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Returning

by Kuruma Ebi (車エビ)

illustrated by beili

There was something in the lake by Bleakhall House.

This was common knowledge in Roxburghshire, whose visitors were often told stories of dark shapes moving under the surface of the lake, of witch-lights that appeared over its surface and unwitting guests who had fallen in, never to be found again.

The successive Earls of Bleakhall certainly had no misgivings about living next to a haunted lake. In fact, the family grew so innovative in devising ways to ensure that people stopped perishing in it that they became single-handedly responsible for most of the water-body-related magical developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

And now, while there had not been a death in that lake for more than a hundred years, townsfolk who went up to Bleakhall House to make deliveries or work as temporary help still sometimes reported hearing melodious singing echoing above the water. Old Fraser up in St Boswells had been saying for decades that he had seen something one night, which had sent him running for his life: a magnificent horse with a coat of midnight that stood motionless by the lake bank, hooves wet and mane dripping.

Lord Bleakhall maintained that there was nothing, of course, and nobody was particularly inclined to investigate. As far as everyone was concerned, authorities included, whatever lay at the bottom of the Earl of Bleakhall’s lake was strictly his business.

Mrs Kemp’s periapt wouldn’t have earned itself even a second glance from the magicians soon to be arriving at Bleakhall House, but it was beautiful in its own way. She had used an oak twig and some of the dried tansy David had gathered for her, and as she worked and whispered he could see the strands of her enchantment flashing between her fingers. The magic formed an intricate knot invisible to human eyes, which glowed, to David, the way Mrs Kemp sometimes glowed. He often felt her presence before he saw her. And though she took pains never to touch him even when he was in human form, she was soft towards him, and that was enough.

A bell was ringing in his head. David stood up so quickly that he bumped his knee against the kitchen table.

“What’s the matter?” asked Mrs Kemp, lifting the periapt so it wouldn’t be jolted askew.

“Guests are here,” said David, casting about for his jacket.

Mrs Kemp did not ask how David knew. Instead she said, “Already?”

“Aye,” David replied.

The sound of the bell, which had begun as the softest of echoes, was now rising to a full clanging. David shrugged on his jacket. Lord Bleakhall was calling.

One could be perfectly respectable just by being a qualified practical magician of England and Wales, but only the truly respectable magician got invited to the yearly auction at Bleakhall House. The auction was one of the few occasions where one could legitimately acquire and trade rare magical artefacts without the attending paperwork. For charity, they said, never mind that nobody talked about where the money went, and David had spent the past week laying out enchantments all over the Bleakhall estate to keep out prying eyes.

He smelled the artefacts before he saw them. They were packed up in a trunk that was being guarded by Coombs, one of Lord Bleakhall’s many aides. As he approached Coombs the scents hit him all at once: something cloying and metallic, another like the smell of a small animal hiding indoors from the cold.

“Tell his Lordship that Burns is here,” Coombs muttered into his earpiece microphone. There was a pause, and then the clanging in David’s head stopped.

“Thanks, mate,” said David, giving Coombs a smile that was a little too dark and a little too sharp.

Coombs attempted a smile in return, but couldn’t quite meet David’s eyes. “That thing’s bloody heavy,” he said instead, gesturing towards the trunk.

David just stared at Coombs.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Coombs said.

David watched him go. He glanced around to see if there were any guests around, and then he crouched down and hoisted the trunk onto his shoulder.

It was heavy, but the stench of the magic was heavier. Still, David took the long way around the house, one that ensured he would not be seen by any of the staff who were hurrying about making preparations for dinner. Once out of the house, he followed a pathway across the grounds that was shrouded by trees, hiding him from anyone who might happen to glance out of a window.

He was sweating by the time he reached the lake. After setting the trunk down, he pulled a length of rope from one of his coat pockets and looped it around the trunk to form a harness of sorts. The late afternoon sun glinted off the lake surface and into his eyes.

Methodically, David began to undress. He placed each item of clothing – coat, jacket, shirt, trousers – neatly onto a large flat rock nearby, and put his shoes and socks beside it. Finally, he stripped off his boxers, turned towards the lake, and stepped in. He waded until the water came up to his chest.

Then, with a sigh, he lay back and let the lake swallow him.

What emerged was a large horse. Its mane dripped with water and its midnight coat seemed almost too dark in the sunlight.

David shook out each hoof as if to give his legs a stretch, and whinnied in relief. If he pricked his ears he could hear more cars pulling up the driveway to Bleakhall House. Hanging in the air, just beneath the now unbearable odour of the artefacts, was the scent of the enchantments he and Mrs Kemp had laid out all the way down to the oak wood.

With a snort of annoyance, David approached the trunk. He had set it on its end so that it was easy, now, for him to seize the rope by his teeth and tug it along towards the water. When the trunk was half submerged, he tucked his head under the rope so that it fell around his neck. Then he began to swim.

Down he went, kicking his way towards the bottom of the lake, taking pleasure in the exertion of it, in the cold depths only he knew.

And the lake took pleasure in him. David, it called him, as he went deeper. Then it spoke his other name, the one that had been whispered into his ears when he had been only a foal. It called him my own, asked what have you brought for me even though Lord Bleakhall had spoken his enchantments over each item. David remained silent. It was not his place to say what was Lord Bleakhall’s and what was the lake’s.

Finally he reached its very heart, where a Bleakhall ancestor had once discovered a vault of stone. This was where the treasures of Bleakhall House lay, and where the trunk would take its temporary place.

The vault needed no door, for the enchantments around its entrance were wild and thick, having been made and unmade by the currents over centuries. David twisted his body and returned to human form, catching the trunk’s rope before it was tugged away from him. The lake would take things if one wasn’t careful. He pushed through the enchantments as if they were weeds, pulling the trunk along. This vault had not been built for a kelpie guardian, David was sure. Some other water spirit, perhaps, before the current Earl’s great-grandfather devised a spell for snatching a kelpie’s bridle.

Inside the vault, the main chamber was an exact facsimile of the long gallery at Bleakhall House, which ran the length of the whole frontage of the house. But while the long gallery up in Bleakhall House was bare apart from the portraits hanging on its great walls, the vault was filled with displays of the most priceless artefacts in Lord Bleakhall’s possession. Not that it mattered much to David, whose job was simply to unpack the trunk and display the items within. Around him, the mirrored walls of the vault gleamed dully with the lights of the real Bleakhall House, as if the two rooms were wrapped against each other.

The lake was silent and sullen when he emerged from the vault. Won’t you sing for me again, it said, as he transformed back into his kelpie form.

I scared the maids, David replied. Kicked slowly through the gloom, letting the lake tangle waterweed into his mane.

They should be afraid, said the lake.

David tossed his head in mirth, then continued upwards. When the glimmering light that shone through the water grew bright enough, he turned once again and swam the last two strokes in human form. The lake caressed him as he went, and he kicked harder, aware of the last tugs of its embrace.

The moment he pushed past the surface, he knew he wasn’t alone.

“Rather chilly for a swim, don’t you think?” said a voice from the lake bank.

David felt it even before he turned to look – the familiar prickling energy of him, like the air just before a storm. Jim Chung Everly had returned to Bleakhall House.

David pushed his sopping hair from his eyes and turned towards Jim. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Jim grinned. He’d cut his long hair and now had on a very expensive-looking suit instead of the disreputable magician’s smock he used to lounge about him, but it was still the same grin David remembered from eight years ago. He still smiled like he was about to share some secret which delighted him beyond anything else. “I’m a little lost,” he said, not looking lost at all. “I hear it’s not safe to wander in these parts.”

“You’ve heard all the ghost stories, then?” David said, not quite able to keep a smile from creeping onto his face. “Kelpies lurking by the waters, waiting to lure travellers in?”

“Only the ones about naked Scotsmen standing in lakes,” replied Jim.

David laughed. “Aye, those are particularly terrifying. Is that a towel you picked up while you were lost?”

“Thought it might come in handy.” Jim held out the towel and, ever the gentleman, turned away as David waded out of the lake.

“I suppose I’d best be helping you find your way back,” said David when he’d finished towelling off and putting his clothes back on.

“I suppose you should,” said Jim, turning round to study David’s face with an expression so soft and so fond that David found himself looking away. “Goodness, Burns, you’ve hardly aged a day.”

