Worth Doing Properly

by Hinotori (火鳥)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/122180.html)

“Ira? Ira, have you seen my red scarf? I can’t find it anywhere.”

Ira had curled himself up with one of his books in a patch of sun, tail curled around himself and tickling his nose in typical cat fashion. Disturbed from his reading, he yawned and stretched as Zachary surveyed the van in frustration. :Where did you see it last?: he asked.

“If I knew that I wouldn’t be asking you,” said Zachary reproachfully. He was only half dressed, his white shirt hanging half open and his belt unclasped. He rubbed a hand through his hair anxiously as Ira jumped down from the window sill and padded over to him. “You needed to be woken up anyway.”

:The red silk scarf or the knitted one?: asked Ira, sighing to himself in resignation. Zachary might be a deft hand at the physical magics, but he needed rituals to use the scrying magics.

“I have a knitted one?” Zachary blinked.

:It was a present from your sister last Christmas:, Ira informed him loftily. :You told her you were delighted.: He brought up the picture of the red silk scarf in his mind and concentrated for a moment. The result of the scrying spell resolved itself quickly. :It’s caught between the mattress and the wall.:

Zachary bounced over to the bed and dug around the edge of the mattress before triumphantly pulling out the scrap of red fabric. “Thanks, Ira.” He scratched Ira behind the ears affectionately.

Ira flicked an ear in irritation. He glanced at the digital clock sported by the toaster oven. :You have ten minutes.:

Zachary swore under his breath and glanced around helplessly.

:Your bow-tie is caught between the cushions of the sofa,: Ira informed him. He sat up, curling his tail over his paws as he watched Zachary finish getting dressed. The shirt was done up; the tie successfully tied, although not without some frustrated cursing on Zachary’s part; the vest pulled over his shoulders; the cape clasped around his neck; the belt correctly adjusted; the socks located and pulled over Zachary’s long toes.

Zachary adjusted the angle of his top hat and grinned at himself in the mirror briefly before grabbing his briefcase and heading for the door. He held it open for Ira to follow him out.

There you are,” said Jessica as they entered the backstage area. “I was starting to get worried. Ira, can’t you keep him under control?”

Ira just stared at her unblinkingly.

Jessica shivered. “Your cat is creepy,” she informed Zachary, pushing him into the chair and quickly starting work at making up Zachary’s face.

“There’s nothing wrong with Ira,” Zachary said peacefully.

When Jessica released him, Zachary relocated to in front of the mirror, compulsively adjusting the folds of his cape and the angle of his hat.

“You look fine,” said Jessica. “We have five minutes.”

Zachary got flustered when he was running late, but he didn’t get stage fright. It had been two weeks since their last performance, but he sat calmly on a rickety plastic chair, tapping one white-gloved finger on his knee impatiently. Ira watched him placidly.

Through the curtains he could hear the acrobats finishing up their routine to the wild cheers of the audience.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, may I present to you… the great magician, Zachariah!”

Zachary broached the curtains and stalked on stage, radiating confidence and purpose. Ira followed at his heels, head and tail held high.

They didn’t use any true magic on stage. In fairness to the audience, as Zachary had put it, they used only trickery, mirrors and misdirection and mischief. Ira was ‘teleported’ from one side of the stage to the other via mirror and secret trapdoor, although he could have stepped across the intervening space in a blink of an eye if he had been so inclined.

Zachary was in good form tonight. He played off the expectations and desires of the crowd like a master, his magician persona impassive and reserved, all mystery and intrigue.

After the finale, all the performers took their positions on the stage to meet the crowd and sign autographs. Small children stared at Zachary in awe and hid behind their parents’ legs while their parents looked apologetic and tried to coax them out for a photograph.

Ira wanted to tell them that Zachary had tripped over no less than three ropes while setting up the big top that morning. He was nigh on incapable of maintaining a conversation on a single topic for more than a minute. He always wore odd socks under his knee-high boots because he couldn’t keep a pair together to save his life. Off stage, Zachary was perpetually cheerful and friendly and just happened to be a very good actor.

Ira allowed himself to be posed with a total of five children before he stalked backstage.

When they saw him the stagehands attempted to feed him snacks, which Ira ignored. He trotted out of the tent and into the cool night air. Stopping in the shadow cast by a garbage bin, he melted into invisibility.

Zachary had installed a cat flap for the sake of appearances, and Ira returned from the shadows to use it for the same reason. He curled up on Zachary’s bed and waited for him to return. The performers usually went out for drinks after opening night, but more often than not Zachary would choose not to go.

It wasn’t too long before he heard the sound of a key being inserted in the lock. Zachary’s face broke into a wide smile when he saw Ira waiting on his bed. He locked the door behind him and went round securing the window blinds. Ira stretched and gratefully shifted forms. The cat’s body was convenient and certainly better than any of the alternatives, but it was never as comfortable as his true form.

Ira rose into the air and flapped down to land on the back of one of the dining chairs, curling his tail around the bottom rung. He stretched his wings out before folding them neatly at his back.

Zachary put the kettle on to boil and started fussing with the teapot. “Black, green or white?” he asked.

:White:, Ira replied decisively. :The one with the rosehips.:

“An excellent choice,” said Zachary. He set the teapot on the table in front of them along with two cups. Almost all of Zachary’s tea set had chips in it, marring the delicate white china with beige splotches. By now, two years into this bonding, Ira was almost used to it.

Once the tea had been poured, Zachary slipped into the padded window seat on the other side of the table. He picked up his cup and clasped his hands around it, blowing steam off the surface of the tea before sipping, making it form swirling images in the air – a heart, a guitar, some kind of automobile – before dissipating.

:The show went well tonight,: Ira told Zachary, delicately lapping at his own tea. The words were unnecessary, superfluous even, but he liked the way Zachary lit up when Ira complimented him.

