Where The Light’s Forgiven

by T.F. Grognon

País en que los deshechos
son amados todavía,
es la comarca sombría
donde la luz se perdona,
porque allí van las personas
del sueño a la poesía.  — Silvio Rodriguez, “Del sueño a la poesía”

 

Anthea is waiting for him when he gets off work. Leif shakes his head, tries to shoo her away, but it doesn’t do any good. She peels herself off the wall and steps in front of him. The sidewalk’s busy, it’s quitting time for people with normal work schedules, but she makes an island in the torrent of foot traffic.

“I have a job for you,” she says.

Leif keeps shaking his head and shoulders past. “Not interested.”

She stops him. “It’s a good job.”

“No,” he tells her, “it’s not. And even if it were, I’m not interested.”

She purses her lips and regards him. “Your loss.”

“Guess I’ll just risk that,” he says. Her hand drops and he finally moves forward, past her and up the sidewalk and around the corner. He has a crosstown bus to catch.

*

Three days a week, he works a double shift at the call centre before doing Seymour runs over the dinner and evening hours. Every other day, he does Seymour lunch runs, then waits out a couple hours downtown, usually at the library, before another call centre opens at five.

Seymour is a stupid name for a dumb business, bike couriers who pick up your take-out and bring it to you. Wouldn’t want you to actually have to exert the minimum effort to obtain food, after all. It runs a distant third to Uber Eats and Yummy Wheelz; it used to pay a better base wage, which is why he signed up, back when it was still known as Eat Me. Then FeedBag bought out Eat Me and it became Feed Me, then Seymour.

He had to pay for a new knapsack and helmet cover with each rebranding.

It’s late lunch now and he’s so tired he’s leaning his shoulder against the buzzer to this swanky apartment building. When someone finally picks up, he’s startled and almost forgets the scripted patter.

But if he doesn’t get it right, and the customer notices, he has to cover the cost of their food. This delivery’s from one of those new pit barbecue joints out in the old docklands; Leif has no idea how expensive it was. All he needs to know is that he couldn’t afford some coleslaw there.

Feed me, Seymour

Feed me all night long

‘Cause if you feed me, Seymour

I can grow up big and strong

He’s pretty sure no one’s paid for the rights to these lyrics. Supposedly, the legal loophole is that they’re spoken, not sung.  Leif doesn’t think the excuse would hold up in court, but who is he to say?

“Up,” the voice says and finally he’s buzzed in.

*

When he gets home after his shift at Seymour, the cat is yowling miserably from his room.

“She won’t shut up,” his housemate Robin grumbles. “She never shuts up.”

“She’s lonely,” Leif tells them and takes the stairs two at a time to his room on the second floor.  Florence hears him coming and switches up the rate of meows. “I’m coming, baby.”

When he unlocks his door and pushes inside, she’s in the middle of his unmade bed, glaring at him.

“I know, I know. Brought you sashimi to apologize,” he says, shrugging off his jacket and hanging up the front wheel of his bike on the back of the door.

“What flavor?” she asks.

“Fatty tuna.”

“Hm,” she says, and jumps off the bed with a double thump. “Acceptable. Let me see.”

He unwraps the slices he wheedled from Jenni at Downtown Omakase and places them in her bowl. Then he heads down the hall to the communal bathroom to pee, wash up, and brush his teeth.

When he returns, there’s no trace of the fish, just Florence at the foot of the bed, grooming her whiskers luxuriously.

“You can’t be so loud,” he tells her, sinking down next to her.

“I’m not that bad.”

“You’re pretty loud,” he replies and lies back, feet still on the floor. He’s so tired. She prods his ribs with her front paw, then jumps onto his chest. “Oof. And heavy.”

She swats his chin once. “Watch it.”

“Sorry,” he says. “Long day.”

“Good tips?”

“No,” he sighs and closes his eyes. “Not at all.”

She doesn’t reply. Her interest in his doings outside their room is flimsy at best and very short-lived whenever it does appear.

*

He delivers two bobas to a couple girls sitting outside in a park, then a box of sandwiches to a corporate team staying in to pound out a big project. His last run is to one of the new condo towers with a mixed shawarma plate and extra pita. He’s self-conscious as hell waiting for the elevator, sweaty from the ride and switching the food from hand to hand because the heat’s radiating out the bottom of the foil tray.

On the thirty-third floor, Anthea’s waiting for him.

“No,” Leif says.

“Extra hot sauce, double pita?”

“Oh my god,” he says, handing it to her. “Yes. Can I go now?”

“I have a job for you.”

“You’ve mentioned.”

“So why don’t you come in and we can discuss it?”

He looks around at the sterile hallway and bright, colorless light filtering in. “You live here now.”

“It’s one of my places,” she says. She tilts her head and the door behind her opens smoothly. “Come on in, I’ll give you some water. You look like you’re drowning in your own sweat. It’s repulsive.”

“Can I just go?” he asks, then bites his lip.

“Leify, Leify,” she replies. “Just listen to the job description. If you’re still not interested, no harm, no foul. But don’t you want to know?”

“I really don’t,” he says and punches the down button again.

“Couple runs for me, you could quit this…” She looks down at the food. “Whatever this is. It’s humiliating.”

“It’s fine,” he says. He hates this job. He hates it so much. He’s exhausted all the time and hardly ever home and he’s getting a distinctly uncomfortable chapping in his groin. And it’s still better than what Anthea’s offering. “Humiliation isn’t really something I worry about.”

She’s still looking at him. “No, I don’t suppose it is.”

“Right,” he says, and takes a step backward. He’s not going to turn his back on her until he absolutely has to.

“It’s something you always rather enjoyed, in fact.”

He drops his head and works his fingers in and out of fists. Not looking up, memorizing the rough pattern in the concrete floor, he says, “what’s the job, Anthea?”

*

When you’re asleep and cannot wake, and your chest is caving under a great weight, and terror floods through your dreams, and try as you might, you just can’t move, you might be experiencing a nightmare’s visit.

A mare is, variously, a demon or a fragment of a soul or a preternatural creature. Whatever it is, is less important than what it does: crush, paralyze, and frighten the sleeper. Some are feral and roam the dark looking for prey, but most are sent by magic-users to specific targets.

Leif comes from a family of mares. His sister is the only magic-wielder in four generations. The rest of them are bound to wizards, freelancing, or retired.

Then there’s Leif, who is none of those things. He’s not sure what he is.

*

“So that’s it,” he tells Florence when he gets home. He’s cross-legged on his bed, tucked into the corner, and she’s curled up in his lap. Her eyes are nearly closed, but not all the way, her ears up and alert. “Couple nights for Anthea, we’re back on our feet.”

“Tempting,” she replies. “Very tempting.”

He waits, rocking his knuckles against the side of her face, occasionally reaching back to massage her neck.

“But no,” she finishes.

“I already said yes.”

Florence’s eyes close all the way and she  rolls onto her other side, away from him.

“I need a nest egg,” he continues. “I need padding.”

“We’re doing all right,” she mutters.

“We’re barely hanging on. One more scare like last year, we’re done. You and me and a cardboard box, if we’re lucky.”

“You went straight,” she says. The pang that gives him, it’s right in the heart, and radiating outward.

“Without Wilhelm…” He can’t finish the statement. They both know very well that without a warlock’s bite, Leif has to go freelance if he wants to continue.

“You went straight,” she says again, twisting back around, fixing her yellow-eyed gaze right on him. “Wilhelm had nothing to do with it.”

“I’m still straight—” He stops and shakes his head. “I’m not straight. I’m still a good guy, though. That’s not going to change.”

Florence jumps off his lap and stalks over to the radiator under the window. She curls up in the bed there and doesn’t speak to him again.

*

Sometimes, he doubts all over again if he ever really did “go straight”. He escaped, that much is true, and rather than return to the life he’d always known, he stayed in the ordinary world. He could have gone back to his family and found another wizard who needed a mare.

“I don’t know why you don’t come home,” his mother says, every week when he calls.

“I am home,” he tells her.

She sniffs and sighs and doesn’t quite contradict him so much as ignore the statement.

“Without a magic-wielder….” she’ll start before trailing off. He can fill it in from memory: he’s nothing, he’s useless, he’s just taking up space.

He’ll look around his little room, at Florence napping on the windowsill and his bike hanging on the wall, and think, well, it’s not that much space, all told.

He doesn’t daydream any longer about telling her off. He used to want to craft the perfect sarcastic wisecrack, something that would cut her to the bone and tell the truth as plainly as possible.

“I’m doing fine,” he says instead, into the space left open by her unfinished sentence. “Not great, but just fine.”

Eventually, she’ll speak again and start telling him about what all the cousins are up to. He doesn’t need to be here for such conversations.

