think I know whom your uncle prefers.”
I looked at him quizzically. “What do you mean?”
He crossed his arms. “The mantle of the house normally passes to the oldest child. Your grandmother felt it should go to her as the senior family member, but your uncle argued to the Magisterium that he was blood relation, given that he was the eldest son and direct blood descendant and she was not, having married into the family.”
I leaned back against the counter and asked him to continue.
“Well, there wasn't much else to say, Sir. The Magisterium held that they both had standing. An agreement was reached that the mantle would go to the surviving child – you or your cousin – unless you reached an accord.”
I frowned. “Why would my grandmother not mention this?”
“She isn't allowed. It breaks the deal. I doubt Michael knows, unless his father found a way around the rules to inform him.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose and shook my head. “If I become head of house Frost, I will release you, if that is your wish. I won't have a servant who has been coerced and forced as one would a slave. I won't have it.”
Abelard was quiet for a moment. “As you say, sir.”
I was approaching the back of the line for the cafeteria when an arm fell across my shoulders. I jumped, relaxing again as Brad's gentle laugh hit my eardrum.
“Nick, Nick, Nick,” he said, his tone teasing. “We need to talk.”
“We do?” I asked. “Are you taking your shirt off?”
“Am I just a piece of meat, you perv?” he asked.
I looked at him and smiled. “No. But if you don't ask, you don't get.”
“Pig,” he said with a tone I thought seemed affectionate. “Wrestling is starting in a few weeks. I want you there.”
“Oh,” I said. “I'm not so sure about that.”
“You are good at it,” he said.
“I lost to you,” I pointed out.
“I outweigh you, and you still took me to the limit. You would destroy against people in your weight class.”
He was right, I would. But should I? Would it draw attention?
“Nick, come on, bro!” he said with a chuckle.
“I'll think about it,” I said, deciding I could always say no later.
“Okay, but...a gay boy like you should look at the wresting uniform before saying no. Yeah?”
I looked at him in curiosity, and he shook his head. “Look it up.”
Later I did, and I was impressed. Repeatedly. I decided that I couldn't wrestle; I'd have a raging hard on beyond all control if I did. How did any of them focus on wrestling? I flipped through screen after screen of healthy males in skin tight uniforms that left nearly nothing to the imagination. Good Ipos, there would be no way to stop myself from charming Brad into coming home with me.
As I ate my lunch and mostly ignored the chattering at the table, I thought how Brad liked to talk his friends into wrestling with him. I wondered if he loved wrestling that much or if he had some latent thread of attraction for his teammates. I thought of Jay in the singlet and then of Ty. Well, that would be worth seeing as well.
The night of the dance was something of a mess. I had gone shopping with Al and was wearing their approved suit. I arrived at Tess's with the knowledge that we were all to ride together to pick up Al and go to the dance from there. Brad would be driving his father's mini van, though I was told we had to gather for pictures, first. Tess was...transformed. Her hair was styled in something called an 'up-do', exposing her neck and piling her hair artfully. It was really very pretty and transformed her from her normal appearance to something delicately unusual. Brad looked very handsome in his suit, and Cara was a perfect match by his side.
“Fucking collar,” Jay said, feeling behind himself and trying to get the collar of his shirt to lay down. I reached up and folded it into place, slightly touching his hand. I was dismayed to find his condition was progressing. I still wasn't clear why he wouldn't tell his father, and I was beginning to think I might have to do something if his condition didn't improve.
“Thanks,” he said, jerking his arms forward and allowing the cuffs of his shirt to protrude from the ends of his coat sleeves. “I can't believe Ty is dating that two-faced jackass.”
I raised an eyebrow but kept silent as I remembered Mr. Halstead's warning.
“Guy is always muttering little shit when Ty isn't around. Not that Ty will listen,” he said with a shake of his head. I wasn't seeing how Mr. Halstead's advice was working, and I felt an urge to fix the situation, but I wasn't sure how.
We went to pick up Zumibia first, and she was just as transformed as the rest. Her curly hair shone, and her dress showed off her shoulders whenever she moved the matching scarf. Her parents took pictures of her and Jay in their finery, and then we were on to pick up Al.