Ira wasn’t disappointed this time. Zachary beamed. “I think the change we made in the third act really helped things along.”

:The audience seemed to like it,: Ira agreed. The change had been the topic of some argument at the time.

Zachary looked into his teacup, smiling dreamily to himself.

They sat in silence until the tea was almost cold in the pot and Zachary’s eyelids were drooping at half-mast. At Ira’s gentle prompting, Zachary cleared away the tea set and got dressed for bed.

Ira curled himself up at Zachary’s feet and let sleep take him.

Zachary woke late, as usual, and wasn’t capable of coherent thought until his second cup of coffee. Ira disapproved of coffee in theory, but frequently found himself putting his magic to use making Zachary a fresh pot before he woke, just to prevent any more Incidents.

Ira shifted back into cat form as Zachary pulled up the blinds. He tended to take it badly when Ira was forced to manipulate people’s minds into forgetting they’d seen a dragon inside the magician’s van.

Zachary nursed his coffee and picked slowly through a bowl of cereal.

“Zachary!” called Jessica from outside. “We’re going on a coffee run, you in?”

Zachary blinked a few times. “Yes, I’ll come along!” he called back. “I need to make a phone call anyway.”

Ira pricked up his ears. :A phone call?:

“I’ll explain later,” muttered Zachary, quickly getting dressed. Ira wordlessly pointed him to the locations of any missing items of clothing.

Ira cleaned up the remains of breakfast and washed up the dishes from last night’s tea while he waited for Zachary to come back. How had his magic been turned to such mundane usage?

Zachary returned a short while later, grinning. “They had coffee with caramel syrup,” he said dreamily. “And chocolate.”

Ira twitched his tail impatiently, waiting for Zachary to get around to explaining the phone call.

“You remember it’s a matinee today, so you won’t be on stage.” Zachary looked a little uncomfortable.

Matinees meant children, screaming and tail-pulling and, worst of all, asking completely ridiculous questions. :I could handle it.: Ira bared his teeth.

“Yes, well, I’m not worried about you,” Zachary responded, as he always did. “Anyway, I’ll be heading out after the show. Don’t wait up for me.”

Ira paused and turned his gaze upon Zachary in surprise. :Out? Where are you going?:

“My, uh. One of my exes lives here. We’re meeting for dinner after the show. That’s what the phone call was about.” Zachary’s cheeks were faintly pink.

Ira felt his left ear twitch. :What does ‘ex’ mean?:

Zachary looked at the ceiling and blushed some more. “It means former, I suppose? Short for ex-boyfriend, in this case.” He shot a nervous glance at Ira.

Ira considered this news. :You ended your relationship but you are still going out for dinner?:

Zachary laughed. “Don’t let Hetty and Phil fool you. Not every breakup ends up in eternal hatred.”

:Where I come from they have wars after relationships end. They last for centuries.:

“Dragons do?” Zachary was surprised.

Ira twitched his tail in irritation. Dragons were more inclined to shun each other than declare war. :Not dragons. Other residents of Faerie.:

“Well, our breakup was perfectly amicable and we still catch up whenever we’re in the same place.”

:Have fun, then,: Ira told him, affecting lack of interest.

Zachary watched him uncertainly for a moment. “Right. OK. I’m going to talk to Mathis, you want me to grab you some of Annette’s books?”

:If she has anything new. I’ve finished all of the last set.:

Zachary saluted and left the van.

He returned some time later with a small pile of slim, tattered volumes. “You’re lucky, she did a books run yesterday.”

Ira leapt onto the table to examine the titles. Historical romances – humans seemed to think it a guilty pleasure, but Ira found them fascinating. The pages were drenched with emotion like he hadn’t seen since he left Faerie. He’d tried to read more modern novels, but found them full of incomprehensible words about places and actions he didn’t understand. Historical novels made sense.

Zachary didn’t share his pleasure in the genre, but he was happy to pretend in order to borrow the novels for Ira, particularly on matinee days. Sometimes he even bought them for Ira out of his own coin.

Cat paws were no good for manipulating pages, but Ira made do with his magic. He started on the first novel in the pile while Zachary pottered around the van.

Ira came back to himself some time later to find Zachary fully-dressed and ready to walk backstage. He waved when Ira blinked up at him. “I’ll see you when I see you.”

:May the show go well,: Ira responded, returning to his novel. When he finished it, he made certain all the blinds were securely fastened and shifted back into dragon form before picking up the next one. Extended use of magic always left him with a blinding headache. In dragon form, he could support the book with his tail and turn the pages with his front feet.

When the sun set, Ira was forced to jump onto Zachary’s bed and turn on the bedside lamp.

Some time after midnight, Ira started to wonder when Zachary would be returning. He finished the novel he was reading and sat up to stretch. Had Zachary said he would be back that evening? Ira couldn’t remember. He swished his tail from side to side and thought.

By the sounds outside, the rest of the circus had settled in for the night. He could hear the roar of distant traffic and the quiet rustle of the wind, but no human voices. Casting his mind out along the bond he shared with Zachary, he felt nothing other than a sense of comfort. Zachary wasn’t in trouble, then.

Ira waited until fighting sleep became an impossibility and curled up on the pillow so that Zachary would be forced to wake him when he returned.

Ira was rudely awoken by Zachary very noisily unlocking the door. :Ira, shift, I’m not alone:, Zachary told him, using mind-speech for once.

Ira assumed cat form and sat up. He watched as Zachary held the door open for another human to follow him in, a tall man with pale hair and a long nose.

“Sorry it’s a mess,” murmured Zachary. “I wasn’t expecting you to come in.” He picked up a few socks and threw them onto the bed.

“How could I resist?” said the other man. “So this is how a great magician lives.” He pointed a thumb at Ira. “That your familiar?” His tone was teasing.