“All this dipping into freezing lakes does wonders for the constitution,” said David wryly, reaching for his jacket.

They both knew, of course, why David didn’t look a day over thirty-five after all these years. There was a reason for there being centuries of Scottish folklore warning travellers against attractive young strangers. Decades of work in human form had left its mark on David, however. It showed in the calluses on his rough hands, in the lines on his forehead. His body, which could once have been considered slight, had taken on a broad solidity from the hundreds of trips made to and from the vault, from long days laying enchantments and tending Lord Bleakhall’s estate.

Jim picked David’s jacket up off the rock and helped him put it on. “I suppose some things don’t change.”

“I reckon they have for you,” David replied, turning around. He took that moment to properly look at Jim. Jim’s was the sort of face you didn’t forget. Whatever softness that had been in his cheeks eight years ago was gone, further highlighting his striking, almost classically handsome features. He had inherited the nose and jawline of his father, the late Sir Andrew Everly, while his eyes, complexion and mouth were unmistakably his mother’s – Margaret Chung, the brightest magician at Cambridge in her time and an accomplished practitioner.

Some things remained the same, of course: his dark eyes still held that spark of mischief that had been there when he’d first arrived at Bleakhall House as an impossibly well-mannered seventeen year old.

Now it was Jim’s turn to duck his head, a movement that made him look very much more like the insouciant university student David remembered, who used to slouch around the grounds with Louise and the Bleakhall sons. His father had been a close associate of Lord Bleakhall’s, and Jim had gone to boarding school with his sons. Louise, though, had always been Jim’s greatest friend, and it had been on her invitation that he had started staying at Bleakhall House over the holidays. “Shall we?” he said, gesturing towards the house.

The sun was just beginning to set. They made their way back slowly, Jim taking the longer turns every chance he got. David pretended not to notice.

“I heard you were in Hong Kong,” said David.

Jim nodded. “I practised there for a spell, yes. I spent some time in Malacca as well – after Father died, Mum moved back to be with my great-aunt and so I got to meet that side of the family.”

“What was it like?”

“Oh, interesting,” said Jim. “I mean, I’d always heard about them – my aunts and uncles, all the family squabbles – but I didn’t quite realise what it would be like. A whole family of magicians, all very accomplished and illustrious in their own circles. There was so much to learn.”

David glanced over at Jim. “But?”

“But what?”

“You make it sound more like an apprenticeship than a family reunion.”

Jim laughed, and shook his head. “You don’t miss anything, do you?” he said. “I suppose – I suppose it wasn’t really…” He paused. “Remember how I told you once that I didn’t quite feel like an Everly?”

David nodded. He remembered the party for Louise’s twentieth birthday. There had been drinks, and young Jim had come climbing through the window of the groundskeeper’s quarters where David lived. He had been luminous that night, magic and wine on his fingers and breath, confessing things. His skin had been so warm against David’s as David half-carried him back to the house. The wonder, really, was that Jim remembered even a fraction of the things he’d said.

“Well, I didn’t quite feel like a Chung, either,” said Jim. “I know I shouldn’t have been surprised and I wasn’t, but it left me a tad unmoored, for a while.”

“Aye,” said David, “I reckon it would.” And now David noticed what else had changed about Jim. There was the faintest hint of weariness amidst the mischief in his eyes, something sad about the secrets in his smile.

They must have been spotted coming up the drive to the house, because Robert, Lord Bleakhall’s youngest, had come out to meet Jim.

“We’ve been searching all over for you, Everly,” said Robert, shaking Jim’s hand vigorously, “Louise heard you’d arrived and everyone’s dying to hear about your adventures in Asia.”

“I can’t imagine,” said Jim, giving David a wry look.

Robert looked over at David, as if to only just notice him. “Oh, Burns. I expect there may be some other things that might need putting away.”

“I’ll see to it, Master Robert,” said David.

Jim reached over and clapped David on the shoulder. “Glad to be back.”

“Very good, sir,” David replied, and stepped back politely before Jim could say anything more.

 

Sophie, one of the housemaids, was reading over the north point of the room when David slipped into the long gallery. She looked relieved to see him, but didn’t stop until she had finished the incantation. As she spoke the last syllable, the faint thread of magic snaking along the eastward wall came alight.

“Well done,” said David, inspecting the edges of the wall.

“The west if you will, David,” called Mr Hodges from the other side the gallery.

David crossed the room diagonally to stand before the plinth that marked the next point of enchantment. He thumbed his way through the water-stained household book Mrs Kemp had thrust upon him earlier until he found the right page.

It was heavy going, invoking the enchantment that another magician had set down, and nothing at all like the lightly woven spells he had laid out across the grounds. Outside, he was free to improvise, to thread in whatever he pleased as long as it held fast: a well-formed feather, or water weed from the bottom of the lake. But an English gentleman magician needed only his words, they always said. And the Earls of Bleakhall had certainly used a great many.

He finished the incantation just a fraction of a second after Mr Hodges, and stepped back to watch as the full length of the gallery wall, spanning across the entire frontage of Bleakhall House, turned entirely to cloudy silvered glass. Sophie gasped. The murky light that came through it seemed to be from another world altogether, dancing as though refracted underwater.

Together, they read the final text, and as the last word left Sophie’s lips the remaining three walls of the long gallery turned also to glass. For a breathless moment it felt to David as though he was back beneath the lake again, submerged in its cool darkness unseen by human eyes.

He blinked, and the long gallery was filled with the treasures of Bleakhall House.

Ancient vases now stood on the once-empty plinths, and other displays – scrolls and statues, fans and longbows – had grown up around them. From the ceiling hung the bones of a great beast of the sea which was usually hidden in the shadows of the vault, but now gleamed under the gallery’s many lights.

Before she could stop herself, Sophie reached out and touched her fingers against the intricate surface of a lacquer jug.

“Sophie!” said Mr Hodges sharply.

Sophie withdrew her hand. “There’s nothing there,” she whispered.

“Aye,” David replied. “That’s the enchantments.”

“If you’re quite done gawking, Sophie,” said Mr Hodges, “I’m sure Mrs Kemp has plenty for you to do downstairs.”

As David began to leave as well, Mr Hodges cleared his throat. “I could do with an additional pair of hands during the viewing later.”

David nodded. “As you wish.”

Mr Hodges began to leave, and then paused to give David an appraising look. “You might want to find yourself a proper tie and jacket.”

In the early years following David’s arrival at Bleakhall House, he had never been permitted to enter the long gallery while a viewing was ongoing. The young Earl at the time had found him too unnerving, freshly unbridled as he was and still unused to human ways. The current Lord Bleakhall, on the other hand, had simply grown up regarding David as part of the staff, invisible until he was called upon.

None of the guests took any notice of David as they filtered into the long gallery after dinner, fascinated as they were by the artefacts laid out before them. David remained in his corner, observing how some objects seemed to exert their own gravitational pull, drawing curious eyes to them. Others seemed somehow to slip from view despite the ample illumination in the gallery, disappearing from the mind’s eye once one’s back was turned.

A rare Moroccan charm case was particularly popular among the visitors, having contained the fragments of a lost Berber spell. So was an enchanted flute said to be the one once played by the Ratcatcher of Korneuburg. Louise Bleakhall, who had earlier entered the gallery arm in arm with Jim, was holding court next to it, telling a group of Yorkshire magicians the story of how Sir Andrew Everly had won it off the French Archwizard in a game of draughts. Jim stood beside her, nodding along and providing charming interjections about his father’s famed tone-deafness.

It was as if Jim had never left. There he was, still telling the same stories with Louise, the two of them still sinking easily into each other’s company, all shared secrets and droll looks. Except now David thought he could see the slightest of frowns on Jim’s face at the mention of his father’s acquisition. And instead of staying close by Louise’s side, Jim was whispering something in her ear and excusing himself to wander across the room.

As Jim passed, his eyes darted to meet David’s. He seemed about to say something, but was interrupted by Lady Swire summoning him over to look at a selection of rare Chinese scrolls.

“James, did you see anything like this when you were in Shanghai?” she asked.

“Well,” said Jim, “obviously the really valuable stuff’s all been spirited away to Europe, hasn’t it?” He said this with a face so straight that for a moment Lady Swire looked taken aback. Then he shot her a charming grin and said, “I saw plenty.”

Lady Swire laughed. “Oh, James.”