*

He pricks his own finger and adds a drop of blood to Anthea’s altar. He’s giving her permission to direct him, but nothing more. Wilhelm’s bite went deep and controlled Leif from the inside out: He could see through Leif’s eyes, make him roar and groan, if he wanted. He wore Leif like a suit, drove him like a beast. All Anthea can do is speak the spell that loosens Leif’s monster from his body, then point the way.

The thing is, he always liked being human. He likes blunt fingertips and being subject to gravity, dim little vision and clumsy feet. Some mares can’t bear it; his great-uncle Rudolf refused to re-enter his body in 1952 and lived in a crawlspace for the next thirty years. Leif has never minded this form.

But then the spell enfolds him, mummifying-tight and a sudden drop like an elevator with snapped cable, and he’s free. Where skin, bone, muscle had been, he’s a dense collection of black smoke and bitter thorns. Claws that curve, wings that beat, hunger that roils and yearns.

He soars as a million particles through the in-between before coagulating back into a smoky, smeary approximation of a body, up here in the corner of a bedroom ceiling.

He could be in Chicago or Caracas right now; the trip is always the same length. First, he’s specks, then a thing again, then he’s sinking onto the sleeper’s chest.

He crouches at the foot of a wide bed, an older man asleep before him. He has gray hair and softly wrinkled pink face, pinstripe pajamas and white chest hair. Leif leaps and lands on the man’s chest, so heavily that his ribs creak and the bed complains. He startles once, then tries to lift his head, but his eyes stay closed, even as his mouth opens on a snore than breaks into a whimper. Leif shifts, growing heavier, his fore-claws digging into the man’s shoulders, then the sides of his neck.

Easy, easy, Anthea says.

Leif growls a little and loosens his hold. He moves a little downward, so most of his weight comes to rest on the man’s diaphragm. The man can’t draw a full breath. His eyes dart rapidly under his fluttering lids. The smell of fear is sharp and sudden in the room. Sweat’s broken out all over his face. His mouth closes, then opens again, gasping.

Leif could drink out the last of his breath. He could rise and drop, again and again, heavy as a boulder, until ribs crack and pierce the skin. He could devour.

For now, he just watches fear writhe beneath the man’s skin, struggling to escape.

It’s good to be back.

*

He comes to, arm flailing, on Anthea’s couch. She sits in an absurdly ornate wing chair before him, legs crossed, hair pouring down her front.

“Not bad,” she says. “Money’s on the side table, unless you prefer PayPal?”

Leif’s mouth is sour, his stomach unruly. He scrubs both hands over his face and tries to get to his feet. “Cash is fine, thanks.”

He stumbles a little and she grabs his hand. “Thank you,” she says. “Pleasure working with you.”

He tries not to shudder. He can still feel hints of her, like clouds of gnats at the back of his head, down his front. The witch doesn’t so much steer the mare as get him primed and let him loose. That’s enough, now, to leave him feeling exhausted, flecked with sweat, and very much used.

The dawn has yet to break when he gets outside. Night air is still cool against his face and, despite his tiredness and confusion, he decides to walk all the way home.

In the days that follow, he can’t stop remembering what it felt like. Dark and unbound, crouched to feed, break, watch, something utterly wild and hungry.

He should be better than this. He thought he was better than this, but maybe he was fooling himself.

*

Anthea employs him several times over the next several weeks. Those who have been cursed are usually older, in nice bedrooms with fine linens. Leif expects that it’s not cheap to curse someone, but he doesn’t know Anthea’s rate. Wilhelm had a scale, depending on how much latitude he was given to mess with the cursed one. Sometimes he just sent Leif into people’s beds for fun.

Anthea is more sensible about business. Either she’s not as ambitious as Wilhelm, or (and this is more likely) she’s not as foolish and arrogant. She’s arrogant, of course; there isn’t a magic-user alive or dead who isn’t. Humility and magic spring apart like magnets.

All those he’s visited have been men so far. That might not mean anything, or it might be deliberate on her part. Maybe she uses someone else for women and others who have been cursed. A delicate chemistry exists, he’s always been told, between a mare and the cursed. A mare can haunt anyone, of course; there’s nothing to stop it. But for the maximum possible effect, then there are considerations.

You have to have a certain predisposition to cruelty, far greater than an ordinary mare’s, to haunt children, for instance. Some excel at this; Leif’s own father dabbled in it, though one never would have guessed upon meeting him in his soft-spoken, sag-shouldered human form.

In his personal life, such as it is, Leif is into men. This translates to a particular effectiveness on men, whether or not he is actually attracted to them. He rarely is attracted, although Willie often maintained otherwise: You can’t get enough of them, can you? Eat them up, all of them, you’d take them all if I wasn’t there.

Leif knew that wasn’t true, but he also knew, just as strongly, that he couldn’t argue and win.

“It’s all hunger,” Wilhelm liked to say, “sex and haunting, eating and killing.”

Growing up, Leif’s family explained the situation differently. They weren’t going to talk about sex, let alone gay sex, so the different varieties of intimacy and effect were cloaked in vague terms like sympathy and resonance.

What he does is no seduction. He pins them, unconscious and pliant, and takes his time hungering and scaring. Sometimes they get hard, sometimes they piss themselves. He crushes them in his claws, chokes them with the caustic smoke, heavy with cinders and bristles, that composes his form.

When he’s finished, sometimes it is like he’s been fucking: he’s tired, loose, a little clumsy. But there’s never anything like afterglow, no hint, nothing near satiation. Just more hunger, a wider maw, a deeper void.

Wilhelm used to take care of that. He’d be as agitated and aroused as Leif, he’d murmur spells and draw them in the air with his finger until the magic surrounded them, crackling and radiant, like barbed wire heated red and glowing.

Now, after sessions with Anthea, Leif goes home and sleeps face-down. Florence settles on the small of his back, keeps him in place, prevents him falling all the way apart.

*

He met Wilhelm at a family reunion in Maryland. Leif was seventeen, Wilhelm in his early twenties. He was haggard and handsome, hair somehow both pale and muddy, like the water in which paintbrushes sit.

“You,” he said to Leif when the cousins were out on a playground, sneaking beers and sharing joints, “I could do a lot with you.”

He was Leif’s first boyfriend, though not his first kiss or first sexual experience. Both of those were with Luke Dell’Accio on the municipal baseball team the summer before. Willie was the first magic-user, though, that Leif had ever been close to.

They moved in together in Baltimore that fall.

“Magic recognizes no boundaries,” Willie told him early on. “I have no limits.”

He meant that in every way.

Magic is the ability, combined with the will, to go anywhere, do anything. Wilhelm loved magic more than anything else, including his own safety, with the fervent, oblivious arrogance of a child dashing into the street. He poked and prodded at what seemed like limits, turned them inside out, shredded them to glittering confetti.

Leif was one probe among many; Willie used him to frighten and control not only his enemies but strangers, just to see what would happen.

*

Tonight’s target is younger than the rest, maybe even slightly younger than Leif himself. Leif hovers at the ceiling, putting off the usual descent. The target sleeps on his side, arm pillowed under his head; he’s shirtless and looks fairly well-built. The sheet is tangled baroquely around his waist and legs. In the dimness of the room, the sheet glows dully against his dark skin.

The cursed guy stirs a little, frowning in sleep, then relaxing again.

Who would curse this guy? He looks innocent. Handsome, a sweet smile on his lips, long lashes brushing his cheeks.

He’s too old for this room. Young as he is, no one past the age of ten sleeps in a race-car bed. There are posters of dinosaurs on the wall and cubbies overflowing with plushies and stuffed animals.

Get out, Anthea hisses, and Leif nearly shrieks as she yanks him back.

He slams back into his body and hits the floor hard. “The fuck?”

“Wrong guy,” she says, scowling. “What the fuck, how did that even happen?”

“He was cute,” Leif says.

She rolls her eyes. “Really not the point.”

He pushes up to his feet, his head swimming. “Just saying.”

She’s flipping angrily through a grimoire. “So glad you enjoyed it, that’s all I want for you.”

“Hey,” Leif says, “I take pleasure where I can find it, okay?”

Anthea sets the grimoire aside. “Don’t fucking pull that shit.”

“What shit?”

She narrows her eyes. “Your old shit, feeling them up, molesting, whatever.”

“I never—”

“Right, right, it was never your fault,” she says.

*

Leif doesn’t think about the past very much. There isn’t much point. When he does consider about his old life, it is the smaller, more superficial qualities that he misses. He doesn’t miss Willie, not much, not usually (and when he does, he feels guilty about it), but he does miss having someone to wake up next to. He doesn’t miss the night rides, but he does miss the brief, wild intimacy with sleeping bodies: hot breath on the target’s face, claws curling into their shoulders, minute shifts that produced larger movements, quakes, shudders.

He doesn’t have anything to show for himself in this new life. Besides a payday loan that’s gone to three different collection agencies, that is, and a cat who doesn’t particularly care for him. On the other hand, he also doesn’t have much of anything to regret.