“That’s Ira,” said Zachary cheerfully. :Ira, this is Todd, my ex. He gave me a lift back here and insisted on seeing the van. Be nice.:

Ira stared at Todd, unblinking.

Todd met his gaze for a moment, then looked away. “Your cat has a very unnerving stare.”

“You have no idea,” said Zachary. He busied himself at the kitchenette. “Coffee? Tea?”

“Coffee,” said Todd, much to Ira’s disapproval. He sat at the table, his left arm stretched out along the length of the window seat. “How much longer did you say you’re in town?”

“Two weeks,” said Zachary, setting down the cups on the table and squeezing onto the seat next to Todd. “We leave on the weekend of the 15th.”

“We should do this again.” Todd smiled lazily at Zachary like they were the only two people in the van. Ira felt his fur raise in displeasure.

Zachary’s cheeks turned pink, but he looked pleased. “I’ll call you.”

Todd returned to looking around the van. “Zach, I don’t think your cat likes me,” he said, laughing. “Look, he’s all puffed up like a bottle brush.”

“He’s not used to having strangers here,” said Zachary calmly.

Todd winked at Ira. “Don’t worry, I’d be jealous, too.”

Ira turned his back on him pointedly.

When Zachary got up to show Todd out, they spent a moment kissing at the door. Ira was aware that he was staring, but this was just incredible! It wasn’t how courtships were supposed to work at all.

He could feel a little tickle of pleasure along the bond which indicated that Zachary, at least, didn’t seem to mind.

When Zachary returned, Ira fixed him with the most disapproving expression he could get out of a cat’s body. It was part of why he liked cat form, how easy it was.

Zachary sighed. “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you he was coming by, Ira.”

:I thought you’d broken up?: It was hard not to let emotions leak through the bond when speaking mentally, but he was trying for curiosity, not accusation.

Zachary flailed for a moment. “It wasn’t… I mean, yes, we did, but it was never because we didn’t like each other. It just wasn’t the right time for us back then.”

:But you think now it is the right time?:

“I don’t know.” Zachary sighed. “It could be. It’s worth trying, isn’t it?”

:He calls you ‘Zach’.: Ira was disapproving.

“Lots of people did back then,” said Zachary peacefully.

Ira lashed his tail from side to side. :I don’t think much of his courtship method. He’s moving far too quickly.:

“I–” Zachary laughed incredulously. “Ira, are you being a prude?”

Ira bristled. :No. I just think he’s being too familiar, too fast.:

“Ira… I appreciate your concern, but it’s my decision to make.”

:We’re bonded,: Ira pointed out. :It’s a partnership. If you’re going to be bringing another person into your life we need to talk about this. What were you going to tell him about me? Does he even know you can do magic?:

“We’re bonded because you insisted that your honour wouldn’t let you live with the shame of my stumbling across you sleeping. I wasn’t aware this gave you the right to dictate my life.” Zachary was angry. It wasn’t a good sign. Zachary tended to be irrational when angry.

:It’s only basic politeness,: Ira insisted. :We live together. We’re even closer than that, because of the bond.:

Zachary slapped his hand down on the table. “All right. I’ll dissolve the bond.”

Ira started. :What? No, that’s not what I–:

“The last thing I want to do is make you miserable, Ira,” said Zachary sincerely. “But it’s clear that this bond isn’t doing either of us any good.”

:I…: Ira stopped. What was wrong with dissolving the bond? He could return to Faerie and stop trying to figure out human interactions, which was rather like trying to make your way through a swamp in thick fog with no guide. He wouldn’t need to clean up after Zachary any more. He could return his magic to real uses, maybe find a fae magician to work with. He hadn’t been involved in a major working for a while. :You’re right. We should dissolve the bond.:

Zachary drew back, surprised. A flash of… something shot down the bond before being swiftly quashed. Some emotion Ira couldn’t identify before it passed.

Zachary pulled his hide-bound book of magic out from its hiding place under the bed and started flicking through. “Familiar bonds, dissolving of,” he said. “It recommends against doing it as the magical creature could turn against me, blah blah blah, here we go.” Zachary ran a finger across the page, muttering under his breath.

Ira watched as Zachary drew a chalk circle on the table and inscribed runes at the cardinal points. “You should change into your true form and stand in the circle,” said Zachary.

Ira did so. His heart thudded with nerves.

Zachary read the page a few more times, then put the book aside. “Irastaichturien.” Ira started. He’d been expecting to have to remind Zachary of his true name. “Friend. This bond between us has served us both well. May we meet again in time, as friends.”

Ira inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Fare well, wizard Zachary.”

Zachary intoned the words of the ritual quietly, but with confidence. The bond dissolved the instant he finished talking, like a weight had suddenly lifted from Ira’s soul.

It had left something else in its place, something hard and clenching. He glanced up at Zachary, who was staring down at his hands, his expression unreadable. Without the bond, it was like Zachary was a stranger to him, a human just as incomprehensible as all the others.

Ira shifted between planes without wasting another second.

Ira made up a list of every unbonded mage in Faerie and interviewed them all in turn. None of them fit his needs at all. Faerie dragons were highly desired as familiars and naturally all the mages he talked to were falling over themselves to convince him to bond to them.

Their enthusiasm made him queasy.

The next mage on his list was Lissisaya, an older fae lady. Age was finally beginning to show on the sculptured lines of her face, although her hair was still the deep blue-black of the night sky. “I am flattered by your attention,” she said, in a tone that implied she was anything but. “However, it is disingenuous for you to come here when you are not ready to bond.”

Ira bristled in affront. :How do you mean? My last bonding was dissolved over three months ago.:

She tapped him on the nose with a pointed fingernail. “Ah. Magically, yes, you are ready to bond again. Emotionally? I think not.”

Ira swished his tail with irritation. :I think you are wrong.:

“Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. I’m not, though.”