As I approached the front door I heard raised voices. My heart rate picked up as I knocked on the door. A woman who was heavyset and red in the face answered. She broke into a smile, showing off a wide space between her front teeth.
“You must be Nick! Come in!”
“Hello,” I said as warmly as I could. I wasn't sure which name to use for Al, as I was certain their father wouldn't approve. Al walked in from another room in a male cut suit, hair styled in a more masculine way and smiled nervously.
“Hello, Al,” I said. “You look transformed.”
They burst out in a giggle and covered their mouth. “Thank you, Nick. You look amazing, as always.”
I felt disappointed for a moment that I hadn't achieved the level of change my friends had, but then their mother was insisting we stand for a picture.
“What for?” a man said, entering the room. “I don't want a picture of that!”
“Then it's for me!” their mother snapped and raised her phone. “Smile!”
“Smile!” the man said miserably.
I took Al's hand and felt their anxiety. I pushed my blessing into their system and released serotonin and then increased their body's reception to it. Having set that in motion, I placed my arm around their shoulders and smiled for their mother.
“Beautiful! One more!” she said. Once done she approached us and put a hand to her child's face. “Have fun, baby.”
“I will,” they said, voice calmer than before.
We arrived at the dance and joined our classmates on the gym floor, now a dance floor. I didn't know if what I was doing was correct, but it didn't seem to matter. The first thirty minutes or so were a blur of new feelings and experience, right until Ty and Shawn arrived. Shawn stood out in a light colored suit with a bright white button-up underneath. Ty, however, was beyond transformed. He wore a blue suit shot through with black and a blue button-up that brought his pale eyes out as if lit from behind. He'd gotten a haircut, trimmed close on the sides and longer on the top, styled in an artfully messy way.
The group made a fuss over Ty's outfit, while barely acknowledging Shawn. It wasn't kind, but neither was he. We retook the dance floor as Tess screamed out something that sounded like 'my jam', but I didn't see jars of jam anywhere.
We danced and Al shifted between dancing with me and dancing with other members of the group. It was altogether unusual, and once again I found myself enjoying time with my friends for no other reason than because it was fun. How much fun had I missed out on, being a magus? A slow song came on. I noted others moving closer to their dance partners, so I did the same.
“You have been a really good sport, Nick. You don't have to. Want to sit down?” Al asked.
“I'm fine. Shouldn't we dance like everyone else? Isn't this why we're here?” I asked.
Their face took on an expression I simply couldn't name. “Yeah. I guess it's why we're all here,” they said.
I wasn't sure what to do, but we ended up both dancing with hands on each other's hips and moving slowly, mimicking those around us. As we moved Al spoke into my ear.
“Ty was the first one to stick up for me, you know. I got Tess and the rest because of him – he started it. He's a really good guy. It sucks he has such a shitty family, but he's a total sweetheart.”
“He only told me a little about his family,” I said.
“It's no secret,” they said. “He probably told you his mom disappeared. His dad doesn't really talk about his work – he just says 'consulting', never says about what. His dad will do things like buy clothes for Ty he doesn't like – probably on purpose. He puts him down and then says stupid things like 'it builds character' and laughs it off. He and Ty don't really get along – Ty doesn't like him. His brother is a fuck up. He got arrested not too long ago for having a gun on a school playground. He was probably on drugs, because his brain seems messed up, I guess. Ty hasn't seen him, just overheard his dad.”
“Poor Ty,” I said quietly.
“Yeah. Still, all that shit around him, and he pops up, a fucking rose,” they said with a little laugh. “It's why I have such a crush on him.”
“Oh, yeah. I confessed a long time ago. He said it's okay, it'll go away when I find the right person, but meanwhile he said I can crush on him as much as I want. It's nice, but frustrating sometimes, too.”
“You mean him not returning your feelings?” I asked gently.
“Sure,” they said with a nod. “But I never want that crush to go away. I want to fall in love, I think, and experience all those great things – but I never want to stop having a crush on someone who deserves to be crushed on, if that makes any sense.”
“I don't like his boyfriend,” I blurted.
“Yeah, join the club,” they said with a snort. “I heard you guys had a coffee date a few weeks ago.”
“Well, we met for coffee,” I said. “I don't think it was a date. You're not the first person to say that, though. Did I misread something?”