It’s hard to keep believing this was the right choice, especially because it doesn’t feel like much of a choice at all. His new life is more a succession of accidents and stumbles that happened serially than it is a product of deliberation and choice.

*

“Hey, man, sorry, you can’t sleep here.” The guy smiling down at Leif looks sheepish, almost apologetic, like he’s the one breaking the rules. He also looks familiar.

He was just going to wait at the library in the periodicals room for a few hours between shifts. God knows how long he’s been asleep.

Apologizing, knuckling his eyes, Leif squints. The guy’s dressed like anyone, blue button-down shirt tucked into worn black jeans. He’s light-skinned, hair in short twists, cheekbones really prominent.

He’s the cute target, the wrong one.

“What are you doing here?” Leif blurts.

His eyes go wide. “I work here? Do I know you?”

Shit. Leif rubs his mouth. “No, sorry. I’m just out of it, wires crossed in my brain.”

“Ah, okay. Well—”

“Happens when someone wakes you up,” Leif adds, grinning.

Guy ducks his head for a second, acknowledging that. “Sorry.”

“Nah, it’s okay, obviously I shouldn’t have—”

“Yeah,” he says. “Don’t sleep here, okay? I’m the nice one on staff and I’m off in…” He checks his watch. “Ten minutes.”

“I promise,” Leif says. “No more dozing off.”

His smile is so wide and bright, Leif has to return it. “You need anything? Token, maybe a sandwich?”

“Oh, shit. No!” That was too loud. The guy takes a step back and Leif’s cheeks burn. “I’m not homeless. I’m just really tired.”

“Okay, okay, no worries.” He holds up his hands a little and smiles more gently. “Just thought I’d check.”

“That’s incredibly sweet of you,” Leif tells him. “What are you, like a monk or something?”

He frowns a little, uncertainly, then grins when Leif smiles and waves the joke away. “Yeah, I’d make a terrible monk. No, I’m just—” He shrugs. “Lotta people need help.”

“Yeah, true,” Leif says, sitting forward, trying to close the gap between them. “Listen, if you’re clocking out soon — wait, are you a librarian?”

“Yeah, that’s generally who works in a library,” the guy replies.

“Aw, I see,” Leif says, “a smartass, huh?”

“Been told that, yeah.”

“A lot?”

“All the time, actually.”

“Why would you make such a bad monk?”

He laughs and shakes his head, squeezing Leif’s shoulder. “That’s a saga and a half, trust me.”

Leif wants to grab his hand between both of his own and not let go. Just squeeze it and hold on and keep looking up at this guy.

“Listen, can I buy you a drink?”

“What, right now?”

“When you’re off work,” Leif says. “Listen, I’m not crazy, I promise.”

“Well, that’s good to hear,” he replies.

God, he’s adorable. Leif’s an asshole and a monster, and a monstrous asshole, and the only good thing to do here is apologize. Let the guy go and work like hell to forget him.

“Sorry, I’m flubbing this,” Leif says.

“What?”

“Flubbing. It means, I think, making a mess of…”

“No, I meant, what is it you’re flubbing?”

Our future together. Leif doesn’t say this, but it’s a close thing, and he really wants to. He wants to lean in, finger the guy’s button band, look him right in the eye, and say that.

He doesn’t think in terms of the future any longer. He can’t.

“Asking you out,” he says, misery creeping sour and slow down his throat. “Sorry, man.”

“I’ll go out with you. But you’ve got to stop apologizing.”

“Sorry.”

“Dude.”

“Shit.”

“I’m Carver.” He holds out his hand to shake; his fingers are long, his palm broad and pink.

“Hi,” Leif says. “Leif.”

“Like the Viking?”

Leif scowls. “Carver, like the peanut guy?”

He doesn’t let go of Leif’s hand, just winks and grins. “Fair point, sorry.”

“Where am I taking you out to?”

“I could eat,” Carver says. “You?”

“Always.”

*

When he’s with Anthea, he knows what to expect. He doesn’t like it very much, but it’s familiar. She speaks to him impatiently at the best of times, viciously at others. Riding like he does is exhausting; he’s never known a magic-wielder to understand that (let alone be willing to try to understand). So when he stumbles afterward, or loses focus during the haunt, he’s not misbehaving. He’s not, as Willie frequently claimed, doing it for attention and sympathy.

“They have other things on their minds,” his mom used to say, back when he was still a teenager and learning how to use his skills. “You can’t expect them to coddle you.”

Anthea doesn’t accuse of him of goldbricking or faking; in that, she’s a lot better than most. She is, however, so palpably testy with him that Leif isn’t sure if the difference is all that significant. He’s so familiar with this that his mind can, and does, fill in the space between her irritability and what he suspects she really feels.

“Stop hovering, for fuck’s sake!”

“Sorry,” Leif says and steps back. There’s not far for him to go in Anthea’s tiny little office, but he tries.

She bends over her desk, moving aside slippery stacks of papers and magazines and muttering to herself. He wonders, but is careful not to ask, why she doesn’t just do a finding spell to locate what she needs.

“Here!” She shoves another messy stack of paper, mostly hot pink, with a few jaundice green in the middle, at his chest. “Hand these out with your deliveries. Hang them in your neighborhood.”

“What is this?”

“Flyers,” she says, turning back to her desk. “I need to get them distributed and guarantee ten tickets at least.”

WITCHLESQUE, the heavy black graphic reads, below  a line drawing of a stripper wearing a pointy hat hanging off a pole.

“Right, but what is this?”

Anthea sighs as she leans against the desk. “I have facets, you know.”

“All right.”

“I need to express myself.” She bats her bangs out of her eyes and glares at him.

Leif rolls the stack up and stows it inside his jacket. “Cool.”

“You bring a date,” she says, “I’ll kick up your pay by three percent.”

“Five,” he says while on his way to the front door.

Anthea bangs her fist against the wall, but this feels more like a performance of irritation than her usual annoyance. “Fine, whatever, just make sure you hand them out.”

“Consider it done,” he tells her just as the door closes between them.

*

Carver pokes him with his index finger and says, “tell me what’s on your mind or I’m taking your dumpling.”

After they shared a pizza across from the library, they traded numbers. Leif had to get to work, but he spent his entire shift thinking about Carver. Not just about his looks, about what he’d taste like, but about him, whatever that meant, his kindness and sense of humor.

They texted for a couple days, until Carver finally wrote, Are you gonna go out with me or just be my new tamagotchi? When Leif didn’t reply, he followed up with, Get it? Digital friend who lives in my pocket. And then, I really want to make a joke here about getting into your pants but I can’t get the segue to work.

Leif didn’t let himself think too hard; he wrote back and suggested the all-day dim sum place. But now he’s here, squeezed between a wall and the garbage-bag-covered table, and he he has no idea what he’s doing. Who does he think he is, trying to date? This whole exercise is absurd. How is he supposed to date someone? What does he possibly know about this?

Leif shrugs. “I dunno, crisis of confidence. What am I even doing?”

“Breathing,” Carver suggests. “Eating delicious dim sum. Ogling me and my amazing face.”

He laughs and can’t help it. “All very true.”

Carver grins.

“I’m pretty obvious, huh?” Leif says. He hasn’t stopped worrying, but he’s relaxing, moment by moment. This doesn’t have to be impossible.

“Nobody knows anything, though,” Carver says. He’s got a dumpling pinched in his chopsticks, hovering about halfway to his mouth. (His mouth is so lovely, too, curvy and a little swollen. Slick and shiny.) “Nobody knows what they’re doing.”

“You think?”

“Man, I know.” Carver pops the rest of the dumpling into his mouth and chews while pouring out more tea. When he has swallowed, he adds, musingly, “Some people are really good at faking it, that’s all.”

“Like you?”

“Me?” He looks surprised. “Hell, no.”

“Really?”

“Really and truly. You know how it is—maybe this is just me, I don’t know, but—”

“Try me.”

Carver grins at that, bobs his head. “In junior high, I had this friend. Acquaintance, more like. Crush. Definitely crush.”

“And?” Leif asks. “What was he like?”

Rubbing his chin slowly, back and forth, Carver smiles a little. “Man, he was great. Math whiz, soccer player, one of those kids who does everything right. Just gets it right, no effort.”

“Ew,” Leif says. “Hate them.”

Carver snorts. “Yeah. Anyway, years later—”

“Years, huh? Aren’t you like five years out of junior high?”

Carver clears his throat and points his index finger across the table. He looks like a hot Black Uncle Sam on a recruitment poster. “If you believe that, then you’re the one willingly dating a kid, which, I mean. Creepy.”