Ira teleported away and tracked down three other unsuitable mages to interview before returning. He bowed his head in defeat. :What can I do to become emotionally ready to bond?:

Lissisaya indicated that he should come closer. “Look in here and tell me what you see.”

“Sorry I’m late, Jessica.” Zachary sat down heavily in the makeup artist’s chair.

Jessica huffed and started brushing Zachary with powder. “Hey, what happened to your cat? I didn’t see him yesterday either.”

Zachary made a wincing expression that caused Jessica to scold him mercilessly. “He… He ran away, I suppose.”

“Cats do that,” said Jessica sympathetically. “My old cat Humphrey, if he got into a fight, he’d disappear for days at a time. They like to lick their wounds in peace. I’m sure he’s fine.”

“I hope so. I really do.”

“Ah,” said Lissisaya knowingly. “That is your mage, is it? He’s quite handsome, for a human. Let’s see what else we can find.” She ran a hand over the bowl and the image shifted into something else.

“Todd, listen,” said Zachary. He was clenching the telephone receiver in his hand so tightly his knuckles were white. “Catching up with you these last two weeks have been great, but… I’m not really prepared for a long-distance relationship.”

Silence, then Zachary spoke again. “I know. I know, it’s just… I don’t even know when I’ll be back here again, I don’t have a phone, I don’t even have a mailing address. It’s not going to work and it’s not fair to either of us to try.”

More silence. “We’ve already broken up once,” said Zachary gently. “I don’t want to go through that again.”

“Poor child,” murmured Lissisaya. “Let me guess – you were jealous of his new relationship, you fought, you dissolved the bond.”

:What is this spell?: asked Ira. :I don’t recognise it.:

Lissisaya tapped him on the nose. “You, my young dragon, are avoiding the question.”

:I do not need to answer to tell you that you had the right of it. You are one of the greatest seeing-mages of our time.:

She smiled down at him.

:I would hardly call it a relationship, though. His courting of Zachary was most improper.:

Lissisaya raised her eyebrows. “You think you could do better?”

:I was his familiar. It would be completely inappropriate.:

“You’re not his familiar now. You could take human form and court him properly.”

Ira just stared at her.

Humanoid forms were Ira’s least favourite. How were you supposed to balance yourself with only two limbs and no tail? And humans were tall. It was little more than a recipe for disaster.

It was dusk by the time Ira located the circus grounds. They’d just finishing setting up the big top when Ira manipulated his way past security and wandered through the various vans and trailers in search of Zachary’s.

As he walked he spotted something white out of the corner of his eye, and somewhat shakily knelt to pick it up. One of Zachary’s gloves, obviously fallen out of his pocket as he walked back to his van after the show. Ira let out a long-suffering sigh and slipped it into the pocket of his jacket.

He found Zachary scouring the area outside his van, shirt untucked and half-unbuttoned as usual.

“Excuse me,” said Ira, picking the glove out of his pocket and holding it out. “I believe this is yours?”

Zachary glanced up, then straightened himself and stepped closer. He looked Ira up and down without recognition, then looked at Ira’s hand. “Oh, thanks be,” he said, plucking the glove out of Ira’s hand. “I was looking all over for that.”

Ira cocked his head to the side. “I’m glad I could help.”

“How did you know it was mine?” Zachary put the glove on and wiggled his fingers in it before pulling it off again and stuffing it in his trouser pocket.

“It seemed the most likely explanation. And you were clearly looking for something.”

Zachary smiled and rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. “Sorry, I’m kind of a scatter-brain. You must be one of the new casuals?”

Ira nodded. That was a magician’s trick, letting people come up with their own explanations rather than offering your own.

“I’m Zachary. The magician. Um, but I guess you already knew that.” Zachary held out a hand.

“Ari,” said Ira. He shook hands with Zachary, bare skin to bare skin. Human customs were so strange. It was hard for Ira not to read emotions when they were touching skin-to-skin, but for most humans it didn’t seem to be a problem.

Zachary kept himself so tightly shielded Ira picked nothing up from the contact beyond a faint sense of curiosity. Ira was grateful – the same shields would keep him from picking anything up from Ira.

“Welcome to Mathis’ Circus, Ari.” Zachary grinned at him. A moment later, he let go of Ira’s hand, his cheeks flushing lightly pink.

They looked at each other for a moment. Ira cleared his throat. “I believe you were getting yourself ready for the show?”

Zachary started. “Oh. Yes. Right.”

“Did you need a hand with anything?”

“I…” Zachary assumed an expression Ira couldn’t read. “No, I’m fine. Thanks for the offer, though.”

Ira wanted to tell him that his bow-tie was on top of the microwave, that his left boot was under the pile of laundry by the door, but he bit it back. Ira inclined his head and stepped away.

Ira introduced himself to Mathis in order to convince him that he’d just hired Ira as a stagehand for the duration of their stay. For lack of anything better to do, once that was dealt with he actually headed backstage to help out.

Zachary arrived backstage for makeup several minutes late, much to Jessica’s annoyance. “Ari, can you believe this guy?” she asked Ira, who was making himself inconspicuous sweeping a floor that was already spotless. “How am I supposed to make him beautiful if he only gives me half the time I need?” She winked at him.

Ira blinked at her.

“I’m sorry, Jess,” said Zachary softly. “I’ll try to do better.”

She squeezed his shoulders briefly before getting to work.

Ira watched Zachary’s show from side-stage. It wasn’t the Great Magician Zachariah’s best performance. His timing was off, his smile not quite wide enough, his confidence lacking. All the tricks involving Ira had been dropped from the lineup, replaced with single-person tricks recycled from old routines.

The rest of the crew insisted that ‘Ari’ accompany them for their opening-night celebratory drinks. Ira tried one drink and elected to spend the rest of the evening directing peoples’ attention elsewhere.