“But nothing as rare as a second-century scroll written by Sima Yi’s own hand, of course,” said Jim, peering at the display.

“Yes, in all the years I’ve been coming here, these have never been put on auction,” said Lady Swire wistfully. “Lord Bleakhall simply won’t be parted from them.”

“I came across something very similar when I was in Shanghai, actually,” Jim told her. “A pair of matching scrolls purportedly painted by the Emperor Huizong. It’s a pity one of them was a fake – beautifully made of course, but still a fake.”

“Louise tells me you were working on authenticating artefacts,” said Lady Swire. “Sounds like you’d need a keen magical eye for that.”

“Well, it’s dead simple once you get to touch the object,” Jim replied, passing a hand idly through the nearest scroll, which vanished under the shadow of his fingers. “You can practically feel the centuries of history. The fakes don’t even come close.”

Lady Swire soon turned her attention to a Bahía double-chambered apothecary vessel that was standing on a nearby plinth. Only David, who was watching Jim a little more closely than he would have admitted, noticed the way Jim lingered before the scrolls for several more seconds, examining them with the same brow furrow he used to get when puzzling through a particularly challenging spell.  

One of Mrs Kemp’s periapts was glowing. David touched his finger against the snippet of wallpaper. Someone had entered a locked room.

It was late enough that all the servants had retired for the night. David, who had been just about to leave for his quarters, considered ignoring the periapt. But after a pause, he shrugged off his coat and hung it back up, padding down the kitchen corridor and taking a left turn to the butler’s room.

Mr Hodges answered the door in his dressing gown. “What is it?”

“One of the periapts, Mr Hodges,” said David. “It looks like someone might be inside His Lordship’s library.”

Mr Hodges gave a weary sigh. “It’s probably one of the guests wandering.”

Together they ascended the stairs from the service wing and crossed the length of the house to the staircase leading to the library. Upon reaching the landing, they saw that the door to the library had been left ajar, but the lights were out. Inside, the room was empty and in perfect order, apart from some books that had been left strewn by the foot of Lord Bleakhall’s favourite reading chair.

Mr Hodges stifled a yawn. “I suppose whoever it was must have left. Strange, I could’ve sworn this room was locked.”

“Sorry to have troubled you, Mr Hodges,” David told him.

“No matter,” said Mr Hodges, turning to go. “Tidy up here, will you.”

When he was quite sure that Mr Hodges had reached the bottom of the stairs, David shut the door.

“I know you’re there,” he said.

Sure enough, Jim emerged from the corner between a bookshelf and the fireplace, bumping against the fireplace mirror as he did so. It wobbled for a moment but Jim caught it in time, and whispered something over it as he shifted it back into place. He turned to David, beaming.

“Have you been drinking?” asked David.

“No.” Jim looked flushed and triumphant. “But I may have lost my way a little.”

“Charming,” said David. “But I didn’t fall for that the first time.”

“Oh no, I’m very aware of where I am, Burns – what I meant was that I was supposed to pass through the lavender room and emerge in the drawing room,” said Jim. “But I seem to have taken a wrong turn.” He peered back at the mirror he’d just straightened, before turning to look at David. His eyes were very bright. “Can I shake your hand, Burns? I would very much like to shake your hand.”

David held out his hand. “Are you alright?” he asked bemusedly, as Jim took it and solemnly shook it up and down.

“Quite,” said Jim, growing suddenly serious. “You think I’m mad, don’t you?”

David shrugged. “I’m still hoping for an explanation.”

“How about a demonstration,” said Jim, tugging David towards the fireplace. “Do you still live in that cottage down by the oak woods?”

“Yes, but–”

Jim approached the mantle and hoisted himself up onto it. He beckoned at David. “Come on.”

“I doubt it’ll hold both our weights,” said David.

“It won’t need to,” said Jim, whispering something against the surface of the glass and drawing, with his index finger, a quick succession of figures that David couldn’t quite make out.

The glass vanished. But instead of blank wall, the mirror seemed to open up into somewhere else, the dim outlines of which David could barely make out.

Jim rose up on his knees to put one leg through. “Come on, Burns,” he said.

With some reluctance, David pushed himself up onto the mantel.

Jim took his hand impulsively. “Let’s see if I’m right.”

Together they stepped through, and tumbled straight into the long gallery.

Jim sat up and gave a loud hoot of disbelief. “Oh, they are tricky,” he said, with unbridled delight.

“How did you manage that?” asked David, whipping around to inspect the mirror behind them and finding nothing.

“Something I picked up in Malacca,” said Jim. “I thought I’d try it out here to see if it worked. But I suppose this old house has its own secrets. Infuriating place.”

“You thought you’d try opening a portal inside one of the most magically secure houses in Great Britain?”

“A few portals,” Jim replied, “and it worked, didn’t it?”

“Only if we ignore your glaring lack of accuracy,” said David.

Jim waved a hand dismissively. “I’ll iron that out soon enough.”

“I’m sure you will.” David rose to his feet and held out a hand to help Jim up. “Can you find your way back to your room?”

Jim flopped down onto the floor. “Have you noticed how there aren’t any mirrors here?”

“Aye,” said David, crouching back down beside him. “But I reckon that’s beside the point. It’s late, Jim.”

“I’ve not heard that in a long time,” said Jim, with a laugh. “Remember those evenings by the lake? How you used to chase me back indoors when all I wanted was to finish working on my enchantments?”

David did indeed remember those evenings, more clearly than he expected. “I’m sure you’ve been keeping very civilised hours these past eight years.”

Jim sat up on his elbows and gave David a curious look. “Have you missed me?” he asked, a little too quickly, like the words were tumbling out of his mouth before he could stop them.

David paused. There were so many things he could miss that to let himself think of them would be to open a terrible floodgate. But Jim wasn’t to know that, of course – how could he possibly – and so it was easier to say, simply and honestly, “Yes.”

Jim blinked, startled at David’s frankness.

“Of course I have,” said David, turning his face away to hide the flush creeping up his cheeks. “Now will you return to your room?”

Before David could say anything more, Jim pushed himself upright, reached for the front of David’s jacket, and pulled him in for a kiss.

It was a soft press of his lips against David’s, brief and hesitant, and when Jim pulled away the expression on his face was caught between apology and hope.

“That was–” Jim began.

“Unexpected,” said David. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Haven’t a clue,” said Jim, leaning in just a fraction.

David met him halfway, and felt him let out a shuddering breath as their lips met again. They kissed like they had been wanting this for years – mouths hot and urgent, gasping against each other.

When they finally broke apart, David looked at Jim’s face and was dumbfounded again by how beautiful he looked, his eyes dark with want, breath stuttering from his lips.

He cupped one hand gently against Jim’s cheek and pressed a kiss to the corner of Jim’s mouth. “Now will you go to bed?”

They’d put Jim in the room he used to stay in, which was a narrow one tucked away at the end of the blue corridor. It had an excellent view of the lake. Not that any of that mattered now, as Jim shut the door behind them and crowded David against a bookshelf, kissing like he was afraid David would change his mind.

“Jim,” David breathed, pulling away for a second. He let Jim bury his face in David’s neck and exhale. “Jim, I’m not going anywhere.”

Jim nodded, and pressed his lips softly against the column of David’s neck. His jaw. His cheek. Finally he reached David’s mouth again and they kissed, slow and languorous.

With fumbling hands they began to undress each other, David’s jacket landing on the floor together with Jim’s, shoes hastily kicked off and rolling in different directions. While David worked on the buttons of Jim’s waistcoat, Jim went straight for David’s trousers, undoing belt, button and zipper.

“Hang on, let me get this off you–” David began to say, but cut off into a low groan as Jim sank to his knees and pressed his mouth to the outline of David’s erection. “Fuck,” said David, bringing one trembling hand to rest against the side of Jim’s head. Jim’s tongue was hot and wet through the fabric of David’s briefs, and David couldn’t help the way his hips bucked at the sensation.

Jim dragged his mouth from David’s damp briefs to look up at him. “Is this all right?”

“Yes,” said David, caressing the side of Jim’s face, “yes, Jim.”

“Good,” Jim replied, and with one last wicked look he pulled down the waistband of David’s briefs and took David into his mouth.