Leif sits back. “Shit, good point. Okay, you’re as old and wizened and beat-up as the rest of us. Continue with your story.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it, sonny.” Carver takes another big bite of prawn and spinach. When he’s done, he sighs. “Years later, like, end of college, I find out the kid’s had anxiety disorders forever. Plucked out his eyebrows, most of his hair, dropped out of college, everything.”

“Oh,” Leif says. “God, that sucks.”

Nodding, Carver shrugs a little. “Just goes to show, I think. None of us have it figured out. And, this is probably stupid, but we should probably try to remember that? Give each other a hand instead of assuming shit we can’t possibly know.”

“I really shouldn’t have made that joke, huh?”

“About hating him? Nah, man, half the time I hated him, too.” He leans over, about to confide something, so Leif leans in to meet him. Carver grins, hoots softly, and steals Leif’s last two crispy chicken pieces. He’s still chewing when he says, “Hated how much I loved him, that is.”

Leif starts laughing again, hard enough that his stomach cramps a little. Carver puts on a show of faux-modesty, all bowed head and murmured thanks, but he’s grinning throughout.

It shouldn’t be this easy, Leif thinks, this shouldn’t be easy at all. Of course, he tells himself, it will feel easy when he has no idea what you really are.

*

Willie’s capacity for magic was already massive, but he sought more experience, greater power, deeper understanding of…whatever it’s called. The mysteries. The underlying contradictions spiralling around each other that, taken together, constitute the heart of reality and structure the veil between mere perception and true mastery.

Leif always thought Willie sounded ridiculous when he got going like this. He might as well have perched on some Gothic outcropping and shouted his ambitions to lightning storms above, that was how grandiose he sounded.

The nice part about being just a tool was that Leif didn’t have to pay much attention to the mage’s speeches. He could wait it out, take a nap, and when Willie was done, he’d crawl into bed and nuzzle the nape of Leif’s neck until he stirred awake. Willie held him tightly, whispering hoarsely, as Leif’s cock filled his hand and his breath came quick.

Sometimes Willie fucked him while Leif was out of his body. He’d be miles and miles away, a knot of black smoky hunger bearing down on some poor bastard’s chest, and Willie would be taking him from behind, pushing deep into Leif’s empty human form. He’d return to raw pain and tingling aftersparks of unavoidable orgasm. If he complained, it was only because, he told Willie, he didn’t want to miss the fun.

If he were listening, Willie might shrug, but even that was asking too much. He liked a dumb, pliable body ever so often and didn’t see where Leif had any reason to complain.

*

Their second date, they go to a flea market in the park, boggle at the high prices for crappy vintage items, and quickly find a taqueria instead.

“What about you?” Carver asks as they leave the restaurant. The evening is cool, the light somehow weighty and tinged with lavender. They’d been talking about Carver’s boyfriend in library school who flung himself headlong into Big Data and never looked back.

“Me?”

Carver stops him and reaches around to fix the collar of Leif’s jacket. “Yeah, you.”

“What about me?”

Carver knocks their shoulders together. “Relationships…I dunno. What kind of heartbreak’s in your past?”

“That’s a very specific question.”

“Sorry?”

“No, it’s okay. Just struck me.”

“You seem—” At the corner, Carver pauses. Leif notices how his feet in their red high tops curve over the curb. When he looks up, Carver’s biting his lower lip and looking closely at him. “There’s a sense of something old-fashioned about you? Melancholy.”

“Huh. My humors are all very well-balanced, I assure you.”

Carver laughs and knocks into him again, shoulder and elbow this time, then does it again. “Well, that’s good news. Glad to hear it.”

When they’re across the intersection, Leif checks the time. “Where are we going?”

“Why, got somewhere to be?”

There are four texts from Anthea sitting unread in his phone. “Nowhere in particular, nope.”

“Good,” Carver says, “because I’m going to buy us some dessert and then I was thinking we could go back to my place and get busy.”

“Get busy?”

“It’s a casual, no-pressure way of saying I really want to kiss you,” Carver says. “Which, in itself, is another way of saying I kind of can’t wait to get my mouth all over you.”

“Oh,” Leif says, grinning, flushing, standing stock-still in the middle of the sidewalk. “Oh.”

They stop at a corner store for a box of Melona bars, then Carver leads him to a big apartment building.

“You live here?” Leif asks. He remembers the kid’s room, the race-car bed, and wonders what he’s in for.

“That’s what the lease says,” Carver replies, grinning over his shoulder as he works open the top three locks.

“Sorry—”

“No more apologies, dude, it’s wack.”

“Right, right.” He runs his hand back and forth through his hair. “I’m nervous?”

That probably shouldn’t have been a question.

Carver’s stowing away the popsicles and washing his hands in the tiny kitchen opposite the door. “I’ll be gentle, don’t worry.”

“Ha,” Leif says. “What if I don’t want you to be?”

“Well, man, I believe…” Carver dries his hands on a red gingham towel, then carefully hangs it back up. “That’s the whole idea behind negotiation, right?”

“Yeah,” Leif says, swallowing a couple times. “True.”

“Living room’s down that way,” Carver says, pointing to the left, “bathroom’s down here, then there’s my roommate’s room, you don’t want to see that horror show, and, finally, the sanctum sanctorum, the one place you’ve been dying to see, the one and only room de moi.” He says the last in the most ridiculous French accent this side of Inspector Clouseau and suddenly Leif isn’t nervous any more.

He is nervous, of course, but he’s not scared, that’s the difference. He’s laughing, he’s following Carver down the hall, he’s getting close and then Carver’s stopping short, leaning against the closed door and grabbing at Leif’s waist, pulling him close, kissing him right away. It’s like they’ve been kissing this whole time; this is just a shift closer, no jolt or quake, but a deepening and spreading. They’re pressed together, groins to mouths, hands roving up and down each other’s arms and sides, and they’re still laughing, even joking, groaning a little, into each other’s mouths.

Leif’s head swims, he stumbles a little, and Carver slides his mouth up to Leif’s ear as he reaches back to open the door and draw Leif inside. “Gotcha,” he says and he’s teasing, his voice warm with laughter.

His room isn’t anything like the room in which Leif first saw him. It’s neat, for one thing, with two groaning bookshelves and a double bed spread with a green quilt.

“Been here long?” Leif asks, wandering the small space.

“Last spring we had to clear out for bedbug bombing, but otherwise, yeah.”

“Where’d you go?”

Carver’s sitting on the edge of his bed, leaning over to untie his sneakers. “Should we talk real estate?”

“Nah,” Leif says, joining him on the bed, one knee in the mattress. He touches the side of Carver’s face, cups his cheek, really lets himself soak in the man’s proximity and beauty. “Maybe later.”

“Cool.” Carver’s smile pulls Leif closer again. When they tumble onto their sides, the bed squeaks and sighs.

*

One night, Leif had just dropped back into his body when he heard low, angry groans coming from Willie’s office. He tried to sit up, but red smoke, awash with crackling sparks, forced him back down.

He still doesn’t understand why he fled. Everything he’d ever known and been taught told him to go toward the magic. But when the cat, her back ablaze, leapt over him for the window, Leif followed. He caught up with her on the fire escape and grabbed her, embracing her tightly to dampen the flames and keep her close.

She wasn’t impressed, nor was she grateful. The names she called him as he climbed down the ladder could have curdled milk in a mother’s breast.

They’d never gotten along, exactly. But when he dropped to the sidewalk, then dashed across the street just as the apartment exploded, she stopped trying to get away. He slid down the wall between the florist’s and the corner store, knees drawn up, and she curled against his chest. Together, they watched fire trucks arrive, and ambulances, and, in more discreet vehicles, other wizards.

“Let’s go,” Florence whispered when the third black sedan pulled up.

“Where?”

“Away,” she said, “anywhere.”

She gazed up at him, the fire reflecting in her big eyes (one green, one gold). That was when he realized he couldn’t feel Wilhelm’s claim any longer. He was free, though it felt downright strange. Like wearing clothing several sizes too big: he could go anywhere, do anything, but he didn’t know how to move, how not to trip and fall.

“You feel that?” he asked.

She blinked slowly, then turned her head to look down the street in the opposite direction. “Keep going until I say stop.”

“You can walk!”

“I’m injured,” she said, then added a small, sad ‘mew’ for emphasis.

Later, he learned that Wilhelm had been attempting to contact Thoth when the fire happened. Other accounts held that Wilhelm’s alchemical supplies had imploded. Leif’s mother maintained that he wasn’t gone at all, merely hiding in some disembodied way, executing a very long con of some sort.

She could believe that because Leif never told anyone about the bond lifting and releasing him. He didn’t think it was anyone’s business, first of all. Furthermore, if the community believed he might still be subject to Wilhelm, no one could try to poach him.

He can sell his talents to Anthea or anyone else, and always could. Their control over him is far less thorough and intense than the bond  allowed Wilhelm to enjoy. Anthea is a mere voice in his ear compared to Wilhelm’s ability to bridle, whip, and drive him breathless.