Zachary, on the other hand, became quite intoxicated quite quickly. Ira watched him with steadily escalating levels of worry.

“So, Ari,” said Jessica, propping herself up on a bar stool next to him. “How are you finding the circus so far?” She smiled widely at him.

Ira furrowed his brow in confusion, trying to decipher the idiom. “It’s good?”

“You don’t sound very sure!”

“I…” Ira hesitated.

She waved a hand at him. “I’m teasing, don’t worry about it. English isn’t your native language, right? Let me know if I can help with anything.”

Ira blinked slowly. “I will. Thank you?”

Next to them, Zachary attempted to order another drink from the bar.

“Hey, slow down,” said Jessica, waving the bartender away. “What’s got you all mopey, huh?”

Zachary muttered something unintelligible.

“I think we’d better get him home.” Jessica smiled at him apologetically. “You think you can carry him?”

“I can try,” said Ira doubtfully. He wasn’t sure of the limits of this body yet.

“I can walk,” Zachary protested, but he didn’t argue being led back to the van. He leant heavily on Ira as they walked, his arm very hot across Ira’s shoulders.

Jessica accompanied them back to the vans, keeping up a cheerful babble as they walked. “This one here,” she told Ira. “Zach, where are your keys?”

Zachary fumbled in his pockets until he triumphantly located a keyring. “I’m fine,” he insisted. “I can take it from here.” It took him several tries, but eventually he managed to unlock the door and stumble inside.

In the yellow lights that framed the vans, he could see Jessica watching him with a crooked smile. “So, you too, huh?”

Ira blinked. “What do you mean?”

She patted his cheek. “I know a crush when I see it. He does take people that way, doesn’t he?” She sighed. “It really is like the saying. Still, you’ll have better luck with him than I ever would.”

Ira stared at her helplessly. “I don’t…”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you tomorrow, Ari. Have a safe trip home.” Jessica walked off, waving.

Ira waited until Jessica had walked around a corner before stepping between two trailers and shifting into the form of one of the pelicans that were common in the area. He slept on top of a lamp post, head tucked under his wing.

The next morning Ira found Zachary sitting on a deck chair in front of his van, chewing on a pen. He looked up as Ira approached. “Morning.”

“Good morning,” Ira returned.

“Listen, sorry about last night. I was kind of…” He waved his hand in the air. “Not in a good place.” He looked better now. Some colour was returning to his cheeks, and he seemed more relaxed.

“You’d had a bad show,” Ira stated.

Zachary laughed softly. “That obvious, was it? To be honest, it’s just been a hard couple of weeks. Last night was the final straw.”

Ira hesitated. “Would you mind me asking…?”

“There’s not terribly much to tell.” Zachary shrugged. “I broke up with my ex again, and… This is going to sound really stupid. My cat ran away.”

Ira swallowed. “I don’t think it’s stupid,” he said softly. “And… I’m certain there’s someone out there who’ll be better for you than your ex.” Embarrassed, he stared at the ground. Zachary was wearing odd socks again. Ira cleared his throat. “You… Your shoe laces are untied.”

When Ira looked up again, Zachary was gazing at him with a crooked smile. “Thank you.”

“You should be more careful,” Ira scolded. “What if you’d tripped over?”

“Someone always lets me know before it’s too late,” said Zachary cheerfully.

That ‘someone’ was usually Ira. He was almost afraid of what he might see if he ventured inside the caravan. Ira nodded at Zachary’s notepad. “What are you working on?”

“Oh, this? I’m trying to redo my routine.”

Ira cocked his head. “Would you like me to help? I know a little of magic.”

Zachary raised his eyebrows. “Do you really?”

Ira nodded.

“Well, I have all the tricks sorted already, I’m just trying to choose an order. It needs to flow or it doesn’t work.” He gestured for Ira to come look at his notebook. “Do you think the levitation should come before or after the restoration? The levitation is flashier, so if I want to start small and work my way up it should go afterwards, but maybe I should go for a more diverse performance?”

“You tried a diverse arrangement last night,” Ira pointed out. “So perhaps you should try the graduated arrangement tonight?”

“You’re very observant,” murmured Zachary. “All right. Do you think people prefer disappearing candles or apples?”

“A lit candle is impressive in a darkened area,” said Ira. “But the stage lighting is quite effective. So you’d need to coordinate something with the lighting engineers–”

Zachary swore suddenly. “I completely forgot I’d need to let them know I’m switching up the show again.”

Ira coughed. “I think perhaps the apple would work better, as it’s more recognisable in brightly lit conditions,” he said delicately.

Zachary grinned at him. “You may be right. Let’s not create more work than we need to.”

Ira smiled tentatively back at him. “Perhaps we could discuss this over tea somewhere?”

A little puzzled crease appeared in Zachary’s forehead, but he nodded. “That sounds lovely. Just let me grab my wallet.”

Working for the circus was more intense than Ira had imagined. There were always things to be done – errands to run, rehearsals to set up, errant items to chase down. A week into the job, he’d only managed to find time to take Zachary out for tea on three separate occasions. He wondered how humans ever found the time for proper courting if they were always working.

He’d wrangled an afternoon off from Annette and meant to make the most of it.

Ira navigated through the mess of vans until he found Zachary’s and knocked on the door. There was a crash from inside, then the sound of stumbling footsteps. Finally, the door opened and Zachary peered out, hair untamed and shirtless.

Ira swallowed. This wasn’t in the plan. “I… I’m sorry I interrupted. I was going to take a walk along the river. I was wondering if you wanted to come along…?”

Zachary gave him a startled look that melted into a warm smile. “Of course I’ll come,” he said. “Just give me a moment to finish getting dressed.”

Ira nodded and the door closed in front of him. Ira leant against the side of the van. His cheeks felt hot and he wondered if he was blushing. Human emotions were so visual.