A sound like a sob escaped David’s throat as Jim slid his tongue around him. Then Jim took him deeper, and David arched up involuntarily into the wet heat of Jim’s mouth, head thunking against the bookcase. It was overwhelming. David had had the occasional fling with one of the extra help from town, but it hadn’t been Jim, clever Jim with his kind eyes and his smile full of secrets. Jim, who was doing things with his mouth that made David’s breath turn ragged. “Jim, fuck–

Jim glanced up at David through his lashes, cheeks hollowing as he sucked harder, and then David was coming, so suddenly that it felt ripped out of him, his vision going white for just a fraction of a second. A dozen book spines dug against his back as slumped backwards against the bookcase, clutching one of the shelves to steady himself. Jim swallowed, and sat back on his heels, wiping the back of his hand across the corner of his mouth. For a long moment David just looked at him, chest heaving, taking in the wondrous look on his face, his swollen wet mouth.

A sudden tenderness came over David, and when he trusted himself to be steady on his feet, he peeled himself off the bookcase and bent over to kiss Jim, sweet and filthy, tasting himself on Jim’s tongue.

“I thought you said you didn’t know what you were doing,” David murmured.

Jim huffed a laugh, then shuddered when David slipped a hand inside his undone collar and pressed a thumb against the pulse in his neck. “I figured something out.”

He undressed Jim on the bed, taking his time. Pressed his mouth and teeth and tongue on every new area of skin he exposed and relished each sound he drew from Jim. He stripped off Jim’s shirt in this way, button by button, getting Jim so worked up that he had to take over, yanking his trousers and underwear down in jerky, frantic motions.

David laughed. He rose up on his knees to kiss Jim again, pulling him backwards so he was lying on top of David on the bed. They ground against each other for several moments, David shivering slightly as his oversensitive cock slid against Jim’s. With each languid thrust, the sounds Jim made grew more desperate. David gripped hold of Jim’s hips to still them.

“Jim,” said David, “Jim.”

Fuck,” Jim groaned against David’s throat. “David, please, you’re killing me.”

“I would very much like,” said David, “for you to fuck me.”

Jim’s head jerked up at that, and David felt Jim’s cock twitch against his skin. In a second Jim had rolled off David, stumbling over to the overnight bag at the foot of the bed. He rummaged for what seemed like an eternity before returning with lube and a condom.

“Just be grateful I packed this,” he said, when he caught sight of David’s amused expression.

“Oh I’m very impressed by your level of preparation,” said David, suppressing laughter. “Top notch, really.”

“You’re impossible,” said Jim, looking at David with so much warmth that it felt impossible to bear.

“Give me that,” said David instead, reaching for the lube. Quickly, trying not to feel self conscious, he slicked up his fingers and began to work himself open, feeling the heat of Jim’s gaze on him.

“David, Dave–” Jim groaned, climbing up onto the bed and kissing David hard, with teeth, until David was gasping from it, from the stretch of two fingers and the anticipation that Jim was going to fuck him. He could feel his dick filling again, slowly, and Jim – Jim was a wreck, dragging his mouth away from David’s so he could bury his face in David’s shoulder, fingers tangled in the mess of David’s shirt.

“Okay,” David breathed, three fingers in and too wound up by Jim’s desperate little breaths to wait any longer. “Okay, Jim.”

Jim rose up on hands and knees, feeling around for the condom and putting it on with shaking fingers. He fucked into David so slow and so gentle David thought he would break from it, from the gorgeous stretch, from the feeling of Jim sinking deeper inside him, going and going until he bottomed out. They were so close to each other, impossibly close–

“It’s been there all along, hasn’t it?” Jim breathed. “It’s been there, all those years–”

“Aye,” said David.

They didn’t kiss so much as press their mouths together and breathe. Jim pushed involuntary sounds from David’s throat with each slow thrust. And now Jim was coming, shaking and trembling and making the most exquisite noise against David’s mouth as he did so.

He’d wanted this, David realised. They’d both wanted this, so much and for so long.

In the early hours before dawn, David stirred in Jim’s arms. He sighed a little at the first sounds of distant birdsong, and pressed a kiss against Jim’s collarbone, against the hollow of his throat.

Jim, still half asleep, hummed deep in his chest. “‘S hardly civilised,” he mumbled, drawing David in a little tighter. Up close, the sweep of Jim’s eyelashes seemed almost delicate. Sleep had softened his normally sharp gaze into something vulnerable and startlingly young. “Plenty of time,” he breathed, burying his face in David’s hair, “for finding things later.”

“Finding things?” David repeated, amused.

Jim’s answer was to slide his hand under the sheets and wrap his fingers around David’s cock. He brought David off like this, in slow firm strokes that left David gasping into Jim’s skin. And when David had come, he wriggled down the bed and returned the favour from the night before, enjoying the weight of Jim on his tongue, the feeling of Jim’s fingers tangled in his hair as he took him deep in his throat.

Afterwards, when Jim was very much more awake but not quite awake enough to get out of bed, David rested his head on Jim’s arm and asked, “Is there something you’re looking for?”

Jim’s other hand, which had been tracing idle patterns against David’s hipbone, stilled. “Yes,” he said eventually. “A genealogy book. The first half of the Chung family’s, specifically. Traces the lineage all the way back to the magician philosophers in the Song dynasty. It was lost during the war, then hidden away during the Cultural Revolution. I promised my great-aunt I’d find it.”

“Have you?” asked David.

“Yes, of course,” said Jim, fingers resuming their movement. “In Shanghai.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

“I suppose.” Jim smoothed his hand up along David’s side; calming, steady. “It’s getting it back that’s the tricky bit.”

David shivered under Jim’s touch, allowed himself to be held and kissed gently again, before the morning chorus of birdsong reached its full volume and he would have to start the day’s work. He allowed himself to push away the nagging memory of Jim before the scrolls, to not wonder why Jim would even want to open portals in the rooms of Bleakhall House.

A late start meant that David could only gather the tansy Mrs Kemp needed when it was well after breakfast, which put her in a foul mood indeed.

“The periapts won’t just repair themselves, you know,” she said, when David returned with the pound she had requested. “And the lot of them deciding to go hunting on a lark, when we’ve already started making their full sit-down lunch!”

David tried to look contrite even as his mind wandered to the look on Jim’s face when he slipped out of the room earlier that morning.

Mrs Kemp sighed. “You’re a good lad, David,” she said, forgetting, as she frequently did, that David had been working at Bleakhall House long before she first arrived as a fresh-faced housemaid.

He was mending the stretch of fence down between the lake and meadow when Jim came sauntering by, hands in pockets.

“I see you’ve been kept busy,” said Jim, hitching up the knees of his trousers to crouch down beside David.

“I see you’ve not gone hunting,” David replied, focusing on tying a segment of rhododendron branch to the section he was working on.

“This is far more interesting,” said Jim. “What’s the branch meant to do?”

“Strengthens the charm, keeps thieves out,” David replied.

“That all sounds very folksy and informal,” said Jim, doing a spot-on impression of Lady Swire from the time she’d come across Jim and Louise trying to make a talisman of protection using a lock of Louise’s hair. “Are you sure Lord B would approve?”

David laughed, finishing the knot. “I’m sure he wouldn’t, but he’s not about to come arseing around here, is he?”

“I really hope he doesn’t,” said Jim, and leaned over to kiss David sweet and soft, his hands coming up to cradle the sides of David’s face. David smiled into the kiss, then remembered himself and pulled away.

“I’m working, Jim,” he said gently. “Sorry.”

“No, no, I’m sorry,” said Jim, shaking his head. “I’ll be good.”

He did, indeed, try to be quiet and unobtrusive, limiting himself to brushing his fingers against David’s every time he handed David something from the spellbag. David in turn tolerated this as best he could, working quickly on each segment and trying not to think of all the secluded places on the grounds in which he could kiss Jim properly.

“You know, in Japan they have a very elegant way of dealing with fences,” said Jim. “I met a chap in Kyoto whose showed me a thing or two. It’s all maths-based, very orderly, none of this English standing around hissing words at things and hoping for the best.”

David laughed. “Is that something a qualified practical magician of England and Wales should be saying?”

“You should have seen my essays at uni,” said Jim, with some measure of embarrassment. “Railing on about the shambolic development of modern English magic.”

“I did hear about the shouting matches with your college tutor,” said David.

“He came round,” said Jim. “Wrote me a recommendation to that firm in Hong Kong, in fact.”