*

On their next date, Leif meets up with Carver at the library. They haven’t decided yet what their plans are.

Leif asks, “Eat, maybe?”

“Hang out?” Carver says at the same time.

“Is that one of your euphemisms?”

Carver shifts his bag and grins. “It wasn’t, but it is now. My place?”

Back in Carver’s room, they don’t bother turning on the lights. There’s light from the street filtering in, and it’s hard to get lost in the few strides it takes from door to bed. Carver hops backward, shrugging off his jacket and kicking off his shoes just as he hits the bed and bounces back.

Leif has lost one shoe and half his sweater when he stumbles and lands on top of Carver. He wiggles until he’s awkwardly straddling one of Carver’s legs, then pushes up so he can get his sweater the rest of the way off. Carver might think he’s helping, hands on Leif’s waistband and fly; it’s distracting and exhilarating and many wonderful things. But not helpful.

Leif leans down and kisses him, reaching between them as he does. He means to grab Carver’s hand, maybe slow him down, but instead Carver rolls his hips and laughs and now Leif’s trying to open his fly and neither of them is getting very far at all. They grunt in frustration and keep kissing and fumbling.

“Goddamn,” Carver says, finally going still. Leif tries to take a full breath and pulls up a little, bracing his hand on the window frame. Carver has his hands on Leif’s hips and his nails dig in.

“I’m not stopping,” Leif says.

“Good. Just—wait a second?”

“Why?”

The window frame has been painted so many times that it’s curved under Leif’s palm.

Carver rolls his hips again and they both gasp. “Want to look at you.”

“I’m right here.”

“Yeah,” Carver says, one hand going up into the back of Leif’s hair, the other around to his ass, so he’s pulling and tugging Leif from a couple directions until they’re kissing again. Their pants are open—Leif’s tugged all the way off to one ankle—and their erections brushing and glancing but not touching, not fully, and Leif groans when Carver’s fingertips dip into his crack and stroke downward.

He’s going to tip over, he knows he is, his grip on the window isn’t enough. But Carver’s sliding downward, twisting a little to grab stuff from his desk, then sliding down more, until his mouth is on the crease of Leif’s thigh and both hands are on his ass. He’s slicking his fingers messily and sucking at Leif’s hipbone until Leif bucks and gasps and Carver takes him in his mouth.

He’s looking up, probably blindly, who knows, frowning a little in concentration as he sucks kisses down the side of Leif’s shaft, then pushes his lips over the head just as he works a thumb inside Leif’s ass. Hot and soft in the front, then hot and knobby in back, always insistent but never forceful.

Leif sways, heat and need opening up throughout him, spreading him wide, pouring him forward. He rolls his forehead against his arm, folded now against the wall, his hips working anxiously forward then back, a jittery rocking motion that doesn’t do anything to relieve the desire, just works him up more.

He thinks of Carver’s mouth, all the kissing they’ve done, how he ought to have known this would feel superb, and yet how great it is remains a surprise, a plunge into parts unknown.

Carver’s smirking, looking very pleased with himself, as he pulls off Leif’s cock and sits up a little, guiding Leif towards his lap. “Now that, I could do forever.”

“Go for it,” Leif says, hoarsely, air not quite making it to his lungs.

“Got a better idea.” Carver’s still got three fingers inside him, down to the last knuckle, and Leif bears down, then up, scraping up more pleasure. “That’s it! You’re a fucking genius, you know that?”

He is sure and firm; against him, Leif is all the more desperate and undone, a loose patchwork collection of sensation and craving.

“Do that again,” Carver says, biting his lip, looking up at him. “Fuck. Just like that.”

He spreads his legs, draws one up a little so his foot is flat on the mattress. Leif goes up a little higher, brings Carver’s hand with him, then, when Carver opens his mouth, before he can say anything, he’s lowering himself and Carver is pulling his hand free to line up his cock; when Leif finds the head, it’s bigger, hotter, than he was expecting, and Carver’s muttering into Leif’s skin, teeth and tongue and voice cracking, as they work together, Leif going down, Carver pushing slowly up.

Carver’s other hand is back in Leif’s hair, pulling him down to kiss some more. He is bent in about ten, twelve, different places and he wishes he could crack bones, bend more, completely take whatever Carver wants to give him.

“Good?” Carver asks against Leif’s chin.

“Fuck,” is the best Leif can do by way of reply, and Carver groans when Leif starts to move, grinding down, fucking himself rapidly on Carver’s cock. The window glass shakes in its frame.

“Really good,” Carver says, one hand twisted in Leif’s hair, the other gripping his hip, and he pulls harder, crushes Leif against him so he can thrust upwards, again and again, so fast and deep that Leif’s mouth opens on a moan and stays hanging open, his eyes rolling back.

He comes, out of the blue, or entirely predictably, his brain can’t function on logic yet, with a blaze that’s white and come that splatters Carver’s chest. After several more grinding thrusts, corkscrewing more pleasure up inside Leif, Carver comes too, wrapping both arms around Leif’s waist and shaking.

*

The next day is Saturday; Carver doesn’t have to work, and Leif doesn’t have his call centre shift until late in the afternoon.

He could lie here all day, enjoying the scent of Carver on the sheets, watching the sun cross the high ceiling in lemon-colored blocks. Except he’s starving and  Florence must be, too.

“Aw, love ’em and leave ’em, that’s your style?” Carver asks when he returns to find Leif pulling on his shirt and looking around for his shoes.

“Who said anything about leaving?”

“But love’s still on the table?” Carver asks and Leif choke-laughs. “Rad.”

“No, man, I have to feed the cat.”

“You’ve got a cat,” Carver says flatly.

“Yeah.”

“Really?”

His shoe is lodged under Carver’s desk. Leif tugs it free and hops on the other foot to pull it on. “Yeah, wanna see a picture?”

“Rather meet it in person.”

“What?”

Carver’s left eyebrow jumps up as he plants his fists on his hips. “Is it too early?”

“In the day?”

“In the relationship.”

“This is a relationship?” Leif asks and hears himself like he’s underwater and someone else is speaking to him. Carver grabs his hand and all of a sudden they’re against the wall, right next to the doorframe, kissing again. Urgently, like they’re running out of time, or air, or both; Leif’s hand is twisting up Carver’s shirt while Carver’s grabbing Leif’s ass and squeezing hard enough to smash a fruit.

“This, my friend, my buddy, my pal, is whatever you want it to be,” Carver tells him when they come up for air. He grins goofily and drops a kiss on Leif’s nose. “But it’s definitely something, don’t you think so?”

Don’t think, Leif tells himself, stop thinking. Just be.

“…Or maybe not, my bad,” Carver adds, gaze dropping, and Leif realizes he’s been silent too long.

“I know so,” he says and Carver just looks at him for a moment, his eyes wide and his grin wider and Leif’s pulse beats in every single pore across his skin.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Carver says at last, kissing him again, arm around his waist. “Now, lead the way, I must meet your cat.”

“She’s not my cat,” Leif tries to explain on the walk, then the streetcar ride. “She’s more like my roommate.”

“Cat ladies always says that,” Carver scoffs, as he executes the stretch arms over your head, then drop one around your partner move familiar from teen movies and old sitcoms.

“I’m not a cat lady, though.”

“They also tend to say that.” Carver tightens his arm a little, then settles back.

“No, seriously—”

“Is this a gender thing? Do you want to be a cat daddy instead?” He frowns, trying to look serious. “I’m not sure, we could try that…?”

“She belonged to my ex,” Leif says. “But she and I, we’re more…friends. No owning.”

“Oh,” Carver says, smiling as he understands. “That’s really cool.”

“Well, hold that thought until you meet her,” Leif says quickly. “I’m not sure what kind of mood she’ll be in.”

*

If he doesn’t make an appearance at Anthea’s show, Leif knows he’ll catch hell. Carver was surprisingly enthusiastic about the prospect of amateur themed burlesque.

“Wow,” Carver says as he looks around the narrow space. They’re in a tiny black box theater far out in the west end. “This certainly is an aesthetic.”

Leif only realizes how nervous he is now. He starts to follow Carver down the narrow, irregular aisle. The seating is composed of old sofas and wing chairs and settees, threadbare and swaybacked.

“Be right back,” he calls, and Carver stops, turns, looks surprised. Maybe disappointed? But that’s probably not the case.

Leif buys two bottles of shitty beer and threads his way back toward the front. It’s getting more crowded in here by the moment.

“Here,” he says, when he reaches Carver and hands him the beer. “To, um. Having a good time?”

“A great time,” Carver says and clinks their bottles together.