Zachary reappeared a few moments later, dressed casually in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.

The big top was set up in a park a short walk from the river. As they got closer, the wind picked up and Ira wished he’d thought to bring a hat.

At this point, the river was so wide it was more like an inlet. Waves sloshed gently against the river wall. Sea birds called overhead while ducks and swans dabbled in the shallows.

It would have been peaceful if it weren’t for all the other people around. The footpath was almost overrun with cyclists, joggers and families with small children. Ira sighed to himself.

“Oh, a Ferris wheel!” Zachary pointed up ahead. “Have you ever been?”

Ira looked at the giant spoked wheel slowly turning on the foreshore. He shook his head.

“Never?” Zachary grinned at him. “Well, we’ll have to go.”

“Oh!” said Ira. “I don’t…”

“I’ll pay,” Zachary promised. He put a hand in the crook of Ira’s elbow and hurried him along the path. “Come on, if there’s this many people around there’ll probably be a queue.”

There was a line of people in front of the wheel. They bought tickets and waited, standing uncomfortably in warm sunlight. Ira spared a moment to wish the breeze would return. A tinkling noise nearby made Zachary break out into a wide smile. “You mind our place, I’ll get ice cream.”

Ira blinked after him.

While Zachary was gone, the line shuffled forward. Ira followed the people in front of him, hoping he was doing the right thing. They stopped moving again a short distance from the entrance.

A few minutes later, Zachary reappeared, holding two cones containing a swirl of the white substance Ira vaguely knew recognised as ice cream. “There you are. I thought I’d lost you.” He held one of the cones out to Ira.

Ira shook his head. “Thank you.” Their fingers brushed as Ira took the cone. Ira licked at it delicately for a moment before stealing a glance at Zachary to watch how he ate his.

Zachary caught him looking and smiled, licking his lips to remove a coating of multi-coloured speckles. “Hi.”

Ira felt his cheeks growing hot again. He returned to his ice cream, a little confused.

When their turn to ride the wheel came, they ended up sharing their compartment with a family of three at the insistence of the conductor. The couple’s small child insisted on asking Zachary and Ira who they were and what they did.

“Can you do some magic for me now?” asked the child excitedly.

Zachary tapped a finger on his chin thoughtfully. “A little bit.” Ira felt a tug of true magic as Zachary pulled a silk scarf from behind his ear. He must have summoned it from back in the van.

Zachary asked the child for a coin and impressed her with making it disappear and reappear within the scarf. Ira didn’t feel the splash of true magic, so he had to be using sleight of hand somehow.

The parents looked on indulgently. It turned out the family were actually going to see the circus that night.

“I’ll cheer for you!” the child promised.

Zachary laughed. “I’ll listen out for you. Maybe you can come up after the show and get a signature?”

“If she isn’t too tired,” the mother laughed.

“I won’t be!” The child pouted for a moment before running over to press her nose against the window. “Oh look, seagull.” She pointed out the window. “We’re above him!”

Ira supposed being high up must be very exciting for humans, since they couldn’t fly.

“Look, and over there’s the big top,” Zachary pointed out. “You see it? It has the flags flying on top.”

“Ooh,” said the child. “I see it!”

The wheel brought them to the ground in jerky steps and they parted ways with the family, the child waving to them enthusiastically.

Zachary glanced at his watch. “We should probably get back to the big top. I have rehearsal soon. Mathis wants to see my new routine.”

“Oh,” said Ira.

“You can come along, if you like. I thought I’d ask you to help set up some of the bigger tricks.” Zachary was looking at him slightly askance.

“I would love to,” Ira told him.

Zachary smiled sunnily at him. “Thank you.”

Zachary’s mood had steadily improved over the period Ira had been with the circus as ‘Ari’. He laughed at the jokes the clowns made, which he’d hardly ever done even before Ira had left. He smiled at Ira all the time.

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” asked Lissisaya. She was grinding some herbs with her mortar and pestle. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

Ira shook out his wings and tried to put into words what was bothering him. :But… He doesn’t seem to miss me at all.:

Lissisaya gave him a wry smile. “But you’re right in front of him.”

She was being deliberately obtuse. :You know what I mean. Me, his familiar. Not his human assistant.:

“Oh, so you think he should be wracked with guilt over arguing with you? That’s not very nice.”

He tossed his head to the side irritably. :I just think he got over it awfully quickly.:

“Perhaps you should talk to him about it. He may surprise you.”

:He has no idea who I am. He doesn’t even know I know about magic, so how can I ask him questions about his familiar?:

“Is that so?” asked Lissisaya. She sounded bored. “Well then, you’ll just have to put up with not knowing.”

Ira sighed.

When he presented himself backstage at the big top that afternoon, he was given a pile of clothes to take to Zachary. “His dry cleaning,” explained Annette. “Try not to crease it too much.”

Zachary was still dressed casually when he answered the door. He accepted the pile and left the door open behind him. “Come in. You want some tea?”

“Yes please,” said Ira, kicking off his shoes and closing the van door behind himself.

Zachary dumped the pile of clothes on the bed and put the kettle on. Ira frowned in disapproval. “You should hang those up.”

“I will, I promise. What kind of tea?”

“Jasmine,” said Ira. He got up and started sorting through the clothes. Coats, shirts, trousers. He laid them out carefully on the bed.

Zachary was watching him, his eyes bright with some emotion and his hand hiding what was probably a smile. He scooped tea into the pot and poured the water over it.

Ira breathed in the smell of brewing tea and was startled to feel something twist in his stomach. It was familiar and homey in a way he hadn’t even realised he’d missed. He sat down at the table and closed his eyes tightly.

Zachary put a hand on Ira’s and squeezed tightly. “Is something wrong?”