“So I have him to blame, then, for you going away,” said David with a laugh, but stopped when he saw the dismay on Jim’s face. “I’m joking,” he said, nudging Jim with his arm. “I know you’d have gone anyway.”

“Yes,” said Jim. “You know I had to.”

Now hanging between them was the truth of the matter: that eight years ago Jim had left Great Britain – had left Bleakhall House – the moment he could. He’d written David a letter about it, even, which David still had. Amidst the convoluted explanation referencing all sorts of academic concepts and post-colonial theories of magic, amidst all the mentions of ‘the principle of it’ (which Jim had written a total of eight times in those two pages), David had understood one thing: that there was no place in English magic for a magician as talented as James Chung Everly, whose natural aptitude and passion for it far surpassed many of his peers, but who never quite fit in the ways that counted the most.

Because of his father, who had a knighthood but never did shake off his West Country accent; because of the things people whispered about the provenance of the artefacts Sir Andrew had brought back. Because of the part of Jim’s double-barrelled surname that people like Robert Bleakhall were so eager to drop. Jim would’ve done well enough, of course, but he would never have reached the places his calibre should have enabled him to.

And because David understood this, he understood also that at the end of the week, after the auction was finished and Jim was done with whatever business he had come to do, he would leave Bleakhall House once again.

David nodded and looked away, lips pressed together tight.

“David,” said Jim, “if there was a way I could take you with me, I would in a heartbeat–”

“Don’t say that,” David said sharply. “Not if you don’t mean it.”

“Of course I mean it–” Jim began. He paused. “Wait. Is there?”

David continued staring at the gap in the fence that had yet to be mended.

“David,” said Jim, touching his hand lightly to David’s elbow. “Is there a way for you to leave Bleakhall House?”

For long moment David was silent, as he cast his mind back to the day of his arrival at Bleakhall House – no, earlier. To the loch, and the child unconscious on its bank; the magicians and their spells spoken over the waters.

“I was a colt,” said David finally, trying and failing to keep his voice from trembling. “I knew only what was in my nature. I remember singing for a child, this sweet, fair child who came towards me – who didn’t fear me. Who put her fingers in my mane. All I knew was to dive. I dragged her with me into the water.” He shut his eyes, but found that he was unable to remember that moment, only that it was the last time he’d been inside the waters of Walls Loch. “The magicians came – first the local one, who bound me to the surface, then two young men who had come up to Glasgow from Cambridge. By then they had freed the girl, and she was safe, but they couldn’t allow for it to happen again.”

“So they took you,” said Jim. “From the loch.”

“They took my bridle,” said David. “Without it I can’t return. One of the magicians was Lord Bleakhall’s father. He brought me here. For as long as the Earl of Bleakhall has my bridle, I am bound to do his bidding.”

“Do you know where it is?” asked Jim.

David shook his head.

“Well if you’d told me, I’d have looked for it–” Jim began.

“How could I?” David snapped, grief and anger making his voice crack. “You never asked. How could I presume – how could I demand your help?”

Jim took a step backwards, speechless for the first time.

“Then you left,” said David. “And now you’ve come back, and you’ve said so much but you can’t even admit you’ll be leaving again. You can’t even tell me about the scrolls–”

“How do you know about the scrolls?” Jim demanded.

“How could I not know?” asked David. “I saw how you were looking at them, last night in the gallery.”

Whatever comfortable intimacy they had earlier had vanished. Jim opened his mouth as if to say something, then shut it abruptly. With a grim nod, he turned on his heel and went sloping off towards the house.

Jim had withdrawn to his room, and given instructions not to be disturbed. This continued for the rest of the day. Out on the grounds, David started work on the flower beds. His mind turned continuously to Jim despite his best efforts, to the possible reasons why Jim had returned to Bleakhall House in the first place.

When it grew too dark to work on the flower beds Jim went out to the lake, having long missed the staff supper. He didn’t enter the water this time, but merely sat by it, gazing out at its still surface. Jim must have waited like this, the evening before. He must have watched it patiently, looking for the first sign of disturbance in the water, rising to his feet when he’d finally glimpsed it. Perhaps he had gotten the towel off Mrs Kemp, because she hadn’t seemed surprised to see David returning to the service wing with it.

He had come to the lake first, upon arriving at Bleakhall House, David realised. Before the long gallery, before even speaking to Louise.

“I said I was not to be disturbed–” Jim began, upon hearing the door open. He stopped when he saw that it was David. His expression softened. “Well, come in, then.”

The first thing David noticed when he entered Jim’s bedroom was that it was covered with books and papers. He had also laid out a large handkerchief in the middle of his bed, which was covered with an assortment of beads, some of which had been stitched haphazardly to the fabric. On top of the bedside table, replacing a lamp, was a sheet of paper covered from end to end with narrow Chinese script. It was between this sheet of paper and the handkerchief on the bed that Jim was crouched, sorting through a handful of beads like he was counting them.

“I see I’m interrupting something,” said David.

“Maybe a little,” said Jim, not looking up from his beads.

“I just wanted to tell you about the scrolls,” David continued. “I know they’ve got something to do with the genealogy book you were talking about. I don’t know what you’re planning, but–”

“I came here to steal them, just to be clear,” said Jim a little too abruptly.

“What?”

“I’m going to steal them.” With great care, he poured the beads into a small lacquered box, and set it down on top of the sheet of paper. “When I found the genealogy book in Shanghai, it was in the possession of a Mainland Chinese business group with a keen interest in recovering looted cultural artefacts. We made a deal – I’d get them the scrolls in exchange for the book.”

Jim opened the lacquered box again and prised open its bottom compartment. Inside it was a neatly folded sheet of paper kept in a small plastic sleeve. With great care, Jim removed the sleeve and unfolded the paper, which looked like it had been torn out of a book. David might not have been able to read the words written on it, but he certainly could catch the scent of it: fire and salt and ash.

“When my grandfather left China he took this page from it,” said Jim. “It has his name, and my mother’s name, and my name in it. If we have the rest of the book, my great-aunt would be able to authenticate the page.”

David nodded. “You’d prove that you’re really a Chung?”

“It’s unlikely I’ll inherit anything, but it would count for something. Make it official. These old families don’t show their ancestral spells to just anyone.”

“And so you’re going to steal the scrolls.”

“Well, that’s what I do now.” Jim gave David a wry smile. “I suppose I’m a thief just like my father.”

“He wasn’t a thief,” David said quickly. “He didn’t–”

“In his defence, he was only partaking in a long tradition of rescuing things from the Far East,” said Jim, rising to his feet. “Saved a fair number from destruction, he would say. In my defence, I’m only in the business of getting them back.”

“I’ve got no quarrel with that,” said David. “But what you’re thinking of doing – it’s a fool’s errand. The scrolls aren’t inside Bleakhall House, and there isn’t a mirror you can open to get to them. They’re in the vault, at the bottom of the lake.”

Jim was looking at David now, with a curious little grin on his face.  

“How interesting,” he said. “Because I’ve spent all day working on a divining charm, and it turns out your bridle is in there as well.”

“It’s overkill, is what it is,” said Mr Hodges, pausing for a drink of water. “From the moment an item comes up out of the water, he’s covering it with enchantments so thick its own bidder won’t be able to recognise it.”

“Aye, maybe that’s the point,” said David, scanning the manuscript of spells that they needed to get through for the morning. “So the opportunistic thief won’t know which to steal.”

Mr Hodges shook his head. “He can’t possibly be expecting the thief to come dashing at the artefact like it’s a rugby ball.”

“I hear that’s how lots of things are stolen,” said David. “That’s how they’ll get the Mona Lisa, if the fellas at the Louvre aren’t careful. A good sevens team will do the trick.”

Mr Hodges said nothing, but David saw the corners of his lips twitch.

After lunch, they had David go into the lake to see if the spells from last season were still in place.

“No one else should be able to enter, only Burns,” said Lord Bleakhall, as David treaded water in the middle of the lake.

With some trepidation, Coombs crouched down by the edge of the water and dipped his hand in, only to withdraw with a stifled yelp. “It’s boiling hot, your Lordship,” he said.

“Good,” said Lord Bleakhall.

The party left, leaving David to swim to the bank.