They laughed. “You must be blind.”
I assumed they were speaking rhetorically, but I was lost on their meaning.
The song ended, and we slowly made our way to the table that held our coats and drinks. Chatter started up as we joined the group. I stood slightly apart from them and turned over my conversation with Al. I could identify with them being different from so many of their peers, as no one really understood what it was to be a magus, not at this age. There were few enough of us that it was unwise at best to say anything or you'd sound crazy. Other magi were busy building a power base or studying to become stronger, though there were few ways to do so. That made me think of harvesting, as Abelard had mentioned, and I shuddered at the thought. To forcibly extract the gift of another, to kill them and make that power your own. Ghoulish....
“Jesus, it's hot in here.”
I turned to find Shawn a few feet away. “Lots of people, makes sense,” I replied.
“No shit,” he said, his tone indicating he thought I was stupid for saying it.
“Maybe you should go outside?” I asked. You could also perhaps wander off and return to your home beneath a bridge.
“Fuck that,” he said with a laugh. Ty appeared behind him, perhaps returning from getting a drink or using the restroom. It didn't matter – what did was that he plainly heard what Shawn said next. “I brought the hottest guy to this dance, and I'm going to fuck him after.” He snorted. “Too bad you brought Cousin It.”
“The fuck did you say?” Ty asked, moving in front of Shawn.
“Oh, hey babe!” Shawn said with a grin.
“Don't ‘babe’ me. What the fuck did you just say?” Ty demanded.
“That I brought the hottest guy to the dance; too bad he didn't,” Shawn replied, moving to place his hands on Ty's hips.
“You fucking liar! I heard you!” Ty snarled, shoving Shawn's hands way. “Get out of here!”
“Babe, I don't know what you think-” Shawn said, his tone placating.
“I. Said. Leave,” Ty said forcefully. “You're not fucking me, and Al isn't here for you to make shitty comments about. We're done. Fuck. Off.”
Shawn kept up his tone, “Babe, I'll go, and we can talk later – but how? You drove me.”
I've heard of people say the devil made them do it, and I know that's wrong – yet I understood the statement afterward. I did it because he'd hurt Al with his comments. Because he was revealing his ugliness to Ty and hurting him, and because he was only with Ty to sleep with him, which is one thing if you're up front, but not with what he was doing. It echoed the lessons I'd learned about what I'd done to Jalem. I felt sick to my stomach and grabbed Shawn's hand.
He jerked his hand from mine, snarling at me, but my blessing was already racing through his system. I'd not have done this to Kevin, because my aim was different, but now I wanted to be vindictive. I wanted some measure of revenge for his actions. As he stepped back his words died on his lips and a look of fear hit him. That was followed by a long, loud passing of gas. An odor like a dead body rapidly filled the space around him. People groaned, laughed and stepped back from him, and then the inevitable. The music broke and the DJ made an announcement of a break, accompanied by the sound of Shawn's bowels emptying, covering even the sounds of horror some people were making about the smell.
People dispersed, gagging and laughing – which is really quite sick if you think about it. Shawn stumbled away, gagging. A proctor appeared and escorted him toward a bathroom, trailing a brown mess behind him. I watched him being led away and regretted nothing.
Having control of my olfactory senses was a pure blessing just then. Doors were opened, and a janitor came to clean the mess. For a time it seemed the magic of the evening, fragile as it had been, was dispelled. Ty was apologizing to Al for Shawn's behavior. Eventually the smell cleared out, and the DJ started playing music. Amazingly, the crowd, perhaps energized by the drama, began gathering again, and dancing resumed. It was only a few people to start with, but more joined within a few songs.
Ty approached me after Al finally got frustrated with him, telling him none of this was his fault. He lifted his arms and dropped them to his sides.
“Well. You were right.”
“I'm sorry,” I said. “I didn't like him, but I'm sorry you're hurt.”
“Everyone saw it but me,” he said, shaking his head. “Maybe I just didn't want to.”
“Nick,” Al said, moving to my side. “Would you do me a favor?”
“My beautiful friend has had a terrible night. Would you give him a few dances to lift his spirits?”
“Oh, no,” Ty said, waving his hands.
“Sure,” I said. “Come on. Move awkwardly with me.”