“I don’t know,” whispered Ira. “I just feel…” Like everything was spiralling out of control and he didn’t know what he was doing anymore.

Zachary scooted his chair around and hugged Ira with one arm. He poured the tea with his free hand and placed the cup in front of Ira. “Did you want to talk about it?”

Ira shook his head.

Zachary nodded and folded his arms in front of himself. “All right.” He poured a little tea into his own cup and took a tentative sip. He made a face. “Not strong enough. I’ll go put those clothes away, shall I?”

Ira’s own tea was perfect. He clutched the cup in both hands and drank slowly. It was different, drinking tea like this. He could feel the warmth leaking into his hands from the cup. It was comforting, somehow.

After a few minutes, Zachary sat down opposite him and drank his own tea in silence.

When the last drop of tea was gone, Ira shifted uncomfortably. “Thank you for the tea. I’d better get back and see if Annette has anything else for me to do.”

Zachary smiled at him gently. “You’re welcome.”

He could feel Zachary’s gaze following him as he left the van.

Ira found Zachary in his van after the show that night. The Great Magician Zachariah was almost completely discarded, only his trousers and half-buttoned shirt remaining.

Zachary let him in and offered him tea.

“I wanted to talk to you.” Ira took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Zachary raised his eyebrows. “What about?”

Ira hesitated. “I don’t really know how to begin.”

They watched each other uncomfortably for a moment, until Zachary leant forward and pressed his lips to Ira’s. The kiss was warm and soft and Ira let himself melt into it. He’d almost forgotten that this was what he was working towards. They were standing in the middle of the van, just kissing.

Zachary pulled back a little, resting his forehead on Ira’s so they were no longer kissing, but still sharing the same air. “Hi.”

Ira blinked slowly as reality reasserted itself. “Zachary… Oh!” He took a step backwards, stopping when his heel hit the kitchen counter. “But I haven’t told you–”

Zachary placed both hands on Ira’s shoulders and squeezed. “Ira. Did you really think I didn’t know?”

Ira’s eyes widened. “You– You know?”

Zachary looked a little sheepish. “I didn’t know at first. I figured it out on the third day, though.” He shook his head. “How did I not know you could take human form?”

“I never liked human form.” Ira gave him an accusing look. “You never said anything!”

“Well, at first I thought I was supposed to have known. And then when I realised you didn’t know that I knew, it just… became harder and harder to say anything.”

“I…”

Zachary pulled him into a tight hug. “I’m glad you came back.”

Ira took several shaky breaths. “I was starting to think you’d forgotten all about me.”

Zachary patted him on the back. “But you were right here with me.”

“But you didn’t know that! At least, I didn’t think you did.” Ira frowned. He was starting to think he’d been played for a fool.

“I’m sorry. If I’d known… Well. I was kind of waiting for you to tell me yourself, to be honest.”

“I was going to.” Ira folded his arms grumpily. “But then you kissed me.”

Zachary was grinning at him, his eyes bright. “Did you mind terribly?”

“I– Are you teasing me?” said Ira incredulously. Zachary cut him off with another scorching kiss.

“We shouldn’t,” Ira protested, when they broke apart to breathe. “I haven’t even had the chance to ask permission from your parents yet!”

Now Zachary did burst into laughter.

Ira scowled at him.

“Ira, how are you even real?” Zachary shook his head. “I think my parents would pretty surprised if you asked them for my hand in marriage.”

“If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly,” Ira insisted.

“Ah, but that’s not how we do things anymore.” Zachary smiled at him and placed a hand on Ira’s cheek. His thumb traced the line of Ira’s nose and came to rest on his lower lip. “But I promise we can visit them if the circus ever visits my hometown.”

Ira was starting to feel a little light-headed.

Zachary took Ira’s hand and tugged him towards the back of the van. “Come on. There’s hardly any room to move in here.”

Ira blinked when he realised Zachary intended them to lie together on the bed. “But it’s only been two weeks!”

“It’s been two years, Ira. Come on, I promise I won’t take advantage of you.”

His cheeks flaming, Ira crawled onto the bed and lay flat on his back next to Zachary, who had propped himself up on one elbow and was looking down at Ira with a lop-sided smile. He picked up a lock of Ira’s hair and started tickling Ira’s cheek with it.

Ira sat up abruptly as something occurred to him. “She knew! That old witch knew that you’d already figured it out and she didn’t tell me!”

“Old witch?” When Ira glanced back at him, Zachary raised his eyebrows.

Ira sighed and lay back down, this time rolling onto his side to face Zachary. “I tried to find another mage,” he mumbled into the pillow. “She told me I should come back here instead.”

Zachary smiled at him. “Remind me to thank her,” he murmured to Ira’s nose. He brushed a hand across Ira’s cheek again, letting it slowly drift down Ira’s neck to settle on Ira’s side in a loose hug.

Ira flushed again.

“I did miss you, you know,” said Zachary, in between kisses. His hand was drifting again. “That stupid argument. If I’d been more on the ball I would have realised that you were jealous and dealt with that instead of losing my temper.”

Ira was too distracted by what Zachary was doing with his hands to ask what ‘on the ball’ meant. He was just touching lightly, stroking Ira’s arms and side almost like he was petting a cat. Unlike when Ira was a cat, however, it was making him shiver with little shocks of almost-pleasure.

Zachary gently pushed Ira onto his back again and leant in for another kiss. This one was different. Instead of just sharing breath, it was hot and wet and drenched in passion.

:Your shields are leaking,: he informed Zachary quickly.

Instead of slamming his shields shut again and blocking the connection, Zachary reached out with a thread of magic and pulled the bed’s curtains shut with a single gesture. Ira saw the glimmer of containment runes as they moved.

:Since you left, my control’s been shot while I’m sleeping,: Zachary told him. :My neighbours kept telling me they were having weird dreams about me.: He stole another kiss from Ira and dropped his shields completely.