It was just as David had said to Jim, the night before. There was no way Jim would be able to take the scrolls undetected, however convincing the replacement fakes provided by his Shanghai associates might be. First there was the problem of even entering the water, which David alone could do. But David had no means of retrieving items he had not been instructed by Lord Bleakhall to take. And even if Jim somehow managed to enter the lake, he wouldn’t be able to take anything out of the water without setting off Lord Bleakhall’s numerous enchantments.

Jim, in the meantime, seemed to be putting on a good show of being entirely unbothered by the ongoing preparations. He had spent the day with Louise and a few of the younger Yorkshire magicians down in the meadow, showing them some variation of a Japanese gate spell he’d picked up in Kyoto.

Standing by the lake in his sopping wet clothes, David could just make out the distant figures. Jim had constructed a rudimentary archway using rhododendron branches, through which one of the Yorkshire magicians went. He emerged, with great surprise, at the other end of the meadow.

Louise, laughing, called something to Jim, who nodded and pulled out a pen to scribble something along the length of one of the branches. He ducked through it, and vanished.

“Will I ever tire of seeing you emerging from a lake?” said Jim, sidling out from behind a tree. Before David could answer, he winked and put a finger on his lips.

Then he popped his head back round the trunk and called, “I’m afraid I can only get us this far, Louise, any nearer is impossible.”

“What a pity,” said Louise, stepping out next to Jim. “I was rather looking forward to not having to walk the whole way back.” She caught sight of David, who was still dripping on the grass. “Poor Burns. Father’s got everyone so busy.”

“Afternoon, Miss Louise,” said David.

Louise nodded, then turned to Jim. “I suppose I’d better go fetch those Yorkshire fellows.”

“I suppose, since you only promised Lord B you’d entertain them,” said Jim, fondly mocking. “I on the other hand made no such representation.”

Louise rolled her eyes. “They’re such bores. Mind making another one of those clever little gates?”

Jim held up his hands apologetically. “Terribly sorry, but I’ve run out of sticks.”

“How infuriating,” said Louise, without any venom, before striding back towards the Yorkshire magicians.

“I’ve figured it out,” Jim told David in a low voice, the moment Louise was out of earshot. “The walls of the vault and the gallery are mirrors. I should be able to pass through one into the other. But I won’t be able to do the spell in the long gallery – the mirrors there only exist by invocation and I’ll need a corporeal one.”

“Meaning?”

“I can only pass through one way, through the real mirror in the vault and out the invoked one in the long gallery,” said Jim. “I’ll have to enter the vault by the lake.”

“But you can’t set foot in the water,” said David. “Only I can.”

“I know,” said Jim. “But I looked up the manuscript of the lake spell in the library last night. You can take me down with you. As prey.”

David felt himself go cold with fear. “You’re out of your mind.”

Jim was shaking his head, eyes bright with the excitement of discovery. “No I’m not, it makes perfect sense, the enchantment won’t distinguish between you and what belongs to you–”

“You won’t be able to free yourself–”

“I will,” said Jim, looking at David with absolute certainty.

“No, Jim–”

“Just let me pick which fingers I’ll need to cut off.”

“You don’t know what you’re doing,” said David. “This isn’t just theory, this could cost you your life. It’s not some funny little problem question answer you can tinker about with in your study.”

“I never said it was,” said Jim. “I will do it. It’s the only way.”

“Jim,” said David, “those scrolls are not worth it. There will be some other way to bargain for the genealogy book–”

“Damn the scrolls,” Jim snapped. “Your bridle is in that vault.”

Stunned, David stared at Jim. But before he could say anything more, Louise had returned, with the Yorkshire magicians in tow.

“Burns, if Jim is disturbing your work again please don’t hesitate to tell him to bugger off,” said Louise, breezing over. “You remember how he used to get, always sticking his fingers into spells and things.”

“Yes, Miss Louise,” said David, glancing over at Jim, who looked mutinous. “And some of those enchantments were right dangerous.”

“Oh, I’m sure I wouldn’t have come to any harm,” Jim replied coolly, returning David’s gaze. “Burns would have made sure of that.”

Jim found David later, in the groundskeeper’s cottage by the oak wood.

“Nothing’s changed,” he said, looking round at everything: the cramped sitting room where no one ever came to sit, David’s narrow bedroom with its neat piles of books that he’d collected.

“Aye,” said David, rearranging a pile of newspapers so that Jim could take a seat on the sofa. Jim sat, hands folded neatly in his lap, while David went to put on the kettle.

“My mind’s quite made up, you know,” said Jim, after a pause.

“I can’t ask you to do this,” said David.

Jim looked up at David, and smiled that crooked little smile of his. “Remember that night I came in here, on Louise’s birthday?”

David pointed at Jim’s seat. “You sat right there.”

“You sang me that song, didn’t you, when you were trying to carry me back to the house,” said Jim. “About a maiden of Walls Hill. Something about her meeting a young man who had a necklace of silver, and waterweed in his hair.”

David nodded. “Aye,” he said roughly. “My mother taught it to me.”

“I’ve often thought about that song,” said Jim. “Enough that I looked it up. Walls Loch. It’s a beautiful place.”

“Aye,” said David, nodding again, tears stinging his eyes.

Jim rose from his seat and crossed over to David and took David’s shaking hands in his. “Let me do this for you, please.”

David was crying freely now, heaving great silent sobs as Jim cradled David’s head to his chest. He wept like he had wanted to all those years ago, on the journey from Walls Hill, coming up the drive to a strange, imposing house. Sitting in a darkened kitchen being made to learn how to use a knife and fork, while the rest of the servants listened to the wireless for news of a terrible war he had never even heard of.

“Thank you,” he said finally, when the last wave of grief had passed. He scrubbed a hand over his face, then noticed the handkerchief Jim was holding out for him. “I’m sorry, this is–”

“Don’t apologise,” said Jim.

David nodded, and blew his nose several times. Then, deciding that it wouldn’t do for them to keep standing there like that, he got up and began to make tea. They sat silently with their mugs, Jim rubbing his fingers absently along the edge of David’s folding table.

Finally, David spoke. “I’m beginning to think you weren’t quite as drunk as you made yourself out to be, that night.”

Jim ducked his head, and looked sheepish for the first time in a long while. “I’d had a few. For Dutch courage, mostly.”

“To do what?” asked David, even though he thought he might know the answer.

“To come over here and do this,” Jim replied, and leaned round the table to press his lips softly to David’s.

When it came time that night for David to arrange the items for the next day’s auction, David went down to the lake. He held a towel in one hand and in the other, the layout Mr Hodges had sketched for him detailing how each item was to be placed.

Methodically, David began to undress. He placed each item of clothing – jacket, shirt, trousers – neatly onto the large flat rock, and put his shoes and socks beside it. Finally, he stripped off his boxers, turned towards the lake, and stepped in. He waded, not minding the cold, stopping only when the water came up to his chest.

“All right,” said David, turning around.

Jim stepped out from behind the same tree as the one earlier that day, one that kept him hidden from view should anyone be looking out of the window towards the lake. Slung across his chest was the waterproof case containing the near-perfect replicas of the eight scrolls. He was smiling, but David knew his smiles well enough to see that he was trying not to be frightened. David saw, then, that for all he’d seen the world, for all the clever spells he knew, Jim Chung Everly was just a young man, impossibly so.

“I don’t think this was the plan,” said Jim, as David began wading out of the lake.

“Not quite,” said David. When he reached Jim he kissed him slow and gentle, with the promise of hundreds more. He wrapped his hands around Jim’s beautiful fingers, calloused and ink-stained as they were, and pressed his face to them.

And then David returned to the water, and when he emerged again he was a magnificent horse, with a dripping mane of midnight and a coat which gleamed under the moonlight. He walked up to the bank of the lake, and Jim met him there.

Jim paused, and looked at his left hand for a moment. Then he reached forward and stroked the back of his left ring and little finger against David’s muzzle.

Now Jim’s fingers were stuck fast. He followed, stumbling slightly, as David walked slowly into the lake. They paused at the first splash of Jim’s foot entering the water. Jim looked at David, and nodded. The water was perfectly cool. They waded out further into the lake, until the water reached Jim’s shoulders. And, with a soft neigh to warn Jim, David pulled him down into the depths.

He had to move fast, for there would be no air for Jim until he was past the thicket of enchantments. David swam with all his might, cutting through the dark waters as quickly as he could, while Jim, pale and holding his breath, shut his eyes and let himself be dragged along.