Ty hesitated and then took my offered hand. “I thought you danced just fine.”
My assessment of him confirmed what I'd suspected – anxiety, increased heart rate, and fatigue, likely from the drama that created the first two conditions. I pushed my blessing into him, modulating him as I had Al, bumping some serotonin into him and making his body more receptive to it. I let his hand go as we started to dance, the music fast and loud. We moved quickly to find a rhythm, and soon he was laughing, his pale eyes alight. We would move closer and then back, and when we moved closer again he held his hands up and I copied him. Then we held our hands together fingers locked together and continued to move back and forth to the limit of our arms and then back again, the synchronous movement coming naturally to me – or to us.
The music changed, the lights dimmed and sparking lights twisted around the room. Ty smiled at me and moved in close, resting his chin on my right shoulder and placing one hand on my right hip and the other on my left shoulder. I copied him. As we turned slowly swaying he moved his lips toward my ear.
“Thank you. This was such a shitty night – no pun intended. But this is really nice.”
I turned my mouth toward him so he would hear my reply. “I'm glad you're feeling better.”
As I said the words I felt a flutter in my chest. Instinctively I turned inward to examine what had happened, but I was mystified. Ty moved his hand from my shoulder so that it rested on the collar of my shirt, and his thumb began to stroke the back of my neck – and the flutter intensified. A shiver ran down my back, my heart rate increased, and my body temperature went up. Without thinking I reassessed Ty through his thumb as he stroked my neck and was surprised to find that his body had flooded with dopamine and oxytocin – the same chemicals I'd tried to manipulate in Jalem.
When I looked inward I found that my own levels of those chemicals were elevated. I felt undeniably good, but I was very concerned that something was happening to my system that I hadn't been aware of, though I was loathe to correct it at the moment. After all, it wasn't cancer or something – just happy chemicals.
“Okay, Nick,” Ty said as the music began to slow further, possibly indicating it was coming to a close. “I did the stupid thing, and maybe this will be even dumber but...I'm taking my shot.”
My confusion gave way to...a mix of things. Surprise. Bliss. The fluttering in my chest rippled outward from my torso and throughout my body. Without any stimulation I found I had achieved erection, but aside from the confusion at the loss of bodily control it felt undeniably good.
All that from a kiss freely given.
Ty leaned back and gazed at my face, and I struggled for the first time in a very long time to understand what was going on with my body. I felt out of control, and yet as if my reaction was correct, mandated.
“I've wanted to do that,” Ty said as the DJ thanked everyone for a good night and lights were made brighter. “Instead I let that guy talk me into something I wasn't that into, all because I was distracting myself from you. But...here you are.”
I cleared my throat. “Here I am.” And what does that mean? Why can't I figure out what's wrong with my chest?
He swallowed and flicked his pressed lips inward for a moment. “So. I hope kissing you wasn't...over the line. I was feeling a little in the moment.”
“Over...no. I am very much in this moment,” I said firmly.
“Oh?” he asked, a smile playing about his lips. “So you don't mind kisses?”
The crowd thinned around us, and I stared at him, shaking my head. “I don't mind at all.”
His cheeks grew red. “You know that means I'm going to do it again. Right?”
“Please?” I asked, feeling odd that my tone sounded so pleading.
He leaned forward and as our lips met the feeling of a ripple in my chest hit me hard. I held him, deepening the kiss as the feeling worked through me and settled into something intoxicating and alive that I couldn't describe or understand. All I knew for sure was that it was good. I felt as if my chest were vibrating, my heart bouncing from one rib to another and my guts-
“Okay, boys, go make out in your car or something. Break it up,” a proctor said. We broke the kiss, and I stared at Ty as understanding began to seep into my brain. I was feeling something from him, experiencing something he was experiencing. For just a moment I'd been so tightly entwined with him that we weren't definable as individuals. The excitement of the moment was alive in his eyes, and I felt my own eyes must be mirrors. He tilted his head a little, shifting his gaze on my face.
“When did you get blue contacts?” he asked.
“What? I didn't,” I said.
He made a sound of thought, a 'hmm' sort of sound and then shrugged. “Maybe it's the light in here,” he said.
It must be. My eyes would be sort of colorless until I...oh. Oh shit.