Ira sank gradually into that familiar mind. They hadn’t shared thoughts very often even while bonded. It was necessary for major workings, but too disorienting for everyday use.

Zachary’s mind was disordered even for a human’s. Thoughts flittered around and flickered in and out of existence, too quickly for Ira to catch. His mind was saturated in contentment and a thrumming something Ira belatedly identified as desire.

Zachary was still kissing him, still keeping his hands firmly above Ira’s waistline.

:Dragons think so strangely,: Zachary told him, warm with amusement. :I can’t make head or tail of any of this.:

:Dragons make sense. It’s humans that are incomprehensible,: Ira informed him.

Zachary pulled back a few inches to laugh out loud. Ira might have been offended if Zachary’s mind weren’t swirling with affection.

Suddenly his earlier protests seemed ill-advised. There was no room for doubt in what he felt from Zachary now. It was humbling, seeing yourself in another’s mind. Ira frustrated him, yes, and he could see they were never going to agree on everything, but it was all tied up in deep, intractable affection.

Ira made a disgruntled sound and pulled Zachary in for another kiss. He was entranced by this physical connection between them, lips and tongue and that heated buzz of desire. “I’ve changed my mind. I think you should take advantage of me.”

Zachary laughed again. “Human bodies do have their advantages,” he murmured. “Let me show you.” He ran a finger down the line of buttons on Ira’s shirt and undid them with deft use of magic.

Ira twitched involuntarily away from the touch of Zachary’s hand on his bare side.

“I’m sorry, did that tickle?” Zachary pressed a kiss to Ira’s neck. “I’ll be more careful, I promise.”

The next few moments disappeared in a flurry of kisses and gentle touches until somehow they were both lying with their limbs tangled up together, completely naked.

Ira explored Zachary’s chest with his fingertips, enjoying feeling the echo of his touch in Zachary’s mind. It was fascinating, discovering the things that made Zachary hitch in his breath, his feelings spiking hot with pleasure. The feelings fed back into Ira, making him almost giddy but not prepared to stop yet.

Zachary liked it when Ira gently brushed across his nipple; liked it more when Ira circled it with a fingertip. He squirmed with discomfort when Ira brushed his sides or near his underarms.

When Ira ran out of places to explore, Zachary gently took his hand and guided it downwards. Ira’s intention of more gentle exploration quickly fell to the wayside as his diffident first touches brought white-hot pleasure to the fore.

Guided by Zachary’s reactions, he wrapped his hand around the shaft and rubbed his thumb across the tip. Another wild spike of pleasure; this one like sunbursts in Zachary’s mind.

“Oh,” Ira breathed. “Is that really what it’s like for humans?” It seemed incredible.

“Let me show you,” murmured Zachary, and then he was trailing his fingers down Ira’s side to wrap around Ira’s own shaft. Ira let out a strangled gasp and felt his fingers go slack. Even with the link to Zachary’s feelings he hadn’t been prepared for this.

:What happens now?: he asked, feeling Zachary patiently waiting for permission to continue.

:Try it like this,: Zachary suggested, leading by example.

Things blurred together then – who was touching whom slowly becoming irrelevant as they became entangled further and further into each other’s pleasure. It felt like a dream; like gently drifting in and out of sleep until he felt Zachary slowly start guiding them towards a final destination.

The climax, when they found it, was like the moment at the end of a ritual; where all the magic gathered in a single point before bursting off into a thousand directions, to be absorbed back into the world.

Slowly, the world reasserted its dominance. Ira could hear Zachary’s breathing start to return to a more natural level and felt his own heart-rate slowing to normal.

Zachary had one arm wrapped around Ira’s chest and his head resting on Ira’s shoulder. Zachary’s mind was sleepy with pleasure, and before Ira knew it he was succumbing to that seductive pull himself.

Ira woke to find himself lying under the covers, clean and dry. He sat up, the sheet falling to pool in his lap. At some point while he slept, morning seemed to have arrived. He could hear birds outside greeting the day.

“Did you know that you snore?” asked Zachary innocently. He was sitting at the table, reading a newspaper.

“I do not!”

Zachary grinned at him and pointed at a pile of clothes on the end of the bed. “Put some clothes on and get down here. You want some tea? I made a pot of Earl Grey.”

“Earl Grey is fine.” Ira dressed quickly and dropped to the floor.

“Still light-footed as ever, I see.”

Ira raised his eyebrows. “What time is it? Annette wanted me to help her block out a new routine this morning.”

“Mm… almost eleven?”

Ira stared at him. “You are not serious.” He put his tea down, feeling his cheeks heat up.

“You’d better go find her,” said Zachary, a little regretfully.

Annette just pinched Ira’s cheek, winked at him and told him not to worry about it. “How is Zachary, anyway?”

“Entirely too cheerful,” muttered Ira.

To his bemusement, Annette winked at him again.

When he returned, Zachary was peering at the mirror on the closet door, attempting to get his bow-tie to sit straight. He muttered another curse and untied it again to start over.

“Here, let me.” Ira took both ends of the tie in his hands and considered. He’d seen Zachary do this hundreds of times. It was a fairly simple procedure… cross the two sides, loop it under, double it over…

He was very conscious of Zachary standing in front of him – the lines of his body, the way his throat moved when he swallowed and his chest rose and fell as he breathed.

Ira finished the bow and nodded in satisfaction. “There.” He went to step back to the table but Zachary caught his wrist.

“How are you so much better at this than I am?” murmured Zachary, swallowing. “You’ve been human for less than two weeks.”

Ira shrugged.

Zachary’s eyes were very dark. “I should warn you that I’m about to kiss you.”

“You’ll be late to makeup,” Ira pointed out quickly, but something clearly gave away his true feelings on the matter, because Zachary pulled him closer and kissed him thoroughly.

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