David, the lake called, tugging at him. What have you brought for me, it whispered, tell me its name.

David kicked faster. This is mine, was all he replied.

At last they reached the vault, and Jim opened his eyes, kicking slightly so he could set his feet down on the top step of the stairs leading up to its entrance. Underwater, a magician’s words were useless, but Jim was no ordinary magician. From within his jacket he withdrew a small round mirror made from bronze, which glinted in the darkness despite there being very little light. He held it before the entrance for several moments.

The enchantments, once invisible, now shone under the mirror’s ghostly light. Jim examined them for a moment, comparing them, as they had agreed, against the lake spell manuscript in order to determine if David might pass through with his prey. Satisfied, Jim nodded towards David.

The entrance passage was too narrow for David and Jim to enter side by side, so Jim went first, two fingers still firmly stuck against David’s muzzle. As soon as he passed through into the vault, he stumbled, taking in great gasps of air.

David whinnied nervously, wanting to nuzzle closer to Jim but resisting the urge to, for fear of further entrapping him.

“That went well,” said Jim, once he’d finally caught his breath. He opened the waterproof case and pulled out the beaded handkerchief that he’d been working on in his room, tucking it into the breast pocket of his jacket. Then he withdrew some bandages, a bag of ice, and a knife.  

David could smell Jim’s fear now, the panic rising from him even though he’d kept his expression carefully blank. He snorted, pulling Jim’s hand along with him as he shied away.

“Easy,” said Jim, unable to conceal the tremor in his voice. “We agreed on this, David. We need to get past the antechamber and we can’t both fit if you don’t transform back.”

David stilled, blowing nervously through his nostrils. Jim raised the knife, and after taking several deep breaths, brought it cleanly down onto the last two fingers of his left hand.

At first, there was just shock. He stumbled backwards as his hand came free from David’s muzzle. And then he looked down at his hand, and the pain seemed to catch up with his brain. “Fuck,” he hissed, clutching at his hand, then fumbling for the bandages. “Bloody fuck.”

David backed out of the entrance to the vault and changed back into human form as quickly as he could. He returned to find that Jim had wrapped his bleeding hand as well as he could, and was holding it up in the air to elevate it.

“Let me help you,” said David, adjusting the bandages. Jim’s face had turned entirely white with pain. He picked up his severed fingers which had fallen to the floor the moment the enchantment was broken, and, after wrapping them carefully in another bandage and a smaller plastic bag, slipped them in together with the ice. He wiped the knife on a last strip of bandage.

“Quick, the scrolls,” said David, taking the waterproof case and heading for the display. He couldn’t go near them himself, but Jim was under no such compulsion.

With his good hand he pulled out the bronze mirror again and began to examine the enchantments around the scrolls. And, after satisfying himself of their composition, Jim began to work.

Jim might have been an English magician by training, but his practice had expanded far beyond that. The remaining fingers of his left hand twitched as if they were counting invisible pieces, and after he had added some unknown sum in his head, he withdrew what looked like a crochet needle from his pocket and began to tease apart some of the strands. And as he whispered over the existing enchantment David smelled rather than saw it change and yield to Jim, coming apart under his needle.

“Good old Dad,” said Jim, putting the needle back into his pocket with a flourish. “That was a trick of his.”

He replaced each scroll in the display with its replica, and stowed the originals carefully in his waterproof case. “And now for the bridle,” he said, pulling the handkerchief from his jacket pocket.

At first the beads seemed to form no discernible pattern, but as Jim shook out the cloth David thought he could make out flowers and horses, glinting brightly in the gloom. A second unfurling of the cloth, and the flowers resolved themselves into straight lines. Then Jim shook out the cloth again, and the beads now formed a map.

Jim smiled. “And that was all Mum.” He passed the map to David, and pulled out an electric torch. “Shall we?”

They proceeded into an antechamber at the end of the vault, which opened up into several passageways. Jim consulted the map in David’s hands, and pointed towards the leftmost one. Deeper and deeper they went, the beads of the map gleaming and shifting in the darkness. The scent of old magic clung to the walls. Every now and then, a strand or two of abandoned enchantment would spark dully as David and Jim passed. And while Jim seemed fully confident that it was leading them somewhere, David was becoming more certain at each turn that they were going in circles.

“This doesn’t feel right,” said David, as they reached a fork that seemed suspiciously familiar.

Jim nodded. “The route does seem like it’s rounding back on itself.” His voice sounded rather faint.

“Jim, let me take a look at your hand,” said David.

Jim shook his head. “Hang on, let me think,” he said, peering at the map. “What if it keeps going in circles because it’s something that’s below us?”

“There can’t be anything else below us apart from rock–” David began.

But Jim was now pointing the beam of his electric torch towards the floor. “Can you remember the words for the long gallery incantation?”

“Aye,” said David, “perhaps not all the caveats, but enough to effect it.”

“That should be good enough,” said Jim, backing down the corridor.

“What are you thinking of doing?” asked David.

“Invoking a mirror,” Jim replied. “It’s just a hunch, but–“

“You think we’re as close as we can possibly get to where the bridle is.”

“Exactly,” said Jim. “And I think someone laid out all these enchantments at our feet for a reason.”

“Okay,” said David, “it’s worth a shot.”

He spoke the incantation first, remembering the essentials from the far more elaborate version he had read out in the long gallery. As he said the words, he felt the lines of enchantment around him begin stirring to life, and when he was done, he saw a bright thread appear and snake its way across the floor of the passageway towards Jim’s feet.

Jim nodded, eyes bright with excitement. Then he began to speak, staying close to David’s formulation of the words, throwing in caveats to ground and contain whatever enchantment they were invoking. There was an economy to his formulation, spoken seemingly off the cuff, that was worlds apart from the ornate language David was used to from Lord Bleakhall’s manuscripts.

As Jim said the final word, the floor beneath them turned to glass.

David peered down at his feet and was puzzled, for a moment, by how oddly familiar the shifting darkness reflected within seemed. And then he blinked, and realised what it was.

“We’re in the lake,” said David.

“Of course we are–” Jim began.

“No,” said David, as the damp walls of the vault corridor around them seemed almost to fade out of existence. “We’re in the lake.”

Just as the artefacts in the vault had appeared in the long gallery, so too did the lake surround them. The only difference was that while the artefacts had been insubstantial like light, the lake formed a tangible presence around them, heavy enough to be felt but not so much that they couldn’t breathe.

My own, the lake said. You search for me so.

“What’s that?” asked Jim, sounding truly fearful for the first time.

David wanted to go over to him, but they were held in place by a lake’s worth of water. “You’ve heard the stories.”

“The stories,” Jim repeated faintly. “Funny. I’d always assumed it was just a kelpie they were talking about.”

What have you brought me, whispered the lake, carrying light to swirl around Jim’s face, tracing the magic left behind on his fingers and lips.

“I said he’s mine,” said David, speaking out loud to the lake for the first time.

The lake laughed. They felt the unbearable current of it buffet their bodies. Yours?

“Yes,” said David, louder this time, thinking of Jim’s hands in his, of Jim leaning round the table to kiss him. Of Jim on his knees, wiping the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. The way David had tasted himself on Jim’s tongue. “Entirely.”

Then consider whose you are, said the lake. From its depths came a silver necklace that shimmered like the moonlight on water.

And this was why it knew to whisper the name his loch had given him, David realised. His bridle had been with the lake all along.

“Well, he’s certainly not yours,” said Jim, his voice sounding so small in comparison with the vastness of the lake.

Not mine?

“That bridle was taken by the Earl of Bleakhall using an incantation of severance.” Jim spoke a little louder now, with a magician’s certainty in the fastness of a spell.  “It may be in your care but Lord Bleakhall still has ownership. Ask yourself: Whose summons does David obey?”

The lake rippled around them. Bleakhall, it said with disgust.

“We’re just looking for a way to get it back,” said Jim. “So David can go home. Would you let us have it?”

“Please,” said David.

The lake was silent for a long while. What will I have in return? it finally asked.

Before David could say a word, Jim spoke.

“My name,” he said.

“Jim, no–“

The lake swirled, curious. Your name?

“I have three. And these scrolls,” said Jim, gesturing towards his waterproof case, “are the only way I will obtain what I need to prove that I am a Chung.”  