Leif wants Carver to have an excellent time. That’s completely normal, but there’s something about the fervency of his wish that’s catching him by surprise. He wants Carver to enjoy himself, to think well of Leif, all of that. These simple, perfectly ordinary hopes are so elementary that Leif isn’t sure what to do with them. Each time another makes itself known, he’s almost embarrassed.

“C’mere,” Carver says. He’s in a big, overupholstered armchair. “Saved you a spot.”

“Where?”

He grins and opens his legs. “Right here, babe.”

He’s ridiculous but also irresistible. “God,” Leif says, “you’re smooth as hell, you know that?”

“Nah,” Carver says, guiding Leif down so that he’s squeezed against one arm of the chair, his leg hooked over Carver’s.

“Yeah.”

“Maybe?” Carver lifts his arm out of the way, lets Leif wriggle back, then drapes it around his shoulder. “Maybe you’re just a good influence on me.”

“Oh, man,” Leif says, shaking his head a little.

“Think about it,” Carver says, lips right on Leif’s ear, so the sound and the import and the touch race through Leif’s body and across his nerves.

“Oh, I am,” Leif tells him. “I really am.”

The show is strange, and that might be deliberate, an artistic decision, or it might be accidental. The fact that he can’t tell is probably not a good sign.

When the acts change, Carver puts his mouth right at Leif’s ear and asks, “is this doing anything for you?”

“Like how?”

“Like erotically. Like in the pants department,” Carver says, so seriously that Leif barks out a laugh.

“No,” Leif says as soon as he can. “Should it?”

“I thought it might. Maybe?” Carver sounds vaguely disappointed, but whether that’s with himself or Leif, Leif can’t tell.

Leif turns a little and says, as quietly as he can because the stage lights are going back up, “you wanted to get me in the mood?”

Carver grins and wrinkles his nose.

“You don’t need help with that,” Leif tells him, then turns back to face the stage, bringing Carver’s arm around his waist.

“No?”

“No way. Now shush.”

“That’s my line,” Carver whispers and bites lightly on Leif’s earlobe. “I’m the librarian.”

Someone in the row behind them really does shush them then. Leif tries to be polite and watch the performance, but he’s almost entirely preoccupied by the fact of Carver’s body. How warm and firm it is, how close. He runs his knuckles up and down the wale of Carver’s cords, while Carver’s touch drifts just under Leif’s shirt hem, light enough to tickle before coming to rest over his navel. Leif moves a little with each breath that Carver takes, the motion radiating outward, drawing Leif in.

*

There’s no reason Carver should be so kind to him. There’s no good reason why Carver shouldn’t have hightailed it out of Leif’s life the first chance he got.

Leif can’t understand why Carver’s sticking around. There’s nothing in it for him.

“He’s not a cat,”  Florence says when she has finished her pre-bedtime bath.

“I’ve noticed that,” Leif says and reaches to turn off the light.

“Excuse me, I’m talking.”

“You have excellent night vision!” Leif drops his hand, however.

“He’s not a cat,”  Florence repeats. “You humans, you’re different.”

“I’m not human.”

Her left ear twitches and she suddenly grooms her whiskers again. WHen she has finished, she stands up, turns three times in a circle, and settles back down in exactly the same position. “You’re mostly human. Human where it counts.”

“Where’s that?”

She stretches out both front legs, a pose that always reminds him of Superman in flight. “Weakness,” she replies. “Cats don’t care, they’re not weakened by need and affection.”

He thinks that over. The proposition feels right, though he can’t say why. Teasingly, he asks, “You don’t care about me?”

She has her chin resting on her front legs, neck extended, but she deigns to open one eye. “You’re better than most, I’ll say that.”

“I love you, too,” Leif tells her. He’s joking, of course, but as soon as he says it, he knows that statement, too, is true. She hisses softly but lets him stroke her head precisely twelve times before rolling out of reach.

“Get the light,” she says. “Some of us are trying to sleep.”

*

Carver likes to doze after sex, but he always wakes up with something to say. Leif’s lying on his side, half-skimming Instagram, half-watching Carver sleep when Carver stirs.

“Was it a bad breakup?”

Just like that, apparently he’s awake. Leif snorts with laughter. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Is there anything I should know?”

“What do you mean? About him?”

Carver puts his palm on Leif’s chest and spreads his fingers. “No, more like…anything you need me to know? Anything I should avoid doing? Saying?”

“Really?” Leif asks.

Carver’s frown is slight, and it disappears quickly, but it’s unmistakable. “Yes, really. Of course. I get the sense that he…” He looks away, then back. “He wasn’t exactly the best or healthiest for you.”

“He was into some pretty dark stuff,” Leif says. That is simultaneously not a lie and such a superficial version of the truth as to be nearly meaningless. He should tell Carver the truth, but he doesn’t know how.

“Well,” Carver says as he chafes his palm back and forth over his hair, “he’s in the past.”

“Yeah.”

“I mean it,” Carver says and Leif tries like hell to believe him.

*

With all he’s earned from Anthea, he’s able to pay off the payday loan he’s been carrying for seven months. He also makes an appointment for Florence at the vet.

“Unnecessary,” she tells him, popping out the carrier with a small gurgle of magic.

“Get in.”

“No, I don’t need to go.”

She is thirteen months overdue for this follow-up appointment. Her emergency surgery took all the money he had and everything he could borrow. He simply couldn’t get her back until now.

“For me?” he asks, sitting down next to the carrier.

She looks away, tail thumping. “I feel fine.”

“Then it’ll be a quick visit.”

“I think I know my own body better than some klutzy human with cold hands.”

“Yeah,” he says, “like you did last year. Why’d we even need you to get surgery?”

They’re quiet for a while. He waits, cross-legged, eyes closed. After several minutes that feel like hours, she gets into the carrier.

“Thank you,” he says, latching it closed. “I really appreciate it.”

Florence snorts but doesn’t say anything else.

*

“Wait,” Leif says, hand on the wall when his balance sways. “What time is it?”

Anthea checks her phone. “Like one? One-thirty.”

“Fuck! You said this wouldn’t take long!”

She’s scrolling through some feed. “So it did, big deal. You get paid.”

He grabs the cash and shoves it into his pocket, then fights to get his jacket and shoes on. Rushing is making everything more difficult and confusing, but he’s already three hours late to meet Carver.

“Where’s my phone?” he asks. He’d given it to her before he went under, asked her to charge it while he was out.

She shrugs. “Somewhere.”

He opens his mouth to yell but there’s no point. It will only slow him down and he doesn’t know how she’d react.

“Fucking hell, Anthea!”

“Chill your nuts,” she says and leans over to retrieve the phone from the floor. “Here. You’re welcome.”

Of course it isn’t charged. He’s at 3% and there are twelve texts from Carver, the last one just past midnight.

“Fuck me,” he mutters, shoving the phone away and making for the door. “Fuck me. Fuck. Me.”

“Keep asking nice, maybe I will!” she calls after him.

He rides his bike to Carver’s. He can’t text and he doesn’t actually know Carver’s phone number to call. The one pay phone he does pass looks sketchy as hell. When he lifts the receiver, it’s sticky with something and the cord pops out of the cabinet.

The front door to Carver’s building is unlatched, thankfully, but then Leif stops in front of the apartment door. It’s two in the morning. Normal people are asleep.

What would he say, anyway? Sorry I missed our date, I was haunting some venture-capitalist in Napa.

He could just say work made him late, but there aren’t Seymour deliveries past eleven. If he was going to be late, why didn’t he text?

He should leave a note! But he has no paper in his pockets besides a few crumpled receipts, nor a pen.

He imagines sitting in the stairwell until morning so he can catch Carver on his way to work. It’s a nice thought, and he considers it for a while, but ultimately he decides that it’s a bad idea. It’s almost too much, creepy rather than apologetic and thoughtful.

He’s not sure how any of this is supposed to go.

*

He texts Carver when he’s home, hitting send once for every ten times he wants to. The panic that had been gripping him, the compulsion to explain and apologize and make it right gradually disperses. He’s overreacting, he knows that once he can think clearly again. Missing a date is bad, but if it means someone never wants to see you again, that’s not your fault. That is much more on them.

He just really wants Carver to stick around.

“I’m really sorry,” he tells Carver when they finally meet up again. It’s rush hour and this pub is overrun with people in suits. He only could have chosen a worse place if he’d suggested Medieval Times. “I fucked that up.”

“It was not ideal,” Carver says. “I gotta say, it kind of sucked.”

“I’m sorry. It wasn’t personal—”

“—it was work, I know, you said.” Carver checks the menu, sets it aside, flaps out his napkin and spreads it in his lap. He’s looking out the window when he continues, “Except it felt personal, you know?”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know it wasn’t deliberate, you said that.” Carver shrugs and his mouth twists up for a bit. “Still.”

Leif’s shoulders are up around his ears; he’s hunched forward and tense, tapping one index finger against the knife on the table. “Can I make it up to you?”