You think to steal what’s mine and give it back to me, said the lake.

“No,” said Jim. “I’ll give you something else for proof.” He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out the small lacquered jewellery box.

“Jim, please stop,” David cried.

Jim unfolded the page from the genealogy book and held it out with his right hand. He could not hide the way his hand shook. “I offer my maternal name in exchange for safe passage and possession of David’s bridle.”

You are willing to give up such a thing? asked the lake.

Jim’s face was pale, but there was something resolute in his eyes. “All my life I’ve been searching for home,” he said. “And I don’t know if I’ll really find it. David had his stolen from him.”

And you mean to steal it back?

Jim smiled. “It’s somewhat of a specialty.”

A distant bell had begun to ring.

You are being summoned, said the lake to David.

“Let us go, please,” said David, “keep the bridle, there’s no bargain–“

We will finish the bargain, said the lake. But you are being summoned.

Before David could say anything more, he found himself being thrust towards the surface of the water.

He emerged from the lake stumbling from the pain. He tried to enter it again, but found himself pushed back against the bank.

The ringing was now growing increasingly loud. In several minutes, it would become unbearable.

Groping his way over to the rock, he began to pull on his clothes over his wet skin. He left his socks, stuffing his dripping feet straight into his shoes, and set off at a run towards the house.

He burst through the entrance to the service wing, tripped down the corridor and almost crashed into Mrs Kemp.

“My goodness David, you’re sopping wet!” she exclaimed, while David clung to the wall to steady himself.

“His Lordship’s calling,” David grunted.

“Well, you won’t be seeing him in this state,” said Mrs Kemp, pulling a towel from the waistband of her apron to mop him dry. “You need a new shirt, this one is soaked through–”

“No, there isn’t time,” said David, hardly able to hear his own words through the bells.

“At least button your shirt up and tuck it in properly,” said Mrs Kemp.

“I will,” David called, skidding past her and fumbling with his buttons as he went. He shrugged on his jacket as he climbed the oak stairs two steps at a time, tripping again when he reached the landing. He pelted down the corridor, through the dining room and up the great stairs. He would answer Lord Bleakhall’s call, and then race back down to the lake, where hopefully Jim hadn’t been tricked by the lake, or worse.  

By the time he reached the top of the stairs he was bent double with agony. He forced himself to stand as upright as he could, and pushed his way through the doors to the long gallery.

“Ah, Burns,” said Lord Bleakhall, as David entered the room much more loudly than he should have. As Lord Bleakhall turned towards David, the ghastly clanging in his ears zipped into silence. David blinked, and caught himself against the doorframe.

“Apologies, my lord,” David said, turning to shut the doors properly behind him as the room blinked back into clarity.

“Yes, yes,” Lord Bleakhall was saying, “Mr Hodges told me you were preparing the artefacts.”

“Yes, my lord,” said David, turning back around, “I was–”

He stopped abruptly at the sight of Jim, who was standing next to Lord Bleakhall.

David stood rooted to the spot, trying not to let the shock and relief show on his face.

“Is he quite alright?” asked Jim, looking for all the world like he’d just sauntered indoors from a night-time stroll. Only the slight dampness in his hair and the hand he had thrust deep in his trouser pocket held a hint of what had transpired earlier. He must have come through the mirror like they had planned, but what of the bargain–

“Burns, are you quite alright?” asked Lord Bleakhall.

“I’m fine, my lord,” said David.

“Good,” said Lord Bleakhall, “Because I wanted to have a word with you on the placement of one of the items – that zither that Lady Swire brought. You should put it between the Berber locket and that Japanese conch shell horn.”

“Very good,” said David. “Will that be all, my lord?”

“Oh, and James here has finally received the item he’d sent for, for the auction,” said Lord Bleakhall. “If you could also put that away, Burns.”

Jim reached into his other pocket with his good hand and withdrew a small lacquered jewellery box. “Careful with that,” he said, as he handed it over to David.

The moment his fingers touched the box, David knew exactly what it was.

“Very good, sir,” he said, meaning it.

With a slight bow, he left the room. He retraced his steps down the great stairs and through the dining room, down the corridor and the oak stairs and the long kitchen corridor where Mrs Kemp was supervising one of the maids with the mopping. He stopped only to surprise Mrs Kemp with a kiss on the cheek.

Then he continued walking, out of the house and across the grounds. He paused by the lake and put his hand over its surface, felt it lap over his fingers one last time.

He walked on past the lake and the cottage by the oak woods, through the oak woods and the fields beyond, until, at long last, he reached the fence that marked the very edge of the Earl of Bleakhall’s estate. There were tears streaming down his face by then, but it didn’t much matter. He hopped over the fence, and stopped, then, to open the jewellery box still grasped tightly in his hand. From within the box he withdrew a silver necklace, which shimmered like the moonlight on water.

He put it on. And then he kept on walking.

——

Epilogue

It was said that a kelpie had come to dwell in Walls Loch.

This did not much perturb the people of Renfrewshire, who simply put up a few signs around the towns and villages warning not to approach strange horses, and went on with their lives. After all, it didn’t seem as if the kelpie was interested in doing much by way of luring travellers. Mostly, it just sang.

And if a quiet man with rough hands and the occasional glint of waterweed in his hair came in to the village offering help with odd jobs, they certainly didn’t turn him down. In Howwood they found he was particularly good with flower beds, and in Johnstone the local golf club appreciated his expertise in lawns and his impeccable manners. If he sat in the village pubs in the evenings he mostly kept to himself, but was pleasant to the bartenders and had a knack for soothing the more agitated drunks.

He never asked the usual questions people asked when they were thinking of putting down roots in a place. There were no inquiries about nearby flats. When the Johnstone golf club offered him a permanent position he just smiled and said he would think about it. It seemed, almost, as if he was waiting for something.

David emerged from the loch to find Jim sitting on a rock by the bank.

“You know,” said Jim, holding up his left hand, “the hospitals in Glasgow are particularly good at patching fingers back on.” He wriggled his little and ring fingers, which seemed as good as before apart from the scars running around them. “Perhaps the high incidence of kelpie sightings has something to do with that.”

“Took you long enough,” said David. As he bobbed in the water, the silver necklace around his throat glinted in the sunlight.

“Well,” said Jim. “Aren’t you coming out?”

“Aren’t you coming in?” asked David.

“Haven’t you read any of the notices about not getting lured into lakes by strange people?” asked Jim. “Also, this suit is very expensive.”

“Take it off then,” said David.

So Jim did. He climbed into the loch, and David took him in his arms and kissed him, kicking gently to keep both their heads above water.

After they had kissed for several breathless moments, Jim pulled away and pressed his cheek to David’s. Murmured in his ear: “I was about to suggest that we go back to yours, but it appears you live in a loch now.”

“Aye,” said David.

“How would you feel,” said Jim, “about coming back to mine?”

“And where’s that?”

“Well, I’ll need to stop by Shanghai to exchange some scrolls for a book, and then Malacca to deliver it – I gave up the page with my name in it, by the way, but I suspect my great-aunt would still appreciate the rest of the book. And then after that,” said Jim, “I’ll find somewhere nice.”

“James,” said David. “Are you stealing me away from this loch?”

Jim grinned his crooked little grin. “Only if you’ll let me.”

David smiled. “Well, go on then.”

(Story notes here.)

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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5 thoughts on “Returning

  1. This was a lovely story, and I really enjoyed reading it. Jim announcing that he was there to steal the scrolls was such a satisfying confirmation of what I had started to suspect, and made me go back and read that article on “The Great Chinese Art Heist” which I loved. Thanks for writing this!

    • The Great Chinese Art Heist was a huge inspiration when planning this story, so I’m really glad you spotted the link! Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to comment 🙂

    • I don’t know if this comment will be double posted because the server gave me a strange error – but thank you for your kind comment! I’m glad you liked this 🙂

  2. This is a lovely story, and that final scene where David walks off the estate is really fantastic. You do a great job showing how little regard the Bleakhalls have for him as anything but a supernatural servant and it makes that scene so powerful. He doesn’t have to SAY anything, he can just walk away.

    • Thank you for your lovely comment! That scene was something that I knew I wanted to work towards from v early on in the story, so I’m really glad it worked for you 🙂 Thanks for reading and for your kind words!

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