“I dunno,” Carver replies, slowly, like he’s still trying to make up his mind. Then he smiles, white teeth and flash of tongue. “Can you?”

“Dumbass,” Leif mutters and Carver just grins a lot, leaning back in his chair. “Sorry, Mr. Great Grammar, may I—”

“Great Grammar-Greater Bod,” Carver puts in. “I’ve hyphenated it.”

“Nice. Okay, may I make it—”

“Mister…?” He circles one hand encouragingly.

“Oh my god, seriously?” Leif straightens up and exhales as Carver smirks at him. “Mr. Great Grammar and Even Hotter Body, may I make it up to you?”

“Hmm,” Carver says, really drawing it out. “You squirm so good.”

“I do, I really do,” Leif replies. He lowers his gaze, chews his lip, then adds, “I could squirm closer. On you, even, how’s that?”

Carver laughs, this great booming sound that makes yuppies turn around, but not in anger. They grin, too, because Carver’s joy is infectious.

“You got a deal, hot stuff,” he tells Leif. “I like how you think.”

*

He wakes up to a text from Carver that says, simply, good morning hope you’re smiling. Still in bed, Leif shivers and tosses around, so happy that he can’t quite contain himself.

This keeps happening. Small kindnesses, the most minor sorts of joy, catch him off-guard. He shouldn’t be surprised, should he? Because he is.

When they go to the rep cinema for a showing of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, the popcorn’s delicious, but so soaked in butter it could probably serve as industrial ball bearings. Carver heads back to the snack bar to get Leif extra napkins, even though they’re in the balcony, and then kisses his mouth clean, just to be sure.

Everything feels different. He feels new, his skin more sensitive, his vision more acute; the world is better lit, its angles sharper and surfaces far more textured.

*

“Leif Feigr?” The guy asking is short and weedy, his voice surprisingly low-pitched given his small size.

“Yeah?” Leif hands his helmet to Carver as he gets out his house keys. He should know better than to answer like this. “Sorry, who’s asking?”

“Want to hire you,” the guy says. He flips a cigarette up to his lips and snaps his fingers to light it. It’s parlor magic, at best, but Leif assumes he’s supposed to be impressed.

Luckily, Carver’s on the steps behind the guy, and probably doesn’t see any of this.

“Dunno what you mean,” Leif says quickly, “but I’m not looking for work.”

“You know,” the guy says, and a second ago he was on the top step, but now he’s a few inches from Leif’s face. He smells like burned sage and cheap beer. “You know.”

“Hey, dude,” Carver says, but over the guy’s shoulder, Leif tries to wave him off.

“I’ve got lots of work,” Leif says, and jams the key into the lock. “I’m not interested.”

The guy adds something in Old Norse, half-curse, half-plea, and steps back. When he bumps into Carver on the way down the steps, he mutters something else.

“The hell was that?” Carver asks as they duck inside the house. “You know him?”

“No,” Leif says. “Never seen him before.”

“But he knew your name.”

“Yeah.” Fear crawls across Leif’s skin and down his limbs. He can’t let Carver know; he’d never be able to explain. And if he did succeed in explaining, that would be the last time he saw Carver, that’s for sure.

“Hey. Hey.” Carver takes Leif’s hand and gently guides it away from his face. “You okay? What else did he say to you?”

It would be easy, so easy, to play this up. He could let Carver take care of him. He wants that, he wants Carver to take over and tell him what to do and reassure him that it’s okay, this is the way it should be, Leif’s just not made for the rougher parts of the world.

That might even work for a time. But that’s not how Carver’s built, nor is it fair to him. It isn’t fair, Leif realizes, to himself, either.

“Nothing, really,” Leif says. He tries to smile at Carver; it doesn’t work very well, and he’s still freaked out by the thought of Carver learning more about him, but he’s calming down a little. “I’m okay. You?”

*

He wants to tell Carver who he is. That idea comes to him so gradually that Leif isn’t aware of thinking about it, let alone how he feels about it. It just is a fact, and now he has to figure out what to do with it.

The danger on the porch, when he feared being exposed, is a sharp edge he can’t dislodge. He isn’t sure how long he could manage both parts of his life; it’s tempting to try to make that last as long as possible.

He tries to juggle both, even as he’s pretty sure it’s foolish and bound to fail.

He knows, however, that such an arrangement would fall apart. Moreover, in the aftermath, he’d lose Carver. You don’t lie to someone so important, not if you want to keep them close.

These things he knows, these certainties, don’t develop so much as disclose themselves. Maybe he’s always known them, always known that he wants to be honest and clear-headed, able to take care of himself but more than willing to do it *with* company.

In the past (before he met Carver, before he left Wilhelm), the possibilities for living were few and stark. Either he stayed with a magic-user or he somehow subsisted alone. Even after Wilhelm, these last few years, he assumed that all he was doing was subsisting, moving through a shadow of an echo of life. Florence had more excitement and personal growth than he did.

He was wrong. He sees that now.

*

“I’m a nightmare.”

They were supposed to go out, to a reading featuring one of Carver’s friends, but Leif’s sitting on the edge of Carver’s bed when Carver asks, “What’s wrong?” and the confession comes out.

“Leif, c’mon, don’t be so hard on yourself—”

He’s got his face in his hands. He can’t look at Carver, not any more. “No, I mean, literally, I’m a nightmare.”

“You seem kinda dreamy to me…” Carver laughs a little and knocks his foot against Leif’s. After a while, when Leif doesn’t reply or move, he withdraws his foot. The chair creaks under him.

“I’m a nightmare. Magic-users, they use me against people who’ve been cursed.”

“Are you drunk?” Carver leans in and knocks one of Leif’s hands away. “Look at me? How high are you right now?”

“I’m sober. I’m telling you the truth. I…I’m like a tool, I’m a bogey, I sit on the cursed person’s chest and agitate their sleep.”

Carter shrugs and squeezes Leif’s hand. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“You’re just playing along,” Leif says. “Don’t, okay?”

He’s quiet for a while and Leif wants to close his eyes again, wants nothing more than to disappear. If a witch sent him riding right now, he’d be more than grateful, he’d never seek freedom again. But he can’t look away, not with Carver staring at him, hundreds of expressions washing over his face. He keeps almost speaking, his lips pursing, or parting, only for the silence to persist.

Without looking away, Leif digs in his pocket and hands Carver his phone. “Google it. It’s on Wikipedia.”

“You’re on Wikipedia,” Carver says hollowly.

“No, but the creature is. The monster I am. The…”

Carver’s gaze flicks to the screen, then back to Leif. “You’re not a monster.”

“I’m a fucking monster,” Leif says.

“I’ve…” Carver shakes his head. “I can’t argue this with you, I sound crazy.”

“No,” Leif replies. “Say it.”

“I’ve been inside you,” Carver says, tapping out something on the phone with just his thumb. “I think I would’ve noticed…you know. Monstrosity.” Leif’s face heats up, both remembering just how good that felt and realizing that after this, he’s never going to get to feel that again. Carver looks a little embarrassed. “Sorry, I meant—”

“Stop apologizing,” Leif tells him. “Read the wiki.”

“Inside,” Carver says again. Maybe he’s saying that out of disbelief, but he sounds like he’s trying to remind Leif of something. He’s not looking at the phone; he laces their fingers together. Leif shrugs minutely.

Finally, Carver looks down at the phone. He reads quickly, frowning so that his eyebrows draw together over his nose. It’s a short entry; there isn’t much interest these days in minor Germanic and Scandinavian folk creatures.

“So how’d you get here?”

“Here, where? Toronto?”

“Yeah. You say you’re, what, some kind of malicious Nordic fairy? What’re you doing in southern Ontario?”

“How does anyone get anywhere,” Leif says. “Either you move or someone moves you.”

Carver considers that. “Can’t argue, I guess.” He looks back down at the phone, then sets it aside. “Is this like a furry thing?”

“No,” Leif says.

“Otherkin?”

“What’s otherkin?”

“Where your soul is, like, I don’t know! T-Rex from Jurassic Park or one of the Transformers. A dragon, maybe.”

“No,” Leif says. They could go back and forth like this for hours, he realizes. He almost wants to; anything to draw out the time he has left with Carver. “I know a couple dragons, though. Real ones.”

Carver’s smile is small and tight. “Real ones, huh?”

“Yeah,” Leif says miserably. He tries to work his hand free from Carver’s grip, but Carver tightens his hold. “Can we just…I can’t do this.”

“Do what, buddy?”

“This!” One word but it scrapes out his throat like he’s puking. He sags, head dropping, and he can’t look up. “I know I sound crazy and I know you deserve better so can we just get this over with?”

“Nope,” Carver says. The chair creaks again, more ominously this time, and then he’s on his knees in front of Leif, craning his neck, trying to look up at Leif’s face. “Look at me? Just for a sec.”

Leif meets his gaze. His eyes sting and he’s been gnawing on the inside of his cheek for a while, he guesses, given how raw it suddenly feels and the taste of blood seeping over his tongue.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Carver says. “And I don’t know what you think I’m going to do. But, dude, I’m not going anywhere. Why would you think that?”

He’s listening, and his brain is taking in the words, but then Leif starts shivering and he can’t stop. “Sorry,” he says, “I—”

“Stop it,” Carver says, almost harshly, and leans back to snatch his hoodie off the back of the chair. “Put this on.”

“Stop apologizing,” Leif says when he finally understands.

“Yeah, man, stop apologizing.” Carver pushes up to his feet and wraps the hoodie around Leif. He hesitates, lifting one foot, then the other. “Can I…?” He points to the bed next to Leif.

“Yeah,” Leif says, and, more quietly, “please.”

Carver lies on his side and gathers Leif against him. “We don’t have to talk.”

“Okay,” Leif says, looking at the ceiling, counting heartbeats, wondering when he can get away.

Carver tucks his face into the curve of Leif’s neck and when he exhales, his breath is warm and soft.

They wake sometime later. The room is dark and they’re both a little sweaty.

“Hey,” Carver says, and kisses Leif’s cheek.

Leif doesn’t know what to say. He should leave, but he can’t seem to move.

“Got some thoughts for you.”

Leif laughs a little but stops when he realizes that might be mean. “Hit me.”

“So you’re an incubus,” Carver says.

“No,” Leif says.

“A succubus?”

“Nope. An incubus, they fuck you during sleep. A succubus, they seduce.” Leif lifts his hands and then lets them drop. “It’s all binary gendered, but you get the picture.”

“Sort of,” Carver says cheerfully. Why is this so easy for him? “So you, you’re just a…cubus?”

“Ha,” Leif says. “Basically. Concubus, maybe? Lie with, not beneath or atop.”

Carver pokes him in the ribs. “Concubine?”

“Oh, shit.” Leif covers his face and groans.

“I thought you were a hustler, maybe,” Carver says. “When that creepy guy was at your house? Hustler or dealer, I thought.”

“If I were a dealer, I’d have a much better place,” Leif says.

“Maybe you’re not very good at it,” Carver says, “that’s what I was thinking. But then I decided, no, you’re a hustler.”

“Me?” Leif rolls on his side, rearranging, getting closer. “Who’d pay for this?”

“Uh, excuse you?” Carver feigns outrage very well. He pinches Leif’s ass. “Lots of people, believe me.”

“Whatever,” Leif tries to say. “I’m too big to be a twink, too weird to be masc. Very limited appeal.”

“Niche,” Carver says and kisses him. “Artisanal appeal.”

Leif will think, later, that it was probably inappropriate to pause the conversation here and make out until they were both so worked up that they needed to jerk each other off. But at the time, just now, he needs the urgency, the blankness, the certainty that he does know what he wants and that Carver wants him.

“Seems unfair,” Carver says a little later. “The incubus and the succubus, they’re having fun, they’re getting down. You, you’re…what? Sitting heavily on the cursed sleeper?”

“Pretty much.”

“You ever want to…” Carver leers extravagantly, running his hand down Leif’s torso and miming a rapid jack-off motion.

“Yeah,” Leif says. “Once or twice.”

Carver throws his leg over Leif’s. “I guess that’d be pretty wrong.”

“You guess, huh?”

“I don’t know! THis is all new to me!”

“But it’s pretty cut and dried,” Leif says. “You can’t take advantage of people. That’s, like, nursery-school ethics.”

“Everything I need to know, I learned from Mr. Rogers?” Carver asks.

“Yeah.” Leif’s heart is speeding up and he’s acutely aware of the pressure of Carver’s body against his own. He fantasizes, fleetingly but intensely, about Carver lying on top of him, crushing him until his heart stops, until it’s quiet, until he’s calm.

He’s so fucked up.

“Hey,” Carver says, as his fingertips draw slow tracks up Leif’s chest, then back down to his waistband. “What’s wrong?”

“Why do you think something’s wrong?”

“You went quiet and you tensed up and you’re breathing weird and shallow,” Carver says matter-of-factly. “Other than that, yeah, you seem okay.”

Leif rolls onto his side, facing Carver, and buries his face against Carver’s arm.

“Hey,” Carver says, “hey, it’s okay.”

*

He knows Carver’s going to look at him differently. Maybe not right away, but it’s sure to happen. He waits, and waits, but no change emerges.

Maybe he’s lost his knack for anticipating someone’s bad opinion of him. He’d like to think that it’s something else—perhaps Carver is just that generous and open-minded—but he doubts it. This is on him.

*

“How’d you get so normal?” Carver asks.

It’s been two weeks since his confession and Carver’s still here.

Leif looks at him long and hard, trying to find the hint that he’s joking. But Carver simply returns his gaze, looking expectant and patient. “You think I’m normal.”

“Well, you pass pretty well,” Carver says. He pours more syrup onto his pancakes and adds, “that’s the best anyone can hope for, right?”

“Guess so, sure.”

“So how’d you do it?” Carver grins, forkful of food hovering just over his plate. He’ll only delay eating for a good joke, Leif knows that now. “Was it…magic?”

“Like a spell to make me understand human society and pop culture?”

Carver nods urgently. “And if so, can we modify it so I can go back to grad school and rock out?”

“Sorry,” Leif tells him but Carver’s still talking. “I could be a paleo-botanist! Or something else really hard. Plastic surgeon!” He stops when he hears Leif and pouts elaborately. “No spell. I was homeschooled but we had cable.”

Magic cable?”

Leif tosses his napkin at him. “Maybe my uncle stole the cable with magic, but it was just regular old Time-Warner.”

“Damn it,” Carver says mournfully. “You think, hey, I’m dating an obscure creature of sorcery and lore, you can’t help but hope for a little perk here and there, but no.”

“You want some perqs?” Leif pitches his voice lower, trying to sound husky and suggestive. To his own ears, he ends up sounding like he has pneumonia, but Carver’s grinning and leaning in.

“What’ve you got?”

“What do you want?”

They have a short stare-off, but eventually, Carver cracks up and blinks. “You,” he says when he can speak again. “Just want you.”

“Awesome,” Leif says. “Way ahead of you.”

*

He’s learning how different things can be. The world looks exactly the same, he looks the same, but nothing has to be like it was. There are entire mechanical works in his mind, huge complicated structures of assumptions and superstitions that exist to interpret someone’s smallest gesture or briefest silence. Then, having interpreted, the machinery grinds out blame for Leif to take on as he attempts to mitigate any and all impending consequences.

To their credit, the machines work so rapidly that it’s only now, as he spends more time alone and with Carver, that he’s even aware of the process.

“Nah, I’m just freaking tired,” Carver tells him when Leif asks if Carver’s mad at him. He was sure that he’d said something wrong, but he didn’t know what. Carver looks at him, slightly baffled and amused. “Why?”

“Just curious,” Leif says. Relieved, then sharply aware of those machines that crunched and processed a pause in the conversation, returning guilt and anxiety.

Carver curls up on his side,  Florence in the crook of his arm, his head on Leif’s leg. “Tell me some more about you.”

“Me?”

“The one and only.”

Leif’s touch strays along Carver’s hairline, which is less a “line” and far more a gradual transition from soft texture to smoother skin, impossible to map. Carver sighs happily.

 

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

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8 thoughts on “Where The Light’s Forgiven

  1. This was such an amazing story! I wished it was double the length and I got to find out more about the world.

    Carver seems like such a sweet boy, and I love Lief trying to escape his past but also just going along with pretending that maybe Wilhelm was still alive because he was freer that way if people thought he was still bound to him.

    My favourite character was Florence because I love a good magical cat.

    Thank you for writing this, it was amazing.

  2. This is just lovely.
    Bless Carver for being so good at shutting down Leif’s apologies and trying to really listen to him and learn more about him.

  3. I appreciated how blasé Carver was when learning that the supernatural was, indeed, a very real thing, as well as how utterly pedestrian life as a mare can be (and how they’ve got bills just like the rest of us). He seems like such a genuinely good dude and it was easy to see why Leif gravitated towards him!

  4. Awww, I hope Leif can find a good therapist, or maybe Carver will be enough, and get some self confidence back. He needs such a hug! Good thing someone’s there to help out.

    <3 Florence. I totally had a cat like her and I will love her until my dying day.

  5. I loved this! Leif’s perspective, with all his fucked up history, was really interesting to follow. And Carver is such a wonderful person, but never strays into “too good to be true”, much as Leif might think so.

    I’d love to see where they go from here. Will Leif keep working for Anthea? Will he find something else, or other employers? Will Carver see any more of the world of magic? So many questions!

    Thank you for a wonderful story.

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